31 October 2009

What Big Teeth You Have

The Boston Museum of Science has just opened “Harry Potter: The Exhibition,” which offers “more than 200 authentic props and costumes from the Harry Potter films, all displayed in settings inspired by the film sets.” This brings up two thoughts for me.

(Shorter) What the hell does this have to do with science?

(Longer) Back in 1995-96, the same museum hosted an exhibit inspired by the Jurassic Park movie, which at least was science fiction. I volunteered as a docent on weekends, showing off small fossils and casts in the midst of the big models of Velociraptors, Triceratops, and the legs of a mechanical Tyrannosaur. (The rest of that character had been created through models and CGI, like Sam Neill.)

I remember several television monitors played endless loops of short clips from the movie and from “behind the scenes” and “the science behind the story” interviews of the sort that now show up on DVDs. In fact, I can’t help but remember those loops. Their sounds have been grooved into my brain.

Most of the items I had to show visitors were resin casts—of different dino-teeth, of a smooshed ’raptor skull, and so on. There was one real fossil, heavy as the rock it had been turned into, which I let kids hold before telling them what a coprolite was. Hee hee.

More specific memories:

  • Only one visitor asked why, if real Velociraptors stood only knee high, but paleontologists have found similar species as big as the monsters in the movie (e.g., Utahraptors), why didn’t the filmmakers use the larger species? I had to explain that I hadn’t actually made the movie.
  • One boy came to me in tears because he’d lost track of his mother in the crowd. I struggled to explain that there was only one way out of the room he’d seen her go in, and we were standing in that archway, so he was bound to see her again. Before I could finish, the boy did indeed spot his mother and flung himself against the back of her knees. She seemed as baffled as I was.
  • One wall of the exhibit was made to look like the electrified fence in Jurassic Park, with a big DANGER sign hanging from one of the horizontal wires. If you shuffled your feet on the carpet and touched a wire, about half the time you’d produce a tiny static pop. Since lots of teenagers don’t lift their feet when they walk, more than a few ended up sparking against that fence, which was always good for a few squeals.
When the exhibit closed, I heard that it was one of the most popular and lucrative the museum had ever hosted. Which explains why, thirteen years later, the Museum of Science is trying to find science lessons in Harry Potter.

30 October 2009

An Honor Just to Be Nominated

The Online School has chosen Oz and Ends as one of its “100 Best Book Blogs for Kids, Tweens, and Teens.”

The site says, “The bulk of these posts focus on fantasy literature and comics for youth.” (Subtext: The rest? Well, we don’t really know where he’s going with that.)

Lots of other recommended blogs to check out, of course. And other postings, such as “100 Tools to Turn to When You Have Writer’s Block.”

29 October 2009

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

In The Insider’s Guide to Creating Comics and Graphic Novels, IDW editor Andy Schmidt lists three ways that comics creators can please editors: high-quality work, speed, and communication skills.

Those same qualities also came up in the advice passed on by a British artist during a panel discussion at last year’s Birmingham International Comics Convention, podcast by the Geek Syndicate and Word Balloon.

(Which British artist? I wish I could tell their voices apart. And in any case he didn’t take credit for the advice; he said he’d heard it from an older artist when he was starting out.)

The key to steady work as a comics illustrator is to be two of these three things:

  • Very good at what you do.
  • Very reliable on deadlines.
  • Very easy to work with.
Be two of those things, the wisdom declares, and you’ll always have work.

So you can be an extremely talented artist who’s fun to work with, and editors will accept that you don’t always hit your deadlines. You can be very talented and fast, and editors will put up with how you’re a lousy human being. And you can turn in mediocre work, but deliver what the company asks for on time with a cheerful and supportive smile, and editors will keep hiring you.

On the other hand, no matter how talented you are, if you’re unreliable and difficult, editors will gladly hire a lesser artist who’s not.

I don’t think the same rules apply so strongly to parts of publishing that are less dependent on deadlines. But they still seem like valuable rules for life.

28 October 2009

No Ultimate Evil in Oz

In an essay on the Awgwas and Phanfasms, who are about the nastiest, scariest creatures L. Frank Baum ever wrote about, Nathan DeHoff concluded:

One thing we really don’t see in Baum’s fantasy universe is an ultimate evil along the lines of Sauron or Voldemort. About the closest we get is Zog, and he’s killed off in the same book that introduces him [Sea Fairies]. I know some fans have tried writing such a being into Oz, but they’ve generally reported that it didn’t work out. Maybe that’s actually a good thing, as the Almighty Lord of Evil is sort of a cliché by this point.
Plus, the concept of embodied evil doesn’t fit with how the Oz books depict human nature.

Other fantasy universes include people naturally endowed with magical powers. In Oz, there are some magical beings (usually lumped together under the catch-all term “fairies”), but all humans can do magic if they have the right knowledge or the right tools. Baum often says that Dorothy is just an ordinary little girl, but when she gets hold of the Magic Belt—look out! There are no inherently magical people, just people who choose to learn magic.

Similarly, the books imply that all people can be good or bad, depending on their choices. True, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz offers characters named the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the East, but it doesn’t say those women were born to those roles. And Baum’s storytelling in that book is in a different mode from how he created his others, as I wrote last year.

More typical is how Baum introduces the villain in The Lost Princess of Oz (1917):
A curious thing about Ugu the Shoemaker was that he didn’t suspect in the least that he was wicked. He wanted to be powerful and great, and he hoped to make himself master of all the Land of Oz that he might compel everyone in that fairy country to obey him. His ambition blinded him to the rights of others, and he imagined anyone else would act just as he did if anyone else happened to be as clever as himself.
Ugu isn’t the servant of a dark lord or black force—he’s just selfish.

But perhaps in this cosmology selfishness is evil. That could well be so, but characters in the Oz books don’t defeat selfishness through magic. Rather, villains are deprived of their powers and then pressed to make up their own minds about whether to behave better. Some do, and some don’t. Here’s how The Lost Princess of Oz ends, with Dorothy having transformed Ugu into a dove:
“Are you sorry, then?” asked Dorothy, looking hard at the bird.

“I am very sorry,” declared Ugu. “I’ve been thinking over my misdeeds for a long time,…and I’m surprised that I was such a wicked man and had so little regard for the rights of others. . . . But with the kind forgiveness of my former enemies, I hope to become a very good dove and highly respected.”
There are some fine fantasies about saving the world and defeating evil, but the Oz books aren’t in that group. They’re almost all stories about getting home, whether that home is Kansas or the Emerald City or some other safe place of one’s own choosing.

27 October 2009

How Economics Shapes a Web Comic (Literally)

Todd Allen, author of The Economics of Web Comics, laid out some of the economics behind his own new web comic, Division & Rush, in an article for Publishers Weekly:

Going into this, my built-in revenue stream is a set CPM rate based on traffic. (CPM—cost per thousand is a standard unit for Web advertising.) Think of it as the digital equivalent of royalties off sales. This isn’t an unusual arrangement for online content, but it does have certain implications for comics.

The language used in my initial meeting was “graphic novel,” which connotes comic book-style pages. That’s a lot of art work for one page view. If you write a long text article online, the article gets broken up into pages of roughly 600-1000 words, depending on the website. I decided the thing to do was set up the comic as comic book pages laid out on a grid system. Two columns and two or three rows (4 panels or 6 panels). Then each row would be shown as a single page for viewing.

  • Most of the general public is still used to reading comics as a strip format, and this closely approximates the strip format
  • It increases the page count, which means it increases income (artists need money)
  • It’s still focused on a page, so when it’s time for a print collection, less fuss.
In terms of delivery, I’ve bought into the idea of the “satisfying chunk” of comics reading. . . . With this in mind, I settled on 5-page chapters, one chapter per week, and roughly 12 page views of strips.
Allen acknowledges that he’s in the fortunate position of creating this comic for the Tribune-backed site ChicagoNow, so he doesn’t have to draw an audience from scratch.

He goes on to discuss the other web comic revenue streams of merchandise (e.g., “t-shirts spinning out of the gag strips”) and paid downloads (“The x-factor, right now”).

26 October 2009

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius

Of all the reviews I’ve seen about Spike Jonze’s movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, one of the most incisive comes from student dn in Monica Edinger’s class at the Dalton School:

Where the Wild Things Are is a good movie. The only problem is there is not an appropriate age to see this movie.
I take “appropriate age” as reflecting the idea that there’s a level of maturity at which one can relate to the emotions and milieu of a movie without also being troubled by them. And there’s no such age for children or adults because Where the Wild Things Are is a troubling movie.

Far more troubling than Maurice Sendak’s masterful picture book, which explores young Max’s wildness only to bring him, and his readers, back home. Of course a ten-sentence book must change to become a two-hour movie. But the movie’s story, fleshed out by Jonze and Dave Eggers, isn’t just a longer journey over the same path. It’s different in fundamental ways, producing a deeper and less reassuring work of art.

In the picture book, the Wild Things are reflections of Max’s wild mood. By taming them, exercising them, and finally leaving them behind, he gets himself back under control. Those Wild Things come in different shapes and colors, but they don’t have individual names or differentiated personalities. They’re wildness in general—Max’s own wildness in particular.

In contrast, the Wild Things in the movie have names: Carol, K.W., Alexander, and so on. And they have distinct personalities, broadly drawn. Some critics, such as Claire E. Gross at The Horn Book, interpret them as reflections of Max: “Each Wild Thing embodies a different aspect of Max’s psyche — his anger, loneliness, disaffection...” But that typology provides no place for officious Douglas or depressed and sniping Judith.

Carol, the most prominent Wild Thing in the movie, has the same problems as Max: feeling abandoned and lashing out. It’s only natural that they bond most closely. But Carol isn’t simply a manifestation of the boy’s angry mood; he’s a separate character. All the Wild Things are difficult personalities writ large, and beyond Max’s control.

As disconcerting as it might be, I think we have to consider the possibility that within the movie’s reality Max’s entire visit with the creatures occurs just as we see it. In the picture book, his bed and room clearly melts into being his boat and the sea, and he famously returns before his supper gets cold. The movie doesn’t provide the same sort of reassurance that the adventure is all pretend, taking place within Max’s psyche. From what we see and hear, he is really away for days on an island of monsters. Jonze is, after all, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, neither fully in the world we know.

In the book, Max chooses to leave the Wild Things because he gets homesick. It’s entirely his choice. In the movie, Carol turns against him, and he leaves in part out of fear, in part out of the realization that he can’t make the Wild Things’ lives perfectly happy, as he’d promised them—and himself—that he’d do. And that’s what so troubling. While the book’s Max controlled the fantasy land, the movie’s Max cannot.

Some critics make much of how some of Max’s early episodes of anger come in response to family tensions: his teenaged sister wanting to be with her older friends, his divorced mother having a boyfriend. But he also wears a wolf suit, rough-houses with the dog, and plays kill-the-man on the school playground with no link to those family frustrations. Max feels and acts wild at times like any nine-year-old boy; his family struggles just hurt the worst.

I think the ultimate lesson in Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is that such struggles will always be with us. Max can’t escape them in his family life. (What younger sibling doesn’t watch the older sibling become more distant?) And Max can’t shield his furry new friends from sadness, either. Their troubles arise from their own personalities, rivalries, and resentments.

We can’t make everyone’s life happy. All we can do is show our family and friends that we love them, whether by making a heart out of twigs or by serving warm soup, and hope that in the long run that’s enough.

That’s not the level of comfort we expect from a children’s film. Or from any genre film. But it’s the emotional experience we should expect from a work of art.

25 October 2009

Man’s Best Sidekick

As we look ahead to Halloween, I have the sad news that this costume is out of stock.Click on the picture for some other options from BuyCostumes.com.

23 October 2009

Mary Sues of the 19th Century

Months back, I noted this passage from “Too Good to Be True: 100 Years of Mary Sue”, by Pat Pflieger. For those who have had the pleasure not to encounter a “Mary Sue,” the term was invented to classify some fanfiction writers’ tendency to insert original characters into established worlds—too-perfect characters who, it becomes clear, are stand-ins for the writers and all that they wish to accomplish or say in that world.

But the phenomenon well predates the moment adolescents had the bright idea of writing their own Twilight, Harry Potter, or even Star Trek stories.

Nineteenth-century versions appear in the pages of Robert Merry’s Museum. Founded in 1841 by Samuel Goodrich, by the time the magazine was absorbed by the Youth’s Companion in 1872, it had featured works by every major nineteenth-century American writer for children, from Goodrich to [Louisa May] Alcott, Jacob Abbott, Mary Mapes Dodge, and Sophie May.

It also published works by lesser literary lights, most notably the subscribers themselves, who made the magazine their own from 1857 to 1868. While boys tended to write non-fiction articles, girls most often wrote stories and poems—some about wonderful girls whose accomplishments and charms are tangibly appreciated by those around them.

Emily Martin, who in 1862 saves a sleeping Indian chief from certain death by bear; Maia, whose gentleness and kindness are extolled by animals and elves in 1858; Unella, a white child raised by Native Americans in 1865, so lovable that she holds the entire village in a gentle thralldom; even little Ellen, who dies beautifully of her mother's thoughtlessness in 1849—all have elements we associate with Mary Sue.
Most of Pflieger’s essay is about examples and traits of the modern Mary Sue. But it’s refreshing to realize that she’s always been with us.

Check out Pflieger’s website on “Nineteenth-Century American Children and What They Read” for more images and stories from Robert Merry’s Museum and other popular magazines of the era.

22 October 2009

Marks of Irony and Sarcasm

At the recent gathering of children’s-book bloggers in Washington, I understand that mention was made of my past reports on humanity’s long quest to typographically signal sarcasm or irony. Though the internet has exacerbated this need, I’ve noted that some English writers discussed it 200 years ago. And I once suggested that the backslant could work as italics does, except by signaling reversal instead of emphasis.

Alas, adding a backslant style to every font and getting the new versions installed on every computer would be a lot of work, and we’d still have to teach people what the new letterforms mean. The same problems stymie the invention of new punctuation, such as Choz Cunningham’s 2006 proposal at Typophile of a mark called “the snark,” which looks like an exclamation point that’s given up and laid down.

People have therefore sought to popularize sarcastic uses of punctuation marks that are already on the standard English keyboards but of little use. For example, at my latter posting, an anonymous commenter replied:

We need to use the TILDE!
it works perfectly
~i'm so smart~
and we don't use it for anything but decoration anyway
However, a peek behind the tilde entry on Wikipedia shows that this usage is still evolving. The first suggestion that anyone was using the tilde to indicate irony appeared there in February 2008, and that contributor suggested it should appear at the end of a sentence, not around a statement.

A much older suggestion, through Wikipedia, starts with the seventeenth-century English printer Henry Denham’s mark to signal a rhetorical question:
How do you like them apples؟
Denham called this a percontation mark. It soon fell into abeyance.

In 1899, The Bookman’s “Literary Paris” columnist Adolphe Cohn reported to his American readers:
A new writer, who is much talked of just now, is M. Alcanter de Brahm. He has published a book, L’Ostensoir des Ironies, intended to demonstrate that the reader of modern books has to be told when the author intends to be ironical and when not, and he therefore advocates the creation of a new punctuation mark, the point d’ironie.
The new writer was actually an anagrammatic pseudonym of a minor French poet named Marcel Bernhardt. He suggested using a question mark reversed in some way. Wikipedia states it was a horizontal reversal producing a variation on the backwards question mark above. Wayne C. Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony (1974) says Bernhardt/de Brahm suggested using the upside-down question mark from Spanish—
So we can see what a splash the idea made¿
Only one language seems to have a typographic signal of reverse meaning already in widespread use, and I learned of it through a familiar but unexpected source. Back in 2005, Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog:
(If I say “in my copious spare time”, can we all agree that it should be read as if someone had actually invented the sarcasm mark as a unit of punctuation, and that “in my copious spare time” can be assumed to be inside sarcasm marks?)
And then this month he added:
The last time I posted here about the lack of sarcasm marks in punctuation, people wrote in to tell me that there are Ethiopian languages that actually have a written sarcasm mark, intended to show the world that the person writing means the opposite of what he says. So if anyone is translating this blog into Ethiopian, you’ll need to put sarcasm marks around that bit of yesterday's post.
Language Log has also taken note of that punctuation mark, which is known as Temherte Slaq. It reports, “The Unicode representation of the punctuation mark is evidently under debate among Ethiopian scholars.”

And what is the crux of that debate? A paper titled “A Roadmap to the Extension of the Ethiopic Writing System Standard Under Unicode and ISO-10646,” by Asteraye Tsigie, Berhanu Beyene, Daniel Aberra, and Daniel Yacob, states:
Graphically indistinguishable from U+00A1, Temherte Slaq differs in semantic use in Ethiopia. Temherte Slaq will come at the end of a sentence (vs at the beginning in Spanish use) and is used to indicate an unreal phrase, often sarcastical in editorial cartoons. Temherte Slaq is also important in children’s literature and in poetic use. Debate is needed among Ethiopian scholars to determine if inverted exclamation mark is acceptable.
In other words, even though experts agree the Temherte Slaq is “graphically indistinguishable” from a punctuation mark already in use, some insist it deserves its own unique coding.
And that wouldn’t delay the worldwide adoption of the Temherte Slaq at all¡

21 October 2009

When Characters Get Stuck in Time

Jerry Ordway is a longtime DC Comics artist who’s drawn many of the company’s iconic characters. He stepped in to complete the art for The Brave and the Bold: The Book of Destiny when George Pérez stepped away from the Mark Waid story, and the shift is pretty seamless.

At the time, Ordway gave an interview to Newsarama in which he made an interesting remark about the company’s most lucrative trademarks:

NRAMA: What about the characters themselves? Some comics characters change to reflect their times, but are most DC Comics characters so iconic that they withstand the effects of time?

JO: The characters evolve over time to reflect the era they are produced in, really. Superman today is not the same Superman that was published in the 1990s. Evolve or fade away is apt. Look at great fiction characters of the past, who didn’t have a continuous publication to bridge the gap—Doc Savage, the Shadow, Lone Ranger—all terrific concepts, but each stuck in an era they were last viably published in. So, while I don’t like the lack of pure selfless heroics in superhero comics today, I understand they reflect a different world than my own childhood.

Superman and Batman are pretty much timeless concepts, and icons that seem hard to ruin. For most of us, we love our favorites and remember them in the context of when we first discovered them. With [Mark] Waid’s love of the ’60s DC stuff, he has captured a really viable way of handling the Challengers of the Unknown, which is fun. That concept, like Blackhawks, and Metamorpho have a hard time sustaining sales in recent times because they belong to a different time.
If I understand Ordway, he suggests that Superman, Batman, Robin, and other characters who have maintained popularity for decades feel timeless precisely because they’ve changed with the times, while preserving core traits and imagery. Whereas other characters that stopped being published also got stuck in the last period to which they had evolved, and thus came to symbolize the past.

Of course, companies stop publishing stories about characters because their sales fade, meaning they’ve already stopped appealing to readers as much as they once did. Still, it’s a provocative way of thinking about “timeless” icons.

20 October 2009

The Original Balloon Boy

Yesterday I quoted an 1898 article in St. Nicholas magazine, describing an accidental balloon ascension that the author said had happened in Oakland, California, forty years before. An aeronaut asked a young boy to help weigh down his balloon, and suddenly it broke loose and floated away, carrying the boy with it.

I went looking on Google Books for more information, half expecting to find nothing at all. Instead, I discovered a rather different story. The event truly occurred in 1853—only a short time after the California Gold Rush began. It was reported in such local newspapers as the Alta Californian. The news was then picked up by national magazines like Bizarre, for Fireside and Wayside. [I couldn’t make that title up if I tried.] I’m relying on the account from the 12 Nov 1853 issue of The Friend, a Quaker magazine.

The St. Nick article gave no name or age for the boy, but described him as a small, barefoot newspaper carrier. In fact, he was named Joseph “Ready” Gates, he was sixteen years old, he sold oranges, and he was wearing shoes but no socks. And as for an accidental launch, The Friend says:

It appears the balloon was to go up from near San Francisco, but at the appointed time for starting, being but partially inflated, it was found, after several trials insufficient to bear up a man of ordinary weight. The car was then taken off, and a small board placed across the hoop, from which the car had been suspended, and tied fast. Several persons, supposing the balloon would go but a short distance, asked to be permitted to take a ride.
“Ready” Gates was among those asking to go up, handing his orange basket to a friend. The aeronaut told him “to pull the valve-rope when he wanted to come down.” But “Ready” was a sixteen-year-old with friends watching him—so what happened next isn’t a big surprise. The newspaper report:
He took hold of it [the valve-rope], and appeared to be either making it fast or pulling at it with a view to decend [sic], when some of the boys cried out to him to go on. He then let it go and gradually rose, moving rapidly along in a south-easterly direction. . . .

A few moments after the balloon had parted company with the earth, and when at the distance of half a mile, one of young Gates’s companions shunted to him to know if he “would not have an overcoat?” The crowd around enjoyed the joke heartily, little thinking that the brave boy would, in less than half an hour, be shivering with intense cold. We may remark, that he was very lightly clad.
The balloon flew southeasterly “across an arm of the Bay south of Oakland, and rising as it proceeded to a great height, until it was concealed from view by some light clouds.”

A later issue of the Californian apparently had to complete the story, reporting that Gates returned to Oakland “in the Sacramento boat, safe except a sprain in his ankle. He landed in Suisan Valley, fifteen miles from Benicia, and five miles from any house.”

“Ready” stated that the valve-rope had broken. At great effort, he had climbed up the ropes to the balloon with his penknife and cut at the fabric of the balloon, “careful not to make the hole too large.” The newspaper marveled:
To climb the cords was a labour of extreme difficulty, for they were only about a quarter of an inch in thickness, and the distance from the hoop to a point practicable for cutting was about twelve feet. But few persons could perform the feat of climbing such cord near the earth, and much less three miles above, for that was about the height to which he ascended.

He saw not a little danger, but his voyage will become famous, and his name will be spoken from Europe to Australia.
Though the name of Joseph “Ready” Gates’s name didn’t appear in the St. Nick article, there is a book about him now: Dorothy Kupcha Leland’s The Balloon Boy of San Francisco, from a small press. He was also part of the inspiration for Liza Ketchum’s Newsgirl. So I suppose that’s famous enough.

19 October 2009

A Boy in a Runaway Balloon

In 1898, St. Nicholas magazine published a story by Idah Meacham Strobridge called “An Unwilling Balloonist.” I came across it while researching potential inspirations for L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written the following year and published in 1900.

The picture at the right, from Syracuse Then and Now, shows an even more likely inspiration: a balloon launch in Baum’s home town of Syracuse, New York, in 1871, when he was fifteen.

For some reason, the St. Nick story seems like appropriate material now. I’ll start quoting in the middle:

The balloon, though it tugged at the guy ropes, showed there was still too great a weight. The aeronaut got out in despair. How much weight would the balloon carry? He looked for some one lighter than himself. A slim, half grown youth took his place. That was better; but even he was not light enough. Looking around for some one still lighter, the aeronaut saw a barefooted newsboy, wearing only a thin cotton shirt, a pair of trousers reaching to the knee, and a broken straw hat.

“Here, Bub,” said he, “quick! Sit in this hoop a minute, will you, and let me see if the balloon will raise your weight?”

The little fellow laid down his bundle of papers, placing beside them a basket of peanuts that he carried. Then he seated himself on the slender curving ring. Steadying himself within the frail circle by holding with both hands to the two sides, he sat there with his legs dangling below him, feeling quite important in being chosen. He was sure the other boys were envying him even this approach to an ascent in a balloon.

Yes; there was sufficient gas to hold up the boy’s weight. That was something; but it would not yet bear the weight of a man. Something must be done. An ascent must be made to satisfy the grumbling crowd. Some alterations must be made so that the aeronaut himself could go up as he had advertised.

They loosened some of the ropes as he directed, and then—

No one ever seemed to know how it happened, but with a bound the balloon somehow wrested itself from its moorings, and shot upward, bearing aloft the barefooted little newsboy, sitting in the swinging hoop!
Google Books has the whole story.

Strobridge claimed to describe an event that had actually happened in Oakland, California, more than forty years earlier. However, she offered no specific dates or names that would make it easy to confirm what she wrote. I suspected it might be a legend. But then I went back to Google Books.

TOMORROW: The real story of a runaway balloon.

18 October 2009

The Symbolic Weight of a Dead Robin

The last weekly Robin installment was about the Teen Wonder as DC Comics’s oldest and best known symbol of the potential of youth. I ended by promising to explore what it means when such a character grows up and stops being a kid. But first, I realized, I should address a more obvious danger: What happens if Robin never gets to grow up because he’s, well, dead?

We actually saw that scenario play out in 1988, when the Joker, abetted by a telephone vote by readers, murdered the second Jason Todd. However, it was forecast in Frank Miller’s “out of continuity” 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, in which the death of Jason is one event that led an aging Bruce Wayne to give up being Batman.

That series and Jason’s death are often taken as signal events opening the “Dark Age” of American superhero comics, when almost all stories became more gritty and less idealistic. Yet the Batman comics have been threatening Robin’s death almost since the character came on the scene, as this panel from 1941 shows. The comic-book covers in this posting, all pushing the same button, come from four different decades—and I haven’t even gotten to all those Robin-in-jeopardy covers where he doesn’t look dead, but it seems like just a matter of time.

To be sure, there are also covers of Batman in jeopardy, as well as Superman in jeopardy, Wonder Woman in jeopardy, the Red Tornado in jeopardy, and so on. But the thought of Robin dying carries a heavier symbolic weight than Batman’s or another hero’s death for three reasons, two directly tied to the character’s youth:

  • Because Robin and Batman are partners, not solo heroes, the Batman magazines can last past Robin’s death, but that loss will affect the Caped Crusader forever.
  • As the older, bigger, and stronger partner, Batman feels the responsibility to look after Robin.
  • The Boy Wonder being unable to grow up seems more dire and unfair than for a mature adult to die. A dead Robin is a symbol of lost potential.
As a result, when Jason Todd died, that became “Batman’s biggest failure,” grinding his psyche as badly as his parents’ murder. It provided fuel for nearly two decades of stories.

The apparent murder of Stephanie Brown in late 2004 didn’t tear at the Batman mythos nearly as much. There were several reasons: she hadn’t been Robin for that long, she was no longer serving in the role, she didn’t have the same familial relationship with Bruce Wayne, the editors had planned her death for a while—and she was a girl. It’s probably impossible to separate that last factor from the others.

DC’s editors apparently wanted Stephanie’s death to haunt only her former boyfriend, Tim Drake, as he returned to the role of Robin. There were far fewer moments of Bruce Wayne mourning her, no trophy case in the Bat-cave as there had long been for Jason.

Such is the symbolism of Robin, however, that a vocal contingent of fans mourned Stephanie as a symbol of lost potential—not just the potential inherent in any Robin character, but also the wasted potential of female leads in comic books.

Just after Stephanie’s departure from the scene, Jason Todd came back from the dead—apparently there can be only one dead Robin at a time. But he continues to represent Batman’s greatest failure: impetuous, murderous, and resentful. As a former Robin, Jason now represents the corruption of the character’s potential.

Due in large part to her unexpected fan following, Stephanie stayed apparently dead for only three and a half years, returning in 2008. I’m not sure what her present symbolic value is, however. The characters had barely any time to react to her return before the magazines moved into the ongoing storyline of Bruce Wayne apparently dying. Rather than resuming the Robin role, Stephanie has become the new Batgirl.

For the first time in twenty years, therefore, we have no dead Robins. But as always, the danger remains.

17 October 2009

Five Observations on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Comic

As Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s comics adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz continues its sojourn on the hardcover “graphic novels” bestseller list, I’m sharing some miscellaneous thoughts on how it retells Dorothy’s first adventure.

  • This comic was originally published as eight issues of a magazine, each of which needed its share of satisfying ups and downs to keep readers coming back for more. I read many such comic-book collections, and usually it’s apparent where one installment ends and the next begins (and not just because of a reprinted cover or placeholder page). There’s a shift in rhythm, and often a few panels to catch readers up with the story. I didn’t have that experience this time: the whole book felt seamless. I’m going to have to reread again to figure out how.

  • The only detail from L. Frank Baum’s book that I missed was how the great and powerful Oz is exposed. In this adaptation, the Lion roars so ferociously he blows open a curtain hiding the little man.

    In the book, the Cowardly Lion’s roar is “so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen” in front of Oz. (In the MGM movie, Toto deliberately pulls open a curtain. Frank Morgan then yanks it back while delivering his immortal “Pay no attention to the man…” line. You can watch Toto get yanked back as well since the curtain was apparently attached to his collar.)

    It may seem illogical for Oz to protect his vital secret with a screen so light that a startled terrier can knock it over. Nevertheless, I like the symbolic aspect of that moment: Toto makes things happen for Dorothy.

  • I saw one addition to this version which seemed to come from the MGM movie. After the Lion’s earlier, solo interview with the Wizard (appearing as a great ball of fire), the frightened beast runs out of the throne room and breaks through a door (“SCRUNCH”!). Quite reminiscent of the candy-pane window that Bert Lahr’s stunt double jumped through. But the book simply says:
    The Lion was angry at this speech, but could say nothing in reply, and while he stood silently gazing at the Ball of Fire it became so furiously hot that he turned tail and rushed from the room. He was glad to find his friends waiting for him, and told them of his terrible interview with the Wizard.
  • There are two double-page spreads in the book, both meaningful. The first comes when Dorothy and her companions are first allowed inside the Emerald City and take in the marvelous capital. Because it’s a walled city, however, the view feels as hemmed-in as it is expansive.

    The second spread comes toward the end of the book as the party approach Glinda’s castle. The MGM movie leaves out that entire leg of Dorothy’s journey, and many adaptations treat it as an anticlimax. But that trip is a very important part of the story. It allows Dorothy’s companions to prove their new abilities, and it’s important for her to reach a place of real magic, not humbuggery. Shanower knows that Glinda and her castle remain major centers of power in the Oz saga, and he scripted a grand entrance for them.

  • Months back, I wrote about how Oz: The Manga used many variations of word balloons for different characters’ speeches. This adaptation is more restrained in that regard. Each of the Wizard’s disguises has a different style of balloon and typography. And the field mice all speak in little letters.
  • 16 October 2009

    Please Hang Up and Dial Again

    Last night’s Office had an unusually large number of people hanging up the phone on other people, which meant it had an unusually large number of dial tones signaling to an audience that a character has hung up.

    In real life, of course, if someone hangs up the phone on you, you don’t hear anything. That’s why you’re not sure the other person has hung up. If you keep talking for several minutes on end, a recorded voice will tell you to hang up and then emphasize that point with an annoying rhythmic sound. But there’s never a dial tone.

    This odd fact about life in the movies and TV was noted over a decade ago by David N. Townsend, and discussed at Movie Clichés, TV Forum, Ask Metafilter, and elsewhere.

    Since then, cell phones have become ubiquitous, and, as some of those websites point out, movie sound designers now often supply dial tones for cell phones. That sound signals us viewers that a character’s phone is operational. In real life, our own cell phones don’t make that sound at all, even if they are operational.

    And we accept these cinematic conventions despite the fact that any American who’s watching a movie or TV has plenty of experience in how a telephone really works.

    15 October 2009

    “Mr. Small’s first work for adults.”

    Yesterday the National Book Foundation announced the nominations for this year’s National Book Awards, which includes a category for “Young People’s Literature.” This covers both fiction and nonfiction, and poetry as well.

    Among the nominees this year is David Small’s memoir in comics form, Stitches. I was one of many observers who thought that was striking, given that Stitches hasn’t been marketed as a book for young readers.

    GalleyCat followed up on the discrepancy and discovered that the publisher, Norton, had nominated the book in the Young People’s category, which determined how it was considered. “We always intended to submit Stitches in the young people’s category,” said the firm’s head of publicity.

    It’s true that Norton’s catalogue copy for the book concludes, “…Stitches will transform adolescent and adult readers alike with its deeply liberating vision.” And it is about Small’s childhood and adolescence.

    However, in 2007, when Norton acquired the book, it said: “This will be Mr. Small’s first work for adults.” (See that press release as a Fuse #8 Reproduction.) Seven Imps understood it to be a “graphic novel memoir for adults.” USA Today reported it as the “First adult book by Small.”

    Powells.com prefaced a question to Small by saying: “After working on more than forty books for kids, you’ve created one about yourself, for adults.” Amazon’s page for the book has no data for “Reading Level,” as the children’s titles do. And editor Roger Sutton reported that The Horn Book never received a review copy.

    I can’t help but think that Norton always intended to submit in the Young People’s category because Stitches has its best shot for serious consideration there. For one thing, it’s not clear how fictionalized the book is—where do we draw the lines for graphic nonfiction?—so as either Fiction or Nonfiction it might present headaches for the judges.

    And, of course, Stitches is in comics form. I think this categorization shows our culture’s continuing assumption that comics are for younger readers—unless they involve sex, of course. (You can read earlier versions of this grouse about how Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams got treated as an early reader, how Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell is shelved as a teen book, how Flight and Laika were nominated for Cybils Awards.)

    If those are the rules of our cultural system, kudos to Norton for playing the game well. But will the judges’ choice be fair to books that were created and published with young readers always in mind?

    14 October 2009

    “Oz could do that easily enough.”

    Yesterday I quoted a passage from L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz describing Dorothy’s arrival at a farmhouse outside the Emerald City. In that book and later ones, she and other travelers in Oz often pass a meal or a night at ordinary homes like these.

    When I first read the series, that aspect of life in Oz was just another pleasant, welcoming detail. But gradually I realized how Baum had managed to make nearly all those “ordinary” families distinct. The farmer might have a sarcastic wit, or the old couple might be too deaf to communicate, or the husband might be lazy and the wife understandably short-tempered, or the couple are perfectly nice pigs. When we meet “ordinary” husbands and wives in Oz, they usually act like a couple who’ve really been together for years, and the woman is rarely a secondary partner in the relationship.

    In the household outside the Emerald City, the most distinct detail is that the husband is laid up with an injury. Above is a portrait of him based on W. W. Denslow’s original illustration, here courtesy of Piglet Press. (In the new graphic novel adaptation, Skottie Young draws the man in an elaborate wheelchair; most likely that unexpected detail caught my attention and made me think over this scene again.)

    I suppose Baum might have made that character lame so that he could be home to give Dorothy information. But it wouldn’t have been that difficult for him to be a craftsman whose workshop is just next door. As it is, the man’s injury makes life in Oz seem more realistic even as he speaks of the Wizard’s magic:

    The man had hurt his leg, and was lying on the couch in a corner. They seemed greatly surprised to see so strange a company, and while the woman was busy laying the table the man asked:

    “Where are you all going?”

    “To the Emerald City,” said Dorothy, “to see the Great Oz.”

    “Oh, indeed!” exclaimed the man. “Are you sure that Oz will see you?”

    “Why not?” she replied.

    “Why, it is said that he never lets anyone come into his presence. I have been to the Emerald City many times, and it is a beautiful and wonderful place; but I have never been permitted to see the Great Oz, nor do I know of any living person who has seen him.”

    “Does he never go out?” asked the Scarecrow.

    “Never. He sits day after day in the great Throne Room of his Palace, and even those who wait upon him do not see him face to face.”

    “What is he like?” asked the girl.

    “That is hard to tell,” said the man thoughtfully. “You see, Oz is a Great Wizard, and can take on any form he wishes. So that some say he looks like a bird; and some say he looks like an elephant; and some say he looks like a cat. To others he appears as a beautiful fairy, or a brownie, or in any other form that pleases him. But who the real Oz is, when he is in his own form, no living person can tell.”

    “That is very strange,” said Dorothy, “but we must try, in some way, to see him, or we shall have made our journey for nothing.”

    “Why do you wish to see the terrible Oz?” asked the man.

    “I want him to give me some brains,” said the Scarecrow eagerly.

    “Oh, Oz could do that easily enough,” declared the man. “He has more brains than he needs.”

    “And I want him to give me a heart,” said the Tin Woodman.

    “That will not trouble him,” continued the man, “for Oz has a large collection of hearts, of all sizes and shapes.”

    “And I want him to give me courage,” said the Cowardly Lion.

    “Oz keeps a great pot of courage in his Throne Room,” said the man, “which he has covered with a golden plate, to keep it from running over. He will be glad to give you some.”

    “And I want him to send me back to Kansas,” said Dorothy.

    “Where is Kansas?” asked the man, with surprise.

    “I don’t know,” replied Dorothy sorrowfully, “but it is my home, and I’m sure it’s somewhere.”

    “Very likely. Well, Oz can do anything; so I suppose he will find Kansas for you. But first you must get to see him, and that will be a hard task; for the Great Wizard does not like to see anyone, and he usually has his own way. But what do YOU want?” he continued, speaking to Toto. Toto only wagged his tail; for, strange to say, he could not speak.
    As it turns out, the Wizard does have a sawdust-filled heart lying around, and his courage does come in liquid form, though he pours it out of a bottle instead of a “great pot” with a golden lid. I get the feeling that when Baum wrote this scene, he was thinking ahead to how he’d have the Wizard appear in different guises and ultimately solve the travelers’ dilemmas.

    However, Baum makes clear later that the Wizard just improvises those gifts. Furthermore, it’s clear even in this scene that he’s lived a secretive life since building the Emerald City, and there’s no link between him and this man recuperating on the couch. So, even though the fellow’s information is pretty good, he must be speaking through his hat. Which gives a whole new cast to the scene.

    13 October 2009

    “Why is that great Lion with you?”

    I’ve been thinking about a little scene in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz since studying the version of it that appears in the Marvel Comics adaptation by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young. Dorothy and her companions have just reached the green country outside the Emerald City.

    “I should like something to eat besides fruit,” said the girl, “and I’m sure Toto is nearly starved. Let us stop at the next house and talk to the people.”

    So, when they came to a good-sized farmhouse, Dorothy walked boldly up to the door and knocked.

    A woman opened it just far enough to look out, and said, “What do you want, child, and why is that great Lion with you?”

    “We wish to pass the night with you, if you will allow us,” answered Dorothy; “and the Lion is my friend and comrade, and would not hurt you for the world.”

    “Is he tame?” asked the woman, opening the door a little wider.

    “Oh, yes,” said the girl, “and he is a great coward, too. He will be more afraid of you than you are of him.”

    “Well,” said the woman, after thinking it over and taking another peep at the Lion, “if that is the case you may come in, and I will give you some supper and a place to sleep.”
    Throughout L. Frank Baum’s book, people in Oz don’t know what to make of Toto since they’ve never seen a dog before. (Later Oz books reveal whole settlements of dogs, but that’s another story.) And besides, he’s so small that he wouldn’t seem dangerous.

    But this farmwife clearly knows what a lion is. So Dorothy must be quite convincing for the woman to open her door to the beast. She even goes on to cook the Cowardly Lion supper, though it’s not to his liking:
    The woman now called to them that supper was ready, so they gathered around the table and Dorothy ate some delicious porridge and a dish of scrambled eggs and a plate of nice white bread, and enjoyed her meal. The Lion ate some of the porridge, but did not care for it, saying it was made from oats and oats were food for horses, not for lions.
    Throughout this novel, Dorothy sticks to a vegetarian diet (though here she does eat eggs). The Lion at one point offers to kill a deer for her, but she declines, so he goes off to find his own supper—assuredly not porridge. (That moment also appears in the graphic novel.)

    TOMORROW: The travelers’ conversation with the man of the house.

    12 October 2009

    Counting Down the Days for Cybils Nominations

    The Cybils Award nominations are open only until Thursday, 15 October. So if there’s a children’s book published since last October which you think deserves accolades from children’s-lit bloggers, now is the time to send in a nomination.

    On the list of titles already nominated in the Nonfiction Picture Book category, I see Unite or Die, which I discussed at length over here.

    11 October 2009

    Reason for Robin, #9

    Having laid the groundwork by quoting Douglas Wolk’s manner of reading American superhero comics, I return to my series of reasons for Robin.

    Reason for Robin, #9: Robin is still a kid.

    That statement may seem more than obvious. Youth is the quality that unites all the characters who’ve served as Batman’s partner: Dick Grayson (nineteen years old when he finally gave up the colorful costume), the two Jason Todds, Carrie Kelley, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and now Damian Wayne (who’s all of ten). But that youth is also the key to most of the previous reasons for Robin.

    Furthermore, Robin being a kid gives a different meaning to the three other “reasons for Robin” I’ve listed so far: giving Batman someone to talk to, giving Batman someone not to talk to, and comic relief.

    A supporting character doesn’t need to be young to bring those last three benefits to an adventure story. Plastic Man’s Woozy Winks, the Spirit’s Ebony White, and the Fighting Yank’s girlfriend Joan are adults who offer the same narrative benefits.

    But when adult sidekicks can’t figure out a mystery, botch a chase, or get captured, they look irredeemably incompetent. In fact, the Flash’s hangers-on made that quality explicit: they were called the Three Dimwits. And when such a sidekick happened to be black, or female, the unfortunate implications were clear.

    In contrast, when Robin has such problems, they don’t render him or her an incorrigible fool. Readers know Robin is still growing up, so it makes sense that he or she still has stuff to learn.

    And that brings us to the symbolic importance of Robin still being a kid. As I quoted yesterday, in Reading Comics Wolk suggests the best way to make sense of American superhero stories is to interpret the main characters as “bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction.”

    Robin, as the original kid sidekick in superhero comics, represents youth and, therefore, potential. The various young people who’ve served as Robin all had different skills and personalities, thus hinting at different sorts of potential, but they all embodied the process of growing up. In contrast, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other adult heroes appear as fully formed; we expect them and their principles to be tested, but not to develop further.

    What the Robins symbolize gives them what Wolk calls “particular allegorical values,” which make them “meaningful parts of the master ‘universe narratives.’” When Fabian Nicieza was tapped to bring the Robin magazine to a close, he expressed the value of the character in just such terms:
    the Robin concept is just as vital to the foundation of the DC Universe [as Batman] and has been a bedrock of the mythology since its inception.

    The concept of Robin defines the nature of the legacy in the DCU and with that, implies hope for the future, stability coming from the next generation of hero, and on a societal level, it harkens to the need for proper parenting, education and stimulation to help guide the next generation to fruition.
    The idea that Robin represents a future generation of crimefighter has been part of the character from the beginning, as this panel from 1940 shows.

    More recent Batman comics portray Bruce Wayne as obsessed and emotionally damaged—which only increases the significance of Robin growing up. Here’s how Wolk sums up the meaning of the longest-serving Robins in Reading Comics:
    [Batman’s] drive is the kind that parents often pass on to their children; hence his parental relationship with Robin, whose symbolic value is as a son trying to learn from his father’s experience and wisdom without making his father’s mistakes.
    We’re seeing that tension play out in DC’s current magazines about the characters. Dick Grayson has taken on the role of Batman with a new style and a new Robin whose mistakes he must correct. Tim Drake has become Red Robin, and is edging toward being as obsessive and cut off as his adoptive father.

    NEXT WEEK: If Robin represents youth, what does it mean when Robin gets old?

    10 October 2009

    Superhero Comics as a “Novel of Ideas”

    When I started to explore superhero comics again after a gap of over twenty years, I found the task of interpretation (as in, “figuring out what the hell was going on”) greatly helped by these passages from Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean:

    Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life, and what’s useful and interesting about their characters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction. They’re the closest thing that exists right now to the “novel of ideas.”

    That’s what’s kept this particular weird little genre so closely connected to its much broader medium: a form that intrinsically lends itself to grand metaphors and subjective interpretations of their visual world goes well with characters who have particular allegorical values. . . .

    Virtually every major superhero franchise, actually, can be looked at in terms of a particular metaphor that underscores all of its best stories. . . . that subtext deepens the experience of the surface text, and over time it makes characters meaningful parts of the master “universe narratives.”
    That last remark about universes reveals how Wolk’s thinking is most influenced by, and most applicable to, the American comics of the last quarter-century. In that period, the major superhero publishers have cross-pollinated character histories and plot lines as they chased an aging and shrinking readership.

    In the industry’s early decades, comics creators were interested only in telling adventure stories effectively enough to keep food on the table. Sure, their major characters embodied forms of wish-fulfillment: the nerd who could secretly beat everyone up, the towering and omnipotent bringer of vengeance—and those were just Jerry Siegel’s creations! But they would have laughed at the notion of deeper symbolic significance.

    Subsequent generations of readers grew up thinking about those heroes, perhaps too much, and then got the chance to develop those characters further and add new ones. Crossovers, team-ups, and landmark events became more important in superhero storytelling, forcing writers to find ways to differentiate one hero from another. And eventually cookie-cutter characters came to represent different approaches to heroism.

    For example, Aquaman’s personality was originally quite like that of DC Comics’s other heroes—he just lived in the ocean and ordered fish around. In recent decades, however, writers have emphasized Aquaman’s separation from land-dwelling humanity, his environmental concerns, his status as king of Atlantis. He’s come to represent an elemental force on DC’s Earth rather than just a watery Superman.

    As another example of what this means in practice, here’s what Wolk sees as the idea behind/represented by the Caped Crusader, at least since the 1980s:
    Batman...has pushed himself to the edge of being greater-than-human—and what he’s defined as the peak of humanity is dangerousness and a lack of weakness. His relentless drive, though, had made him (for all practical purposes) psychotic: he’s a benign psycho but barely functional as a person.

    His enemies mostly get sent to an insane asylum rather than a prison—they’re like him but malign rather than benign, as virtually everyone who’s written Batman comics over the last few decades has hammered in. And his drive is the kind that parents often pass on to their children; hence his parental relationship with Robin...
    TOMORROW: Reason for Robin, #9—what idea Robin represents.

    09 October 2009

    American Comics and the Fantastic

    Yesterday I suggested that Matt Phelan’s graphic novel The Storm in the Barn is garnering better reviews than we’d expect if the same magical plot—child fixes the Dust Bowl drought by conquering the embodiment of Rain—had appeared in prose. (Or in a verse novel, as Karen Hesse used for her Dust Bowl novel, Out of the Dust.)

    I listed a couple of elements that might make a fantastic story seem more appropriate: age of reader, gender of protagonist. But I left out the biggie: the fact that The Storm in the Barn is in comics form.

    American culture has more fantastic expectations for comics than for other forms of print storytelling, and is therefore quicker to accept supernatural or unreal elements when they appear in panels.

    First of all, comics can put fantastic events right in front of our eyes. It’s easier to suspend one’s disbelief when one is seeing a man fly, a duck talk, or the embodiment of Rain fighting with a Kansas farm boy.

    In a prose novel, and especially in a verse novel, writing about the Rain as a character would be taken as a metaphor. (“That’s called ‘personification,’” the rhetoricians would say. “And that dialogue is an ‘apostrophe.’ And it’s still going on. And on.”) But when we see the Rain’s angry face and clutching hands, we accept it as a character within the story.

    Second and probably more important, American comics magazines have historically been dominated by fantastic genres: superheroes, horror, monsters, science fiction, funny animals. Of course, there have always been American comics that stick to a realistic world: stories of romance, crime, teenage life, and so on. But in the US, forms of the fantastic have dominated and to a great extent come to be seen as the form’s default setting.

    Even the most serious topics can thus get a fantastic treatment in American comics. Take the work of Art Spiegelman. Maus adopts elements of the talking-animal genre to dramatize the Holocaust. In the Shadow of No Towers draws from Winsor McCay and other comics geniuses to depict Spiegelman’s psychological, philosophical, and political struggles after the terrorist attack on New York in 2001.

    The first graphic novel to crash the ALA prizes for younger readers, Gene Luen Yang’s Printz Award-winner American-Born Chinese, intertwines mythology, memoir, and what looks at first like an unrelated tale of growing up in a way that would be even harder, and possibly more off-putting, in prose.

    (Eleanor Davis’s Stinky, a Geisel Honor Book, offers a monster and uses comics tools for “showing the invisible.” But that book’s not such a useful example of contrast because its traditional analogues—picture books and early readers—often have elements of the fantastic as well.)

    The comics medium, I posit, let Phelan tell a story set in the Dust Bowl that would have been impossible, or at least greeted quite differently, if he’d tried it in prose.

    08 October 2009

    Not Directly about the Dust Bowl?

    My favorite part in Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse’s Newbery-winning novel in verse about the Dust Bowl, is ****SPOILERS**** when the teen-aged heroine, Billie Jo, corners the embodiment of the Rain in an old barn and fights him into opening his carpet bag.

    By releasing the thunder and lightning in that bag, Billie Jo forces the Rain back into his natural state and restores the landscape around her family farm. Although the book doesn’t say so explicitly, I think the return of the rain also means that Billie Jo’s sister won’t die of that lung disease.

    Okay, that’s not what happens in Out of the Dust. It’s what happens in The Storm in the Barn, the new graphic novel by Matt Phelan.

    In Out of the Dust, Billie Jo’s mother burns to death, the child she’s carrying also dies, Billie Jo’s own hands are so burned that she can no longer play the piano, and she runs away from home, only to turn back in order to end the book with the requisite sense of hope. (I told you there would be SPOILERS.)

    In fact, if Hesse or anyone else had offered a literary novel about the Dust Bowl whose plot turned on fighting an embodiment of the Rain on top of a windmill, I suspect most reviewers would deem that story not serious enough for its setting and topic. Certainly critics have questioned whether children’s fantasy was an appropriate medium for addressing the Holocaust or other periods of great human suffering.

    The Storm in the Barn’s plot doesn’t even include what I recall Ellen Howard calling “price of fantasy”: young Jack doesn’t have to make any trade-offs for how he benefits from magic. (Some might say that he and his family have already paid a price, however, and deserve a break.)

    That fantastic, wish-fulfilling plot hasn’t stopped The Storm in the Barn from garnering rapturous reviews. Here’s a sampling of positive notices from Shelf Elf, A Fuse #8 Production, and Comics Should Be Good! And on a page-by-page basis it’s very affecting.

    To be sure, The Storm in the Barn was created for somewhat younger readers than Out of the Dust. It’s about an eleven-year-old boy (action!) instead of a fourteen-year-old girl (feelings!). In the author’s note Phelan states, “I wanted this book to be set in the Dust Bowl but not a story directly about the Dust Bowl.”

    I’m just asking, would that possible for a serious prose novel? Could someone writing for young people today create a novel set during, say, plantation slavery, but insist that it’s not directly about plantation slavery, offer a plot that ends the suffering of that system through supernatural means, and still gain reviewers’ praise?

    TOMORROW: Fantasy and the comics form.

    07 October 2009

    Lacking Moral Lessons

    A Washington Times column headlined “Children’s Books Lack Moral Lessons” by Julia Duin has prompted a lot of complaints from other authors, publishing pros, and people who have higher opinions of SCBWI conferences (some of which I help to run).

    I don’t expect much good from the Washington Times, the capital’s far-right-wing newspaper. Back on 27 Feb 2002, it ran a story on the SCBWI Midyear conference in New York. That article is off the paper’s website, so I can’t tell who wrote it. But the reporter managed to mention Laura Bush, who wasn’t there, and not mention Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, the keynote speaker.

    Duin covers religion for the Washington Times. I imagine that beat might be awkward, given that the paper was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-declared Messiah, and is heavily subsidized by his Unification Church. Duin occasionally has to cover Moon’s activities, though apparently doesn’t always have to note his stake in the paper. Indeed, Media Matters noted one odd moment just last month when Duin sniffed at a Muslim speaking at the US Capitol without mentioning that the son of her employer had done so as well.

    Apparently Duin is a respected reporter in that field, but I think her biases are evident, especially in her columns. This isn’t the first time that she’s complained about not finding enough “virtuous” children’s books on the market. I don’t accept any Washington Times writer as a reliable judge of “virtue”—there’s the paper’s whole Confederate nostalgia thing, to begin with. But I can accept that tradition is important to Duin.

    However, in reading the latest column about children’s books it becomes clear that its real fuel is Duin’s “fury” at how “editors’ eyes glaze over when I presented my ideas” at SCBWI events. She also complains about not being able to hand proposals and manuscripts to those editors instead of submitting by email, though I can’t imagine she’d be so upset if an editor had enthusiastically invited her to email. And since Duin once edited her newspaper’s culture page, I wonder how she reacted to people pressing manuscripts or résumés on her at public appearances.

    Duin’s emotion surfaces as her complaints about children’s books become patently wrong and self-contradictory. She says that “Everything [for young readers] is fiction, of the ‘problem books’ variety,” yet among those books “A lot are about the supernatural, particularly vampires.” The “problem book” genre (apparently her out-of-date understanding of “edgy” YA fiction) is at the opposite pole from supernatural romance. Then she complains that “Very few [new books] speak in moral terms,” but the examples she admires are two best-selling, widely imitated series published in recent years.

    The column becomes a bit pleading as Duin laments that among today’s children’s book, “Few are retold classics,” and concludes that “The discerning parent and teenager will have to seek meatier stuff from previous centuries.” Pleading because Duin’s own published book for young readers consists of “retold classics” from “previous centuries.”

    As Duin wrote in her earlier column, “In 1998, I published a collection of Victorian fairy tales called Knights, Maidens, and Dragons.” That’s actually the title of her 2004 Xlibris (i.e., self-published) reissue. This book originally came out as Waiting for True Love: And Other Tales of Purity, Patience, and Faithfulness from Chariot Victor/Lion Publications, whose other titles include The Great Dinosaur Mystery and the Bible.

    The stories in Knights, Maidens and Dragons are rewrites of fairy tales embedded within Annie Fellows Johnston’s Little Colonel novels. It might indeed make sense to rewrite parts of those books: in Good Girl Messages: How Young Women Were Misled by Their Favorite Books, Deborah O’Keefe recalled, “I was too obtuse to notice Johnston’s racism and the gross Negro dialect she created.” However, I’d think that plucking the currently acceptable bits out of “classics” should take one out of the business of knocking other people’s “political correctness.”

    Then again, I don’t expect consistency from the Washington Times.