31 August 2009

The Disney-Marvel Mania, and Why We Should All Calm Down

The comics websites went wild today with news that Disney is buying Marvel for $4 billion. (Or, as the British-based Bleeding Cool News put it, $4,000,000,000--pronounced “four thousand million" or "four billion," take your pick.)

A great deal of the internet chatter consisted of:

  • Tepid jokes about mergers of classic Disney and Marvel storylines.
  • Uninformed speculation about how Disney would manage its new division and what would happen with certain enterprises (e.g., Iron Man movies from Sony, Muppets comics from BOOM!).
  • Laments about Disney's control over Marvel creativity.
And it was remarkable how few people talking about the corporate merger showed any knowledge of how corporations work.

The last point was best addressed by artist Skottie Young, now drawing Marvel's adaptation of The Marvelous Land of Oz, as he wrote on Twitter:
A lot of peolple asking me about "creative freedom" now under Disney.

They didn't buy a indy black and white publishers, guys.

It's Marvel.
'Nuff said.

As for the second point, it's true that Disney has (or had, as of a few years ago) a vice president in charge of synergy. The corporation's online strategy brings many disparate divisions under one web domain: go.com. And of course Disney likes to get the most profit out of its holdings--like any other corporation. But that also means not trying to change how profitable divisions, such as Pixar, run themselves.

As for Marvel's deals with other media conglomerates, and Disney's with other comics publishers, those deals are governed by contracts. Unless we can read those contracts, we don't know anything about them.

Multinational multimedia corporations make deals with rivals all the time. For instance, Disney's television department produced Scrubs, but for the first several seasons it was on NBC, owned by GE. After NBC chose not to renew that contract, Disney's ABC network (which had originally declined the show) scheduled more episodes because it still saw profits to be made.

The jokes, as lame as they quickly became, show the real basis of this deal. They reflect the power of the Disney and Marvel brands, so familiar and so emotionally affecting that (like celebrities) they bend ordinary rational behavior.

When we hear the name "Disney," we think of certain icons (Mickey Mouse, Sleeping Beauty's castle) and a certain style of family entertainment. But the Disney corporation moved beyond that brand long ago. It includes ABC and its affiliated networks. It includes the Weinsteinless Miramax, Touchstone Pictures, and Hollywood Pictures for movies that don't fit the "Disney" label. It includes ESPN. It includes (as a small part of one subdivision) the publisher Hyperion.

Similarly, when we hear "Marvel," people familiar with American comic books quickly envision its major brands: Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America. Most of those icons were created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other employees during a vigorous run in the 1960s. The most recent character with that level of popularity is Wolverine, created in 1974 and developed over the next few years.

And yet those brands are so powerful that Disney values the company at $4,000,000,000.

30 August 2009

Robin: Search for an Ending

As I mentioned last week, the magazines collected in Robin: Search for a Hero show the end of Tim Drake’s career as Robin, which started in 1989. The character has aged about five years in those two decades, and is now ready to move on to a new crime-fighting identity: Red Robin. (Okay, he’s not moving on that far.)

The final issues of Robin are therefore a self-conscious wrap-up of the magazine’s main threads. We can see that in the cover art, especially the first and last issues. The cover of the book (also of Robin, #183) is an homage to the art on the first issue of the Robin miniseries, back in 1991. (Though I don’t actually like that cover, shown below, thinking that it makes Tim look much older than fourteen.)

Likewise, the cover of Robin, #175, shows Tim cradling the wounded body of Bruce Wayne during the “Batman: RIP” arc, just as Bruce had cradled the body of the previous Robin, Jason Todd, on the cover of Batman: A Death in the Family from 1989.

Fabian Nicieza’s task as scripter was made more challenging by some circumstances:

  • He was hired suddenly to replace the magazine’s founding writer, Chuck Dixon--so late that some covers had already been shown to the world.
  • The Robin storyline had to fit alongside the momentous events of Batman: RIP and Final Crisis, in which Bruce Wayne goes crazy and dies (kind of).
  • The story had to lead into DC’s plans to give Tim his new identity as Red Robin--something I suspect the company was working toward since it dropped the green from his costume in 2006.
And of course those issues would also have to tell an entertaining story.

In this arc, therefore, Tim faces versions of three of the teenaged antagonists who showed up early in the magazine’s run: Lynx, Anarky, and the General, having all grown up badly in different ways. He confronts, bests, and eventually reaches an understanding of sorts with his predecessor as Robin, the bitter and recently dead Jason Todd. Robin defeats the villains and brings some peace to Gotham after Batman's disappearance--but at a cost.

Most important for the future, Robin, #181, motivates Tim to put on the Red Robin costume for the first time: he needs its increased cranial protection, having burned the back of his scalp.

In the next issue, the end of the arc, Tim has a falling-out with Stephanie Brown--his ally, occasional girlfriend, and brief-lived replacement as Robin. He tells Stephanie that he doesn’t want to see her Spoiler costume again, opening the door for her choice this month to become Batgirl.

The final page of Robin, #182, shows Tim swinging through the city, a Robin signal having replaced the Bat-signal. The last captions (which serve as Tim’s narrative voice) read:
No guarantees for tomorrow...but come what may--

--the possibilities are endless.
This sentiment matches Nicieza’s perceptive understanding of what the medium’s oldest kid sidekick represents in the DC Universe: “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...”

(Ominously, the early issues of Red Robin suggest that Tim Drake has become rather unstable. We’ll see how that turns out.)

But DC decided it needed another issue of Robin. So #183 shows Tim back in his previous costume facing Lady Shiva, his deadly martial-arts trainer in the Robin miniseries of 1991.

That month DC also mandated that all its magazines have a six-page “Origins & Omens” backup story. In Robin, Tim defeats the Haitian villain who poisoned his mother even earlier in Detective, #621, bringing his adolescence full circle.

I appreciate how DC and its talent approached these issues with a sense of their character’s history. Nonetheless, to my taste this story arc seems frenetic and shallow, with vague villains and lots of unresolved issues. The deaths of two children at the climax are supposed to be tremendously significant for Tim, but it’s barely established that they’re on the scene, much less that they’re characters we should care about. And of course the final chapter/issue steps back from the developments of the preceding story arc.

I also wish DC took advantage of today’s digital production to make their collected editions better than the magazines. In Robin: Search for a Hero no one bothered to fix the misdirected word balloons on page 32 that fuddle up a conversation between Tim and Dick Grayson. And on page 173 three out of the six panels show the same image of Red Robin and Spoiler on a rooftop, copied and pasted like a Wondermark strip. (Andy Schmidt tells me the technical term for this is a “stat panel.”) A monthly magazine deadline makes such shortcuts necessary, but the paperback edition offers the chance to give readers something better.

29 August 2009

Neal Adams’s Contract with Readers

Neal Adams was the most influential artist at DC Comics in the late 1960s, creating the template for subsequent depictions of Batman, among other jobs. He later designed the second Robin costume.

Here are some of Adams’s thoughts on storytelling from a sidebar in The Insider’s Guide to Creating Comics and Graphic Novels, by Andy Schmidt, editor at IDW and proprietor of Comics Experience.

With comic books there's a contract with readers. And it works like this:

I'm going to tell you a story. If you will be good enough to read my story, I will not trick you, I will not slow you down, I will not give you something that you don't understand. Unless, we agree at this time, it's time not to understand something but I'll explain it to you later on. But I won't keep you in the dark for so long that you get bored.

So if you take my hand and read my story, at the end it will have a good ending and you will be happy, and you will come back next time and read another story.
The last part being an essential aspect of serial storytelling: you gotta bring ’em back for the next installment.

28 August 2009

What Happened to Jack Kirby’s Panels?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of comics artist Jack Kirby. [Strictly speaking, as I type that was yesterday, but a deadline meant I didn’t get around to this post then. Rest assured, every other blog that even mentions superhero comics commemorated Kirby’s birthday on 28 August.]

I take the occasion to ask a question that often occurs to me when I look at the artist’s earliest and later work:

What happened to Kirby’s panels?

In Kirby’s early superhero comics work with Joe Simon, most famously in Captain America, the panels danced and twisted with the action. Here’s a page from Marvel Mystery, #25, featuring a hero named the Vision. The panels basically follow a 2x4 grid, but their interior borders curve and shimmy, and the fighting figures burst out of the panels in every interior direction.
By the late 1940s, however, Simon and Kirby’s layout style had grown more sedate. The Kirby Museum notes this in an entry on the team's pioneering romance comics:
by the time Simon and Kirby began working on romances they had already abandoned devices they had previously used to make their pages more exciting. Largely gone were the variously shaped panels and in their place would be a pretty standard comic grid. Also the extension of figures outside of a panel into other panels was no longer done.
Of course, romance comics were a different genre from superhero fight scenes. So here’s an example of the latter from Simon and Kirby’s Fighting American in 1953. The panel borders are straight and stuck to a regular 3x3 grid. Though the flailing figures still break through those borders, they didn’t intrude on neighboring panel space nearly as much.
Finally, here’s a page by Kirby alone from 1967, showing Captain America in battle with Batroc. Stan Lee wisely chose not to add any witty banter during these fisticuffs. In this 3x3 grid, the action is wholly contained within the panels, with the possible exception of a slice of the villain’s fist in panel 1. We see the same wide swings and punches as in the Fighting American’s fight, but they’re all cut off at the panel borders.
Perhaps Kirby liked working on regular grids all along, and Simon argued for breaking that frame. In an article on Simon’s early solo work in Silver Streak Comics, January 1940, the Kirby Museum says:
Simon does not seem to be satisfied with a standard panel grid and uses variously sized panels instead. Unfortunately it becomes a bit confusing and Joe sometimes had to add arrows to indicate the proper reading sequence.
Of course, every artist was learning the form back then, so this might not reflect Simon’s long-time preference.

Another possibility is that Kirby’s lean 1950s made him eager to be as productive as possible, and sticking to a grid saved him time in laying out pages. Perhaps different publishers preferred different styles. And finally, there’s the possibility that Kirby just came to like working within his panels instead of smashing them open. As Bully noted yesterday, Kirby knew very well how to break from his usual 2x3 grids for dramatic effect.

27 August 2009

“Choices in Narrative Voices” Workshop ENCORE, 12 Sept 2009

On Saturday, 12 September, I'll be speaking at the ENCORE 2009 mini-conference on writing for children, co-sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators of New England and the Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature (ASTAL) at Rhode Island College in Providence. Visit SCBWI New England's webpage for complete information and a registration form.

Here's the description of my workshop:

"Choices in Narrative Voices" (1-hour workshop)

An author can describe the same series of events involving the same characters in many different ways. From one character's point of view or several? In the first person or third (or second)? In the past tense or present? From an immediate perspective or years later?

In this workshop, J.L. Bell lays out six building blocks of all narrative voices: Person, Point of View, Perspective, Past & Present, Paper Trail, and Presence. Understanding all the choices available will help you select the narration that serves your stories best.
And I'm looking forward to the other workshops that will follow:

26 August 2009

No Smoking in the Watchmen Movie

One of the distinctive visual details in the graphic novel Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, is the lollipop-shaped glass pipes that several characters smoke instead of cigarettes. In particular, the female lead, Laurie, used such a pipe.

I missed that detail in the movie. Some of the bad guys smoked: the Comedian and Big Figure had cigars, and Moloch was down to his last cigarette. But none of the heroes did, and the movie lost one of the book's vaguely-out-of-this-world details. (Are these pipes somehow a result of Dr. Manhattan’s molecular manipulation?)

It turns out the pipes vanished because of Warner Bros. executive Alan Horn. Director Zack Snyder told the i09 site:

Alan hates smoking. Alan Horn - the head of the studio - that's his biggest, biggest thing. The Comedian can smoke, because he might be a bad guy, he's the bad guy, but that's it. That was the line that he drew.
Almost everything in the Watchmen novel connects with something else, however, so the loss of those pipes had costs.

In one scene, Laurie and her old heroing comrade Dan fight off some muggers, then engage in what's clearly a parody of post-coital behavior, with her having a smoke. That prefigures their deeper relationship to come, and keeps up a theme of crime-fighting as physical fulfillment. In the movie, the same scene has no such resonances (and a lot more blood).

Later Laurie is in Dan's flying owlship, looking for the lighter so she can have a smoke, and she accidentally turns on the flamethrower. (Don't you hate when that happens?) In the movie, there's no reason for Laurie to hit the red button with a flame on it. The scene just makes her look stupid.

Finally, damienoujia at this Comicvine forum noted another moment where Lori's smoking habit illuminated her character:
Her first meeting with the Comedian and it seems he's hitting on her...he lights what we presume is her first cigarette. Her mom comes in and she [Laurie]'s all embarrassed about being caught smoking. It just changes the dynamic of the scene.
I don’t like tobacco anymore than Alan Horn does, but there's no doubt this no-smoking policy came at an artistic cost.

25 August 2009

Oz and “Bad Karma”?

As long as I’m noting New York Times reviews of books about L. Frank Baum, Tara McKelvey wasn’t impressed with Evan I. Schwartz’s Finding Oz in the Book Review earlier this month:

Schwartz, formerly an editor at BusinessWeek, tells Baum’s story in a peculiar fashion, claiming (with scant evidence) that Baum felt guilty about his genocidal editorials. The analysis seems more YogaLifethan literary: Baum needed to “make up for the bad karma” he had created with his editorials, which led him to write about Oz; and the quests of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy “are reflections of the Four Yogas of Swami Vivekananda.”
I suspect it’s the “scant evidence” that matters to McKelvey’s judgment rather than this particular claim. I’ve already noted how Finding Oz finds too much significance in some details of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When one tosses the infinite muddle of mystic philosophy on top of that, one can find hints of anything.

For Schwartz speaking on behalf of his book--without a single mention of Theosophy as a major theme--try the podcast of his appearance on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show.

24 August 2009

The “First Literary Biography”? Then What’s This?

In today’s New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews Rebecca Loncraine’s The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum. With eyebrows rightly raised, Maslin notes how this book is being touted as the “first literary biography” of Baum.

In fact, it’s not even the first biography of Baum published in the last twelve months. We’ve seen Evan Schwartz’s Finding Oz (not to mention Kathleen Krull’s picture book, The Road to Oz).

As for “literary,” Katharine M. Rogers, author of L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz (2002), was a professor of English and a literary scholar who analyzed Baum’s fiction in detail. So, you know, I’m going to show the cover of that book instead of the new one.

Maslin’s description of The Real Wizard of Oz offers no news or insights that would come as a surprise to a well-read Oz fan. She notes that Loncraine avoids presenting Baum’s life story as success with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz after years of failures, as both Schwartz and Krull do. That approach misses the irony of Baum’s last decade:

He filed for bankruptcy in 1911, lost the copyrights to his best work and hacked out books under numerous pseudonyms to stave off financial ruin.
Maslin’s summary implies, however, that Baum turned to pen-name potboilers after his financial problems. In fact, he drafted and signed this contract to write series under pseudonyms years before the bankruptcy.

Baum hacked out books because he liked hacking out books, and because they made him money. He also designed an elaborate stage show to promote his best-known books because he liked going on stage, and that cost him his money.

23 August 2009

Nightwing’s Great Leap to the End

Nightwing; The Great Leap and Robin: Search for a Hero, both published this month, are unusual among collections of superhero comics because they’re both the last of a series.

Normally an ongoing comic book, or any other type of serial fiction, is structured not merely to tell its story, but also to bring readers back for the next issue. The character’s fundamental situation is threatened, but always restored so as to maintain his appeal. The ongoing stories offer an “illusion of change,” a phrase apocryphally attributed to Stan Lee. A profitable magazine’s overall story can’t end even if a “story arc” does.

These collections couldn’t work that way. They take place during and after the events of Batman: RIP, which ends with Bruce Wayne dying, and Final Crisis, which ends with Bruce Wayne dying (don’t ask). That is a fundamental change, albeit a temporary one. DC Comics decided to end the Nightwing and Robin magazines and move their central characters into new identities: Dick Grayson as Batman, Tim Drake as Red Robin. In addition, this month made clear that the company planned to make Stephanie Brown, an important supporting character in Robin, into a new Batgirl.

Thus, scripters Fabian Nicieza (Robin) and Peter J. Tomasi (Nightwing) had to break the usual patterns of their vocation. They had to put their characters through true changes, prepare readers for those characters’ new roles, and provide satisfying wrap-ups to storylines that had rolled along month after month since the 1990s.

On top of all those challenges, it’s evident that DC’s plans were a bit squishy when it came to scheduling the series’ final issues. The scripters didn’t know at the start which issues would be the last. Nicieza talked about this in an interview at Big Shiny Robot:

The truth is the final issue was coming, but which issue would be was not yet set in stone. There were discussions that varied from ending it with #182 and the conclusion of [the arc] “Search for a Hero” or as high as #185 or #186.
I’ll address the results of his effort in Robin: Search for a Hero next week.

In the last Nightwing collection I felt Tomasi struggling to an end. The first four chapters/issues comprise an arc called “The Great Leap.” Dick Grayson confronts Two-Face, established as his particular bête noir among Batman villains back in Robin, #0 (1994), and the Robin: Year One miniseries. Plus, we get to see Nightwing fight half a dozen other iconic Batman villains, though they’re only hallucinations. And on the personal side, Barbara Gordon, Dick’s off-and-on crush since the late 1960s, shows up to boost his computer security and reestablish their friendship. So the story feels like a culmination of his Nightwing career.

That arc came to an end in issue #150 (which also came with a collectible variant cover!). On the last page our hero, having single-handedly saved New York from an attack by a line of acid-spraying blimps, looks up gratefully at the Statue of Liberty. And wouldn’t 150 be a fine number for the last of a series?

But DC needed another issue. So in Nightwing, #151, Tomasi provided an “Epilogue” to “The Great Leap,” with a happier ending for the story’s female lead and another extended conversation with Two-Face (adding little to what the characters already said while kicking each other in the face). Tomasi wraps up some loose ends from his previous arc, collected in Nightwing: Freefall: Dick and his new girlfriend break up, Nightwing confers with Superman and a Green Lantern, Dick goes for a skydiving record.

That issue #151 ends with a lovely three pages showing an evening at Wayne Manor. Working fluidly and wordlessly, Dick, Tim, and Alfred make strawberry shakes and watch The Magnificent Seven. The last page shows Bruce’s empty chair. The movie dialogue provides an ironic comment on crime-fighting. Dick clicks the remote, and the final panel is black. This chapter of his life is over; his life as Batman can begin.
But DC needed another issue. So Nightwing, #152, shows Dick in the batcave, recalling how he became Robin. Suddenly scores of ninjas attack him, demonstrating the Conservation of Ninjutsu. Nightwing must confront another fundamental Batman villain, Ra’s al Ghul. Symbolically, this short tale shows Dick sinking into his legacy as Batman’s heir, ready to step into his new life as Batman.

But DC needed another issue. So Nightwing, #153, shows Nightwing moving out of New York with the help of the Justice Society (it took them one page to move him in, two to move out). In Gotham, Robin and Alfred restore the giant penny to the batcave. Dick and Alfred talk inconclusively about Bruce’s death. A six-page coda shows Dick taking Barbara for a skydive, closely echoing a sequence that appears in Nightwing: Love and War. It’s all perfectly acceptable, but slow and anticlimactic.

And finally the Nightwing series comes to an end. As I said, there are lovely moments along the way, and Tomasi shows how well he understands the character’s roots, strengths, and appeal. But the second half of the Great Leap collection feels like the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when the orchestra keeps working up to a dramatic conclusion, only to go back to pumping out chords.

21 August 2009

The Twenty-First of This Month

Today is the birthday of Princess Ozma, ruler of Oz after the events of The Marvelous Land of Oz, the second book in the series.

L. Frank Baum almost certainly never intended people to know that Ozma had a birthday on 21 August. Throughout The Road to Oz, published one hundred years ago, characters refer only to the party planned for “the twenty-first of this month." But earlier in the book Dorothy mentions that it's August, and Oz fans put the two statements together. (Baum later used Ozma's birthday to motivate two of the three plotlines in The Magic of Oz, but never mentioned the date in that book.)

The lovely modern drawing above, titled "Ozma the Great," was posted by ~cilyconcar on deviantART.

20 August 2009

“Two Kinds of Fantastic Fiction”?

In a foreword for the second collection of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, Clive Barker wrote:

May we open this celebration of the work in your hand by defining two kinds of fantastic fiction? One, the kind most often seen in horror novels and movies, offers up a reality that resembles our own, then postulates a second invading reality, which has to be accommodated or exiled by the status quo it is attempting to overtake.

Sometimes, as in any exorcism movie--and most horror movies are that, by other names--the alien thorn is successfully removed from the suppurating flank of the real. On other occasions the visitor becomes part of the fabric of “everyday” life. Superman is, after all, an alien lifeform. He’s simply the acceptable face of invading realities.

The second kind of fantastique is far more delirious. In these narratives, the whole world is haunted and mysterious. There is no solid status quo, only a series of relative realities, personal to each of the characters, any or all of whom are frail, and subject to eruptions from other states and conditions.

One of the finest writers in this second mode is Edgar Allen Poe, in whose fevered stories landscape, character--even architecture--become a function of the tormented, sexual anxious psyche of the author; in which anything is possible because the tales occur within the teller’s skull.

Is it perhaps freedom from critical and academic scrutiny that has made the medium of the comic book so rich an earth in which to nurture this second kind of fiction?
Barker goes on to praise Gaiman’s comics for achieving the latter effect, which is also what his own stories are known for.

I took a moment to consider Barker’s dichotomy and realized that I could think of at least three other types of fantastic fiction:
  • Our reality coexists with another, where fantastic or supernatural rules apply, but the two realms are largely separate. Often these stories are narratives of journey and return, as in Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or The Phantom Tollbooth.
  • Much of the setting seems like our reality, but there are magical elements. Unlike the situation in Barker’s first group, however, those supernatural elements are not part of “a second invading reality” to be rooted out, but a recognized part of life, as in the world of Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci or James and the Giant Peach.
  • The entire story takes place in another reality quite unlike our own, where magic or other forces apply, but that reality is as firmly grounded and consistent for the characters as this reality is to us. Examples include high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings.
And perhaps more as well.

I suspect Barker’s vision was narrowed by his experience writing horror, seeking to create “fantastic fiction” at its most frightening rather than exploring other emotional goals. But this was back in 1990, and since then he's stretched in many other approaches to fantastic fiction.

19 August 2009

Zapping the Ivories

Probably my only contribution to science will be as the first person to deliberately microwave a bar of Ivory soap.

This was back in the early 1990s when I was writing a book called Soap Science: A Science Book Bubbling with 36 Experiments. I wanted to find some new activities using soap, a very old material, rather than simply crib or adapt what previous science-experiment books had done.

I figured that the microwave oven was relatively new as a common household device, and therefore unexplored territory. First I tried zapping other soap brands, and learned that microwaving them made them...a little warmer.

Then I tried Ivory Soap, and got to see... Well, look at the Ivory Soap experiment at Steve Spangler Science, with photographs and a video. And I believe I was the first person ever to see that phenomenon.

18 August 2009

The Curiosities of Prof. Bell (no relation)

For the next year and more, the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester will host an exhibit titled "Beyond Belief: The Curious Collection of Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell."

The museum's website explains:

Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell is the Higgins Armory Museum’s Curator of Curiosities. . . . The Professor traveled the globe studying dragon-lore and mythology, encountering dragons and dragon-hunters along the way. His studies always focused on the creatures of mythology – harpies, griffins, and of course dragons – insisting that their existence is certain if one simply follows the evidence.

One day the Professor went on a walkabout. Perhaps it was something he learned in one of the several dragon-penned books he had found in a monastery in Spain, or on the Sumerian cuneiform tablet he unearthed at the foot of Mount Kuitarra in Asia. The people at the museum are unsure, since both sources have yet to be successfully translated. The Professor has not been back to the museum for more than a brief moment in anyone's living memory, but the boxes and crates keep coming.
Among the items in those boxes, the exhibit says, have been "a Yeti, a Gargoyle skeleton, and the Argonaut probe," shown above.

Here's a Boston Globe article about the exhibit and two videos of the man behind it, artist Hilary Scott: one serious and one tongue-in-cheek.

17 August 2009

Why David Small Lost His Nuance (Vocally)

From an interview with Graphic Novel Reporter, illustrator David Small gets metaphorical about a very big moment in his life:

Because I have only one vocal cord, my voice is sometimes pretty shot. That can be frustrating when it happens in public speaking situations.

For example, on the night of the 2001 Caldecott Award Ceremony in San Francisco--in a vast, packed auditorium--as I mounted the podium to give my 20-minute speech, I lost my voice. All I could do--painfully--was to croak out the words as I had written them down. Modulation, inflection, nuance...all of those flew out the door.

The American Library Association, in bestowing on me their highest honor, turned me from a frog into a prince. That night, before their very eyes, I turned straight back into a frog!
As for why Small has only one vocal cord, he tells that story in his new graphic memoir, Stitches.

16 August 2009

Robin Takes Charge of the Case

Yet another sign that DC Comics was pleased with Robin, the Boy Wonder, right from his debut in early 1940 is how prominently it featured the character. Decades later Robin would be relegated to a corner of Detective or Batman magazine covers, expressing surprise and worry at what Batman faced. But in his first year, Robin was often front and center.

On the twelve Detective Comics covers that followed his first appearance, Robin needed Batman to rescue him five times (thrice while tied up in his role as "boy hostage"). But in the majority of those covers he was:

And inside the magazines, writer Bill Finger began coming up with stories that made Robin the lead detective, bringing Batman back on only for the final fight scenes. The first of these tales appeared in Batman, #1, with a cover date of spring 1940.That story was also the first appearance of the Cat, the sultry jewel thief later known as the Catwoman. Robin thwarts her scheme with Batman's help. But on the last page Batman deliberately makes his partner slip and fall in order to let the Cat get away.

Detective, #41, follows Dick to an exclusive boarding school, its splash panel announcing:
To ROBIN, THE BOY WONDER falls the task of bringing about the fall of a master criminal...a master murderer!
And the third issue of Batman, dated fall 1940, included a story about Dick going undercover as only he could in "The Crime School for Boys."

Robin's first completely solo adventures wouldn't start until Star Spangled Comics in the late 1940s, but already the Batman team was giving him lots of time in the spotlight.

15 August 2009

The Fantasies of Asperger Fiction

Among Oz readers and in other fantasy fandoms, I've met readers who acknowledge having some of the traits of Asperger syndrome, or even formal diagnoses of it. Indeed, I suspect that some fantasy literature might even hold special appeal to people with those conditions.

To begin with, fantasy literature involves figuring out how an unusual world or hidden aspect of this world works, often as an outsider. Many series end in societies that welcome people of diverse types, as in the Emerald City under Princess Ozma. Both qualities might appeal to smart readers who've found that they think differently from most of the people around them.

Another possible attraction of fantasy series is their sprawling level of detail: books, characters, locales, fictional histories, and adaptations into other media--all for a highly detail-oriented person to enjoy mastering. If those universes weren't so sprawling, they might be less appealing.

As much as fantasy novels can appeal to people with Asperger syndrome, I haven't been pleased with how the ones I've read actually portray the condition. We don't fully understand Asperger's, and fantasy lets authors explore such mysteries by connecting them to otherworldly forces and dimensions. Unfortunately, that approach risks obscuring the fact that autism/Asperger's is a way of being human in this world.

Diane Duane's A Wizard Alone brings on a new "young wizard" named Darryl McAllister, who's been diagnosed as autistic. Kit, one of the protagonists from So You Want to Be a Wizard, sets out to help him.

However, Darryl's autism is atypical: he suddenly developed the condition at age eight. And the resolution of his story is (***SPOILER***) even more atypical. Magical events allow Darryl simply to "ditch" his autism and recover fully, to the surprise of his parents and teachers. Plus, he gets to stay magical.

Thor Wignutt in Summerland has no formal diagnosis, but I immediately thought of "Aspie" kids when I read Michael Chabon's description of the character. Thor first appears speaking and acting like an android, a sign of how out of place he feels. He's one of the three children who travel to a fantasy dimension, but we never get into his head the way we do with the other two.

Eventually it turns out (***SPOILER***) that Thor is a changeling, which both explains his condition and leads to him making his home in that other place. (It's actually occurred to a number of people that autism might be the root of myths about changelings.)

One last possible example: some parents of children with Asperger's have interpreted Charles Wallace Murray in A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, and perhaps even Meg Murray herself, as fitting along the autism spectrum. Again, Madeleine L'Engle portrayed Charles Wallace's unusual behavior as connected to larger forces in the universe.

The first two of these fantasy novels treat the autistic characters' conditions--whether explicitly stated as on the spectrum or not--as problems to be solved rather than as conditions of life for some people. All hint that the root of the characters' difficulties, and any remedies, come from out of this world. Does modern fantasy literature treat other chronic conditions the same way?

14 August 2009

The Mysteries of Asperger Fiction

Among the recent children's novels about autism and Asperger syndrome, some of the most notable are narrated by characters with a condition along that spectrum. The two best-known examples are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd. Both are, not coincidentally, mysteries.

Becker discussed the conjunction of Asperger fiction and the mystery genre last spring at Guys Lit Wire:

Some manifestations of autism/Asperger’s are portrayed as helping the characters in solving the mysteries--dependence on routine, obsession with numbers and puzzles, and having spent much of their lives trying to figure people out.

Another typical trait of autism/Asperger’s is the lack of understanding of others’ emotions--this shows up in the characters having trouble reading people’s faces and moods, being overwhelmed by sensory input, and sometimes seeming insensitive to others’ thoughts or feelings--not because they’re mean, but because they don’t have a shared understanding of emotion. The first person narration in all of these stories gives you a real sense of being in the character’s head and seeing the world through his eyes.
Readers of mysteries are trying to figure out what happened and what people's real intentions and emotions were. That reading experience thus parallels the major challenges of living with Asperger syndrome, making the genre a fine channel for exploring such a life.

In addition, the protagonists' focus on perceptible details rather than on characters' underlying emotions or intentions also makes an easy match with the modern fiction writer's fundamental rule: "show, don't tell."

And of course, the Asperger's mystery has a long and honored tradition: Sherlock Holmes is literature's most famous and beloved high-functioning "Aspie."

13 August 2009

The Spectrum of Autism Fiction

On the School Library Journal website, novelist Suzanne Crowley wrote about recent children's books on autism and the related spectrum of conditions. Is it fair to consider that the “current cool disability”?

Certainly there's been a spate of novels for young people touching on autism and Asperger syndrome in various ways: through the protagonist, or through a relative or friend. In addition to her own The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous, Crowley mentioned:

And she could have added: As usual, small specialty presses were early to put out such titles:
  • Alexandra Eden's "The Bones and the Duchess" mysteries from Knoll Publishers, including To Oz and Back.
  • Kathy Hoopmann's "Asperger Adventures" series, starting with Blue Bottle Mystery, from the neurology publisher Jessica Kingsley. These books appear to cross fantasy genres: one tale of magical wish fulfillment, one of science fiction, and one of time travel.
All those novels were published in the last decade, when understanding and diagnoses of the autistic disorders became much more common. However, I suspect we can push back the advent of autism/Aspergers children's fiction, though the portrayals might not be so acute as they are now.

People with autism conditions used to be considered mentally retarded. I met some among the special-education classmates of my older brother, Al, who had Down syndrome. Only lately have the cognitive and behavioral aspects of the pervasive developmental disorders been considered separately.

Thus Rules, about a twelve-year-old girl with an autistic younger brother, has an antecedent in Betsy Byars's Summer of the Swans, which won the Newbery Medal in 1971. In that book, fourteen-year-old Sara has a younger brother Charlie, who is considered retarded. Today some people are instead interpreting the book as a depiction of a child with borderline autism.

COMING UP: Autism/Asperger’s in mysteries and fantasies.

12 August 2009

Munchkinland Garden on the Way to Cape Cod

The Boston Globe recently profiled Erwin Ehrenreich, who co-owns the Rose Man Nursery & Emporium in Carver and Barnstable, Massachusetts. One feature of that enterprise is a garden designed on an Oz theme, based on the 1939 MGM movie:

he’s envisioning crowds of visitors walking through his strange mingling of Munchkinland and mulch, where the lollipop swirl of bricks is punctuated by flower stakes topped with statues of the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow, where there are rose bushes named the Judy Garland floribunda, the Yellow Brick Road shrub, and the Over the Rainbow miniature, and, where, of course, there’s Toto, too, in the form of a small statue in the center with a little white marker that reads, “Toto - Cairn Terrier.”
I also found an article in the local Carver Reporter:
Erwin and Cindy have transformed this space into a trip through Oz. Visitors can follow a winding yellow brick road through dozens of rose bushes in shades of yellow that seem too brilliant to be real. Others are soft pastel yellow; all are stunning. To carry the Oz theme, the Ehrenreichs have placed a scarecrow, a witch and even “Toto” in this garden.
Ehrenreich came by the vocation (or should that be "field"?) of gardening in a particularly Baumian way: he lost some fingers in a saw accident. About a dozen Baum characters in all sorts of books have lost a limb or more. 

L. Frank Baum himself won some awards for growing roses while he lived in Hollywood in the last decade of his life, and would probably have been tickled pink to visit the Ehrenreichs' garden.

11 August 2009

How the Latest Sword-Wielding Mice Came to Be

Our latest generation of readers has had a range of sword-wielding mice to choose from. First came Brian Jacques's Redwall series, starting in 1986. Then Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux, both the 2003 Newbery Medal winner and the major motion picture. And in comics there's David Petersen's Mouse Guard.

In the preface to the series' first collection, Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, Petersen described how he came up with the world:

On a scrap of paper I had quickly scratched "Mice have a culture all their own. Too small to integrate with other animals." This scribble led to more thought about how mice would survive as characters in such a hostile world populated with predators. "Hide the cities. Make them self sufficient and spread apart from one another." From a storytelling perspective the mice were prisoners in their own homes.

Sketches followed of three mice, Saxon, Kenzie, and Rand, destined to play the roles of pathfinders for their kind. As Mouse Guard rattled around in my head, the world became populated with more characters, towns and villages, and a history of its own, until 2005 when it began spilling onto paper.
During a panel discussion at the recent Chicago Comic-Con, as reported by Comic Book Resources, Petersen offered more detail on how he found this story:
I started developing mouse society and planning on then moving onto all the other animals and treating the different species as different "races." As soon as I got to the point of protecting the mice and having a Mouse Guard and having them live in this little world, I thought, "This is the heart of the story. This is the story of the underdog." That's where it came from.
I find it interesting that Petersen's idea of a sword-and-sorcery culture for mice preceded his ideas for characters and plots. And the route from the first aspect to the full story was a theme of the little underdogs.

Some author-illustrators might have started with sketches; indeed, the most appealing and impressive aspect of Petersen's comic is the gorgeous, large-panel, color art. Some writers would have started with the characters, or with particular moments, such as the little caped mice in battle with snakes and crabs.

Instead, the roots of this saga seem to lie in its maps (soon to be outmoded) and pictures of little mice at work. Those remind me of similar pictures in David Macaulay's Cathedral, Eric Sloane's books on agricultural tools, and Edward Tunis's volumes on colonial America.

10 August 2009

Revisiting Fairy-Tale Beauties

I've been reading Mordena Babich's story "Beautiful Beast" at the Hunger Mountain literary magazine website, set up by the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

In this rewrite of "Beauty and the Beast," the Beauty and the Beast are one--this version switches the genders in the traditional tale. Thus, the protagonist is a young man forced to live in the castle of a female monster who asks him to marry her each night. Mordena, another of my writing-group colleagues, is well read in fairy tales both old and new, and her reversal produces new themes from an old tale.

Another quality of "Beautiful Beast" that struck me was the description of rich physical detail:

Roland followed his battered luggage as it floated up the stairs, through gorgeous, gilded hallways and into a vast bedroom with thick crimson carpet on the floor and velvet drapes. The bedposts were polished gold, as were the frames that surrounded some of the most magnificent artwork Roland had ever seen—land- and seascapes painted by a master. Roland sat down on the edge of the gold-embroidered bedspread and looked around.
Of course we'd expect to find such sumptuous furnishings in an enchanted castle. I was a tad surprised to see them here just because Mordena's early drafts are very spare when it comes to such visual detail and descriptions; she adds them later. Yet another useful reminder that everyone has his or her own writing process, and there are many routes from an idea to a published story.

"Beautiful Beast" makes an interesting match with Tahlia Merrill's "The Prince with Good Manners," a rewrite of "Sleeping Beauty" invited by the Diamonds and Toads blog. Both stories follow young men into enchanted castles where they meet enchanted young women. Both depend on our knowledge of the traditional tales while upending the old outcome, for more contemporary comfort.

(Photo of possibly enchanted garden courtesy of TeecNosPos via Flickr.)

09 August 2009

The Other Boy Wonders of 1940

As I described yesterday, in late 1939 American comic-book publishers apparently realized that preteen boys were their biggest audience, and scrambled for ways to appeal to those readers even more. Captain Marvel--a kid who turned into a super-powered adult--was one response. Robin--a kid who fought criminals in costume without any fantastic powers--was another.

Then in issue #41 of Detective Comics (cover date July 1940), the last panel of the Batman stories started describing Robin as "the ORIGINAL Boy Wonder." Which made me wonder: What other kid heroes was the magazine trying to dismiss as wonders-come-lately?

I turned to Don Markstein's Toonopedia. It doesn't offer a one-stop answer to the question of "Who was the second boy wonder in superhero comics?", but it is indeed a "Vast Repository of Toonological Knowledge" (and some historical poppycock).

The first issue of Blue Bolt, dated June 1940, featured the adventures of Dick Cole, the Wonder Boy. Like Dick Grayson, he had no special powers but excellent conditioning. This Dick didn't boast the costume and secret identity of a superhero, however; he was more a descendant of dime-novel heroes like Frank Merriwell. The publisher also didn't feature him so prominently; Dick Cole didn't appear on the magazine cover until issue #10 (shown at top).

The next month, Quality's National Comics offered a six-page back-up story of Wonder Boy, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal teenagers. Wonder Boy wasn't featured on a comic-book cover at all until 1944, when another company reprinted his stories in Bomber Comics.

Top-Notch Comics, #8, dated September 1940, offered "The Marvel of 1940--Roy...the Super-Boy!" He was a new sidekick for the Wizard, and like Robin wore a tiny cape and shorts.

[ADDENDA: I missed Marvel Boy! Of course, he appeared only in the September 1940 issue of Daring Mystery Comics, and in a second story published in 1943. But he was a creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. And he was yet another teenager gaining superpowers in that watershed year.

And yet another September arrival: “The Amazing Boy Richy the Rang-a-Tang Kid! Brand New!!” in Blue Ribbon Comics, #6. The cover shows Richy helping “Rang-a-Tang the Wonder Dog” to rescue Charlie Chaplin. In this case, the boy sidekick actually replaced the star canine’s adult sidekick.]

[FURTHER ADDENDA: Weird Comics, #3, with a cover date of August 1940, gave us the Dart and his teen sidekick Ace Barlow. Young Ace was called “the Amazing Boy,” but as he threw himself into fights (usually throwing himself head-first into a crook’s abdomen) he tended to announce himself as “Ace Barlow.” Nevertheless, the identity of the Dart and his amazing pal was still a mysterious secret.]

In fall 1940 the Marvel company launched The Human Torch magazine with issue #2 [don't ask], giving one of its top heroes a title of his own. And a sidekick as well--that magazine's first story was "Introducing Toro, the Flaming Torch Kid."

Though the cover showed Toro alongside his mentor, there was no blurb to identify him as a teenager, and it's really hard to tell one person engulfed in flames from another. Nonetheless, of all these young characters, Toro has had the longest career in comics; he even shows up in this summer's Young Allies special.

Finally, Pep, #11, dated January 1941 but on newsstands before the end of the previous year, brought on Dusty the Boy Detective as a sidekick for the Shield. Months later, Dusty even started teaming up with Roy the Super-Boy.

By 1941, boy sidekicks were no longer a novelty. Indeed, they were almost required. Captain America charged onto the scene with Bucky at his side in his very first issue. To do something new, writers had to upend that relationship, as Jerry Siegel did with the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy--kid hero, adult sidekick.

Cover images from the Grand Comics Database.

08 August 2009

“Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be...”

In 1939, Roscoe K. Fawcett, a second-generation executive of the Fawcett Publishing Company, looked at the success of adventure comic books and decided it was time to get into the superhero business.

In a 1997 interview by P. C. Hamerlinck, reprinted in The Fawcett Companion, Fawcett recalled:

The surveys showed the greatest comic book readership was among 10 to 12 year old boys. I said, “Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- to 12-year-old boy rather than a grown man.”
Historians are rightfully dubious about such recollections being complete and accurate since we all try to make sense of the past in our memories, sometimes in ways that serve our desires. Were there indeed market surveys at the time? Was Fawcett accurate in describing exactly how this new hero would appeal to boys?

One element of this quotation leads me to trust the general outlines of Fawcett's story: he acknowledged that he was trying to replicate the success of Superman, like everyone else in comics--though for legal reasons most couldn't acknowledge that fact.

Before the end of 1939, the Fawcett company created some "ashcan" issues of a new comic book, printed without color and hand-bound, to secure its copyrights and to show to potential advertisers. This proto-magazine was titled Flash Comics or Thrill Comics, depending on the copy. The lead hero was named Captain Thunder.

Captain Thunder wore a cape and tight coveralls, not unlike Superman. What set him apart was his alternate identity. Rather than being a mild-mannered reporter, idle playboy, or police detective, in his non-heroic life the superhero was a boy about twelve years old. His tale thus directly addressed the daydreams of the bulk of comic-book readers.

By the time Fawcett published the second issue of its magazine, competing trademarks had forced the company to change several names. The comic book was now called Whiz, though nonetheless labeled issue #2. And Captain Thunder had become Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel was a quick and lasting success, outselling all other superheroes in the mid-1940s and inspiring several spin-offs. The magazines was still doing relatively well over a decade later, when Fawcett decided to walk away from the declining comic-book business to settle a long lawsuit from DC over--what else?--having plagiarized Superman.

Back in late 1939, the executives at DC Comics probably saw the same market data that pushed Roscoe Fawcett into asking for a comic-book hero who was also a kid. Some folks at DC might even have gotten a peek at the "ashcan" story of Captain Thunder. In any event, that was the market environment in which Robin made his debut in the April 1940 issue of Detective Comics.

07 August 2009

A Seriously Good Funny Panel on Writing for Kids

Before my recent travels, I loaded an SD chip with some podcast files that I had lying around the hard drive. One of them was the recording of a panel of children's-book writers at the last "Winter Words" writers' conference in Fairfield, Connecticut. And I was very glad I finally took time to hear that.

I'm not saying that just because my name gets dropped at one point. (Though, depending on my mood, that might be enough to make me recommend that everyone listen to this.) Rather, this is the sort of panel that any writing conference director would love to have: lively, insightful, thought-provoking. 

The first rule for producing a funny discussion, it seems, is to invite a couple of authors with backgrounds in improvisational comedy. But for insight, you have to luck into a diverse set of smart people who love the work they do.

The panelists were:

One aspect of the conversation I especially appreciated was how the panelists described very different writing methods. Too often people come away from an author's presentation thinking they have to follow that person's approach. But these authors came at the challenge of writing a book for kids from every angle. Karen described how she focuses intently on her main characters' psychology while Meehl (I think) declared that that was the aspect of storytelling he tried hardest to avoid.

Our crit group had heard about this panel, but no one had the right link, so I'm grateful to have found it through Marc Nobleman's retrospective on the discussion.

06 August 2009

Miss Conduct on Mr. Weasley

One of my Sunday pleasures is Robin Abrahams's "Miss Conduct" advice column in the Boston Globe Magazine. She also has a book, and a blog.

Miss Conduct doesn't usually have occasion to discuss children's literature, it being a realm of impeccable manners and politesse. But the New York Times article on drinking (not necessarily of alcohol, but how can we be sure?) in the latest Harry Potter movie prompted her to offer this analysis:

for all the tempest in a butterbeer stein about booze, why hasn’t anyone pointed out that the entire first half of the movie is about drugs? It’s sort of unavoidable when your new main character is a Potions Master. Harry psychs Ron up for the big Quidditch match by making him believe that he’s been dosed with magic steroids, and then takes the drug--oh, sorry, “potion”--himself later in the movie. Love potions are all over the place.
And what's more:
If I were taking a kid of my own to the movie, a little Miss Conduct Jr., I’d be doing a debriefing afterward, for sure. Not about the chemical substances, but about why it’s really not a good idea to fall in love with a lazy, cowardly, self-centered fellow who can’t succeed in anything without your help and then resents you for helping him. 
If it were a little Mr. Improbable Jr. [i.e., Abrahams's putative son], he’d be getting the lecture on why men with quiet courage, little ego, and no fear of looking nerdy--you know, like...Neville Longbottom--are the real men to be looked up to and emulated.
Yes, Hermione's problem is that she's fallen in love with a teenage boy. And there ain't nothing she can do about it.

In fact, I think J. K. Rowling's portrayal of the maddening behavior of teenage boys during their first school dance (book 4) is some of her very best work in the entire series.

05 August 2009

A Tinge of “Emerald City Blues”

This fight with flying monkeys come from "Emerald City Blues," a comic inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 1939 movie adaptation (and, I would guess, elements of Wicked). 

The creator is Karl Altstaetter, and he began the project as a 24-Hour-Comics Challenge. It's grown to two chapters, the second still in progress. I put the art in what Douglas Wolk calls the "default style of the superhero mainstream," post-1990s.

Altstaetter's use of spot colors is striking, and appropriate since colors have always been part of the presentation of Oz.

(I do wish he'd use commas to set off nouns of direct address.)