31 January 2010

Freefall into the Future

I think fans of the Batman comics might like to go back and review the collection Nightwing: Freefall, scripted by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Rags Morales, Don Kramer, and Michael Bair.

Not just because it’s a good set of issues, offering acrobatic crimefighting and plenty of fun bat-family interaction (particularly brotherly bantering between Dick Grayson and Tim Drake).

As the months have rolled on, it’s become increasingly clear that Tomasi’s Nightwing arc set up developments in the larger DC universe, and may therefore contain information relevant to the future as well.

Tomasi was one of DC Comics’s top editors, working in the “Batman group,” when he chose to return to scripting with Nightwing. He knew what the company had in mind for its main characters/trademarks. Specifically, he’d been the first person at DC to hear writer Grant Morrison’s plan to have Bruce Wayne seemingly killed. Back in 2008, Morrison gave an interview to Newsarama about the upcoming “Batman RIP” storyline in which he said:

this is the first story I had planned when Peter Tomasi, the editor at the time, asked me to do Batman, which must have been two years ago now… longer. And the very first story title I noted down was “Batman RIP”.
The following year, Morrison was free to say more to Comic Book Resources about what followed:
We always knew that after “Batman R.I.P.,” we were going to do this run of stories where we didn’t have Bruce under the cowl. And again, that’s the fun of it. It’s like writing a whole brand new book. It’s like getting a new assignment because Batman and Robin are two completely different characters.

And I don’t want to give away who they are just yet with [writer-artist] Tony [Daniel] still doing “Battle for the Cowl.” But what we’ve got is a more light-hearted, more spontaneous Batman and a real bad-ass, violent Robin.
Morrison couldn’t completely confirm what everyone already assumed, that Dick Grayson would take over as Batman. But that had been the plan all along, and Tomasi had been in on it. How did that affect his Nightwing stories?

There are four plotlines in Nightwing: Freefall:
  • Dick takes up skydiving as a new hobby. That activity isn’t really intertwined with the other plots, however, and it doesn’t add much to the character since Dick’s been doing incredibly acrobatic things since 1940. The hobby does provide the title for this collection and the next, The Great Leap.
  • Dick becomes head of the Cloisters museum and starts dating a pretty librarian. I like the way this story revives Dick’s appreciation of history, also established in the 1940s, but it appears to have been an exercise in treading water. All those relationships are undone in The Great Leap as Dick returns to Gotham to become Batman.
  • Nightwing works with other heroes on a case involving grave-robbers stealing the bodies of supervillains to revive and clone them. This ends with the Justice League reburying those bodies under their headquarters.
  • Nightwing breaks up a related operation producing superhumans through a woman who gives birth over and over, accelerated growth, cloning, and other stuff. The man in charge of that operation is a new villain, but he’s working closely with Talia al-Ghul, a recurring character in the Batman books.
In addition, along the way we see Dick interacting with Superman, a Green Lantern, his old Titans buddies, and the Justice Society, reflecting how Tomasi shares the notion that Nightwing is “truly the lynchpin [sic] of the DCU.”

The third of the plotlines above turned out to have unexpected significance last fall when DC Comics launched a crossover event called “Blackest Night.” In that sprawling but well-received story, the world’s dead superheroes and villains come back to life and cause all sorts of trouble. Moving the villains’ bodies into the Hall of Justice proved very meaningful in Blackest Night, #3. In sum, Tomasi used his Nightwing issues to quietly set up a future plot.

Now let’s apply that lesson to Talia al-Ghul. What was she doing in Morrison’s Batman series shortly before Tomasi began writing Nightwing? She showed up at Wayne Manor with a bratty kid, the size of a ten-year-old, who she said was her child by Bruce Wayne. (These issues appear in the Batman and Son volume.) We now know that was part of Morrison’s move toward trying a new Dynamic Duo with “a real bad-ass, violent Robin.”

Since then we’ve had hints that the child, Damian Wayne, was raised at least partially in an incubator of sorts, his growth accelerated. (That helps fit him into the timeline of Bruce Wayne’s life.) The latest issue of Batman and Robin shows Damian undergoing some sort of super spinal therapy available only in comics.

There was no precursor for those details in Morrison’s issues, but Tomasi’s Nightwing run filled the holes. Freefall showed us Talia’s access to superbabies, accelerated growth technology, gene grafting, and so on. It not only justifies Damian’s existence, but it opens doors for future revelations. Damian may share Bruce Wayne’s DNA not because of sex under the desert moon ten years ago, but because of cloning. (Or he might not have Wayne DNA at all.)

As Grant Morrison moves ahead with Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne, we can be sure that:
  • He’s planned more twists than he’s revealed in interviews.
  • Others at DC, probably including Peter Tomasi, are aware of those plans.
  • They’re planting clues all along, while hiding big surprises.
After all, that’s how modern superhero publishing works.

30 January 2010

James Patterson and the Argument for Advertising

After my remarks about the weakness of book publishers’ advertising last week, I feel obliged to acknowledge this passage from Jonathan Mahler’s profile of thriller writer James Patterson that appeared in the very next day’s New York Times Magazine:

When Little, Brown was preparing to release “Along Came a Spider,” Patterson tried to persuade his publisher that the best way to get the book onto best-seller lists was to advertise aggressively on television. Little, Brown initially balked. Bookstores typically base their stocking decisions on the sales of an author’s previous books, and Patterson’s had not done particularly well.

This was going to be the first of several novels about an African-American homicide detective in Washington, D.C., named Alex Cross; the prevailing wisdom was that the audience for a series built around a recurring character needed to be nurtured gradually. What’s more, large-scale TV advertising was rare in publishing, not only because of the prohibitive cost but also for cultural reasons. The thinking was that selling a book as if it were a lawn-care product could very well backfire by turning off potential readers.

Patterson wrote, produced and paid for a commercial himself. It opened with a spider dropping down the screen and closed with a voice-over: “You can stop waiting for the next ‘Silence of the Lambs.’” Once Little, Brown saw the ad, it agreed to share the cost of rolling it out over the course of several weeks in three particularly strong thriller markets — New York, Chicago and Washington.

“Along Came a Spider” made its debut at No. 9 on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, ensuring it favorable placement near the entrance of bookstores, probably the single biggest driver of book sales. It rose to No. 2 in paperback and remains Patterson’s most successful book, with more than five million copies in print.
So here’s an example of advertising bringing a mass audience to a book with a black protagonist. But what else does this story tell us?

First, the publisher didn’t come up with this advertisement. Patterson did, and he “ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American branch before becoming a full-time writer in 1996.” So the campaign started with the free services of one of the country’s leading ad executives. Most publishers don’t have that luxury.

Second, this campaign (like the book itself) was piggybacking on an established hit: Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, published in 1989 and adapted into a blockbuster movie in 1991. Harris hadn’t written anything since, so Patterson offered his book instead. Notably, he didn’t invoke his own record as winner of an Edgar Award for best debut mystery; he sought the fans of a more popular author.

Third, this ad wasn’t selling a book with a black hero; it was selling a thriller. The ad showed a spider instead of Alex Cross, and the dust jacket was (like most thrillers of the time) mostly type. The fact that Cross is African-American becomes as clear as a claxon in chapter 1:
“Sometimes I think the same thing,” I said, “but we’ll probably tough it out.”

“Yes, black people always do. We persevere. We always suffer in silence.”

“Not always in silence,” I said to her.
And by that point most readers have already chosen the book.

Finally, this TV ad campaign in only three cities—minuscule by the standards of other entertainment fields—was seen in publishing as a huge investment of dollars. Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus all alluded in their advance reviews to how Along Came a Spider was getting a big marketing push. (Only Library Journal actually recommended the book.)

Along Came a Spider represented Patterson’s turn from being an author of respected but not very lucrative mysteries to being a thriller-writing machine with constant bestsellers and as many collaborators as Alexandre Dumas père. I doubt anyone thinks of the Alex Cross series as an incisive look at African-American life; it’s a form of escapism. So advertising may be effective at selling thrillers that happen to have a black hero, and that’s not a bad thing, but such marketing might be less effective at promoting either serious literature or interracial inquiry.

29 January 2010

How the Mysterious Benedict Society Blew Their Cover?

Little, Brown is scrambling to print jackets for the Mysterious Benedict Society books so that they show a character with “light brown skin” as having, well, light brown skin. I thought it worth considering how this discrepancy probably came about, and how people have reacted to it.

In The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, Trenton Lee Stewart describes the character of George “Sticky” Washington as “a skinny boy with light brown skin…and a completely bald head.” The series’ other three young protagonists, and most of the adults around them, are white.

Bookshelves of Doom noted how all three books are illustrated throughout by the same artists who drew their covers: Carson Ellis for the first and Diana Sudyka for the second and third. The interior illustrations show Sticky with skin unmistakably darker than his friends’, as in this sample.

But those are black and white drawings, meaning that:

  • “Light brown” comes out as gray, just like apple red, grassy green, and Nike magenta.
  • The editor, who knows the book better than anyone else at the publisher, is seeing every stage of production.
In contrast, the jacket illustrations are in color. The style Ellis and Sudyka use probably means they drew the lines in black ink and then added other colors, such as skin tones, with watercolors. And editors don’t oversee the printing of jackets.

A number of bloggers have posted close-ups of Sticky from the printed Mysterious Benedict covers, showing how pale his skin has come out. However, I haven’t seen any that show the other kids for comparison, as in this detail of the second book from Amazon.
The blonde girl at lower right is pale as paper with spots of pink on her cheeks. The white boy at the left has a little more color. Sticky’s face and arms are slightly tanner than the other kids’. Not enough to be “light brown,” but different enough to indicate that Sudyka originally colored him darker than the others.

Sticky lacks the other markers that cartoonists use to distinguish people with some African ancestry from people with mostly European ancestry. He has no hair! The Mysterious Benedict art style doesn’t really include lips or variable noses. And of course Sticky’s skin is “light brown,” so the watercolor wash shouldn’t have been very dark.

I suspect that whoever oversaw the jacket printing didn’t recognize the figure of Sticky as a brown-skinned boy. Furthermore, that character is in the background of two of the three covers, and thus not an obvious prominent detail to worry about. So in color adjustments at the printer, his skin stopped being brown at all.

As long as we’re pondering representations of race, it’s worth considering that the white boy, Reynie Muldoon, is the most prominent child on all three book covers, as well as the character that all three books start with. This is a series about a group of kids, but are the white girls and the black boy secondary to the white boy?

How does the character of Sticky Washington fit with and work against our culture’s dominant stereotypes of young African-American males? He shares a name with a US President, a trait already familiar when Roosevelt Franklin was in elementary school. But in other ways, the character seems designed to negate negative stereotypes: Sticky’s a bespectacled bookworm, usually nervous instead of cool, totally unthreatening. And, apparently, easily overlooked.

Finally, it’s interesting how long it took for a critical mass of people to notice Sticky’s discoloration. Fuse #8 pointed out the discrepancy between text and cover of The Mysterious Benedict Society back in December 2007, the year that first book was published and widely reviewed. But few folks responded until Bookshelves of Doom raised the issue again this month. By then, the blogosphere had been primed by the more visible examples of Liar and Magic Under Glass.

28 January 2010

A Heavy Contract for Baum and Denslow

David Loiterstein of Readex kindly called my attention to this item from the Helena Independent, dated 25 June 1900. It appears to be based on a press release from the Geo. M. Hill Company, a small Chicago publisher:

A Heavy Contract

Chicago, June 24.—What is said to be the most important contract of the kind ever made west of the Mississippi river was executed here last night. By its terms a local publishing company secures for five years the exclusive publication of the joint productions of L. Frank Baum and W. W. Denslow, respectively author and illustrator of “Father Goose, His Book” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Messrs. Baum and Denslow are to produce at least one book a year and it is said that they are guaranteed royalties of $10,000 each annually.
The same item ran in other Midwest papers around the same time, reflecting regional pride.

I thumbed through Michael Patrick Hearn’s Annotated Wizard of Oz and Katharine M. Rogers’s L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, and didn’t see a mention of this contract. This sort of newspaper report was easily overlooked before Readex’s searchable database. And it sheds some doubt on a story both those books retell, based on many accounts from the Baum family going back to 1908.

According to that tale, Baum, after prodding from his wife Maud, went to Geo. M. Hill toward the end of 1900 and asked for an early payment of royalties in order to buy Christmas presents. He brought home the check without looking at it, and the couple was amazed to find that it was for thousands of dollars. Over $13,000, according to some versions, more like $3,000 if it was the same amount Denslow received about that time.

But this newspaper item indicates that Baum, Denslow, and Hill were already talking about $10,000 in annual royalties before the middle of that year. Even if that’s just a projection with some puffery for publicity’s sake, that suggests the Baums’ surprise was misplaced.

The item is also remarkable since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had been printed only about a month before, as The Annotated Wizard of Oz describes. The Bookseller magazine reported in June that Hill had ordered a second printing of 5,000 copies as the company prepared for the Chicago Book Fair in July. (Again, publishers’ announced print runs are often inflated for publicity.)

Thus, Hill made the multi-book offer to Baum and Denslow when they had produced one huge hit (Father Goose) and appeared to be on the verge of enjoying another—indeed a smart time for a publisher to sew up a successful author team.

Baum and Denslow produced only one more major project together, Dot and Tot in Merryland, published by Hill in 1901. They soon had a falling-out, and the company went bankrupt in 1902. So this “heavy contract” didn’t last. And evidently it didn’t survive in the Baum family lore.

27 January 2010

There’s a Bear in the Woods?

I’m starting to lose my sense of outrage at parents trying to prevent other people’s children from reading certain books in school. The “challenges” are becoming so ridiculous that my dominant response is…entertained.

In a new school district in Riverside County, California (land of my birth), officials have decided that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary will remain in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms even though it offers a defintion of “oral sex.” But, the Los Angeles Times reports, students will have to take permission slips home, and parents who don’t want their children to look in that book can insist they use “alternative dictionaries.” Oh, that’ll work.

In Union, Oklahoma, a parent objected to a book spun off from the Arthur and Postcards from Buster TV shows in 2005, which depicts children making maple sugar with their moms in Vermont. Two of those moms are a couple. One of Education Secretary Margaret Stallings’s first acts in office was to take back a federal grant because of this episode, showing how hollow her boss’s claim to “compassionate conservatism” was. The Tulsa World brings news that the school board voted to keep that book in the library since:
  • The whole point of Postcards from Buster was to show how different people live.
  • The board was pretty sure some children going to Union schools might have two parents of the same sex as well.
From the McClatchey syndicate comes the story that the Texas State Board of Education removed the author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? from a curriculum as an example of an author who might be studied for his cultural contributions. The board had mixed him up with the author of Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation because they had the same name. What name is that? Bill Martin. Because, of course, there couldn’t be two Bill Martins writing wildly different books at the same time.

I can hardly wait to see how would-be censors top those.

26 January 2010

The Message from Massachusetts

This comes from the analysis of last week’s special Senate election in Massachusetts by Daniel Larison at the American Conservative (as pointed to by Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish):

It is clear that two-thirds of Brown’s voters wished to express their opposition to the Democrats’ agenda, which is to say that pretty much everyone who did not vote for Obama in 2008 does not support Obama’s agenda and wanted to express their opposition to it. I think we knew that before Tuesday.

Over a third of Brown’s voters (37%) were dissatisfied or even angry with Congressional Republican policies, which is what you might expect when almost that many of Brown’s voters approve of Obama’s performance and the Congressional GOP is dedicated to thwarting Obama in everything he does.

Looking at what Brown’s voters want him to do with respect to health care, we see that they are divided right down the middle: 50% (47% strongly) do want Brown to work to halt Democratic health care efforts, and 48% (40% strongly) want him to work with Democrats to make changes to their proposals. Half of Brown’s voters want him to sink Obama’s agenda, full stop, and approximately half of them want him to collaborate with Democrats. That is what we might call a mixed message.

Looking at Brown voters’ opposition to the health care bill itself, we see that two-thirds of them strongly oppose the bill, which is consistent with what we saw earlier, 14% “somewhat oppose” it and 13% actually support it.
These comments are based on the first post-election poll (PDF), commissioned by the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard.

In regard to the dimension of gender, which I wrote about back here, this survey found that women voted for Coakley 51% to 48% and men voted for Brown 56% to 42%.

Voters choosing by candidates’ positions were evenly split, within the margin of error. Voters choosing by the candidates’ personal qualities (i.e., public images) went for Brown 57% to 41%. I remain sadly convinced that “The electorate didn't so much hire a Senator based on policy ideas and competence as cast someone to play the Senator we'd like to see on TV.”

25 January 2010

OMG, Are They Serious? The Twilight Lettering Disaster

Entertainment Weekly ran a preview of Twilight: The Graphic Novel, and it was ghastly to read. Not the words in the dialogue or captions; those were mildly amusing for someone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie. But the typography was painful.

The letterer appears to have chosen fonts from among all the options offered by Windows 97. Hey, I’m cheap about fonts myself, but I don’t have a Twilight budget. Nate Peikos’s Blambot site and Comic Book Fonts from Comicraft offer lots of character-filled fonts for reasonable prices. Last year Colorburned offered a look at “20 Insanely Cool Manga Fonts.” If the budget is really tight, most of Dafont’s stuff is free.

And then there are the balloons themselves. Former Marvel editor John Barber tweeted:

The lettering in the Twilight comic is the worst lettering I've ever seen in a professional comic.

The balloons are giant awkward shapes that seem to emulate the awkwardness of translated manga, but not the actual style.

The text is in, I think, Times New Roman--bad enough--but most of the balloons are semi-transparent and the text is given a white stroke.

Other times the balloons are opaque white. This is done based on where the balloons are placed, not based on any aural context.

And the placement is terrible--they're awkwardly over the figures, overlapping panels randomly.
Most of the balloons are so perfectly elliptical and symmetric that they have no character. On the other hand, this sample page shows one with the text squeezed in off center, as if someone’s mouse had slipped. And those balloon tails? They look like they’ve been added with a felt-tip marker at the last minute. In panels like those at the top, the tails get swallowed up in the artwork so you can’t tell who’s speaking.

Barber added:
I could go on, there's more, but the reason this bothers me is a LOT of people will be buying Twilight as their first comic--

--a lot of them are going to come away thinking they don't have the facility to read comics because they found this one difficult to parse.

They won't know it's Twilight being poorly lettered that was interfering with their ability to read words and images together.
Of course, Twilight fans have shown themselves to be willing to put up with a lot.

24 January 2010

A Visit to Sidekick City Elementary

DC Comics is awash in Robins now: three characters who once held that role, one currently doing so, and a Red Robin halfway in between. But of all the Robins around, by far the cutest is the one in Tiny Titans.

For two years DC has published that magazine as part of its kids’ line. Its stories—comedic anecdotes and sketches, really—are “out of continuity,” and thus don’t apply to the official DC Universe, nor the DC Animated Universe(s) modeled after the company’s TV cartoons.

Tiny Titans portrays the heroes of the original Teen Titans as young kids at the Sidekick Elementary School. Their adult mentors are rarely seen grown-ups, and the next generation of teen heroes pop in as preschoolers. The magazine, created mostly by Art Baltazar, clearly owes some debt to the “Mini Marvels” back-up stories that Chris Giarrusso produced for the competition starting in 2001.

But DC Comics published a story about the Titans as toddlers even before that, in 1992’s “Teen Titans $ell-Out $pecial.” That magazine showed the superhero team raising money by licensing their likenesses for a TV cartoon, along the lines of Muppet Babies or Animaniacs. The result is Teeny Titans; all the heroes are infant versions of themselves, in a daycare run by their main villain, Deathstroke. Within the story, the team is aghast at the results and backs out of the deal.

Now, in Tiny Titans, the characters are in an elementary school, and Deathstroke is their principal. DC went back to an idea originally presented as laughably awful and did it for real. It’s a weird business.Tiny Titans has a large cast, but Robin is front and center, as the picture above shows. He’s appeared on eighteen of the first twenty-four covers, usually in a position of prominence. But this Robin doesn’t function like the Robin(s) in standard Titans stories.

As I discussed back here, on the usual Titans teams Robin is the leader, the smart one, the Badass Normal. He’s the one all the other heroes look up to, even though he has no special powers. This applies to Dick Grayson, the original Robin; to Tim Drake, the longest-running successor; and to the Robin in the animated Teen Titans.

In contrast, the Tiny Titans Robin is the stories’ Charlie Brown figure: struggling, put-upon, worried, and not particularly talented. Issue #8 is headlined “Report Card Pickup!” and the kids are comparing grades. “I got a C!” says this Robin with a satisfied smile.

Meanwhile, back in 1943, Batman, #18, featured the story “Robin Studies His Lessons!” in which Bruce Wayne forbids Dick from fighting crime at night until he gets his average back up to an A. It turns out Dick’s report card got mixed up with another boy’s, and he was pulling down A’s all along—of course.

In both cases, Robin is the normal kid with whom young readers are supposed to identify most closely (“Reason for Robin, #3"). But in the comedic Tiny Titans world, that identification takes the form of sympathy rather than admiration. Do little kids like that?

Well, I’m not so sure that Tiny Titans is really for little kids. A whole lot of its jokes depend on a fairly deep knowledge of the DC Universe. Take these panels from Robin’s birthday party. If you view that scene as a comics fanboy, you have the fun of recognizing that Robin’s friends have given him the second Nightwing costume and the outfit of the grown-up Robin of Earth Two. Subsequent panels show Robin opening other costumes from Robin history, then trying them on—a series of inside jokes. Oh, the ribaldry!

Meanwhile, I can’t help imagining actual eight-year-olds looking at these panels and wondering, “Why are Robin’s friends all giving him clothes? What kind of birthday presents are those? And why is Daddy chuckling, and hogging the comic book he said was for me?”

The costume sequence extends to this cover showing Robin in the original Nightwing costume on the light-up floor of a Saturday Night Fever disco. Which we Titans fans of thirty years’ standing can happily explain:

“See, that was the costume the grown-up Robin started to wear in 1984, and it had a high collar and an open chest, so when fashions changed after a few years people started to call it ‘the disco collar costume.’ And a disco was place where people went to dance, and there was this movie called—Hey, come back inside! I’m trying to show you how to enjoy your comic book!”

23 January 2010

More on Representations of Race

After the last time I addressed the issue of children’s publishers and books about children of color, Alice Bauer responded in her blog:

Dora the Explorer, Dragon Tales, and Sesame Street are truly popular. They have been pushed and supported, and have built a base. They use advertising—a commercial tactic successful for centuries, to push the market to accept the product.

That's what the Marlboro Man did for cigarettes. And what the "Diamonds are forever" campaign did for diamonds. Promotion was the key to their industries' success.

Now granted, not every promotion works. But if publishers spent the time promoting books that have characters of color the way, for example, they promote a John Grisham novel—you might not get the Grisham sales, but you would certainly get more notice from the market.
Much as I share Alice’s hopes, this approach seems more idealistic than realistic. Comparing book publishing to television shows, cigarettes, or—for goodness’ sake—the diamond industry glosses over the fact that there’s a heckuva lot more marketing money in those businesses because there’s a helluva lot more money to be made from them.

Tobacco users become physically addicted, producing years of sales before they die. Diamonds sell for thousands of dollars a pop, not $25 ($12 in paperback). The economics are tremendously different.

Television is the closest analogy, as a storytelling medium with specialized products for kids. But even middling-level TV shows have audiences of millions. Books are big successes if they reach a hundred thousand readers. Publishing just doesn’t make as much money, or earn as much profit, as other media. And it spreads out the money it does have on thousands of new products every year.

A handful of authors with a solid record for bestsellers, such as John Grisham, get promoted with a lot more money than average because their publishers know their new books will almost certainly make a lot more money. Those campaigns are also selling the whole line of Grisham novels as well as the latest.

But when Grisham's novels were a new, untried product, they didn’t have exceptional promotional budgets. By the standards of other industries, they barely had any promotional budgets. Even now, Grisham’s novels don’t get near the marketing dollars of his movies.

Alice suggests that a publisher should put the extra resources of a Grisham promotion into “books that have characters of color” even though “you might not get the Grisham sales.” That plan would be a really hard sell in the business world. Corporations are set up to avoid spending more money for a lower return.

For a publisher to be “willing to invest in the promotion” of any books, the company has to believe that it will earn that money back. That’s what “invest” means, after all. So any argument to those corporate publishers for publishing more books about people of color has to start with showing that there’s more money to be made.

That’s where Dora the Explorer and the pop-music charts can come in. They offer evidence that American children and teens can be very interested in entertainment from and about people of color. Still, media executives are going to look at what attracts the biggest audiences. Disney Channel has succeeded with shows featuring young actors/characters of color like That's So Raven and The Wizards of Waverly Place, but its biggest hits have been Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, the latter starring the blondest twins in the world and the former a brunette who dresses up as a blonde and becomes a star.

And the bottom line is still based on profits, which are still dependent on markets. As the recent Tonight Show foofaraw has shown, the NBC television network is not in the business of creating cutting-edge comedy and drama; it’s in the business of profitably delivering eyeballs to advertisers, and it bases its decisions on what attracts big audiences.

Similarly, large corporate publishers will continue to publish the books that appear most likely to sell in big numbers. Compared to other industries with more marketing-research dollars, they’ll continue to make a lot of those decisions based on hunches and personal tastes, and in today’s culture that might be a good thing for books that try something new.

Publishers not so tied to the price of a publicly-traded stock may have more leeway to invest in books about children of color. Tom Low, a temp-services company owner, and Philip Lee, a marketer for GQ, founded Lee and Low in 1991 to publish such books. But that firm isn’t free from worries about market reactions, as Laura Atkins’s essay on this issue reports.

This year Tu Publishing is launching at a micro-level to publish multicultural fantasy and science fiction, finding start-up money from small contributors like me. It’s therefore operating, at least at the start, more like a charity than a business. So it sure doesn’t have enough advertising dollars to change public attitudes. All it can do is publish the best books available and try to find the right readers.

For all book companies, large or small, success and survival will still depend on the market of people who actually buy books.

22 January 2010

Faces on Book Covers and the Lack of Market Research

Back when I was a book editor, one of my projects was the reissue of a book about business presentations. The art director brought me a set of stock photos of people giving presentations, and I chose the image that best reflected how we were repositioning the book. The model was young, energetic, confident. He was also black.

I knew there weren’t a lot of business books with a single black person on the cover, so I wondered if this was a daring choice. I also wondered if using this photo would play into one of American culture’s varied stereotypes of black men—the hyper-articulate public speaker. But book covers have to push buttons in the customers’ minds, so would playing on a recognizable positive image be a bad thing? In the end, I didn’t want to make race a factor in the choice, and that image’s energy won the day.

We sent an image of the new cover to the author, and he called to ask if putting a black man on the cover would affect sales. (He used the grating phrase “politically correct” in his question.) I told him that photo was clearly the best choice, and we didn’t anticipate problems.

Of course, I had no market research to back up that belief. General-interest, retail-based publishing never has market research. The industry doesn’t have the resources for focus groups, test marketing, or gathering systematic feedback on specific books. There are general studies on the bookstore customer base, but with stores carrying tens of thousands of products, each competing with all the others for readers’ time and yet each in some way unique, it’s impossible to apply those findings to the nuances of individual titles.

Our Sales Department never told me of any complaints about our new cover. But yesterday I quoted two children’s book professionals on seeing some white people silently pass over books about non-white children. So would booksellers have told our reps that they were ordering fewer copies of this one title because its cover showed a black man? Would customers have told bookstore clerks why they chose another title on business presentations? Would people even be conscious of prejudices affecting their choices?

Lack of definite answers might be a good thing because math and economics aren’t necessarily on the side of inclusion. In the US today, there are six non-Latino white people for every one African-American; the ratio among bookstore customers might be even higher for a variety of factors (disposable income, store locations, etc.). Let’s imagine that the image of a black man on that business book cut sales to white customers by only 10%. The same cover would have had to increase the book’s appeal to black customers by 60% to cancel out our loss.

And the American book industry is capitalist and market-driven. These days, even the biggest trade publishers are relatively small divisions of massive media corporations. Corporations are set up to make their employees care about revenue and profits, not politics (except insofar as they affect revenue and profits) or inclusiveness (except insofar…). From my employer’s point of view, if I’d knowingly chosen a photo that promised to limit sales, I wouldn’t have been doing my job. Lack of definite answers let me decide according to my values and tastes rather than by the numbers.

I just found that edition of the book still on sale, with the same photo (and my smoooooth cover copy on the back). Does that mean the reissue was so successful that it’s lasted on store shelves for more than a decade? Did the photo actually help the book keep looking up-to-date? Or was the book so unsuccessful that the company hasn’t bothered to reissue it again? Did the cover image have any effect whatsoever?

I doubt anyone knows. There are 100,000 stories in every big bookstore, and the industry doesn’t have the resources to track them all.

TOMORROW: Can advertising change the market?

21 January 2010

“They’ll never actually tell you why they’re rejecting the book.”

For the second time in a year, the American wing of Bloomsbury has withdrawn a book because its dust jacket showed a young white woman but its protagonist is actually a young woman of color. The first book was Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, the second Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass. (Both books also show young women who are gorgeous, which the Liar heroine says she’s not, but that’s another question.)

Book bloggers were at the forefront of spotting this problem and pressing Bloomsbury to fix it. There are now many fine essays online about the value of books about children of color and the need to respect authors’ visions. But can pressure on publishers fix the problem?

Last June Elizabeth Bluemle wrote a Shelftalker column from her bookstore in Burlington, Vermont:

I’ve noticed a strange trend among grandparents these days, and sometimes among parents: the tendency to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child’s world. . . .

Or, most disheartening of all, a whispered, “I don’t think he’ll really be interested in that,” when the child’s skin color on the cover does not match the child’s skin color in real life. (I’ll add here that only white customers make this kind of comment; customers of color — even if they were so narrow-minded — wouldn’t have the luxury of limiting their children only to books about kids like themselves; there just aren’t enough. But that’s a separate post.)
To which Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 and the New York Public Library system added:
We get that here in New York too. Only they’ll never actually tell you why they’re rejecting the book. They’ll just pluck out all the titles with kids of other colors and leave them surreptitiously on the table for you to find later.
The fact that those adults aren’t expressing their prejudices out loud shows how such discrimination has become taboo, which is a Good Thing. But the testimony of these book professionals suggests that quietly entrenched racism is still silently affecting some people’s book choices. And in a capitalist economy, that might affect book covers.

TOMORROW: How can we tell?

20 January 2010

The Real Gender Issue in the Massachusetts Election

In 2004 Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas?, analyzing why so many middle- and working-class Americans voted against their economic interests and instead chose candidates based on symbolic and social issues. The UK publisher retitled the book What’s the Matter with America?, which I think is fairer to the central state, and also gives a sense of how Britain sees the US.

How does Frank’s thesis relate to Massachusetts’s recent special election for Senator? The race here wasn’t decided on the issues, meaning that voters preferred Scott Brown’s policy positions to Martha Coakley’s. That’s because in the sped-up campaign Brown didn’t provide detailed policy positions.

Brown advocated broad ideas like lower taxes and a balanced budget—but offered no clue about how he’d reconcile those opposites. He said he’d “start over” with health-care reform, but didn’t say what that meant—especially since he voted for a similar law in Massachusetts. It was easier to find Coakley’s policy positions because she promised to vote with the Senate majority on many matters, and there are specific bills in Congress. However, without clear stands from both candidates, it’s untenable to say voters preferred one set over the other.

Voters therefore decided on more amorphous factors, starting with a general mood. People are worried and resentful about the worst recession since the Great Depression, a legacy of the previous administration; it’s been a whole year, and unemployment is still higher and property values lower! Most of us heartily dislike something about the health-insurance reform bill, though we disagree on what. Lots of people perceive that things aren’t working in Washington, though fewer seem to notice the Republicans’ obstructionism.

Beyond mood, another factor that I think deserves study is gender. Obviously our society still has double standards for male and female politicians. Consider how folks reacted to the fact that Brown had posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine when he was in college. Then imagine how voters would respond to a little-known female candidate after learning that she’d been one of Playboy’s “Playmates of the Ivy League.”

On the election-night coverage I heard local political journalists list three “turning points” of the main election, which made undecided people change their thinking:

  • Brown’s audacious use of footage of John F. Kennedy in a TV ad. (Because both he and JFK advocated cutting taxes for the very wealthy; Kennedy lowered the top rate to 70%, twice what it is today.)
  • Brown’s statement in his ads and many other places that, “I drive a truck.”
  • Martha Coakley’s remark that former Diamondbacks and Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan, which people treated as a gaffe rather than a weak joke.
What’s the subtext of all those details? They’re all about being a traditional man. And Brown has the chin and hair for that role. (There’s a reason Cosmo chose him.)

Hours before the results were announced, a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish wrote about Brown’s appeal to fellow white men and Coakley’s contrasting image:
She's a lawyer and a female DA, so doubly emasculating in their eyes. She didn't help herself after the primary by only relying on the old Hillary base, which is other ball-buster female lawyers. That's a strong enough group to win a four-way primary but no way big enough for the general election.

In that context, all Scott Brown had to do was show up and 1) be white 2) be male and 3) come off as anything other than an elite. Hence the truck and hunting shirts, a brilliant touch on his campaign's part, and one that will probably win him the election.
Too reductive? Consider how progressive Massachusetts politics has really been when it comes to gender. The state has elected only two women running on their own to statewide offices, Coakley being the second. From 1982 to 2007, the state had no female Representatives in Congress. Massachusetts voters continued to reelect Ted Kennedy at the height of his womanizing, before his second marriage. And if JFK continues to be a political ideal in the state, as Brown’s advertisements suggest, let’s recall how much being a healthy, active man was a (manufactured) part of JFK’s public persona.

18 January 2010

In Massachusetts, Our Vote Actually Counts—Don’t Waste It!

We in Massachusetts aren’t used to competitive elections. That’s not because it’s a “one-party state”; although Democrats hold the legislative offices, there was a string of Republican governors elected from 1991 to 2006.

Rather, we’re not used to nail-biters. For the past twenty-five years, surveys of statewide elections have shown one candidate holding a solid lead weeks ahead of Election Day. Even when campaigns were close for a while, as some Senate elections have been, one candidate has pulled out toward the end. And in tight Presidential races, because of the unnecessary and undemocratic Electoral College, adding more votes to the winner’s majority in Massachusetts means nothing to the overall “official” results.

But this Tuesday’s U.S. Senate election is different. The polls are too close to call, in part because it’s an off-year special election, so the statistical experts aren’t sure how to model their results.

Tuesday’s election is also important. Our votes can actually make a difference, and our “protest votes” aren’t just symbolic.

Attorney General Martha Coakley is a solid progressive Democrat. State senator Scott Brown is a doctrinaire Republican. President Barack Obama has repeatedly invited all members of Congress to help find bipartisan programs to address our priorities, but the Republican minority has resentfully refused. That means this election could allow centrist legislation (i.e., designed to appeal to 60% of the Senate, representing a large majority of the American people) to proceed, or scuttle it entirely.

Brown says he’s not a doctrinaire Republican, just as Mitt Romney claimed when running for Senator and then governor in Massachusetts. But Brown is for torture, tax cuts for the wealthiest, and continued wars. Brown’s claimed to be pro-choice, but advocated limits on abortion medication and information—can anyone doubt he’d make those limits national law if he had the chance? Brown now says that marriage equality is settled in Massachusetts, but three years ago he was trying to repeal it—does anyone believe he’d really be a voice for equality within the national Republican Party?

Brown isn’t a distinguished legislator, but as a Republican in Massachusetts he didn’t have a chance to be; most of the state disagrees with his ideas, so they don’t get made into laws. Instead, he points to his service as a lawyer and in the National Guard. That background makes it all the more dismaying that he complained in writing about a bombing suspect being given “taxpayer-funded lawyers in a US courtroom.”

Evidently Brown doesn’t know that the “military commissions” he prefers also require defendants to be represented by lawyers paid by taxpayers. And those military lawyers have done a very effective job of showing that the commissions system is unjust and unconstitutional, as well as unnecessary. In sum, Brown’s positions are more ideological than logical, more sound bite than sound facts. In contrast, Coakley believes in the Constitution and the US justice system, and has a long record as a prosecutor to prove it.

Brown’s policy approaches make him a typical Republican these days. Take, for example, the party’s reaction to the Bush-Cheney TARP law, which gave huge sums to prop up banks and other lenders. Thanks to Rep. Barney Frank and others, that law also required future administrations to find a way to regain those funds. The Republican Party, and Scott Brown, now say that the federal government shouldn’t tax banks because they’d pass on costs to consumers. Apparently the party feels confident that we taxpayers won’t notice that we’ve already incurred those costs thanks to a Republican administration. There’s no logic to that position—only an unbending determination to benefit the banks and their shareholders. In contrast, Coakley has sued predatory mortgage lenders on behalf of the Massachusetts people.

Coakley is ready to support the current health insurance reform bill, despite opposing some of the provisions inserted to produce a supermajority in the Senate. Brown opposes it despite supporting similar legislation in Massachusetts when it was promoted by a Republican governor. He promises to stop the bill in Washington, but what does he promote instead? Nothing in particular. “I will insist we start over,” Brown writes. I don’t like how the health insurance reform debate has dragged on, but I sure don’t want to do it all over again with him in the Senate.

The current bill is designed to preserve the health-insurance industry, which looks to me like the main source of our system’s inefficiency and wasted expense. Check out this chart from that radical rag National Geographic about how much of an outlier the US is on medical costs, and how average our outcomes are. The program now under consideration in Congress promises some moderate improvements to the status quo, as mapped by Think Progress. But even that change is too much for the Republicans and Scott Brown.

A vote for Coakley wouldn’t change the Senate balance, but a vote for Brown would. Tomorrow’s election is thus a choice between allowing moderate progress on issues and rewarding ideological intransigence. With such a clear political difference, we in Massachusetts shouldn’t vote on the basis of personalities, symbolic “messages” to the “establishment,” or size of chin. Yet enough of us are apparently doing so that this is the closest election the state has seen in decades.

Piracy Scare off the Publishing Coast

A recent report for publishers about electronic book piracy by the consultancy Attributor generated coverage in Publishers Weekly, as well as icv2. But I think some points were missed between the research, the public report (PDF download), and the articles.

For one thing, the PW article says, “The average number of free fiction downloads was just over 2,000.” But the chart in the report indicates that figure should be 6,000. I suspect the reporter simply read the figure for the next category, reference books. So I’ll use the 6,000 figure.

How did Attributor derive that number? The public report offers no specific titles or download counts to back it up. PW mentions “7,951 illegal downloads of Angels and Demons and 1,604 downloads of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Both those books have been international bestsellers, the first for a long time. And yet, if the 6,000 figure is correct, the first has been downloaded just about a third above the average and the second well below average. The vast majority of fiction books aren’t international bestsellers, and probably don’t come close to either of those quantities of downloads, yet the report implies that 6,000 downloads is typical for fiction.

With similar exaggeration, the report states, “On average, nearly 10,000 copies of every book published are downloaded for free.” But the chart on the following page shows only one out of seven category bars hitting the 10,000 level. The average for the categories shown is about 8,000.

And the research methodology was tilted to produce higher numbers. Attributor says its researchers looked at “913 popular books” in various categories. Choosing “popular” books rather than random titles means by definition books that are more likely to be downloaded.

Furthermore, selecting popular books means that the titles come disproportionately from the biggest publishers, which pay the biggest advances and have the largest marketing budgets and sales staff. Yet the report later tries to make this sample into something typical of the industry as a whole:

The 913 titles in this study represent works from publishers totaling 13.5% of the U.S. book publishing market. Projecting this $380 million value to the entire industry results in total potential piracy figure of $2.8 billion.
Perhaps a better use of research time would be asking why a sample of over 900 “popular books” ended up leaving out every title from more than 85% of the industry.

But my favorite factoid from this report is the finding of where the most piracy is taking place. To quote PW:
Of the 14 book categories tracked, piracy was most prevalent in the business and investing segment which had an average of 13,000 free downloads per title, the report found.
The field most dependent on the concept of property thus has the most people pirating and using pirated texts.

17 January 2010

Ask Your Doctor (No, not Dr. Hurt. Or Dr. Death. Or Dr. Hugo Strange.)

Scott at Polite Dissent is a doctor who likes superhero comic books. He often posts dissections of medical scenes in those comics, such as the emergency cricothyroidotomy in All-Star Batman and Robin and the recent spleen damage in Red Robin. He seems to admire the now spleenless Tim Drake for his medical knowledge and counseling skills.

Each Monday Scott shares a “public service announcement,” either a single page within a comic book, such as Alfred’s promotion of a paper drive during WW2, or an entire issue, as when the Teen Titans and Protector took that controversial stand against illegal drugs.

A while back, Scott analyzed a special seasonal allergy issue of Batman financed by Schering in 1999 and set in DC’s Animated Universe:

Poison Ivy [a regular antagonist] has recently broken out of prison and this [rare orchid] is just the kind of plant she likes to steal. Sure enough, she shows up and Batman and Robin spring into action. Unfortunately Robin is so sedated from his over-the-counter allergy medication that he lets Poison Ivy escape with the orchid.

When Batman and Batgirl head out to track down Poison Ivy and the orchid, Robin wants to come along, but Batman grounds him because of his antihistamine-related grogginess. Robin starts to sulk, but Alfred sends him to his doctor who prescribes him a non-sedating antihistamine
This advertising in comic-book form came with this maze, challenging us to lead Robin and Alfred to the doctor (who I imagine saying, “Young man, you seem to be wearing a mask”), and then to a pharmacy for a brand-name drug which shall go unnamed here. The comments on this blog entry note that a rare side effect of the class of drugs in question, especially in kids, is anger and aggressive behavior—the last thing we want from a Robin.

The drug in question has since become available without a prescription, and continues to be heavily advertised.

16 January 2010

The Spectrum of Historical Fiction

In the recent discussion of the bounds of historical fiction, Monica Edinger wrote:

It seems to me that there is a very long continuum as to what is historical fiction. At one end is the book I’m working on, about a child on the Amistad. In order to make it more accessible to child readers I went from telling the story as nonfiction to fiction; however, it is mostly based on the facts of the time and event. It is in first person with emotions and scenes that I made up. So it is pretty close, as close as I could make it, based on fact throughout.

At the other end of the continuum there are works like [Edward] Eager’s Half Magic where the history is background and serving the tale not vice versa.
I agree that there’s a spectrum in historical fiction. On the one side are authors so scrupulous that they try to make sure that all historical figures who appear in their stories could actually have been in those places on those dates. On the other side are authors who move events and people around for dramatic effect.

When authors make fundamental changes to what’s in the historical record, their books move further toward the second side and eventually, in my eyes, off the spectrum entirely. Such changes include:

The outcome of preceding historical events. There’s a solid tradition of books describing what might have happened if history had gone in a different direction: Booth not shooting Lincoln, the US staying out of WW2, etc. We have labels to distinguish those novels from the strictly historical: “speculative,” “alternate,” “counterfactual,” and “what if.”

Major details of the historical events in the story. On Bookwitch there’s a conversation, somewhat hampered by the fact that it’s circling a book that’s unpublished and unnamed, about how much an author can change:
what the adults did in the real event, has now been done exclusively by the children in the book. What was heroic in real life has suddenly been taken away from the people involved, for fictional purposes.
It’s a huge challenge to find historical events in which young people have any decisive role, as opposed to being victims, spectators, or minor players. That’s why I was so pleased to find the Boston Massacre (though that research sent me off in an unexpected direction). But making children do what adults did historically seems like a fundamental change.

The laws of physics. If a story depends on time travel, magic, extraterrestrials, mind-reading, personifications of scientific phenomena or abstract concepts, or other elements of science fiction and fantasy, then putting them into history is just as much of a change as—probably even more than—the preceding alterations. Life is fundamentally different in such a universe.

This is why I think Half Magic, The Storm in the Barn and other fantasies move off the end of the historical fiction spectrum, even though they’re set in periods well before their composition, even though they address historical themes or events. Just because novelists do historical research doesn’t make their books historical fiction.

15 January 2010

The Plot in The Storm in the Barn

Though I recognize the historical research that Matt Phelan put into The Storm in the Barn, I don’t see it as a historical novel because ultimately it turns not on what happened or could have happened in the past, but on something that physically could not have happened. So what do I think of it as a fantasy?

As a fantasy narrative, I think The Storm in the Barn offers a powerful but ultimately distorted picture of a historical period (anachronistic Oz quotation aside). But I don’t think its plot holds together in fantastic terms. And that’s a big reason why for me the supernatural dimension doesn’t make up for the story’s break away from history.

First, the villain is flat, even by the standards of abstract personifications. I never got a clear idea about why the storm is refusing to rain. He wants to preserve himself from dissolution, yet he’s spending his extra days of existence hiding out in a deserted barn. Maybe the storm’s got a really good book he wants to finish or something, but in this case personifying the Dust Bowl drought as a character doesn’t illuminate the historic event or add depth to the story.

More important, I don’t see how Jack’s triumph over the storm resolves his problem as the book’s first half lays it out. Those pages show us older boys teasing Jack, the community excluding him from events like the rabbit-clubbing festival (which turns out to be less fun than it sounds), and his father not letting him help fix farm machinery. His only friends are his sisters and a chatty drugstore owner.

That character, as I recall, ties Jack’s problems to the drought: because there are no crops growing, Jack has no chance to do farmwork that proves his competence, and he’s therefore stuck in the role of a little kid.

[Extra credit question for 9th-grade social studies: As an allegory, how does this relate to the New Deal’s emphasis on making jobs for unemployed Americans through the NRA, CCC, and other programs?]

By defeating the storm in the barn, the book shows us, Jack not only brings rain; he also proves his value. But his problem was a social one—how other people perceived him. And the story offers no reason for people to perceive Jack differently after the rain returns. No one knows about his fight with the storm. Jack’s little sister is the only other local who saw the storm, and she already looks up to him. There’s no clue that any adult would even believe in a personified storm, and thus in Jack’s heroism.

Compare this resolution to, say, Rowan of Rin, by Emily Rodda. That fantasy also involves a community endangered by a drought, an environmental problem embodied in the fantastic form of a cranky dragon.

A small group undertakes a quest to fix the problem, and circumstances force them to take along a timid boy whom people don’t think much of. Over the course of the adventure, however, young Rowan surprises himself and his companions by revealing a spine of steel. Ultimately he alone fixes the problem and ends the drought. And everyone sees what Rowan does.

13 January 2010

A Different Standard for the Dust Bowl?

Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn is set in the Dust Bowl of the late 1920s and 1930s. It does a fine job of evoking that environmental catastrophe. I wasn’t so impressed with how the book’s plot was resolved, with a jump into the supernatural. The young hero appears to end the drought and fix his personal troubles in a way that the laws of nature made impossible for real children of that time and place.

Would reviewers be as quick to praise an equally fantastic treatment of other historic tragedies? In particular, I wonder about depictions of the Nazi Holocaust. Would critics, librarians, and teachers be as comfortable with a novel about that history that offers such an unreal resolution?

In The Devil’s Arithmetic, Jane Yolen used the fantastic element of time travel to introduce a modern girl (and, through her, modern readers) to the horrors of the Nazi death camps. At the end, the heroine escapes being killed by traveling forward through time to her home. And that produced some objections.

In an editorial for the Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books in 1988, Roger Sutton praised aspects of The Devil’s Arithmetic but, as he’s acknowledged, “took issue with the fantasy aspect of the plot.” Specifically, he felt that ending undercut the historical reality:

Time-travel fantasy can be an honorable form of historical fiction, but how effective is it as an introduction to the Holocaust? . . .

Jane Yolen has written a powerful, not easily forgotten, story, but is it a story about the Holocaust? The horror—and the history—are betrayed by the essentially comforting vision of the story and its time-travel form. . . .

This optimistic, neatly rounded lesson fits comfortably into children’s literature, a genre that, despite well-known exceptions, demands a hopeful conclusion. How much hope can be extracted from the Holocaust?
I saw something similar in The Storm in the Barn. It offers hope for young Jack, and a sense of accomplishment he badly needs. But that comes about entirely at the fantasy level: Jack defeats the personification of the rain (who’s a rather easily defeated personification, as these things go) in a physical tussle atop a windmill.

More recently, many people objected to John Boyne’s fabulistic treatment of the Holocaust, The Boy in Striped Pajamas, because it, too, offered historically impossible hope. (Others loved the book for the same reason.) As of tonight the novel’s entry on Wikipedia argues:
it is not historical fiction. The very premise of the book - that there would be a child of Shmuel’s age - is, according to critics, an unacceptable fabrication that does not reflect the reality of life in the camps.
The Storm in the Barn is also a fabrication, even more obviously since one doesn’t need to look up histories to see the unreal elements. But no one has called Phelan’s book “unacceptable.” Indeed, it just received the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

The Dust Bowl and the Nazi Holocaust are separated by a decade at most, so I don’t think our different attitudes toward those events are based on how fresh their memories are. Instead, I can think of several other reasons for the difference, including:
  • The lack of human villains in the Dust Bowl, meaning that the personification of the storm doesn’t absolve anyone of responsibility.
  • The lack of any small or vocal groups denying the severity of the Dust Bowl.
  • America’s powerful agricultural and economic recovery after the Dust Bowl.
But what happens if climate change becomes a major problem in daily life? In that case, treating an environmental catastrophe as fodder for a fantastic fable might raise as many objections as those fantastic treatments of the Holocaust.

12 January 2010

The Storm in the Barn as a Fable

Last Friday I wrote, “I see The Storm in the Barn as a fable that’s set in the Dust Bowl,” which prompted Monica Edinger at Educating Alice to write:

As for me, a fable points to a specific moralistic message and I don’t get that with [Matt] Phelan’s story.
I don’t think that’s the meaning Phelan had in mind when he chose the term “fable” to describes his book, as in this exchange from a November interview with Comic Book Resources:
CBR News: Matt, you’ve described “The Storm in the Barn” as a fable - why do you find that particular word appropriate for your book?

MATT PHELAN: I just checked with Merriam-Webster online and saw that their definition includes the phrase “a legendary story of supernatural happenings,” which works well for my purposes. In my mind, a fable also denotes a smaller, quieter tale than a Myth or Legend. I was hoping “The Storm in the Barn” would have that sort of feel to it.
Many other reviewers have used the same term, including: Which is not to say that the term “fable” comes without pitfalls, especially when authors take that approach to major historical events. Three years ago, another historically set book expressly labeled a fable, John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pajamas, prompted Roger Sutton to write:
And if children’s writers would just stay away from the fables, already, they would save us ALL considerable trouble. Making a story (The Gift, by Robert Morneau) about transubstantiation into one about pumpkin pie enlightens us about neither subject. Making a story (Bravemole, by Lynne Jonell) about the World Trade Center and terrorists into one about molehills and dragons demeans all concerned.
Phelan has explicitly denied the goal of making The Storm in the Barn tell the history of the Dust Bowl in fable form. As I’ve quoted before, his introduction says, “I wanted this book to be set in the Dust Bowl but not a story directly about the Dust Bowl.” He was instead aiming to create a small “legendary story of supernatural happenings.”

TOMORROW: Are different standards at work?

11 January 2010

Half Magic and History

On Friday, in an ongoing discussion of how the fantastic elements of The Storm in the Barn affect its status as historical fiction, I compared the book to another fantasy set in a historic period, Edward Eager’s Half Magic.

Monica Edinger responded:

while Edgar Eager does indeed set his tale in the early years of the 20th century, I don’t see that as particularly significant as far as the story goes.
The story of children finding a token that grants wishes, getting in some mild troubles, making their lives a little better, and then giving up that magic could indeed occur in any era. Eager unabashedly borrowed from E. Nesbit’s fantasy novels, just as Laurel Snyder borrowed a lot from Eager’s for her recent contemporary fantasy Any Which Wall.

However, it was clearly important for Eager’s storytelling enterprise that he chose a historical setting. The very first line of the book tells us that its events happened “about thirty years ago,” or in the mid-1920s. (Half Magic was published in 1954.) The narrator highlights period details for us, such as a steam-puffing fire engine (“the way it used to do in those days”) and silent films (“for in those days movies did not talk”).

Though the technology in Half Magic might seem quaint to the readers of 1954, it is nonetheless on the march. Eager even intertwines a new-fangled machine and magic when one of the family’s first wishes brings on Mr. Smith in his automobile. Later the narrator reminds us: “everyone did not own a motor car in those days.”

At another point (page 98, to be exact), Eager’s narrator draws a line in the kids’ lives between the period before they found the magic coin and the period afterward:
Meanwhile today they would have a good old-fashioned day out, the kind of day that had seemed the height of excitement to them, back in the time before the charm had crossed their path. They would put all their allowances together, go downtown on the street car and spend the day, have lunch and see a movie.
This passage makes sure we see change happening in the characters’ lives.

Thus, though the plot of Half Magic has nothing to do with the historical events for which we remember the mid-1920s (which are…? Anyone? Anyone?), it nonetheless keeps reminding its readers that:
  • This story takes place decades before their time.
  • Time is always passing, and life is always changing.
In fact, Half Magic takes place late in Eager’s own childhood—he was born in 1911. The pleasures he describes are undoubtedly the pleasures he remembered as he wrote the novel, his first for children. And foremost among those remembered pleasures are the books he’d read as a boy, particularly Nesbit’s fantasies. [CORRECTION: Although Eager set Half Magic in the period of his childhood, he didn’t discover Nesbit’s books until he was a young father.]

Nesbit published those tales starting in 1902, so they were up to two decades old when Eager read them. He obviously enjoyed those books despite their somewhat unfamiliar setting, and his own antiquated setting assures readers that they can enjoy adventures occurring decades before their own time as well. Indeed, we might even suspect that Eager designed Half Magic to take readers about halfway back to Nesbit.

Does its historical setting and historical themes make Half Magic historical fiction? Not in the sense that reading it immerses us in the lives of Americans in the past. It couldn’t because those people never had wish-granting coins, just speculative stocks. The supernatural elements that steer Half Magic’s plot make it a fantasy set in the 1920s.

TOMORROW: Back to The Storm in the Barn.

10 January 2010

Boy Commandos and a Killer in the Big Top

This cover to Detective Comics, #65, shows Batman and Robin welcoming a new team to the magazine: the Boy Commandos, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Judging by art styles, it looks like Jerry Robinson drew the Dynamic Duo, and Simon and Kirby drew the commandos.

The Boy Commandos were a logical outgrowth of a trend that started in early 1940, apparently following market research that said many readers of superhero magazines were boys. Suddenly publishers introduced Captain Marvel, Robin, and a host of other wonder boys and kid sidekicks. Simon and Kirby joined that parade, creating Marvel Boy for Daring Mystery, #6 (Sept 1940), and Bucky as a sidekick for Captain America (March 1941).

What might be even more marketable than one boy? A whole gang of boys! Gangs of kids had roared through comics since the days of Hogan’s Alley, but Simon and Kirby used them for adventures rather than humor. First came the Sentinels of Liberty/Young Allies, featuring Bucky, Toro, and a set of stereotypes. Then the Newsboy Legion, featuring a set of stereotypes. And in 1942, with World War 2 raging, the Boy Commandos—international stereotypes on a mission!

Soon that team was popular enough to join Batman and Robin in Detective Comics—they actually arrived in issue #64, possibly a last-minute addition since the cover didn’t even feature a small picture of them, just a banner. The Boy Commandos remained in the magazine past the end of the war to 1949, but they never knocked the Dynamic Duo off the cover.

That wasn’t Simon and Kirby’s only brush with Robin the Boy Wonder, however. After the war they contracted with Harvey Comics for a new superhero comic called Stuntman, with the first issue dated April 1946.That hero’s origin story starts with a crook trying to shake down a traveling circus. The circus manager refuses the crook’s demands, and the star aerialists, the Flying Apollos, shrug off the threat. But at that evening’s performance, the Apollos’ trapeze breaks. The newest member of the trio, Fred Drake, sees the other two performers fall to their deaths.

Later that night, Fred stumbles across evidence that the trapeze didn’t break by accident. He narrowly escapes being killed for what he knows, then bumps into a rich, handsome man who leads a secret life investigating crime. That man makes Fred his partner, encouraging him to fight crime while wearing a mask, cape, and brightly colored costume.

Sounds rather familiar, no? There are significant differences:

  • Fred Drake is a young man, not a boy, and not related to the other members of the Flying Apollos.
  • The rich man is movie star Don Daring, who dabbles in detective work as a hobby. He has no secret identity, nor much detective skill; he becomes the stories’ comic relief.
  • Daring hires Fred as his stunt double at the studio—thus creating Stuntman!
Despite those differences, it’s clear that Simon and Kirby were recycling Bill Finger’s origin story for Robin from six years before.

The Stuntman comic entered a market glutted with other magazines after the end of wartime paper rationing. It lasted only two issues, so we never saw the promised arrival of Stuntboy.

Stuntman’s origin story and dozens of other comics in many genres have been restored and reprinted in the oversized anthology The Best of Simon and Kirby.