31 March 2010

Derivative Works—Revisited

Back in December, I wrote about our artistic culture’s valuing of originality:

our literary and artistic culture has, probably since the Romantic period in literature and for over a century in the visual arts, valued originality more than highly competent reworkings. If we look back on the art and literature of previous centuries, we see artists and writers unabashedly exploring the same topics and tales. The competition among artists over the same ground fueled both technique and creativity.
I used the example of the Trojan War as a subject that storytellers and artists reworked for centuries until the modern age, and asked:
So how are storytellers exploring the Trojan War legend today? Not in “literary fiction”; most novels about it are published as genre fiction.
Just in time for the publication of three books that Eric Mendelsohn reviews in this week’s New Yorker:
  • John Banville’s The Infinities, “a more or less contemporary tale over which the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes rather startlingly preside.”
  • David Malouf’s Ransom, “a riff on the twenty-fourth (and final) book of the Iliad” in the form of a serious novel that happens to be about Priam.
  • Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which seems to be a more typically postmodernist arch manipulation of older texts.
So I guess there’s some literary life in that old war story after all.

30 March 2010

Adventures in Oz Fandom

Last month Alameda librarian Eva Volin wrote about

books I know I purchased, but I never see on the shelf; the books are checked out, they come back three weeks later, and go out again the same day.

For example, we’ve owned Eric Shanower’s Adventures in Oz for only two and a half years and it has already circulated 45 times.
That’s 45 check-outs in approximately 130 weeks, or once every 2.9 weeks. That book really is spending no time on the library shelf.

Fortunately, a delightfully inexpensive spin-off has appeared in comics stores: Little Adventures in Oz, volume 1. I’ve joked about how that title suggests all-chibi versions of Shanower’s 1980 Oz comics. In fact, this volume—the first of a possible pair—reprints two of those tales in a smaller trim size with all the draftsmanship, color, and storytelling that appear in the big omnibus. It also contains a few of the extras that appear in Adventures in Oz, and that, I realized, represents a collision of two forms of fandom.

One common aspect of Oz fandom is treating the books and all the other Oz stories one likes as a fairly accurate history of that fairyland. Such fans try to line up the stories in a single chronology, and reconcile the books’ contradictory statements. (I understand that Sherlockians do the same.)

In contrast, a common aspect of comics fandom is to celebrate the process of creating the stories, including preliminary material and creative dead ends. Many collected comics volumes offer such extras as artists’ sketches (especially early character designs), writers’ scripts, variant covers, other artists’ versions of the same characters, and so on. That would be the equivalent of publishing a novel with some pages from the author’s early drafts—we just don’t do that.

Little Adventures in Oz includes such sketchbook material—in particular, penciled pages of Shanower’s first crack at The Enchanted Apples of Oz. In this “draft,” young Trot, Cap’n Bill, and the Glass Cat do what in the finished version is done by Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and Billina the Yellow Hen. From the perspective of comics fandom, this is good stuff: we get to see behind the scenes, that art doesn’t go to waste, we learn a valuable lesson about copyrights in the 1980s.

From the perspective of Oz fandom, however, it’s potentially disturbing. For readers who believe that Enchanted Apples presents an actual adventure that Dorothy and her friends had in 1904, those extra pages pull back the curtain on an entirely different reality—a parallel universe in which Trot has almost the same adventure. Spooky!

29 March 2010

Conflicting Recollections of Prof. Tolkien

In his book The Wand and the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, literary scholar Leonard S. Marcus asked a number of established fantasy writers about their influences, particularly J. R. R. Tolkien.

Diana Wynne Jones (born in 1934) and Susan Cooper (born in 1935) attended Oxford University at about the same time, and they gave Marcus completely different memories of Tolkien.

Cooper said:

I never met him, but I went to his lectures on Anglo-Saxon literature, along with hundreds of other students. He was a wonderful lecturer. Like C. S. Lewis, whose lectures I also attended, he was a tweedy, pipe-smoking, middle-aged man. We were all waiting for the third volume of The Lord of the Rings to come out.
But Jones told Marcus:
I went to his public lectures. They were absolutely appalling. In those days a lecturer could be paid for his entire course even if he lost his audience, provided he turned up for the first lecture. I think that Tolkien made quite a cynical effort to get rid of us so he could go home and finish writing The Lord of the Rings.

He gave his lectures in a very, very small room and didn’t address us, his audience, at all. In fact he looked the other way, with his face almost squashed up against the blackboard. He spoke in a mutter. His mind was on finishing The Lord of the Rings, and he was really musing to himself about the nature of narrative.

But I found this so fascinating that I came back week after week, as did one other person. I’ve always wondered what became of him, because he was obviously equally fascinated. And because we stuck there, Tolkien couldn’t go away and write Lord of the Rings!

He would say the most marvelous things about the way you take a very basic plot and twitch it here and twitch it there—and it becomes a completely different plot.
Perhaps these writers are remembering different series of lectures, and Tolkien was more engaged in the topic of Anglo-Saxon than in his “public lectures.” Perhaps Cooper’s memory of Tolkien is mixed with her memory of Lewis, whom Jones recalls as a polished, popular speaker in a large, packed auditorium.

28 March 2010

Batman Shows Robin the Door

Today’s weekly Robin resumes exploring how the fact that “Robin isn’t evil” developed in the 1980s. At first, the Boy Wonder was as heroic as any other comic-book hero: “regular,” patriotic, a little square. But as superhero comics grew darker, Robin began to shine in a new way.

The process started in 1980, after DC Comics recruited a handful of highly successful writers from Marvel, including Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Roy Thomas. Each had been Marvel Editor-in-Chief for a while—in Thomas’s case for years, in others only a few months. DC publisher Jenette Kahn and newly rehired managing editor Dick Giordano invited those writers to come over to the competition and reshape the DC Universe.

Wein as editor and Wolfman as writer teamed up with artist George Pérez and launched the New Teen Titans. At first, Wolfman was also writing Batman, which allowed him to portray the decades-old character of Robin in two situations: as leader of the young superheroes, and as a frustrated sidekick to Batman. For the first time, the Boy Wonder began to separate from the Dark Knight.

Of course, DC had published stories of Robin on his own before: in Star Spangled Comics starting in the late 1940s, and in the back of Detective, Batman Family, and other magazines in the 1970s. But those adventures didn’t draw a clear distinction between Batman and Robin. The characters still stood for the same things, just in big and little sizes.

In contrast, Wolfman developed friction within the Dynamic Duo. Dick Grayson drops out of Hudson University and worries about how to break this news to his guardian. Yet when Dick comes back to Gotham, he discovers that Bruce Wayne has entered a partnership, perhaps even a romantic relationship, with Talia, daughter of his nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.

“That woman’s destroying you!” Robin tells Batman on the cover of Batman, #330. “Either she goes, or I do!”

“The door is that way, chum,” Batman replies.

Of course, the conversation inside the magazine isn’t so dire. The conflict continues over the next five issues. And, not to spoil this thirty-year-old story, eventually it turns out that Batman was onto Talia’s scheme all along.

Nevertheless, the scenes between Batman and Robin in these issues highlight the difficult aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality. Too often he’s emotionally distant, overbearing, and secretive.

The Dynamic Duo argue about intimidating a young delinquent. Driven by vengeance, Bruce is out to scare people; that is, after all, why he dresses as a giant bat (rather than a stoplight). It also becomes clear that Batman is drawn to the dark side—he’s truly attracted to Talia, and in issue #332 the only other woman Robin can find who might tempt him away is another villain, the Catwoman.

At the end of Wolfman’s extended story, Bruce and Dick are reconciled, Batman and Robin still on the same team. But the two characters no longer symbolized the same values and ideas about heroism. They were now in a dialogue. COMING UP: And that gap widened over the 1980s.

27 March 2010

Feeling Grateful for Sid Fleischman

As a lad, I read a novel about a family of traveling magicians in the Old West. It wasn’t one of my favorite books, but it was entertaining, and parts of it stuck with me. Just not the name of the author.

Until I heard Sid Fleischman speak at an SCBWI New England conference, and he mentioned that his first novel for kids was about a family of traveling magicians in the Old West. The book’s title is Mr. Mysterious & Company.

Sid, who died this month at the age of ninety, went on to write many books that have gained bigger audiences or more awards, such as The Whipping Boy (Newbery Medal), Humbug Mountain (Boston Globe-Horn Book Award), and Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini (Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor). He even has an award named after him, given by SCBWI for the best humorous book for kids.

At that same writing conference, I heard Sid say what he finds necessary to start a story. He’s stated this advice elsewhere, including his memoir The Abracadabra Kid. This formulation is from Tracy Barrett’s website:

The author Sid Fleischman says that one idea is like a stick: you can’t do much with it. But two ideas are like two sticks: you can rub them together, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a fire.
For example, Mr. Mysterious & Company might have been the cross-pollination of Sid’s memories of working as a young magician, his experience as a young father, and the milieu of the classic American western. The Ghost in the Noonday Sun plays off our understandings of both pirates and ghosts. The mix makes resonant but familiar (i.e., potentially cliché) ideas fresh.

I’ve found that advice to be very helpful in developing story ideas. Rather than try to squeeze more out of a single idea, I try laying it alongside another and see if they mix well. Living in a magical world with no magical powers? Kids’ caper with Wodehousean plot twists? Washing out of espionage training? Satire of common classroom projects? Knight who wants to be an inventor? Tale of dual narrators, both with secret identities? The right combination, however arbitrarily generated, sparks off more ideas.

At one SCBWI conference, Sid sat down with a pile of his books to autograph for volunteers. He started to sign The Whipping Boy for me and then got pulled away, so the book came back with half a signature. That evening, Sid heard what had happened and promised me he’d finish signing the book if I’d send it to him. I never got around to doing so because I rather liked the distinction of having a half-autographed book. After all, Sid must have autographed a lot of books in his long career, but I bet he only half-autographed a few.

In a decade or so I may even improve my story and hint that this was the last book that Sid ever started signing. “A writer to the end,” I can murmur, and let people draw their own conclusions about my copy. Somehow I think Sid would get a kick out of that.

26 March 2010

Shelving and Marketing in the Dark

Alaya Dawn Johnson recently wrote on Justine Larbalestier’s blog about the experience of finding her debut fantasy novel Racing the Dark shelved—or actually reshelved in its paperback edition—outside of Borders’s Fantasy section:

Cut to this past Christmas, when my Dad, my sister, my brother and I were all last-minute shopping at the local mall. Like we do every Christmas, we all tromped through the local Borders, looking for presents. This time I was especially excited, because the store claimed to have a copy of my book.

My dad and I searched all through the fantasy section, just so I could experience hasn’t-gotten-old-yet zing of seeing my own work in a bookstore. But Racing the Dark wasn’t there. Finally, we went back to the computers to look for it again.

And we saw what we had missed the first time: though Racing the Dark is clearly labeled “fantasy” on its spine, the powers that be at Borders, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to shelve me in the “African American” section.
Borders indeed recategorized Racing the Dark: the chain’s website lists the hardcover edition under “Popular Fiction - Science Fiction & Fantasy - Science Fiction/Fantasy,” and the paperback edition under “Literature/Fiction - African American - African American Fiction.”

Johnson perceives this as Borders’s choice, but it looks to me like the decision started with her publisher, Agate Publishing. It issued Racing the Dark through Bolden Books, “Agate’s imprint dedicated to publishing both fiction and nonfiction dealing with the African-American experience.” Though it’s unclear whether the “islander” heroine of the book has any connection to “the African-American experience” except as a reflection of one African-American author’s imagination.

Of course, the hardcover was a Bolden book as well. But Agate is now emphasizing Johnson’s ethnic identity more than before. Racing the Dark has the tagline “A brilliant debut fantasy novel with a powerful female sensibility by a youthful writer to watch.” The second title in the trilogy, The Burning City, is “by a brilliant young African-American fantasy novelist with a powerful female sensibility.”

Compared to the figure on the Racing the Dark hardcover (shown here), the model on the paperback is easier to identify as a person of color—though not necessarily one with recent African roots. She’s also wearing less clothing, which might grab customers’ eyes faster.

Unlike Borders, Barnes & Noble doesn’t display categories in its online listings. Then again, Barnes & Noble stores don’t appear to be carrying Racing the Dark as part of their regular inventory. The chain’s buyers apparently passed on the book, deciding it wouldn’t sell enough. If B&N had tried that hardcover, then it based its decision on that edition’s sales.

In contrast, someone at Borders still sees enough potential in Racing the Dark to stock it. But who? The Fantasy and African-American shelves are managed by two different buyers at the chain’s headquarters. (At least “Genre Fiction” and “African-American Fiction/Studies” had different buyers as of a couple of years ago.)

Did the two buyers and Agate’s sales rep discuss the book and decide where it had the best chance of selling? Did the new cover come before or after that discussion? Did the Fantasy buyer pass on Racing the Dark, but the African-American section buyer thought it still deserved a slot in Borders stores? In that case, Agate’s choice would have been not “African-American” or “Fantasy,” but “African-American” or not being stocked at all.

Johnson describes how her family moved the paperback from the “African-American” shelves to “Fantasy” (and gave it a face-out display—as authors and their families often do). However, if that copy sells as a result, the credit will still go to the “African-American” section.

Whatever happened, I’m sure that the people involved—Borders buyers, sales reps, Agate marketers—have every incentive to make Racing the Dark sell as profitably as possible. That’s how corporations are set up. But none has complete freedom of action. Among the limitations, the big chains aren’t set up to try shelving the same edition in multiple sections and see where it sells more. And a small press with a relatively new author doesn’t have the clout to drive them change.

I see an interesting contrast with Racing the Dark in Johnson’s new supernatural thriller, Moonshine, from the much bigger publisher Thomas Dunne, which is part of St. Martin’s, which is part of Macmillan. That book’s bio for “Alaya Johnson” says nothing about the author’s ethnicity, and the cover shows a woman of no color at all. (Of course, she may be a vampire.)

Reflecting my own interests, I also note that Alaya Dawn Johnson scripted The Goblin King in Graphic Universe’s “Twisted Journeys” series, which combines the comics form, prose, and choose-your-own-path storytelling. So I think she is an author to watch.

24 March 2010

Back from Centre County

As far as ice cream in State College, Pennsylvania, I found that the Meyer Dairy Store north of the town center outshone the Berkey Creamery on the Penn State campus.

Plus, the friendly folks at Meyer’s offered directions to this life-size folk-art sculpture of the Tin Woodman, less than three miles further on after a series of county highway forks. The tin man stands, holding oil can and pitchfork, beside a little Tik-Tok and what looks like a metallic representation of Toto.

Photographer Carmen Frost has made greeting cards featuring this assemblage to benefit the Centre County Farmland Trust, and of course I bought a couple. The roadside snapshot above comes from Anne Oeldorfhirsch via Flickr.

22 March 2010

A Tall Order

Back in 2006, I wrote how Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot and Flush relied on flat portrayals of environmental conflicts featuring stereotypical bad guys. (The good guys are fresher and more rounded.)

Specifically, I wrote:

Come on, Carl—how about the story of one of those stupid bullies instead of one with stupid bullies pestering the admirable young protagonist? How about a protagonist who realizes that preserving part of the natural world means sacrificing something he (or she) wants, instead of something the cigar-smoking adult villain wants?
Both those books provide a black-and-white choice with little hint of the sacrifice of short-term convenience for long-term benefits that environmental preservation often requires.

I thought Operation Redwood, by S. Terrell French, might be the sort of book I was looking for. A précis told me that the young hero, Julian, discovers that his uncle is the focus of protests aimed at preserving a stand of redwood trees. Are family loyalty and lifestyle at odds with environmental preservation?

But it turns out that Julian’s Uncle Sibley is a thoroughly dislikable person, an obvious antagonist from chapter 1. In fact, the book establishes him as nasty even before redwoods come into the story. It ends up portraying environmental preservation as a handy way of getting back at your relative for saying bad things about you.

Still looking for a middle-grade caper that dares to acknowledge the trade-offs of environmental preservation, and make them part of a young protagonist’s character growth.

21 March 2010

Sometimes a Guy Just Has to Shout

This weekend I’m traveling to State College, Pennsylvania, where my aunt Elizabeth Allen is retiring as director of the municipal library system. She’s worked for that system for thirty-seven years, starting as a children’s librarian in charge of a bookmobile and rising to the top job three years later.

Of course, back then the Schlow Memorial Library had only 40% of the employees it now has. State College has been a growing city, and the library grew with it, with more than three times the circulation as in 1976. My aunt Betsy oversaw computerizing the system, and then funding and constructing a new building. The Schlow library is now an anchor in a regional system.

I’ve never lived in central Pennsylvania, but I was one of that library’s grateful patrons. In the summer of 1976, Aunt Betsy let me borrow a big box of later Oz books by Ruth Plumly Thompson and John R. Neill, which then were very hard to find. My first airplane trips on my own were to visit her, and my first long vacation road trip included a stop at State College.

Here’s a list of some of Aunt Betsy’s favorite books, including Charlotte’s Web and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; her heart is still in the children’s section. Her recommendation of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way reflects her interest in art; she has a great eye for color, and has displayed and sold her crafts.

In another week I’ll resume discussing how the fact that “Robin isn’t evil” took on new meaning in the 1980s.

20 March 2010

Fitting in Bookstores

On Wednesday January Magazine addressed the question “Where Do Bookstores Fit in an Electronic World?”

Because, let’s face it, all this e-book stuff? We’re going to get it right eventually. The electronic readers will be seamless and easy to operate, everything anyone wants to read will be available in that form and all the concerns some people currently have about privacy and piracy will either be overcome or swallowed down. What I’m saying: with electronic books, it’s no longer a question of “if.” Only a matter of “when” and “how.”

But what about bookstores? Where do they fit? And what are publishers and authors doing to make sure that the lifeblood of the publishing industry doesn’t get cut off?
But if publishers and authors stop getting most of their income from bookstores, then those retail outlets won’t be “the lifeblood of the publishing industry” anymore. They’ll be no more important than the door-to-door booksellers of a century ago. The “publishing industry” is not synonymous with the organizations that happen to comprise it today.

The day after that article appeared, Barnes & Noble announced its new CEO, who came to the company as President with lots of experience in digital commerce (HSN.com, Palm) and none in book retailing. B&N has watched digital distribution take down Tower Records, Blockbuster Video, and other brick-and-mortar market leaders. It’s already trying to ride that change with its own digital book reader, the Nook, and other changes to its business.

Eventually Barnes & Noble could go all-digital, distributing books electronically and through the mail like Amazon and letting all those storefronts turn into Ruby Tuesdays. Or it could find a new way to use that real estate, making them into places for booklovers to congregate for paid events, socializing, and other activities that require a physical presence. Unless, of course, we decide we’d prefer to do all those things digitally, too.

19 March 2010

“The Original Transmedia Storyteller”?

While I was off completing another 12,000-word chapter for a historical study, I had just time enough to notice Anindita Basu Sempere live-tweeting some of Heroes co-creator Tim Kring’s remarks on “transmedia storytelling” at South by Southwest.

Specifically, he made an observation also quoted here at CinemaTech:

We talked about George Lucas as the original transmedia storyteller, introducing characters like Boba Fett on television first (and in a parade!), and then later weaving them into the narrative of the Star Wars films, books, and of course, toy lines.
George Lucas jumped on the possibilities of building his Star Wars universe (and his bank account) through every possible storytelling medium, but he’s far from the earliest example.

Back in the 1940s, the Batman movie serial introduced the bat-cave before the comic books or comic strip went that deep. A few years before that, the Superman radio show gave the world Jimmy Olson, Perry White, kryptonite, and team-ups with the Dynamic Duo before the comics. (As well as “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!…”)

Even earlier than that, back in 1904 L. Frank Baum took details from the highly successful stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and incorporated them into his book series. The old lost king Pastoria and the Tin Woodman’s original name Nick Chopper both appeared on Broadway before The Marvelous Land of Oz. The 1907 Oz book, Ozma of Oz, was the first to tell us that Dorothy’s last name is Gale, but that had been the set-up for a joke on stage five years earlier.

Is it possible to find even earlier examples of transmedia storytelling? What all these works have in common is that they’re not closed narratives so much as fictional worlds in which many stories take place. That sort of approach, and a healthy commercial mindset, would seem to lend itself transmedia storytelling, and perhaps even encourage it.

So what multi-narrative fictional worlds did storytellers build before Oz, and did their various manifestations influence each other and all contribute to a single world? Sherlock Holmes was popular enough to be adapted for the stage while Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing stories, and those dramatic adaptations have greatly shaped our popular image of Holmes, but I’m not aware of Conan Doyle bringing details from the stage into his stories.

Going back further rather quickly takes us into the realm of myths, from Robin Hood to the Golden Legend to the Greek gods. Undoubtedly tales, artwork, songs, and other narrative forms cross-pollinated to build those worlds. But there was no copyright, and no single author had control, so the rules were entirely different.

15 March 2010

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From Jenny Desmond Walters’s interview with Stephen Roxburgh of the children’s-book consultancy namelos, posted at Cynsations:

In your captivating and insightful paper “Word Buckets in Meatspace” posted on Scribd, you describe books as “word buckets” stating that a digital “word bucket” can be just as effective as a printed and bound “word bucket.” Why do you think some publishers, and especially some authors, seem to be so reticent to embrace ebooks?

For publishers, it’s a misguided attempt to protect a deteriorating business model.

For authors, it’s generational.

For those of us who have devoted our lives to books, printed books are objets d’art. They are the highest form of culture. They confer status. They define us. We revere them. No machine can ever have that cachet.

But the iconic value of codex form books is accidental. Strangely enough, youngsters are more focused on the essential value of content than the accidental value of form.

I’m sure some will wince at that assertion, but it’s true. We may not agree with kids’ assessment of the content, but that’s a different issue.

However, those of us who cling to our print books run the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker insisting that he can’t eat ice cream with anything other than his special World’s Fair spoon.
To which the kids would respond, “Who’s Archie Bunker? What’s so special about a World’s Fair?”

Roxburgh notes all the limitations of the printed book that we’ve gotten used to:
Artists didn’t choose to deal with prescribed trim sizes, gutters, bleeds, page turns, 32-pages, four-color reproduction, text blocks to accommodate black plate changes, etc. Those are limitations imposed by press sizes, color-separation and reproduction issues, and economic mandates. Now, the shackles are off! I can’t wait to see what is forthcoming.
One of the most interesting areas, I think, is whether stories must be consumed in a sequence determined by the author. Interactive media make it possible to give readers choices about what they see or read when. But is the gradual and sequential release of information a necessary part of storytelling?

14 March 2010

Robin’s Regular

Last week I proposed the daring theory that Robin the Boy Wonder isn’t evil. And that this is a fundamental part of the character’s appeal and function within the DC Comics mythos—a “Reason for Robin.”

But aren’t all comic-book heroes not evil? Or if not all, isn’t goodness a very common trait in that crowd? Indeed, in the first four decades of DC superhero stories, not being evil doesn’t distinguish Robin from every other costumed crime-fighter we remember.

Of course, it’s still interesting to watch the definition of “not evil” change over those years. At top is the very last panel in Batman, #1, published in early 1940, almost immediately after the Boy Wonder’s debut. Usually that last panel promoted the next issue of Detective Comics, but here it promoted the values Robin stood for.

Or at least the values that writer Bill Finger could come up with on deadline. The alliterative emphasis on “being REGULAR!” and the acronym strike me as signs he was throwing down the first words he could think of. A couple more minutes of thought might have identified Bravery as more valuable to a hero than Brotherhood. And with World War 2 raging in Europe, there might have been a higher value than Nationalism. Then again, regularity means fitting in, not standing out.

Over a quarter-century later, Teen Titans, #3, brought us the panel at left. This magazine was DC’s attempt to claw back some of the youth market from Marvel by teaming up its teenaged sidekicks. Debuting in February 1966, Teen Titans reflected the New Frontier ethos of the preceding few years—and looks completely out of touch with the years to come.

In the magazine’s debut adventure, titled “The Beast-God of Xochatan!”, the US government sends the sidekicks to South America to guard the construction of a hydropower dam. Parachuting into the country (well, Wonder Girl points out that she can fly) as Peace Corps volunteers, the teen heroes find that the disturbances center on an ancient temple that the dam will flood. As the water rises, they see mysterious beasts emanate from the temple itself.

So what do Robin and his friends do, bearing in mind that they’re not evil—according to the values of that time?

  • Find proof that the “god” producing those creatures is actually a real-estate speculator using special effects for his own greedy purposes.
  • Convince the authorities that the mysterious beasts reflect the power of an ancient culture and environment that must be preserved.
  • See that the ancient god and his creatures were just trying to protect their temple home, and let the monument be flooded anyway.
They take the third course. Because not being evil in 1966 meant spreading technological progress and American values around the globe.

By the end of that decade, Robin and the Titans team openly supported progressive causes. Like the early Superman, they tackled the challenge of urban renewal. After a difficult false start, the team included DC Comics’s first costumed black hero. Of course, they never completely embraced the counterculture, and the magazine never mentioned Speedy’s heroin addiction in Green Lantern. According to the larger American culture, Robin remained clearly “not evil.”

In fact, measured against the youth fashions of the day, Dick Grayson was definitely unround. Licensing deals meant he couldn’t grow his hair long or otherwise change his look drastically. He stayed in college throughout the 1970s. Robin was, we might even say, “regular.” And most other DC heroes were as well. But then came 1980.

COMING UP: Batman and Robin take different paths.

12 March 2010

There’s No Place Like Pandora

A link at Bloggity-Blog-Blog sent me to Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Avatar in The New York Review of Books:

Even beyond the incoherence that mars Avatar and hopelessly confuses whatever it thinks its message may be, there is a larger flaw here—one that’s connected to [director James] Cameron’s ambivalence about the relationship between technology and humanity; one that also brings you back, in the end, to The Wizard of Oz…

If it’s right to see the movie as the culmination of Cameron’s lifelong progress toward embracing a dazzling, superior Otherness—in a word, toward Oz—what strikes you, in the end, is how radically it differs, in one significant detail, from its model. Like the 1939 classic, the 2009 film ends with a scene of awakening. . . . The final image of the redeemed and healed Jake waking up to his new Na’vi life is clearly meant, then, to be a triumphant rewriting of that sour acknowledgment.

But the implications of this awakening—in a character that Cameron himself described as an unconscious rewriting of The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy (“it was, in some ways, like Dorothy’s journey”)—are not only different from but opposite to the implications of Dorothy’s climactic wakening. When Dorothy wakes up, it’s to the drab, black-and-white reality of the gritty Kansas existence with which she had been so dissatisfied at the beginning of her remarkable journey into fantasy, into vibrant color; what she famously learns from that exposure to radical otherness is, in fact, that “there’s no place like home.” Which is to say, when she wakes up—equipped, to be sure (as she was not before) with all that she has learned from her remarkable odyssey, not the least of which is a strong new awareness of her own human abilities—she wakes up to the realities, and the responsibilities, of the human world she'd temporarily escaped from.
This is, of course, an entirely movie-centered understanding of The Wizard of Oz. In the books, once America no longer has anything for Dorothy Gale—the depressed farm economy having chewed up her family and spat them out—she moves the whole family to the Emerald City.

10 March 2010

Real Sensations

New Scientist and Chemical and Engineering News have been joking about the boast on redesigned packages of Sensations potato crisps (reportedly Ireland’s most popular brand) that they’re “made with real ingredients.”

“Fears of imaginary ingredients were, apparently, unfounded,” said C&E News.

But look at that logo! The giant S contains a phoenix and a dragon. I’d want to be very sure there wasn’t magic mixed into those Thai Sweet Chili Flavour Crisps.

(Sensations available in North America through A Bit of Home, “Canada’s foremost purveyor of imported Irish and British goods.”)

09 March 2010

What Makes Day-Glo Brothers Shine

Early this year I had the honor to be on the panel to judge the Cybils Award for Nonfiction Picture Book. The winner was The Day-Glo Brothers, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tony Persiani, which has also received other honors.

As Barton describes in an afterword, this book began when he read an obituary about Bob Switzer, one of the brothers who invented Day-Glo paint sixty years ago. Barton recognized how the Switzers’ history falls into a classic problem-quest-solution structure, which children can easily relate to.

Furthermore, that narrative involved colors, making it ideal for a picture book, one of the genres where our book industry expects books to be printed in full color and budgets accordingly. In fact, Charlesbridge printed The Day-Glo Brothers with Day-Glo inks. Tony Persiani’s illustrations start out in muted grays and pastels, and gradually become brighter—and brighter still.

One reason I thought The Day-Glo Brothers stood out even more from other good nonfiction picture books is that it’s the first popular book on its subject. It required original research from private sources and old articles. It had to explain unfamiliar science about “daylight fluorescence.”

(Though a printed book can go only so far, of course. Charlesbridge posted a video to demonstrate the science. Wish I had that capability when I was trying to explain interference patterns making the rainbow colors on bubbles in Soap Science.)

A lot of children’s nonfiction titles go over the same ground as books that have already been published for adults, sometimes rather recently. Often the authors have done their own research as well, as Tanya Lee Stone did for the Sibert-winning Almost Astronauts. (In that case, the adult forerunner is The Mercury 13, by Martha Ackmann, published in 2003.) Lots of children’s nonfiction focuses on topics that have already been written about a lot, in quite similar ways, as Dave Elzey recently discussed in regard to biography.

Of course, there’s still a lot of art and craft necessary to translate books for adults into stories that much younger readers can understand and relate to. One author can be inspired, even guided, by another yet reach different conclusions with different emphases. But when another book has been published, it’s simply easier for a busy children’s author to locate sources and even a narrative structure. And it’s a lot easier to convince publishers and libraries that ”there’s a worthwhile book here.”

So I give The Day-Glo Brothers extra points for being the first book about the Switzer brothers and their new kinds of paint. It affirms that the best children’s nonfiction depends on the same rigorous research as the best nonfiction for grown-ups.

07 March 2010

Reason for Robin, #10

Yesterday I discussed the Spectre, DC Comics’s most powerful character—a godlike embodiment of vengeance. Today we see him discussing the nature of life with a little girl.

Okay, a little dead girl, or ghost, who was murdered by her brother and got the job of escorting souls to the afterlife. She was named Greta, and has been using the name Secret as a member of the Young Justice team of 1990s kid sidekicks and teen heroes. That team had its own quirky comic book, mostly written by Peter A. David and mostly drawn by Todd Nauck, from 1998 to 2003.

At this point in DC Universe history, the man inside the Spectre is Hal Jordan, the second Green Lantern. (Long story.) And he’s explaining life as he sees it.But then Secret has an idea for someone who’s even less evil than Harrison Ford. This exchange reflects how, in the Young Justice saga, Secret is working through a crush on Tim Drake as Robin. But it also expresses an important element of how the character of Robin functions in the DC Universe.

Reason for Robin, #10: Robin isn’t evil.

COMING UP: But aren’t all superheroes, by definition, not evil? And what about Jason and Damian?

06 March 2010

Getting to Know the Spectre

If Superman grew from Jerry Siegel’s fantasy of how a near-sighted, Aspie nerd could beat up bullies, the Spectre was his fantasy of righting all the injustice in the world—and beat up bullies so bad they’d never walk again, or possibly even have legs.

Siegel created the Spectre in 1940, two years after the first issue of Action Comics introduced readers to Superman. Hard as it is to imagine, the Spectre was actually more powerful than the Man of Steel, and has stayed so, even as Superman’s strength grew to planet-moving levels.

In fact, the Spectre has so much power that he’s a plotting challenge. No force seems capable of standing up to him. In the Spectre story reprinted in Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, the hero investigates a tenement fire by interviewing a soul, seeping through a roof, flying, becoming invisible, paralyzing a man’s legs, turning flames to ice, growing gigantic, reading a man’s mind, and finally just willing the main villain to die. And he makes it look easy.

The thrill in these stories can’t come from worrying about the Spectre when he seems to be beaten. Instead, it lies in seeing what awesome new power he comes up with next. Among comic-book heroes, only Fletcher Hanks’s Stardust doled out more overpowering vengeance in every story, and Hanks was actually insane.

Comicvine lists the Spectre’s “usual” powers as:

  • Intangibility
  • Flight—fly at any speed
  • Invisibility
  • Teleportation
  • Fear Projection—can project fear into the heart and souls of adversaries
  • Inanimate Possession—inhabit and animate inanimate objects
  • Illusion Casting—ability to project realistic illusions
  • Magic Mastery—various mastery over virtually all forms of magic
  • Discern Motivation—can sense the intentions of people
  • Cosmic Awareness—knows many secrets of the universe
  • Precognition—sometimes gets glimpses into the future
  • Superhuman Strength
  • Superhuman Stamina
  • Superhuman Speed
  • Invulnerability
And that just scratches the surface. In the Spectre’s case “Superhuman Strength” is more like “as strong as the gravitational pull of small stars.”

The Spectre uses all those powers for just one thing: vengeance. He’s so single-minded that in the 1980s DC’s writers decided that the Spectre is in fact the wrath of God. He feels no mercy, no compassion, and no limits. He plows through the world unstoppably, leaving the evildoers who catch his attention as quivering, half-human wrecks.

The magazine that featured most of the Spectre’s early adventures was called, naturally, More Fun.

TOMORROW: The Spectre’s judgment on Robin.

04 March 2010

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From the Institute for Children’s Literature web interview with Deborah Lynn Jacobs, author of Powers and Choices, on coming up with a plot:

I tend to think of a premise—a “what if?” Then, I imagine the kind of character who will suffer the most in this situation.
And, as Lester Dent said, “swat him with a fistful of trouble.”

An even more useful observation Jacobs makes is that “every person has their own creative process”:
I fill up two or three full sized notebooks, longhand, for each book—plot ideas, characterization stuff, what ifs and so on. I’ve tried sticky notes—didn’t work. Tried a white board—didn’t work. Tried index cards—REALLY didn’t work!
What matters is the manuscript you come out with, not how you got there.

02 March 2010

From Codex to App

Last night at one of my writers’ groups we were all scrunched around a smartphone looking at the digital version of one member’s reissued picture book: Peterkin Meets a Star, by Emilie Boon (also available via iTunes).

Someone asked what we should call this form. It’s a smartphone “app,” and yet Emilie’s creation as author-illustrator is the content, not the software application that makes the pages flip or the sound. So should we call it a “book that runs on an app”?

Peterkin Meets a Star’s first published form was, technologically, a codex. That method of storing information, developed in the late Roman Empire, consists of thin pieces of material bound together along one side with pictures and symbols inked onto each flat surface. One takes in the information by flipping from one piece of material to the next.

The codex was a big improvement over the scroll, and has been so useful for such a long time that the form became synonymous with a ”book,” the term we also use for the information itself. But now we’re seeing the content of books made available in non-codex forms.

At first these new forms were made to resemble codices, as in how audiobooks on tape or CDs were packaged, and how the first electronic book readers are designed. But now books in audio and visual (and in Peterkin’s case, audiovisual) format are available with no physical existence at all above the molecular level. They’re no longer hardware, so the term “app” becomes a little more appropriate.

I suspect it will take a while for our terminology to settle down, and the result will depend on the habits we pick up as much as strict logic. (See the precedents of novel, cartoon, comic, graphic novel, reality show, etc.)

01 March 2010

The First Time Superman Saw Robin

Yesterday I laid out the mystery of when Superman and Robin appeared in the same story for the first time—on the Superman radio show in 1945. Although the two characters and Batman were on all the covers of World’s Finest Comics and its forerunners, there was no story of Superman meeting the Dynamic Duo until years later.

But when exactly did it air? Some sources say 3 March, others 5 September. This weekly Robin extra offers an answer—and I think both those dates are wrong. Radio drama expert Jim Harmon’s detailed description of the show (quoted yesterday) ends with Batman having been turned into a wax figure, which points to the story “The Mystery of the Waxmen,” broadcast from 28 Feb to 15 Mar 1945, according to this episode guide. (Other websites suggest that story started on Monday, 26 Feb 1945, but cite no source.) Those episodes bracket the 3 March date Harmon gives, though that was a Saturday, when the show didn’t air.

Googling “The Mystery of the Waxmen,” I lucked out and found episodes dated 1 and 2 Mar 1945, the second and third installments, available for downloading from Old Radio World.

The 1 March episode starts with a description of a strangely dressed boy found unconscious in a drifting rowboat—in the previous episode. That’s the “our story so far” summary.

So the first appearance of Robin and Superman in the same story actually occurred on 28 February 1945. Their first conversation was on 1 March, and the first time Superman spots Batman (in a highly waxed state) was 2 March.

Alas, I haven’t found a source for the subsequent episodes, when Superman and Batman first converse. Those recordings appear not to have survived.

Listening to those episodes shows that the descriptions of the story that I quoted yesterday from E. Nelson Bridwell and Jim Harmon aren’t exact. Robin does make his entrance unconscious in a drifting rowboat. But the characters who go out to rescue him are Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson. Then the bad guys crash into them with a speedboat, and Superman rescues all three.

I rather liked the first episode, in which Superman recognizes the unconscious costumed boy as Robin before resuming his role as Clark Kent to summon medical help. He hides Robin’s costume to preserve his secret identity, but then Dick Grayson wakes up and insists on speaking only to Superman. Lois and Jimmy won’t leave Clark alone with the boy so he can explain, and… Well, trust me—as radio adventure shows go, it’s actually amusing.

Superman was played by Bud Collyer, Robin by Ronald Liss. And Batman…well, Batman makes no sound in these episodes, so no one played him.