29 August 2010

1989: Year Without a Robin?

As 1989 began, it was the first year since 1940 that DC Comics had no character named Robin appearing (at least occasionally) as Batman’s young assistant. Toward the end of the previous year, fans had voted to let the Joker kill Jason Todd, the latest Robin.

The Batman editorial team was reeling from fans’ criticism of the character of Jason and from wider criticism of the decision to show his death. Interviews and introductions to Batman collections published around that time show how editor Dennis O’Neil was feeling more than a little shell-shocked.

To be sure, the company was still publishing stories about Dick Grayson, the original Robin, in his new guise as Nightwing. Those stories, in The New Titans, were among the company’s top sellers. And DC still owned the Robin trademark, which had been a source of licensing revenue for decades. But there was no Robin in the Batman comic books, and at least a possibility that there would be no replacement.

That year looked like it would be huge for Batman. It was the fiftieth anniversary of when the character debuted (without Robin). Warner Bros. would bring out a major Batman movie by director Tim Burton in the summer (without Robin).

Furthermore, some graphic novels had pushed Batman into more adult territory, including Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham’s Son of the Demon (1987), and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke (1988). Neither of those volumes included Robin.

Frank Miller’s future-set The Dark Knight Returns (1986) debuted a new Robin in Carrie Kelley, but also presciently portrayed Jason Todd as dead and Dick Grayson as estranged from his mentor—hinting that there had been no Robin for years.

In fact, some comics readers and creators were insisting that Robin no longer made sense in the Batman mythos. Grant Morrison couldn’t convince Dave McKean to include Jason in their Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel, due to be published in 1989. Morrison later wrote:

The original first draft of the script included the character of Robin as Batman’s sidekick. Robin appeared in a few scenes at the beginning then remained at Police Headquarters for the bulk of the book, where he spent his time studying plans and histories of the house, in order to find a way in to help his mentor.

Dave McKean, however, felt that he had already compromised his artistic integrity sufficiently by drawing Batman and refused point blank to bend over for the Boy Wonder—so after one brave but ridiculous attempt to put him in a trench coat, I wisely removed him from the script.
Not entirely, though. The Joker tries to unnerve Batman by alluding to his unseen partner: “How is the Boy Wonder? Started shaving yet? . . . a cute little long-legged boy in swimming trunks?” Those remarks underscored how poorly the character seemed to fit in a more realistic, more dangerous crime-fighting world.

The Batman movie became a huge hit, spawning three sequels. (I didn’t care for it myself.) Arkham Asylum, benefiting from coming out alongside the movie, sold half a million copies. Batman comic-book sales soared. Those developments helped touch off a speculative boom in the comics industry over the next few years. In sum, it didn’t look like Batman needed Robin to be a hit anymore.

But O’Neil and his writers were already planning a replacement for Jason Todd.

COMING UP: Her name was the Huntress.

28 August 2010

New Wizard of Oz Musical, Sort of

Today I read a newspaper item about open auditions for the part of Dorothy Gale in a new musical. I tracked down the website behind it all, and this turns out to be publicity (and casting) for a show with the unfortunate name of WiZaRD. And this being America in 2010, there’s also a reality-show component, with audiences choosing who will get the role.

Although the poster has an Oz theme (MGM movie strand), and this open audition focuses on Dorothy, the show itself appears to be a one-set “jukebox musical,” suitable for national tours:

WiZaRD is a musical production centered on the hits of Oscar-winning composer Harold Arlen. The show unfolds in the mythical radio studios of WiZaRD whose set design combines the nostalgic feel of yesteryears studios with the high-tech studios of today. This collection of vignettes, based on Arlen’s most nostalgic songs, includes a Wizard of Oz scene, taken from the imagination of Frank Baum on the eve of the creation of his Oz characters.

Audiences are taken on a journey from the Cotton Club years, through the golden age of Hollywood, to the Broadway stage ...And to the land of OZ!

The new DOROTHY makes her debut alongside The THREE CROONERS, in this heartwarming family-friendly stage production slated to open at Jazz At Lincoln Center, December 2010.
Not that there’s anything wrong with hearing more Harold Arlen.

27 August 2010

Members Will Rightly Wonder

When Oz and Ends last took note of William Donohue, self-appointed leader of the Catholic League, he had discovered that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series depicted an oppressive church. Rather than express thanks that his own church wasn’t so oppressive, Donohue decided that Pullman must have been attacking Catholicism. Curiously, Donohue chose not to take action until when there was a movie on the way and he could get more publicity.

Now he’s put himself back in the news complaining that the Empire State Building management isn’t putting up special lights for the centenary of Mother Theresa. Never mind that she herself wouldn’t want such foofaraw, as the New York Times reports:

“I concede the point that she would not want any attention drawn to her,” Mr. Donohue said in an e-mail in response to a question. But he added: “I have a mission, and it is that of an advocacy group, a pressure group, if you will. I do not run a pastoral institute.”

“If I allow a cultural elite like [the Empire State Building owner] to get away with this with just a shrug, my members would rightly wonder what has happened to me,” he said.
It would be hard to come up with clearer evidence that the Catholic League’s manufactured controversy isn’t about Mother Theresa. It’s about William Donohue, and his fundraising viability. Members might wish to wonder about that.

26 August 2010

Where to Shelve the “Graphic Novels”?

Shelf Awareness’s current issue on graphic novels discusses some different approaches to selling comics in bookstores:

Powell’s separates its graphic novels into Manga (and separately, the sexually explicit manga genre Yaoi), Superheroes, Graphic Novels General, Toons (comic strips like Doonesbury), Classic Toons (Little Orphan Annie, for example) and Toon History, which includes works like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Graphic novels for kids are shelved separately.

Notably, fiction and nonfiction are not separated, though [new book purchasing supervisor Gerry] Donaghy said that “as more different kinds of graphic novels continue to be introduced, it seems inevitable that we will be further sub-categorizing graphic novels.”
A smaller store, closer to home, has gone the other way, consolidating all the comics titles together because their customers don’t separate out:
In 2007, when Riverrun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., started to raise the profile of graphic novels, the store had separate sections for adults and young adults. Later, however, the store combined all the graphic novels into one section. “We thought at first that the kids graphic novel section would be more successful, but it wasn’t,” buyer Michele Filgate explained. “It’s mostly adults and older teens who buy comics” at Riverrun, so having them all in one place made for better sales among customers who weren’t likely to venture into the kids’ section.
Of course, it has nothing to do with the maturity of comics readers.

Finally, one store even takes the daring approach of treating books in comics form like other books on the same topics:
Dan Kusunoki at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, Calif., has been experimenting with this approach, and said, “It works great.” For example, Darwyn Cooke’s noirish story The Hunter is shelved in crime fiction/mystery, and Kusunoki has been delighted to shelve Asterios Polyp (David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel of philosophy, architecture and relationships) next to works by Ayn Rand.
Of course, that’s in California.

Shelving in a good retail store is driven by what sells best for that store, which means it’s driven by what we customers expect and how we behave, which means it doesn’t have to follow any logic at all.

25 August 2010

Mythologizing Toronto

Yesterday I started quoting from Chris Randle’s interview with Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of the Scott Pilgrim books. Late in the conversation they get deep into the meaning of Toronto:

BLO’M: I can tell you my new metaphorical structure for the book [vol. 6, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour], based on last year. Gideon is Edgar [Wright, movie director], and I’m Envy [local girl who’s been made into a singing star]. He came back to town and started this whole industry, and gave people jobs, and pushed everything around to feed ourselves. I was just kind of along for the ride. So yeah, I feel like in this book I identified most with Envy Adams, which is truly disturbing. . . .

I was gonna do a promo strip for the book that was…all these Toronto luminaries gushing about Gideon coming to town…It was gonna be, like, Chris Murphy and all that kind of stuff.

CR: Margaret Atwood.

BLO’M: Margaret Atwood [laughs]. People saying what a genius he is and stuff. I should still do that, it’d be fun. . . .

CR: I’m really interested to see how Toronto reacts to it specifically, because – I think Scott Pilgrim is part of the general comics zeitgeist in this past decade, maybe the representative series from what a younger generation of North Americans are doing. But also I think it was part of a smaller local thing in Toronto, starting around 2002 or 2003…celebrating or mythologizing [the city].

BLO’M: Yeah. Yeah. I kind of accidentally was in the right place at the right time. People always ask me about Toronto, what it is about Toronto, questions like that, and I’ve never really had a statement. I guess Scott Pilgrim is my statement on Toronto. I don’t think it’s conclusive in any way, but…I only lived there for three, four years. I just happened to be there. I was nobody. It was really weird to go back last year and be introduced to Chris Murphy and Broken Social Scene and all those guys, to have them be like: “Where did you hang out? Why didn’t we know you?” Because I was a fucking nerdy cartoonist! That’s why you didn’t know me, I’m not a rock star.

CR: [laughs] That’s great. I think it’s because Toronto is a really big city, but one that didn’t – I mean, it’s not like New York, where there’s whole layers of lore…

BLO’M: It doesn’t have that weird history, that mythologized history that New York has or L.A. . . . I’ve always been intimidated by New York for that reason, because there’s too many stories. It’s been [so] fictionalized that I can’t really comprehend it.

CR: And L.A., in a different sense, the glitzy sense. But Toronto didn’t have – it had boring, conservative Protestantism…

BLO’M: Conservative white people, yeah.

CR: But there was all this raw material.

BLO’M: Yeah, and I feel like I’ve maybe unfairly mythologized Toronto. I’ve definitely seen kids being like: “I want to move to Canada now!” And, um…it’s cool, but it’s just a city.
Is it perhaps characteristically Canadian to feel guilty about making a big, cosmopolitan city look like an interesting place to live?

I feel compelled to tell a story about Honest Ed’s, a Toronto landmark that serves as a major setting in the third Scott Pilgrim volume. Honest Ed’s is a discount and salvage store that looks like a cross between the old Spag’s, the Corn Palace, and a Las Vegas casino. It’s garish and commercial and more than faintly embarrassing. Scott actually needs goggles when he’s inside.

But when I read that scene, I remembered a secret about Honest Ed’s. When my first book was being published, the head of the press told me that firm’s landlord was Honest Ed. He liked having publishers, galleries, and other cultural institutions in the neighborhood, so he gave them good rates on office space. That garish, commercial embarrassment was actually a pillar of Toronto’s art scene.

So what does that say about Toronto? There are plenty of stories under its surface. The real myth of Toronto might be its “boring, conservative Protestantism.”

24 August 2010

They Don’t Teach Subspace in Canadian Schools

One aspect of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books that I haven’t seen discussed enough is their Canadianness. Not just that the series was started and set in Toronto, and how most of its characters are Canadian, but how it depicts that city and the great nation surrounding it.

Of course, the American media wouldn’t take notice of that quality. And even the Canadian entertainment media skips that stuff mostly. But when Canadian comics journalist Chris Randle gets to publish the unprinted portions of his Toronto Globe & Mail interview with O’Malley on his blog, then it all comes out!

CR: The fact that Gideon opens up his sinister, decadent lair, his Legend of Zelda boss lair, at—

BLO’M: At this homeless shelter.

CR: Yeah, the corner with all the junkies and homeless people at Queen & Bathurst! It plays into all those debates about gentrification, and…

BLO’M: Yeah, totally. And Gideon is, you know, this American guy coming to town and making his own luxury bullshit…
That combination of awe and resentment toward America surfaces in volume 1 when Ramona Flowers brings Scott his Amazon.ca package. He asks how she was in his dream.

Ramona mentions the subspace highway through Scott’s head. “Is this something they don’t teach in Canadian schools?” she asks. “You guys probably just don’t know about them in Canada. I was wondering why they were always so empty up here.”

To which Scott can only reply, “So…um, I guess you’re American?”

Because who else would have such a casual attitude toward awesome power and other people’s space? Roller-skating through Scott’s dreams isn’t just a metaphor for a boy becoming infatuated with a girl. At that moment it also becomes a synedoche for how Canada views its southern neighbor.

But there’s hope for Ramona yet. In volume 6, she’s disappeared. Everyone assumes she’s gone back to Gideon (i.e., America). But at the end she reveals ***yeah, yeah, SPOILER*** that she went to her dad’s on a sort of “wilderness sabbatical”—just as Wallace and Kim told Scott to do. In other words, she’s become a little more Canadian.

TOMORROW: Toronto, city of myth.

23 August 2010

Google d’Espalier

Yesterday I decided the language needs a new term: “Google d’espalier.”

It derives from the French “esprit d’espalier,” or “staircase wit,” meaning the riposte or witticism that occurs to a person as he or she is leaving the party, well after it would have been most apropos. They usually end up in diaries and memoirs, though some people have been able to use them in carefully writing up the occasion for a newspaper.

“Google d’espalier” is the sad triumph of looking up some fact after it would have been useful—after a discussion has moved on, an argument has died down, or the person seeking information is gone, no longer able to be helped or impressed.

Yesterday, for example, a visitor to Longfellow National Historic Site asked us whom Radcliffe College was named after. After he departed, I was able to cadge a wireless signal and determine that the name came from Lady Ann Mowlson, née Radcliffe (1576-1661), who endowed the first scholarship at Harvard—i.e., someone with as early but tenuous a connection to the Cambridge college as John Harvard had.

But of course by then it was too late.

(Photograph above of Fay House, the first building acquired by Radcliffe and renovated by Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, Jr., with funds from Alice Longfellow, as shown on the handsome Historic Buildings of Massachusetts archive.)

22 August 2010

Don’t You Hate When This Happens?

Dick demonstrates Reason for Robin, #5: He slips, he falls! Of course, who wouldn’t?

From Detective Comics, #300, “The Bizarre Polka-Dot Man!”

20 August 2010

Being Dyspeptic about Dystopics

Back in February, Karen Springen wrote in Publishers Weekly about this year’s crop of dystopian fiction for teens, and theorized:

Why now? Newspaper headlines about swine flu, terrorism, global warming, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are inspiring authors—and making kids feel uneasy. Some publishers also point to publicity surrounding December 21, 2012, the end of the 5,126-year Mayan calendar—supposedly an apocalyptic sign.

Still, most editors and authors credit lingering unease from the World Trade Center attacks.
Of course, any literary trend is a combination of interest from authors and publishers and interest from readers, working in a feedback loop. Those titles are probably getting extra attention because of The Hunger Games, which in turn may owe some of its success to City of Ember.

Beth Davis at the Spectacle posits a natural affinity between teens and dystopian literature:
That’s one reason why I think it appeals to teens so much. There is a lot out of teens’ control–a lot out of all of our control. We can’t really single-handedly sway our government to enter to leave a war. We can’t prevent a natural disaster–or a man-made one, probably. We are, in the end, rather insignificant. It’s when we’re teens that we first start to realize that the world is so unfair, and there’s only so much we can do.
Since teen lit is all the rage now (the New York Times Book Review says so!), genres that teens like would naturally sell better than ever.

Dan Wells is another observer who sees the reason for dystopias’ popularity in the times we live in:
Dystopia is huge right now, especially in YA. This is probably due to the fact that we live in one–or, more correctly, this is due to the fact that YA readers are finally paying close enough attention to realize that we live in one. The last time American teens were politically savvy enough to care about the condition of our country was in the 60s, with the Vietnam war, and I think that has a lot of parallels to today.
However, I’d like to see a rigorous analysis of these hypotheses connecting the literature to the times. Other periods of widespread unease and pessimism should correlate with other spikes in dystopic fiction. But do they?

And that doesn’t mean looking back at years when notable dystopic novels were published and finding stuff people worried about then; we humans always have something to worry about. It means finding a way to measure social unease and a way to identify spikes in dystopian fiction. Sounds like a master’s project. Anyone?

19 August 2010

The Scott Pilgrim Movie Spoiled

The movie adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics novel offers a curious lesson. Some scenes are recreated almost exactly, particularly from the first four volumes. But toward the end the movie departs so much from the original that I found it undercut the very themes it was trying to get across. (And speaking of “the end,” be assured that this posting contains SPOILERS.)

Writer-director Edgar Wright made the movie even as O’Malley completed his graphic saga, and the plots diverge more and more as the stories unfold. It’s possible that the screenplay reflects what O’Malley was planning in the middle of his project. Or it might reflect the different sensibility of Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall. A big factor, I’m sure, were the requirements of movie storytelling.

The books take place over many months; the movie compresses the same core story into about a single week. We thus lose the cycle of seasons, the Canadian wilderness retreats, the band’s prolonged attempt to record an album. There’s too little time for Scott Pilgrim’s Big Steps—getting a job, moving into an apartment of his own (albeit paid for by his parents). While that compressed timeframe changes the tenor of the story, however, it doesn’t change its essence.

In one respect, I thought the movie made more of a narrative element than the books. The extra life Scott wins in volume 3 becomes not just a way to survive Gideon’s attack in volume 6, but also a chance for Scott to make things right to his friends, à la Groundhog Day. He gets to play level 7 all over again.

Other changes had diminishing returns. A lot of the secondary characters’ stories had to be sliced away. We don’t see, for example, Stephen Stills at work in the kitchen, recording with Joseph, breaking up with Julie, and so on. [Hey, I’m not spoiling everything.] Such compression is common in adapting novels for the big screen. Alas, the effect of this cutting means fewer reminders that a lot of life goes on around Scott while he doesn’t notice.

The screenplay’s second significant narrative change is to make Scott’s decisions more crucial to how scenes are resolved. In volume 3, Todd loses his vegan powers because he’s an arrogant rock star who never gave up gelato. It’s just a happy coincidence that the vegan police arrive when Todd’s about to finish Scott off. That may seem like a narrative defect, but Scott’s precious little life is founded on happy coincidences that he thinks he deserves.

In contrast, the movie Todd’s powers are taken away after the movie Scott tricks him into drinking coffee with half and half. The book Scott would need a lot longer than a week to come up with such a cunning plan, and would never be able to control his thoughts so effectively.

As another example, Young Neil’s big moment arrives not because Scott blithely drops the “Young” from his name, but because he takes over the bass guitar—he becomes a new Scott Pilgrim. Then Scott overtly declares that from now on the lad will be known as “Neil.”

Only in the movie does main villain Gideon offer the band Sex Bob-Omb a recording contract. That’s an obvious ploy to control them, and Scott alone refuses to sign. The other band members get shrunk into foils for the hero, whereas in the books they’re usually more grounded than he is.

The major characters who suffer most from the changes are Scott’s old girlfriends. Kim Pine loses her best moments in volumes 5 and 6. Knives Chau shows up to help Scott in his final fight (turning a couple’s moment into a threesome), and then dutifully sends him off after his new girlfriend. Envy Adams never makes her curtain call at the Chaos Theatre.

In other words, the movie has become All About Scott. Yet its stated theme, as in the books, is that Scott has to recognize that the world isn’t All About Scott. During the climactic fight in the volume 6, Scott gains the Power of Understanding. At the equivalent moment in the movie, he gains the Power of Self-Respect. But Scott Pilgrim already had more Self-Respect than he deserved.

Toward the end of both books and movie, Nega-Scott shows up—the embodiment of all the evil Scott has unthinkingly done. In the books, Scott must absorb Nega-Scott, accepting the reality of his past behavior. In the movie, Nega-Scott turns out to be “a nice guy.” That’s just wrong.

All told, the changes to Scott Pilgrim combine to produce a smaller, more focused story, appropriate to a two-hour commercial movie—yet a story that ends up working against itself.

18 August 2010

Edgar Wright Gets It Together

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World offers delightful cinematic storytelling. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed simply watching a film unspool as much since, well, Edgar Wright’s last movie, Hot Fuzz.

As critic Douglas Wolk noted in this roundtable, the movie resembles Run, Lola, Run in its kinetic energy and willingness to bend the visual medium to tell its story. A very different story, of course—no bank robberies, but several examples of alternate ways things could happen.

Scott Pilgrim’s visual aesthetic combines elements of:

  • videogames, with onscreen status updates.
  • comics, with sound effects, labels, and captions “showing the invisible,” as well as lots of split screens to evoke panels.
  • slapstick comedy, both silent and screwball types.
Michael Cera may play up Scott Pilgrim’s nebbishy cluelessness rather than his straight cluelessness, but he got so much right about the character’s blithe egotism—not Cera’s usual character by any means. The movie also makes clear, probably even clearer than in the books, that Scott’s friends are on to him. They know he’s barely holding onto loveable loser status, especially since he sees himself as more loveable and less of a loser than he really is.

As for the supporting cast, in reading reviews, I was struck by how different critics singled out different performances (once they got past praising Kieran Culkin’s Wallace). Each believed a distinct set of actors stole their scenes. There was a big divide about female lead Elizabeth Winstead; one review found her portrayal empty while another said she had exactly the mysterious allure that the role called for. I thought she was just fine, though the character wasn’t as full as in the books.

I particularly liked Brandon Routh, just as I liked him on Chuck last year. As with George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and Dean Cain, Routh’s career was changed forever when he was cast as Superman. But unlike those other actors, his movie wasn’t a hit, saddling him with both typecasting and taint. Perhaps as a result, Routh keeps getting roles as too-handsome, too-capable guys that you want to hate. And he keeps knocking his line readings into the next solar system.

All that said, I thought this Scott Pilgrim movie ended up undercutting its own themes because of the moviemakers’ storytelling choices. Much more about that tomorrow.

17 August 2010

Had to Find Other Ways to Waste My Time

Despite my birthdate, I’ve never gotten into video games. At least, not since I enjoyed a simple Star Trek game that worked like Battleship with photon torpedos. That was in the late 1970s, I believe; my mom was bringing home an early Apple with a shoebox modem to work on her second bachelor’s.

Once that fun was over, however, I never spent an afternoon loading quarters into an arcade machine. I never owned any home system. I helped a friend get through one challenge in Myst, and then lost interest. I like sudoku and solitaire on my handheld, but those are simply paperless versions of the original.

Last month Godson showed me a version of Lego Batman on a handheld device. The particular challenge engrossing him at that moment involved running around Wayne Manor hitting things so they turned into checkers pieces. (I suppose those are Lego coins.) Robin tagged along, every so often hopping back out of Batman’s way. I silently lamented the lack of character development.

Given all that, I might seem like a poor candidate to enjoy Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series and the new movie adaptation. Those stories reflect the outlook of a young man whose view has been colored by videogame pixels, so he thinks of life in character ratings (“awesome”), challenge levels, fights, and prizes.

But the details of Scott’s worldview aren’t hard to figure out. And its fundamentals are similar what we see in the story of Walter Mitty, Catherine Morland, or Don Quixote. All those characters try to view their worlds through the screen of some shiny, scary new storytelling form. And their basic narrative journeys all involve discovering what’s real about life, and what’s real about themselves. The rest is detail.

16 August 2010

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

Alicia at Editorrent discusses one powerful aspect of writing within genres, or what she calls “pop fic”:

I think of popular fiction as a type of folk art (like folk music), building on a long tradition, with old practitioners teaching new respect for the tradition, and the new ones innovating in often subtle ways while maintaining the traditions. Well, one advantage this gives pop fic writers is that we can count on readers to know the traditions about as well as we do, and that gives us an additional layer to build on: What is expected.

We pop fic writers can play on the traditions, tease reader expectation, present the expected and then withdraw it and replace it with something new. The "something new" is more fun, more surprising, more meaningful, balanced on the familiar and expected. That is, we get double here-- the reader is set up for the familiar, kind of writes the familiar story in her mind, and so has that done when the writer presents something contrasting, something unexpected.
And then the posting goes all Hegelian. I’m going to have to think more about that part.

Last week I heard that I’ll be delivering my “Writing Within and Without Genre” presentation for SCBWI New England in Providence on 30 October.

15 August 2010

Jason Todd Had to Die Before He Could Soar

As recent weekly Robins have described, in late 1988 the Batman magazine depicted the Joker killing Jason Todd, the latest Boy Wonder. This was big news in the American comics world, big enough to intrude into actual newspapers for a while, particularly because readers themselves had voted through 900 numbers whether the character would live or die. Observers both in and outside the industry complained that this whole process was crass and ghoulish.

And it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Jason Todd.

To explain myself, I turn once again to this passage from Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics:

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

Virtually every major superhero franchise, actually, can be looked at in terms of a particular metaphor that underscores all of its best stories.
Before he died, the symbolic significance of Jason Todd’s character—the collection of ideas he represented—was still hazy. There were several reasons for that: Jason’s death in late 1988 clarified the mysteries in a most final way. The angry, disobedient teen was now the personality people would most remember, and there was an end to his story, defining its meaning.

Jason Todd had become a narrative experiment about what sort of personality could be Robin. The result was a clear confirmation of the tacit hypothesis that Robin isn’t evil. Jason’s tenure as the Boy Wonder was officially, undeniably a failure.

Readers could argue about whose failure it was. Did Jason himself fail to live up to the Robin ideal? Did Batman fail to protect him, or to train him adequately? Did the Caped Crusader set impossible standards? Was the very idea of a crime-fighter’s kid sidekick so ludicrous that it was a miracle Dick Grayson had reached adulthood? Did the fault lie with DC Comics, for trying to give readers “grittier” stories, or with the readers themselves, for demanding (and, in this case, determining) them?

Batman: A Death in the Family is quite a bad story, so sloppy on some levels as to be insulting. But its end succeeded in making Jason Todd’s muddled, inconclusive fictional life into a “bold metaphor for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions.” Now Jason signified something, both to the other characters in the DC Universe and to readers. And unique meaning makes superhero characters last.

Earlier I reported finding few letters in Batman protesting the removal of Jason Todd. But those same issues have several letters discussing what his death might mean to Batman. Would the Dark Knight get darker? Would he abandon his commitment not to kill villains, particularly the Joker? Would he ever risk taking on another partner, especially a young one? Could Bruce Wayne cope with Jason’s loss, potentially as traumatic as his parents’ murder?

Another sign of Jason’s new importance appears in Batman and Philosophy, an anthology of essays edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp. Its index lists more entries for Jason Todd, who was Robin for less than seven years, than for either Dick Grayson (42 years) or Tim Drake (19 years when that book was assembled). Jason’s loss represents the biggest challenge to Batman and his ideals, bringing up the toughest philosophical questions.

Jason Todd was an unsuccessful Robin, but in death he succeeded in signifying what other Robins could not.

13 August 2010

“Look at What Sells”

One of the interesting results of Hope Larson’s informal survey of young female comics fans is that respondents’ experiences of getting into comics don’t seem much different from those of male comics fans. For example:

  • “Most respondents (about a third) were introduced to comics by a parent, usually Dad, . . . The third most popular gateway was through a male relative or male friend.”
  • “The most common age to become a fan of comics was 12,” which is such a familiar experience in fandom that it’s become an aphorism.
  • The superhero genre was the most popular for Larson’s respondents, with manga a close second—at least according to this self-selected group.
Another issue brought up by the survey that might turn out to be common ground:
2) A welcoming atmosphere in local comic stores is key. Many respondents reported feeling uncomfortable in comic stores. They were stared at, talked down to, and generally treated without respect.
Larson’s partner Bryan Lee O’Malley (in a response now lost in the æther) and some male commenters noted that some comics retailers treat new male customers the same way—though I suppose “stared at” might be replaced by “total lack of eye contact.”

I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with multiple comics outlets, so store owners have more incentive to treat customers decently. The shops offer friendly welcomes, but I’ve been struck by how each has its own style. I haven’t had such warm experiences in other towns, however. Furthermore, the sheer overwhelming nature of the product can intimidate newcomers.

A longer thoughtful response to Larson’s survey came from artist and art educator Stephanie Villareal. In particular, I found this point provocative:
Tween/teens as a whole - or mostly - in general, have no taste. I know this comes off as crass, but really, think about it. Look at what sells, look at what the top movies are at the box office, look at the bands they go see, the TV shows they watch and the things they wear. Most will follow the trends of the time.

Now looking specifically at tween/teen girls, look at the books they are reading. Number one is easy: Twilight. When I was placed in the high school classroom [as a student teacher] nearly every girl has a copy. . . . Teenage girls are being bombarded with sexual imagery from every angle and at any age. What’s even sadder is that they buy into it. It’s not surprising that books like Twilight are so popular (with the graphic novel itself breaking records with 66,000 copies sold the first week). Many of us scoff and think that Stephenie Meyer is the worst writer ever, the books are trash, but it’s what teens love, and if we’re going to make graphic novels that appeal to them, we need to adapt to their tastes (or lack thereof). . . .

When we knock out the pink and glittery category, we are forgetting one very big staple in the girl super hero genre: Sailor Moon. Teenage girls loved Sailor Moon.
So there’s a place for sparkles, boyfriends, and pink ponies, Villareal says, if the industry wants to grow.

My first question in response is whether tween/teen taste is really that bad compared to adults’. Or whether the trends are simply more pronounced.

12 August 2010

“Get More Comics into Bookstores”?

Another of the conclusions from Hope Larson’s informal survey of young female comics readers was this advice to publishers about how to increase their readerships:

9) Availability is a problem. Get more comics into schools. Get more comics into libraries—especially school libraries. Get more comics into bookstores, especially large chains.
I see this sort of advice almost anytime that comics fan discuss the medium’s popularity or lack thereof, and it drives me batty.

Because I’m pretty sure those goals have already occurred to comics publishers. I don’t think they’d look at this sort of feedback and say, “Whoa! We should try to sell more! And then—look, I even checked the math—we’d make more money!”

In fact, I’m pretty sure the people who work for comics publishers (most of whom are comics fans, since there are usually higher salaries in other fields) spend at least six hours of every workday trying to make comics as widely available as profitably possible. That’s their job. That’s what pays for their food.

That doesn’t mean those companies are uncovering every opportunity, or always going about the task in the most effective way. But seriously, telling a publisher that the key to success will be putting out more copies—that won’t get them any farther than they are already.

Often well-meaning industry observers, as in this survey, follow up that advice about making comics more widely available with additional advice about spending more money. As in, “Publishers need to advertise in mainstream media…” (Advertising = $$.) “Use licensed properties to lure new readers into comics.” (Licenses for hit properties = $$$.)

Most print publishers don’t have a lot of marketing money to throw around, but they’re already aware of the strategies of paid advertising and licensed properties. The more advanced questions are:
  • Are those strategies cost-effective? I always wonder if people who recommend advertising think that such techniques work on someone as intelligent as themselves.
  • Do those strategies come with risky trade-offs? For example, one of the advantages of selling to comics stores is that there are no returns. Selling paperbacks to bookstores means that a company opens itself up to getting all the unsold inventory back at any time. And even then bookstores are choosy about what they put on their shelves.
I don’t expect people without experience in the peculiar publishing industry to know its wrinkles any more than I know how to price insurance. But I try not to give advice to underwriters and actuaries.

TOMORROW: Other responses to this survey.

11 August 2010

Enough Cupcakes?

In May comics creator Hope Larson sent out a survey to “a couple hundred girls and women who reads comics in their teens or tweens” [sic] about how they got into reading books in that form, and what they liked to see. She shared the results on her LiveJournal blog, but within weeks deleted that blog in favor of a dedicated website, leaving a path strewn with dead links, as in this interview with Kelly Thompson. So one reason for this post is to share the new web address for Larson’s results.

Among her findings:

3) Pink, sparkly cutesy comics about boyfriends, ponies, cupcakes and shopping are widely reviled. Condescend to female readers at your peril, writers and comic publishers.
So I guess that’s why girls don’t like Babymouse.

To be fair, the readership for Babymouse starts younger than the teens/tweens Larson was polling. But it does suggest that the more salient finding than the above is “5) Girls need good stories in a variety of genres.”

In other words, the problem may not be “Pink, sparkly cutesy comics” but bad pink, sparkly cutesy comics and/or only pink, sparkly cutesy comics.

However, even that feedback might not be helpful to creators and publishers since some bad material in any format seems to sell just fine, and some good material fails to find the audience it deserves. Many fans of any artistic genre have difficulty accepting this, feeling that someone must be at fault somewhere.

TOMORROW: Pointing the finger of blame.

10 August 2010

The Oz Allusion

Saturday’s Oz-book allusion appeared in the heading for the post, which quoted this passage from L. Frank Baum’s Tik-Tok of Oz, describing the heroes’ overmatched assault on the Nome Kingdom, spearheaded by a clockwork robot:

It was now Queen Ann’s turn to attack, so the Generals yelled “Forward march!” and the Colonels and Majors and Captains repeated the command and the valiant Army of Oogaboo, which seemed to be composed mainly of Tik-Tok, marched forward in single column toward the nomes, while Betsy and Polychrome cheered and Hank gave a loud “Hee-haw!” and Shaggy shouted “Hooray!” and Queen Ann screamed: “At ’em, Tik-Tok—at ’em!”

The nomes did not await the Clockwork Man’s attack but in a twinkling disappeared into the underground caverns. They made a great mistake in being so hasty, for Tik-Tok had not taken a dozen steps before he stubbed his copper toe on a rock and fell flat to the ground, where he cried: “Pick me up! Pick me up! Pick me up!” until Shaggy and Files ran forward and raised him to his feet again.
The lesson of this part of Tik-Tok of Oz is that when you’re planning an attack on a magical kingdom with an immense number of warriors, and your own forces include a large dragon who’s been equipped by an incredibly powerful enchanter, you should let the dragon go first.

08 August 2010

“Very, Very Sad That You Made Robin Die”

I’ve found it tough to locate actual fan responses to A Death in the Family, the 1988 Batman story that included the death of the second Jason Todd. As I noted last week, the major newspaper coverage quoted industry insiders. Apparently DC Comics editor Dennis O’Neil did a bunch of radio interviews, but those aren’t preserved. Internet fandom was just getting started.

The “Bat-Signals” letters column in the Batman magazine is a prime source, but not all issues from the period included letters, and the editors chose which to run. There are, for example, few missives lambasting Jason Todd in 1987-88, even though fan response was harsh enough that the company had decided to remove him from Robin role even before A Death in the Family.

In the issues that I’ve been able to peruse, only two letters comment directly on the death of a Robin. Batman, #433, contains this letter from Jenna Loughlin, age eight:

When I was four years old I saw my first Batman and Robin show. I loved it. Then I pretended I was Robin one Halloween. It was the first super-hero I was.

I am very, very sad that you made Robin die. I have been crying for a whole day. Why did you make him die? That’s what I can’t figure out!

He was a hero. You don’t kill heroes, you save them!

Please change your comic book!
The response, probably written by Assistant Editor Dan Raspler, provided the narrative justifications for Jason’s death and then passed the buck to the people who had actually decided on it:
I’m sorry, Jenna, but we just can’t change the story. Robin died in “A Death in the Family” for many reasons. He didn’t listen to Batman when Batman told him to wait. He was captured by the Joker and threw himself in front of the Joker’s bomb hoping to shield his mother from the blast, even though she lied to him and betrayed him. I’m also sad that Robin died in “A Death in the Family,” but more readers wanted him to be dead than wanted him to be alive.

Maybe if those readers thought about what they were doing to Batman when they voted to let Robin die, they might have changed their vote. Now Batman is all alone.

I’m sorry you cried for a whole day.
Three months later, in Batman, #436, Eric Martinson of Florida wrote:
I love Batman comics, but why did you kill Robin? I liked Jason a lot. I got all his comics. I found out in a magazine that Robin was going to die. I miss him. But why did you kill him?
Though Martinson did not state his age, this letter also looks like it came from a kid.

Those two letters suggest a couple of conclusions. First, for all of Jason Todd’s flaws, he had continued to fulfill Reason for Robin, #3: Younger readers can identify with Robin.

On the other hand, these letters don’t offer evidence that their writers were fans of Jason, the angry, rebellious kid from the streets. The letters don’t mention that character’s individual traits. They didn’t discuss details of A Death in the Family. Loughlin conflated the Robin on the TV show and the Robin of the late 1980s. Instead, those kids were fans of Robin, the DC Universe’s symbol of youth, and were upset at news that he had died.

But, Jason’s detractors would have replied, he hadn’t lived up to the role of Robin. Batman had already sidelined him before A Death in the Family. DC was removing him from the magazine. Even the New York Times headlined its report “The Real Robin Fights On”—in other words, Dick Grayson Lives!

COMING UP: And death turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Jason Todd.

07 August 2010

“Pick Me Up! Pick Me Up! Pick Me Up!”

I was pleased by Nancy Werlin’s sensible essay for Publishers Weekly on the process of creating book covers from a young adult writer's perspective.

With the realistic perspective that comes from having gone through the potentially painful process many times, Werlin says:

I used to want covers that represented the book’s contents very closely, and were also pretty. Many folks automatically believe that this is what makes a good cover.

But I’ve changed my mind about this. While the cover should not lie (by implication or outright), its job is simply to say: “Pick me up!” to someone who might like the book. That is all. And you have more moving parts than the art: you also have the title and author’s name.
A book cover is basically an advertisement for the content inside, an advertisement aimed at people immediately able to explore and purchase the product and thus potentially crucial. That’s why the input of the Sales Department—and increasingly the biggest customers they’re in touch with—is so influential.

Of course, Werlin’s essay arrives in the same week that James Bridle pointed out another common-sense fact about book covers: they’ll become less and less visible as more people use digital readers. We won’t be able to see what everyone else is reading on the subway, just as we can’t tell what people with earbuds are listening to (unless they’re destroying their hearing as well). Book covers will be less like LP covers, once the objects of fascinated study, and more like logos designed to link several products together.

I’m still working out how this trend intersects with the contrary trend to issue several editions of an established bestseller with different covers for different readerships—breaking down the original brand to broaden the potential customer base.

[Bonus point to the first person who recognizes the Oz allusion in this posting.]

06 August 2010

When Did You Last See Them?

Yesterday I explored the authorship of Booth, a well researched graphic historical novel about the man who killed Abraham Lincoln. That was one question the book left me with.

My other question was: Why was this book so hard to read?

Jared Gardner at Guttergeek faults scripter C. C. Colbert for not understanding the comics form well enough to use it to undercut the unpleasant character of John Wilkes Booth. But Gardner starts his criticism with the art:

This is an unpleasant book to read visually: the “evocative” brushwork of the French theorist and artist Tanitoc is often ungainly and terribly uneven, the faces are either indistinguishable or just plain ugly, and the coloring by the talented Hilary Sycamore (Laika, Journey into Mohawk Country) relies on a palette predictably designed to evoke old-timey-ness and which ends up…instead evoking muddiness. It is simply not a fun book to look at.
To that I add that it’s not an easy book to read, either. Not only are faces indistinguishable, but Tanitoc’s word balloons add to the confusion of who’s who and who says what.

Take this panel, for example. The curve in the tail of the balloon at the left suggests that its words come from the balding man looking away from us. But in fact those words are those of John Wilkes Booth, in the muddy green. If I hadn’t remembered that in real life Booth claimed to have thrust himself into the John Brown affair, I would never have been able to interpret this panel.

And here’s another one. Tanitoc has drawn Edwin Booth behind his younger brother, only his shins and feet showing. All the word balloons point to the same area. The balloon at the upper right is meant to come from Edwin, and that at the lower right from John, even though it’s pointing to Edwin’s shoes and not John’s head.

And check the panel at the top of this entry. The first balloon appears to depict words coming from empty space.

I was actually grateful to colorist Sycamore. If she hadn’t kept John Wilkes Booth consistently in green, I probably would have lost him many times.

05 August 2010

What’s the Story Behind C. C. Colbert?

After reading the graphic historical novel Booth, scripted by C. C. Colbert and drawn by Tanitoc, I had a couple of questions.

The first was, What’s the story behind C. C. Colbert? The author bio on the back flap is awkwardly worded enough to suggest that whoever composed it was trying to write around something:

C. C. Colbert remains fascinated by the Civil War and has spent several years in the United States researching topics of American history. After earning a degree in history from Princeton, Colbert now lives and writes in Ireland.
I should hope that an author’s interest in Civil War history would not be exhausted by writing one book about it; otherwise, perhaps that person shouldn’t be writing that book. As for “researching topics” and “earning a degree,” I’ve done those things myself, so am I supposed to be impressed?

The author’s note inside refers to “my two sons,…and their father.” It also quotes the bleak opening of Dante’s Inferno: “midway in the journey…I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” (Hollander translation, apparently.) What unstated psychological drama warranted a quote from Dante?

Publicity interviews lay bare the mystery. C. C. Colbert is the married name of Catherine Clinton, a noted historian of women’s lives in the era of the Civil War and biographer of Harriet Tubman and Mary Todd Lincoln. Several years ago she left full-time academia to write more books, including children’s books. More recently, in addition to experimenting with the comics form in Booth, Clinton has returned to the university life, at Queen’s University in Belfast.

So the vague phrase “earned a degree” blurs the fact that Clinton has a Ph.D. from Princeton, where she studied under James M. MacPherson, after earning a bachelor’s from Harvard and a master’s from the University of Sussex. Okay, now I’m impressed.

The clause “Colbert remains fascinated by the Civil War” has the invisible dependent clause “even though she’s written a fictional comic instead of another scholarly study,” apparently meant for an invisible audience of fellow scholars. And the mid-life shift in course is not, as I first theorized, a decision to leave academia, but a decision to return to it. Once again, I’m impressed.

TOMORROW: The second question about Booth.

04 August 2010

Visiting Ozopolis

David Maxine at Hungry Tiger Press alerted me to a new Oz comic book called Ozopolis, written by Kirk Kushin and illustrated by Gonzalo Martinez. The first issue is on sale now, and four preview pages (which include the panel above) are visible on the Ozopolis website.

Generally recent Oz comics have fallen into two categories:

The former gain their power from closely following the originals while creating new visuals, the latter from upending people’s understanding of Baum’s fairyland (or its cinematic adaptation).

Ozopolis appears to be doing what Shanower did in his 1980s comics now collected in (Little) Adventures in Oz: creating sequels to the Oz series that happen to be in comics form, fitting into the novels’ “continuity” without making great changes to it, and trying to replicate the tone of the originals.

I think the Ozopolis art style also follows in Shanower’s footsteps: character designs based largely on the art of John R. Neill, modern dress for Dorothy (and Ozma), realistic renderings of people created with clear and flowing outlines. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with more Oz stories in a Shanoverian style.

(Yet another recent Oz comic book is Jer Alford and Erin Ptah’s Emeralds: Hearts in Oz. That strikes me as falling in between the reinventions and the sequels, with Dorothy taking on magical responsibilities and character redesigns for the Scarecrow and Patchwork Girl.)

03 August 2010

Tom Sawyer’s Window

One of the oldest and most resonant images in American children’s literature is Tom Sawyer sneaking out his bedroom window, here portrayed by Norman Rockwell.

I think this moment from Mark Twain’s novel is so well known that it’s become an archetype of how kids slip away from home, even though most American houses have at least two doors that are easier to exit.

About a decade and a half ago, I visited Mark Twain’s childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, and came away with a new understanding of this scene. In that house, the stairway comes up from the ground floor into the parents’ bedroom. So the window was definitely young Sam Clemens’s best hope of getting out undetected.

To be sure, a character in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, published a year before Twain’s novel, describes climbing in and out of windows as a boy. But Tom Sawyer made that relatively rare activity part of the mythical all-American childhood.

02 August 2010

Once Again, Everything Comes Back to Oz

Will is, of course, what Dorothy provides for her courage-, heart-, and brains-seeking companions. Just as Ramona Flowers does for Scott Pilgrim.

01 August 2010

Reader Response to Robin Removal—Really?

DC Comics’s decision to invite Batman fans to vote via 900-number calls on whether Jason Todd lived or died got a lot of attention within the comics industry, much of it unfavorable.

The fact that fans voted for Jason to die and DC was going through with it got attention outside the industry, particularly a 10 Nov 1988 New York Times article headlined “Holy Bomb Blast! The Real Robin Fights On!”

Reporter Georgia Dullea’s unfamiliarity with her subject surfaced in her repeated reference to Frank Miller’s portrayal of Batman as “The Black Knight.” For quotations, she relied on people within the comics industry.

Sylvia Lamar at the Forbidden Planet store explained fans’ preferences: “Dick Grayson they liked, but Jason Todd was not as popular.” Don Thompson of the Comic Buyer’s Guide criticized the telephone poll itself: “It smacks of the Roman arena, with thumbs up and thumbs down.”

Dullea dug up the requisite voices on either side of the Jason Todd debate. Here’s the pro-Robin statement:

“I voted 10 times to save Robin, and I’ve got the $5 phone bill to prove it,” said Robert Ingersoll, a 36-year-old assistant public defender in Cleveland. “If I had known the margin would be only 72 votes, I would have voted 73 more times.”
Bob Ingersoll wasn’t just any public defender who happened to like Robin. He was writing a column on legal issues in superhero stories for the Comic Buyer’s Guide. Eventually he got into scripting comics himself, and also cowrote the prose novel Captain America: Liberty’s Torch. A year ago, Cuyahoga County basically bought out Ingersoll’s contract to lower its budget. He’s active on cowriter Tony Isabella’s website, but hasn’t resumed his “The Law Is a Ass” column, even as a cranky blog like this one.

On the anti-Robin side was “Rick Schindler of White Plains, who voted to ‘waste’ the Boy Wonder,” but also suspected that Jason would come back from the dead. Is this the same Rick Schindler who wrote for HBO, TV Guide, and now Todayshow.com? If so, the Times reporter interviewed no one outside the popular-culture media.

Finding non-professional opinions of Jason Todd from the late 1980s isn’t easy since that was well before the web made everyone’s opinions available everywhere. Last week I quoted one letter published in Batman, #424, criticizing the character. For the Times comics editor Dennis O’Neil cited others that called Jason a “twerp,” a “wimp,” and a “vindictive, vengeful little brat.”

Other coverage of this controversy in such papers as the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and St. Petersburg Times used those same quotations, leading me to suspect they were written off the Times article, not additional reporting. Which leads to the question: what did comics readers from outside the industry say about Jason Todd’s death in 1988?

COMING UP: Two letters from young readers.