30 September 2010

Shocked, Shocked at Violence in Comics

For Banned Books Week, the Huffington Post ran an article (a slide show really) about the books in comics form most often challenged in public and school libraries.

Here are the titles and the reasons provided for the challenges.

  • Absolute Sandman, by Neil Gaiman – Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group
  • Blankets, by Craig Thompson – Sexually Explicit content, Other (unspecified)
  • Bone (series), by Jeff Smith – Sexually Explicit content, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs
  • Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel – Sexually Explicit Content
  • Maus, by Art Spiegelman – Anti Ethnic
  • Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughn – Sexually Explicit Content
  • Tank Girl, by Alan Martin & Jamie Hewlitt – Nudity, Violence
  • The Dark Knight Strikes Again, by Frank Miller – Sexually Explicit Content [not to mention an Evil Robin]
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill – Nudity, Sexually Explicit Content, Unsuited to Age Group
  • Watchmen, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons – Unsuited to Age Group
The only comic on the list dinged for “Violence” is Tank Girl.

Maus involves little things called World War 2 and the Holocaust. Pride of Baghdad takes place during the US invasion of Iraq, and includes animals killing, eating, and raping each other. But perhaps, readers might say, we can’t complain about historical and biological violence.

So what about fantasy violence? Bone ends in a war. The superhero comics—Dark Knight Strikes Again, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—include everything from fist fights to futuristic weapons. That volume of Sandman depicts a convention of serial killers, among other horrors.

The only comics of this list that don’t include significant violence are the two coming-of-age memoirs, Blankets and Fun Home. Both involve sex, for natural reasons. Sex is more “graphic” in a graphic novel, or at least easier to find. And since our culture perceives anything in comics form as meant for younger readers, it’s not surprising that some parents might find those stories about young adults unsuited for younger kids.

But back to Tank Girl, the only comic on this list challenged as too violent. Is it actually more violent than all the rest? Or is it simply the only action comic with a female in the central role?

29 September 2010

Pitches Low and Outside

In the ten years I’ve been helping to organize writers’ conferences, I’ve seen a trend toward “pitch” sessions in which writers give editors and agents brief oral descriptions of their projects, as screenwriters have long done for Hollywood producers. And I don’t like it.

I understand the forces behind this trend. Hollywood is, after all, where the biggest storytelling money is (as long as we combine movies and television so they outearn videogames). A pitch session requires less time, particularly prep time by the professional, than a critique of a written manuscript sample. And in the case of SCBWI, that organization is based in Los Angeles, and its co-founder Lin Oliver works in television and film as well as books, so pitches are more familiar to her.

The problems with pitches are that:

  • They’re not how most book editors and agents evaluate manuscripts.
  • They don’t play to most writers’ best skills.
  • An agent or publisher buys into a manuscript, not an idea that they hire lots of other people to develop.
Editors and agents know that it’s valuable to be able to boil down a book’s appeal into a short pitch, for sales calls, marketing, and jacket copy. But they also know that the execution of the core idea matters.

At one writers’ conference I had to facilitate a pitch session with Michael Stearn, then editing books at one of the H publishers before alighting at the Upstart Crow Literary Agency. And his response to nearly every idea had to be about the same: “Okay, I can see that idea working, but I’d have to see the writing.” He was game, and the attendees were eager, but the session seemed like a waste of time instead of an efficient use of it.

Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown agency just explained at Kidlit.com why she doesn’t like pitches, either:
In most cases, I will request a writing sample — 10 pages and a query, our standard submission request on the ABLit website — after a pitch. Because I need to see the writing. Sometimes, I know that a project is just not for me. . . . But in most cases, I will give the writer what they’re hoping to get: the request for more. That’s the first reason I dislike pitches: most writers are just focused on the request and don’t know that they’ll likely get one.

The second reason I dislike pitches? The bundle of nerves on the other side of the table. Writers freak out, thinking that their two minute pitch will make or break their career, or they act like robots who have memorized a query and are now regurgitating it. A lot of writers read from actual cue cards, their hands shaking, their eyes glued to the page and never rising to meet mine. They’re so focused on the pitch that they’ll get completely frazzled if I ask a question or interrupt them for clarification. It’s a very one-sided conversation.
People go into book publishing—as writers, editors, and agents—because we like the written word. We hone our skills in communicating that way. We take on the long labor of creating books because we like long stories. Asking us to abandon the written word in favor of an oral pitch is just asking for trouble.

(Cover above for No Cream Puffs, by Karen Day, a tween novel about a baseball pitcher that’s easy to pitch but hard to encapsulate.)

28 September 2010

What Do We Mean by “Kids’ Comics”?

Yesterday Marvel-Oz artist Skottie Young wrote about the supposed lack of comics for young readers:

The most popular complaint seems to be that not enough comics are made for kids. I have to disagree with this thought. There may not be a ton of comics made SPECIFICALLY for kids, but I think that a good majority of comics are very close to kid friendly.

In fact, I've been drawing comics for Marvel going on 10 years now and every single comic I've drawn can be read by most ages. Of the Spider-Man, Human Torch, Venom, New Warriors, X-Men, Runaways, Monster of Frankenstein, and Oz books, only one of those titles is aimed directly at kids. That's 10 years worth of monthly comics that almost any kid could read, only one being called a "kid comic."
Young’s next paragraph reveals that his perspective comes from having started to read comics in bulk in his early teens—i.e., “kids” start at the golden age of twelve. There’s much more of a continuum in mainstream American comics between books for teens and those for adult readers, with more sex and profanity in the books for adults and a lot of violence everywhere.

I think the “kids’ comics” people are talking about are meant for pre-teens. There are significant differences in reading level, maturity, and interests between those young readers and their teenaged siblings, as prose-book publishers and retailers have acknowledged.

Nevertheless, Young is correct that there are many comics being published for the younger group: Bone, G-Man, Mouse Guard, all the Oz comics from Young and Eric Shanower, the TOON titles, Amulet, Amelia Rules!, and so on. The problem for the comics-publishing industry, especially the “big two” of DC and Marvel, is that they aren’t doing most of that publishing, or the most successful parts.

Except in one area: DC and Marvel’s reprints are big hits with the kids I know, as well as the companies’ main products for sales outside of comics stores. In the 1940s through the 1970s, the companies saw kids as a big part—maybe the better part—of their audience. For most of that time they also hewed to the Comics Code Authority on subject matter. Yes, those stories reflect the sexism, racism, and classism of their times, so we have to read with care, and finding non-white characters is next to impossible. But there’s a huge supply of material.

DC’s new Editor-in-Chief comes from the company’s Collected Editions department, which is where the growth has been in recent years. (He was also Editor-in-Chief at Marvel in the late 1990s.) That could presage more attention from the company to collections and sales outside of comics stores.

27 September 2010

Just Passing This On

Quoting from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s website:

An eagerly anticipated new addition to London’s West End, The Wizard of Oz promises to be the biggest theatre event of the year. Developed from the ever-popular 1939 MGM screenplay, The Wizard of Oz is an enchanting adaptation of the all-time classic, totally reconceived for the stage by the award-winning creative team who delighted audiences of all ages with their recent London Palladium revival of The Sound of Music.

This new production, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bill Kenwright, contains all the much-loved songs from the Oscar-winning movie score including; ‘Over the Rainbow’, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’, ‘If I Only Had a Heart’ and ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’. All the favourite characters and iconic scenes are there, plus a few surprises along the way – not just “lions and tigers and bears” but some new songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice adding extra colour to the story as it moves from film to stage, as well as marking the first time they have worked together in over 30 years on a new production. . . .

Andrew Lloyd Webber said, “We will be going a lot further than simply presenting the movie on stage. We have re-visited the original novel and re-conceived our “Oz” as a piece of new musical theatre using the wonderful Arlen/Harburg songs and adding a few new ones where there are gaps. I am really looking forward to bringing The Wizard of Oz to life on stage. I am delighted that Michael Crawford, a legend of musical theatre, will take on the role of the Wizard and can’t wait to work with him once more”.
The show is scheduled to open on 7 February.

26 September 2010

Sometimes a Crowbar Is Just a Crowbar

How did the Joker kill Robin, the second Jason Todd?

If you’re like most comic-book fans, or this drunk guy, the first picture in your mind is a crowbar. Because the Joker beat Jason with a crowbar in a series of horrific panels drawn by Jim Aparo. But that wasn’t what killed Jason. In fact, he was still able to function after that beating. The Joker killed Jason with a bomb. (A bomb that somehow left his body intact, but that’s another story.)

There are moments in later comic boos when the Joker refers to that bomb: “I blowed him up real good!” he explains to young Impulse in Impulse, #50. But more often, especially since Jason Todd’s return from the dead in 2004-05, the violence of his murder is symbolized exclusively with a crowbar.

That shows the power of the graphic panels above. An off-screen, single-panel bomb just isn’t as affecting as what we see, over and over. Furthermore, a crowbar doesn’t have other connotations in superhero comics, leaving its symbolism pure.

As a result, there are Joker figurines with crowbars, and Joker cosplayers with crowbars. And there are Batman stories—so many stories—that play off the symbolism.

In the retrospective Batman, #683, Grant Morrison merely had to script a crowbar in a purple-gloved hand for readers to know what event in Bruce Wayne’s personal history that page alludes to.

In Battle for the Cowl, writer-illustrator Tony Daniel had skinny-replacement-Batman Tim Drake happen upon a crowbar during his fight with vicious-replacement-Batman Jason Todd. Given his history, it’s a bit odd for Jason to keep crowbars lying around. It’s even odder for Tim, a most cerebral and less evil Robin, to get that murderous. But this being superhero comics, he starts swinging.

Most recently, the little latest Robin, Damian Wayne, brought a crowbar into an interrogation room to use in “interrogating” the Joker. So far that’s turned out to be a poor idea. But at least everyone is speaking the same symbolic language.

24 September 2010

“Took down a square green bottle…”

I don’t know much about wine, but I nonetheless feel skepticism about wine from Kansas. On the other hand, the Oz Winery in Wamego deserves a toast for its graphics alone. Just look at that visual riff on MGM’s Emerald City.

The wines themselves all hearken back to the 1939 movie, though the Limited Editions and some others have W. W. Denslow art on the labels. I’m not sure how the firm manages to formulate so many flavors from the Kansas growing season, but choices include Ding Dong the Wine is Red, Drunken Munchkin, Poppy Fields, and Surrender.

A little Googling dedicated research unearthed this local TV story about the firm, which also reports, “Before prohibition, Kansas was the third largest grape producing state in the nation. Right now, there are less than 20 wineries in the state, with 300 to 400 acres of vineyards.”

23 September 2010

“Frequently Arrested Journalists”

This morning I got to read this in the New York Times:

The American military has frequently arrested journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq, holding them for long periods of time before releasing them without charges. So far as is known, no journalists have been convicted by a court on charges of working for insurgents either in Afghanistan or in Iraq.
I would be much happier if the word “American” didn’t have to appear in the first sentence. Locking up journalists without charge is the sort of thing our nation should be standing against.

21 September 2010

A Place for Carol

Over fifteen years ago, I went to a critique group for children’s writers at my local library for the first time. I didn’t know anyone there, and hadn’t been in a writing workshop since college. As an acquisitions editor, I was seeing a full share of unsolicited manuscripts, and worried about how much more unbaked writing I could stand.

A couple of people read truly amateurish little stories, and I was wondering whether I would return when one member read a retold folk tale that was so well shaped and expressed that I knew I had to come back the next month.

That member was Carol Flynn Harris, and we stuck together in writing groups for years, through novels and short stories, articles and scripts. At one point, we found that we’d each sold the Highlights book club a short story titled “Snow for the Queen”; I quickly emailed the publisher to say that Carol deserved to keep the title.

Later we each placed a middle-grade historical novel set in Boston; my deal fell apart after a change of editors, but Boyds Mills followed through with Carol’s. A Place for Joey takes place against the backdrop of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, but it’s really about a young immigrant trying to figure out where he belongs. Joey dreads moving from the North End to Watertown—the same nearby suburb where Carol lived and worked at the library for decades!

Another of Carol’s manuscripts, Gemma, was about the friendship of two teen-aged girls, one of whom is diagnosed with cancer. Carol herself underwent treatment for cancer, and put her experiences, and her sense of humor, into her heroine.

I was even more struck by how Carol had constructed Gemma. In each chapter, it seemed, the teens were totally fixated on an upcoming event in their high school: tryouts for the school play, or a math test, or a date. And then the next chapter started after that event, because the real drama was taking place in the spaces in between the “dramatic” events. I was amazed to see Carol could tell a story that way.

A few years ago, Carol’s husband George became ill, so she couldn’t come to meetings regularly, and then couldn’t come at all. We kept Carol on the group’s email list, which of course meant her mailbox filled up month after month, but it also meant we could still consider her part of the group.

George died last year, and I went to his memorial service, seeing Carol for the first time in over a year. She made it back to one meeting, but still looked shaky.

Last night I learned that Carol had passed away. Her cancer had recurred, and she died peacefully in hospice care. Like all writers, she left behind a bunch of manuscripts. But Carol also left behind a bunch of friends who are very glad to have known her.

20 September 2010

An Unbalanced Complaint about Speak

Laurie Halse Anderson reports on an attempt to ban her acclaimed young-adult novel Speak from a public high school’s curriculum. Evidently business professor Wesley Scroggins found that the novel’s description of date rapes aroused him enough to brand the book as “soft pornography.”

Revealing what perspective he’s coming from, in June Scroggins spoke at an event devoted to “the role of fundamental, Biblical Christianity in the establishment and function of our legal, legislative, and educational system, and…the successful reestablishment of these values in our society” (PDF download).

Among the sad ironies of this all-too-familiar situation is that the professor’s employer, Missouri State University, is promoting his services by declaring:

As an educator, Wes Scroggins is all about balance – balance in his teaching, balance in his research and balance in his service.

19 September 2010

What Could Become of the Child?

In the cover story of Batman, #122, Dick Grayson dreams about Bruce Wayne marrying Kathy Kane, also known as Batwoman, and what comes of that relationship.

Nothing good, of course. Kathy tries to horn in on the crime-fighting again, and manages to give away Batman and Robin’s secret identities. (Message: Girls screw up everything!)

That story must have generated a positive response, in the DC Comics office or from readers, because writer Bill Finger went back to build on the same premise. He created an intermittent series of six tales in which Alfred typed out imaginary stories of a future in which Bruce and Kathy had married and raised a red-haired son named Bruce, Jr. Dick took up the mantle of Batman II while Bruce, Jr., insisted on being Robin II.

What might happen? Nothing good, of course. Robin II does a good job of falling down and being taken hostage, but Batman II retains that habit as well.

So it’s up to the first Batman (sometimes accompanied by Batwoman) to rescue his successor and son, and to preserve the family’s secret identities. (Message: No one will ever measure up to the real Batman!)

The one exception to that pattern appeared in Batman, #154, published in 1963. In “Danger Strikes Four,” Dick reads the manuscript of a Batman II and Robin II story that’s giving Alfred plotting problems.

A mission calls Batman and Robin away. Dick uses an idea from Alfred’s tale to sneak past some guards, allowing him to jump onto a flying buzz bomb and send it off course before leaping back to the batplane.

But that’s not all! Back in stately Wayne Manor, Dick adapts his trick with the missile into an ending for Alfred’s story. Robin II actually gets to save the imaginary day with an authorial assist from the real Robin. (Message: Writing fanfiction is fun for everyone!)

All those “Second Batman and Robin Team” stories have now been collected in DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories, vol. 2: Batman and Robin. I’d like to know who wrote “Danger Strikes Four,” but the volume says its scripter is unknown. (The artist on the whole Batman II series was Sheldon Moldoff.)

Batman II and Robin II made a few more appearances in the comics, perhaps most notably in John Byrne’s Batman/Captain America crossover. And they’re one of the inspirations of Grant Morrison’s current series about Dick Grayson taking over as Batman with Bruce Wayne’s son as his Robin. But with that one exception, the originals left me cold. If Robin represents the potential for growing up, it’s disappointing when his future is unsuccessful.

DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories, vol. 2 collects three more Batman and Robin tales which never happened, and which most fans wouldn’t want to happen:

  • Bruce Wayne blames Superman for his parents’ death, and plots revenge with Lex Luthor.
  • Lois Lane marries Bruce Wayne, has a child with him, and manages not to reveal Batman and Robin’s secret identities.
  • In a future that includes both hospitals in orbit for weightless surgery and electric typewriters, Dick is married with twins, Bruce thinks of retiring to the quiet life of a governor, and the whole story feels emotionally dead.
One recurring motif in this collection is, of all things, water-skiing. One story shows us the “Joker’s Son” on skis (his face is white, but the rest of his skin is not). Another shows Bruce skiing—with Lois on his shoulders.

As a fan of weird-ass Batman stories, I’m glad to have this collection in my library, but it never achieves the weirdness of The Black Casebook or extremes of The Strange Deaths of Batman. Instead, most of these tales reinforce the dominant attitudes of their eras, reassuring young male readers about the way the world should be.

18 September 2010

The 14 Cows Discussion

Last week I posted my thoughts on 14 Cows for America which generated some pithy responses at The Horn Book’s Read Roger and longer discussion in the comments here. I decided to highlight some of those remarks.

An anonymous educator reported:

I found this book beautiful and moving, but it didn't work as well as I expected in class. Since the September 11th attacks happened before many of my schoolchildren were born, I had first to review the events with them. . . . After we'd talked about the attacks, I tried to give them some background about how important cattle are to the Masai, and they could follow some of that, but then they felt disillusioned when they discovered that the cattle didn't leave the country.

Developmentally, they were unable to grasp the idea of a symbolic gift, and after everything that had gone before, the gift of the cows struck them as anti-climactic and impractical. ("Why didn't they sell the cows and send the money to the relatives of the people who died?") After reading the book aloud to many different grades of elementary school children, I came to the conclusion that it may be a beautiful picture book, but as a picture book for children, it is not entirely successful.
Someone from the publisher, Peachtree, discussed how the book developed:
The original draft did contain a lot more information about the Maasai, their tribe and their culture, but it felt too clumsy as a story. The sparse text really seemed to convey the grace of the gift and of the Maasai themselves. Having Kimeli join the project was such a key part in making this book happen as well. He was a cultural advisor in many ways, making sure that clothing, jewelry, even the way the children stood while greeted was accurate. The afterword included more information, as well as a website we put together, http://14cowsforamerica.com/, for people wanting to know more. It is certainly a book that inspires people to search out more information.
I’m not surprised that trying to make this anecdote into a more traditional nonfiction book for kids produced clumsy results. It is what it is: a description and echo of an expression of sympathy from one people to another. It’s not a story about children, or even much of a story at all. One anecdote isn’t an easy door into understanding another culture.

As a culture, we assume that all books with about 32 oversized pages and color illustrations and sparse text are meant for children. But not all those books work the same way, or speak to the same audience. Perhaps the problem isn’t with the books, but with the assumption.

16 September 2010

The Meaning-Making Capability

Today my desk disgorged a page from the New York Times in 2007 with this passage circled:

most people do not begin to see themselves in the midst of a tale with a beginning, middle and eventual end until they are teenagers. “Younger kids see themselves in terms of broad, stable traits: ‘I like baseball but not soccer,’ ” said Kate McLean, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. “This meaning-making capability — to talk about growth, to explain what something says about who I am — develops across adolescence.”
Is that the difference between middle-grade novel plots and young adult novel plots?

12 September 2010

Looking Back on Jason Todd

Today’s comic-book marketing depends heavily on creator interviews put out on the web for retailers and fans. Amazingly, every writer, artist, and editor feels excited about the stories that are just going on sale. Of course, they can’t say why they’re excited without giving away plot twists, but excited they are. I find these interviews to be nearly indistinguishable and almost useless for seeing how superhero comics get put together.

But give the same creators a couple of years, a new assignment, a managerial change or two, and then the interesting behind-the-scenes stories come out: the arguments, the unexplored paths, the mistakes. Many of those stories are probably even true.

Batman editor Dennis O’Neil offers an interesting example. In 1987, soon after taking that job, he gave an interview to the first issue of Comics Scene (a printed fanzine in those pre-web days, quoted on Titans Tower) about the new Jason Todd:

Jason steals the tires off the Batmobile. And Batman decides, “This kid is going to end up dead or in prison by the time he’s 20 anyhow, I might as well see what I can do with him.” He also likes the kid, he feels a kind of chemistry. . . . And thank God for people like Jason Todd, because without him and Alfred, Bruce Wayne would be sort of a monster. They’re a very humanizing influence.
That’s how things looked—or at least how O’Neil and his employer wanted fans to see things—in 1987. Within two years, Jason Todd was dead, killed off by his unpopularity.

Less than two years after that, in an interview for The Many Lives of the Batman, edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (1991), O’Neil ruminated about how the wheels had come off:
Q: Why did everyone hate him so much? Why did he get killed?

A: Boy, that’s a good question. They did hate him. I don’t know if it was fan craziness—maybe they saw him as usurping Dick Grayson’s position. Some of the mail response indicated that this was at least on some people’s minds. I think this is taking the whole thing entirely too seriously.

It may be that something was working in the writers’ minds, probably on a subconscious level. They made the little brat a little bit more disagreeable than his predecessor had been. He did become unlikeable, and that was not any doing of mine. Once we became aware of that, of course, we began playing with it.

Q: And this decision was influenced by the fan letters you were getting?

A: Yeah. The general response. The fan letters and then being a comic book editor, artist and writer in the eighties mean you go out and meet the fans a lot. What we get in the way of verbal response and mail is certainly not definitive, but it is probably as informative as the television ratings. It’s sort of an informal sampling.

I think that once writers became aware the fans didn’t like Jason Todd, they began to make him bratty. I toned some of it down. If I had to do it again, I would tone it down more. But you make these decisions from hour to hour and sometimes not under the best conditions.

So we did a story, for example, in which it was left vague as to whether or not Jason pushed someone off a balcony. The writer, Jim Starlin, thought he did—I thought he didn’t, but we let the reader decide. There was certainly no doubt that throughout much of the story he wanted to push this guy off of the balcony.

And then when we were building up to the death of Robin we made him rebellious—he ran away, and in a way he got what he was asking for. He disobeyed Batman twice, and that’s what led his demise.
Starlin himself sees things differently, according to interviews he gave in the past decade (i.e., many years after the events) to Universo HQ and Adelaide Comics:
I always thought that the whole idea of a kid side-kick was sheer insanity. So when I started writing Batman, I immediately started lobbying to kill off Robin. . . .

And Denny O’Neill [sic] said “We can’t kill Robin off”. Then Denny one night got this flash that “Hey, if we get this number where people call in and they can vote on it, they can decide whether Robin lives or dies.” . . .

So we did this and the book came out, Denny was on all these talk shows across the country that day saying, it’s kind of funny because he was taking credit for the whole project. But as soon as the book came out and Robin died, the executives up at DC started going “Whoof!” because they had all these lunch pails with Robin’s picture on it—suddenly it was all my idea again.
I don’t find Starlin’s recollection as convincing as O‘Neil’s. Despite his contempt for the idea of a kid sidekick, Starlin wrote Jason Todd as a very traditional Robin in a 1988 miniseries called Batman: The Cult. He’s a pro; he would have continued to write stories about both Batman and Robin if the fans had continued to demand them.

It’s true that the last chapter of A Death in the Family was Starlin’s penultimate issue of Batman. But if there was pressure from DC executives about “all these lunch pails with Robin’s picture,” why did the company embark on a big redesign of the Robin character in 1990?

I think the recollections from both O’Neil and Starlin reveal the human tendency to massage our pasts into stories with coherence and meaning. For Starlin, Jason Todd died because his character made no sense, and Starlin saw that before others at DC. For O’Neil, the lesson of the Jason Todd debacle was not to let fans perceive a new Robin as usurping the place of the first one. O’Neil might also posit that Starlin’s hostility toward Jason was unconscious resentment about such usurpation, which I presume Starlin would deny.

Which man is right? Usually in a disagreement like this, the boss wins. O’Neil was the editor, Starlin a freelancer. O’Neil wanted to get Robin right, and Starlin wasn’t the writer to do that. So in early 1989 Starlin was off the Batman book, and O’Neil was seeking a way to introduce a new Robin that showed proper respect for Dick Grayson.

11 September 2010


The last two shortlisted titles for last year’s Cybils Award for Non-Fiction Picture Books make an interesting pair.

Both Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea, by Steve Jenkins, and Life-Size Zoo, by Teruyuki Komiya, director of the Tokyo Ueno Zoo, with photographs by Toyofumi Fukuda, introduce readers to various animals. But the two books approach their topics in opposite ways, and each one’s strengths are the other’s weaknesses.

Life-Size Zoo was originally published in Japan, which probably accounts for its attention to pooping and peeing. As its title promises, it offers life-size photographs of a variety of mammals found in many zoos. The book is 10.5" x 14.5", which is oversized to begin with. Some pages are designed to be tilted, and double foldouts accommodate the head of a giraffe and most of the heads of an adult elephant and a rhinoceros.

Although each page spread provides background facts about the animal in simple text and drawings, the photos are the main attraction. The detail is amazing, from the hairs on a zebra’s muzzle to the teeth in a tiger’s mouth. One spread shows images of a hedgehog and an armadillo, each rolled up against predators. The animals all stand out from a blank white background in the old Dorling Kindersley style, and they all look life-size, creating the illusion of being even closer than we can get in zoos.

In contrast, Down, Down, Down uses cut-paper illustrations (with some drawing and painting) to introduce readers to various forms of underwater life. Its page spreads are arranged according to depth, with a scale along the right margin to show how far beneath the ocean surface one has traveled.

Which brings me to the two books’ complementary strengths. Life-Size Zoo is all about scale, showing us exactly how large each animal is. In Down, Down, Down creatures that live at the same depth all appear on a spread with no clue about how large they are relative to each other. Only in the back can one figure out the scale. Thus, on one spread the oarfish takes up about the same space as the snipe eel, the nautilus, and the goblin shark. The back pages tell us that the eel and nautilus are comparable in size to an adult human's hand, but the shark is the size of that human, and the oarfish up to 36 feet long.

Down, Down, Down is all about habitat, and the unfamiliar forms of life that have evolved to live at different depths. Life-Size Zoo devotes only a few quick lines to the animals’ habitats. It’s not unlike an antiquated zoo, seeing beasts in concrete cages.

Down, Down, Down highlights creatures we rarely see, and may even have trouble imagining. Life-Size Zoo features very familiar and appealing animals (charismatic megafauna, in zoologists’ terms). We know them well enough that we can fill in their bodies from a look at their giant heads.

Steve Jenkins’s cut-paper pictures represent each species, but he doesn’t put them forward as exact representations. Toyofumi Fukuda’s photographs are precise portraits of individual animals. And the text doesn’t tell us how typical they are. For example, Kometaro the aardvark “lost part of one ear before he got to the zoo.” Is this common? Do aardvarks fight, or was Kemotaro attacked by a predator? There’s no further explanation.

Both books succeed at what they set out to do (as do all the Cybils shortlisted titles). Of this pair, I give an edge to Life-Size Zoo because it does something I hadn’t seen in other picture books. It’s a stunt (which has been duplicated in two sequels), but a very impressive one.

10 September 2010

To the Moon and Back

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, by Brian Floca, is an excellent nonfiction picture book retelling the history of the first human mission to the Moon.

The prose is tight and poetic, its tone a mix of matter-of-fact and awestruck. Pages jump between the astronauts in space, mission control back on Earth, and a family watching the action on their living room TV. This history doesn’t dig back into the geopolitics of the space race, or ahead to the end of lunar missions; it focuses on that human achievement of July 1969.

I enjoyed watching how Floca used his art and design to pace his story. The first illustration after the text starts is a landscape on Earth with the Moon as a distant crescent in the sky. Floca frames this round image in the blank white page, both opening the book slowly and symbolizing how this life is limited to Earth.

Later that image’s blue, green, and white colors make a visual rhyme for the image of a round Earth in the black sky that we finally see at the end of the astronauts' visit to the Moon. And as a coda, the book’s final illustration is also a round landscape, blue and green. But now there’s a full Moon overhead, and the family we’ve seen throughout the book is running across the grass.

Floca breaks down the rocket countdown into six rectangular panels on one spread, ticking off the seconds. Turn the page, and the liftoff is the first full page spread of the book.

Even the endpapers in Moonshot get put to use, in different ways. The front set shows the stages of the lunar rocket while the back set retells the history in more detailed prose suitable for school-report research.

Of course, this is a journey many books have taken before. There’s a lot of source material about the lunar missions, and a built-in market. Moonshot even got published on the fortieth anniversary of the landing. Last year’s Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book winner, The Day-Glo Brothers, got points from us judges for being the very first book on its topic. But Moonshot is also terrific, and deserves the other awards it’s brought home.

09 September 2010

Diving Deep into Mermaid Queen

Mermaid Queen, written by Shana Corey and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is yet another shortlisted Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book from last year. It’s a picture-book biography of the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. As the subtitle says, Kellerman “Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History!” about a hundred years ago.

The book is big and colorful, with swirly and humorous artwork and lots of spot varnish on the exterior. This matches how the text portrays Annette Kellerman—as an underdog rebel, a convention-defier, spunky as all get out. What more does our culture want from a historical female?

Kellerman overcame an unidentifiable childhood illness to become a celebrated swimmer and diver whose “greatest achievements were freeing women from their oppressive bathing suits.” Okay, maybe that last part is a teensy anticlimactic compared to Marie Curie or Eleanor Roosevelt, but kids already have biographies about those women.

Mermaid Queen does a good job of laying out its sources, showing how high standards have risen in children’s publishing today. The back of the book cites the Australian biography The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, by Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth; the documentary film The Original Mermaid; newspaper articles; Kellerman’s own How to Swm; and her “unpublished autobiographical script treatment for the movie The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

And that’s when my historian’s cheek muscle began to twitch like Herbert Lom in a Pink Panther movie. How much of this story, I wondered, is based on contemporaneous documents, and how much is based on a memoir that was massaged for mass entertainment? After all, that’s what a Hollywood “script treatment” is supposed to do.

Most of the book’s quotations appear in the extensive Author’s Note on pages 42-4. The heart and climax of the book—Kellerman’s run-in with moral authorities in Boston in 1908—has just a few quotes, and they all come from her “My Story” script treatment. Corey tracked down newspaper articles, but didn’t quote from them. And I can’t help but suspect that the defiant and witty speeches the character makes on those pages of the book come from the Hollywood version.

Of course, a picture-book biography doesn’t have the responsibility or freedom to lay out sources the same way that a scholarly biography should. Mermaid Queen works very well in introducing kids to the intertwined life and legend of Annette Kellerman, and the world she came from and changed a little.

But in this year’s Cybils discussion, I found myself a little more impressed by another picture-book biography that had to start with sources not already well digested for public consumption.

08 September 2010

Pondering Sacred Cows

Another title on the Cybils’ Non-fiction Picture Book shortlist last year is 14 Cows for America, written by Carmen Agra Deedy in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, and illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. This is the story of a Maasai community’s decision to make a symbolic gift of cows to the USA after the terrorist attack on New York in September 2001.

14 Cows for America certainly looks like a beautiful children’s picture book. The full-page spreads glow with Kenyan portraits and Kenyan landscapes. The text is simple and clear, forming events into a fable.

But as I read it, I kept wondering whether this content holds more appeal for children, or for adults? There are no young characters, or child stand-ins. Instead, the central figure is a medical student, and the major decision-makers are tribal elders. The text alludes to the precipitating event of the terrorist attacks delicately; American adults would have no difficulty recognizing the allusions, but most of today’s picture-book readers probably have no memory of 2001.

Does 14 Cows for America offer a meaningful narrative? The “plot” involves a distant conflict, no character growth, and a purely symbolic resolution. (The Maasai actually keep the fourteen cows.) Gonzalez carefully hides the face of the American ambassador, so he can never be more than a symbol.

Picture books are supposed to need at least a dozen interesting, visually varied scenes—not just the same characters talking in the same space. 14 Cows for America basically shows two related events:

  • The medical student comes home to his community, bringing his story of seeing the terrorist attack.
  • Some time later, the diplomat arrives to take symbolic possession of those “sacred, healing cows.”
Imagine trying to build a picture book around a European community that hears about the 2001 terrorist attacks, decides to organize a public mourning ceremony, and then goes through with it.

In the end, 14 Cows for America struck me as more of a thick greeting card, made to express a solidarity of feeling between giver and recipient, than a narrative or informational book. It fulfills that function well—as I said, the pictures are beautiful, and the events well told to produce emotional meaning. But I suspect 14 Cows for America wouldn’t work if it couldn’t take advantage of its exotic setting and exotic behavior.

07 September 2010

Catching Up with the Cybils

The 2011 Cybils season has started with an invitation to bloggers to volunteer as panelists and judges. I’ve been a judge in different categories each year since the Cybils began, and enjoy the chance to sample the best of the latest children’s literature and to discuss those books with dedicated and knowledgeable critics. It’s a very rewarding experience!

This seems to be a good time to finish posting my thoughts on runners-up for last year’s Non-Fiction Picture Book Award. The winner we chose was The Day-Glo Brothers, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tony Persiani, as discussed back here. But it was one of an impressive group.

Another shortlisted title was Faith, created by Maya Ajmera, Magde Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon for the Global Fund for Children. Like other GFC books, this is a photo-essay showing children all over the world.

The photos are big, bright, and varied. They come with a lot of verbal information, in the captions on the same page and in the back of the book. Out of 48 total pages, 9 are commentary and glossary and 36 primarily photographs.

In the end, I’m not sure the book gets to the essence of religious faith, however. It shows those parts of the human phenomenon that are (a) photographable, and (b) uncontroversial. The pictures show young people singing, for example, but the captions don’t say what they’re singing. In emphasizing the similarities among the behaviors shown, the book doesn’t acknowledge the differences among religions, or how big people make them.

Indeed, at the end the book states, “We respect others, making friends and building peace,” as a final unifier. It does not acknowledge how people—including people with good intent—have often used religious belief as a justification or accelerant for disrespecting others, making enemies, and going to war.

Readers couldn’t tell from Faith that most religions come with:

  • origin myths describing the birth of the universe and of the faith itself.
  • moral codes that combine basic precepts and traditional customs, sometimes at odds with those principles.
  • explanations of what happens after death.
  • statements or presumptions that this form of religious observance is correct, and others are more or less wrong—more wrong sometimes condemning others to second-class treatment and/or everlasting punishment.
Nor does the book discuss how many of those tenets are unprovable and taken on, well, faith.

05 September 2010

The Huntress as Successor to Jason Todd

Although DC Comics had used the character name before, the first Huntress anyone cared about was the daughter of Bruce Wayne. The Bruce Wayne on Earth-Two, that is—the one who fought crime as Batman starting around 1940 and married Selina Kyle, the reformed Catwoman.

Helena Wayne took up the costumed crime-fighting in 1977 after her mother’s death, in a story written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton. There were later hints of attraction between her and the grown-up Dick Grayson, but their relationship was mostly fraternal, and they became law partners instead.

Earth-Two, Helena Wayne, and the grown-up Dick Grayson were all wiped out in the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries of 1985-86. This left the Huntress name (and trademark) hanging.

In early 1989, DC introduced a new Huntress. The first issue of Huntress magazine, written by Joey Cavalieri and drawn once again by Joe Staton, had an April cover date. The following month Huntress also appeared in Justice League alongside Batman. As a crimefighter in Gotham City, she naturally fell under the Dark Knight’s shadow.This Huntress’s name was Helena Bertinelli. And in many ways she was remarkably like Jason Todd, the third Robin, who had been killed only months before.

As reimagined by Max Allan Collins, Jason wasn’t just another orphaned circus flyer (there are just so many of those). Instead, he was the orphaned son of a career criminal who had grown up in a tough world. Furthermore, as developed by Collins and even more so by Jim Starlin, Jason was often driven by anger, occasionally defiant toward Batman, and ready to wreak more permanent violent retribution than his mentor.

These traits naturally produced more tension in the Batman-and-Robin relationship, and opened the door to more interesting storylines. They also proved terribly unpopular with readers, to the point that DC decided to retire the character one way or another.

And then the company introduced readers to Huntress, who was:

  • the orphaned daughter of career criminals who had grown up in a tough world. She came from a leading family of organized crime who had all been wiped out by rivals.
  • often driven by anger, not just at those murderous rivals but at criminals in general.
  • defiant toward Batman, yet at many levels seeking his approval.
  • ready to wreak permanent violence, without Batman’s scruples against killing.
In sum, Helena Bertinelli received all of the second Jason Todd’s stand-out traits without the symbolic baggage of being Robin. (Helena Wayne hadn’t been prominent enough to accumulate similar baggage for most readers.) Huntress could be evil, or at least could push the edges of the superhero ethos, without provoking complaints. Indeed, as a tough woman, she was a refreshing addition to the Gotham City lineup.

The Huntress series lasted nineteen issues, the last three featuring Batman. Over the next two decades, Huntress has remained a significant figure in DC Universe, though usually as a supporting character or member of a team. She maintains a unique symbolic value within the Batman family.

Being an adult, and having inherited her family’s money, Helena Bertinelli is independent of Bruce Wayne, which allows her to move nearer and further from the Batman “family” as stories require. Her Catholic faith and Italian heritage provide interesting nuances. Her day job is teaching school, which softens the edges of the character and made for a particularly interesting relationship when she crossed paths with…the next Robin.

04 September 2010

Piracy with Permission

There have been a lot of stories lately about online ads “following us around,” popping up on different sites that use the same big advertising service that has found out something about our interests. But I found this story from the New York Times more thought-provoking:

Remarkably, more than one-third of the two billion views of YouTube videos with ads each week are like TomR35’s “Mad Men” clip — uploaded without the copyright owner’s permission but left up by the owner’s choice. They are automatically recognized by YouTube, using a system called Content ID that scans videos and compares them to material provided by copyright owners.
YouTube shares the ad revenue garnered from such clips with their copyright owners. Those two billions views with ads alongside “are just 14 percent of the videos viewed each week,” but “that’s enough to turn YouTube profitable this year.”

In other words, piracy isn’t a big deal as long as (a) there’s advertising revenue, and (b) the copyright owner can trace the content and share in the revenue. Instead of just following us around, this technology is following around the content.