31 October 2010

Tricks and Treats

Last year around this time, I noticed a costume emporium’s ad on a subway car. Among the outfits it showcased was one rather like this.

“A costume of Stephanie Brown as Robin?” I thought. “Now that’s progressive. As well as rather obscure.”

Was it, I thought, remaindered merchandise from a few years earlier, when Batman took on that young blonde character as his first female sidekick for a few months? Was it a sign of that character’s growing popularity and symbolic significance, which caused DC to bring Stephanie back from the dead and make her the latest Batgirl?

No, I realized after absorbing a little more knowledge of the modern American Halloween. It’s simply a “Sexy Robin Costume.” (There are at least two different styles.) It’s just one example of the trend of adult costumes mashing up iconic figures—many from children’s entertainment—with the professional style of a streetwalker.

Thus, we have the choice not only of Sexy Dorothy but also Sexy Scarecrow, Sexy Tin Man, and Sexy Wicked Witch of the West. Women can choose to dress as a Sexy Student at Gryffindor, Sexy Queen of Hearts, or Sexy Captain America.

There doesn’t seem to be any equivalent for men. HalloweenCostumes.org’s “Sexy” section contains only one male costume: a plaid kilt with copy that starts, “Everyone will be wondering what you have under this men’s Scottish costume!” But the main picture of that outfit is a model wearing pants, which sort of destroys the mystery. Apparently we’re fine with women dressing “Sexy” on Halloween, but American men wouldn’t be caught dead in such clothes.

(As I prepared this posting, I discovered that Comics Alliance has listed “The 18 Weirdest ‘Sexy’ Halloween Costumes Based on Comics,” including this Robin, and “The 13 Most Improbable ‘Sexy’ Comic Book Costumes,” not including any found in stores.)

29 October 2010

Zombies from Mars?

From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times review of The Walking Dead TV series:

All it really takes to outrun a zombie is a car. Also, a bullet to the head will stop one cold. And that may explain why so many men prefer zombies to vampires: zombie stories pivot on men’s two favorite things: fast cars and guns. Better yet, zombies almost never talk.

Vampires, especially of late, are mostly a female obsession. Works like “Twilight” and “True Blood” suggest that the best way to defeat a vampire is to make him fall so in love that he resists the urge to bite. And that’s a powerful, if naïve, female fantasy: a mate so besotted he gives up his most primal cravings for the woman he loves.

Vampires are imbued with romance. Zombies are not. (Zombies are from Mars, vampires are from Venus.)
I’d like to dismiss this dichotomy as specious, but then I think about the writers behind the trends.

The Walking Dead is based on a comics series by a male writer, Robert Kirkman. It builds on the modern zombie mythology established by Night of the Living Dead, scripted by John A. Russo and George A. Romero. More recent stories based on the same mythology came from Alex Garland (28 Days Later), Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland). Even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which supposedly bridges the gender gap, comes from a male writer, Seth Grahame-Smith.

The modern vampire, erotic and (unlike Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula) morally conflicted, was made popular by Ann Rice, a female novelist. The Twilight movies are based on books by Stephenie Meyer, the True Blood TV series on novels by Charlaine Harris.

27 October 2010

Inside Jokes about Beautiful People

Write4Kids shared some comments from actual teenaged book readers about what they look for in fiction.

Two items struck me. One was that some of these readers are very explicit about wanting “good-looking people.” For example:

Caroline really hates when the good-looking main character is in love with a “freak of the week”, and she wants at least one beautiful person in a novel, preferably more.
Others prefers “Beautiful people” with “Unique names” and “British accents (Audrey and Caroline agree with this times 20).” Which I guess, since we’re talking about prose, means writing things like “She was beautiful,” and, “He spoke with a British accent.” That’s so much easier than having to draw or cast beautiful British people.

Another quality sought by two of the readers is “Inside jokes.” To be specific, “Inside jokes that are funny!” And:
Seriously, if you’re writing for teens, and you don’t include an entertaining inside joke, I’ll be like “no.”
This I have more trouble understanding. I think of an “inside joke” as one understood by teller and hearer because they belong to a small group of people who share certain references. If the teller is an author, and the hearer one of thousands of readers, does that qualify? And what shared knowledge defines the group? Knowledge of a certain canon of literature, of what it’s like being a young adult in America today, of what’s happened previously in a series?

(The post’s main author also thinks the name “Damian” is so over. *tt*)

25 October 2010

Snapshot of Attitudes toward Health-Insurance Reform

Last week the Associated Press reported a survey about Americans’ attitudes toward the health-insurance reform law.

  • 37% of likely voters said they want to “repeal it completely”—presumably taking back the $200 each Medicare recipient was paid this year, ending the requirement that insurers cover people’s children in their early twenties, reopening the “donut hole” in Medicare drug reimbursements, and so on. That’s what “completely” means.
  • 36% of likely voters “want to revise the law so it does more to change the health care system.” The difference is within the poll’s margin of error of 4.4%.
  • 15% “would leave the overhaul as it is.”
  • 10% want “to narrow its scope” in unspecified ways.
Adding up the people who support the law and the people who want the federal government to do more about health care comes to 52%, against 47% who want to narrow or repeal the law.

Yet the same survey found: “Among likely voters, 52 percent oppose the legislation, compared with 41 percent who said they support it.” So attitudes aren’t really adding up.

(The survey “involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,501 adults nationwide, including 846 adults classified as likely to vote in the November congressional elections.”)

The least popular part of the law is apparently still the mandate for individuals to have health insurance of some sort. That provision was of course introduced into the bill to gain the support of health-insurance companies. Do people really think that a Republican congress, elected with big corporate money, would repeal that first?

24 October 2010

“To the Batmobile! I Get Shotgun!”

This was an excellent month for Robin comics. The panel above comes from what might be the most enjoyable per length. Colleen Coover created it as a tribute to the Dynamic Duo and to editor Nate Cosby as he departed Marvel. Click on the panel above for the rest of the adventure.

Coover’s Dick Grayson is as cheerful and enthusiastic as any depiction ever, but not much of a detective. At the end of the night, he doesn’t even notice what Batman is up to with Catwoman. (In contrast, Robin was onto the Caped Crusader’s crush from “the Cat’s” very first appearance in 1940.)

Elsewhere in parody, the Black Cat finished an extended story called “Mr. Bat-Mom” (part 1 and part 2) about Batman discovering the joys of housekeeping, and his two eldest sons scheming to send him back to fighting crime. Jason plays an outsized role in these Batman and Sons parodies because the all-in-the-family stories need an antagonist to stir up conflict.

Tiny Titans, #33, was an all-Robin issue, with the central character (Dick, unnamed) confronted by preschool versions of Jason, Tim, Stephanie, Carrie, and a bunch of other toddlers in red, green, and yellow. He mopes in his carseat about the surfeit of Robins until Alfred hauls out the Nightwing costume so he can feel special again.

Usually in Titans stories the Robin is the Badass Normal whom everyone else admires, but in this magazine he’s the Charlie Brown figure, lovable but hapless, in love with a little red-haired girl. Consider, in contrast, how the Teen Titans TV Robin reacts to finding that all his teammates have been trying on his costume (season 4, “The Quest”).

In canonical comics, Superman/Batman, #77, allowed Damian Wayne to dig his fingers a little deeper into the DC Universe in a Halloween team-up with Supergirl. Apparently this Black Lanterns thing isn’t going away anytime soon. I ended up thinking about how Damian is the first Robin readers aren’t supposed to identify with—at least I hope not. We grown-ups are meant to just watch him and roll our eyes.

Bruce Wayne returned to modern Gotham City in one magazine (Batman and Robin), has already returned home in others (The Road Home), and is still missing in yet more (Return of Bruce Wayne). DC’s years-in-the-making saga of the original Batman’s exile in time ran into some temporal anomalies of its own as production schedules caused some issues to hit stores out of sequence. Of course, that matters little to those of us who wait for trades.

Speaking of which, DC published the Red Robin: Collision collection, completing Christopher Yost’s story about Tim Drake’s new role. I’ll review these paperbacks next month, but for now I’ll just say that not long ago comics fans had to wait through multiple issues of a magazine to enjoy a complete story. Now we have to wait through multiple volumes.

Finally, I know some weekly Robin visitors have already seen it, but this month I learned about this unused Tom Grummett illustration for Robin, #10, in which a timeslip throws Tim and young Dick together. Doesn’t that rooftop look reminiscent of where Carmine Infantino posed the original Dynamic Duo, as shown to the right? Over the years Tim, Speedy, Spoiler, and other characters have visited what looks like the same rooftop.

22 October 2010

Didn’t We Pass This Point Nine Years Ago?

The news media has begun a foofaraw about broadcaster Juan Williams’s departure from NPR for what he called a “gulag” which will merely pay him millions of dollars. But I haven’t seen anyone note that the point Williams was apparently trying to make had already been explored incisively nine years ago in the comic strip Doonesbury.

Williams told Bill (“Muslims killed us on 9/11”) O’Reilly:

when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
In a strip published on 9 Oct 2001, less than a month after kamikaze hijackers attacked New York and Washington, cartoonist Garry Trudeau showed his central character Mike Doonesbury on a plane next to an Arabic man. After portraying Mike’s reluctant nervousness, Trudeau revealed that the man was a PDA salesman. A later series of strips showed the same man detained and interrogated by US agents.

Williams was trying to get to the point that the overwhelming majority of Muslims on American plans are neither zealots nor murderers, and deserve legal rights. But along the way he said he agreed with O’Reilly, and expressed some clumsy bigotry about Muslims. Williams never pointed out how misguided his feelings were, and how they amounted to ignorant bigotry. (And in follow-up comments he reaffirmed his initial remarks.)

The atmosphere on Fox News undoubtedly encouraged Williams to make such statements. It’s the only “news” channel run by a longtime presidential campaign aide, serving to feed Republican propaganda into the public discourse. It employs people who say things like, “All terrorists are Muslim.” By Fox News standards, Williams’s remark was unexceptional.

NPR, on the other hand, likes its news analysts to actually analyze the news for readers, to dig past first impressions and lizard-brain reactions. A true news analyst might point out, for example, that not one of the Islamist terrorists who have attacked planes and other transportation was dressed in “Muslim garb.” So getting worried about people who are supposedly “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims” is stupid even for a paranoid on Fox News.

21 October 2010

Paranormal Romance Bursts Out of Teen Fiction at B&N

Just in case we need more evidence that teen fantasy fiction dominates the children’s-publishing world now, Publishers Weekly reports:

Barnes & Noble is in the midst of rearranging its teen fiction section chain-wide this week. . . . Already teen fiction is the biggest book growth category at Barnes & Noble, according to Mary Amicucci, v-p of children’s books. In terms of volume, it is the second largest subject, behind adult fiction. . . .

the chain pushed the go button to reorganize all its teen sections by separating out the two most popular genres—paranormal romance and fantasy and adventure—from teen fiction. . . . In addition to helping teens discover new books, the rearranged sections will enable them to easily filter out books they’re not interested in and go straight to the genre that they’re looking for. [In other words, they might discover new books, but they won’t run the risk of discovering new types of books.] . . .

Combined, the new paranormal and fantasy and adventure sections are slightly larger than teen fiction. [So they were already the tail wagging this dog.]
In addition, B&N’s publishing arm, Sterling, will launch its own imprint of fiction for teens, starting with a five-volume supernatural romance saga. That announcement carries interesting implications about using digital tags and electronic editions to get readers into B&N stores.

Now I have to go figure out how to stick this information into my “Writing Within and Without Genre“ workshop at SCBWI New England’s ENCORE! session next weekend.

20 October 2010

Christopher Lloyd Is the Wizard of Oz

At least in the upcoming film/TV pilot titled The Witches of Oz 3D. An old article on Monsters and Critics describes the movie as:

a fantasy/comedy that follows the exploits of Dorothy Gale, now a successful children's book author, as she moves from Kansas to New York City.

Dorothy quickly realizes that the dreams on which she based her books were actually childhood memories, and that the wonders of Oz are very, very real. When the Wicked Witch of the West appears in Times Square, Dorothy must find inner courage to stop her.
It also reveals that this is probably the most elaborate Oz movie ever shot for the most part in Connecticut.

Director Leigh Scott explains the genesis of the project in a Cinema-Crazed interview:
About four years ago everybody in Hollywood was buying up these lame “tween” books looking for the next Harry Potter. At about the same time I was charged with finding public domain stuff at the Asylum [a studio that specialized in quickly making cheap movies that sounded an awful lot like others about to get big marketing budgets]. When I discovered that the Wizard of Oz was available, I pitched it to them. They were afraid of it because it was such a well known property and at the time horror stuff was still the rage. Plus, it just sounds expensive, and now having done it, they were right! . . .

The books are really weird. They’re written for little kids, but the concepts and ideas are really adult and creepy. As for the movies, I think RETURN TO OZ is pretty underrated. Every film about Oz has to live in the shadow of the 1939 film which isn't just the definitive Oz movie, it’s one of the most iconic films in history. We decided, unlike the 1985 Oz film, to incorporate the musical into our film through subtle references and a few bigger elements of the production design, creature design, wardrobe etc.
Because, I suspect, one doesn’t have to pay to use “subtle references.”

Tom Angleberger just interviewed Barry Ratcliffe, who plays the Cowardly Lion, for Geek Dad. Naturally they talked about…Christopher Lloyd as the Wizard:
Q: I think a lot of geeks — and a lot of other folks — will be interested as soon as they hear the words: “Christopher Lloyd as the Wizard of Oz.” Is that going to be as awesome as it sounds?

A: It is going to be more awesome. I sent him a note, letting him know the fans where excited, and about our interview. He is an incredible actor as you know, and he brings every bit of passion, zaniness, fun, and quirkiness to the role you would expect. Are any of those words?
Not much more to learn there, aside from the fact that the shooting involved special effects and makeup—Ratcliffe does his job of keeping the movie’s secrets. One of which is apparently still the release date.

19 October 2010

Homer Price: “a universal and delightful brat”?!

Eric Gugler began a short essay in the November 1943 Horn Book like this:

When I thumb through this decidedly provocative bunch of illustrations made by Bob McCloskey for his new book, Homer Price (Viking), hundreds of tangent thoughts pop up.
Evidently not among them was “I should read this book.” Because it quickly becomes apparent that Gugler hadn’t read Homer Price.

“What a universal and delightful brat, this Homer Price,” Gugler proclaimed two sentences later, leading into a rhapsodic ode to mischievous boys:
They rings bells at front doors; when maids answer they snitch ice cream and cakes from the kitchen door and run away with bubbling glee; and they know they are never going to amount to much in the future unless they sell newspapers.
At no point in Homer Price or its 1951 sequel, Centerburg Tales, does Homer play any pranks like that. Instead, most of the time we see him working: in his mother’s hotel, in his uncle’s lunch room, at the greenhouse, at the library, in the town pageant.

For fun, Homer builds a crystal radio and goes to a movie, but he passes up fishing because of a job. Neither he nor his young friends makes trouble. Instead, it’s the adults of Centerburg who avoid work, put things over on each other, and tell outlandish tales. Level-headed, hard-working Homer helps to keep the town together.

Gugler was obviously less interested in reading McCloskey’s stories than in sharing “reminiscences of other boys I knew very well indeed.” Maybe he was busy, on deadline, and anxious to say nice things about “Bob’s” new book. He provided a lively disquisition on the “lovable bad boy” type established by Twain, Aldrich, Tarkington, Shute, and Peck. But Gugler didn’t know young Homer Price at all.

What was Gugler’s connection to children’s literature? How did he come to The Horn Book? He was an architect who helped design the West Wing of the White House. Among Gugler’s other work was the office of his good friend May Massee at Viking Press—editor of Homer Price. So this little essay looks like those excited but empty five-star Amazon reviews you can’t help suspecting were written by the author’s friends and relations.

The same issue of The Horn Book contained a better appraisal of Homer Price by James Daugherty, Newbery winner in 1940. He focused on its gentle satire of “the daily life of the Mid-Western small town” and McCloskey’s “solemn and devastating humor.” Daugherty noted how “Homer and his friends cope with, and master, such surprising emergencies as radio robbers, Superman, musical mousetraps, ferocious doughnut machines, housing problems, and mass production.” He didn’t neglect the delight and craft of McCloskey’s pictures, but it’s clear that Daugherty had read the text as well.

18 October 2010

Will Comics Adaptations Push Out Originals?

A couple years back, I was part of a Cybils judging panel that gave top marks to the comics adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, which I for one preferred to the prose novel. This year I was pleased to see Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz win Eisner Awards not just for best graphic novel for kids, but best graphic novel for any age.

Lately we’ve seen announcements of more adaptations of bestselling fantasy novels, including Jonathan Stroud’s Amulet of Samarkand and Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief. All this attention and money for graphic-novel versions must be good for the comics form and its creators, right?

Actually, I worry about what those high-profile adaptations mean for new novel-length comics.

Several years ago, soon after lots of upper- and middle-class American couples were having babies, there was a little boom in books for pre-readers, including original board books. There was also a boom in adapting established picture books, such as Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon, into the board book format—though fans complained that the adaptations were too simplified.

In a short time already-known titles drove out the original offerings with any more text than a few labels. Parents recognized the older books, perhaps from their own childhoods, and saw them as a safer buy than unfamiliar titles. The expense of printing board books made publishers reluctant to invest in poorer sellers.

Will the same dynamic play out in comics? The Lightning Thief has already enjoyed many months on bestseller lists, lots of fans, and a Hollywood marketing budget that—even if the movie sank—dwarfed what the publishing industry can pay for. How will an original comics adventure compete with that, even if it’s been conceived from the start to make the most of its format?

An additional pitfall, though not as deep, is that publishers, knowing they have a ready audience, will issue comics adaptations that aren’t very good and leave new readers less than thrilled by the format. The treatment of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight has already prompted worries along that line.

Of course, the comics business has long thrived on adaptations, whether they’re Classic Comics, TV spin-offs, reworked newspaper strips, or the endless new adventures for established characters. And brand-name properties can offer work for budding talent. As one encouraging recent example, Raina Telgemeier was able to establish (and feed) herself by adapting Ann S. Martin’s Babysitters Club novels into comics form while she completed her own Smile.

Still, I hope that the next Bone won’t get lost behind a pile of production-line Harry Potter comics licensed soon after the movie revenue has started to fade.

17 October 2010

The Robins’ Recurring Problem of the Future

The last weekly Robin discussed how the glimpses of the future in Grant Morrison’s Batman scripts show life in Gotham City getting more grim and ruthless, despite Dick Grayson being a relatively friendly Batman.

Of course, that’s only one possible future, but it’s still cause for worry—which is, after all, what superhero comics are designed to make us do in the middle of a story.

But I think the quality of life in the future has particular importance for the character of Robin, especially as embodied by the two longest-tenured Teen Wonders, Dick Grayson and Tim Drake. As Fabian Nicieza, currently scripting Red Robin, has explained:

The concept of Robin defines the nature of the legacy in the DCU and with that, implies hope for the future…
Put another way, if Robin inherits a lousy future, the DC Universe at large has a lot of pain to look forward to as well.

One example of this pattern appeared in the Titans magazines of the early 1990s. In an one-off annual, Marv Wolfman introduced a possible future in which the world will turn evil, and Dick Grayson/Nightwing will be the only familiar hero still fighting. This Nightwing will lack his friends, his lover, his mentor. He’ll be an outlaw against an oppressive state. And because so many comics readers identify with Dick Grayson, that future feels especially bad.

But it can get even worse. How? If Dick Grayson himself will get worse. That’s where Wolfman went next, after DC asked him to expand on that storyline. The second-tier Team Titans magazine showed that future Nightwing turning evil. He will take a new name: Deathwing. And in case that won’t be evil enough, he will also adopt an edged weapon, long straggly hair, and a costume that exposes his nipple rings.

Deathwing comes back to the present and helps to break up the familiar Dick Grayson’s wedding to his longtime girlfriend Koriand’r. Eventually that whole unsuccessful storyline imploded, and that future was mercifully canceled. DC declared that Deathwing wasn’t actually Dick Grayson at all, and shuffled the character off to bureaucratic oblivion. Some people still wonder where he’s gone.

But the short, unhappy career of Deathwing had served its purpose of telling readers how awful that alternate future would be, how glad we should feel that it won’t come to pass. Because if one of the beloved Robins will turn evil, the whole DC Universe is messed up.

Other writers have gone to the same well. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001-02) was a sequel to his beloved but out-of-continuity The Dark Knight Returns. As far as I can tell, Miller set out to mess up the DC Universe as much as possible. So the sequel tells us that the first story’s new Robin, Carrie Kelley, will give up that identity and go around in a catsuit. Superman and Wonder Woman will have aerial sex. Many other heroes will become dejected or depowered.

At the end, Miller had only one place to go, only one more card to play: make Dick Grayson evil. I suppose that’s a SPOILER, but this whole tale has the sour taste of spoiled milk from the start.

In the early 2000s, Geoff Johns wrote a story about the Teen Titans group that included Tim Drake meeting their possible future selves. Embittered by their losses, those young heroes will become ruthless tyrants, oppressing villains and the western US as a whole.

And the leader of that future team? It will be Tim, taking the mantle of the late Batman—but as a murderous, gun-toting vigilante. Later, Sean McKeever wrote a follow-on to this “Titans Tomorrow” storyline. Both tales gain their power from the notion of a corrupted Robin, and the young Tim has to prevent that future from happening. Because if Robin doesn’t grow up well, there’s no hope for the rest of us.

The most recent example of this pattern is the current Batman Beyond limited series, set in the future and inspired by the past TV cartoon. This story, scripted by Adam Beechen, has just shown that its villain Hush is Dick Grayson, who will—wait for it—become evil! (Or will he? This is a six-part story, and it’s only up to issue #4. There’s no way the series’s big reveal and final twist happens only two-thirds of the way through.) On the plus side, once a DC storyline shows a future Dick Grayson (or Tim Drake) as evil, there’s nowhere further down we can go.

14 October 2010

People of the Picture Book

Tomorrow the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, will open an exhibit titled Monsters and Miracles: A Journey Through Jewish Picture Books:

this ambitious exhibition explores the evolution of Jewish picture books from illuminated manuscripts, alef-bets [books of Hebrew letters], and Passover Haggadot to stories that consider monsters [golems, dybbuks, and wild things], life in the shtetl, and the role of migration in Jewish life.
There are a slew of related events, including some at the nearby National Yiddish Book Center, which helped to assemble the material on display.

The exhibition catalogue is described as:
Showcasing more than 100 illustrations and texts from time-honored classics and popular favorites, this catalog of a new exhibition guides readers through the colorful history of the Jewish picture book, from the sixteenth century to the present. . . . paintings, drawings, computer-generated images, papercuts, and collage—and an eclectic collection of texts, from illuminated Haggadot to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are to Lemony Snicket's The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story.

13 October 2010

Literature for Young People Today

These are the nominees for the National Book Award for Literature for Young People, announced today.

  • Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
  • Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird
  • Laura McNeal, Dark Water
  • Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown
  • Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
Notably, three of these five novels have protagonists who are young people of color. In the rest, Dark Water’s main character enters a relationship with a young Latino migrant, and the protagonist of Mockingbird has Asperger’s syndrome.

Of course, the NBA pool tends to choose from the “high end” of children’s literature, which is more likely to include serious novels, historical fiction, and explorations of the experiences of social outsiders. Still, it’s an interesting snapshot.

12 October 2010

Picture Books, Publishing, Parenting—Perhaps

Last week the New York Times published a provocative article about the state of picture-book publishing in America. It cited information from the two biggest US book retail chains, three respected independent children’s booksellers, and the major publishers Scholastic, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Candlewick.

Some in our children’s literature crowd nonetheless dismissed the article, suggesting not only that the headlines “Picture Books Languish as Parents Push ‘Big-Kid Books’” and “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” overstated the trend, but that there was no trend to state. Others answered with paeans to picture books as valuable art and/or educational material, and still popular in libraries. Much of which, I fear, somewhat misses the point.

The Times article is primarily about a market trend. And saying that trend doesn’t, shouldn’t, or needn’t exist won’t make it stop. When Barnes & Noble reworks its shelving to carry fewer picture books, that’s significant for the future of the form. Soulless, money-hungry, trend-chasing retail corporations don’t make major changes simply because someone has a hunch. They do so because they see what’s actually selling best.

For a few years already we’ve heard from editors and agents that the market for picture books is “soft” (i.e., hard to break into). Many agents say they don’t want to see picture-book manuscripts, and firms are cutting back on those titles. This retail downturn appears to come on top of that trend. Even if sales to libraries rise (and the economy makes that dubious), an industry that’s gotten used to selling to middle- and upper-class families is in for tough changes.

Some of the children’s-lit response seems to assume that our current conception of the picture book—usually 32 pages, oversized trim, full-color art, minimal text, priced under $20—is a cultural apogee. But it’s an artifact defined by a complex interplay of economics, production capabilities, and parenting and educational culture. If circumstances change some of those factors, perhaps any of those factors, and we might see something different come out the other end.

The picture-book boom of the 1980s was helped by deals with Asian printers who could deliver high-quality books more cheaply (though they also necessitated a longer lead time). At the same time, a baby boomlet produced more children, especially in the richer classes where book-buying has always been concentrated. Then came the benefits of digital production. Today those factors no longer offer new cost-savings, and picture-book prices might be bumping against a psychological barrier of $20, leaving publishers less room for profit.

Today’s demographics are less promising. Over the past fifteen years or so, a slightly oversized cohort of upper- and middle-class children have grown up, and we’ve successively seen a small picture-book boom, a middle-grade novel boom, and the current young-adult fiction boom. But what comes next? Today’s economy is poor, as the Times article acknowledges, yet those YA novels aren’t hurting. (Indeed, literary agents who have never been involved in children’s books are now proclaiming their interest in repping YA fiction.)

Today’s new technologies appear to have their biggest effect on the consumer end, not on production. People are buying more books online, when the impressive look and size of picture books aren’t so obvious. Digital readers promise more flexibility in formats (no more stricture of 32 pages!), features (sound!), savings (no printing!), and distraction (hey, let’s see what games are on the web).

Only after those factors, I think, do we arrive at the cultural issues that this article focused on. Quoting publisher Justin Chanda of Simon & Schuster and a couple of parents, the reporter suggested that parents want young kids to read “chapter books” earlier, and therefore steer them away from picture books. Is there enough pressure from upper- and middle-class parents and standards-driven schools to affect book sales? Are families getting more interested in other forms of “edutainment” besides books? Are parents simply content with the titles they remember from their own childhoods?

Put all those factors together, and the result may mean long-term shrinkage of the picture-book business as we’ve known it. It won’t disappear, but it may never command as much of the market as it once did. And our mental model of a picture book might have to change. To satisfy parental desires, oversized illustrated books might end up having more text, like those semi-mythical “picture-storybooks” we authors speak of when we don’t want to cut our 2,500-word manuscripts.

As for giving young readers visuals alongside their texts, the past decade has seen an increasing amount of art in middle-grade novels. After decades of cost-cutting, interior illustrations have returned, pushed by Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket. We’ve seen novels with art integrated into the storytelling: Hugo Cabret, Ellie McDoodle, Spiderwick Chronicles, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, True Meaning of Smekday, and so on. We’ve even seen the rise to respectability of the comics form, including TOON Books for beginning readers. So our culture doesn’t lack for books combining pictures and words; perhaps they’re just changing form.

10 October 2010

Can Batman Change the World for the Better?

This week invincible superblogger Chris Sims discussed the Robin phenomenon at Comics Alliance (leaving out Stephanie Brown, and immediately getting called on it).

Sims wrote:

Robin — specifically Dick Grayson — represents one of the most important aspects of Batman’s character, in that it shows just how much he's able to change the world. . . .

Bruce and Dick start at the same place — between the dead bodies of their parents, taken from them by crime and chance through no fault of their own — but because he’s taken in by someone who has been there and fought through it, Dick ends up at a dramatically different place. For all the fact that he’s surrounded himself with a network of sidekicks and has been a member of the Justice League for decades, Bruce is still characterized as grim and alone, but Dick? Dick’s no less driven or skilled, no less devoted to battling crime and injustice, but he's also happy.
Sims’s essay includes this panel from Batman, #700, which many comics analysts have used to illustrate the contrast between Bruce Wayne as Batman and Dick Grayson as Batman. Dick acts friendly to Officer Bailey, remembering his name and family situation. The Bruce Wayne of the last twenty years would offer a brusque comment at most. (Of course, the Bruce Wayne of 1945-1985 would also have remembered Officer Bailey’s name, possibly from the singalong at the precinct’s last holiday party. The character has changed greatly over the years.)

There’s something about that panel that I haven’t seen Sims or any other interpreter mention. As Batman fans with better memories than I noted, it fits with references in Batman, #666, and a later story in #700 to trace the life of Max Bailey, the wheelchair-bound policeman’s son. In the future that scripter Grant Morrison is dealing out card by card, that boy appears to grow up to be a supervillain named Max Roboto.

In that future, Dick Grayson has met an unspecified but terrible fate, and Damian Wayne has taken over as Batman—an even nastier Batman than the recent Bruce Wayne. He kills bad guys. Any kind of bad guys. He may or may not remember police officer’s names, but if they’ve been turned into Jokerzombies he uses satellite lasers to zap them dead. He defeats Max Roboto and leaves the formerly wheelchair-bound child to be eaten alive by mutant rats. Even though Dick Grayson was friendly to the guy’s dad.

In other words, the Max Roboto storyline suggests that—unlike Bruce Wayne’s Batman, as Sims describes him—Dick Grayson’s Batman doesn’t change the world for the better. Despite his efforts and friendliness, it gets worse. Dick might save Damian by making him Robin, as the Batman and Robin magazine suggests, but he can’t preserve Batman’s ideal in Damian’s hands. Gotham becomes a less nice place despite having had a nice Batman.

And that should worry everyone, not just Robin fans.

COMING UP: Robins and the problem of the future.

08 October 2010

Hey, Kids, Here’s a Way to Add Color to the Tea Party!

The Tea Party Coloring Book for Kids got a lot of publicity last week, with some folks wondering if it was a parody, or simply self-parody. It’s self-published through a site called coloringbook.com, showing the ease with which we can now disseminate digital information. Self-publishing is the way to go when creators can easily identify and reach a niche market, and want to move fast.

The book’s picture of American history is bunk, of course. Talking Points Memo quotes the text this way:

In 1773 we had a Tea Party and this led to freedom from high taxes. Today we are having another Tea Party and this will lead to freedom from high taxes again! Ask grandma and grandpa what this means. Ask your friends what this means. Are you going to have your own tea party?
The issue of 1773 wasn’t “high taxes”; it was “taxation without representation.” You’d think people who so revere American history could remember that phrase—it rhymes and everything! (In fact, the British government wrote the Tea Act of 1773 to lower the consumer price of tea in North America.)

I find it telling how that passage mentions “grandma and grandpa.” Passing by the implication that those folks were around in 1773, that mention reflects how surveys find strong Tea Party adherents to be older than the average American adult. Similarly, most of the testimonials on the manufacturer’s website come from grandparents.

Another observation about this product came from Jezebel:
Things gleaned from the cover of The Tea Party Coloring Book For Kids: Tea Party includes many minorities, kids are angry about slow U.S. job growth, and money grows on trees.
And I don’t think any market-savvy publisher would have let the book’s cover suggest that boys in the movement outnumber girls 5:1.

07 October 2010

The Ephemeral Lives of Children

This announcement of an academic conference caught my eye not just for the topic but also for the thoughtful discussion of that topic:

Enduring Trifles: Writing the History of Childhood with Ephemera
17-19 February 2011, Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University

We are accustomed today to a market in which goods for children represent substantial industries, but children have been increasingly targeted in the English-speaking world’s consumer culture since the early industrial period.

The desire to meet the developing child’s needs provided the print trades with an impeccable rationale for producing an array of paper ephemera to “improve the shining hour” in the school room, the parlor and beyond. By highlighting the variety of children’s ephemera from the eighteenth century to the present, this conference hopes to demonstrate its potential for studying the history of childhood.

“Ephemera” is a multi-faceted concept which this program will explore with reference to children's material culture, perceived needs, and prevailing constructs of childhood, pleasure, play, and learning. The Shorter Oxford defines “ephemera” as an item “of short-lived interest or use…collectable items originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.” Thus a fragile artifact can be defined as ephemeral. Similarly, if its content is slight, its format or genre perceived as trivial, or it reflects contemporary events of passing interest, it can be considered ephemeral.

But the word also has another key meaning with respect to children’s things: an object or text can be ephemeral by design if conceived for use during a particular stage in a young person’s cognitive or social development. For all these reasons, Western culture has tended to devalue children’s material and their ephemera is more susceptible to casual disposal than the property of adults.

Although juvenile ephemera is eagerly sought by collectors, scholars tend to overlook this rich resource for evidence not only of distinct cultures of childhood, but also of children’s place in the larger historical picture. The unprepossessing object, such as the rag book, the poem composed by a child, the board game, the fund-raising ticket, the printed school form, the book cover, the paper doll, or the cookbook, can refract contemporary political, social, and cultural ideas, as well as perform the important cultural work of diffusing knowledge, forming values, and creating senses of identity and of community. Scholars at this conference will examine aspects of the history of childhood in Britain and the United States of America between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries from the perspectives of book history, gender studies, and the histories of science, religion, political movements, education, and literature.

The program will also include two workshops where the presenters will have actual artifacts on hand for viewing and a round table on children’s ephemera collecting, collection management, and the special challenges of making such materials available for research.
Details about registration will be posted 15 October on the web page of the Cotsen Children’s Library.

Image above from Gasoline Alley Antiques’ page of Wizard of Oz memorabilia.

05 October 2010

Fair to Muddling

The arrival of digital books as a commercial format has opened a lot of discussions about how much they should cost, and how much of that money authors should receive. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article about electronic publishing summarizing what Authors Guild official Paul Aiken said at a panel on digital publishing:

With his math, which he walked the audience through, a publisher, on a title with a $26 list price, makes roughly $5.10 on the hardcover while the author makes $3.90. On the e-book sold through the wholesale model, the publisher brings in $9.25 while the author gets $3.25. On the e-book sold through the agency model, the publisher gets $6.38 and the author gets $2.28. (A graphic that ran in the Huffington Post displays this visually. Interestingly, though, more costs are subtracted from the publishers’ bottom line.) So with that math Aiken’s question remains the same: why should authors make less on one version of a book than another? In a fair world, authors would earn at least as much (in dollar terms) on e-book sales as on hardcover sales, Aiken said.
A short time later, the PWxyz blog offered another graphic on how the revenue gets divided, along with some bwa-ha-ha’s from poets that serious writers should expect to make serious money from their work.

Today New York Times business section noted outrage from readers that Amazon was pricing two bestselling authors’ hardcovers slightly less than their electronic editions.

Those arguments remind me of the conflict in late-1700s America between what historians call the “moral economy” and the rising “market economy.”

Under the model of a moral economy, a society, often through government but sometimes through crowd action, tried to control prices and supply to keep things fair. The selectmen of Boston determined how heavy loaves of bread should be and how they should be priced. During the Revolutionary War a crowd of women (including retailers) mobbed the merchant Thomas Boylston because he was storing coffee in his warehouse, expecting its price to rise. (That incident is the basis of The Boston Coffee Party, by Doreen Rappaport.)

In contrast, in a market economy prices are set by the forces of supply and demand, as described by Adam Smith around the same time as that coffee riot. When demand outpaces supply, prices rise—making the business more attractive, which usually brings in more suppliers so the prices fall, and so on. Of course, we hardly ever have a true free market, but in theory that’s how the system works. And the US economy tilts in that direction, never so clearly as in the last decade.

The American publishing industry has always operated in a market economy. That’s mostly because its products have never been seen as necessary for life like bread and coffee, and partly because of the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press. What we consider a “fair” price for a book, a “fair” markup for retailers, or a “fair” royalty for authors are actually conventions worked out over years. Like the pirates’ code, they’re “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

As a result, hardcovers for teen-aged readers cost less than hardcovers of the same size for adult readers. Serious nonfiction costs more than fiction, but less than nonfiction people would never read except for their job. Authors earn more on hardcovers than on paperbacks, but less on cheap hardcover reprints. Readers won’t spend more than $20 on a picture book, even if its art could hang in a museum. Prices are based on how big a book looks, not how many words it contains or how good it is. It’s impossible to discern rules that render all those prices and compensation levels “fair.”

Yet agents and authors are now trying to lay down markers for a “fair” royalty for electronic books. Readers are insisting that it’s not “fair” for electronic books to cost more than their paper counterparts. And small bookstores have long said it’s not “fair” that massive retailers get better terms. Those are the arguments of the moral economy, and they won’t go far. They’ll be lost in the swirl of the market economy as the industry muddles through learning what readers are willing to pay, and for what, and how much that supply will cost to produce.

After all, how many advocates of a “fair” price or royalty would stick to that level if they had the chance to earn more, or pay less?

04 October 2010

Amazon’s Secret Business Plan

In a Boston Globe interview, memoirist Elif Batuman offered a new picture of book-buying today:

The Kindle changed my reading habits, because I now buy books pretty much only when I’m drunk, and late at night.
Okay, I’m sure she’s joking, at least in part. But her joke notes how the combination of digital texts and wireless delivery means that shopping for literature has lost almost all its “friction”—the effort of physically going to a store, carrying away the product, and even interacting with sales clerks. The only obstacle to buying books now is money.

03 October 2010

Thirty Years of “Hothouse Heroes and Heroines”

Yesterday Titans Tower alerted me to ToB’s lengthy analysis of the 1980s Teen Titans, written to observe the passage of thirty years since the team’s first appearance in DC Comics Presents, #26.

(I missed that magazine at the time, but I have the first five years of New Teen Titans, purchased month by month and preserved in poly bags. Not that I plan to ever sell them.)

On her Histories of Things to Come blog, ToB argues that the New Teen Titans and subsequent storylines are a generational touchstone:

Along with [Chris] Claremont’s revamped X-men from this period, the New Teen Titans are Generation X’s superheroes. There was something in the NTT title of a latchkey generation that felt (and still feels) forgotten, overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed by their elders.

At first Gen Xers, like their parents, were seduced by the glamour of ’80s high life. But they were also the first witnesses of the private cost of that life within families. Xers were compelled to survive in Brave New social settings and develop new values to cope in Postmodern and Post-Postmodern circumstances, while riding the economic booms and busts generated by their predecessors. That’s what The New Teen Titans was all about - and it was especially about building a family in a world where families had broken down.

Later Titans titles have picked up the same themes. The Titans are a pop culture mirror held up to reveal the trials of a generation that has repeatedly absorbed the often unseen costs of Boomer-driven social change.
While focusing on “the early-to-mid 1980s as seen from a youthful point of view,” the essay actually goes deep into the storylines of the following periods. In fact, I think it ends up devoting more space to the Titans’ interrelationships of the late 1980s (leaving out Danny Chase, of course). Which, along with some other hints in the blog, makes me think that ToB is a few years younger than I am—just a few, but a significant few.

Via Twitter I recently suggested that all online rants about comics should include the date when the author was twelve, so readers can calculate approximately when he or she believes the whole field reached its peak and started to go downhill. For me that date is 1978, also about when I started reading superhero comics regularly; I laid off in 1985, with Tales of the New Teen Titans being my last monthly purchase.

ToB places a lot of emphasis on generational friction, not just in this essay but in other analyses of Boomer/Gen-X interaction. And there was definitely a youth-against-middle-age theme to New Teen Titans. But I find ToB’s take to be even more specific to her apparent age. The essay is thoughtful and well worth reading for Titans fans of all ages, as long as we keep in mind that particular perspective.

For example, ToB writes, “Unlike the Boomers, who generated the message that love could free you, Xers were inundated from early adolescence with the message that love could kill you,” seeing that reflected in the Titans. But the first public-relations campaigns about safer sex came in 1984, and they were still kept narrow by controversy. For four years the Titans’ magazine had been the sexiest that the Comics Code Authority could allow.

In The Art of the Comic Book, R. C. Harvey wrote:
Upon first looking into issues of [George] Perez’s New Teen Titans, I was struck by two aspects of his drawing style—how pretty his people looked and how copiously his detail abounded. . . . His people were statuesque hunks and glossy glamour girls, hothouse heroes and heroines cavorting in shapely perfection amid uncluttered and tastefully appointed settings.
Those Titans looked like supermodels, not just superheroes. Robin and Starfire were half-naked to start with, and the whole team spent a lot of time at their pool. Even the supposedly unattractive members looked gorgeous. There was no worry about disease when the magazine finally acknowledged what we all knew—that Dick Grayson and Koriand’r were sleeping together. Heck, they were all over each other from issue #2.