30 November 2010

All the Way Around the Half-Continent

At last I have a matched set! Kind of.

Some readers were bowled over by D. M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo and its sequels. I wasn’t one of them. I thought the first novel devoted too many pages to world-building, started too late, and ended too early. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on, and a lot more.

I remain impressed, however, with Putnam’s perseverance in seeking an audience for this series in the US. As you can see, the company revamped the cover design and even the series title with each new volume. But now the American editor has left the firm, and I’m not sure the books will get the same sort of attention.

Another series I’ve seen undergo that sort of ongoing reinvention is Linda Buckley-Archer’s time-travel series which began with Gideon the Cutpurse before it veered off into retitling. See the complete rundown of covers and titles so far at Damsels in Regress.

29 November 2010

Two Ways of Building a Balanced Audience

In yesterday’s posting about the Young Justice TV cartoon, I quoted from an interview with the producers. Among the non-Robin-centric things they said was this, which speaks to one way modern mass entertainment is created:

[Greg Weisman:] I think, from an economic standpoint, we have to hit boys 6 – 14 for Cartoon Network to sell their ad space or whatever, so if you think of it as a bull’s eye with concentric circles, that’s the bull’s eye we have to hit – but I’m not satisfied with that and I don’t think Brandon [Vietti] is either.

A, we want boys and girls, so there’s a lot of great relationship stuff in this, there’s humor in this show – I mean, it’s a serious show, but there’s a lot of humor in it, there’s a lot of eye candy for little kids. I think little kids could enjoy this show, and some stuff will go over their heads, but they won’t know it’s going over their heads.
The network’s need to “hit boys 6 - 14” might explain why this show not only features a team made up of twice as many boys as girls (four to two), but also why the pilot doesn’t show one of those girls until the very last moments, and the other not at all.

There’s a female trainer for the group, but in the pilot she doesn’t speak. Wonder Woman flies in the background, a female scientist walks around with a clipboard, and that’s about it for that half of humanity. (Now that I think of it, the female teammates might not even reflect humanity: one is an alien from Mars, and the other is Artemis, potentially a goddess. But maybe that’s how the target audience of boys six to fourteen view girls.)

This made me think of how Jacques d’Amboise introduced his celebrated dance classes into New York schools. As People magazine reported in 1982, “d'Amboise first invites only boys (‘otherwise all girls would sign up’) and girls later.“ The Young Justice pilot might be tilted toward the masculine more than subsequent episodes in order to assure sponsors it will attract young male viewers, and to assure those viewers it’s safe to start watching.

Contrast the development of that show to how Jimmy Gownley decided to center his comic for kids on a little girl, from a new interview with R. J. Carter for the Trades:
Somewhere along the way, you decided to make a run with a female protagonist. What caused this shift?

I was working on [a comic book called] Shades of Gray, and I loved doing it, but it was always going to be this sort of thing I did on the side. At this point I'd graduated college and was working as a graphic designer. I was publishing Shades of Gray, and it was doing okay, but it was never going to be a career for me.

I just took the page that I was drawing — I was drawing a page of Shades of Gray, what ended up being the last issue. I just flipped it over, and without any thought of what I was doing, I just started doodling. And I drew this little girl — Amelia, exactly how she appears in the first issue. I kind of liked the way she looked, and I held it up to the person who was sitting with me — at the time it was my long-suffering girlfriend, now my long-suffering wife, Karen — and I said, "Hey, what do you think of her?" And she said, "She's really cute," and I said, "Maybe I should do something with her. What should we name her?" We both thought about it, and then at the exact same second we both said, "Amelia." So I took that as my cosmic sign that I was supposed to write a comic book about this little girl.
The result was Amelia Rules, now published by Simon & Schuster. Gownley enjoyed the freedom of self-financed publishing, and of working in a medium that requires a lot less money than an animated TV show. Perhaps many other author-illustrators have tried to launch comics for kids with female protagonists, and Amelia Rules is the rare success. But the fact that it’s found an audience of both girls and boys might suggest that creating good stories matters more than marketing dicta.

28 November 2010

A New Role for Robin in Young Justice

The Cartoon Network debuted its new Young Justice cartoon on Friday. This series takes place in a different universe from those of the 1998-2003 Young Justice comic book and all known Teen Titans groupings.

Instead, DC has told us, it’s set on Earth 16, which is much like the standard world of DC superheroes except that...there’s a Young Justice group we’ve never seen before.

The show mashes up elements of several versions of the DC superhero mythos: the TV Justice League plus Superfriends, the Superboy of the 1990s, the Kid Flash of the 1960s, and the Robin…

Well, this Robin is a mix of old and new. The producers assure us that he’s Dick Grayson, and he’s been working with Bruce Wayne for four years. But he’s only thirteen while Kid Flash is fifteen and Superboy is physiologically sixteen. The premiere emphasizes Robin’s computer-hacking skills, which in the comics are associated with Tim Drake. In sum, in this episode he appears to be this team’s nerdy little wise guy—a new role for a Robin.

Most interesting for group dynamics, as Laura Prudom at TV Squad reported:

In an interesting twist, 13-year-old Robin will not be leading the team as he has in previous incarnations; that honor will instead go to the older Aqualad, AKA Kaldur’ahm, an entirely new version of the character created specifically for the show.
We can tell Aqualad’s the leader just going by height, but he’s also the most emotionally mature of the guys. (The first episode shows us barely one of the two girls.) Khari Payton, who voices Aqualad, also portrayed Cyborg on Teen Titans, with a very different characterization. This extra-strength Aqualad has powers over electricity and water. Visually, he has brown skin and African features, combined with blond hair and webbed hands. I suspect the young Young Justice audience will respond better to a black leader than their elders.

The Young Justice producers asked Jesse McCartney, the singer-actor who voices Robin, to pitch his voice up so he sounds less mature. McCartney told ET Online that the character is “a young, prepubescent superhero…who isn't ready to head a team like this yet.” But that “yet” hints at how Robin will grow.

Indeed, in a USA Today interview McCartney stated that later in the season:
Robin is given the chance to really lead the team at certain times. You’ll see how he deals with that, when he’s faced with literally life-changing or –altering or –ending situations, how he deals with it. You can see how he’s still green — he’s still a kid and still trying to figure it out.
And in a Comic Book Resources interview, McCartney went even further:
Robin also learns pretty early on that no else is going to be able to lead this team. And everyone does get a shot. Aqualad has a huge episode where he tries to take on this team and essentially can’t do it, and there’s a nice scene between him and Robin where you see Robin realize for the first time: “I’m not that kid anymore. I can’t just be this cocky, brash little kid that can’t step up.”
It’s striking that McCartney seems to be the only voice actor giving long interviews about this show. Of course, he’s the biggest star. But he’s also Robin.

The producers have warned fans that heroes can be killed in this universe. Zatara of the Justice League seems slated for death, and I suspect Red Tornado, Young Justice’s adult minder/mentor, could be dismantled. That would open up a new role for Robin. Still, starting from “cocky, brash little kid that can’t step up” is a big departure from the way DC has previously gathered its young superheroes.

In the original Teen Titans, and in the Young Justice of the 1990s, the Robin character came to the team the most experience, the best brains, and the biggest brand name. It made sense for him to be the teams’ leader. Indeed, the first team-up of Robin, Aqualad, and Kid Flash back in 1964 revolved around discovering that the “guy without super-powers” was the biggest badass of the trio.

In the first issue of Young Justice, scripter Peter David had Red Tornado state Tim Drake’s role explicitly: he was the team’s superego. Geoff Johns’s Teen Titans magazine put off Tim’s ascendancy to leadership for a few years, but only because the team started with some twentysomethings from the Marv Wolfman/George Pérez New Teen Titans.

Comics writers have even played off the expectation that Robin must be in charge. When Jason Todd had a couple of outings with the Titans in the mid-1980s, Wolfman and Pérez highlighted the tension between his inexperience and his teammates’ habits. The latest issue of Teen Titans shows Damian Wayne coming to Titans Tower and assuming he’ll be top dog. (Of course, he assumed that at Wayne Manor, too.)

Another element of this new Young Justice show which we haven’t seen since a few odd stories about the original Titans scripted by Bob Haney and Bob Kanigher is undercover work. The end of the TV premiere says Batman will give them undercover assignments that the Justice League has become just too famous to deal with.

The early Titans and Young Justice both started mostly as a way for teens in the superhero biz to hang out with friends who understand, secondarily a way to tackle worldwide threats their size. Since one of this show’s ongoing themes will be figuring out how you stand alongside your mentor, we’ll see how that desire will intersect with the group’s assignments.

26 November 2010

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in Germany

This week I heard a BBC report that the late Hawai’ian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has been #1 on German music charts for eight weeks. It’s also apparently spurred a boom in ukelele sales in that country.

The BBC reporter speculates that the song’s popularity might reflect the economic times:

“Over the Rainbow” was written by a left-wing New Yorker called Yip Harburg at the end of the 1930s as the world was coming out of depression.

He also wrote “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in 1929, when the world was as deep in depression as it could go.

The earlier song is about economic despair, and the second one is about economic hope.

Does the success of “Over the Rainbow” mean Germans feel the worst is behind them?
But as I understand things, the worldwide recession never hit Germany as badly as a lot of other economies. Its current center-right government has certainly been antsy about other governments’ requests for aid or plans for domestic stimulus spending.

I suspect the recording’s popularity is simply because it’s a great song that Kamakawiwo’ole remade with lovely simplicity. And while Harburg was one of the most politically-driven of the great mid-20th-century American songwriters, at least some of the credit for “Over the Rainbow” belongs to composer Harold Arlen.

24 November 2010

News That Would Break His Heart

This week the Associated Press issued a story about tests it commissioned on drinking glasses bought at the Warner Brothers Studio store. Those tumblers turned out to have high levels of lead and cadmium.

AP’s testing, conducted by ToyTestingLab of Rhode Island, found that the enamel used to color the Tin Man had the highest lead levels, at 1,006 times the federal limit for children’s products.

Every Oz and superhero glass tested exceeded the government limit: The Lion by 827 times and Dorothy by 770 times; Wonder Woman by 533 times, Superman by 617 times, Batman by 750 times and the Green Lantern by 677 times.
Also involved are glasses made with a Return of the Jedi license, and those for particular soft-drink and fast-food brands.

It appears that these glasses were made in China, where standards are loose, and compliance and enforcement lax—which is one reason why American manufacturers can find such cheap prices there. Now American companies are scrambling to take these products off their shelves.

There are political dimensions to this problem. One is whether the glasses are children’s products, as opposed to products for adult collectors. For biological reasons, safety standards for lead are much more strict when it comes to things children are likely to put in their mouths. The glasses would therefore be illegal as children’s products, but legal as adult products.

Another question is whether the government should regulate cadmium on “design surfaces,” meaning the outside of glasses like these. Tests show that the lead- and cadmium-based paint flake off under normal use, but it’s unclear whether it would be ingested.

And of course there’s the broad political question: whether the Republican approach to safety regulation, giving businesses a freer hand in the name of…business, serves the public well when it comes to balancing costs with safety. We may soon find out.

23 November 2010

The Of Thee I Sing Sign-Off

Back in March 2009, the news media was a flutter with remarks on “President Obama’s New Book Deal.” I wrote an analysis of those news articles and what I thought was the truth about Obama’s publishing contract with Random House. The day after that posting, I received an email from one attorney involved in the negotiations which said simply, “Thanks for getting the Obama deal right.”

Having established my bona fides for you, I can now comment on a significant discrepancy between the news reports then and the recent publication of Of Thee I Sing, a classic celebrity picture book from the President and illustrator Loren Long.

By “classic celebrity picture book,” I mean that it has top-class production values, a big print run and matching marketing budget, and cover-to-cover didacticism. (See Kirkus.)

This book is not a quickie project; it’s been in the works for half a decade. The New York Times reported that after his career-making 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama “agreed to write another nonfiction book and a children’s book” for Random House. In its press release about Of Thee I Sing, Random House stated: “The book was acquired and the manuscript completed prior to the President’s taking office in January 2009.”

However, in March 2009 the Times also reported that incoming-President Obama’s financial disclosure form—the source for the news about a revamped book deal—stated “that he intended to delay both books [under contract] until he left office.” And that’s what I see as a “significant discrepancy.”

Did Random House press the President to let it move ahead with his Of Thee I Sing picture-book text during his first term? Presumably the firm promised that the project wouldn’t interfere with his, you know, job.

22 November 2010

Yummy: There Is No Rosebud Here

I remembered the case of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer from 1994 before reading Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. I didn’t remember the boy’s name, but I remembered the news reports about an eleven-year-old killer on the run, eventually found murdered by his own gang in a tunnel.

I therefore knew how the title character’s story would end in Yummy, the comics-style retelling of that episode by G. Neri and Randy DuBurke. Younger readers might not, despite the phrase “Last Days” in the subtitle and the mention of death on the front flap.

G. Neri structures the narrative to maintain that suspense. It begins with Yummy Sandifer shooting a teen-aged girl, then circles back to his upbringing, entrance into gang life, and early crimes. When we return to the shooting, the story seems to have caught up with its telling. Though still in the past tense, there’s no sign of what’s to come.

The narrator Roger is another boy about Yummy’s age, a fictional neighbor and classmate. But he comes from a normative American family: mother, father, one other sibling. But we also see that Roger’s older brother was the member of the Black Disciples gang who recruited Yummy.

Like the reporter in Citizen Kane, Roger undertakes to find out more about Yummy, asking neighbors and friends. He describes his own encounters with the boy, who has sometimes seemed abused, sometimes a bully, sometimes just another kid. Neighbors share contradictory thoughts about Yummy and his behavior.

Unlike Orson Welles’s film, however, Yummy ends without an answer, even a facile one. (Citizen Kane was always more about audacious storytelling than about its story.) We never learn what made Yummy so much more violent than other “shorties,” or exactly why he shot two people on one August day.

We do, however, get a sense that Roger’s family has helped to keep him from that path. There’s even a family reconciliation at the end, providing the requisite “sense of hope.” But for the questions the narrator asks about Yummy Sandifer and the girl he killed, there are no adequate answers.

The artwork fits that stark story. Randy DuBurke’s panels are all in black and white; he uses hatching to create the illusion of grays, but there are no washes or half-tones. It’s a high-contrast world full of shadows and looming perspectives, with spindly-legged kids running for their lives.

(These comments based on a review copy sent by the publisher, Lee & Low Books.)

21 November 2010

Is There a Great Nightwing Story?

In a September essay at The Comics Cube, Duy wrote, “A lot of comics fans - myself included - would name Dick Grayson as one of their all-time favorite characters. . . . But then if you ask people to name an all-time great Nightwing story, you’d be hard-pressed to get straight answers.”

Duy suggests that Nightwing is just too well adjusted and anchored to create opportunities for great solo tales:

Dick Grayson was the coolest guy in the DC Universe. He was the best big brother you never had. And he was so with it, so together, that there was nothing wrong with him at all. And that was the problem. . . .

The uncertainty that came with being Robin and the utter detachment and awesomeness (in the purest sense of the word) that came with being Batman wasn’t his. He could look Superman straight in the eye and tell him the real score. And because of the way the DC Universe worked, he couldn’t be put through the wringer like Daredevil has continually been. If you hurt Dick, Batman will come. If you take away his home, his money can buy him a new one. You can’t kill his supporting cast - they haven’t been around long enough for you to form an attachment to them. You can’t introduce things from his deep and dark past, because we’ve already seen his past. He was Robin. We’ve read and seen his adventures. So you can’t mine that.

What’s left when you’ve got an ultraconfident guy with no hang-ups with extraordinary abilities fighting crime? You’ve got, and I hate to say this, a generic superhero.
By which Duy means the pre-1960s, no-faults, catch-the-villain-in-one-issue hero. That would indeed mean little angst, suffering, or frustration. (Which brings up the question: are those elements necessary for a “great” modern superhero story?)

Duy’s suggestion for making the Nightwing magazine work starts with on “his greatest personality strength, which is his ability to lead and command respect from the entire DC Universe.”

But that of course leads to another, perhaps more powerful answer to why naming great Nightwing solo adventures is tough: because he appears in great stories with other characters. Created as a sidekick, Dick Grayson was defined from the start through his link to another hero; most other comics crime-fighters started as the only hero in their worlds. As Nightwing, Dick remains one of the most important characters in the Batman ensemble. And the character came into his own in a team magazine, The New Teen Titans.

Thus, for respected and beloved stories featuring Nightwing, we can start with The Judas Contract, the story by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez in which Dick takes that crime-fighting identity. That’s #13 in Brian Cronin’s November 2009 fan poll about favorite comics storylines, and on io9’s list of 75 DC Comics volumes every rich fan should own.

20 November 2010

Comics for Guys Only?

Graphic Novel Reporter is featuring an interview with Bill Zimmerman about his new book, Your Life in Comics.

One notable aspect of this project is that it’s explicitly aimed toward boys. The subtitle is 100 Things for Guys to Write and Draw. The pictures show boys. The second color printed inside is, of course, blue.

Zimmerman explains:

A few years ago, I had written a book for the same publisher, Free Spirit Publishing, to help boys navigate adolescence—it is called 100 Things Guys Need to Know. When I originally proposed Your Life in Comics, I saw it as a book for boys and girls, but the publisher wanted instead a companion book to the original 100 Things. The subjects covered in the book should appeal, too, to girls since there are a number of boy-girl situations, but I am now working on a similar book for girls that hopefully will join the boys book.
Which will have different illustrations and, presumably, a different second color. Later in the interview Zimmerman adds that he’s working on that second book “With my daughter and wife,” which makes sense for both content and marketing. Because once a book raises the issue of group identity, buyers want to know if the author belongs. (There is, at this point, no 100 Things Gals Need to Know.)

It’s interesting that the push for a gendered book came from the publisher, which describes itself as “known for its unique understanding of what kids want (and need) to navigate life successfully.” Of course, that approach also fits with some cultural expectations about the comics form, right or wrong.

18 November 2010

16 November 2010

Round-Trip Journey to the Center of the Earth

Nathan DeHoff today posed several questions of how physics works in the land of Oz and surrounding countries, with the general conclusion that it’s questionable.

One particular matter is the tunnel through the center of the Earth depicted in Tik-Tok of Oz, redundantly called the Hollow Tube. The Nome King tricks all the book’s heroes into falling into one end of the tunnel, and they exit the other end like this:

Tik-Tok popped out into broad daylight and, after making a graceful circle in the air, fell with a splash into a great marble fountain. . . .

Queen Ann sailed up from the Tube, took a ride through the air as high as the treetops, and alighted squarely on top of the Peculiar Person’s head…
Later in the book, Quox the adolescent dragon takes all those heroes on his back and crawls into that end of the tunnel. When Quox comes out,
he shot into the open air a hundred feet or more and sailed so far away from the slanting hole that when he landed it was on the peak of a mountain and just over the entrance to the many underground caverns of the Nome King.
Does that accord with the laws of physics? Martin Gardner addressed that very question in The Annotated Alice, in his discussion of Alice’s fall into the Earth. And the basic answer is: gravity doesn’t work like that.

In a frictionless environment, people would travel exactly as far from the center of the Earth as they traveled down into it. Tik-Tok and his companions fall into the tunnel while hiking through some mountains, so conceivably they’re at a higher altitude, farther from the center of the Earth, than the garden at the other end. That would make it possible for them to pop up to some height on the other side and, with some wind and movement of the Earth, not fall right back down into the Tube.

But there are two problems with that scientific explanation:
  • The return journey wouldn’t work at all. Starting from the garden, Quox wouldn’t fall far enough to reach the other end of the tunnel as he rose, much less fly out the other side.
  • The tunnel is not a frictionless environment. In fact, Quox slows himself down by scraping his claws against the Tube’s inner walls.
In an environment with friction, Gardner wrote, air resistance would slow the travelers enough that they wouldn’t rise as far as they had fallen. They would therefore fall back down into the tunnel, pass the center of the Earth again, and rise not quite as far as where they had started from. Those unfortunate folks would continue to oscillate for many trips of decreasing length until coming to a stop at the gravitational center of the Earth.

So what explanation is there for how the Hollow Tube works? I can only assume that it’s magic. It does, after all, run from one fairyland to another, and the Nome King can even shift the opening around.

When creator Hiergargo the Magician first used the tunnel, according to Polychrome the rainbow fairy, “he tumbled through the Tube so fast that he shot out at the other end and hit a star in the sky, which at once exploded.” That hints that Hiergargo juiced the Tube with magic to make the journey faster, and some residual or revised magic might remain.

L. Frank Baum admired science, deliberately mixed it into his fairy tales, and even wrote a bit of science fiction. Occasionally he got some things remarkably right, but he never worked in the field, and never really treated science as more than a jumping-off point.

14 November 2010

The Return of Red Robin Reviewed

The great strength of scripter Christopher Yost’s twelve issues of Red Robin, as I discussed in the last weekly Robin, arises from how they fit into DC’s larger story for Tim Drake over the last several years.

That integration into the larger DC Universe also creates the biggest hole in Yost’s story, now collected in volumes subtitled The Grail and Collision.

As usual, there were crossovers between this magazine and others. Collision includes a necessary issue of Batgirl, and reads better if you also know the Superboy tale in Adventure Comics, #3. Between the two Red Robin volumes came DC’s “Blackest Night” saga, which doesn’t affect Tim’s story, despite all the times he refers to it.

But the big hole opened up because of a non-crossover. Red Robin has to fit into DC’s main storyline for Batman. For the last several years the person driving that bus has been scripter Grant Morrison. He came up with the ideas for Damian Wayne as a new Robin, Bruce Wayne being cast back in time, Dick Grayson taking over as Batman, Bruce coming back, and more. And it’s only fair that Morrison’s gotten to tell that big story.

Morrison doesn’t show much of a feel or feeling for Tim Drake, however. He’s been drawing inspiration from pre-1971 Batman stories and from friendly rivalry with highly touted tales by Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Mike W. Barr, and others. As for Tim, introduced in 1989 and not appearing in those graphic novels, Morrison has hardly used him at all.

Certain traits set Tim off from other Robins: computer savvy, detective skills, earnestness, particular friends. Some Batman stories feature Tim without showing any of those characteristics. Batman: City of Crime, for example, is a thought-provoking story of Gotham with a generic Robin in Tim’s costume. (The artist Ramon Bachs worked both on that book and some issues of Red Robin.)

The few times Grant Morrison has used Tim in his Batman tales fit that pattern. Morrison’s character fulfills several of the “Reasons for Robin” storytelling needs—sounding board, boy hostage, emotionally open contrast—but he’s not individuated. It’s been up to other writers to carry Tim Drake’s story along.

In Red Robin, #1, Yost shows Tim becoming convinced that Bruce Wayne isn’t dead, but the magazine doesn’t—can’t—show us why. We readers have to trust that Tim’s relying on clues, not wishful thinking. In issue #4, he comes across hard physical evidence that Bruce has been cast back in time. Those tidbits provide a motivation for Tim’s quest in Eurasia, and provided DC’s readers timely hints about how Bruce would return.

That beginning sets up Red Robin as a quest to find Bruce Wayne through detective work and rooftop combat, but Yost couldn’t follow through. Morrison was writing the main story of solving the mystery and retrieving the victim over in Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne.

The result includes some awkward storytelling. Throughout Collision Tim’s narrative voice talks about not telling Dick of the evidence he’s found in the Mesopotamian desert, about how the knowledge that Bruce is stuck in time might die with him. Tim’s illogical silence was necessary to keep the mystery going in Batman and Robin.

In Red Robin, #12, on reuniting with Dick for the third time, Tim finally announces: “Bruce is alive. He’s lost in time, and I can prove it.” To which Dick answers, “...Okay. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” Because he’s already made the same discoveries, just a few months after Tim. One page at the end of that magazine confirms that back in issue #1 Tim saw the same clue Dick spotted in Batman and Robin, #10.

And by then the hole is wide open. Tim sets out on a quest, and never gets to fulfill it. Instead, he’s knocked off course by a collision with villain Ra’s al Ghul. In this twelve-issue saga, Tim succeeds in saving the lives of the people closest to Bruce, and Bruce’s fortune, but he doesn’t save Bruce, or even play a major role in doing so. There’s a gap between the story’s satisfying internal arc of character growth and change and its more constricted external arc.

That said, in follow-up magazines Tim plays a more important role in Bruce Wayne’s actual return, marshaling fellow heroes to help. And after taking over Red Robin, scripter Fabian Nicieza and artist Marcus To were free to show the moment when Tim welcomed back his adopted father.

13 November 2010

Correction: When Edward Met Edith

Months back, I wrote an analysis of how Edward Eager’s 1954 fantasy Half Magic addressed history—in its setting in the past, in its depiction of change over time, and in its explicit allusions to E. Nesbit’s novels from decades earlier. I wrote that Eager set Half Magic around the period when he had first read Nesbit.

Fellow Oz fan and scholar Dee Michel recommended that I read Eager’s thoughts on the Oz series in his 1948 Horn Book essay “A Minority Report,” and in doing so I came across evidence that my supposition about Eager’s childhood reading was wrong.

Eager didn’t read Nesbit’s books as a child. He discovered them as a young father in the 1940s, and in this essay he thanked the “learned ladies” of the American children’s book establishment for cluing him in. Those ladies included Anne Eaton, Anne Carroll Moore, “Mrs. Becker, Miss [Bertha E.] Mahony and the rest.”

Their praise for Nesbit’s books sent Eager “vainly chasing through New York’s thrift shops and secondhand bookstores.” The books had gone out of print in America, and their owners apparently still treasured their old copies. By great pre-Amazonian effort Eager found enough to declare Nesbit’s “magnificent works” to be “the best children’s books, I am quite sure, in the world!”

An editorial note with Eager’s essay in the 1959 Horn Book Sampler says that Coward-McCann had reprinted Nesbit’s novels in the US only the year before. By then, Eager had made his own name in children’s books.

So my original argument stands: that Eager set Half Magic in the period of his own childhood, and that the book comments in part on that period and historic change. But Eager didn’t choose that setting because it reminded him of first reading Nesbit.

12 November 2010

Hunting the “Lunatic Fringe”

In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (and her uncredited co-writer, daughter Rose Wilder Lane) portrayed young Laura as wishing for a new hairdo, and put these words in Ma Ingalls’s mouth: “Mary Power is a nice girl, but I think the new hair style is well called a ‘lunatic fringe.’”

That scene is set in 1881-82, but the phrase “lunatic fringe” was usually attributed to Theodore Roosevelt three decades later. He first used it in a review of an art exhibition review for The Outlook magazine in 1913:

It is vitally necessary to move forward and to shake off the dead hand, often the fossilized dead hand, of the reactionaries; and yet we have to face the fact that there is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement. In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.
Roosevelt also used the phrase in his autobiography, published the same year:
Then, among the wise and high-minded people who in self-respecting and genuine fashion strive earnestly for peace, there are the foolish fanatics always to be found in such a movement and always discrediting it—the men who form the lunatic fringe in all reform movements.
And in the next chapter, “As I have already said, there is a lunatic fringe to every reform movement.” That last has become widely quoted. The phrase spread rapidly, showing up in one New Jersey man’s Congressional testimony against woman suffrage in 1914. The term was often credited to Roosevelt in that decade, though sometimes as “the fringe of lunacy.”

However, a few years back the Yale librarian and researcher Fred Shapiro reported finding much earlier examples of the phrase “lunatic fringe” in a non-political context. Indeed, he found them precisely as Ma Ingalls used the words. Sophie May’s story “Four Days” in the February 1874 issue of Oliver Optic’s Magazine for Young and Old includes this sentence:
“The girls!” exclaimed Miss Lizzie, lifting her eyebrows till they met the “lunatic fringe” of hair which straggled uncurled down her forehead.
The Yale Alumni Magazine quoted a couple more citations from the next two years, indicating this was indeed the name of a fashionable hairstyle. As alumnae writing to the magazine have pointed out, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recollection from the late 1800s was accurate. Roosevelt was playing off a phrase he’d no doubt heard in his youth.

11 November 2010

Weekly Robin Extra: World Arena Tour

Having brought Bruce Wayne back from the dead time, DC Comics had to come up with a new way to exploit explore the company’s currently most popular character. So the company came up with…Batman on Ice! Except with no ice!

Batman Live is what the biz calls an “arena show,” built around athletic stunts and special effects. I didn’t pay much attention to this news until I learned that it’s not actually Batman’s story. It’s Robin’s.

The Newcastle Evening Chronicle interviewed DC’s Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns, and he explained:

“Batman’s origin comes out of the death of his parents. That is horrifying but compelling and even though it is 70 years old, it resonates in a very modern way.

“We want to bring out a whole other level to Batman by looking at Robin’s journey from a circus performer to an orphan after his parents are killed, to a superhero.

“Batman lost his parents, but he can cope with his pain and owns it.

“Then he sees this boy and it reopens all those wounds.

“Robin’s journey very much brings up Bruce Wayne’s journey.

“He’s a little bit harder – he can take it and own it, all this pain, and then there’s this other kid all this happens to.

“It opens up all these wounds and makes him even more angry.

“He’s doing a lot of projection on Robin for what he went through. He doesn’t really understand this, how to relate to this boy.

“I think very much that Robin brings out a whole new level to Batman.

“I actually think it is more about Bruce Wayne and Batman than almost any story.”
The show is scheduled to open in Manchester on 20 July 2011, and move on to cavernous spaces in Newcastle, Glasgow, Sheffield, Birmingham, London, Liverpool, Nottingham, Dublin, and Belfast. In 2012, if all goes well, a version will come to North America. Tickets for the UK-Ireland tour go on sale tomorrow.

10 November 2010

The Era of the Big Lie

Back in April, I posted an analysis of the rumors Snopes.com had collected and analyzed about the last two Presidents. I concluded: “This evidence accumulated over ten years shows a shameful but undeniable fact of American politics: our right wing now contains a lot more liars, and a lot more folks who spread lies out of gullibility or wishfulness, than our left wing.” That posting got picked up by Salon, and then linked to from a variety of other websites.

Now Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic looks at the right’s “Big Lie”:

If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector's in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don't think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist.

This is the era of the Big Lie, in other words, and it translates into a lot of little lies - "death panels," "out-of-control" spending, "apologies for America" etc. - designed to concoct a false narrative so simple and so familiar it actually succeeded in getting into people's minds in the midst of a brutal recession. And integral to this process have been conservative "intellectuals" who should and do know better, but have long since sacrificed intellectual honesty for the cheap thrills of enabling power-grabs.
Sullivan goes on to document how many right-wing “intellectuals” have misquoted President Obama on a single, symbolic issue—“American exceptionalism.”

I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this from the new Republican House leadership and their allies, given that their promises can’t mathematically add up, and that their standard operating procedure will most likely prolong the recession their party’s last president left us with.

09 November 2010

A Child I Can Hold Without Judging

A message from the Digitial Comic Museum made me revisit that site, which archives public-domain comics. While following the trail of Yankee Doodle Jones’s boy sidekick Dandy (not to mention Johnny Rebel and Yankee Boy), I tripped over this soccer story from Yankee Comics, #3, published in 1941. According to the Grand Comics Database, its creators are unknown.

“Young Americans” was a “kid gang” series, which in the 1940s meant ethnic stereotypes. There’s an Irish kid nicknamed Spud who says, “Begorra.” There’s Monty, who speaks in upper-class, perhaps even British, style, and wears glasses.

And there’s a black kid who has a nickname that emphasizes his blackness (“Eightball”), exaggerated red lips, the white gloves of a minstrel-hall performer, and a habit of saying things like, “Sho’ nuff.”

Yet Eightball comes up with a bright idea to defeat the nasty cheating Nazi soccer team, and the comic plays up that moment. The character’s broad accent comes and goes, but doesn’t get in the way of communicating. At least in this story, Eightball shows no fear of spooks, love of watermelon, or other elements of the standard racist stereotype. He’s even featured in the story’s last image, inviting readers to come back for more “Young Americans.“

Furthermore, this gang includes two little girls, pretty Brenda and grumpy Rosie. Both participate fully in the physical side of the game, scoring the winning goal together. When the nasty swastika-wearing Germans set out to hurt the girls in response, the boys fight them off—but only after Rosie bites one on the ankle. Until that last page with the boys, I don’t see even an implied suggestion that those girls aren’t “Young Americans” on equal terms. Just when I get used to seeing blatant racism and sexism in the pop-culture of this era, something like this comics tale comes along. Who created it? Perhaps the folks who originally designed the characters along stereotypical lines were replaced by another writer and artist who didn’t want to play that old game. We’ll probably never know. Yankee Comics lasted just one more issue.

08 November 2010

Par: A Normal Romance

Last month we learned that Barnes & Noble was reorganizing its teen fiction shelves into three categories: Paranormal Romance, Fantasy, and everything else. Including contemporary realism—originally the heart of YA—plus historical, comedic, professional, adventure, horses, dead mothers, and any other type of teen fiction ever invented. And B&N is, as usual, following the market.

Literary agent Mary Kole just used her Kid Lit blog to discuss what that market situation means for “everything else”:

today’s kidlit market, which got going in earnest over a decade ago with HARRY POTTER and has now been given another injection of money and attention by the TWILIGHT franchise, has always been anchored in fantasy and paranormal. And that’s where the trends — somewhat unfortunately for me and my contemporary/realistic tastes — all seem to be going. Even if there’s no outright fantasy, magic, or paranormal element, novels would rather be set in dystopian times than in the good old real world.

Not only do I know this from observation of bookstore shelves and publishers’ upcoming catalogues, but I’ve heard countless editors discussing how difficult it is to get a straight contemporary/realistic story through their acquisitions committees. . . . So what can writers of contemporary realism do in order to make their books more saleable? Well, romance is a huge hook. . . . And you do have to have a really strong hook. It’s not enough to just have a story of one girl’s senior year as she experiences different relationships and events at school. “Coming of age” is no longer a great sales hook, because every book for the kidlit market is, in one way or another, a coming of age story.
After surveying some recent non-fantastic hits in teen fiction, Kole concludes: “What sets all of these books apart, in my mind, is character, voice, and one high-concept element in the plot that makes the premise a great read. I do think a romantic element, or at least an unrequited crush, is vital to a contemporary/realistic YA story.”

07 November 2010

Red Robin Reviewed

Back when DC Comics was launching its Red Robin magazine, the company arranged for scripter Christopher Yost to speak to Comic Book Resources.

The result was a curious interview since Yost not only couldn’t talk about his own storytelling surprises, but he also couldn’t even confirm that he was writing about Tim Drake. The oversold Battle for the Cowl was still going on, and DC didn’t want to confirm that Dick Grayson would soon be Batman and Tim would be Red Robin—as if anyone had any doubt.

Yost did drop one name in that interview, however—the name of Jason Bourne. He compared his protagonist to that amnesiac former agent:

This character is a very motivated person. And they’re looking for something. And that quest is going to take them all over the world. I guess if we had a model, it would be the something like “The Bourne Identity.” It’s got that kind of action and that kind of international feel to it.
That allusion seems casual in a studied way, but it became clear that the Bourne movies were the model for these Red Robin issues when the first series penciler, Ramon Bachs, also spoke to CBR after the first issues had come out:
“Everything in this book reminds me (and I hope the reader) of spy movies. As Chris said, everything is going to have a similar flavor to the one of the ‘Bourne’ movies.”
And why shouldn’t DC try to create its own Jason Bourne? Those movies are a successful thinking-man’s action franchise, managing to provide traditional espionage thrills in an ultra-connected age.

Yost’s Red Robin adventures, now collected in volumes subtitled The Grail and Collision, offer several variations on the Bourne movies formula. Young man alone on a quest across Eurasia? Check. Furious hand-to-hand battles on exotic rooftops? Check. Young woman caught up in this mess and in need of rescuing? Check. Seemingly infinite supply of killers for hire? Check. Character on cell phone revealed to be speaking from a nearby building instead of far away? Check. Mystery that the hero solves by returning the home he fled? Well, more about that next week.

To make Tim a loner, Yost had to show him breaking ties with all the people he loves in Gotham and the Titans. Of course, Yost also needed to get the story rolling with lots of action and mystery. He therefore broke up those interpersonal confrontations and goodbyes over several issues, which all jump back and forth in time from “Before” to “Now.”

The second volume continues in the same manner for a while, except that most of its “Before” bits show the creation of the Council of Spiders, a group of murderers intent on taking down the League of Assassins. (There are also the Seven Men of Death. As I said, seemingly infinite supply of killers.)

While that “Before/Now” structure provides some confusing moments, especially for readers also trying to fit these episodes with the concurrent Batman happenings, I think it ends up being part of the books’ appeal. The structure becomes a puzzle for us to piece together, like the overall arc. Tim Drake is a cerebral character, and Yost shows us his immediate tactical thoughts but not his long-term strategic thinking. Is he really working with the villainous Ra’s al Ghul? Will he find Bruce Wayne? (More about that next week.)

By the end of the book, Tim has executed the all-important Turn Toward Home (an idea I plan to develop in my workshop on plotting for next spring’s SCBWI New England conference). He’s back in Gotham. He’s started to mend relationships, especially with Stephanie Brown (ex-Spoiler, ex-Robin, now Batgirl) and Dick Grayson (ex-Robin, ex-Nightwing, now Batman). He’s out of the “bad place” where DC’s editorial plans left him in 2004. There are some fine moments in Yost’s final issues, satisfying both within this adventure and within Tim Drake’s overall history.

NEXT WEEK: But there’s also a big hole in this story arc.

04 November 2010

Homer Price in Capes?

Last week and month I had an intriguing online exchange with author Gail Gauthier about the notion of “Homer Price in space.”

Was it possible, I questioned, to replicate the tone of Robert McCloskey’s books in an environment that wasn’t familiar to the point of quaintness. Homer’s adventures depend on ordinary things—ragweed, balls of twine, visting movie stars, tunes that get in your head—being just a little bit off. But if we readers don’t have a deep sense of where the “on” setting should be, how can we be sure what’s off? To repeat the analogy I used in Gail’s comments section, maybe all donut machines work that way in zero gravity.

After signing off, I realized that I’d just read a book that contained a lot of what I enjoy about the Homer Price novels, yet set in a rather wild supernatural environment. That book was G-Man: Cape Crisis, by Chris Giarrusso. It’s in comics form, and stars several young superheroes with a somewhat addled wizard mentor. The kids are generally eager and well-meaning, and the adults generally too bothered to get a clue or do useful work.

That story gets its grounding, I think, in the clichés and givens of superhero tales. Mikey’s magic cape lets him fly, be super-strong, and super-tough. (Not invulnerable, as other kids point out at the start.) Those powers make sense because we’re used to seeing superheroes with them. Mikey’s circle of young heroes contains three who can fly and blast things in different ways, one who’s superfast, and one who can turn different colors—easily portrayed on the brightly tinted pages.

But Giarrusso doesn’t try to incorporate rarer, less easy to understand powers, such as controlling one’s body density (the Vision), tactile telekinesis (the second Superboy), or shape-changing within certain rather arbitrary parameters (Beast Boy). Depicting those powers might raise more questions about what’s ordinary in this world, and what’s off.

Lots of the humor (and there is a lot of it, in forms that made me laugh out loud) grows from our expectations: the boys questioning the science behind holding a buttercup under your chin, the fact that broomsticks can fly but clearly aren’t designed to be ridden, the hope that if you foil a bank robbery you’ll get some of the money as a reward. Some of those expectations reflect everyday life, but others simply reflect experience with fantasy adventures.

So a “Homer Price in space” could work, I guess, as long as it’s grounded in our received understandings of what space is like, and doesn’t drift too far into novelty or scientific exactitude. Maybe it’s even worked already; I haven’t read the Danny Dunn books in decades.

02 November 2010

Vote Your Views

Last month the Boston Globe published a reader letter that managed to span two of my professional interests, so I’m quoting it on both blogs today:

Members of the Tea Party movement claim that their name was adopted from the Boston Tea Party, an act of civil disobedience against the tyrannical government of the time (“Understanding the Tea Party,’’ Letters, Oct. 12).

I contend that the name must derive from another historic tea party, namely, the one from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.’’ In that classic tale and its follow-up, “Through the Looking-Glass,’’ there exists a vast cast of characters, many reminiscent of today’s Tea Partiers who talk jabberwocky on a regular basis.

There are the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee who bicker over insignificant issues; the Red Queen who constantly orders the beheading of anyone who displeases her; and the imbecilic White Queen. And let’s not forget the Mad Hatter.

To those offended by the current use of the term Tea Party, I suggest they shift their point of reference. They’ll find that the current movement is more than aptly named.
Whatever your views, if you’re an American citizen I hope you’ve voted by the end of the day. Otherwise, those of us who do vote don’t really have to listen to you. And elected officials will have little reason to do so.

01 November 2010

Talking the 5th of November on the 3rd

This Wednesday, 3 November, I’ll give an illustrated talk at the Boston Public Library on the topic “Lost Holiday: How Colonial Boston Celebrated the Fifth of November.”

The 5th was the anniversary of the day in 1605 when English officials thwarted a plot to blow up Parliament and King James I. Authorities discovered a man named Guy Fawkes in the cellar, ready to set off barrels of gunpowder. In short order, Fawkes and several co-conspirators were arrested, tried, and executed in various gruesome ways.

The Fawkes conspirators were Catholics, the bogeymen of the eighteenth-century British Empire. New Englanders were among the king’s most stridently anti-Catholic subjects, so they observed the 5th of November holiday with particular pleasure. In fact, they highlighted its anti-Catholic message, calling it “Pope Night” and burning effigies of the Pope and the Catholic Pretenders. But then the Revolution came.

My talk starts at 6:30 P.M. It’s free and open to the public. I believe it will be in the McKim Building—the older part of the main library, near the Copley subway station.