31 March 2011

Jones on “Birthing a Book”

The Horn Book just reposted Diana Wynne Jones’s 2004 essay “Birthing a Book,” in which she confesses:

I once, when asked to give a talk about my book Fire and Hemlock, did have a stab at describing what went on while I wrote it. I teased out every layer of the book. Starting with what I felt about heroes and the heroic, I went on to describe my passion for cello music and how a rereading of Eliot’s Four Quartets sparked the actual book and gave rise to the presence of a quartet of musicians in it. I charted the various myths and folktales that surfaced and sank in the course of it, and of course I expounded on the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer — regarded as the negative and positive of the same story — which were the framework for the narrative. I gave the paper and the audience nodded wisely. This, they seemed to feel, was real stuff. I then went to New York, where my publishers had taken a great interest and had asked for a copy of the talk. I went in to see Libby, one of the editors — a wonderful wise lady with a voice like a sack of gravel being shaken. She was just finishing the paper as I walked in. She looked up from it and shook gravel at me:

“Very nice, Diana, but writers don’t work like that.”

I wanted to shout, “Yes, I do! It’s all true!” Instead I sort of gulped and answered, “No. You’re absolutely right.” As soon as I thought, I realized that the book had not been written in at all the analytical way I had tried to describe. The second draft might have been, when I was trying to make clear all the various elements that went into it — a process I always liken to pointing up or grouting the basic brickwork — but the first draft had been written at white heat, in a state where I was unable to put it down. I worked at it in any spare five minutes I could find. I even got up at six in the morning to write. This was so unheard of that my family wondered if I was ill. And such was the passion with which I was going at it that it seemed to pull in all sorts of queer but relevant things from daily life — I can’t tell you half the weird things now, but I do remember being followed around by a van labeled King’s Lynn, and going to a lecture where the speaker turned out to be the image of Mr. Leroy, with great black bags under his eyes, who proceeded to talk about both the Four Quartets and the ballad of Tam Lin, in a lecture that I think was supposed to be about Shakespeare.

Yet the book got written with a shape and a coherent story. The various elements I so carefully dissected in my talk got fed in at the right places. And I know I was very careful throughout, even in the first draft, to keep all the supernatural elements just a bare thread away from things that could have a normal explanation after all. This was one of the prime requirements from the book itself when it first came thundering into my head.
Later Jones reports, “I had no idea what Chrestomanci was going to be like until he first appeared in Mrs. Sharp’s kitchen. This is in spite of the fact that Charmed Life was a book that came into my head almost whole and entire from the start.”

There’s lots more of value, but one shouldn’t read this essay as a guide on how to write. Every writer’s method is different. The main value of such author essays, I think, is in how they show the wide range of working styles, with bits and pieces that others can pick up while leaving the rest to wonder at.

Tor.com has fantasy scholar Farah Mendelsohn’s essay on Jones’s career and passing. Neil Gaiman’s very personal appreciation is here.

29 March 2011

Shifts in Shifting Point of View

Not so long ago, authors were strongly advised to define their point-of-view character for each novel, or at least for each chapter or scene in a novel. While it was possible to describe events that character wasn’t privy to, the informal rules said, a good novel’s narration should show readers only one person’s thoughts or feelings at a time.

Shifting from inside one character’s head to inside another, the tastemakers warned, could confuse readers and/or remind them that they were reading fiction. If one had to make that shift, it was imperative to wait for a chapter break or other obvious signpost. And ideally such a book should be about different views of life; the shifts should not be driven merely by narrative convenience.

There were exceptions to this rule, of course. Many novels of the past had shifting points of view, and readers still enjoyed them—but new authors had to look at what was being published today. There were also some individual exceptions, such as Phillip Pullman.

Something changed over the last decade. Perhaps Pullman’s success undercut the rules. Perhaps the rebirth of the intrusive narrator via Lemony Snicket opened the door to other types of old-fashioned narration. However it happened, three of the last four novels I read had shifting points of view.

Catherine Stier’s The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club works with very close point of view in part one, with each short chapter following one of four kids. The point-of-view character’s name even appears in each chapter title, and the story focuses on how different characters view and misinterpret the same events. That type of narrative complexity grew in popularity over the last couple of decades.

But when Tell-All Club’s action shifts to a school camp, Stier abandons those delineations. Part two is titled “All Together Now.” (The first part has no title.) The narration starts jumping from one protagonist’s head to another within the same chapter and scene. That speeds up the action, but I’m not sure it serves the story—in part because I thought the story sort of petered out into valuable lessons about life.

M. T. Anderson’s Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger!, like the previous titles in the Pals in Peril series, features an intrusive, metatextual narrator who shifts point of view like a silent-movie comedian wrestling a fire hose. But all three books introduce us first to the thoughts of Lily Gefelty, the most normal of their three protagonists. The first couple show us the least normal, Jasper Dash, mainly from the outside, with the third finally letting us into his highly trained brain.

As I recall, the Pals in Peril series was originally presented and re-presented as a trilogy, which harmonized with its three protagonists and the first volume’s tripartite structure. But commercial success and the lack of any narrative limits in this universe put Agent Q in the interesting position of this trilogy’s fourth book. No single protagonist’s point of view or genre dominates as much as in the previous volumes, which results in a lot more switching from one head to another.

Agent Q also brings on a couple of claimants to be fourth member of our heroic threesome. However, neither of those young men gets point-of-view time, nor cover space on this volume or the next to come. (All I can say is that someone else appears to have disliked the Alex Rider books.)

Finally, Diana Wynne Jones’s Enchanted Glass has two protagonists/point-of-view characters, middle-aged Andrew and adolescent Aidan. Indeed, it proceeds for quite a while from its opening with no child in sight, still an unusual feature in a novel for children. As in Pullman’s novels, the narration jumps from one main character’s thoughts to the other within chapters without any section breaks or other typographical signals. But at that point in her life, Jones was well able to break the rules.

28 March 2011

Divided by a Common Language under Enchanted Glass

One consequence of the late craze for British fantasies is that US publishers are much less worried about letting young American readers see original British language. Indeed, readers of the sort who know what Hogwarts house they would belong to might even demand those exotic details.

Here’s an example from Diana Wynne Jones’s Enchanted Glass, as a character flips through a telephone book:

“I’ve been through all the Browns twice now,” he told Aidan, “and there’s no Brown of Melstone Manor in here! The wretched crook must be ex-directory. He would be!”
Context makes it easy to figure out that what this British character calls “ex-directory” an American would call “unlisted.”

Another character in the book regularly makes “cauliflower cheese,” and to confirm that dish exists here’s a recipe. It even has a Wikipedia entry. In contrast, the “big, sloppy bowl of potato cheese” that same character sets out in chapter 8 has no equivalent webpages, indicating that she’s just thrown stuff together, and the result doesn’t even necessarily pass muster as rural English cuisine. I wouldn’t have gotten that nuance if I hadn’t tried looking up both phrases.

27 March 2011

Revisting the First Boy Wonder’s Boyhood

This cosplay in its purest form comes from the website of WSOC in Charlottesville. Evidently it’s Charlie, one of the station’s deejays, around age six.

And speaking of childhood, this week DC and Grant Morrison addressed a detail of the Batman and Robin saga that nagged me ever since I read Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s when I was a little older than Charlie here.

The original Batwoman was Kathy Kane, a socialite/circus performer. (In the world Bob Kane created, almost all heroes had to be rich. And it didn’t hurt if they had names similar to the one he adopted.) Batman figured out Batwoman’s identity by noticing she used circus slang. Robin, despite having grown up in a circus, was left with the “Holy jargon, Batman! I never realized!” routine.

For a while I rationalized that by telling myself that Dick Grayson was just so used to those terms that he didn’t realize they were unusual. But then I read other comics fans expressing bother at the same detail, and I could acknowledge it a sign of disrespect for the Boy Wonder.

Thanks to the billions of dollars humans have invested in the internet, I can even pin that down on science-fiction novelist Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977). The Grand Comics Database credits him with scripting Batwoman’s debut in Detective, #233, published in 1956.

But Hamilton may not have known Dick Grayson’s background. He started writing regularly for DC in the late 1940s, years after Robin was introduced. Today’s superhero comics constantly refer back to major characters’ backgrounds and origins, but the comic books didn’t retell Robin’s backstory between his arrival as the sensational character find of 1940 and Batman, #129, twenty years later. (There was a 1943 pilot for radio, never broadcast, that made his doomed parents trapeze artists and FBI agents.)

As a result, most of Hamilton’s young readers had probably never read about Dick’s upbringing in a circus. But when I saw Robin’s origin in the same volume as Batwoman’s, the discrepancy popped out. As I’ve noted before, Grant Morrison read the same collection as a wee lad in Glasgow, and perhaps he had the same thought.

In the latest issue of Batman, Inc., Morrison reinterprets the first Batwoman’s role in Batman’s past, as he forecast doing two years ago in a story collected in Batman, RIP. But this time Dick gets to spot the circus slang. He doesn’t tell Bruce what he knows because he’s conflicted about his adoptive big brother falling in love. And because he’s a grumpy thirteen-year-old. Now that I can believe.

26 March 2011

Remembering the Stories of Diana Wynne Jones

This morning brought news of the death of Diana Wynne Jones. Though she started publishing fantasy novels in the 1970s, they didn’t make a splash in the American market for years. I therefore didn’t read my first Jones novel until after college and a few years of work, when Harry Potter was making U.S. publishers once again see lucre in British children’s fantasy.

That first book was Charmed Life, the launch of Jones’s Chrestomanci stories. (Chronologically, it became the third—at least.) And I was delighted by the find. The storytelling seemed to effortlessly combine quaint, quotidian details with high magic and powerful personalities. Jones didn’t take a classical approach to plot, so her stories could make sudden turns—e.g., suddenly replacing one apparent protagonist for another—so as a reader you had to stay on your toes.

Jones’s storytelling grew out of an emotionally deprived childhood. Born in 1934, she grew up in the Depression, World War 2, and Britain’s postwar lean years, but suffered most from her parents’ child-rearing. This Guardian profile explains:

Utterly neglected by their parents, she and her sisters, Isobel and Ursula, lived in a shack apart from the main house. They ran wild, washed seldom and grew very close. Because of the damp, Diana contracted juvenile rheumatism, a trial to her mother who declared: “Sympathy damages me”. Her father, who according to Diana “could beat Scrooge in a meanness contest”, did not allow the girls many books. He kept an entire set of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books locked up, giving his daughters one to share each year. Desperate for books, Diana wrote two epic novels herself, aged 12.
Troubled families and demanding institutions (her parents were busy managing a conference center) run through many of Jones’s stories. Her fictional families are messy and full of secrets, and inheritances—of traditions, property, powers—are a burden. After coming back from a Jones conference Penthe wrote of her stories:
Lots of the action is driven by children having to cope with the fairly unpleasant events set in train by their elders - parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. The kids often end up taking the consequences and solving the problems because the adults are too self-absorbed, stubborn or lazy. Or just lack the imagination to understand what they are doing, which I think is the worst sin of all in the Jonesiverse.
The “Jonesiverse” is actually made up of many dimensions. I’m most fond of the novels rooted in modern England, with balky television sets and council flats, like The Homeward Bounders, Eight Days of Luke, and especially Archer’s Goon. I haven’t dug fully into the high fantasy of, say, the Dalemark Quartet and Howl’s Castle series. But of course the power of Jones’s imagination lies in how those levels of reality are never far apart.

25 March 2011

Boston Comics Roundtable Shows and Tells

The Boston Comics Roundtable has just co-published another anthology, this one on education. It’s titled Show and Tell: A Collection of Comics About Teaching and Learning, and comes out to coincide with the New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference in Providence.

Publisher Ninth Art Press says:

In these twenty short stories set in and around the classroom, independent comics creators explore the drama and humor of teaching and learning… or at least trying to teach and learn. From elementary school to college, from the perspectives of teachers and students, these tales touch on some serious issues of education, but their main goal is to make you laugh, cry, or cringe.
The press offers sample pages from Show and Tell, showing the range of styles and approaches. For example, “Iruma,” by Ben DiMaggio and Len White, is an anecdote about teaching English in Japan.

Marek Bennett takes a more theory-driven approach to “Multiple Intelligences and Comics Education,” as excerpted at right.

And Jesse Lonergan depicts the challenges of substitute teaching in a form reminiscent of daily strips, as you can see in samples of his contribution here.

24 March 2011

Batting for the Cycle

What comes after trilogy?

Christopher Paolini and Random House originally announced his Inheritance books as a trilogy, but writing Brisingr revealed plot threads and vowels that needed to go somewhere. The trilogy therefore became a four-book “cycle,” which will conclude this year. Unless he has more ideas.

For Diana Wynne Jones, the Dalemark books are a “quartet” while other series are open-ended. For Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time grew into the “Time Quartet,” though some critics have used the term “tetralogy.”

And for Stephenie Meyer, Twilight just seems to be a “series.” That has the non-specificity of “cycle” without even the implication of a closed circle.

23 March 2011

Book-Blog Hybrid That Works

I’m not sure how I stumbled across the blog Ultra-Gross: Your Source for Gross News, but I’m impressed. It gets the job done, which is to say it offers ongoing promotion of author Bart King’s The Big Book of Gross Stuff, published last year by Gibbs Smith.

The blog, like the book, is a compendium of short reports with a…certain quality in common. As such, the website functions as a continuation of the book, and I suppose a head start on a second volume, should the market demand one.

The site also offers a front door to draw in potential buyers through Google, with enough sampling to offer reassurance about precisely how gross the book is and enough new material to keep big fans coming back.

Not every book lends itself to this sort of promotion, of course. Even with other nonfiction topics, it would be hard to find such a steady supply of news to share.

22 March 2011

New Nesbit and Another Nesbit News Bit

The Guardian reports that Jacqueline Wilson, one of the UK’s most respected and popular writers for children, has signed a contract to “write a new version of E Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It.”

That seemed like such a wasted effort that I went looking for more detail, but even the original report in The Bookseller adds little—only that Wilson will write a “contemporary version.”

Does this mean retelling the same Psammead adventures in contemporary England, where children don’t have to worry so much about evading the household help? Or will a new set of children discover the grumpy little wish-provider and make new wishes?

Is Wilson writing The Psammead Comes Back: And This Times It’s Personal? Should we look forward to more Nesbit revamps that reflect modern lifestyles, like The Airline Children? The Enchanted McMansion? The Would-Be-Above-Averages?

Most of Nesbit’s novels are set in England a century ago, of course, and some display the racism and class attitudes of their times. But the children—almost always a gender mix of siblings, not vastly distinguishable—treat each other in easily relatable ways. The narrative style and voice in many of Nesbit’s fantasies is delightfully fresh. So I’m not sure what about Five Children and It is so dated as to demand a contemporary rewrite, which would therefore be driven by the new copyright claim and exclusive sales.

There are other ways to regain that old magical realism, of course. Edward Eager unabashedly updated Nesbit for the postwar suburban American child, and Laurel Snyder has updated Eager with Any Which Wall. In 1999 Books of Wonder commissioned new illustrations for Five Children and It from Paul O. Zelinsky, as shown above. All those editions and additions share a certain old-fashioned and nostalgic tone, but surely that’s what people seeking “a new version of E Nesbit” would be looking for. Perhaps Wilson will simply produce her own “inspired by Nesbit” adventure.

The other Nesbit news story for this week was the revelation that some beloved details of The Railway Children—particularly flagging down a train to prevent an accident and receiving an engraved watch as a reward—also appear in a novel published just a few years before: The House by the Railway, by Ada J. Graves. Since I dislike The Railway Children, this news didn’t derail me in the least.

20 March 2011

Dick Gray and Richard Grayson

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and an upcoming biography of Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman and Robin, recently alerted me to the sensational character find of 1903: The Boy Wonder, Dick Gray!

Appearing in one story in the pulp magazine Brave and Bold, Dick Gray was “athletic in figure and singularly agile in his movements”—but then so were most other dime-novel heroes.

In the Comic Buyer’s Guide, David Frank reported that “The Boy Wonder, or Dick Gray’s Marvellous Pump” is “about the adventures Gray gets into with his anti-gravity device.” It thus seems to be of a piece with the Stratemeyer syndicate’s Tom Swift series, L. Frank Baum’s Master Key, and similar young men’s tales from that age of technological wonder.

I doubt this 1903 magazine had any influence on the creation of Dick Grayson in 1940. Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane weren’t even born when Dick Gray was pumped out. But the similarity of the characters’ names highlights one ubiquitous aspect of American pop fiction until recently: the WASPiness of its heroes and heroines.

Both Baum and Edward Stratemeyer had German surnames, but practically all their main characters had surnames from the British Isles. Two generations later, many of the first generation of superhero creators were Jewish: Finger, Bob Kane (originally Robert Kahn), Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (originally Jacob Kurtzberg), Stan Lee (originally Stanley Leiber), and so on. But they created heroes with names like Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Denny Colt, Steve Rogers, Reed Richards, and Peter Parker.

That trend in popular culture both reflected and amplified the trend in real life for some Americans to shed their “ethnic” names. Which brings me to a real Richard Grayson.

Back during the national crisis over the edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn published without ethnic slurs, one small electronic press announced the publication of The Hipster Huckleberry Finn. It replaced the “n word” with “hipster.” The editor and publisher of that edition is a writer, teacher, and activist named Richard Grayson.

In this autobiographical essay he explains:

I was born Richard Arnold Ginsberg in Brooklyn on June 4, 1951, two years after my parents, Marilyn and Daniel, had married. When I was six months old, Mom and Dad changed our Jewish last name to the ethnically neutral Grayson.
At that time, superhero comics were in a doldrum. Robin was one of the handful of costumed heroes who continued to appear often in comic books—Batman, Detective, and World’s Finest—but even he had lost his cover slot on Star Spangled Comics.

The Batman newspaper comic strip had stopped years before. The low-budget movie serial Batman and Robin had appeared in theaters in 1949 and then disappeared, and there was no TV show in daily reruns.

As a result, most Americans might not have seen any particular meaning in the name “Richard Grayson,” aside from the “ethnically neutral” quality this man’s parents were seeking.

But as the former Richard Ginsburg grew up, superhero comics came back. He even read them:
I also was a big fan of superhero comic books. I proudly possessed the early issues of Justice League of America, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, and Daredevil. At 11, I would pretend to be The Flash – Fastest Man Alive – as I bicycled around the neighborhood, playing hooky from Hebrew school.
Alas, Grayson doesn’t discuss whether he identified with Batman’s Boy Wonder, or was teased for sharing that character’s name. Perhaps one day he’ll make a story about it.

19 March 2011

In Twain

I visited Hannibal, Missouri, at an awkward time: during the big Mississippi flood of 1993. Even with water up the side of the levees and the bridge to Illinois impassable, the town was determined to celebrate its Tom Sawyer Days and Independence Day.

The son of the manager of my hotel won the Tom Sawyer half of that year’s Tom & Becky competition. Later he put his experience as a tourism ambassador to work by starting a website about the city. All of which seems far more responsible than Tom Sawyer himself.

This year the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal is inaugurating a scholarly conference on Twain, scheduled for 11-13 August. Here’s the call for papers:

Abstracts for proposals are being accepted immediately through May 1. These should be e-mailed in Word format to Henry Sweets at henry.sweets@marktwainmuseum.org for review. The abstracts will be reviewed in timely fashion. Presenters will receive a discount on the conference fees.

Subject matter is wide open. Presentations are expected to address some topic related to Mark Twain, his life, or his works.
That’s mighty wide open indeed. Usually the CFPs I see throw out a lot of possible topics for scholars to pursue. But this conference is open to anything Twainish.

In addition, this upcoming week Sweets, the museum curator, will be part of a panel discussion at Quincy University on “Mark Twain’s Literary Legacy: Censorship and Whitewashing in a ‘PC’ World.” None of that discussion was part of Tom Sawyer Days.

18 March 2011

Narrative Voice, Authorial Credit, and the Comics Form

Last month Comic Book Resources has published an essay by Timothy Callahan about narrative voice in the comics form. As many have noted, the bombastic third-person narrator has vanished from comic-book captions, replaced by snatches of the main character’s (or characters’) thoughts. This change coincided, and probably responded to, the rise of autobiographical comics with more literary ambitions.

So is the result a type of first-person narration? Callahan doesn’t think so. Because comics almost always show characters from the outside, even as their thoughts appear in those captions, we readers aren’t taking in the story from their points of view alone.

Callahan notes a few comics that have tried to show only what the narrator/protagonist sees, just as Robert Montgomery shot Lady in the Lake entirely from Philip Marlowe’s point of view. But just as that movie became the most discussed in film-studies textbooks without anyone actually seeing or enjoying it, fully first-person comics usually come across as experiments or stunts.

Callahan therefore concludes:

Most comic book narration slides into what might be called, in literary circles, Free Indirect Discourse. It's not a perfect fit. Free Indirect Discourse is, basically, third person narration that slips into phrasing and tonality that matches first person narration.
Perhaps a more fruitful conclusion is that categories developed for prose literature don’t always apply to comics, and terminology from film criticism might work better.

Callahan goes on:
artists carry the majority of the burden of Point of View. For an example, see something like CBR's Comic Book Idol competitions, in which artists submit pages based on the same scripts. The meaning of each version differs radically, precisely because the Point of View (and tone, which I'll get to later, as promised) depends so much on the what and how of the penciled page. . . .

None of this may be surprising at all. Perhaps you're thinking, "yeah, no kidding! Artists are the main storytellers in comics." But then why do writers get most of the credit (or blame) when a comic book comes out? . . . how much of the "writing" is done in the script, and how much is done in the translation of script to art?
Indeed, if we stick with the movie analogy, a comics writer is like a screenwriter, but a comics artist is like a director—and, as Callahan says, also handles the acting. In movies the director gets primary credit for a movie, and the director’s and star actors’ names appear before the title. In contrast, even successful screenwriters are well paid but expendable.

Yet in comics, writers traditionally get first credit, and Callahan concedes that he buys comics on the basis of the writers’ names.
I've long thought of myself as someone who follows writers instead of artists. And we're now knee-deep in the age of the writer in mainstream comics, where artists bounce from series to series, but a writer can stick around and make an impact over several years on a single series. . . .

What exactly are we latching onto, if so much of the writing in comics is in the hands of the artist?

I suppose what we're left with is "a writer's sensibility." The way a writer emphasizes certain types of stories, or returns to a particular set of themes. The way a writer structures a story of the long term, regardless of who may or may not draw individual issues.
I think that’s an incomplete answer. To start with, we should replace the word “writing” as Callahan uses it with “storytelling.” Writing is verbal; storytelling can occur in many media.

If a comics writer comes up with a story, the result is more than the dialogue, captions, and sound effects that survive in verbal form on the final pages. That initial story also establishes the events that make up its plot; determines what readers should learn when, and often at what pace; and sets the basis for the setting, characterization, and overall world-building. That’s more than “sensibility”; it’s the (choose your metaphor) skeleton or foundation of the end product.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of a comics artist being the first to structure a story, or writer and artist working together, or corporate owner dictating major plot turns and assigning writers to figure out how to make them work. And yet, as Callahan notes, the writer’s name still comes first.

16 March 2011

Dorothy the Assassin?

Last month I noted how the Fables spin-off comic book Cinderella: Fables Are Forever is using the character of Dorothy Gale as the heroine’s nemesis. Or actually a grown-up Dorothy Gale who looks a lot more like Judy Garland than like John R. Neill’s blonde.

I found an interview at the Outhousers with Chris Roberson, scripter of that series, explaining how he found this take on Dorothy:

Last year my wife and I were watching The Wiz one night on DVD, and I noticed something about Dorothy Gale I'd never thought about before: namely, that she is a killer for hire.

When Dorothy goes to kill the Wicked Witch for the Wizard in exchange for a trip back home, she is agreeing to commit murder in exchange for pay, essentially. She killed the Wicked Witch of the East by accident at the beginning of the story when Dorothy's house landed on her, but when she takes out the Wicked Witch of the West it is a premeditated, conscious act. So by the end of that first Oz story, Dorothy has killed two witches and profited from it.

I figured that maybe she learned that she had a taste for it, and after the end of her story went on to become a PROFESSIONAL killer for hire. . . .
Roberson’s take on the basic Wizard of Oz plot reminded me of a summary of the MGM movie I’d once read, which the internet tells me was composed by Rick Polito of the Marin Independent Journal:
Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.
As I wrote earlier, I authored a Baum Bugle article called “Dorothy the Conqueror.” It points out that the little girl and her company subdue, depose, or put into vassalage the following rulers: the Wicked Witch of the East, the Queen of the Field Mice, the Wicked Witch of the West, the King of the Flying Monkeys, the Wizard, the China Princess, the giant spider, the Chief Wheeler, Princess Langwidere, the Nome King, the Mangaboo Princess, and the King of the Gargoyles. And that’s just her first three adventures. So I agree that Dorothy certainly develops a taste for putting things right. I wouldn’t go so far as saying she’s a contract killer, but it’s a better fit for her than for some other heroines.

In this publicity interview Roberson also said:
there is a lot more creepy stuff in the [Oz] books than we ever saw on screen. The Technicolor Oz is a pretty domesticated place, and one that audiences are very comfortable with, but the Oz of the books has all of these odd little creatures and concepts scattered around the landscape, that make good fodder for stories like this.
We could therefore see a lot more of Dorothy and Oz in Cinderella just as Bill Willingham’s version of Ozma goes superhero in Fables.

15 March 2011

Picture Book I’m Least Surprised Has Not Been Reprinted by a Mainstream Children’s Press

The Dong with a Luminous Nose has text by Edward Lear and pictures by Edward Gorey. Originally issued by Young Scott Books in 1969, it is now available only from Pomegranate Communications, a specialist in “art, nature, and women’s studies, as well as culture, music, and photography.”

Pomegranate has good sales into museum gift shops, which I suspect is where The Dong with a Luminous Nose finds readers for its tale:

Happily, happily passed those days!
While the cheerful Jumblies staid;
They danced in circlets all night long,
To the plaintive pipe of the lively Dong,
In moonlight, shine, or shade. . . .

And those who watch at that midnight hour
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as the wild light passes along,
“The Dong! – the Dong!
“The wandering Dong through the forest goes!
“The Dong! The Dong!
“The Dong with the luminous nose!”
For added marketing challenge, the text also includes mention of a “Bong-tree.”

I used to work for a publishing firm that had once owned Young Scott Books. We occasionally got inquiries about its titles, but not this one. A shame.

14 March 2011

Picture Books in a Golden Age?

Sunday’s issue of the New York Times Book Review carried this editorial note:

Readers of the Web version of the Book Review may have noticed a new feature, “an online-only review of a new picture book each week, supplementing — but not replacing — our print coverage,” to quote Pamela Paul, the Book Review’s new children’s books editor. Paul, who had the idea, will be writing the reviews herself.

Why single out picture books? “Children’s literature has entered what many believe to be a new golden age,” she explained. “One in which the artistry in picture books rivals the latest apps, even as the creativity of game designers influences illustration and pacing. Online is often the best place to showcase this work.”
This strikes me as a “bugs into features” explanation of a change that leaves out the downside of the story.

Technology and artistry may indeed make this a “new golden age” of picture books, but right now there’s significantly less gold to be found in the form. Demographic trends have inexorably shrunk the market of young children. Barnes & Noble has downsized and deëmphasized the section.

Publishers that once got by on picture books alone have had to expand into middle-grade and young-adult fiction or become parts of larger presses. In contrast, YA imprints are booming. Agents and editors continue to call the picture-book market “soft” or “slow,” meaning lousy.

All that probably means there’s less picture-book advertising money for the Book Review. So even if the books themselves are terrific, they’re not going to command as much expensive real estate on the printed page until after the next baby boom.

All that said, Paul is undoubtedly correct that the web is a better place for showing off picture books. The registration is better, the colors brighter, the size and number of page images potentially larger. And if a crossover with “apps” is going to boost the form’s economic viability, as so many hope, reviewing the results in a digital medium makes sense.

13 March 2011

Weekly Robin Dance Party!

Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Jesse Lonergan, the cartoonist behind the image above. And Lonergan had the wholly unrelated pleasure of seeing the Comics Alliance site praise his ongoing dance party of pop-culture characters, including boogieing figures from the DC, Marvel, and Star Wars mythologies.

Lonergan has created the graphic novels Joe and Azat, about a Turkmen and a Peace Corps volunteer, and Flower and Fade, a love (?) story, both from NBM.

One Thursday in February, Lonergan brought one of his filled-up sketchbooks to the Boston Comics Roundtable and left it on the table for anyone to look at. Under questioning from a pesky audience member (okay, me), he described his method of creating rough drafts.

Some author-artists write out a full script before designing pages. For example, Bryan Lee O’Malley says here: “I was thinking that I should write more visually, but it fizzled.” And here: “Last time I didn’t quite make it to the end of the script, and I think it hurt the story overall. I had some delusions about how I would write the book in sketches and thumbnails, but that just didn’t work for me.”

In contrast, Lonergan has found he gets the best results by starting with a six-panel page and then sketching out the action and dialogue. As with any draft, a lot changes in revision. Panels disappear, or expand. Dialogue gets edited. Scenes shift. But these stories start out in visual form.

I’ve heard prose novelists discuss their equally variant ways of working: plotting and plunging, starting in the middle versus starting at the opening, focusing first on character or on plot. All that matters is how the story comes out, not the route the storyteller took to get there.

I’ll close with another image of rockin’ Robin, from Bill Walko at Titans Tower. Walko is providing a series of nostalgic looks at the Teen Titans of different eras. This group comes from the mid-1970s, for example. Walko’s renderings have won attention from Comics Alliance and Every Day Is Like Wednesday.

12 March 2011

Stan Lee’s Dialogues

Bleeding Cool just published a long transcript of Stan Lee’s deposition about the emergence of the Marvel superhero universe back in the early 1960s, as part of a lawsuit between Jack Kirby’s heirs and Disney/Marvel.

Most of Lee’s deposition consists of stories he’s told before, in much the same fashion. I saw no surprises about the “Marvel method” of comics storytelling, the creation of specific heroes, or Lee’s long personal respect for Kirby as an artist. That doesn’t change how in the 1960s comic-book creators all signed work-for-hire deals.

One of the issues in the lawsuit appears to be how much dialogue Kirby might have composed in the margins of his artwork. Here’s a pertinent exchange from Lee’s deposition about the notes on one surviving page of original art:

STAN LEE: Well, that’s Jack’s handwriting. That’s the way he wrote them. Yes.

Q. And could you tell us, for example, in this instance I see that there’s a dialogue that’s actually in the different blocks. Tell us who did that dialogue. How was the process done?

STAN LEE: Well, I wrote the dialogue and the captions, but Jack would give me notes. For example, in panel 4 of that page, the next to the last panel –

Q. Right.

STAN LEE: — Jack wrote what he suggested the dialogue might be. “I will rule. My years underground will end.” That was to let me know what he felt the fellow should be doing or saying.

So I wrote, “My conquest will be complete. I, the Mole Man, banished from my fellow men half a lifetime ago, will return at last as Master of the Earth.”
Yeah, that’s the way Stan wrote them. And I suspect the published version had more exclamation points.

A similar deposition with artist John Romita, Sr., addresses the same question. Romita would pencil possible Spider-Man dialogue for Lee, with the result:
He invariably would not use them, and I asked him once “why wouldn’t you use — why wouldn’t you let him” — he said something similar. He said, “because I can’t speak in somebody else’s vernacular.” He says, “when I am writing my characters, I am writing in Peter Parker’s personality and Aunt May’s personality and I write the captions in my personality. If I start putting your personality in there, I am going to confuse the reader.” So he used to — he told me — he invariably did not use anything that was in the margins that was cleverly suggested by the artists, because he said he did not want to stray from his normal approach.

He had a dialogue going with the reader. Saying “dear reader, this is your editor speaking right now.” He used to do that. It used to drive me crazy. I used to tell him “you are puncturing the illusion.” It’s like opening a door in the theater and letting the sunlight in and everybody realizes they are watching a movie now. I said “you are ruining” — he said, “it doesn’t matter. I am talking to my readers.”
I think Stan Lee took the idea of a snarky conversation between the comic company’s “bullpen” and its loyal readers from similar messages in the EC comics of the early 1950s. It was certainly a hallmark of the Marvel superheroes comics he co-created in the 1960s. And that dialogue never punctured the illusion. Rather, it drew readers into a fun-filled conspiracy to suspend disbelief.

11 March 2011

Bruce Wayne an Old Blue? Color Me Unconvinced

The latest Yale Alumni Magazine has three short articles—the longest by book designer, author, and Batman fan Chip Kidd—about indications that Bruce Wayne went to Yale. This possibility arose as part of a Yale Law School display on superhero comics last fall.

As an Old Blue and a fan of the Batman mythos, I should be among the last to object to this presentation. But its logic is so weak as to be embarrassing. It’s one thing to claim that Batman went to your college; it’s another to make that claim badly.

One piece of “evidence”: in the Batman TV show of the 1960s, Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet mentions that one of Bruce Wayne’s grandfathers founded Skull & Bones, the oldest of Yale’s secret societies. But where one of Bruce Wayne’s forebears went to college proves nothing about where Bruce Wayne went to college.

The second and compelling piece of evidence is a blow-up of a detail in one panel of the 1974 Batman story “Night of the Stalker,” penciled by Sal Amendola (shown here). In the background corner of one panel is a framed “Diploma of Law,” apparently in the name of Bruce Wayne, from “Yale University at Gotham / New Haven.”

Kidd’s article doesn’t mention how the word “Gotham” appears on the diploma, thus making it unlike any other known Yale diploma. That’s left to the usually thorough researcher Fred R. Shapiro, who also gives credit to the alums who dredged up the image. Shapiro concludes:

We can only speculate that, in the Bat-universe, Yale Law School has a branch campus in Gotham City. But whatever the case, the import of the plaque is unmistakable: Batman is a Yale alumnus.
Yale magazine editor Kathrin Day Lassila took the assignment of tracking down Amendola to confirm what he meant by that detail. He says about Bruce Wayne, “I thought Yale was a place someone like that would want to go. He wanted to develop himself as much as possible, physically and mentally.” Which could only mean Yale.

But I’m not convinced. There’s no mention of law school elsewhere in Wayne’s biographies, covering any and all versions of the character. Comics in the 1950s said he attended Gotham College (Batman, #96) or University (World’s Finest, #59), and later served on its board (Batman, #59). That history may or may not apply to the post-“New Look” Batman who still prevailed in 1974.

After the Crisis of 1986, Mike W. Barr’s “My Beginning…and My Probable End” in Detective, #574, shows Wayne pretending to be a lazy student deliberately coasting through an unnamed college while secretly studying the subjects he’s interested in; it’s not clear whether he graduates. The Batman Begins movie depicts Wayne dropping out of Princeton at some level to travel the world, and returning to Gotham in the role of a shallow playboy. Those Bruce Waynes wouldn’t have attended law school, particularly a high-level, visible one.

“Night of the Stalker” was published in a decade when DC Comics depicted Bruce Wayne as a respected philanthropist and social reformer; he even served as a senator for a while. A much simpler explanation for the diploma, therefore, is that it’s the symbol of an honorary degree the DCU’s Yale University gave Wayne to reflect his contributions to society, and Gotham in particular.

Finally, I was dismayed to see Kidd write: “when Robin finally came of age in the comics in the late 1960s and was allowed to go away to school, he went to Gotham University.” Dick Grayson went to Hudson University, in the small town of New Carthage, as shown in a series of stories in the 1970s; he managed to complete one or two semesters over the decade before dropping out. Dick attended and graduated with honors from Gotham State University in the DC Animated Universe established in the 1990s.

10 March 2011

Boston Pops Seeks “Over the Rainbow” Videos

Yesterday someone from a certain local nationally-known orchestra contacted me with news about the its new Oz-related project:

To pay respect to the shared cultural heritage of the American Songbook, the Boston Pops is asking for video submissions of fans singing “Over the Rainbow” for inclusion in a video collage to be shown at Boston Pops performances throughout the season.

Voted number one on the RIAA and NEA’s “Songs of the Century” list, Harold Arlen [and Yip Harburg]’s “Over the Rainbow” is an American Songbook selection that unites generations and ties the 2011 Spring Pops Season together—from the Opening Night Judy Garland tribute to the finale “Triple Crown” performance celebrating America’s Heartland.

The signature Boston Pops sing-along has long been an audience favorite, so this year the orchestra is opening the sing-along to a national choir. Participants of all ages can submit video of themselves singing “Over the Rainbow,” by adding a video to YouTube and emailing a link and contact info to overtherainbow@bso.org.

Videos will be featured on the Boston Pops YouTube channel, on the Boston Pops website, and at Boston Pops performances throughout the season. All video submissions are due by Saturday, April 26, 2011.
The Pops’ season opens on 11 May with a tribute to Judy Garland featuring singer Linda Eder. Accompanied by the orchestra under the direction of Keith Lockhart, she’ll perform “By Myself,” “Me and My Shadow,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” and of course “Over the Rainbow.”

08 March 2011

There Once Was a Verse Form Called Limerick

At World Wide Words this week, Michael Quinion puzzled over the term “limerick.” That type of poem started to appear in print in the 1820s, but it took decades before the label came along.

Among the earliest examples is this, from the picture book Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies:

There was a young lady named Ryder,
She shrunk at the sight of a spider;
She once gave a scream,
And leaped into the stream,
When she saw one crawling beside her.
Edward Lear adopted the five-line form for his little-noted-at-the-time Book of Nonsense (1846).

Several Gaelic examples appeared in James Clarence Mangan and John O’Daly’s The Poets and Poems of Munster (1850), tagged to a melody called “The Growling Old Woman.” In his 1904 Pulse of the Bards, after the limerick was a recognized form, P. J. McCall translated “The Growling Old Woman” from the Gaelic like so:
Woman of the House—
I’ve no one to help with the churnin’,
Or bake a slim cake without burnin’,
Or get a bit ready for Nickeen an’ Neddy,
When hay in the meadow they’re turnin’;

That pig never stops with his squallin’;
The boneens go rootin’ an’ bawlin’;
The ducks an’ the hens lay away in the glens,
An' the roof of the cowhouse is fallin’.

The Household—
O, you growlin’ old woman!—
Be aisy—the neighbours are comin’!
Tobacco full ripe we will put in your pipe
To make your heart happy an’ human!

Woman of the House—
Our cow gives her milk to the fairies;
Our calf’s not as handsome as Mary’s;
My bonnet an’ bo are a shame an’ a show,
An’ my gown in the clauber conthraries!

My man takes his time fair an’ aisy;
The boys are light-headed an’ lazy,
The girls ever singin’, when washin’ or wringin’—
Enough to drive anyone crazy!

The Household—
Whisht! you growlin’ old woman!
Be aisy—the neighbours are comin’,
Tobacco full ripe we’ll put in your pipe
To make your heart happy an’ human!

A Neighbour—
Ould woman, I’m thinkin’ you’re jokin’!
You lie by the fire always pokin’,
An’, if any use, you give tons of abuse—
An’ the Ould Boy can’t bate you at smokin’!

Your man works the hardest in Erin;
Your boys are both brave an’ unfearin’;
Your girls are the sweetest, the quickest an’ neatest;
’Tis you are the pig by the mearin’!

The Neighbours—
Whisht, you growlin’ old woman!
Your conduct is most unbecomin’,
Tobacco full ripe—twice the full o’ your pipe,
Wouldn’t make your heart happy an’ human!
(The emphasis on tobacco suggests the Gaelic verse doesn’t go back earlier than the 1600s.)

Early last year scholar Stephen Goranson found a limerick published in the St. John [New Brunswick] Daily News in 1880 with the label: “Tune, wont you come to Limerick.” That’s seems to be the earliest link of the Irish city of Limerick, in the province of Munster, to the poetic form. But it comes with a musical mystery: that tune is a jig, and it’s hard to sing limericks to it. Goranson also documented many examples of “come to Limerick” to mean to surrender or settle differences, which may be totally unrelated.

There are also appearances of the phrase “Limerick rhyme” as early as 1880, without examples to show exactly what the writers meant. By the mid-1890s, however, a “limerick” was clearly the form we expect today.

07 March 2011

The Phoenix Rises Again?

Yesterday the Boston Globe featured economist Ronald F. Ferguson in its “Bibliophiles” column.

He “never developed a habit of reading novels,” he said, but spoke of his childhood reading this way, with one title lingering in his memory:

I had one special summer, after second grade, maybe, when I joined a book club and they would send a book every couple of weeks. They were storybooks. One was called “The Phoenix.” I just remember the title. It was a story of one of these birds that is reborn every 500 years. That summer is the summer that I developed a love of reading.
Was the book Ferguson remembered David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd? It’s the right vintage: the book was published in 1957, when Ferguson turned seven according to Wikipedia. It was a selection of the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club. And the phoenix’s death and rebirth forms the culmination of the story.

Worldcat lists only a couple of other candidates from the 1950s: a reissue of E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet, and Marius Barbeau’s The Golden Phoenix, and Other French-Canadian Fairy Tales. Ormondroyd’s book stands out from those in being solidly grounded in contemporary American life.

Back in 2006 I quoted from an essay by Prof. Gerald Early, two years younger than Ferguson, about his fondness for David and the Phoenix. Once again I wonder if what I saw as a flaw in the story—the lack of specific traits for the young protagonist David—was actually a virtue for young African-American male readers in the 1950s like Early and Ferguson. They might have been able to imagine themselves in David’s shoes when few other stories were as welcoming.

06 March 2011

A Month of Robin-Related Interviews

The past fortnight brought four notable web articles featuring scripters’ comments on past and present Robins. These being publicity interviews, all the writers are enthusiastic about us buying the next product, but amidst the marketing they make some interesting points. In particular, all talk about how mainstream superhero comics are a collaborative creation stretching back decades, so they have to work with other people’s ideas, sometimes on the fly.

Newarama had an essay examining the enduring appeal of Tim Drake. The article jumps straight from the company’s somewhat desperate introduction of the character in 1989-1991 to Tim’s dark period, starting with Identity Crisis and War Games in 2004.

But weren’t the intervening years part of building the character’s lasting appeal? There are no quotes, furthermore, from Chuck Dixon, the writer who scripted the Robin miniseries of the early 1990s and the first hundred issues of the comic book that followed—perhaps because he’s not working for DC Comics today.

DC’s own blog put the spotlight on Tim’s relationship with his successor as Robin, Damian, following their resentful team-up in Teen Titans. Scripter J. T. Krul spells it out:

Red Robin wants to show that he can treat Robin just like any other member of the team - bringing the tactical leadership and detachment that Batman seems to master so easily. But more importantly, or rather more personally, Tim wants to show (and perhaps even convince himself) that he doesn’t feel threatened by Damian - that he doesn’t fear being replaced in the eyes of the titans. As for Robin, he wants Tim to see that he can do just as good of a job as he ever did - that he can be a team player when needed. In other words, he wants to show his big brother that he’s no child.

On the surface, both Tim and Damian are seeking to convey the same notion - that they don’t care what the other one thinks about them - When the opposite is actually closer to the truth.

Ah, sibling rivalry.
That dynamic informs the page from Teen Titans, #92, shown with the essay. note how Krul and artist Georges Jeanty make the bottom panels into mirror images, visually conveying that these Robins are more alike than they’d care to admit. Krul’s essay seems unusual in spelling out his character motivations, but it comes at the end of a story arc, and thus isn’t giving any part of that story away, just reinforcing what’s already on paper. Did Krul or the company feel that we fans needed some extra explanation? Or do they hope that understanding the two characters in this way will make us more interested in following their relationship over the next few years?

Comic Book Resources ran a publicity interview with Judd Winick in advance of his issues of Batman and Robin, which bring Jason Todd back after his odd appearance in Grant Morrison’s issues of the same magazine. And by “odd appearance,” I mean that he literally appeared odd.

The first Jason Todd had red hair, which he eventually dyed black to please Bruce Wayne and DC’s licensees. The second Jason Todd had black hair, even when he was living rough on the street, walking the world half-dead, and living undercover. On coming back to Gotham, he also had a streak of white to symbolize his trauma.

Yet Morrison presented the character a redhead once again, talking about dyeing his hair—yet there was still that streak of white. Jason’s his new Red Hood costume was based on the original Red Hood in Detective, #168; I think that when even the Joker has abandoned a costume as too flamboyant, it’s time to move on. Normally I enjoy Morrison’s continuity syncretism, but I hope Winick can fix those details.

Since this interview comes at the start of a story arc, however, Winick says very little about future developments. He does, however, state:
Jason is a bad guy. I do Jason as a villain—a villain with very, very close ties to the home set which makes him way more difficult, and also heartbreaking.
I think of Jason as a troubled antagonist, rather than a villain, but of course in the superhero genre the people whom heroes fight must be either villains or very special guest stars.

In the Teen Titans page noted above, Damian uses the word “motif,” which I can’t imagine any ten-year-old doing. Winick echoes that point, saying:
Damian is not like any 10-year-old kid who ever lived! Damian is very much like a little adult, and I think Grant set the tone; it’s just a matter of following in Grant’s footsteps. He really has a terrific voice.
Finally, Comic Book Resources had a publicity interview with Art Baltazar and Franco about their assignment writing a Young Justice comic book alongside the Cartoon Network series. That series has an overarching narrative about the team’s dynamics, membership, and leadership, and the individual teens’ development. The comic book stories have to fit into that same narrative without giving too much away; it’s the tail, not the dog. Baltazar explains:
The first issue we have kind of takes place between scenes of the episodes on TV. Our comic almost fills in the blanks of what you don’t see on the show. . . . We’re writing really closely to the episodes, and we’re anxious, too, because when we write an issue, we'll know it fits between episode four and five or whatever.
Franco and Baltazar run ideas for using versions of other DC characters past the TV producers, and get approval, guidance, or veto based on plans for the cartoon.
I really like the Super Friends villains—you know, the Legion of Doom. So, so far we’ve been throwing Solomon Grundy and Bizarro at them for every issue. And they know that by the time it’s time for us to write the next issue, and they go, “Who do you want for villains?” we’ll go, “Solomon Grundy and Bizarro.” And they're like, “It’s the same thing we told you last time.”
So it doesn’t sound like we’ll see Bizarro soon in the Young Justice comic. (I suspect the explanation may lie in the series’ exploration of Superboy as a clone, and the current similarity between Bizarro and Match.) And I imagine Baltazar and Franco’s assignment will become even tougher when DC rolls out Young Justice on Ice! in arenas everywhere.

04 March 2011

The Gorey Enigma

Yesterday I visited the exhibit “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey,” at the Boston Athenaeum. It was at once familiar and strange, which seems appropriate.

For the familiar, I’ve written before about how I first saw Gorey’s work at a young age, and recognized his distinct style the covers of what seemed like perfectly acceptable books. As a result, I didn’t realize that he’d been a “cult figure” until years later.

One reason Gorey was so recognizable is that his drawing style was very consistent through his career. Envelopes he decorated while he was a Harvard student in 1948 are immediately recognizable as his work and no one else’s. They look very much like the drawings for The Unstrung Harp, his debut book from 1953, which in turn look quite like the illustrations in his posthumously published books four decades later. Perhaps connoisseurs know the hallmarks of “early Gorey,” “high Gorey,” and “late Gorey,” but I couldn’t have sorted the items in time without the labels.

A more surprising source of familiarity is that Gorey drew at the same size as his drawings were printed. (I measured a sketch from The Hapless Child against the images in a printed edition to be sure.) All those thin lines, that intricate hatching and cross-hatching, that hand-lettering, was done in “real space.”

I spotted only one drawing with remnant pencil lines (aside from those used for positioning). There are several examples of paste-on additions, but relatively little painting over unwanted marks with white.

The exhibit includes some sketches in a looser style as Gorey worked out ideas, experimented with layouts, or sketched for the theater. Also on display are some manuscript pages, showing him at work on his verse. “The Osbick Bird,” for instance, is typed as “The Something Bird” while Gorey tried to think of the best nonsense word, and a preliminary sketch uses the Carrollian “Jubjub Bird.”

I would have liked to see more items showing how Gorey produced his drawings: intermediary or unfinished examples, art tools, video of him at work. But what was on display was delightful enough.

03 March 2011

“She Never Slapped Her Hippopotamus”

This is a passage from E. Nesbit’s “Uncle James, or The Purple Stranger,” a story collected in The Book of Dragons. It introduces one of the main characters, a little princess.

She was always kind to her pets. She never slapped her hippopotamus when it broke her dolls in its playful gambols, and she never forgot to feed her rhinoceroses in their little hutch in the backyard. Her elephant was devoted to her, and sometimes Mary Ann made her nurse quite cross by smuggling the dear little thing up to bed with her and letting it go to sleep with its long trunk laid lovingly across her throat…
Alas, a few paragraphs further comes an explanation that erases the visual image this passage alone provides. But it’s delightful while it lasts.

02 March 2011

One to Watch For

I’m looking forward to Advent, by James Treadwell, the first in a new fantasy trilogy to be published in the UK by Hodder in 2012. The agent’s website explains:

1537. A man hurries through city streets in a gathering snowstorm, clutching a box in one hand, breath rapid, casting frightened glances over his shoulder. He is Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age. The box he holds contains something unimaginably terrible. After the storm abates, Faust will never be seen again, and in time men begin to tell stories about him – that he made a pact with the devil, and that the devil claimed his due.

London, the present day. Fifteen-year old Gavin Stokes is boarding a train to remote Pendurra in Cornwall, to stay with his aunt. His parents need a break from him. Gavin has just been kicked out of school; he’s always in trouble, not because he’s naturally disruptive, but because, as his parents tell him, he makes mistakes about things. He sees strange-looking people, when really there’s no-one there at all. He wakes up at night because he can hear things fluttering around in his bedroom. And then there’s Miss Grey, the silent old woman who has been Gavin’s companion for as long as he can remember.

Okay, James Treadwell is Godson’s Father. He’s also a great fellow with a keen love of literary fantasy and science fiction. The photo on his website makes him look Lilliputian, but he’s really more Brobdingnagian.

01 March 2011

Dwayne McDuffie, Static, and Clarence Thomas

Early last month I caught up on Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool, a collection of two miniseries from the last two decades featuring the young superhero Static. With his smart mouth, nerdy real life, and lack of a millionaire crime-fighting mentor, Static is much more like Spider-Man than like other teen heroes I could name, but I’m trying to sample all the basic literature.

Static was one of several characters that writer Dwayne McDuffie co-created for Milestone Comics, founded in the 1990s to feature superheroes of color. Static became the best known through an television cartoon. More recently DC Comics bought the Milestone properties and, in its syncretic way, incorporated McDuffie’s city of Dakota into the DC Universe. McDuffie scripted the Justice League for several months, and Static worked with the Teen Titans.

McDuffie died unexpectedly last week after heart surgery. That produced an outpouring of rue and remembrances from comics pros and fans. Several people linked to McDuffie’s 2000 essay about learning that Justice Clarence Thomas enjoyed Milestone comics:

He really liked Hardware, he said, but his favorite was Icon, a title that featured a character who is, like himself, a black conservative. There was more to the conversation but I missed most of it due to the small stroke I'd just had.

The thing is, while Clarence Thomas likes my stuff, I most decidedly don't like his stuff. Look, I'm politically to the left of… well, everybody, actually. On the other hand, Justice Thomas is a truly uncommon creature, a black political conservative. Now, if you only see black men on cable news talk shows, where all black men are conservatives (Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Alan Keyes, Armstrong Williams) you probably don't think this is unusual. Well trust me, it is.

It's really quite difficult to find an African-American who (like Justice Thomas) was alive during Jim Crow, who actually saw the Voting Rights Act end legal discrimination at the polls, and who is the successful beneficiary of Affirmative Action (but now says that he's against it). It was easier to justify my character Icon having those beliefs; he's also a space alien who can fly. . . .

The real problem didn't come to light until I sat down to write the next script for Icon.

And couldn't.

Every time I started to write dialog for Icon, I froze. "What will Clarence Thomas make of this?" I'd think, "Am I unwittingly aiding the black neocon movement?" Fortunately, I was able to get back into the game in a few weeks (and fill-ins by Kurt Busiek and Jackie Ching kept the book on schedule until I got my chops back).
Thomas mentions his childhood fondness for comics in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, specifically mentioning “Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt, Outlaw, the misunderstood western heroes,” as well as “superhero comics, particularly Superman, Green Lantern, Flash and Spiderman [sic].” That book doesn’t suggest that he maintained the hobby as an adult, however.

Also worthy of note: McDuffie’s 1989 memo at Marvel about young black superheroes on skateboards. (Static rides around on some sort of flying manhole cover instead.)