29 April 2011

Superman as “Meretricious Dreck”

From the Comics Journal’s appreciation of comic-strip collector and scholar Bill Blackbeard, who just died after a lifetime of preserving the nation’s daily verbal-visual entertainment:
“Far from being overwhelmed when Action came out with Superman,” he continued, “I thought it was meretricious dreck. I liked the art. I’d been following Slam Bradley [also by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster] in Detective Comics. And I liked the art and the storyline; I thought that was fine. But the Superman content did nothing for me because I immediately saw what many other people saw: there’s no story here. If he can do anything he wants to, who cares? Why bother? But the art did appeal, and I looked at it occasionally. It was nicely drawn.

“Then the whole superhero thing came in, and I recall thinking in the early forties that certain things—like Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch—I thought those were psychotic, the work of a lunatic. And of course Mickey Spillane was scripting, so I wasn’t that far off. I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to immerse themselves in such stuff.
Spillane did write some scripts and prose stories about the Torch and Sub-Mariner, but he didn’t create those characters. Ironically, Spillane’s biggest success came after he failed to sell a comic-book private eye of the Slam Bradley type. Unable to find a publisher for “Mike Danger,” he rewrote his script into a prose novel featuring Mike Hammer.

28 April 2011

The Multi-Billionaire and the Dragon

One is a murderous creature who sits hoarding his wealth. The other is a dragon.

Earlier this month Forbes issued its “Fictional 15,” the most wealthy fictional characters. The accuracy of that list is debatable; it doesn’t agree with, for example, the AV Club’s list of “obscenely wealthy comic-book and cartoon characters.”

Forbes editor Michael Noer supplemented the main list with a long essay on calculating the net worth of Smaug the dragon from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
We know from the novel that Smaug’s wealth comes down to three primary components, the mound of silver and gold that he sleeps on, the diamonds and other precious gemstones encrusted in his underbelly, and the “Arkenstone of Thrain,” which is depicted as something like the Hope Diamond on steroids.
Estimating the size of the mound, Smaug’s belly, and the Arkenstone required going beyond Tolkien’s text to Dungeons and Dragons reference websites, current commodity prices, and a lot of assumptions.

Noer came out with a figure of approximately $8.6 billion. That’s higher than the magazine’s calculation of the fortunes of Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg, media magnate Rupert Murdoch, and mutual-fund company head Ned Johnson. But it’s less than a sixth of the estimation for Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates.

27 April 2011

Facing Up to the Realities of Typewriter Fonts

Back when I was a book editor, each of the company’s books had a line on the copyright page stating that edition’s typeface: “Set in 12-point ITC Garamond Book by Pagesetters” in Bailey White’s Mama Makes Up Her Mind, for example.

That wasn’t included to answer a burning question for readers, or to give credit to the font designers. It was there so that, when we needed to correct a typographical error or update the text, the Production Department could quickly match the main type.

I see similar typographical lines in such new books as The Ghostwriter Secret, a Brixton Brothers mystery by Mac Barnett. The copyright page dutifully states:
The text for this book is set in Souvenir.
And indeed the main text is in that font, with a contrasting display font for the chapter titles. But fonts are so much easier to come by these days that many authors and designers (in this case Lizzy Bromley) don’t stop at just one.

The Ghostwriter Secret also has passages supposed to replicate pages from a mid-20th-century series book, albeit one with slightly distorted capitals. And others meant to look like the products of three different typewriters, one of them missing the letter T. And a school permission slip, a young detective’s handwritten notes, and an author’s autograph—all set in different fonts.

The typewriter fonts are particularly interesting because they’re not actually monospaced. Unlike real typewriters, their spaces, periods, and Is are narrower than their Ws and Ms. In sum, those fonts are simply reminiscent of typewriters.

(I note that the current paperback of Mama Makes Up Her Mind, from Da Capo, also uses a typewriter-reminiscent font on its cover.)

And whom is that illusion meant for? Fewer and fewer young readers have much experience with typewriters. (I've made this point about “Typewriter Realism” before.) The  ordinary, unpublished documents today’s kids see are rarely in that format. Their all-too-familiar-looking documents from an office or school is almost certainly be in Times, Helvetica or Arial, or even Comic Sans.

26 April 2011

Fonts of Wisdom in Origami Yoda

At the back of Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is one of those usually high-falutin’ notes on typography:
The main text is set in 10-point Lucida Sans Typewriter. The display typeface is ERASER. Tommy’s comments are set in Kienan, and Harvey’s comments are set in Good Dog.
That note lists more fonts than is common, but still greatly understates the situation. There are other chapters credited to the characters Mike, Sara, Cassie, Lance, Marcie, Quavondo, and Rhondella, each in its own font. There are posters and suspension slips in yet more typefaces, probably also overseen by designer Melissa Arnst.

Origami Yoda has what my Parameters of Narrative Voice system calls a clear Paper Trail: the novel is made to read like a document or collection of documents from its fictional world. And in this case it looks reasonably like such documents as well: a middle-schooler’s report on recent events with classmates’ contributions, handwritten comments, illustrations, and graffiti.

Because Origami Yoda has such a powerful visual dimension, I was surprised to see it just won the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award. With good training and preparation, a reader could use different voices for each narrator to match the fonts. But how can an oral delivery get across the wrinkled pattern laid under each page, suggesting the whole document has been stuffed several times into a backpack? How does one read aloud a sketch of a Shakespeare bust falling down the margin of one page and saying, “Oh Poop!” upside-down?

(In classrooms, I suspect the answer to the last question is “Very carefully.”)

25 April 2011

Harburg and Arlen

American Songwriter just posted a profile of E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, lyricist and uncredited collaborator on the screenplay of the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie.

Harburg was probably the most politically minded American songwriter to achieve popular success. And he came to those beliefs early:
After attending City College, Harburg chose to work in a Uruguay factory in 1917, which provided him an opportunity to make a decent wage, while avoiding being drafted against his beliefs into the First World War. Following the war, he married, fathered two children and became the co-owner of an electrical appliance company, that did well, but after seven years went bankrupt during the 1929 economic crash. After his business failure, Yip gravitated to songwriting. “I left the fantasy of business for the harsh reality of musical theatre”, he later joked.
In other Oz-musical news, Scott Thompson and Fred Barton are raising money to produce One for My Baby, “a sexy new song-and-dance book musical” built around songs by Harburg’s sometime collaborator Harold S. Arlen. Unlike some of his songwriting contemporaries, Arlen composed most of his classics for revues or Hollywood movies. He tried Broadway after World War 2, including the Tony-nominated Jamaica and the Truman Capote collaboration House of Flowers, but none of those were big hits.

24 April 2011

About to Crack the Big Easter Case

Tim Drake never overlooks possibilities. He is, after all, pound for pound the best detective in the DC Universe.

Of course, there’s always pressure from some quarters to be more gritty.

23 April 2011

Two Articles on L. Frank Baum, Movie-Maker

This week at Chicago Unbelievable, novelist Adam Selzer provided an introduction to the first movies ever made from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books—in 1908!

Called “Radio Plays” for reasons unclear, these lost snippets of hand-colored film from the Selig Polyscope studio were part of an elaborate stage production that Baum himself oversaw and financed. The show included a small cast of live actors alongside the movies, and he acted as host and lecturer, telling stories from his books.

The child actress who starred as Dorothy, with the astonishing name of Romola Remus, lived into the late 1980s. She apparently gave a lot of reminiscences to the Chicago papers. Selzer quotes one of those:

The privilege of knowing Mr. Baum was a happy and rewarding experience for me. I, also, portrayed the role of Dorothy in the first 'Wizard of Oz' movie. I believe it was the very first colored moving picture. It was produced by Selig's company.

I remember Mr. Baum was always on hand offering encouragement or constructive criticism to all his workers. When the film was shown at various theatres, he would lecture about his various books. I recall some proud and joyous moments standing beside this tall, gentle, dignified gentleman on-stage after each matinee. The little children would clamor for his autograph, with cheers of joy!
But the show was a financial failure. Despite reviews praising it as a family show, it didn’t sell enough tickets to adults to cover the high production cost, and Baum ended up signing away the proceeds of some of his books for many years.

After regaining his financial footing with new novels, Baum and his family moved out west to a suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywood. By coincidence, the American film industry followed, and Baum became involved in another movie-making venture called the Oz Film Manufacturing Company. This time he didn’t invest much of his own money. Which was good, because that venture failed as well.

The movie magazine Daeida just published an interview with Baum’s great-grandson Robert about the family’s life in Hollywood. It includes many family photographs of the author’s house there, called Ozcot, along with the gardening trophies Baum won in his last years. You can read that article online in the April 2011 issue, starting on page 10.

22 April 2011

Visiting the Wonder City of Oz

Earlier this week the auction house Doyle New York sold some Oz-related items from the estate of Fred Meyer, long-time secretary of the International Wizard of Oz Club. One of the most interesting items was John R. Neill’s manuscript for The Wonder City of Oz, along with the heavily edited version that saw print. As the auctioneer explains:
Neill was informed in early 1940 that Ruth Plumly Thompson was to retire as an Oz author. Asked to write the next book in the series himself after 35 years as the series illustrator, Neill pieced together sketches and stories he had been gathering and submitted the typescript. Reilly & Lee hired a ghost writer to alter and complete the story, evidenced by the second typescript and the finished book. The two drafts are drastically different, from the titles of the chapters to seemingly disconnected parts of the plot.
The main restriction on Reilly & Lee’s new story, it appears, was to string together as many of Neill’s illustrations as possible, so the publisher wouldn’t have to ask him for more. One result appears on another item in this auction, consisting of two pictures of Number Nine, the Munchkin boy who becomes a secondary protagonist.

Neill originally drew Number Nine clinging to a frozen rail, perhaps while being blown off. There’s no such scene in the finished book, but there is a moment when the boy is plummeting through the atmosphere. (As I recall, he threw his hat into the hair and forgot to let go.) So the Reilly & Lee production department painted the railing out of Neill’s sketch, and that drawing became a picture of Number Nine’s plunge through the air.

Oz fans have few good things to say about The Wonder City of Oz as published: the narrative is almost incoherent, the main protagonist unlikable, the picture of life in the Emerald City unrecognizable. One potential strength of the book, I think, is that it shows daily life in the capital of Oz for working kids who don’t get to hang around Ozma’s palace all day—but that strength remains more potential than realized.

Despite those flaws in the final book, Neill’s original manuscript probably wasn’t any better. I’ve read a summary of that disjointed story and his subsequent two Oz books (published without the same sort of editing, or possibly any), and they show similar problems. Neill was a fine fantasy illustrator, but not a great storyteller.

20 April 2011

Two Issues of Oziana Back to Back!

Oziana 2009 (described yesterday) and Oziana 2010 comprise a double issue, bound back to back, each with a full complement of new and original Oz fiction and art. (For folks who enjoy back covers, however, you’re out of luck.)

The theme for Oziana 2010 is “The Challenges of Governing Oz,” and it starts with Tim Art-McLaughlin’s spectacular color image of “The Queen and Her Court.” Tim is an Oz fan and professional artist from Shropshire, England; email him if you’re interested in Ozzy commissions.

Tim also provided the art for “Celebrating Ozma: The Silver Jubilee Issue,” in which the father-daughter team of Andrew and Rachel Heller introduce us to Oz’s postage stamps and postal service. They are, of course, magical.

“Fiddle’s Revenge,” by Arianna Brown, won a student writing award at last year’s International Wizard of Oz Club conference at the Arne Nixon Center in Fresno. This adventure, set back when the Scarecrow ruled the Emerald City, brings back the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodman, and the Winged Monkeys—as well as the danger of a giant spider. Author-illustrator Dennis Anfuso provided the suitably scary art.

In “Invisible Fence,” the Emerald City’s war against unauthorized magic takes the Wizard, the Tin Soldier, Snif the Iffin, and Dorothy to a dark Gillikin forest, where they find a most innocent-looking outlaw. This mystery story from me comes with nine charming illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.

Copies of Oziana 2009/2010 are on their way to subscribers, and can be ordered from the Oz Club. The double issue offers two full-color covers, seven new stories, and original art at every turn.

19 April 2011

Oziana 2009 Touches Down at Last

The issue of Oziana cover-dated 2009 is at last on its way to subscribers, and will be available for ordering from the International Wizard of Oz Club. It contains four original Oz stories, all completely illustrated.

The cover is “Lifting the Curtain,” a painting by Charnelle Pinkney, now a student in the School of Visual Arts’ program in Illustration as Visual Essay. That image symbolizes the issue’s theme of “Parodies and Alternative Views” of Oz.

In “Toto Reveals,” Dorothy’s companion shares his view of events in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Brianna Landon’s story won a competition for Oz writing by students in Lawrence, Kansas, a few years ago. It has charming new illustrations by Ben Wood, a picture-book artist from Australia who has illustrated books for Scholastic and other firms.

Playwright Eleanor Kennedy contributed “Barry Porter and the Sorceress of Oz,” which uses parody to explore some differences in tone between L. Frank Baum’s fantasy creation and J. K. Rowling’s. Sheena Hisiro provided stylish portraits of Glinda and a lost young wizard with a scarred forehead.

“The Ransom of Button-Bright” is Oziana’s first story in comics form, I believe. It’s a product of the hard work and good humor of artist S. P. Maldonado, working from a script by me (with plenty of inspiration from O. Henry). Who would dare to kidnap Button-Bright?

Finally, Prof. Stephen Teller’s “The Trouble with the Magic Belt” imagines a narrative fix for the Oz books—what if we simply did away with Ozma’s Magic Belt, and all the easy solutions it provides? John Mundt, Esq., illustrated this counterfactual tale with his usual verve, and provided readers with a puzzle as well.

Every copy of Oziana 2009 comes with a major bonus: Oziana 2010! More about that tomorrow.

17 April 2011

Researching Robin

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and an upcoming book on writer Bill Finger, has generously shared some of his notes on the question of who created the original Robin, the Boy Wonder.

Jerry Robinson, who was working as an artist for Bob Kane, has often credited Finger for the idea of giving Batman a sidekick while providing strong evidence that he himself came up with the character’s name and look. For example, here’s an extract from Gary Groth’s interview with Robinson in The Comics Journal, #271, as supplied by Marc:

GROTH: I assume you’ve read Gerry Jones’ new history of comics, Men of Tomorrow. There’s a little contradiction I wanted you to clarify between what you’ve said previously about who created Robin and how Jones related it. Jones wrote, “When Bill Finger felt Batman could use a sidekick to talk to, he and Robinson created Robin, the Boy Wonder.” Now, you contradict that in an interview that you did with Comics Interview when the interviewer asks you, “What about Robin? You were responsible for his creation” and you reply, “No, no. I was not. I can’t take credit for that. As I reconstructed it and Bill confirmed my recollection, Bob and Bill had the idea of having a kid and discussed that idea before I arrived.”

ROBINSON: Right. That’s basically true. Gerry I think was very accurate in his interviews. He interviewed me extensively for the book. I think he did a very fine job. In any event, yeah, more accurately, adding a kid was under discussion. I’m sure it was Bill’s idea for adding a boy. That I would attribute to Bill without question. When I came in they were already discussing possible names. So I joined the discussion of the creation. There was nothing on paper yet, nothing but the idea of adding a sidekick. And I know that was Bill’s idea to add a sidekick, from the discussion that ensued. The impetus came from Bill’s wanting to extend the parameters of the story potential and of the drama. He saw that adding a sidekick would enhance the drama. Also, it enlarged the readership identification. The younger kids could then identify with Robin, which they couldn’t with Batman, and the older ones with Batman. It extended the appeal on a lot of levels.
Robinson said similar things in Alter Ego, #39, and elsewhere. However, this interview also makes clear that Robinson was not present when Finger presented the “idea for adding a boy”; rather, he inferred that Finger deserved the credit.

It’s notable, however, that Bill Finger himself didn’t lay claim to Robin even as he took credit for originating other parts of the Batman mythos. In 1965 he told The New Yorker that the “group” created Robin to be Batman’s Watson.

Bob Kane, of course, claimed the credit for himself.

I think this investigation may be so complicated because Robin was created in stages. The character is the combination of three ideas:
It’s clear that the last stage was mostly Robinson’s creation, with a bit of help from Finger. It also appears likely that Finger was already pushing to add a companion for Batman, which would make his scripting easier.

But who had the idea to make that companion a teenager? My theory remains that someone in the DC office pressed Kane to increase the “kid appeal” of the stories he was supplying. As I wrote back here, at the start of 1940 Fawcett reportedly had a poll showing that boys comprised the biggest set of comic-book readers, and the company created Captain Marvel as a response.

Robin’s arrived at the same time as new Detective Comics chief editor Whitney Ellsworth. He bumped the story announced for Detective, #38, in favor of introducing the Sensational Character Find of 1940. Shortly after that, Ellsworth demanded that Batman stop using guns and other lethal means because those weren’t appropriate for children’s entertainment. So Ellsworth definitely pushed the “kid appeal” message, and liked Robin’s potential.

So here’s a scenario to consider. In early 1940 Ellsworth told Kane that he’d be taking over Detective and that the Batman stories needed to offer even more for boys. Kane brought that message back to his apartment/office as his own idea—at the time, he was the only link between the publisher and his team.

Finger saw how this suggestion offered a solution to a problem he’d been wrestling with: the lack of a “Watson.” Finger and Kane had thus agreed to add a kid sidekick when Robinson came into the conversation. Robinson finished developing the character with Finger’s help.

Each man could thus claim to have come up with basic ideas for Robin—or, in Kane’s case, perhaps to have adopted that idea as his own. It’s consistent with what we know of their personalities for Kane to maximize his claims, Finger to be scrupulously minimal, and Robinson to take the side of the underdog. But the character was a joint creation, driven by a combination of commercial pressure, storytelling needs, and artistic choices.

15 April 2011

Harry Potter and the Caped Crusader

At ComicsAlliance, columnist Chris Sims has tackled the burning question of who would win in a fight, Batman or Harry Potter? That extremely stupid question produced quite a smart and funny analysis, albeit one that in its original form uses both italics and boldface.

Sims tells the reader who posed the question:

For starters, though, I have to say that you're way off-base in your assessment of Harry. The characterization of him as a "whiny brat" is one that I see cropping up all over the place, and it's a complete misreading of the character. Yes, he can be moody and petulant, but he's a teenager. And let's be real here: If you weren't moody and petulant when you were a teenager, then thanks for reading ComicsAlliance, Your Holiness the Dalai Lama.
And as for the fight itself:
Assuming the characters know the bare minimum of information about each other—Batman knows Harry's a wizard, Harry knows that despite appearances, Batman's not some sort of ninja Dementor so that he doesn't waste time trying to take him down with Expecto Patronum—then the only question is whether Harry Potter can say three syllables in Fake Latin and manage to hit a moving target used to dodging gunfire with a Stunning Spell before Batman disarms him from thirty feet away with a piece of metal shaped like his own logo.
Of course, the usual answer about which hero would win such a conflict depends on which character is the protagonist of the magazine, book, or movie in which the conflict appears. In genre fiction, the hero wins. That’s the point.

Because DC Comics is part of Time Warner, which also owns the studio that manages Harry Potter licensing, an official crossover between those franchises is actually conceivable. Until the corporation decides it wants that money, however, we’re left with Batman/Harry Potter fanfiction.

14 April 2011

Reviews from the Thank-You Cards

After a tie-dyed twin tenth birthday party, Godson writes of Quest for the Spark, first volume of a Bone novel written by Tom Sniegoski and illustrated by Jeff Smith:

It is Best for A rainy day!
And Godson’s Brother responds to Joey Weiser’s Mermin mini-comics (available through this site):
Mermin the Merman from Mer! Hah...Hah...Hah... **

** I don’t get it either —Ed.
This is the first footnoted thank-you card I’ve ever received. Is it possible the boy’s been exposed to too many Silver Age comics stories?

13 April 2011

Yeah, Goin’ Back

I’m not a fan of Bruce Springsteen. I admire his talent and work ethic, I enjoy some of his songs, and I can identify the big ones’ openings and choruses. But I don’t think I own any Springsteen albums, and I can’t find his name in my quirky iTunes library.

Given how many people absolutely adore Springsteen, that puts me closer to nineteenth-century Bushmen who died before he was born than to his real fans.

But I say that only to preface a strong recommendation for the episodes of Little Steven’s Underground Garage in which host Steve Van Zandt and Springsteen talk about their rock-and-roll influences, interspersed with music old and new. The last of the radio shows will be broadcast this weekend, and you can listen online to extended versions of all three conversations by registering at the show’s website.

Springsteen and Van Zandt met as teenagers in New Jersey, and have worked together in the E Street Band for decades. They reminisce and analyze their favorite 45s, telling stories about how Springsteen’s first guitar lessons didn’t take, and why they couldn’t get the distortion sound they heard on records (they still had their little amps set on 3).

Along the way we learn about the attraction of novelty songs, how to rip off an Animals intro without anyone noticing by changing it from minor key to major, and the subtle mysteries of Kinks chord changes.

And then there’s this counterfactual: if young Bruce and Stevie had heard any of the Beatles’ small-label American releases before “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” would they have had such an immediate reaction to that band?

12 April 2011

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From British novelist Patrick Ness’s Guardian column on books to read when you’re supposedly too young for them:

I can’t possibly recommend some of the books that I and others read when we were teenagers. I mean, really, is Trainspotting in any way appropriate for a teenager? And what about the Jilly Coopers and the Jackie Collinses and, heaven help us, Flowers in the Attic? We older folks may have cherished, er, survived reading them at your age, but you’re too young, WAY too young, to read any of these books that are easily available at your local library. Listed alphabetically by author. So the Cs would be near the front and Ws near the back. But I couldn’t possibly recommend that.
I still haven’t read most of Ness’s list, but I read other “inappropriate” books as a young teenager, including The Great Gatsby (which I didn’t get) and Ulysses (which I really didn’t get). Their effects were much less harmful on me than the effects of being a young teenager.

11 April 2011

This is the Past

From the Boston Globe I learned that Rizzoli has reissued M. Sasek’s This is… series of travel books for children, such as This is Paris, This is Greece, and the ahead-of-its-time This is the Way to the Moon. The latest is last month’s This is Washington, D.C.

Those eighteen books were published between 1959 and 1974, and I remember leafing through them at the tail end of that span. It wasn’t just the exotic locales that stuck with me, but also Sasek’s style of art and design. Even then the books seemed to come out of the Old World and out of the past, without the fresh vibrancy of, say, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World, which was published in the middle of that same era.

The Globe states, “some facts in the reissued editions have been updated,” but Rizzoli’s catalogue copy for This is Hong Kong (where a lot has changed since 1969) describes those updates “appearing on a ‘This is . . . Today’ page at the back of the book.”

And of course the illustrations can’t easily be altered. Sasek’s art still has a Catch Me If You Can vibe, from when Americans dressed up to travel instead of dressing down. I look at these reissues, and think if they must be selling on the basis of adult nostalgia and artistic appreciation rather than child curiosity. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) That would certainly explain the The is London tea towel.

10 April 2011

Look Upward Robin!

From the daily Batman and Robin strip of the 1940s, back when a superhero comic being gritty meant it contained actual grit.

But to show that some things don’t change over more than sixty years, note the pride beneath Batman’s disapproving scowl* in panel three. * phrase borrowed from Nightwing, #138, published in 2007.

07 April 2011

Eisner Nomination Season

Nominations for the Eisner Awards for achievements in the comics form are out, and some were particularly pleasing to me:

Best Publication for Kids

Best Publication for Teens
Best Humor Publication
Best Digital Comic
Best Adaptation from Another Work
Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books
Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team
  • Skottie Young, The Marvelous Land of Oz (Marvel)
Best Coloring
  • Jimmy Gownley, Amelia Rules!: True Things (Adults Don’t Want Kids to Know), Amelia Rules!: The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular, by Jimmy Gownley (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster)
  • Hilary Sycamore, City of Spies, etc. (First Second)
Best Lettering
  • Jimmy Gownley, Amelia Rules!: True Things (Adults Don’t Want Kids to Know), Amelia Rules!: The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular, by Jimmy Gownley (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster)
  • Todd Klein, Fables, etc.
Best Comics-Related Book

06 April 2011

I Am Appalled

After several years, DC Comics has resumed publishing letters from readers in its comic books. Originally printing reader letters was a way to include enough prose in each magazine to qualify for favorable mailing rates. Along with getting the content for free, publishers enjoyed the bonus benefits of consumer feedback and a chance to foster brand loyalty.

Today comics fans use the internet to express their opinions (usually negative or rhapsodic, with little middle ground), so DC can’t lack for feedback. But the company had another economic motive for bringing back letter pages: it simultaneously shrank each regular installment of its stories from 22 pages to 20 to limit costs.

Having invited letters, the company must now deal with twerps like this guy, published in Marvel’s What If?, #20, in 1980: If only this kid knew that in just another quarter-century he’d have a computer and be able to share such opinions with the whole world.

I found this issue of What If? earlier this year in my grandmother’s extensive archive of Stuff Received from Her Children and Grandchildren. I, or more likely my mother, must have sent her the copy back in the Carter administration.

I don’t remember writing this letter. I don’t remember reading the stories that left me “appalled,” and am a little taken aback by my vehemence. I also don’t recall the story in the issue that contained the letter, though the phrase “Kree-Skrull War” still sets off a couple of neurons at the back of my brain.

That said, I stand by my review. What If? was extra-thick and extra-pricey (60¢! Rising to 75¢!). Its extra pages let storytellers explore an alternative path for one of Marvel’s heroes over the comics-universe equivalent of years. Splitting those pages among three short stories wasted that potential. And these particular stories also failed the magazine’s promise of identifying key turning-points; as Siskoid’s Blog of Geekery says of the three featured heroes, “none of them had origins I could readily recall, and [scripter Steven] Grant doesn’t tell you what’s changed exactly.”

With my current professional experience and cynicism, I now wonder if What If?, #17, was a quickly-assembled fill-in issue, or perhaps an attempt to bring three of Marvel’s third-tier heroes to a wider audience. In any event, it clearly lacked the heft of the Kree-Skrull War.

05 April 2011


Adam Gopnik’s fantasy fiction hasn’t won me over, but I adore his nonfiction writing on kids. Here’s a passage from the father of two in the 4 April issue of The New Yorker:

When one eleven-year-old girl says to another eleven-year-old girl, “So then, like, the teacher got all, like, all of you, I guess, are, like, going to have to do a, like, I don’t know, a makeup test. So! Like, yeah,” she means:

“The teacher, becoming heated”—that’s why she “got, like,” rather than “said, like”—“announced, in effect, that many of us (I suppose, at a first approximation, all) will, at some point in, as it were, the near future, have to take what actually amounts to, when all is said and done, a secondary makeup test. I have indignant feelings about this—as who among us would not?—but I recognize their essential futility.”
That must be one of the ten greatest sentences ever to appear in that august magazine.

04 April 2011

Hammer Time

This week Heritage Auction Galleries is offering sketches, finished line art, paintings, and signed books from the estate of illustrator Garth Williams. Up for sale are Williams’s pictures for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and a couple of other books, one of which involved lots of bunnies.

Next week Sotheby’s will offer artwork from the collection of Kendra and Allan Daniel. The artists represented include W. W. Denslow, Frank Ver Beck, Fanny Y. Cory, E. H. Shepard, Arthur Rackham, Kate Greenaway, Beatrix Potter, Jessie Willcox Smith, William Pène du Bois, Dr. Seuss, Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, Ludwig Bemelmans, Johnny Gruelle, Lois Lenski, Eleanor Parke Custis, Tasha Tudor, Maurice Sendak, and many others. Plus some more bunnies.

Among those items is a John R. Neill illustration of Betsy Bobbin and Hank the Mule from Tik-Tok of Oz. It’s described as an ink drawing, but the gents at Hungry Tiger Press have said that Neill usually colored photostats rather than originals. But I’d accept it as a gift either way.

03 April 2011

The Original Daily Batman

Yes, Dick, we discern the irony in your current situation.

This panel is from the first Batman and Robin daily comic strip, which ran in North American newspapers from 1943 to 1946. Each week brought two independent storylines, one in black and white Monday through Saturday and another in color jumping from one Sunday to the next. Although some tales from the strip were reconfigured for the magazines, most of these comics never reappeared until DC and Kitchen Sink Press started to assemble the complete run in four volumes in 1990.

The daily Batman and Robin strips are notable for being Bob Kane’s last sustained work on the most famous characters he co-created (and for a long time took full credit for). Even with diligent practice and Charles Paris’s inking, Kane was only fair at drawing realistic scenes (much less the super-realistic rendering of superheroes). Note, for instance, the background of this landscape. Kane managed to have the shadows extending from the house, the barn and shack, and the farm equipment in three different directions.

It’s no mystery why Kane chose to concentrate on the comic strip instead of the comic books. Newspapers were more established and prestigious than cheap magazines. In addition, if more papers picked up a strip, a creator could receive more money without having to do more work—and Kane was all about taking money for as little work as possible. In contrast, DC paid a flat rate for comic-book pages regardless of how many copies they sold.

For similar reasons, Gerard Jones wrote in Men of Tomorrow, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster concentrated on the Superman comic strip launched in 1939 and let other artists produce the magazines. That strip ran continuously until 1966, nearly twenty years after Siegel and Shuster quit. (Then a new Batman strip fueled by the TV show took over the slot.)

The Robin of the daily strip functions exactly like the character in the comic books. He’s someone for Batman the detective to talk to and to withhold information from; he gets held hostage or trips at inopportune times. And he expresses emotion more openly than Batman—which could strain Kane’s drawing skills.

Indeed, some of Kane’s portrayals of Robin go beyond awkward to downright creepy. This wasn’t such a problem in drawing Bruce Wayne/Batman, whose handsome stolidity produced a limited set of facial expressions. Kane could kept using his favorite stock poses—face straight on, for example.

When storylines required, say, slinky women, DC gave the assignment to other artists. But for ordinary crime cases, Kane’s artwork served just fine, with a Dick Tracy vibe. And one humorous storyline, built around the wartime housing shortage, even ended with the Dynamic Duo doing a “plop take” out of the last panel as if they were “bigfoot” comics characters.

Indeed, Kane seems to have been a comedic cartoonist at heart. He started out drawing funny comics like Hiram Hick, Ginger Snapp, and Peter Pupp, his first character to have a young sidekick. After giving up Batman (but not credit), Kane developed a couple of TV cartoons, Courageous Cat and Cool McCool. Those projects were a better fit for his natural style and talents.

02 April 2011

Justice Squeezes Slow, But It Squeezes Exceeding Tight

Back in 2007, I did the math on Jacqueline Davies’s The Lemonade War, and found that the young character who came out best by far in that fictional portrait of business was Scott, the one who stole whatever cash was lying around when no one was looking.

That posting concluded:

It’s a realistic picture of how the world works too often, in the elementary-school years or in business, but who wants the real world in middle-grade? I demand a sequel! Something like Scott Gets Crushed Like a Bike Helmet Under the Tire of Life.
Next month will bring Jackie’s sequel, The Lemonade Crime. Houghton Mifflin says:
Following the laws of our legal system, Evan and Jessie’s fourth-grade class concocts a courtroom on the playground, putting Scott Spencer, alleged thief, on trial. They create a legitimate courtroom—with a judge, witnesses, a jury of their peers—and surprising consequences.
According to an advance review at Goodreads, the theft involves $208 from the lemonade stand. I calculated that Scott came out $213 ahead, but that might include other revenue; I’d have to recheck my figures. Will Scott turn out to have an alibi? Or just an excuse?