31 July 2011

Biggest Role Yet

So what do Robin the Boy Wonder and the White Rabbit have in common?

Both characters have been played by Kamran Darabi-Ford, the young British actor cast as Dick Grayson in the Batman Live arena show now touring Britain.

He’s also played “the fey Simon in Cameron Jack’s exciting and successful production of Lord of the Flies,” and “an acrobatic Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC Fringe Festival.”

30 July 2011

Future Tense

For several years now, many superhero comics fans have been mentally vibrating among three periods. That’s bound to cause difficulties—not life-threatening, but certainly anxiety-forming.

The first period in which fans live is when each of us was twelve or fourteen, or whenever we dove deep into the superhero genre. Even though we often recognize some new, individual stories as better, comics as a whole never feel so exciting again as in that initial exploration. And of course we’re never going to be that young again, either. The result can range from a thinly rueful nostalgia to an undercurrent of rage, depending on personality, but some sense of disappointment is almost inescapable.

The second period is the present, and the storylines we’re following. Ideally, readers should be immersed in those stories, the heroes’ immediate situations and near-future possibilities.

The third period is the heroes’ future a little further out, as hinted at but never fully revealed in the descriptions and covers for upcoming issues. The big publishers, starting with DC and Marvel, put out those previews to promote orders from comic-book shops. The internet has made it impossible to keep fans from finding them, too, and in fact the industry has evolved so that those previews are designed to prompt fans to order magazines that intrigue them.

Previews’ story summaries are always written in hyperbolic prose. The covers are sometimes masked to maintain narrative surprises. Closer to publication, the publishers release sample pages, and often the creators share work in progress on their own websites. All of which takes attention from the current storylines.

Previews are designed to raise expectations, but they’ve inevitably produced a plethora of new disappointments: that a highly anticipated magazine gets delayed (e.g., All Star Batman and Robin, Batwoman), or that a magazine published on time came from a different artist or writer than the preview described. Of course, if fans paid little attention to previews, they wouldn’t feel disappointed by the fact that plans can change in a deadline-driven industry. (We can still feel disappointed by bad stories, of course.)

Currently, DC Comics is promoting a new continuity, to debut this fall. Which means that few fans appear to be paying attention to or deriving enjoyment from the stories the company’s writers and artists are telling right now. Instead, most of us are scrounging for information and speculating broadly about the status of favorite characters in the new universe. DC has released information in small amounts. As details have become clear, the loudest response has been, unsurprisingly, disappointment.

Fans of Stephanie Brown as the current Batgirl are so busy lamenting her displacement from that role and her low profile in the new continuity that I’ve seen very little discussion of her current storyline. Batgirl’s a fun magazine—or it was while fans could still focus on it.

After a couple of years of complaining about horrible things happening to Roy Harper (Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow/Arsenal), that character’s fans are now focused on how the new universe’s Roy Harper will be too young for any of those horrible things to have happened to him. (I’m not sure what character will be left.)

Fans of the original Titans also noted that DC set aside no space for Wally West (Kid Flash/Flash) and Donna Troy (Wonder Girl/Troia/…just leave it at Donna Troy). DC has also said little about Gar Logan (Beast Boy/Changeling/Beast Boy), but, alas for him, far fewer people seem to care. When artist Brett Booth joked about drawing Wally and Donna and then had to point out the joke, Titans Tower chided, “Fans are just asking for simple answers, not sure why that’s so hard to comply.”

In response to such comments, Booth wrote on his blog:
I think you new fans are getting far, far to[o] spoiled! I remember when I had to wait and see if the local drug store actually ordered my favorite comics. No internet, no wizard [magazine], no comic store by me. Why would you want to know everything before the books even come out? It's like being told what your Christmas presents are before you get them!
I have to agree with that attitude. The superhero genre has long relied on storytelling surprises: characters popping up unexpectedly, heroes having had a plan all along, people not being who or what they seem. In these slow-paced days, the companies keep upcoming plotlines secret for years—which also gives them the power to reverse course.

If superhero storytellers actually explained what was going to happen, the stories wouldn’t be as exciting. If they reassured fans about all their favorite characters, the adventures would have less of an edge. If the companies locked themselves in for years to come, then the stories would soon get stale. Either way, fans would eventually be disappointed.

Of course, we usually are anyway.

29 July 2011

Performance Issues

Scott Hedley on Facebook alerted me to a Playbill ad seeking unpaid actorsin New York for Dorothy in Oz, “a skewed take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in a mental hospital.” The featured parts:

Dottie - A mentally disturbed seventeen-year-old, who has been involuntarily committed to the Oslin Center, a psychiatric institute in Kansas.

Aunt Em - Dottie’s aunt and legal guardian.

Mrs. Goode/Glinda - Dottie’s flaky therapist, as well as one of the characters in Dottie’s hallucination.

Dr. Green/The Wicked Witch of the West Wing - The insensitive doctor in charge of Dottie’s case, as well as the antagonist in Dottie’s hallucination.

Skarekrow - A goth-rocker suffering from severe drug dependency and depression in Dottie’s hallucination.

Rusty - A heartless ruffian with anger issues in Dottie’s hallucination.

Mr. Lyons - An overweight sexual deviant with “performance issues” in Dottie’s hallucination. . . .

The Great Oz/ Dr. Oslin - The mysterious man, whom Dottie and her friends seek for aid in her hallucination, as well as the busy head of the Oslin Center.
I’m guessing this adaptation has a different target audience from The Yellow Brick Road, mentioned here and just reviewed in the New York Times.

The company behind this show, Adam Roebuck Productions, is also preparing an R-rated version of Alice in Wonderland. Two years ago the organization produced a play of The Wizard of Oz as adapted by Kathryn Schultz Miller for children and families. Again, different target audience.

28 July 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Boston Comics Roundtable publishes three comics anthologies: Outbound, featuring science fiction; Inbound, covering everything else on a given theme, such as local history or food; and Hellbound, devoted to horror.

I read hardly any horror, and I write just a little more. Nevertheless, the 2011 issue of Hellbound will contain a comics story I created with artist Andy Wong, called “RobMeBlind.com.”

More info to come around (naturally) Hallowe’en.

26 July 2011

La Maga de Oz

TheatreworksUSA is offering this new stage musical for young audiences:
Dora feels like she’s caught between two worlds: on one hand, she is expected to embrace the Latino family traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, but she also wants to be a contemporary American teenager… She sometimes thinks she’s trapped between a pinto bean and a cheeseburger. Dora can’t figure out where she fits in, and she longs for a place where she can forge her own identity.

On the eve of her coming of age quinceañera, a mysterious woman disrupts Dora’s fifteenth birthday fiesta to foretell a journey of discovery that will take her far from home.

Sure enough, a gran tornado carries Dora (and her little dog, too) to a magical world filled with munchkins and a wicked bruja who’ll stop at nothing to steal Dora’s ruby zapatillas.

Dora meets three friends, each from a different Latin culture, while traveling on the amarillo brick road en route to the Emerald City. She seeks the only person who can help her return to the world she knows… the superstar who has all the answers: the Wizard of Oz—la Maga de Oz
Converting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a coming-of-age story is, I believe, driven by the need to cast a teenager as Dorothy. The original tale is about discovering competency rather than identity.

25 July 2011

Mom, It’s Copying Me!

I saw this product in a mail-order catalogue today, and then found it featured at Geek Alerts.

A Chatimal is a stuffed animal programmed to repeat back whatever you say, but in a high, squeaky voice—apparently using the same technology as in this iPhone app.

Just the thing for people who miss sitting next to a younger sibling on long car trips.

Just the thing for people who miss sitting next to a younger sibling on long car trips.

Personally, I think a Chatimal would soon lose its charm.

Personally, I think a Chatimal would soon lose its charm.

Stop that!

Stop that!

24 July 2011

When DC Comics Sales Got a Case of the Stephs

As the last weekly Robin discussed, in the spring of 2004 DC Comics put Stephanie Brown, formerly the self-guided teen crime-fighter Spoiler, into the Robin costume. All along this was part of an overarching Batman storyline about a gang war in Gotham City that would end with Stephanie being killed.

The company didn’t anticipate the reader reaction to the new Robin. Stephanie appeared in the multi-colored costume on three issues of Robin, one of Detective, one of Batgirl, and one of Teen Titans. (There may be others I missed.)

Sales of Robin jumped from 32,925 for issue #125 to 49,060 for issue #126, the first to feature Stephanie in the multicolored costume—up by nearly 50%. It’s normal for sales to rise when readers expect an issue to be a milestone, but in this case the sales also stayed significantly higher than before: 40,750 for #127, and 37,255 for #128. The magazine then entered the War Games crossover.

The same effect appeared in two other magazines, though to a lesser extent. Batgirl was selling about 26,000 copies before and after issue #53, which featured Stephanie as Robin on the cover; that issue sold 30,000. Detective Comics was selling about 35,000 copies; the issue that highlighted the new Robin sold almost 37,000. Stephanie’s cover appearance on Teen Titans, #13, had no effect on that magazine’s pattern; it was already one of the company’s top sellers.

(All those figures come from the invaluable Comics Chronicles website. They’re based on back-calculating the numbers reported by Diamond, the dominant comics distributor. While not exact, they’re useful for comparisons.)

Paul Sebert’s article at Inside Pulse noted a couple of other measures of fan interest, though without documentation: “Fan art of Stephanie as Robin,” and general chatter. Sebert, writing two years later, went on to criticize the publisher’s lack of response to that interest:
So just how does DC respond to this totally spontaneous and unexpected fan response? How do they adjust their plans realizing that they’re about to kill off the breakthrough character of the year? Well they do nothing… really. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead they decide to continue their original plan for the War Games crossover in which they killed off Steph Brown just for the sake of well… it was a crossover and for some strange reason you can’t have a crossover these days without killing someone.
But everyone knows that comic books are planned months in advance. By the time DC got word that Robin sales were staying up, the magazines that showed Stephanie dying were well into production. And the company probably had further storylines planned out, with Batman becoming more isolated and Tim Drake back as Robin and full of adolescent angst. The company was on that train, and couldn’t jump off.

Furthermore, as much as comics fans and creators like to criticize crossovers and character deaths, they sell magazines. Detective jumped from 37,000 copies to 51,000 when War Games started, and Robin jumped from that Stephanie-fueled 37,000 to over 45,000. However, unlike No Man’s Land and some other Batman crossovers that preceded it, neither critics nor fans seem to remember War Games fondly.

Stephanie Brown’s last cover appearance as Robin (so far) was on Detective, #809, the first issue in which DC went back to address the fallout of War Games, both in Gotham City and in the real world. This “Dead Robin” cover produced another big sales jump over the previous issue of Detective—from 38,000 to 49,000. But that might well have been due in part to the success of the Batman Begins movie that same month of 2005.

Corrina Lawson at Wired’s Geek Dad wrote criticized the cover image: “I gave up reading monthly Batman comics in 2004 [sic] after DC featured the bloody body of a teenage girl on the cover.” That raises the question of why the Wired website itself displays the image.

It seems significant that this cover showed Stephanie as Robin in death, even though in War Games Batman had fired her from that role and she was back to being Spoiler when she died. It was a tacit acknowledgment that she was a more popular Robin than DC had expected.

This issue also portrayed Dr. Leslie Tompkins, a physician who knows Bruce Wayne’s secrets, confessing to having let Stephanie die as a lesson to him. Fans roundly criticized that moment as out of character. But was it, as a few fans claimed to have foreseen, the DC creative team’s way to open the door for Stephanie’s eventual return?

22 July 2011

The Xeric Foundation’s Change of Focus

This month the Xeric Foundation announced that after one more grants season it will stop giving money to independent comics creators seeking to self-publish.

Founded with the overflowing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles money in 1992, Xeric has been supplying selected comics work with funds and attention for two decades. Among this year’s grant recipients was Seamus Heffernan for Freedom (sample pages here).

But technology and market conditions have changed, and it’s no longer necessary (and, to some respect, feasible) to seek a readership by offering a paper product through comics retailers. Storytellers are turning to the web, where the reproduction cost is small and the potential reach is broad.

But where’s the money? The web offers some possibilities. This same month, Publishers Weekly posited that Kickstarter had become the third-largest independent (non-DC, non-Marvel) publisher of graphic novels. The source of funds has spread out among readers. In a way, we’re all the Xeric Foundation now.

21 July 2011

Male and Female Storytelling Energies?

Last week, in a discussion on Facebook of whether Harry Potter is a feminist saga (prompted by this essay), author Bruce Coville shared some interesting thoughts about what defines a “boy book”:
It's not the gender, it's the energy. I've spent a couple of decades thinking about this, in no small part because of the reaction to MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN. This is a book I wrote first person female, yet it is still considered a "boy's book." I cracked my brain over this for a long time, and in the end I came to the conclusion that it's about the "storytelling energy" of a story. . . .

The very best (and most successful) books partake equallly of male storytelling energy (action!) and female storytelling energy (relationship).

Jo Rowling merges them seamlessly.
Coville has been talking about that blend for years, which is why I feel comfortable quoting his Facebook comments.

I think gender roles are one of the areas in which Rowling’s execution actually undercuts the values on the surface of her books. But Coville is correct about the types of energy she’s combined in her story, whether or not those are intrinsically male and female.

20 July 2011

Building on Sand

This is one of Eric Wilbur’s photographs for the Boston Globe of this month’s sand-sculpting contest at Revere Beach. I was struck by how many of this year’s entries had large arches, tunnels, and other hollow (or cantilevered) structures in their designs.

The Sandscapes team says:
Wherever we go we invariably hear someone in the crowd say that the "Big Secret" is: sugar water, hairspray, unicorn tears or Mountain Dew. Other than attracting every ant within five miles and throwing piles of cash out the window these magic additives would accomplish little, if anything. . . .

In a word the big secret is "friction". More specifically, the sum total of all friction between the grains acting on each other. This is why compaction is so important. When you compact sand you increase the friction between the grains.

Uncompacted sand has relatively large pore spaces between the grains but compacted sand shrinks these spaces increasing points of contact between the individual grains and thereby increasing the friction between them. The more friction there is, the more resistant the grains are to separation.
While that article pooh-poohs the importance of the surface tension of water within the sand matrix, NASA says that’s definitely a force in how sand castles stick together.
Damp sand sticks together because water forms little grain-to-grain bridges. Surface tension--the same force that lets some insects walk on the surface of a pond--acts like rubberbands between the grains. Adding water to damp sand fills spaces between the grains. The bridges vanish and the sand begins to flow more easily.
In sum, there’s an equilibrium state between wet and dry, which probably varies for a particular form of sand. The sand at Revere Beach might be particularly well suited for this type of sculpture.

19 July 2011

“Follow the Yellow Brick Road” as an Earworm

Conversations at the recent Winkie Convention made me resolve to post something Ozzy on every Tuesday, at least, in order to justify this blog’s name.

So this is a detail from a Malaysian advertisement for Penguin audiobooks, featured at Ads of the World and elsewhere.

The artist got the characters of Dorothy’s companions quite right, though they’re marching toward the Gale farmhouse rather than away. Dorothy looks more like Alice than usual.

As for what this version’s road of yellow brick is made of, I don’t want to think about it. (Simren Deogun saw another part of the human anatomy in this campaign.)

18 July 2011

Don’t Let the Sidekick Drive the Steamroller

Silver Age Comics just featured this cover by Alex Schomburg from Exciting Comics, #35, published in October 1944. Even for wartime, it seems extreme.

The Black Terror was a mild-mannered pharmacist who developed superpowers after breathing a pharmaceutical concoction mixed with formic acid. His young sidekick started as his gofer, and then inhaled the same chemicals with the same result. That teen crime-fighter’s name was…Tim.

“Black Tim”? “Terrible Tim”? “Tim to Make Criminals Think They’ve Figured Out His Real Name But It’s Actually Something Else”? No, just Tim. The Black Terror and…Tim.

The Black Terror appeared in over a hundred magazines published by the Nedor company, whose properties fell into the public domain. So reuses are as legal as parodies, and the Black Terror has popped up repeatedly in the last few decades (almost always without Tim, or a steamroller).

17 July 2011

“The whole thing about her being Robin, was simply a trick”?

The comic book gossip website Bleeding Cool just highlighted a video from a New Zealand writers’ convention in which Batgirl scripter Dylan Horrocks shared his perspective on the Batman: War Games crossover of 2004-05.

In particular, Horrocks spoke about the death of Stephanie Brown, who had entered the Batman saga years before as a teen crime-fighter named Spoiler:
It was one of the most depressing weeks of my life, because we basically spent the whole week in this horrible office planning how to kill this poor teenage girl who I really liked. I thought she was a great character and she was one of the few friends that my character had, and I tell you the whole thing about her being Robin, was simply a trick.

The whole way through it was planned purely as a trick to play on the readers, that we would fool them into thinking that the big event was that Stephanie Brown would become Robin but we knew all along it was a temporary thing, and she was then going to die at the end of this crossover story.

It was really seedy, and I think about two days into it, I basically said look, I don’t want… because they planned this big long torture scene, I said I don’t want to really have anything to do with that. . . .

So when there was that big online debate about Stephanie Brown’s death I felt kind of really pleased and vindicated, and the other person who I think was probably happy about that but I don’t think she’s ever said so in interviews was Devin Grayson who was writing Nightwing at the time… she raised several issues during this meeting, she was one of the other writers in the meeting who said how come we’re always killing off the girls, and also how come we’re killing off the ethnic characters, there was a lot of debate in that meeting, well ultimately it all came down to this is what we’re going to do.
Another of the scripters in that conversation was Bill Willingham, then writing Robin. In 2005 he talked about suggesting that Stephanie Brown become the Teen Wonder:
The death of Spoiler was locked in before I was asked to take over the series, but it was my idea to let her become Robin for a short time before that. My thinking is that it would be nice to give her at least one moment of glory, accomplishment and success, before all of those horrible things that were destined to happen to her.
Thus, Stephanie’s death was long part of the company’s thinking, probably as part of a plan for Tim Drake’s maturation. Her becoming Robin was a later addition.

Horrocks’s perception of the storyline was: “we would fool them into thinking that the big event was that Stephanie Brown would become Robin.” Yet the new Robin debuted in several magazines that preceded War Games (many collected as War Drums). Readers knew that there would be another “big event” in the much-hyped crossover.

Did DC Comics raise the hopes of Stephanie’s fans by making her Batman’s sidekick? Certainly. Did they set up the progressive situation of a female Robin, only to snatch it away? No doubt. Was that in itself a “trick”? Not, I think, within the context of the genre.

Sudden narrative reversals have long been an integral part of superhero storytelling. The genre is designed to produce a roller-coaster ride for readers, with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory and vice versa. That’s why young acrobat Dick Grayson fell down so much. In recent decades, the low points of those rides have included the sudden deaths of major characters, even the most prominent.

At the 2004 Comic-Con, DC’s editorial and writing team promised just such a ride in War Games. While keeping tight-lipped about specific plot points, editor Bob Schreck said, “There’s stuff that's going to go on that’s going to aggravate people, hopefully in good way. . . . There’s going to be blood.”

Some savvy (or cynical) readers foresaw what would happen. In July 2004, before he became “Grumpy Old Fan” at Newsarama and Robot6, Tom Bondurant wrote:
Readers could be forgiven for any cynicism at this development. After all, this was the third Robin in twenty years. Besides, DC would never let Robin stay a girl — they’d have to crank out a whole new set of action figures, for one thing. (Female Robins had shown up in The Dark Knight [Returns] and other alternate-history stories, but never before in the “real” books.) For 64 years, in the comics, on TV, and in the movies, Robin has been a dark-haired boy, not a blonde. Changing the costume, as DC did with Tim in 1990, was one thing, but changing gender was something entirely different. Furthermore, DC is cranking up for a major storyline involving Gotham City gang wars, and promising carnage — and Stephanie would be a bigger casualty as Robin than as Spoiler. The whole thing smelled of marketing. . . .

I don’t hate Stephanie, but I can’t see her staying Robin for very long; so it looks like the wait is on for Tim’s comeback.
A clear sign of DC’s lack of commitment to Stephanie as Robin appears on the cover of Detective Comics, #796, the only issue of the two main Batman books to show her in the Robin costume before her death. “Batman & Robin… Together Again?” it asked. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, or a promise of a long partnership.

COMING UP: But it turned out that the trick was on DC.

16 July 2011

Da Poof from Chudney Patterson

These panels come from “A Day in the Life of Chudney,” a one-page comic by sixteen-year-old Chudney Patterson which just won grand prize in a contest for young cartoonists sponsored by author-illustrator Jeff Kinney.

As School Library Journal explains, the contest also brought a prize for Patterson’s school library in New Jersey, which has suffered major budget cuts. Apparently Patterson felt that keenly as the daughter of a librarian.

In the panels above, the character of Chudney explains her art with a superhero metaphor:
When I draw, I am DA POOF! Able to fly at the speed of light and headbutt my enemies. I am AWESOME!

I even make little comics for my friends, trying to make them laugh.
So now young American women are winning the comics contests, the national science fairs, the World Cup semis. Not to mention the usual spelling bee. Do teen-aged boys need to step up their game?

15 July 2011

Out Coming Out

And speaking of Oz books for adults, the Boston Globe let loose with some details about Gregory Maguire’s next novel:

Concord writer Gregory Maguire has announced that he’ll release a book this fall that draws the curtain on his highly popular “Wicked [Years]” series. “Out of Oz,” which hits shelves Nov. 1, was mostly written at Maguire’s home in Concord, where he lives with his husband, painter Andy Newman, and their three kids.

The book weighs in at 550 pages and will contain three maps of Maguire’s Oz universe. The author told us today that he kept this last book under wraps during much of the writing process, just in case it didn’t work out—or he changed his mind. He also told us that he named the book before writing it, and that the title is a nod to “Out of Africa,” as well as an announcement of the end of the series, which spawned 1995’s “Wicked,” 2005’s “Son of a Witch,” and 2008’s “A Lion Among Men.”

“Look folks,” Maguire told us, with a laugh, “I’m out of here. I’m done.” He promises that the last book will keep Oz as it has been in his other novels—a gritty, political, sexual place where magic is possible. “People actually go to the bathroom,” he said, of his Oz. “There is sexual dysfunction.” He added that “Out of Oz” is as close to “Gone With the Wind” as a “Wicked” book can get.
Maguire dropped a couple of details in April 2010 to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but the novel could have evolved greatly since then.

Other sources have told me that Out of Oz focuses on the Wicked Years version of Dorothy Gale. Tonight I heard that she’s quite unpopular among fans who identify with Elphaba, even though Wicked followed the MGM movie’s portrayal of her as wetting the witch accidentally rather than out of anger.

14 July 2011

Heil Ozma

The Daily Ozmapolitan unearthed this story from the Hays (Kansas) Daily Times about a new novel: Adolf Hitler in Oz, by Sam Sackett.
"It is an Oz Book, so it is a children's book, but it isn't for children," Sackett said. "It doesn't have sex or anything in it, but it deals with philosophical themes, political themes and psychological themes. All of this could be completely lost on a kid."

In the book, Hitler rallies portions of the Oz population to his side. After becoming the Reichschancellor of Oogaboo, he turns its people into a military unit. He incorporates the people of Runnymead, who like to run, into his Panzer unit and incorporates the winged monkeys into his Luftwaffe division.

"He has a pretty formidable army for Oz by the time he gets to the Emerald City," Sackett said.
The fictional Hitler’s minions also include Laurel and Hardy.

Is this the work of some juvenile whippersnapper who doesn’t understand Hitler’s symbolic weight (not to mention Laurel and Hardy’s)? Actually, Sackett is a retired professor. His article “The Utopia of Oz,” published in The Georgia Review in 1960, was one of the earliest academic studies of the Oz mythos.

Sackett has built his story on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, not the MGM movie. He published through Xlibris, so the sample chapter is our best clue to the book’s entertainment value.

12 July 2011

“Oz Comics Today” Two Days Ago

Last weekend I traveled to the Monterey Peninsula for the 2011 Winkie Convention, a gathering of Wizard of Oz fans from the western US and elsewhere. One attendee came from Australia, so my cross-country journey wasn’t the longest.

At the convention I moderated a panel discussion on “Oz Comics Today,” shown above. The panelists were three writers of comic books being published now:
Since I think comics discussions work best with both words and pictures, I used the screen behind us to show pages from the panelists’ work. Each writer then explained how he had conceived those pages and how they had developed.

We then discussed many parts of the intersection of Oz and comics, from the first Oz comics people remember and what sort of clothes Button-Bright should wear to whether a grown-up Dorothy Gale should wear any clothes at all (i.e., Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls). Great panelists, good audience, lots of fun.

10 July 2011

Weekly Robin Robinson Edition

This spring the National Cartoonists Society was in town, and Jerry Robinson, principal creator of Robin, did a signing at Comicopia. I got his autograph in a copy of Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s, the book where I first saw his art (uncredited, of course), and in N. Christopher Crouch’s illustrated biography, Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics.

I’ve written about how at Oz conventions I ask men who played Munchkins in the MGM Wizard of Oz about their experience of World War II. The surviving performers were in their teens or early twenties back in 1938 during filming, and thus of military age during the war. But their height made them ineligible for military service. That question has prompted stories of piloting planes for the Civil Air Patrol, putting one’s small size to work repairing planes, and working on a farm.

I knew that when Jerry Robinson met Bob Kane in 1939, he was about to start college, meaning he was the same age as those former Munchkins. So I asked Robinson about his wartime experience. He shared an anecdote that isn’t in the book, so I’m setting it down in pixels for posterity’s sake.

Robinson was in Florida when he received an invitation from his draft board back in New York City to report for a physical. Not the sort of invitation a man could ignore. And since he’d already had two exams and been rejected for low weight and poor vision, Robinson figured things might be looking desperate for the Allies.

He found a plane headed back to New York. During the war, he said, it was tough to find regular flights, but a lot of small operators jumped in to fill the gaps—guys who might own one airplane.

Without other options, Robinson got on a plane with seats for six passengers. But his seat wasn’t in the cabin. The pilot asked him to sit in the co-pilot’s seat and hold the maps, looking out the window for landmarks to keep the flight on course.

After several hours Robinson landed, having had a rare perspective on America’s East Coast. He reported to his draft board for his third physical—only to be rejected for bad vision.

Of course, Robinson was then making his living as a visual artist, and had just managed to navigate from Florida to New York by sight. But the ocular requirements for a rifleman must have been tougher.

The doctor told Robinson (and this punch line is in the book), “Look, son, we’ll call you when the Nazis get to Fourteenth Street.”

09 July 2011

Call for Responses to “Crisis and Response”

Red Sun Press in Boston has issued a call for entries in “Crisis and Response,” a juried exhibition mounted for Jamaica Plain Open Studios on 24-25 September 2011.

The call says:
In the midst of unprecedented and grave problems in the world around us, artists and communities are responding with new, urgent energy. Whether raging out loud or searching deeply inward, our muses are rising to the challenge of turbulent geopolitical, economic, and environmental crises. Red Sun Press invites submissions of work for a show addressing the critical problems of our day and how we perceive, confront, rationalize or reject them.
Submit up to 5 pieces for consideration. Two-dimensional work only. Maximum size: 3' in either dimension. Email to mosborn@redsunpress.com. Please keep file size to 1 MB each. Emails must include:
  • Artist’s name, address, phone and email.
  • A brief artist statement on the political significance of the work.
  • A list of digital images submitted. List titles, mediums and sizes of work.
The deadline for submissions is Thursday, 1 September, at 5:00 pm. “All accepted entrants will receive a quantity of free printed postcards of their artwork from the exhibit.”

06 July 2011

Oh, This Will Go Well

See the whole story from J. Caleb Mozzocco at Every Day Is Like Wednesday.

05 July 2011

“They don’t feel smart enough to be on our panels”

From Rose Fox at Genreville:

I’ve been putting together the program for Readercon, and I was entirely shocked when two women we invited told me they don’t feel smart enough to be on our panels. I’ve never heard anything like that from a man. [EDIT: A woman has emailed me to say she heard a man once say "Readercon is where I go to feel stupid"--though I wouldn't classify that the same way as withdrawing from the program.]

I’m also pretty sure I received more “may I be on your program?” requests from men than from women (I’ll try to remember to keep statistics next year). It’s pretty well known that that sort of behavior is socially gendered.

I would not be at all surprised if female authors are more likely to self-sabotage by saying “I’m not good enough to be in this anthology” or “I don’t have anything that works for this” or “I can’t write in that genre”, while men might be more likely to send in a story that’s a little off-topic, or send something unsolicited even if the anthology is supposedly closed to submissions.
This particular discussion involves the world of science fiction, and its awards and anthologies. The situation is probably different in other literary genres; as one example, as Fox quotes Liz Williams, “in urban fantasy…women do seem to be on strong ground.” (According to Library Journal in 2008, “Contemporary urban fantasy started as an offshoot of horror fiction rather than sf/fantasy but has blended with other genres, most notably romance and mystery.”)

04 July 2011

The First Avenger Overseas

The New York Times reported somewhat surprising news about the marketing of the new Captain America movie:
Marvel and Paramount Pictures, which is distributing "Captain America: The First Avenger," figured they would simply release the film as the truncated "The First Avenger" in foreign countries. But in a surprise, Paramount's overseas operation objected, arguing that Captain America had too much brand value, even in spots like France that are leery of embracing Team America too readily. . . .

In the end, the studios decided that Captain America would keep his name in all but three countries: Russia, Ukraine and South Korea. 
Ironically, this movie is set during World War 2, when the US and USSR were allies. There are tales of Captain America fighting against the Nazis alongside the Soviet Army. Of course, the 1950s version of the character was anti-communist, but those years were officially written out of Steve Rogers’s life story when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revived the character in early 1964.

Since that resurrection, Captain America has usually represented the struggle between America’s high ideals and the realities of our culture and foreign policy. He’s not just chest-beating; sometimes he’s proud and sometimes he’s embarrassed for us all. I suspect Europe respected that idealism.

I’m still surprised about South Korea, though.

03 July 2011

Inheritance and the Edges of Fanfiction

Inheritance, by Devin Grayson, is a novel about the relationships among three older DC heroes—Batman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman—and their three grown-up sidekicks—Nightwing (formerly Robin), Arsenal (formerly Speedy), and Tempest (formerly Aqualad).

It’s not a very good novel. The prose is pulpy in the way that some comics writers fall into when they can finally stretch out in prose after years of minimizing their word count, but forget they don’t have to spell out emotions and symbolism. The ending is hurried, hinting that a deadline or maximum length suddenly reared up. And of course the story can’t really resolve the issues it brings up because they’re the fuel for further stories about the same characters.

What makes Inheritance stand out from DC Comics’s other prose publications is how it acknowledges its characters’ potential sexuality, the subtext that writers and readers of “slash” fanfiction like to highlight. Oh, all right, one little taste:
A few paces ahead, Aquaman had caught up with Green Arrow.

“Your boy’s looking good,” he commented, both because it was true and because he was making an effort to honor the role he had assumed as Green Arrow’s chief entertainment.

“Yeah, he is, isn’t he?” Ollie sounded pleased. “That kid’s always been a looker. They all are. No wonder people like to speculate.”

Arthur frowned slightly as Ollie laughed. “I meant he looked healthy,” Arthur clarified.

“Oh, yeah.” Ollie was undaunted. “I meant the hero-sidekick thing, how everyone assumes we’re doing dirty things with these gorgeous kids in the—”

Arthur used his most regally authoritative voice to cut his friend off. “I know what you meant.”

“You never got that as much. Guess the whole breathing underwater thing is freaky enough. But Bats, man! Well, look at that kid, no wonder.”
(Oh, I itch to edit that passage. To move Arthur’s interruption to right after the em-dash where it belongs, for starters. But I digress.)

Soon after Inheritance was published in 2006, Graeme McMillan at Newsarama noted the surfaced subtext, and GalleyCat interviewed Grayson about the story behind the story.
she’s careful to point out that Inheritance is about father/son dynamics, not gay culture. “But are the characters in Inheritance aware of gay culture?” she asks rhetorically. “Sure. And they get to joke about it, just like I, as the narrator, get to joke about it. I’m joking with the reader, the characters are joking with each other.”

Grayson says DC knows her well enough by now to know what she’s doing, “and they seem to enjoy it.” They’ve asked for changes in previous stories, but Inheritance went through without any complications.
The book continues to produce a strange reaction from fans of its characters. Some of those readers simply aren’t “slash” fans. But others are. One widely noted reaction came from Maelithil:
I'm on page 60 and have had to leave the room to scream into a pillow. Repeatedly. . . .

I've reached the phase wherein I'm too embarrassed to continue, and too curious to stop. It's too rich to be subtextual porn, it's too laden with innuendo to be textual and serious.
And that from a blogger whose userpic says, “Batman was only defeated once and that was by Dick Grayson’s thighs.”

Recently Discowing’s postings on Tumblr hinted at the same open-mouthed shock, despite his being quite comfortable with “slash” art.

Inheritance is far less sexual than many stories (and I use that term loosely) we could read on the internet anytime. So why does it produce such gasps and squeals? It’s not the content, I think; it’s the origin of the object. This book comes from DC Comics itself. It’s “official,” and that carries certain expectations and standards.

The fan reaction reminds me of how teenagers can take pride in talking dirty to each other, but feel incredibly embarrassed at the thought of their own parents having sex.

01 July 2011

Reviewing the Revolution in New Children’s Books

Over at Boston 1775, I detailed my disappointment in the picture-book biography Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot, by Anita Silvey and Wendell Minor.

All of Minor’s paintings are handsome and evocative. But I can’t recommend the book because the text contains too many errors and exaggerations. Some of those mistakes appear in popular biographies of Knox, such as the notion that the heavy cannon from Fort Ticonderoga were “all the working artillery of the Continental Army.” But others I can’t find any support for.
I also took note of how Steve Sheinkin’s The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery, which I haven’t read yet, has won a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award.

Peeking in on Kirby and Lee

HiLoBrow just published Rob Steibel’s analysis of an original page from Fantastic Four, #63, that preserves handwritten notes and revisions by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

I was especially interested by Steibel’s comments on changes made after Kirby had drawn the page, Lee had scripted the dialogue, Sam Rosen had lettered the balloons and captions, and Joe Sinnott had inked the art. The page came back to Lee as editor-in-chief, and he ordered further changes in house.

About one panel Steibel writes:
look closely at the word balloon in the top left corner — you can see all the dialogue has been covered in white-out, and replaced with the text written in the small circle right above the change. Those notes are in Stan Lee’s handwriting. This is obviously a change made at the very end of the process.
Lee must have rethought that bit of dialogue, though it’s not clear why.

There’s a more subtle change in another panel: Lee asked for more space between two word balloons coming from the same character. As Steibel suggests, “Lee may have felt there was too much blank space above the character Blastaar, and this revision made the image more balanced.” I think Lee also wanted more space to symbolize a gap in time between the speeches in the two balloons; that gap offers Blastaar the opening to do his blasting.

Lee also had an in-house artist fix how Blastaar shot explosions from his fingertips. Steibel notes:
Lee writes in the margins in the second circle, “More speed lines,” which you can clearly see were added to the image because they are fairly shaky, once again, much different than Sinnott’s impeccable line-work.
This documentary record bears out Lee’s recent testimony about how he worked with Kirby, which in turn is consistent with his past statements. He cultivated the image of a blowhard, but he was an honest blowhard.