30 August 2011

Elementary Adaptations of Oz

Back in March, Blair Frodelius’s Daily Ozmapolitan noted an article in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette about the St. Joseph Central Elementary School’s unusual adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
A witch made an appearance, as in most versions, but this rendition included cameos by aliens, pilgrims and a time machine.

After 13 weeks of preparation, the students were finally ready for their regional Destination ImagiNation competition, which took place last weekend in Bourbon. About 50 students from St. Joseph Central participated in the event, which challenged students to use critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. Winners will go on to the state championship in April.

St. Joseph Central had several teams participate in different events. Eleven-year-old Katelyn Kiernan and her teammates were involved in the “Triple Take Road Show” portion of the competition, which focused on fine arts.

The students had to tell “The Wizard of Oz” three different ways to three different audiences and come up with inventive ways of getting from one audience to the next (hence the time machine).
It makes sense to use The Wizard of Oz in an exercise like this because the core story is so elemental to begin with and so well known in America. I’ve seen American community college writing teachers speak about The Wizard of Oz as the only example of a plot all their students recognize.

That said, I still have trouble understanding the innovation in Wizard of Oz stage plays shown in the photo above, from Annaghmore Primary School in Northern Island: dancing skeletons in Oz. They seem to show up most often in school productions outside the US, where people don’t feel they have to be so faithful to the 1939 movie.

These are part of an adaptation commissioned by the St. Louis Municipal Opera in 1942, which uses the E. Y. Harburg/Harold Arlen score and a few more numbers, such as “Ghost Dance.” The skeletons stand in for the Flying Monkeys, which I suppose are harder to depict outside of a movie screen—though half of my own stage debut in second grade was as the Monkey Who Grabs Toto.

28 August 2011

“Bressler’s breathing into his mouth”

The last weekly Robin was all about the Dynamic Duo demonstrating the Heimlich maneuver on national television, and how that cartoon might have saved a Minnesota child’s life.

This week shows an example of an early Batman comic showing how not to resuscitate a child.

The artists have obviously worked hard to hide the sight of Officer Bressler giving “the breath of life” to the injured kid. First they positioned one of several Gothamites-with-hats in the way, and then they moved in the Boy Wonder. DC Comics must not have wanted to show mouth-to-mouth contact between males, even in an emergency.

The “Pulmotors” mentioned in the first panel would have solved that problem. Sold to American emergency services by the Dräger company starting in 1907, they were high-tech devices to aid respiration.
Pulmotors had a crank and everything. But somehow that photo lacks drama.

As this essay appears, I’m starting a trip that will eventually take me to London. The next weekly Robin will be a report on Batman Live, unless I still need resuscitating.

26 August 2011

One Never Knows, Do One?

PBS’s website is displaying an interview from Scientific American with James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas:

In the 1980s, my students and I discovered that if people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved. Apparently, putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. In an attempt to better understand the power of writing, we developed a computerized text analysis program to determine how language use might predict later health improvements. In other words, I wanted to find if there was a healthy way to write.

Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that the ways people used pronouns in their essays predicted whose health would improve the most. Specifically, those people who benefited the most from writing changed in their pronoun use from one essay to another. Pronouns were reflecting people's abilities to change perspective.
Of course, correlation doesn’t indicate causation—Pennebaker’s analysis suggests that changing how one uses pronouns wouldn’t lead to better health because what matters is an underlying ability. But who knows?

That first unexpected finding about pronouns and health outcomes led Pennebaker and his research team to investigate further using the same language-analysis tools. Further conclusions:

  • “men use articles more than women, when you might guess there'd be no difference. . . . Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words. To talk about concrete objects, you need concrete nouns which typically demand the use of articles.”
  • “We've compared the pronoun use of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets. Basically, poets who eventually commit suicide use I-words more than non-suicidal poets.”
  • “One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. . . . When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached — hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.”
  • “Several labs, including ours, have now conducted studies to evaluate the prospect of building a linguistic lie detector. The preliminary findings are promising. In controlled studies, we can catch lying about 67 percent of the time where 50 percent is chance. Humans, reading the same transcripts, only catch lying 53 percent of the time. This is actually quite impressive unless you are a person in the judicial system.”
  • “we can predict people's college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students’ major.”
This being an interview, it doesn’t come with statistics showing how close the correlations are, or sample size and limits. Still, it gives one pause to think.

25 August 2011

Blood, Toil, Sweat, and Tiers

Carol Burrell of Lerner Graphic Universe just offered a posting on comics page design that gave me cause to think:
  • “If we compare comics to prose, I like to think of a panel as a sentence.” Okay, that makes sense: a panel and a sentence are both discrete, complete units of a whole.
  • “A horizontal row of panels is called a tier. I like to think of the tier as a paragraph. Like a paragraph, it is a unifying element. The start a new paragraph is the start of new idea, it signals change. A new tier is also great opportunity to signal change.” In scripts I’ve been thinking in terms of pages; I don’t think I’ve gotten down to tiers. Burrell’s own SPQR Blues webcomic usually came in installments of a single tier each, suitable for assembling into pages, so it would be natural for her to approach those tiers as discrete and complete units, too.
  • “A big panel equals a big moment.” That’s basic, but can’t be repeated enough. Burrell offers some good visual examples (particularly from Scott McCloud) of how a big panel works alongside others.
  • “Creating a good page of comics, and then a good sequence of pages, is a bit like solving a puzzle.” I definitely agree with that.
In fact, envisioning a comics page seems more like doing a puzzle than telling stories in any other media I can think of. That’s because every few “sentences” and “paragraphs” have to fit together to fill a set amount of space—the page. They can’t take up less space than nearly the whole page; we feel cheated as readers if there’s too much blank. And panels can’t fill more than a page because paper doesn’t stretch. (Digital comics have more flexibility, of course.) So designing a comics page is like creating sentences and paragraphs and then playing Tetris with them.

24 August 2011

Jane Yolen: “The children don’t care about the politicians”

The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, just ran an interview with author Jane Yolen, prompted by her response to news that Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) had read a picture book she wrote at a public appearance. She expressed a hope that politicians like him would do more than just read to children while the cameras are on—that they would recognize the value and virtue of funding libraries, for instance.

Though Yolen is quite clear on her dislike and distrust of the “Tea Party” movement that (with his employer’s money) helped elect Johnson over Russ Feingold, I think it’s notable that she avoids easy potshots at the man’s approach to children’s literature:
CT: Did he seem to understand the moral of your story about the dinosaur correctly? (In my article I quote him telling children that they will make their parents very happy by following the "lessons" the dinosaur teaches them about cleaning up after themselves, putting their toys in neat rows, and not shoving dirty laundry to the back of drawers.)

JY: It is a book that is not just about manners, but as they say in Britain is also taking the micky out of regular manners books. The dinos in the books are really children who can be naughty and natural and charming at one and the same time. And their parents who still love them even when they have their moments of outrageousness.

CT: Is it exciting when celebrities or politicians read your books like this? Which others have done so?

JY: Not exciting at all. I'd rather the parents were reading to the children. Or the librarian. The children don't care about the politicians. . . .

CT: The senator said that he read "Curious George" books to his three children except that when his son [Johnson’s first two children were daughters] was four or five he started reading him the Wall Street Journal. Any comment about what could happen to a four-or five-year-old child raised on the Wall Street Journal?

JY: My youngest child's favorite book at that age was "Peterson's Bird Guide." Bird-watching with his father was his most passionate interest at the time. If you have a struggling reader, you go where the child is, not push books on them in which they have no interest. He's still a passionate birder and now an award-winning nature photographer.
Of course, that generous perspective was lost on some in the right wing, who can’t abide any criticism.

23 August 2011

Knitting Needles in Oz

The September/October 2011 issue of Piecework magazine (current link here, but it won’t last) has the theme of “needlework in literature.” Among the knitting and crochet patterns tied ever so gently to books is Joanna Johnson’s “Jinjur’s Jumper,” accompanied by an article on that character from L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz.

I’m sorry to say that Johnson’s dress pattern isn’t designed like the outfit that General Jinjur and her soldiers wore in John R. Neill’s illustrations, one of which accompanies the article and another of which appears below. Nonetheless, it’s rooted in Victorian style, pretty, and impressively seamless.

The magazine’s little model for that dress wears a knitting needle in her hair, as Jinjur’s soldiers did. They used those sharp sticks to attack men who tried to stop their conquest of Oz. But knitting needles proved no match for the spears and swords of Glinda’s army.

While Baum never shows Jinjur or her soldiers actually knitting, he depicts a number of other female characters doing so:
  • Mme. Grogrande in John Dough and the Cherub.
  • Grandmother Gnit (of course) of the Fuddlecumjigs in The Emerald City of Oz.
  • Trot’s mother in Sea Fairies and Sky Island.
  • Reera the Red, a reclusive and powerful magic-worker, in Glinda of Oz.
There’s something magical about knitting and crochet—taking a cord that seems one-dimensional and producing something two- or three-dimensional out of it.

Johnson’s article provides a brief introduction to Baum, his Oz books, and his support for women’s suffrage. It unfortunately repeats a myth that he and artist W. W. Denslow struggled to find a publisher for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: “nearly every publisher in Chicago refused the book initially because of its fantastic subject matter and extensive color plates, which were very expensive to print.” Really?

In fact, as Michael Patrick Hearn traces in The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Baum completed his first draft on 9 Oct 1899; he preserved his pencil with the date. By that time, Baum and Denslow’s Father Goose was a big hit, and the Geo. M. Hill Company had an option on their next book.

That small publisher asked the team to pay for the color plates and cover dies—not uncommon terms at the time. Baum and Denslow agreed, and they signed a publishing contract on 16 November. Less than six weeks passed between complete draft and contract, and I know of no evidence that the creators even spoke to other publishers.

21 August 2011

How Robin Saved a Life—Through Television

In one of Marc Tyler Nobleman’s interviews with people behind the Superfriends television cartoons of the 1970s and early 1980s, artist Darrell McNeil recalled a proud moment:
[A] girl in Ohio, I think, saved her sister from choking with [the Heimlich] maneuver, which she learned from watching Batman and Robin do it on All-New Super Friends. And since I did all the clean-up animation on that sequence (and took ribbing from my oversexed colleagues—especially Sandy Young; god, whatta mouth! LOL). Well, it’s one of the prouder moments of my career.
After diligent Googling, I found a passage from New Times magazine in 1978 which mentioned some footage about this topic:
In it there was an interview with a Minneapolis fourth-grader who had saved the life of a girlfriend choking on a piece of candy by employing something called the Heinlich [sic] maneuver. She testified that she had seen the technique on ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon show “Super-friends,” where Robin demonstrated it on Batman. The narrator mentioned many other examples of ABC’s educational and instructional value to children.
This is notable for two reasons.

First, the Heimlich maneuver, or abdominal thrust, was a new thing then—which is why New Times misspelled its advocate’s name. Dr. Henry Heimlich had published instructions in Emergency Medicine only in 1974. Until 1985, the American Heart Association and American Red Cross still recommended helping a person who’s choking by first slapping him on the back. (In 2006, the AHA returned to recommending backblows before abdominal thrusts.)

These days most Americans have been exposed to the Heimlich maneuver, but back in 1978 millions of people had probably never seen it before Superfriends. (I don’t recall this clip, but to this day I have a vivid memory of seeing Aquaman show how to get something out of your eye without rubbing.) So that clip might have contributed to saving more lives in the years that followed.

Second, ABC highlighted that story of a life being saved because back in 1978 the network was under pressure to increase the educational content of its programs for kids. That was around the high-water mark in American culture for the idea that the highest purpose of government was to help the unfortunate and vulnerable instead of to protect people’s existing advantages.

Under pressure from groups like Action for Children’s Television, the networks’ National Association of Broadcasters adopted limits on commercials and some content. They created short educational bits to slip in between the adventure cartoons, such as Schoolhouse Rock and, yes, Batman and Robin demonstrating the Heimlich maneuver. To fend off calls for stricter regulation, the network made a film highlighting “examples of ABC’s educational and instructional value,” as New Times reported.

Then Ronald Reagan was elected President, reflecting and accelerating a new view of government, as Daniel T. Rodgers discusses in The Age of Fracture. Rules were out; markets are in. The Superfriends stopped giving health advice, Schoolhouse Rock went off the air in 1985, and the Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987. In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, but without public pressure the networks didn’t try to seed educational content everywhere.

20 August 2011

“The gates of magic were open to everyone…”

This afternoon I happened to be thinking about how L. Frank Baum portrayed Dorothy in his Oz books as an “ordinary little girl,” not inherently magical or unlike her readers. Of course, if she got her hands on the Magic Belt, watch out!

That presents a world of possibility fundamentally different from what’s proffered in series like Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson. Those portray an innate, unbreachable divide between people who can work magic and those who can’t.

Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books depict a situation in between, a world where some people are have natural magical aptitude but—to the magicians’ dismay—“ordinary” humans can break the barrier.

This evening I found that novelist David Liss has been pondering the same issues in an essay at io9:
In my research, what I found most interesting was how common and ordinary magic was to people in the past. There was also dark and mysterious magic, which was part of a hidden world populated by unknowable beings, but mostly there was ordinary, routine magic that was incorporated into everyday life. It was part of this world and part of nature, and most people didn't trouble themselves too much with how or why it worked. That it did work was taken for granted.

In the past, people generally believed they could acquire magic in two ways: through learning the craft, either from another practitioner or from books; or through obtaining magic from a powerful being-think Faust or the classic, demonized witch, both of whom get their mojo from Satan. Anyone could learn magic as long as he or she had access to the knowledge or could make a connection with the right supernatural entity. The important point is that in theory, the gates of magic were open to everyone, and what I find most interesting is how that has changed in popular culture. . . .

Magic has gone from being an open system to a closed one. Their massive popularity make the Harry Potter novels and films the most glaring example, but it's everywhere, and has been for decades now: TV shows like Charmed and Wizards of Waverly Place, books like those of Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris. More often than not, magical practitioners are born, not made. Magic is an exclusive club. You can watch and be envious, but you can't join.

I can't prove it, but I strongly suspect the turning point is the TV show Bewitched.
Of course, that show was inspired by the 1942 film I Married a Witch, itself adapted from the novel The Passionate Witch, and the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle. All three use innate magic as a metaphor for the power a woman might sacrifice in marrying. The theme of innate, unobtainable powers has been around for a long time. What may be new is the dominance of one approach over others.

In response to Liss’s essay, Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress writes, “I wonder if a sense of biological magic also correlates to a sense of unease about how much power we have to impact our lives and to change the world”—by which she means how little power. Of course, kids fantasize about getting the call to Hogwarts or Camp Half-Breed, not being left behind.

18 August 2011

Does Your Book Have Enough Motion?

I was struck by this GalleyCat report on a web service called BookLamp that tries to do for reading what Pandora does for music: suggest what else you’d like based on what you’ve chosen in the past.

Pandora analyzes music according to what it calls “genes,” about 400 of them. What variables does BookLamp look at? According to GalleyCat, they’re:

  1. Motion: “Motion refers to the level of physical motion in a scene or book”.
  2. Description: “Description refers to the level of descriptive language that the author uses in his or her writing.”
  3. Pacing: “Pacing refers to the layout of the text on the page. A scene with high Pacing will have characteristics that quickly move the reader’s eye down the page.”
  4. Density: “Density refers to the complexity of the text. Text with high Density will take longer to read than a text of equal length with low density.”
  5. Dialog: “Dialog refers to the amount of spoken text between two or more characters in a scene.”
This reminds me of the old joke about the man looking for his keys under a lamppost not because he dropped them there but because the light was better. Are these really the metrics we use to choose books? Or are they just what a computer can easily measure?

When I checked out the BookLamp site and its underlying Book Genome project, I realized that there are a lot more variables involved. The five above seem to be part of what the creators call LanguageDNA. So the system seemed more promising.

I tried typing in Billy Bathgate as a novel I’ve liked. BookLamp suggested…another historical novel by E. L. Doctorow. I don’t think I needed software for that suggestion.

16 August 2011

Discovering Illustrator Frank Kramer

The latest issue of The Baum Bugle, the research journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club, is very impressive. Most of the content is former editor Atticus Gannaway’s study of Frank Kramer, illustrator of Jack Snow’s The Magical Mimics in Oz (1946) and The Shaggy Man of Oz (1949).

I won’t deny that this is a specialized topic: the work-for-hire illustrator of two of the least beloved later sequels in the Oz series, whose other art appeared mostly in pulp magazines and sports novels. But Atticus’s research is especially impressive because:
  • Very little was documented about Kramer before, even within fan circles. Basically, all the information we had came from Snow’s Who’s Who in Oz; though Snow was in the best position to know about Kramer’s career, he wasn’t thorough or reliable.
  • The articles assemble findings from many different approaches: archival research, interviews, analysis of illustrations, round-up of critical commentary. 
I was particularly struck by some behind-the-scenes details about how Kramer worked on his two Oz books. I hadn’t known that Magical Mimics was ready for publication a year or two before it appeared; wartime shortages caused the publisher, Reilly & Lee, to postpone it. That meant it took Snow even longer than I’d thought to finish a sequel (which he eventually did by borrowing a lot from L. Frank Baum’s John Dough and the Cherub, then out of print).

Jack Snow evidently found Kramer through the pulp magazines, a market both men were working. Snow thought Kramer’s line style and experience with out-of-this-world subjects meant he could stand in for longtime Oz illustrator John R. Neill, who had died in 1943. I think Kramer manages some impressive effects in his books (Atticus quotes my praise for one illustration), though I agree he didn’t give Snow’s child heroes any more life than Snow did.

Most surprising, the article shows that Reilly & Lee gave Snow instructions to pass on to Kramer. I’d never heard of a publisher working that way—usually they try to insulate the author and artist from each other. I guess that shows how pitifully Reilly & Lee was scraping along by the late 1940s.

Some people don’t like to know the commercial stories behind their favorite books, any more than they like watching laws or sausage being made. At least in my adulthood, I find that topic almost endlessly fascinating.

14 August 2011

Weekly Robin Super Friends Special

Over at Noblemania, Marc Tyler Nobleman has started to share a long series of interviews with people involved in the Super Friends (spellings vary) Saturday morning cartoons of the 1970s and early 1980s. Here’s the introduction.

I remember watching Challenge of the Super Friends with my brother, but it didn’t make a big impression on me. I saw a few episodes last summer with Godson and family, and realized why. It’s not a good show. The characterizations are flat, the action repetitive. Still, my brother and I watched it every Saturday, and so did the kids last summer.

The interviews help to explain. The writers had to work within rules that strictly limited action. Not just no hitting because of network content guidelines, but no more than one movement per shot—more would break the budget. The scripts showed practically no conflict within the Super Friends, and no glimpses of the heroes’ unmasked lives, leaving no interpersonal drama. It’s pretty impressive they were able to come up with stories at all.

Of all the voice actors cast in Super Friends, the one who became most famous was Casey Kasem, later host of a nationwide Top 40 countdown. He, of course, played Robin. The photo at top shows Kasem at a table read; it comes from Sydney Croskery, daughter of the late Danny Dark (one of the actors who voiced Superman), and was first published at Noblemania.

Kasem was a Hanna-Barbera regular, already playing Shaggy on Scooby Doo—quite a different personality. All the other voice actors interviewed so far remember him as a fun, friendly colleague.

How did Kasem get the job of Boy Wonder? Born in 1932, he was no longer young. Indeed, one of Marc’s recent interviewees, Mark L. Taylor, stated, “I remember always thinking how funny it was that Casey Kasem (Robin) was just as old or older than Adam West (Batman [or one of them]).”

So what made Hanna-Barbera look at their regular troupe and say, “Casey’s our Robin!”

My theory? The sweater vest.
These Super Friends postings are in turn a mere subset of Marc’s stock of upcoming interviews with people involved in other adaptations of DC comic books in popular entertainment [and I use that term loosely] of that decade. For example, Marc’s logged forty-four conversations with people involved in a superhero water-ski show at Sea World.

Marc Tyler Nobleman is the author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and a book on comics scripter Bill Finger scheduled for publication in 2012.

12 August 2011

It’s Birds! It’s Planes! It’s…Supermen!

Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes, 1936-1941 promises to fill gaps in “the origins and early development of superheroes and the comic book form.” Editor Greg Sadwoski has assembled an eye-catching collection of stories, magazine covers, and house ads showing unfamiliar faces from the first years of American adventures comics.

There are many familiar names, however. Sadowski appears to have sought out stories by creators who eventually found success with other characters: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Cole, Will Eisner, Bill Everett, Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby, among others. The collection includes two stories by the execrable Fletcher Hanks, who’s on his way to being the least deserving artist to have his entire oeuvre reprinted. My favorite item is the cover of Fantastic Comics, #3, by Eisner and Lou Fine.

Along the way there are a few landmarks in the development of the American superhero. We see the first caped flying hero (Zator, 1936), the first masked comic-book hero (the Clock, 1936), the first adolescent hero in cape and shorts (Dirk the Demon, 1938—two years before Robin).

But Supermen! is most interesting for what didn’t lead anywhere. All these comics are in the public domain, which of course makes them cheaper to republish. The book is thus a collection of failures—characters and storylines that didn’t attract enough readers to survive. There’s nothing from the firms that became DC and Marvel, and only a couple of items from M.L.J. before it found Archie. In the evolution of the American comic book, these are dead ends.

Seeing what didn’t work or become the norm can be as illuminating as seeing what did. For example, the field was already on its way to male domination when Al Bryant used the pen name “Allison Brant” for a horror story about “Fero, Planet Detective” in May 1940.

We can see publishers figuring out what sells. Silver Streak Comics’s first covers in late 1939 featured a villain—a sort of superhuman Fu Manchu named the Claw. By issue #3 the magazine showed off a hero named Silver Streak instead, and by issue #7 another new hero called Daredevil was fighting the Claw.

Several stories in this volume, especially the earliest, are space-opera science fiction, inspired by Buck Rogers (1928) and Flash Gordon (1934). Their heroes aren’t costumed crime-fighters, but square-jawed men with ordinary abilities in futuristic settings.

The earliest are chapters within continuing stories: the adventures of Dr. Mystic (1936), Dan Hastings (1937), and Cosmic Carson (1940) break off at cliffhangers rather than conclude with triumphs. Clearly, early comic-book publishers and creators were taking their cues from newspaper comics, with their ongoing adventures. But families had newspaper subscriptions, and municipal distribution networks were solid. In contrast, fledgling comic-book publishers probably couldn’t deliver the next installments so reliably, so readers gravitated toward magazines that told complete stories.

Now the industry’s gone back to stretching storylines out over several issues, a form of storytelling possible only because their readership has fallen and their distribution though comic-book shops is narrow but reliable.

11 August 2011

The Most Endangered Comma

As long as I’m talking commas, I should mention last month’s Twitterfuffle over the “Oxford comma” used before a conjunction in series, as in:

the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion
This punctuation is standard in most American book-publishing style guides but eschewed by newspapers, which prefer a minimal number of keystrokes. In the Great British Punctuation Shortage that followed World War 2, many British book publishers dropped the serial comma, with Oxford being one of the few institutional holdouts.

Last month an Oxford University Press memo on writing press releases told publicists to drop the comma in order to conform to journalistic style. This was reported on Twitter as the end of the Oxford comma, and there were several hours of mourning before the misunderstanding was corrected.

But the serial/Oxford comma is not the most endangered type, I believe. Rather, that’s the comma that sets off a term of direct address.

Back in 2006, Linda Lowenthal sounded the warning at Copyediting:
Just look at your e-mail messages: “Hi Linda,” most of mine begin, perhaps under the influence of the superficially similar let ter opener “Dear Linda.” But don’t blame e-mail, either: song, book, and movie titles from long before the Internet age are full of plain blank spaces before or after a name or the equivalent where we might think a comma should go. “Please Mr. Postman.” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Baby It’s You. Even Goodnight Moon.
The popular reading of “SURRENDER DOROTHY” that I discussed yesterday fits this pattern.

These commas vanish most common in informal writing, of course. Missing commas in direct address are almost a hallmark of online fanfiction. But the problem is creeping into more formal, edited types of prose. Readers, we must stop this travesty!

From The Writing Resource.

10 August 2011

The Wizard Will Explain It!

As long as I’m on the topic of this message from the MGM Wizard of Oz, how do you read this message grammatically?

The “SURRENDER” is an imperative verb, but to whom is it addressed? Most people seem to treat that as a message to Dorothy, which should have been punctuated as “SURRENDER, DOROTHY.”

Without the comma, “DOROTHY” becomes the object of the verb. The Witch’s message is therefore directed at the Wizard and the people of the Emerald City, telling them to turn Dorothy over to her.

Two additional facts about this moment in the movie, according to Aljean Harmetz’s Making of The Wizard of Oz:

  • A special-effects man wrote the message using a syringe filled with ink inside a tank of water, producing the effect of skywriting without the expense.
  • The message was originally “SURRENDER DOROTHY OR DIE, WWW”. But the movie’s editors realized that just the first two words made the message abundantly clear.
Or did it?

09 August 2011

Sarcasm for the Masses

Three years after Oz and Ends suggested using backslant (i.e., left-leaning italics) as a way to signal written sarcasm, Sartalics.com has take up the suggestion.

They offer links to an online petition.

Because those always have so much effect.

And a Twitter feed.
Since no one else has one of those.

More on proposed sarcasm indicators here and here.

Washington’s Surrender Message

The Washington Post columnist John Kelly recently wrote about the mystery of who painted “Surrender Dorothy” on a railroad bridge near the region’s palatial Mormon temple. The photo above shows how the message appeared from the 1970s to 2007; presently only the word “Surrender” survives, in what looks like a stencil rather than hand-lettering.

That graffito’s a comment on the temple’s architecture, which evidently reminds many people of the skyline of the Emerald City in the MGM Wizard of Oz. I don’t see a strong resemblance, but the spires are definitely striking and otherwordly.

Kelly couldn’t identify the artist in paint, but he did find a story of the first “Surrender Dorothy” message near the same spot, with letters made of rolled-up newspapers threaded through a chain-link fence.

In the fall of 1974, the senior class of Holy Child, a Catholic girls school in Potomac, visited the Mormon Temple before its dedication. To some, the building resembled the Emerald City. “The Wizard of Oz” might have been on their minds. It was going to be the school play that year. Almost immediately, a plan was hatched.

“We thought it was brilliant,” remembered Chris Brennan, Holy Child Class of 1975, “but being good girls we didn’t want to deface any property, so we came up with the idea to use wadded newspapers to spell out the letters.” . . .

Some time after midnight, the girls headed to the bridge. There were 13 girls in all. Each was responsible for at least one letter. The girls who finished the first letters then hurried to do the last letters. . . .

The next day, Montgomery Journal photographer Hoke Kempley happened upon the girls’ creation. On Oct. 31, 1974, his picture of it ran in the Journal under the headline, “Wicked Witch of the Beltway?”
The painted version evidently went up soon after the newspapers were taken down. Which suggests that a “Surrender Dorothy” message has been gracing the Beltway for more than half the time since that Wizard of Oz appeared in cinemas in 1939.

07 August 2011

Stephanie Brown’s “intrinsic importance to the Bat-verse”

Back when I discussed the second Jason Todd, I posited that death was the best thing that had ever happened to that character. Dying removed Jason from current Batman stories for fifteen years, but it solidified what he symbolized within the DC Comics mythos. It resolved the conflicting roles and personas that different writers had depicted in the preceding years.

Did the apparent death of the fourth Robin, Stephanie Brown, have the same effect? I don’t think so. Instead, it amplified the symbolic meaning she already had, which DC’s editors and many of its writers hadn’t recognized.

The development of the Stephanie Brown character began in 1966, when Batman writers created the Cluemaster as a stand-in for the Riddler when they wanted to tell a Riddler-type story (villain unaccountably leaves clues about his upcoming crimes for Batman to figure out). The Cluemaster was so generic that his last name was Brown.

In Detective Comics, #647, writer Chuck Dixon brought the Cluemaster out of character limbo, having cured himself of his compulsion to leave self-defeating clues. But someone else was revealing all his plans: a young woman calling herself the Spoiler! Tim Drake, rookie Robin, discovered that the Spoiler was a teen-aged blonde. Finally, Batman stopped the Cluemaster at a crucial moment by revealing that the Spoiler was the man’s own daughter, Stephanie.

In a 2008 interview with Comic Book Resources, Dixon said:
“Frankly, Spoiler began as a pure plot device and evolved, because of fan interest, into a romantic foil for Robin. I’m not really certain of her intrinsic importance to the Bat-verse other than the fact that she’s become a beloved supporting character.

“It’s also kind of cool that Robin has someone around his own age to run rooftops with,” laughed Dixon. “It’s sort of a male fantasy to find a girl who shares your hobby.”
Dixon and his editors thus used Stephanie as a supporting character in the Robin series—rooftop companion, romantic complication (Tim already had a girlfriend from his second miniseries), and source of valuable lessons about life.

For example, immediately after Robin and Spoiler officially became an item, in Robin, #58, Stephanie discovered she was pregnant by her previous boyfriend. That being a magazine about Robin, the subsequent action hinged on the question, What would Tim do? Because he’s mature for his age, and a natural hero, he found a way to help Stephanie through labor. Tim’s solution involved a skeevy alternate identity and help from the Flash getting back to Gotham, but he was there for her.
Then Stephanie put the baby up for adoption, and almost nothing more was said about it. (Except in fanfiction.)

Almost all of Stephanie’s subsequent storylines in Robin involved her dealing with another Horrible Burden: “My dad is a supervillain who brings his friends home with him!” “My mom is addicted to pills!” “I was sexually abused as a young girl!” Some readers complained that she was nothing more than a magnet for Afterschool Specials. Indeed, the PFS Bookclub even defines such a fictional archetype this way:
The Afterschool Special represents a character that is maimed, killed, or otherwise emotionally devastated for the purpose of another character learning a valuable lesson in life. The name comes from the television trope of the 80’s afterschool specials, which were designed to teach children life lessons. An example is Stephanie Brown, who was killed in battle to teach Robin that he bears a responsibility to protect the people.
Stephanie’s death in Batman: War Games thus simply extended an existing pattern.

That said, Stephanie played other roles in other DC magazines. When she interacted with Batman, she was mostly not-Tim-Drake: someone Bruce Wayne used to manipulate Tim while the Dynamic Duo was on the outs. When she interacted with Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, a preternaturally gifted martial artist unfamiliar with normal life, Stephanie was regular-girl.

What was common across all those appearances, and key to her character, was that things never came easy for Stephanie Brown. She wasn’t close to being as good an acrobat as Dick Grayson, a detective as Tim, or a fighter as Cassandra. In fact, by their high standards, she was close to incompetent—but only because she aimed so high from where she started.

Stephanie was from a working-class family; she didn’t have Bruce Wayne’s billions or Helena Bertinelli’s millions or Barbara Gordon’s technology. She sewed her own costumes and, most of the time apparently, secured her own equipment. She didn’t even have the independence of being an orphan; she was still hiding her crime-fighting life from her mother, and her occasionally returning father.

But Stephanie never gave up. In the context of Tim Drake’s story, and Bruce Wayne’s, that made her a complication to deal with. Her perseverance could get her in trouble (or, occasionally, get them out). In the context of her own story, that spunky quality made Stephanie Brown a hero. After all, no superheroes give up.

Stephanie’s death by torture in War Games fit right into the line of Horrible Burdens the character was saddled with. So did the apparent disrespect from Batman not installing a trophy case in her honor. And—this is where it gets interesting—so did the apparent disrespect of DC Comics, first using her as a sacrificial supporting character and then declaring “she was never really a Robin.”

Both within the fictional DC Universe and within the fan culture around that universe, Stephanie Brown came to symbolize someone who wasn’t getting any breaks.

And yet she, and her fans, never gave up. Stephanie came back from the dead—perhaps a little ahead of schedule. Even then, as the quotation from Dixon above shows, DC’s creative team still had trouble understanding her unique symbolism within the Batman mythos. But unwittingly they had created one for her.

In 2009 Stephanie Brown took over the role of Batgirl, for the first time becoming the title character of a magazine. A magazine which will soon be canceled because of sliding (though not disastrous) sales and the overall DC reboot. I’ve read some fun issues in that run, and look forward to reading the rest as collected. But I wonder if enjoying advantages at last—Barbara Gordon as committed mentor, advanced equipment, better training, official status within the Bat-family—washes out some of what’s made Stephanie Brown interesting and unique.

05 August 2011

Deink and de Paper

The latest Chemical and Engineering News reports on an unforeseen consequence of increased digital printing: getting new kinds of ink off paper in the recycling process. Amanda Yarnell’s article “Rethinking Deinking” provides the details, and here’s my précis.

Paper recycling has been designed around oily inks that float to the surface of a recycling tank and can be skimmed off. Toner in a typical black-and-white laser printer, photocopier, or digital book printer works much the same way. Wikipedia says this process is called “froth flotation.”

However, two newer types of inks cause different sorts of problems. Hewlett-Packard’s Indigo color presses use a liquid toner that can leave colored specks in the new paper. And “high-end ink-jet presses” use ink that’s soluble in water; it doesn’t float up to be skimmed away, but sticks around and makes the new paper a little bit grayer. There’s no way to identify paper that’s been printed with those inks and separate it from the rest.

The article goes on to discuss different ways chemical engineers are working on the problem. Does it require changing the inks? The paper? Or the whole deinking process?

(You remember when recycled paper was first fashionable, and manufacturers made sure it had visible little flecks so we could feel good about using it?)

04 August 2011

Fix This Stat, Stat!

Yesterday’s trend in the blog reader was recalculating statistics.

At the Purple Crayon, Harold Underdown dug for the sources of a statement in the latest Atlantic Monthly that the number of young adult titles published in 2009 was 30,000, ten times the number in 1997, and that their total sales exceeded $3 billion. Harold’s conclusions are that those statistics are based on:

  • confusing the revenue from sales of adult books with the revenue from sales of children’s and YA books.
  • treating all ISBNs issued in a year as a measure of new titles published, regardless of whether those codes were used on reprints or other editions rather than new titles, or not used at all.
  • combining novels published for teens with all other “Juvenile” titles, including picture books, novels for younger kids, nonfiction, and possibly even educational and library titles.
Roger Sutton at The Horn Book added some remarks, evidently based on the number of titles his magazine tracks.

The errors were spread out among the Atlantic article’s sources. That magazine’s writer was far from alone in struggling to find reliable statistics about trade book publishing because the industry does such a lousy job at tracking itself. Simply put, no one has any idea how many new children’s books are published in America each year, or how to consistently separate educational and library books from trade books, children’s from YA, new books from reprints.

Anyone who’s been watching American book publishing knows that there’s been a boom in YA titles, and that that category is one of the few bright spots of growth of recent years. But as for providing a handy, meaningful statistic reflecting that trend which will look good in a news article? Not a chance.

Over in the comics world, Vaneta Rogers at Newsarama examined the basis for a widely quoted complaint from one fan at the San Diego Comic-Con about the percentage of female creators at DC Comics dropping from 12% to 1% with its fall reboot:
The 12 percent number stems from a "gendercrunching" article by blogger Tim Hanley that was calculated from May's comics using all DC titles, including DCU, Vertigo, Johnny DC, video game tie-in comics and more. It counts editors, assistant editors, colorists, inkers and letterers along with writers, pencilers and cover artists.

In fact, if you look at Hanley's numbers, a large proportion of that percentage of females at DC are editors.

On the other hand, the 1 percent number from the same blogger does not include Vertigo or any other publication outside the 52 new DCU titles. The statistic counts only artists, writers and covers. No colorists. No letterers.

And no editors.
Newsarama did an apples-to-apples comparison of the writers, pencillers, inkers, and cover artists alone, and found that there was no statistically significant change. That’s because so few women filled those roles in both sampled months—five or fewer, and less than 10% of all contributors. The reboot that’s attracted fans’ attention and occasional ire doesn’t affect the long-term gender imbalance in superhero-comics publishing at all.

03 August 2011

O’Connor on the “Surgence”

I first encountered George O’Connor’s art when he illustrated some editions of L. Frank Baum’s lesser-known novels for Books of Wonder, his employer at the time. His cover art didn’t always convince me he’d read the books carefully, but the drawing for American Fairy Tales had definite personality.

Since then O’Connor has established himself in our two dominant forms of visual-verbal storytelling: picture books and comics. His Journey into Mohawk Country is an eye-opening and entertaining interpretation of a historical document, but his series on Greek gods seems to be bringing more sales.

Seven Imps recently ran an interview with O’Connor in which he talked about being able to find respect in the comics form:
I’m not sure “resurgence” is the term I’d use — it makes it sound as if graphic novels had previously reached this level and retreated. Like you said, they seem to be more popular than ever. They’ve moved into uncharted territory regarding their mainstream popularity and acceptance, particularly by librarians and teachers. Is “surgence” a word?

So, with that being said, I love it. I grew up always wanting to be a creator of both comics and picture books, but when the time came to try and break in to the business, I went for picture books first, because comics as a medium seemed to have a hard time being taken seriously. For so many years, the only way to make a viable living at it was to draw superhero books. (Not that there’s anything wrong with them.) Now, in incredibly short order (and I credit this largely to the teachers and librarians coming aboard), comics have blossomed into this amazing field that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible.
Longtime Oz and Ends readers may recall that I’ve attributed that change to Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me.

02 August 2011

Henry Darger as L. Frank Baum’s Literary Heir?

Earlier this year Steve Ahlquist, principal creator of the early-1990s Oz Squad comics, wrote at Forces of Geek about “outsider artist” Henry Darger as L. Frank Baum’s true literary heir.

Baum’s Oz books certainly inspired Darger (1892-1973). The photo at right (courtesy of Some Girls Wander) shows that at his death Darger owned four Baum Oz books and one by Ruth Plumly Thompson, plus some more that might be missing their spines.

Darger might even have been part of Baum’s original audience, having grown up in Chicago around the turn of the last century. However, he also had a poor childhood, ending in orphans’ homes, so he might not have been able to enjoy much reading.

Ahlquist writes:
When Baum died, the mantel of “Royal Historian of Oz” was passed to Ruth Plumly Thompson, a capable if uninspired writer too often given to formula and romance. Though she wrote under the L. Frank Baum byline [note: for only one book, The Royal Book of Oz], the stories she contributed to the series never lived up to the original 14 novels Baum produced. The magic, it seems, had gone out of Oz.

But not out of Darger. While Baum's publisher, Reilly and Lee, sought to promulgate the fiction that Ruth Plumly Thompson was somehow the Royal Historian, in truth that job would fall to Henry Darger. His dark visions charted the exploits of a new and more dangerous space in the meme world of children’s literature. No longer were we in the safe realms of children’s fantasy, we were in the realms of the unreal, where fantasy and horror abutted one another uneasily.

Darger wrote of Child slavery, child murder, and explored his own confusion about, violence, sex, identity, good and evil.
I think that this essay, in the quest for a provocative formulation, gives too much credit to Darger’s crazy fantasies. While Baum’s plotting could be haphazard, he at least had plots. Darger’s sprawling epic has little coherence and two endings. Baum’s strength was in creating characters and showing how they interact. Darger seems to have treated all his characters as nearly interchangeable little bodies, without personalities. He’s recognized primarily as a visual artist, even if he saw himself as illustrating a story. Most important, Baum knew he was writing for an audience of children.

As for sex, there’s much more of an undercurrent of that in Thompson’s Oz books than in Baum’s.

Also at Forces of Geek in March, Ahlquist shared material on his planned prequel to Oz Squad, and how he saw his version of Ozian history building on Baum’s series:
Dorothy and Ozma named their son Ozzy, and one day perhaps he will become King Ozzy I.

01 August 2011

Rewriting History for Laika

Back in 2008 I wrote about Nick Abadzis’s affecting and grim graphic novel Laika, arguing that it didn’t seem like a book meant for young readers despite being:

  • a dead-dog story.
  • in comics form.
  • picked up by a lot of Young Adult gatekeepers, part of a trend that convinced publisher First Second to stop trying so hard to issue graphic novels for adults.
In honor of Big Planet Comics’s 25th year in business in Washington, DC, Abadzis has created four alternative endings for Laika. One includes lots of “Kirby crackle” and allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Two more are straight alternative histories, on the small and large scale. And one borrows atomic-age superhero tropes to give us the ending we’d been hoping for.