30 September 2011

“Let’s blow their little minds.”

From Michael Chabon’s keynote speech at the 2004 Eisner Awards, about what comics for kids should be:

Let’s blow their little minds. A mind is not blown, in spite of whatever Hollywood seems to teach, merely by action sequences, things exploding, thrilling planetscapes, wild bursts of speed. Those are good things. But a mind is blown when something you always feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out to be far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything is connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge.
Of course, it helps if those little minds are twelve years old.

Full text of Chabon’s speech at The Comics Cube.

29 September 2011

A Tantalizing New Perspective on Tantalize

A lot of successful novels are being turned into comics these days—usually straightforward adaptations. Sometimes that change amplifies the book’s strengths (e.g., Artemis Fowl), and sometimes it dampens them (Bartimaeus, as I’ll discuss one day). Sometimes a comics spin-off is a slipshod effort to milk all the cash possible from a franchise.

The graphic adaptation of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize brings something new to the table. For this new format, Smith retold her novel, narrated by a teen-aged girl, from the point of view of a different character, that girl’s half-werewolf boyfriend—hence the comic’s subtitle, Kieren’s Story.

As Smith told Newsarama:

I wanted to give something new to the existing reader—new scenes, a new perspective. I also strongly felt that Kieren had a story to tell. In fact, he was the original protagonist in the earliest drafts of the prose novel.
In another interview, Smith admitted, “I switched to Quincie’s [point of view] in large part because I was intimidated by the idea of writing a novel from a male perspective.”

Smith scripted her adaptation like a screenplay, which provided an extra challenge, and extra freedom, for Ming Doyle, the artist whom the publisher brought onto the project. Comics scripts usually specify the page turns and number of panels per page, and thus the pacing of a story. Doyle had the job of breaking down Smith’s continuous action into those graphic units. She told Smith in an interview:
By reading the “stage directions,” there was a lot of room for me to flesh out actions in my head and decide how to arrange each page, instead of being bound by the more standard comic book script format of drawing the actions as they are described panel by panel. . . .

After reading the script through once to get a feel for the major story beats, I then went back and reread it with an eye for pacing, marking off where I thought each page should start and begin.

Making sure I had the exact right number of pages for publication was a little tricky, but once that was all figured out, I dived right in to digitally thumb-nailing the entire graphic novel, composing panels and distributing text and dialogue so I could see how the finished product might look.
I understand that Smith cut back on dialogue as she saw what Doyle was expressing in the art, and how much of that art a big word balloon could cover. The result is a collaboration aimed at getting the most from the graphics format.

Will a retelling in comics form also bring more young male readers to this series? Not only does Kieren’s Story have a male at the center, but its format emphasizes action and visuals, such as the hero’s partial transformations. Strangely enough, while some male teens would be wary of a book featuring a hunky guy in a tight T-shirt, the long traditions of mainstream American comic books mean that the same cover offers no worries as long as there are many more pictures of the same hunky guy inside.

Ming Doyle will be signing Tantalize: Kieren’s Story at 2:00 P.M. on Sunday, 2 October, at the Brookline Booksmith. Attendees can participate in a vampire/werewolf costume contest.

28 September 2011

Filling the Big Hole in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

Yesterday I quoted from Newsarama’s interview with Eric Shanower and Skottie Young about their new adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fourth Oz novel for Marvel Comics. Shanower also spoke of the narrative hole that Baum left in the plot of this book:
The main challenge of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz is the scene where Ozma rescues Dorothy and her friends. I don’t want to give anything away to those who don’t know the story. But this point is a major disappointment to a lot of readers, and I’m trying to finesse it so it works better in the story.

In this book and in several of the other Oz books Baum has actually supplied me with the details to make it work better, so I’m taking advantage of that. I admit, however, that while previous Marvel Oz comics were steadfastly true to Baum’s texts, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz will depart slightly from that practice because I’m trying to solve this plot problem that Baum left me with.
Eric and I have talked a bit about this challenge, and I look forward to seeing how he’s worked it out. I presented what I’d do in a 2008 centenary essay on the book in the International Wizard of Oz Club’s  Baum Bugle.

At the end of Ozma of Oz, Baum established that Ozma would use her Magic Picture once a week to make sure Dorothy was okay:
every Saturday morning Ozma would look at Dorothy in her magic picture, wherever the little girl might chance to be. And, if she saw Dorothy make a certain signal, then Ozma would know that the little Kansas girl wanted to revisit the Land of Oz, and by means of the Nome King’s magic belt would wish that she might instantly return.
As heedless of consistency as usual, Baum revised that arrangement in Dorothy and the Wizard to say that Ozma looks in on Dorothy every day at four o’clock. That allowed him to have Ozma pluck Dorothy from danger as soon as he ran out of ideas.

But what if the timing of Ozma’s checks was as originally described—once a week? Baum could have reminded readers of Dorothy’s arrangement early in Dorothy and the Wizard with a conversation like this:
“We won’t be down here with the Mangaboos forever,” Dorothy explained. “My friend Ozma looks for me ev’ry Saturday morning in her Magic Picture. This Saturday, I’ll give her my signal, and she’ll wish me out of here, and then I’ll ask her to bring you to the Em’rald City, too.”

Zeb frowned and looked around at the glass city. “It’s only Monday now.”

“And I don’t think these mangelwurzels will keep us around till Saturday,” grumbled Jim.

“Plus, how will you know when it’s the right time to signal?” asked Zeb. “The suns down here don’t work like the real one, up above.”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep track of the time,” said Dorothy. “Don’t you have a watch, Wizard?”

“I do,” said the old man, who had been looking most thoughtful since Dorothy mentioned Ozma. He pulled a big silver watch out of his vest pocket. “I’ll have to be very careful to keep this wound up and protected from shock, and to look for the right time to arrive.”
Such a conversation would prepare readers for the possibility of Ozma’s rescue. It would start a clock ticking—which adds tension to almost any plot. It would even fit with the themes of movement and time established in the book’s first line (“The train from ’Frisco was very late”).

Could Dorothy and her friends stay alive until Saturday? Could the Wizard track the days and hours correctly? Would Dorothy be able to send Ozma the signal at the right time? Imagine the travelers, say, stuck in a cave, waiting for Saturday morning to arrive at last, and hearing a mother dragon scrabbling through the tunnel behind them!

27 September 2011

The Darkness of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

Eric Shanower and Skottie Young have reached Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the fourth title, in their adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels for Marvel Comics. When Newsarama interviewed the team, Shanower spoke to the book’s “darkness”:
The villains introduced in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz are among Baum’s scariest. The Mangaboos, the underground vegetable people, are just creepy. The man-eating invisible bears are terrifying because you can’t tell whether one’s standing next to you ready to slash your guts out at any moment. The silent wooden Gargoyles are so alien—I can’t wait to see how Skottie draws them. . . .

To say that Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz is one of the darkest Oz books is no joke. The characters are in danger of imminent death in nearly every chapter. Baum’s evocation of the underground caverns they’re trapped in is oppressive. It’s weird and creepy, and those are reasons I love this book.
In an essay published in The Baum Bugle on the centenary of this book, I called Dorothy and the Wizard “one of Baum’s most breathlessly exciting fairy tales”:
The middle chapters, starting when the Mangaboos stuff the party into the Black Pit, resemble nothing so much as an action-filled videogame. Dorothy, the Wizard, and their friends run, jump, stab, and shoot their way up from one level to the next. Enemies become more formidable, the path harder to climb.
That essay also tabulated how often Dorothy and the Wizard uses forms of the words “die” and “kill”: 36 times. As early as chapter 2, during the earthquake, Baum tells us that young Dorothy and Zeb felt “the natural fear that sudden death was about to overtake them at any moment.” Chapter 4 ends with the Mangaboo prince saying, “Follow me, please, to meet your doom”—a powerful cliffhanger, but poor bedtime reading for small children. After being captured by the Gargoyles, Dorothy and her friends “expected nothing less than instant death.”

In his previous two Oz books, Baum had played down such talk; variations on the words “die” and “kill” appear only 13 times altogether in Ozma of Oz, for example. His young heroes in those books worry about being turned into statuary, not about being killed.

On the other hand, death hovers over the action in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. During that adventure, Dorothy and her companions end up killing two witches, two Kalidahs, a wildcat, forty wolves, forty crows, and a giant spider, plus uncounted bees. And the book uses the word “kill” 34 times. So one could argue that Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz was really a return to form.

26 September 2011

“Smart Comics for Kids” Recommendations from MICE 2011

Here’s a “takeaway” from Saturday’s “Smart Comics for Kids” panel at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Exposition.

The first question I asked was what comics the panelists had enjoyed as kids and think smart kids would still like today. Pretty much everyone in the room praised Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Beyond that, our experts singled out:

Near the end of the discussion, I asked what titles people would name as recommendations for kids now, particularly in the upcoming gift-giving season.

Robin Brenner:
  • Scott Chantler, Three Thieves series (Tower of Treasure and The Sign of the Black Rock) and Two Generals.
  • Matt Phelan’s nonfiction Around the World.
  • Shaun Tan’s wordless masterpiece The Arrival.
  • George O’Connor’s Olympians series.
  • Adventures in Cartooning by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost.
  • John Allison, Bad Machinery webcomic.

Jef Czekaj:
  • Gareth Hinds’s adaptations of classic western literature.
  • Jon Porcellino, Thoreau at Walden.
  • Tove Jansson, Moomin comics from the 1950s.

Colleen AF Venable:

Gareth Hinds:

Shelli Paroline:
  • Nearly anything by Roger Langridge, such as Snarked!, Thor the Mighty Avenger, and The Muppet Show series.
  • Dave Roman, Astronaut Elementary webcomic.
  • Takako Shimura, Wandering Son manga.
These recommendations range from funny stories for kids just learning to read to more serious material for teens and adults.

25 September 2011

“I could be Robin, but I didn't think I could be Batman”

As DC Comics wound down its first Batman series with issue #713, it turned to writing stalwart Fabian Nicieza to script a final story. I think Nicieza has a particularly good understanding of the place of Robin in the Batman mythos (i.e., he agrees with me on lots of points), so this was a good choice.

Comic Book Resources interviewed Nicieza about that story, and his fondness for Dick Grayson:
When I first came to this country [from Argentina], we watched the Batman TV series on ABC and I immediately got into the character. I don't know if it was the costume or the fact I felt I could be Robin, but I didn't think I could be Batman—same reason I thought I could be Chekhov but not Kirk! I don't know, it's dorky, but I always thought any kid in shorts and green pixie boots (have we mentioned he wore pixie boots?) who could hold his own up against Batman, much less all the villains in Gotham, was cool by me.
The tale Nicieza wrote is framed around Damian Wayne telling three younger boys a Grayson-centered history of Batman, at the same time sharing the valuable lessons he’s learned from being Robin.

The story reminded me a bit of “The Batman Nobody Knows” from 1973, also about boys telling each other stories of the legendary Batman. That tale is supposed show that children are too innocent to be scared of Batman like that cowardly, superstitious lot of criminals. (It actually shows the boys as jaded enough to quickly believe that millionaire bachelor Bruce Wayne likes to jump out at children on camping trips in a skin-tight costume and mask. But I digress.)

In Batman, #713, those three little boys are named Bob, Jerry, and Bill—obvious allusions to Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, and Bill Finger, the team that created Dick Grayson back in 1940.

Little Bill later talks about a story he’s going to write. Readers’ response to these kids seems to depend on their tolerance for schmaltz. But a “last” issue of a magazine published since 1940 might deserve a bit of schmaltz.

Do I read too much into the fact that the Bob Kane analogue is a step behind everyone else?

24 September 2011

We’ve Got MICE

Today I’ll be at MICE, moderating the “Smart Comics for Kids” panel at 12:15, welcoming people at 4:00, and enjoying the scene. It’s a free event, only a short walk from the Porter Square T station, with restaurants in the same building. Stop by and say hello!

23 September 2011

Paper-Making in Preparation for Halloween

The 2011 edition of the Boston Comics Roundtable’s horror anthology Hellbound is rumbling toward publication on Halloween. (Among the stories is one by me and Andy Wong.)

Last night I proofread pages for a deluxe edition scheduled for preview at tomorrow’s Massachusetts Independent Comics Exposition in Cambridge. (Free admission! 10:00 AM-6:00!)

That edition will appear as two volumes in a box, the volumes’ covers and the box produced from handmade paper of a particularly haunting mottled orange color.

Here’s a photographic report on the paper-making session that I participated in a few weeks back.  It was actually less messy than I feared.

22 September 2011

An Honor Just to Be Nominated

It turns out that the Harvard Book Store editors of the Minimum Paige comics anthology I wrote about yesterday awarded prizes to their favorite entries.

And it turns out Alex Cormack and I won second prize for our story, “Essex County Literary Wax Museum & Menagerie.” That story also opens the collection on a “literary” note.

The first-prize winner was writer-artist Robert Sergel for a two-page story called “Control.”

Third prize went to Lindsay Moore and Laurel Leake for “Amazons vs. Valkyries,” a wordless comic about sports and mythology which you can also read here.

And speaking of Amazons, I came away from the book’s launch party with a Wonder Woman figurine. (There were door prizes.) Alas, I didn’t get to see the Paige M. Gutenberg print-on-demand machine actually make a copy of the book.

21 September 2011

Working for Minimum Paige

Tomorrow the Harvard Book Store celebrates the publication of Minimum Paige, its first anthology of comics from around Massachusetts and the country.

Four of those pages are a horror story that I scripted and Alex Cormack drew and lettered, called “The Essex County Literary Wax Museum & Menagerie.”

Alex is also preparing that short story as a mini-comic to sell at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Exposition this weekend. He’s designing a cover, making copies, stapling—this is called “independent comics publishing.” (I offered to pay half the costs and haven’t done any of the physical work. This is called “the traditional publishing model” from the publisher’s perspective.)

20 September 2011

Dubious Monarchy in the Work of L. Frank Baum

Last week I discussed the penchant of children’s fantasy for depicting monarchies instead of other forms of government. Such books show bad rulers as a source of societal unhappiness, but usually portray the solution as installing or restoring good rulers rather than, say, establishing democratically chosen legislatures and respect for individual rights.

L. Frank Baum’s books fit this pattern, in that most of his little societies are monarchies and few are republics. The most famous, Oz, is a benevolent dictatorship, with young Princess Ozma owning all goods, maintaining a monopoly on magic, and with Glinda keeping tabs on everyone through their Great Book of Records and Magic Picture.

But Baum he also tends to poke fun at monarchies by lampooning how rulers come to power. In Queen Zixi of Ix, young Bud becomes king of Noland simply because he’s the 47th person to enter the capital city one day. Among the Pinks of Sky Island, the woman with the palest skin is made queen—but in return she has to live in the worst house.

Other rulers, good and bad, have taken on different titles. The boss of Flathead Mountain calls himself the Su-Dic, short for “Supreme Dictator.” The Boolooroo bosses the Blues on Sky Island. And the High Coco-Lorum of Thi explains in The Lost Princess of Oz:
“In reality, I am the King, but the people don’t know it. They think they rule themselves, but the fact is I have everything my own way. No one else knows anything about our laws, and so I make the laws to suit myself. If any oppose me, or question my acts, I tell them it’s the law, and that settles it. If I called myself King, however, and wore a crown and lived in royal state, the people would not like me, and might do me harm.”
Though Baum occasionally showed hereditary dynasties being restored (most notably in the case of Ozma), more often he portrayed populations choosing their rulers:
  • Before the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wizard became ruler of the Emerald City because the initials on his runaway balloon made people think that he was linked to the country. 
  • At the end of that book, the Winkies choose the Tin Woodman to rule them because he seems kind and shiny. 
  • In Hiland and Loland, a population divided between tall thin people and short round people can agree on only one person as their king: a gingerbread man who appears out of the sky one day.
My favorite example of such a scene comes at the end of the long Jinxland episode in The Scarecrow of Oz, which swirls together hereditary monarchy, democracy, feminism, and true love:
When all were assembled, the Scarecrow stood up and made a speech. He told how Gloria’s father, the good King Kynd, who had once ruled them and been loved by everyone, had been destroyed by King Phearce, the father of Pon, and how King Phearce had been destroyed by King Krewl. This last King had been a bad ruler, as they knew very well, and the Scarecrow declared that the only one in all Jinxland who had the right to sit upon the throne was Princess Gloria, the daughter of King Kynd.

”But,” he added, “it is not for me, a stranger, to say who shall rule you. You must decide for yourselves, or you will not be content. So choose now who shall be your future ruler.”

And they all shouted: “The Scarecrow! The Scarecrow shall rule us!”

Which proved that the stuffed man had made himself very popular by his conquest of King Krewl, and the people thought they would like him for their King. But the Scarecrow shook his head so vigorously that it became loose, and Trot had to pin it firmly to his body again. a ”No,” said he, “I belong in the Land of Oz, where I am the humble servant of the lovely girl who rules us all — the royal Ozma. You must choose one of your own inhabitants to rule over Jinxland. Who shall it be?”

They hesitated for a moment, and some few cried: “Pon!” but many more shouted: “Gloria!”

So the Scarecrow took Gloria’s hand and led her to the throne, where he first seated her and then took the glittering crown off his own head and placed it upon that of the young lady, where it nestled prettily amongst her soft curls. The people cheered and shouted then, kneeling before their new Queen; but Gloria leaned down and took Pon’s hand in both her own and raised him to the seat beside her.

”You shall have both a King and a Queen to care for you and to protect you, my dear subjects,” she said in a sweet voice, while her face glowed with happiness; “for Pon was a King’s son before he became a gardener’s boy, and because I love him he is to be my Royal Consort.”

That pleased them all, especially Pon, who realized that this was the most important moment of his life. Trot and Button-Bright and Cap’n Bill all congratulated him on winning the beautiful Gloria; but the Ork sneezed twice and said that in his opinion the young lady might have done better.
Even though Jinxland ends up as a small hereditary monarchy within a larger one, one could hardly say this scene is a ringing endorsement of the divine right of kings.

18 September 2011

Your Best Source for Giant Cash Registers

A couple years back, the Comic Treadmill set out to catalogue all the giant props in Batman comics. The most familiar is the giant penny in the bat-cave, of course, but the most interesting are the oversized working models of everyday machines: record players, film projectors, toasters, and more.

The earliest examples of this trope came from the world of gambling: a slot machine, pinball game, and roulette wheel. But eventually the types of machines became more mundane.

The earliest giant cash register appears in Batman, #62, from 1951, on the premises of a cash register company. Why the company has produced such a large machine is never stated, but it’s a working replica, not a trick. The script for that story, “The Secret Life of the Catwoman!” came from Bill Finger.

A working typewriter for giants appeared in Batman, #115, published in 1958. That story was also by Finger. In fact, he was known for introducing oversized props into his Batman tales, as well as helpfully supplying the illustrators with visual references.

Attempts to make Batman stories more serious in the early and then the late 1960s removed the giant office appliances, at least from the present. There was a nostalgic revival in late 1977: one story showed the Caped Crusader fighting on a giant IBM Selectric with a rotating ball while another introduced a giant photocopier. Since then, Batman has rarely had to deal with such machines in his regular adventures.

But the giant typewriters and cash registers hang on in flashback stories, and as a symbol of “the way things used to be in Gotham City.” Dick Grayson occasionally remarks about the crazy platforms he used to fight on.

All that is grounding for the question behind this weekly Robin: What inspired Bill Finger to write stories around those giant working props? What made him think readers would believe that a cash register company would have a giant working replica of its product sitting around?

Of course, people built non-working replicas for various attention-getting campaigns. Here’s a photo of a giant cash register from 1923, at the University of Southern California—but that was just a set for a fundraiser, with “coeds” operating the numbers.

In Batman Unmasked, Will Brooker suggested that a giant cash-register-shaped float in a war bonds parade might have inspired Gotham’s architecture, citing a photograph in George Roeder’s The Censored War.

But we can go earlier than that, and right into Finger’s backyard—to the 1939 New York World’s Fair! (More about that exposition’s influence back here.)

As shown in postcards of all sorts, the National Cash Register company constructed a building with a giant cash register on the roof. Its display changed to tally the number if visitors at the fair, and it twirled to give everyone a good view.

NCR had pulled the same stunt at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and the 1936-37 Expo in Dallas. Alas, the NCR machine’s buttons didn't work, and its drawer didn't shoot out to knock over bad guys or reveal giant currency. Still, it was enough to establish the idea.

Furthermore, the ’39 World’s Fair also included a 14-ton typewriter by Underwood that reportedly worked. The company had built a similar machine for the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, later moving that device to Atlantic City. (See more at Agility Nut’s Big Stuff.) But Finger surely saw the ’39 version.

This impressive color image of the NCR building comes from from Bill Cotter, who also posited the Batman connection.

17 September 2011

“Smart Comics for Kids” at MICE, 24 Sept.

On Saturday, 24 September, the Massachusetts Independent Comics Exposition (MICE) will take place in Lesley University’s University Hall, about a block from the Porter Square T stop in Cambridge.

This is a FREE event, presented by the Boston Comics Roundtable and Lesley’s Art Institute of Boston. Other sponsors are Boston’s Weekly Dig and the Boston Graphic Artists Guild.

MICE highlights small-press and self-published comics of all sorts, offering folks the chance to meet creators and learn more about the process of creating comics.

Among the panel discussions, I’ll moderate one on “Smart Comics for Kids” (12:15-1:15 PM) featuring these fine folks:
  • Robin Brenner, librarian and creator of noflyingnotights.com, about comics for young readers beyond the superhero world.
  • Jef Czekaj, author-illustrator of both comics (Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters) and picture books (Cat SecretsHip and Hop, Don’t Stop!).
  • Gareth Hinds, author-illustrator of adaptations of several great works of western literature: The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Lear
  • Shelli Paroline, artist for Muppet Comics and Lerner’s Twisted Journeys, among others.
  • Colleen AF Venable, scripter of Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye and Art & Design Editor for First Second.
There will be other panels on comics and education, technology, social justice, and more, as well as a discussion on the collaborative process. There’s an art show (already mounted and open for visiting), and artists will demonstrate different techniques. Among the demos is one on single-sheet “foldy comics,” which I discussed back here.

So if you’re a comics reader, a creator at any stage, or interested in exploring graphic-novel publishing, please come by University Hall between 10:00 and 6:00 next Saturday.

16 September 2011

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From Adam Gopnik’s essay on the literature of national decline in the 12 Sept 2011 New Yorker:

Americans are perfectly willing to sacrifice their comforts for their ideological convictions. We don’t have a better infrastructure or decent elementary schools because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better-informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible.

The reasons for these feelings are, of course, complex, with a noble reason descending from the Revolutionary War, and its insistence on liberty at all costs, and an ignoble one descending from the Civil War and its creation of a permanent class of white men convinced that they are besieged by an underclass they regard as subsidized wards of the federal government. (Thus the curious belief that a worldwide real-estate crisis that hit the north of Spain and the east of Ireland as hard as the coast of Florida was the fault of money loaned by Washington to black people.)

But the crucial point is that this is the result of active choice, not passive indifference: people who don’t want high-speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains, as the New York Post is offended by bike lanes and open-air plazas: these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals. Annoying liberals is a pleasure well worth paying for.

As a recent study in the social sciences shows, if energy use in a household is monitored so that you can watch yourself saving money every month by using less, self-identified conservatives will actually use and spend more, apparently as a way of showing their scorn for liberal pieties.
The essay does a fine job of answering Niall Ferguson’s short-sighted long view, yet also has a Beatles soundtrack.

Based on my study of the Revolutionary War, I think Gopnik’s capsule summary of that conflict (with “its insistence on liberty at all costs”) is based on later interpretations of “liberty” rather than eighteenth-century values, but those interpretations certainly influence people’s beliefs today.

14 September 2011

Political Authority in Children’s Fantasy

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder just wrote about the prevalence of monarchs in children’s fantasy:
In every major book or series I can think of–Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson books, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Gregor the Overlander series–political authority either resides in monarchies or is controlled by some other self-selected group of elites, often with special powers.

A few of the books we’ve read [in the family] have raised tough questions about these authoritarian arrangements and the injustices they entail. Right now, for example, I’m reading the excellent Bartimaeus trilogy to my sixth grader and appreciating the story of popular resistance against a tyrannical aristocracy of greedy magicians. Most of the time, though, poor governance is implicitly blamed on flaws in the character of individual leaders. Villains bring us down, and heroes make things right. Institutions, it seems, are irrelevant.

As a scholar of democratization and a liberal by political philosophy, I really don’t like the message this pattern sends to my kids. Governance is a very hard and perpetual problem, and the parade of gods, kings, and magicians traipsing through kids’ fiction reinforces the authoritarian fantasy that benevolent dictators offer an elegant solution. I realize that fiction isn’t meant to mimic reality, and I understand how these struggles between powerful beings of good and evil make a terrific scaffolding for storytelling. Still, I can’t help but wonder how this steady diet of government by kings and wizards prepares kids to make sense of the politics they will encounter as they grow up.
That’s because those fantasies don’t replicate the larger democratic society in which most of their readers are living. They reflect the smaller, more dictatorial societies of family and school, with rules set by “self-selected group of elites, often with special powers,” called adults.

Furthermore, most children’s novels in any mode focus on individual characters and their choices in life. As a result, they present a world in which individual morality is crucial, pushing institutional structures into the background.

That pattern affects even stories which explicitly promote democratic values, such as the Harry Potter and Star Wars series. Both of those sagas show parliamentary governments in action. However, those institutions appear ineffectual, and dependent on an elite of innately powerful individuals.

13 September 2011

A View of Oz from Oz

The honored Australian illustrator Robert R. Ingpen created this watercolor for an edition of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz commissioned by Palazzo Editions and published this spring by Templar Editions in the UK and Sterling in the US.

Melaleuca Galleries of Australia offers a page of Ingpen’s artwork for this book, including:
The image above comes via Melaleuca.

11 September 2011

Batman and Robin on Ice—Without the Ice

A week ago, I accompanied Godson and Godson’s Brother, both nearly ten and a half, and their father to Batman Live at the O2 Arena in London. I can report that the show is a bombastic, highly amplified spectacle well tailored to an audience of older children. It’s also a more than adequate representation of Dick Grayson’s journey from orphaned circus performer to half of the Dynamic Duo.

My favorite moment: When Alfred presents Dick with his revamped costume for his new role as the crime-fighter…Circus Lad! (No? How about…the Carnival Kid!) Though this Alfred has the same snarky lines as in all other post-Dark Knight Returns portrayals, he’s also the biggest enabler I’ve seen, encouraging Dick to become a vigilante.

Godson’s favorite moment: When Robin makes jokes. I’m not sure whether we saw Kamran Darabi-Ford or Michael Pickering in that role; as with the title character, two actors alternate performances. The job calls for athleticism, an American accent (hearing interviews with the actors is a hoot because their regular accents aren’t just English, but “regional” forms), and good projection, but it doesn’t ask for subtlety.

Godson’s Brother’s favorite moment: When Robin beats up the Joker at the end. That moment was also one of the three that got the most applause from the crowd. Ordinarily the Joker plays little to no role in Robin’s origin, but this production has twin aims:
  • to retell that chapter in the Batman saga, along with a little of the Caped Crusader’s own origin.
  • to bring on most of the top Batman villains: the Joker and Harley Quinn, Catwoman, the Riddler, the Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and the Scarecrow.
(Godson and Godson’s Brother pointed out that Clayface did not make an appearance. After discussion, we agreed that it would be hard to portray infinitely malleable shape-shifting on stage. Advance publicity still on the website suggests that the Ventriloquist was also once in the lineup; I suspect he proved underwhelming at the arena scale.)
To connect Tony Zucco murdering Dick’s parents to the more famous Batman villains, this show has Zucco working for the Joker, who wants to take over Haly’s Circus. (Saving costs, there’s no Mr. Haly; Dick’s father runs the circus, and the same actor also plays Joe Chill and the Riddler.) Later the Joker takes over Arkham Asylum, opening the door to additional villains. Thus, when Dick goes after the Clown Prince of Crime, it’s personal—even if the Joker has forgotten who John and Mary Grayson were.

Another of the three applause moments was when Bruce Wayne told Dick, “I’m Batman.” I couldn’t tell whether the audience wanted to reward this emotional opening-up, or simply recognized a catch phrase.

And the third moment? That came in the middle of the second act, after the production had to shut down because of a technical problem. Bruce had gotten into the new-fangled Batmobile, ready to roar away. And then nothing happened. Alfred and Dick walked off. An announcer apologized. For five to ten minutes, technicians worked in the dark, and then the scene restarted—to a most enthusiastic ovation.

This time the Batmobile slid all the way onto center stage at the start, showing us what we’d missed. However, when Bruce hit a button that had set off fireworks before, nothing happened—they hadn’t been recharged. That didn’t stop Bruce and Dick from ducking, however. At the end of the scene, the car zoomed off as intended, “afterburner” spewing vapor.

It turned out that occasional Batman scripter Paul Dini was at the same performance in the O2. (Curiously, I didn’t see him there.) Yesterday on Twitter he pointed out that the Batmobile had lost its wheel and the Joker got away.

That technical delay naturally made me think of the notorious Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway. In newspaper interviews, the Batman Live creators have been eager to point out that they did not produce a musical. Nevertheless, the show has a couple of musical numbers, with athletic dance by the chorus but no singing.

Furthermore, both shows use sets to represent the rooftop panoramas of the city, and lots of swinging on wires. Both take much of their look direct from the comics, playing on the aesthetics of panels. Batman Live may turn out to be more successful, critically and financially, simply because it doesn’t aspire to the status of high art.

Instead, Batman Live seems designed to recall screen versions of the story that its target audience already knows. Its overall milieu seems based in the animated television series of the 1990s. The padded musculature of the heroes’ costumes comes from the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies. One sequence displayed by the giant bat-shaped video backdrop unabashedly mimics a videogame.

That backdrop means there’s plenty to see, especially for people seated (as we were) at the front of the stage. A particularly striking scenic effect is the giant dinner table at Wayne Manor, which becomes a raked stage in itself. In fact, the more stylized the set-pieces, the more impressive they often were; the Graysons’ circus performance left me disappointed, but their slow-motion death was visually moving.

What does the show lack? We never see any detective work. Instead, the Joker keeps trying to get Batman’s attention, thus driving the action from one scene to the next. Mark Frost was good in that role, though I thought Poppy Tierney’s performance as Harley Quinn stole the show. (She also fills the smaller role of Mary Grayson. And—calling Dr. Freud!—Emma Clifford plays both Martha Wayne and Catwoman.)

10 September 2011

The Politics of Pronouns

Last month I quoted from an interview with James W. Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychologist who has researched our use of pronouns and how they correlate with other traits.

It turns out (not entirely as a surprise) that Pennebaker has a new book coming out, titled The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

Ben Zimmer’s review for the New York Times begins:
When President Obama addressed the nation after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, some conservative reactions to his rhetoric were all too predictable. On National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson highlighted the 15 times that Obama used “I,” “me” or “my” in the 1,400-word speech, and asserted that “these first-person pronouns . . . reflect a now well-known Obama trait of personalizing the presidency.” A few weeks later, when Obama gave a speech at the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Langley, Va., the Drudge Report offered the headline, “I ME MINE: Obama praises C.I.A. for bin Laden raid — while saying ‘I’ 35 times.”

This “well-known Obama trait” has come up again and again in criticisms from the right — George Will has said that Obama is “inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun,” while Charles Krauthammer has written of the president’s “spectacularly promiscuous use of the word ‘I.’ ”

Regrettably, none of these pundits have bothered to look into how Obama might compare with his predecessors. . . . Pennebaker crunches the numbers on presidential press conferences since Truman and finds that “Obama has distinguished himself as the lowest I-word user of any of the modern presidents.” If anything, Obama has shown a disdain for the first-person singular during his administration.

“Why,” Pennebaker wonders, “do very smart people think just the opposite?” He chalks it up the selective way we process information: “If we think that someone is arrogant, our brains will be searching for evidence to confirm our beliefs.” If we’re predisposed to look for clues that Obama is all about “me me me,” then every “me” he utters takes on outsize importance in our impressionistic view of his speechifying.
Especially if one’s standards for what seems arrogant in a black man’s speech are different from what seems arrogant in a white man’s speech.

09 September 2011

This Is a Great Bed

A longtime Oz and Ends reader alerted me to the New York Times interview with London designer Murray Moss, in which he talks about revamping the display of the Great Bed of Ware at the Victoria and Albert Museum:
I love the Bed of Ware. The museum, through no action on its own, cleaned up the act of the bed — because it’s in the museum, it must be a noble bed. It’s this giant carved, circa 1590 to 1600 Elizabethan bed.

But the truth of the bed is that it was commissioned by an inn in the town of Ware, in Hertfordshire, as an Elizabethan publicity stunt to advertise, I’m sure, something along the lines of “Have the best sex of your life in the biggest bed in England.” They spoke about it at the time. Writers wrote about it and said it could sleep 20 couples. Shakespeare included it in a very bawdy way in “Twelfth Night.” I thought, why don’t I put the sex back into the Bed of Ware, because that’s something I can do.

How do you do that?

You put 14 pairs of what look like Elizabethan prostitute shoes around the bed, to suggest that 14 occupants, plus a 15th — whoever rented the bed for the night — is sleeping in it.
Among the literary allusions to this monument are:
  • “As many lies as will lie in thy paper, although the sheet were big enough for the bed of Ware in England.” —William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.
  • “Why, we have been…” “…In the great bed at Ware together in our time.” —Ben Jonson, Epicene.
  • “One of my longings is to have a couple of lusty able-bodied men, to take me up, one before and another behind, as the new fashion is, and carry mee in a Man-litter into the great bed at Ware.” —Richard Brome, The Sparagus Garden.
  • “A mighty large bed bigger by half than the great bed of Ware; ten thousand people may lie in it together and never feel one another.” —George Farquhar, The Recruiting Officer.
  • “And all (except Mahometans) forbear / To make the nuptial couch a ‘Bed of Ware.’” —Byron, Don Juan (of course).
Yeah, those British authors weren’t seeing the great bed as “noble” before the Victoria and Albert.

08 September 2011

Things Our Government Still Isn’t Telling Us

At the end of today’s New York Times article about newly released recordings of air traffic control transmissions on 11 Sept 2001 (which are innocuous and add little to the historic record) are these paragraphs:

The account published this week is missing two essential pieces that remain restricted or classified, according to Mr. [Miles] Kara. One is about 30 minutes of the cockpit recording of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into the ground after passengers tried to storm the cockpit as hijackers flew across Pennsylvania toward Washington, D.C. Families of some of those onboard have objected to the release of that recording, Mr. Kara said.

The other still-secret recording is of a high-level conference call that began at 9:28 and grew, over the course of the morning, to include senior figures like Mr. [Dick] Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers.

The recording was turned over to the National Security Council. The 9/11 Commission was not permitted to keep a copy of it or of the transcript, Mr. Kara said, and investigators were closely monitored when they listened to it. Mr. Kara said he believed that the only truly sensitive material on the recordings were small portions that concerned the provisions being made to continue government operations if the attacks took out some national leadership or facilities.

“There was a staffer who was designated to sit with us, who would stop and start the tape, in my estimation to mask continuity of operations,” Mr. Kara said.

Nevertheless, he noted, the commission ended up with hours and hours of recordings that it initially did not have access to or had been told did not exist, a point Mr. Farmer echoed in the preface to the Rutgers Law Review article.

When the commission began taking testimony, military and civil aviation officials said “that no tapes were made, and we were told at one point that a technical malfunction would prevent us from hearing them,” Mr. Farmer wrote. “If we had not pushed as hard as we did — ultimately persuading the commission to use its subpoena power to obtain the records — many of the critical conversations from that morning may have been lost to history.”
The issue of how “to continue government operations” is very sensitive, of course, both militarily and politically (as Alexander Haig discovered). But that may be secondary to the issue of who was really in charge that day.

As we recall, the US executive branch also forced the commission to interview Cheney and George W. Bush together, so they could match their stories, and not under oath. People took notes on either side of the phone conversations between Cheney and Bush on 11 September, and neither one recorded Bush approving Cheney’s order to shoot down planes. Former chief of staff to the Secretary of State Lawence Wilkerson has recently acknowledged that Cheney “was president for all practical purposes for the first term of the Bush administration.”

07 September 2011

Okay, Break It Up

Artist Jesse Lonergan is offering silk-screened prints of this battle royale at SPX this weekend.

Among the combatants, visible toward the middle of the right edge, is the Tin Woodman.

For a closer view that allows one to pick out Astro Boy, Spaceman Spiff, Deadman, Beetlejuice, Graham Chapman as King Arthur, and a California Raisin, among many others, visit Lonergan’s blog.

06 September 2011

Oz as China?

Years ago Martin Blythe sent me a link to his web essay titled “Oz is China: A Political Fable of Chinese Dragons and White Tigers.” Blythe, formerly top publicist for Paramount Pictures, makes an enthusiastic case that L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory of Chinese politics, but not a convincing one.

Giving illustrator W. W. Denslow the first name “Frank” is obviously an error of carelessness rather than misunderstanding, but it doesn’t bode well for accuracy in detail. Similarly, Blythe writes, “In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s friends all end up with territories to run: the Scarecrow gets to rule Oz from Beijing, while the Tin Woodman calls himself emperor of the Winkies (just like the Kaiser, who decided to open a brewery there).” In fact, the word “emperor” never appears in that first book. The Tin Woodman adopts that title in later books, but Blythe's essay never acknowledges those.

“Oz Is China” repeatedly makes factual statements without offering support for them. For example, “Baum read the newspapers avidly and he was consumed with news from China.” As a former newspaper publisher and occasional journalist, Baum undoubtedly did read the papers, but what evidence suggests news from China “consumed” him? Did his pseudonymous Boy Fortune Hunters in China show an unusual level of knowledge about that country? (Check out its recent reissue as The Scream of the Sacred Ape.)

The essay lacks citations. The claim that Pearl S. Buck “would come to see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a gentle satire on Western imperialism and the Christian civilizing mission in China” is not augmented by any quotation or reference to writing by Buck. Nor does it help that the essay says Buck was “exactly Dorothy’s age (6 years old)…when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written”; the book never states Dorothy’s age, and Buck was seven when Baum wrote the book in late 1899.

This is an example of the circular reasoning that spirals through the entire essay. Another:
Anna May Wong...discovered during her heyday in the 1930’s that part of being American means coming to terms with your “inner Dorothy.” So we could say, and should say, that Dorothy was also Chinese American.
The quotation marks might tempt one to think that Blythe is quoting Wong. But his essay offers no evidence that Wong ever read Baum’s book, much less saw herself in Dorothy.

Even when the essay does offer a citation, its claims go well beyond that evidence, as in these two paragraphs:
When Baum writes: “The Wicked Witch was angry to find them in her country,” the illustration shows her dressed in Manchu pigtails, her imperial regalia and her Golden Cap—the Empress Dowager in all her glory.

Many people spotted this when the book came out. The Boston Beacon wrote, in September 1900, that “the Scarecrow wears a Russian blouse, the fierce Tin Woodman bears a striking resemblance to Emperor Wilhelm of Germany, the Cowardly Lion with its scarlet beard and tail tip at once suggest Great Britain, and the Flying Monkeys wear a military cap in Spanish colors.”
Yet that quoted passage says nothing about the supposedly obvious resemblance between the Wicked Witch and the Dowager Empress, even as it proposed links between other characters and European figures.

“Oz Is China” resembles similar attempts to argue that Baum based Wizard on US monetary policy, the King James Bible, or Gaelic—I’ve read all of these. They all rely on:
  • carefully selecting details from the books, movie, and/or Baum’s life and overlooking many contrary facts.
  • ignoring how Baum had no idea that this book would be his major work and cared very little for storytelling consistency.
  • overlooking how the “obvious” symbolism went entirely unremarked in Baum’s own time and every other time until the theorist’s revelation. 
  • imagining that Baum was entirely devoted to that cause or area of knowledge, yet chose to keep its significance secret for the last twenty years of his life.
In sum, those are classic conspiracy theories, albeit harmless ones.

A little more convincing, because they don’t claim intent on Baum’s part, are arguments that the book could be interpreted in certain ways, such as Bird Brian’s reading at GoodReads that focuses on Japan instead of China. Of course, that review still refers to Dorothy as an “Aguished midwestern teen,” and appears to suggest that the 1900 novel reflected western concerns following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

04 September 2011

The DNA of Damian Wayne

Godson, Godson’s Brother, and I will be taking in Batman Live this evening, London time, and I plan to post our impressions in the upcoming week. But that leaves the weekly Robin in need of content today.

I’ll therefore observe the end of the post-Infinite Crisis DC Comics Universe by considering the genetic heritage of Damian Wayne, the current and near-future Robin.

But isn’t Damian the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul? Well, that’s what those characters and the Batman creative team have wanted us to think. Talia has certainly said Damian is her son by Bruce, but she’s duplicitous and ruthless, and her family plays the long game. (Her father makes himself immortal.) So there’s more than a small possibility she’s lying.

As for Bruce Wayne, he was ready to treat Damian as his son, but—let’s face it—his threshhold for taking in dark-haired boys and training them to fight crime by his side is very low. If Bruce perceived Damian to be in any sort of trouble, and/or felt any sort of responsibility for him, he might well treat the child as his son and leave the emotional fallout of keeping secrets for later.

Finally, the science of the DC Universe leaves a lot of flexibility in the circumstances of Damian’s life. Though the Son of a Demon graphic novel that helped to inspire writer Grant Morrison involved a night of passion under a tropic moon, Talia could just as easily have conceived Damian in a test tube, or cloned him, or obtained a suitable baby through magic or time travel or Craigslist.

Furthermore, Batman vs. Robin confirmed what Nightwing: Freefall hinted: that Talia has advanced technology for growing babies, and another already in the lab. Even though Damian has been ten, and the new universe’s Damian is twelve, he was probably conceived more recently and aged artificially.

So what does this mean for Damian’s DNA? The possibilities seem wide open. Tim Drake has asked Alfred whether Bruce did genetic testing on the kid, but I don’t believe the comics have ever given us a definite answer. That leaves multiple possibilities. So let’s imagine that Tim, as Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game shows he’s capable of doing, sneaks a genetic sample from Damian and has it tested. What could he find?

1. Yes, Damian’s father is Bruce Wayne. The writers have already been exploring this situation, of course. Eventually the drama might run dry, especially if the inherent tensions get played out and resolved. In that case, Damian’s genetic heritage might catch up with him in various new ways: premature aging, possibly fatal illness, an annoying little sibling or evil counterpart. (The last happens to almost all comic-book heroes if they stick around long enough.) Or the creative team might decide to shake up the family with a new revelation…

2. Damian isn’t Bruce’s son; he’s Bruce’s clone. This offers a chance to explore nature versus nurture. Are Bruce’s righteousness and Damian’s grumpiness simply manifestations of the same genes? Can Damian maintain the same drive as Bruce through adolescent ennui if he never sees his parents killed? (Of course, we might ask why Alfred hasn’t remarked on the similarity between Damian and the boy he raised. Perhaps the artificial aging process would have produced some physiognomic differences. Perhaps Alfred would know, and would be keeping the secret.)

3. Damian’s father is Ra’s al Ghul. Let’s call this the Chinatown scenario: Talia’s his mother and his sister. That’s already one screwed-up family. No wonder Bruce might want to get the kid away.
4. Damian isn’t Bruce’s son; he’s his grandson. Red Hood: The Lost Days showed that Talia had Jason Todd in her power for years, and that they eventually became lovers. So she certainly had access to his genes. What would it mean to Damian to discover he’s not the son of Batman, but the son of “Batman’s greatest failure”? How would Jason react to having a biological family once more?

5. Damian’s father was a rich businessman from Gotham—but not Bruce Wayne. Tim tests Damian’s Y chromosome and finds that it matches his own. That means when Tim’s parents traveled the world, Jack Drake did more than argue with Janet. Wouldn’t it be a kick in the tights for Tim to discover that he’s actually Damian’s closest relative?

And that’s just a start. What about David Cain, assassin active in Asia and father of Cass Cain, the second Batgirl? Or Superman, whose Kryptonian DNA can be combined with a human’s and whose powers (in the current continuity) didn’t manifest until he was a little older than Damian? Or…

In fact, about the only man whose DNA in Damian wouldn’t have caused great drama in the recently-shelved DC Universe, and most likely in the next, would be Dick Grayson. Which of course means we can eliminate him as a suspect.

03 September 2011

Campbell: “Comics were supposed to have grown up”

In a 2008 interview with Tom Spurgeon, comics creator Eddie Campbell responded to a question about his “take on the New York publishing world, and how they may be slowly revamping the comics industry into an adjunct of the children's book publishing business”:
This is something that has been bugging me for some time. The latest news to come down is that First Second Books, the publisher of my last three books, are now under the umbrella of Macmillan's Children's Group. I'm not surprised, because the book world, by which I mean the mainstream book publishers as well as the libraries and the Library Association, has been viewing "the graphic novel" as a young reader's genre for quite some time.

In part I think it's because the part of a publishing house that is likely to be interested in bright illustrated narratives is the children's books department, and in part also because those publishers, and America's libraries, see the "graphic novel" as a way of grabbing a part of the literate populace that has hitherto proved elusive.

Now, I have no objection to young folks having their own literature specially designed for them, though when I was a young 'un myself I would have been highly suspicious of anything that the adult world thought I should read because it was supposed to be good for me. Let's not forget that this is one of the things that drew us to comics in the first place, the very fact that they were not approved by our adults; they were our visual rock'n'roll, the things we knew that they didn't. However, let's not get bogged down on that point.

The problem with this development is that comics were supposed to have grown up and become the "graphic novel," but now we are apt to find articles telling us that the "graphic novel has grown up." In other words we're back where we started.
Campbell then added a quote from “a relevant blog post” by, um, me.

That was rather exciting to stumble across. It’s also rather circular, since my thoughts on how our culture perceives the comics form had been pushed along by earlier comments from Campbell. So maybe it’s just the two of us muttering about this on opposite sides of the world.

But if you Google the phrase "graphic novels aren't just for kids", over 1,500 hits come up. With almost 500 more for "graphic novels not just for kids". And a lot of those hits are library sites.

In any case, let me reiterate how I enjoyed Campbell’s autobiographical Alec: The Years Have Pants, especially the pages that deal with the British comics scene of the 1980s and with parenthood. It’s fine work, and adult.

01 September 2011

Isotopic Detective Work

I read about this forensic case in Chemistry and Engineering News, but found the abstract for the case study among the papers at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2011: “Stable Isotope Profiles from a Lock of Hair Provide Information of Illegal People Trafficking Route used by a Vietnamese Organised Crime Group” (PDF).

The study was conducted by Wolfram Meier-Augenstein and Helen F. Kemp of the Stable Isotope Unit of the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee, and by Ian Brewster and Geoff Ronayne of the Gwent Police, “Croesyceiliog, Cwmbran.” (I’m assuming that’s Welsh, but I’m not familiar with the language of those ancestors.)

A young man with Asian features was left in the A&E department of a hospital in Gwent, South Wales (UK) by persons unknown and died shortly thereafter. A hit in the Interpol fingerprint database provided some information regarding the victim’s nationality but there was no record of this individual ever having entered the UK, at least not legally.

On behalf of Gwent Police, stable isotope analysis was carried out on a lock of scalp hair to generate chronological profiles for diet or nutritional changes as well as a recent geographic life trajectory.
Isotopes are atoms or ions of the same element with different atomic weights (i.e., numbers of neutrons). Different parts of the world have different concentrations of oxygen isotopes, which people and animals in those places take into their bodies. 
Moving from the oldest part of the hair (the tip) to the most recently formed part (near the scalp) the longitudinal 2H isotope profiles suggested the following. At 15 months prior to death, the victim spent approx. 2.5-3 months spent in Eastern Europe (most likely the Ukraine) followed by a direct move to Central Europe (e.g. Germany).

Subsequent to this move from the Ukraine to Germany, the victim lived in Germany for about 6-7 months from where he moved to the UK eventually to arrive at his final location of residency on or near the UK’s West Coast (South Wales). In contrast to the move from Eastern Europe to Central Europe, this move was not a direct transition from one location to another. This move either happened in stages over a period of 1.5 to 2 months interrupted by brief stays (< 0.5 month) at different locations, or the period between leaving Central Europe and arriving at the final location was characterized by frequent travel and change of location not necessarily related to or influenced by the final area of residency.

The information provided by stable isotope analysis in conjunction with enquiries carried out under Operation C#$#$## showed that the victim (a Vietnamese man) was indeed smuggled into the UK illegally and the trafficking route did run through the Ukraine via Germany into the UK. Once in the UK the victim was moved between Dover, London and Birmingham before eventually being settled down in South Wales, where he lived and was forced to work as Cannabis farmer for an organised Vietnamese crime group during the final 2.5 months of his life.
According to the C&E News story, a rival gang stole a big crop from this man, and his enslavers killed him as punishment. Those details would, of course, not be available through isotope analysis, so it’s quite possible the whole story could have come out through traditional police inquiries. But the match between those investigative findings and the isotopic readings confirms the value of both methods.

How soon will this technique show up in a television drama?