31 October 2011

How Picture Books (and Life) Used to Be

Courtesy of the Albert Whitman blog, a page from Time to Eat: A Picture Book of Foods, by Mame Dentler and Frank Fenner, Jr., published in 1945:

30 October 2011

Finishing New Teen Titans: Games a Bit Hastily?

The last few weekly Robin installments have celebrated the art of George Pérez in New Teen Titans: Games. There are many more examples to enjoy.

Early in the book a series of panels of Dick Grayson using Central Park as his own steeplechase course for a workout, silhouettes interspersed with full-figure sketches. This visual effect returns as Nightwing and his adversary fight as silhouettes stomping on a scale model of New York.

Pérez and his inking and coloring colleagues drop the solid lines and strong colors of the ordinary settings to depict Azarath, Raven’s hellish home dimension. (See here for an early take on that page by colorist and collector Tom Smith.)

Despite being one of the DC graphic novel division’s premium new books, however, Games shows signs of hasty production. On one page (see above) a misplaced borderless white box cuts off characters’ feet. Presumably it was left over from some design program.

I spotted some panel lines incompletely erased, as in the example below. (Those panels also show how scripter Marv Wolfman, the editor, and the letterer made Nightwing’s speech appear before the villain’s even though it comes out of a later panel.)
The front- and backmatter are illustrated with images of the main characters cut out and enlarged from the pages in between. It’s possible that those images were inked digitally, and they were certainly colored and finished on a computer. That means they were created to be printed at a certain size, with an appropriate dots-per-inch measurement.

Rather than rescan and rework Pérez’s pencils at a higher resolution to make those big portraits look even more magnificent, the production team simply enlarged the images from the pages, resulting in jaggy lines. Beginner PhotoShop classes warn against doing that. Seeing the effect in a premium graphic novel makes the production look slapdash.

29 October 2011

Feeling Close to My Remote

I spent the day at the Southern New England SCBWI’s ENCORE session, featuring well-reviewed presentations from the past year. 

Although I was opening speaker (on the topic of “Milestones in an Exciting Plot”), my biggest contribution to the day might have been my remote control for PowerPoint presentations. Novelists Erin Dionne, Karen Day, and Mark Peter Hughes all used it during their sessions. (Mary Lee Donovan of Candlewick, like a good old-fashioned children’s-book editor, used actual books as her props.) 

For people who do presentations in various venues, I highly recommend a device like this. It works on either PCs or Macs, letting a presenter stand several yards from the computer or walk around during the presentation, instead of having to push buttons on a keyboard balanced nearby. There’s a laser pointer built in, and the Kensington version has a nice peanut-shaped design. 

This isn’t a paid product placement; I paid for the little thing like a normal person. But owning one really has made presentations easier for me. I’m glad I brought it along today—and I didn’t even have PowerPoint in my session.

28 October 2011

Children’s Literature Fellowships from the AAS

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester has announced two new short-term fellowships for the study of early American children’s literature:

The Justin G. Schiller Fellowship supports research by both doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars from any disciplinary perspective on the production, distribution, literary content, or historical context of American children’s books to 1876.
As a teenager, Schiller helped to found the International Wizard of Oz Club, and he went on to become a leading dealer in children’s books.
The Linda F. & Julian L. Lapides Fellowship supports research on printed and manuscript material produced in America through 1865 for (or by) children and youth. The Lapides Fellowship will support projects examining the creative, artistic, cultural, technological, or commercial aspects of American juvenile literature and ephemera produced between the Puritan Era and the Civil War. It is open to both postdoctoral scholars and graduate students at work on doctoral dissertations.
The deadlines for applying for either scholarship is 15 Jan 2012. See the AAS website for more details.

Here’s an example of printed material produced in early America by youth: printer’s apprentice Job Weeden’s plea for New Year’s tips in 1772.

27 October 2011

Eloise et al.: “They were never children’s books”

At Graphic Novel Reporter, of all places, illustrator Hilary Knight talked about how he co-created the Eloise books with song-and-dance woman Kay Thompson:
The Eloise character herself was totally Kay Thompson. She told me who this little girl was. Kay was not particularly visual, and when we worked together, she would talk to me and I would draw things. And that’s how we did all the books. We worked directly together, which is very unusual.

And the other thing that I keep talking about, because Kay was so adamant about it, is that they were never children’s books. They have become children’s books, but Kay never agreed that they were. It was sort of a joke in the beginning. There was a chain of bookstores called Doubleday on Fifth Avenue in New York, and Kay lived nearby at the Plaza. She used to go in and [see that the Eloise books] had been moved into the children’s section. She would march in and carry them to the front of the store and put them in the adult section. And then they’d just get moved back again.

It was the best thing, really, that happened to her because it was kind of a novelty adult book. It even says that it’s not a children’s book; it says that it’s a book for precocious adults in a banner across the top. She never wrote the books down to children. Of course, they look like children’s books and they were about someone who was getting away with something, so it appealed to kids, thank God.
That’s an interesting way to reconsider Eloise—as one of those adult books that look like picture books, but aren’t at all meant for the traditional picture-book readership. Certainly they weren’t created in the typical picture-book way, but that means nothing about the intended audience.

26 October 2011

A Peek Inside Minimum Paige

At Robot 6, local comics super-journalist Brigid Alverson interviewed Ryan Mita about the Minimum Paige comics anthology that he edited for the Harvard Book Store. It’s become the store’s top seller—no doubt because it’s not available anywhere else but the store’s print-on-demand book-making machine.

Ryan was, I think, the first person I met when I attended the Boston Comics Roundtable. Most folks there were interested in writing comics or drawing comics or both. Ryan said he was interested in marketing comics. And by assembling this anthology, he’s provided a platform for dozens of creators.

More than one hundred submissions came in, and among Ryan’s remarks in the interview is:
I think the biggest surprise was how professional all the artists were. Not a single submission came in after deadline. Not one. I remember having visions of artists calling at 5:01 asking for extensions, but it was silent, so I played with fonts instead.
Giving credit where it’s due, I must report that artist Alex Cormack handled the submission of our story, “Essex County Literary Wax Museum & Menagerie,” which leads off the collection. I might well have been on the phone at 5:01.

25 October 2011

The Nine

L. Frank Baum created the Nine Tiny Piglets in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and they’re now hopping about in the Marvel Comics adaptation of that book by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young. The picture above is Young’s cover for one of those comic books.

Yesterday I stumbled across this verse about the piglets on my hard drive:
We piglets do not all agree.
Now three of us are saying, “No,”
While “Yes” declare another three,
And three aren’t sure which way to go.

We therefore caucus and discuss
The very best thing to be done,
What holds the most rewards for us,
And tally: four to four to one.

The argument turns fierce and hot
Until the vote is five to four.
At last we’re done! But we forgot
Exactly what we voted for.
Or maybe that’s in honor of the new Supreme Court session.

24 October 2011

Weekly Robin Extra: More Pérez Panels

Here’s another example of striking design from George Pérez in New Teen Titans: Games. Just before this sequence, the Titans have learned that there’s a bomb about to go off in New York City.

Pérez first creates a series of horizontal panels of Titans racing to the site of that bomb in their different ways: Joe Wilson in his circa-1988 car, Donna Troy gliding, Gar Logan flying as a hawk, Starfire blasting through the sky, and Vic Stone in the Titans jet. Each panel is slightly longer, extending further into the negative space above the jet, suggesting progress—but slow progress. Will they be on time?

At the bottom of the page is a series of six vertical images of the character Raven visiting her mother, an unusually untroubled moment for her. Like a movie director, Pérez pulls back from a close-up of Raven looking happy through a window into the house, and then moves forward into another close-up of her emblem, which also serves as her Titans radio. We realize that Raven, who could teleport instantly to the scene of the bomb, has not gotten the message.

Travis Lanham’s digital lettering of the alarm sound breaks horizontally across the bottom panels, growing bigger and darker. That line of letters reflects the horizontal, left-to-right movement of the Titans above. It’s impossible to resist turning that page to see what comes next.

23 October 2011

Fight at the Guggenheim Museum

Here’s a page from New Teen Titans: Games with visuals I found particularly striking. In this scene, George Pérez shows Joey (Jericho) Wilson fighting villains called Knight and Squire in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. At the top, the Knight knocks Joe over the rail of a balcony.

As Joe falls down the page, the Guggenheim’s tiers define the tiers of the panels, providing strong horizontal lines yet uniting the fall into a single image. The effect reminds me of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which in turn drew heavily from Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Near the bottom, Joe grabs onto the rail of a lower balcony, and thus in a way grabs onto the top border of that panel to hold himself up.

Meanwhile, on the left, Pérez offers framed vignettes of the museum staff reacting to the fight, and at the bottom (within a differently styled frame to signal the difference) the Squire taunting them. The shapes and scale of those panels are reflected in the picture frames that Joe falls past on the right.

In the years when no one expected Games to come out, some of Pérez’s artwork circulated among fans. Titans Tower has posted a scan of the line art of this page, showing the bare design.

The finished page includes the contributions of Hi-Fi, the firm that provided digital coloring for Games. That process added not just colors but Joe’s shadows on the wall, and the images of famous nineteenth-century art in the frames, under glowing lamps.

Of course, that’s not the type of art that gets displayed in the Guggenheim. Modernist works, particularly Pop and Op Art, might even have worked better in this scene, playing off the medievalism of the villains and Jericho’s costume. But those works have more copyright protection. And the choice of Impressionism enhances the surreal contrast between this fight and the dignified placidity of its museum setting.

22 October 2011

Ruth Berman’s Quest for Bradamant

I’m pleased to post this interview with Ruth Berman, author of Bradamant’s Quest. This is a new novel about an old character, originally created in the late Middle Ages. Yet Bradamant is also the forerunner of the many female knights in fiction today, so this tale can speak to modern readers.
Bradamant’s Quest is set in a fantasy world that was immensely popular for centuries, but which we don’t visit much anymore: the “Matter of France,” or romances of Charlemagne. How did you decide to add to that saga? What does it offer that we don’t find in other great myths of the western world?

When I read the stories in the Incompleat Enchanter series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, many years back, their treatments of the worlds that Harold the I.E. visits made me interested in looking up and reading the books involved. That eventually led me to reading a translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and I thought Ariosto’s Bradamant was a fascinating character, sure of herself and resourceful in going after her true love (a warrior in the enemy army’s forces? — no reason to give up, is her feeling).

Bradamant gets treated rather poorly in modern stories, being presented as a too-big, beefy, well-meaning-but-clumsy type in deCamp/Pratt, and as a rigidly military fighting machine in Italo Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight. I thought there ought to be more adventures for Bradamant as strong without being therefore laughable or unpleasant, and eventually decided to do something about that.

Oberon also makes an appearance in Bradamant’s Quest. I know he’s got roots in the Middle Ages, but has he played a role in Carolingian romances before? Would we recognize him from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (or would he recognize himself)?

Oberon the Fairy King is a major character in the 12th century Huon of Bordeaux, Huon being one of Charlemagne’s knights. The 1534 translation of it into English is where Shakespeare got his Oberon. The name is equivalent to Auberon, which is equivalent to the German Alberich, meaning elf-lord, although Oberon would not recognize himself in the Alberich of the stories of the Volsung Saga/Ring of the Nibelungs. Huon’s Oberon is enough like Shakespeare’s to make them recognizable, for instance, in their power and in their inclination to befriend mortals, although Shakespare made important changes, such as introducing Titania and Robin Goodfellow into Oberon’s court.

The romance authors of medieval Europe freely added to each other’s work, as when Ariosto wrote Orlando Furioso to finish Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato. These days, many people would call that plagiarism, or fanfiction (and which is more respectable?). What are your thoughts on this sort of collective fiction-making? Should we revise our ideas of originality and look at it differently today?

No one seems to object to modern Arthurian adventures. Jane Yolen likes to say that King-Arthur-and-his-knights make up one of the earliest shared-world settings, although by no means the earliest. Tennyson, when he was doing his retellings of stories from Greek mythology (and the same applies to his Arthurian adventures in his Idylls of the King) remarked in a letter to a friend that he did not like to re-tell a story if he thought it was simply a rechaufée, re-heated leftovers, but if he felt he had something to say that was more than could be found in the original, then he felt that his version was worth doing. And, as T.S. Eliot said: only bad poets borrow — good poets steal.

You’re a charter member of the Int’l Wizard of Oz Club, and you’ve been writing articles about fantasy literature and resurrecting lost stories for many years, as well as writing short stories. How does it feel to be publishing your first novel?

I’m delighted to have it in print. I remember some years back I was on a panel at a science-fiction convention about writing stories based on legends/myths. I tried to say something about Bradamant, and the moderator kept shutting me up, I think because she thought an unpublished novel could not be worth talking about. I take a good deal of satisfaction in thinking that now I can tell people about it, and if they think it sounds interesting, it’s possible for them to get it.
Bradamant’s Quest comes to us from FTL Publications of Minnesota, which offers a free peek at the first chapter.

21 October 2011

Ness on Nesbit

Gracious, I missed that Mari Ness at Tor was reviewing all the books by E. Nesbit!

I didn’t see a mention of how in her golden period Nesbit wrote for The Strand, so her books appeared first in that magazine in chunks and only later were collected. That helps to explain their episodic rhythm, especially in the early years.

Ness gets rather cutting on a time-travel novel that I haven’t been able to complete, Harding’s Luck:

Nesbit also choose[s] to make Dickie into a poor crippled orphan, and thus, Extremely Good, so Good that Dickie is willing to return to poverty and disability, giving up the pony, just to turn a homeless beggar and thief into a hardworking, honest man.

I’m not certain that any writer could have pulled this off; certainly Nesbit couldn’t. I can believe in Nesbit’s magical rings and wishes; I can certainly believe in her portraits of children who do thoroughly selfish and foolish things or spend more time thinking about food and fun than about being good. But not this. . . .

By 1907/1908, when Nesbit was planning and writing Harding’s Luck, she was well established as a popular, clever, children’s writer. But then, as more than occasionally now, “popular,” “clever,” and “children’s” did not add up, in the eyes of important (and generally male) critics, as “good” or “of literary merit.” . . . Nesbit, on personal, friendly terms with some of these literary critics, knew what they were looking for, and she was prepared to change her writing to meet it. Thus the serious tone of this book, and its often self-conscious “literary” feel.
That’s not a selling review, is it? The title of this illustration by H. R. Millar might sum up the tone that Ness disliked in the book: “It hurt, but Dickie liked it.”

I think Nesbit was much more comfortable writing about upper and upper-middle-class children, though they might (as in The Railway Children) be in danger of falling into genteel poverty. Poor Dickie might have made her nervous, in her good Fabian Socialist way, so he had to end up better than life.

20 October 2011

Creating Value

Of all Lemony Snicket’s comments on the Occupy Wall Street movement and the financial/political elite’s reaction to it (also ensconced on Neil Gaiman’s website), I thought this was the most incisive:

Money is like a child—rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.
When we start implicitly comparing mortgage barons to Count Olaf, they should know they’re in trouble.

19 October 2011

Ormondroyd Lost and Found

On Saturday morning, I finished reading Edward Ormondroyd’s Time at the Top, which features as its narrator a Bay Area–author named Ormondroyd. However, that character doesn’t quite match the author described on the back jacket flap: no kids, no day job. That led me to wonder about the real man.

On Saturday afternoon, I opened an email from author Marc Tyler Nobleman reporting that he was about to post Ormondroyd’s first interview about his writing career, in two parts.

Now that’s service.

Actually, the interview didn’t answer my questions, and in fact raised others. But it was very interesting, including this exchange:
Did you ever consider a sequel to David and the Phoenix?

I not only considered it, I was fool enough to write it. Disaster! I threw away the whole book.

What was the sequel about? When did you write it? Did you save no copy?

Well, the Phoenix was irrevocably gone, so I substituted a gnome-like figure, and he and David set out on a quest, carried by a flying suitcase...but of course without the old Phoenix it was as useless as Gone with the Wind without Scarlett O'Hara. I can't remember when I committed this literary crime. No copy. My wastebasket is a receptacle of no return.
I think that reflects how the character of the Phoenix so dominated that book, and David was fairly blank. Any sequel would also have risked undercutting the first book’s theme of accepting the cycle of life and death. Ormondroyd did write a sequel to Time at the Top, once again featuring an author named Ormondroyd, and I may have to look that up now.

18 October 2011

Uncle Henry’s Mortgage Crisis

The second chapter of The Emerald City of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s fifth and, he thought, final Oz novel, starts with an echo of the first:
Dorothy Gale lived on a farm in Kansas, with her Aunt Em and her Uncle Henry. It was not a big farm, nor a very good one, because sometimes the rain did not come when the crops needed it, and then everything withered and dried up. Once a cyclone had carried away Uncle Henry’s house, so that he was obliged to build another; and as he was a poor man he had to mortgage his farm to get the money to pay for the new house. Then his health became bad and he was too feeble to work. The doctor ordered him to take a sea voyage and he went to Australia and took Dorothy with him. That cost a lot of money, too.

Uncle Henry grew poorer every year, and the crops raised on the farm only bought food for the family. Therefore the mortgage could not be paid. At last the banker who had loaned him the money said that if he did not pay on a certain day, his farm would be taken away from him.
This was, of course, before American society decided that it was both heartless and wasteful to let medical costs force people into bankruptcy. Now, of course, we’ve progressed to... Never mind.

In this book, published in 1910, Dorothy comes up with a solution to the family’s financial straits: occupy the Emerald City! Or at least move there. Baum explains that Oz under Princess Ozma has a very different economic system, as I quoted back here, which means there are no poor people.

17 October 2011

Terrible Lizards and Giant Squids

I spotted this “Raptor Hoodie” in a catalogue last week.

Originally raptors were daylight birds of prey: hawks, eagles, harriers, falcons, and so on. Paleontologists borrowed the term as a suffix for a set of dinosaurs: Velociraptors, Utahraptors, Pyroraptors… One Jurassic Park phenomenon later, and the dinosaurs have totally stolen the term “raptor” from the birds. Is that any way to treat your evolutionary descendants?

In other paleontological news, I checked in on “Giant prehistoric krakens may have sculpted self-portraits using ichthyosaur bones” at io9.com. A geologist suggested that an unusual formation of ichthyosaur fossils was created by a Triassic giant squid arranging them so their vertebrae formed a picture of itself on the ocean floor. Because giant squid used to be that vain.

Good comments sections are all too rare in today’s internet, but I appreciated artiofab’s remark on that story:
I think I speak for the entire paleontological community when I say: This is not what most of us do with our time, honestly.

16 October 2011

Pérez’s Panels in New Teen Titans: Games

One of the great pleasures of New Teen Titans: Games is the chance to revisit George Pérez’s art. He’s known for attention to detail, but he’s also a master of composition and page design.

So many comics artists have a limited repertoire of facial types and expressions. In superhero magazines, “handsome man” and “beautiful woman” get a particular workout. That makes it hard to tell characters apart. Pérez is famous for giving characters not only different faces (as shown above), but different repertoires of expression and different body languages. There’s never any problem distinguishing one of his characters from another.

And the panels! Working on extra-large pages in Games, and before the style of “decompressed” storytelling, Pérez produced a massive quantity of images. The average number of panels on a page is in the double digits. One page has 31 separate images.

The designs become very complex, particularly as the story splits into conflicts between individual Titans and matching villains. On a single page spread the narrative can switch among three or four storylines, or between flashbacks (outlined in red) and the present.

What’s more, one villain is monitoring events on TV screens while standing beside his exact scale-model of New York. The panels can thus shift from a real-life setting to a video image of that setting to a little replica of that setting. Yes, it’s more than occasionally confusing, but that mirrors the layering of the plot itself.

Early in the book Pérez shows team member Joe (Jericho) Wilson, who’s mute, spelling out T I T A N S in American Sign Language. His extra-thin panels convey the speed of Joey’s communication—a novel way to combine words and pictures in comics. Yet even in those thin panels, Pérez doesn’t just copy the same face, but shows Joey’s expression changing.

Pérez created Joey with writer Marv Wolfman with the idea that he would never have thought balloons. Readers would have to pick up what Joey’s thinking entirely through Pérez’s art and the other characters’ interactions. Very few other artists have been able to make the character work.

Pérez mixes up panels with thick borders and thin borders, or no borders. (In some comics, such changes have storytelling significance. Here most seem to be aesthetic choices only.) There are panels defined by darkness around shafts of light. There are panels defined by the single-color silhouette of an explosion around a character, as shown at top. (Can you spot Starfire’s curves?)

One approach was so new to me that at first I thought it was a mistake: in certain small panels without borders and backgrounds, Pérez and his inkers and colorists leave out the lines delineating a character’s white clothing from the paper. The second time I saw it, I realized it was just another way Pérez was stretching his style.

COMING UP: Some favorite pages.

15 October 2011

In the Arena with Greg Fishbone, Author of Galaxy Games

Today Greg Fishbone zooms through Oz and Ends as part of his planet-spanning Galaxy Games blog tour.

Greg and I went to the same high school, but just far enough apart that we were never in the same building until we became colleagues and friends through SCBWI New England. I’ve had the pleasure of watching Galaxy Games expand from a pinprick of fusion energy into a growing hardcover series (and I’m already hooked on volume 2).

We didn’t have a locker room, but Greg kindly granted this interview anyway.
For folks who weren’t in the room at the time, please tell the story of how you invented the Galaxy Games.

The room in question was a breakout session at an SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles. An editor was presenting a workshop on writing series for middle grade boys. She assigned us all genres in which to create a pitch, on the spot. Mine was sports. Since you were in the room, you heard me give a pitch for something I called “Galaxy Games” that was a lot like how the Galaxy Games series really did turn out.

For folks who were in the room but weren’t inside my head, I can go into even greater detail. Actually, I was disappointed at being given sports as a genre instead of fantasy or science fiction, which I thought of as my strengths. I follow sports, but I’d never read any sports series books, and I’d certainly never considered writing them. The first thing that came to mind was a manga called Slam Dunk, which follows a boys’ basketball team through a season of ups and downs. Another thing I had in mind was a baseball movie called The Bad News Bears, which was full of funny moments and dysfunctional players. The third thing was aliens, and lots of them. That’s where my high concept came from: The Bad News Bears in space, battling aliens in a season-long sports tournament.

How has Galaxy Games grown over the years since you first had the idea?

My original idea was to write a whole bunch of short chapter books. Now I have a smaller number of thicker and more complex books. The starting point has also changed. Originally, Earth was already in the tournament on Page 1 and we really didn’t know how. The Challengers tells that story and lets us see the first aliens arrive and the chain of wacky events that turn an ordinary Earth kid like Tyler Sato into a planetary team captain.

As a writing colleague, I've heard about a lot of your interests—the law, website design, real estate, schools, the Red Sox, wife and child—but until I read Galaxy Games: The Challengers I didn’t know about your experience with Japan. Tell us about that and how it fed into the book.

I studied in Tokyo during law school and have spent more time in Japan than in any other country outside the United States. I’m also a fan of manga and had an anime/manga style in mind while I was writing the series. When it came to fleshing out a team of kids from all over Earth, it was natural for me to put a special focus on Japan.

Are you choosing other Galaxy Games settings based on places you’ve traveled? Aruba? Ossmendia?

Since you’re read some early chapters from Book #2, you know that there will be a prominent character from Aruba for which I’m thankful to have spent some time in the Caribbean. I’m quickly running out of places I can write from actual experience, though, unless there’s a travel grant I can apply for. Ossmendia is like Europe in that I’ve only been there in my imagination.

Who or what are some of your influences as a storyteller? What storytellers did you find funny as a kid? What science fiction did you like most?

My mother is my greatest influence as a storyteller. She can take any incident and make it more dramatic and humorous at the same time. For science fiction influences, I’ll go with Isaac Asimov, Madeleine L’Engle, Piers Anthony, Frederic Brown, and Douglas Adams. For humor, I’ll single out Bugs Bunny.

Tyler Sato, the hero of Galaxy Games, gets a reputation as the best young athlete on the planet, but his skills are really average. And his choices for Earth’s true top young athletes seem questionable (though el Gatito would disagree). Were you aiming to write a sports book for kids who aren’t terribly good at any sports?

I could have made all the kids into superstars, but what fun would that be? My goal was that each member of the team would be chosen for exactly the wrong reason but would turn out to have some other quality, trait, or skill that would make them exactly the right player to be on the team at exactly the right time.

The Galaxy Games series takes the structure of a sports book: the training, the team dynamics, the higher and higher levels, the “big game” that decides everything. But a lot of the competitions are iffy. Adults keep trying to fix the games. The players all take advantage of loopholes in the rules. What does that tell our planet’s young athletes and sports fans?

That I’m a cynic? No, that’s not right. I think the key point is that sports is about more than just what happens on the field during game time. There’s training, practice, the locker room, the clubhouse, the team bus, the owner’s box, the bleachers, the bench, the talk radio shows, and everything else. This can’t just be a story about kids playing a game because too much planetary honor is on the line.

Which Galaxy Games Challenger do you identify with most?

Tyler Sato.
Thanks, Greg! And now, today’s Galaxy Games puzzle piece.

14 October 2011

What Made Maus YA?

More remarks on our cultural assumption that comics must be appropriate for kids from Dwight Garner’s review of Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus in the New York Times:
When the book won a young-adult award from librarians, he was peeved. “I’d made something as mature as I was capable of making, and it seemed unfair that I was a victim of a prejudice against my medium,” he says. Ultimately, he says, “I reconciled to the fact that if ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ can be considered children’s books, I can settle for ‘Maus’ being on those shelves.”
Gulliver’s Travels is considered appropriate for young readers because of its fantastic element, and because many retellings have been bowdlerized of such scenes as Gulliver putting out a fire for the Lilliputians. Huckleberry Finn gets on that shelf because it has a child as protagonist and narrator. Maus is there because it’s in comics form, with talking animals.

13 October 2011

Art from Oz

The Australian picture-book artist Ben Wood is aiming to post an Oz illustration every day of this month. Above is his take on Ojo the Lucky, the Munchkin boy at the heart of L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz, as well as the Glass Cat. I also particularly like his Cowardly Lion and Wogglebug.

My reading of Ojo is that he’s a bit bipolar. For most of Patchwork Girl, he’s prone to crying jags and complaining about bad luck. In Ojo of Oz (1933), Ruth Plumly Thompson even refers to him at times as “depressed.”

Yet in books where he’s not the star, just one of the crowd, as in Glinda of Oz, Ojo tends to be as chirpy as he appears above. The first mood is a lot easier to make interesting, especially since he also has a habit of overstepping rules that people have specifically warned him about.

In other Oz-art news, Bill Campbell at The Oz Enthusiast has opened a Zazzle store.

12 October 2011

What “Urban” Means

Two years ago, I took note of comments from bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle and librarian Betsy Bird about white adults who don’t want to take home books about children of color, but also don’t want to acknowledge that (perhaps even to themselves).

This month Bird offered another report at Fuse #8 about how some parents avoid the awkward words:

Parents these days speak in code. As a New York children’s librarian I had to learn this the hard way. Let’s say they want a folktale about a girl outwitting a witch. I pull out something like McKissack’s Precious and the Boo Hag and proudly hand it to them. When I do, the parent scrunches up their nose and I think to myself, “Uh-oh.” Then they say it. “Yeah, um . . . we were looking for something a little less . . . urban.”

Never mind that the book takes places in the country. In this day and age “urban” means “black,” so any time a parents wants to steer a child clear of a book they justify it with the U word, as if it’s the baleful city life they wish to avoid (this in the heart of Manhattan, I will point out).
Of course, “urban” has a different value when paired with “fantasy,” and the result is marketed to adults and teens. What “urban fantasy” is may not be entirely clear (here’s one attempt at definition from RDW). But the scariness of the modern American city evidently has more literary value in supernatural thrillers.

11 October 2011

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

For each of the four Oz-book adaptations he’s scripted for Marvel Comics, Eric Shanower has drawn a variant cover for at least one issue.

For the first four of those covers, Shanower mainly followed the character designs that Skottie Young created for the series, adapting them slightly to his own style.

On this season’s Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, however, we see Eric’s own characterizations, in the style he developed for Adventures in Oz, as influenced by John R. Neill.

Or, as we traditionalists like to think, the way those characters really look.

10 October 2011

Weekly Robin Special: The Games Plotters Play

Saturday’s weekly Robin special discussed how Marv Wolfman and George Pérez developed New Teen Titans: Games over more than two decades, and how Wolfman believes (for the purpose of a publicity interview, but no doubt sincerely as well) that that delay benefited the book.

Indeed, at some points in recent years the book could not have been published. Its action involves attacks on New York City buildings, bombs planted in the UN and other landmarks, an attempt to shoot a passenger jet out of the sky, and, at the climax, the tops of skyscrapers crumbling (as shown above).

In late 2001 Pérez responded to a question about whether Games would ever appear by stating, “a major scene in the story took place on the World Trade Center towers. That pretty much ends the speculation for me.” But more years have passed, that scene was changed, and those images, while powerful, are no longer so raw. [Ironically, New Teen Titans, vol. 2, #20, from 1986, shows Donna Troy nearly flying the Titans jet into the World Trade Center. Oops!]

Still, it seems that the long gestation time blurred some details of the Games plan. The way the book was created, Pérez typed up an incomplete plot outline and then went home to draw pages, filling out the action visually for Wolfman to script later. By the time they came back to those pages, Pérez no longer remembered how he expected certain images to fit together. And then the team rewrote their story with a new ending and more character moments.

As a result, some parts of the plot don’t quite fit together. Early on, the Titans spot secret agent King Faraday using all the resources of the federal government to pressure them into helping him on his mission. Yet the book has shown Faraday losing power within the bureaucracy, and the Titans have their own high connections. More important, despite knowing that Faraday is willing to manipulate them, Nightwing and the Titans never question the evidence he shows them.

At one point young Danny Chase is grazed by a bullet; several pages later, he’s shielded from six bullets. Three different times, things blow up in front of him. A character named the Squire suddenly feels his body age or deteriorate, but it’s unclear how that happens, and most of the other secondary villains just explode. And I never got what powers the Squire’s musical instrument is supposed to have.

The villains prove that they can plant bombs and lasers all over New York, unleash giant robots, take over all television broadcasts, and make nasty creatures appear from nothing. Yet the whole nefarious plot requires taking over one building and its power supply. Because without that, the US won’t believe that really bad things can happen. Yeah.

In the end, the plot turns out to involve one crazy person secretly recruiting several more crazy people. (I use the term “crazy” because there’s no realistic depiction of mental illness; the characters’ conditions are excuses for them to behave unreasonably as need be.) Wolfman and Pérez invented villains for this project to reflect various types of video games popular in 1988. By the end of this volume they’re almost all dead, with no great loss to the world—not that that stops comic-book characters from coming back.

The Titans split up to battle those separate foes, then gradually team up to triumph, underscoring this series’ recurring theme of sticking together. Some of those conflicts weren’t compelling for me, but perked up as they intertwined. Pérez and Wolfman make especially good use of Jericho’s power to enter and take over other people’s bodies.

Of course, I never read the New Teen Titans for the villains or the fights. (Remember that fish-god-thing from the museum? I thought not.) I read it for the heroes and their interactions. Games brings back the Titans’ private lives and relationships, even Donna’s relentlessly loving marriage with Terry Long.

I’d have been happy with a few more glimpses of Dick and Kory as a couple, but Pérez made sure to show Nightwing shirtless for the final pages of the fight; some traditions are indispensable. Koriand’r comes through as gorgeous, strong, and passionate, and she also thinks through her opponent’s weaknesses. This is especially welcome in a month when DC introduced a new version of Koriand’r who appears emotionally and mentally vacant, and—hard as this is to believe—even less dressed.

My favorite of the “private” moments on first reading was Dick having to contact all of Joey Wilson’s recent girlfriends on what, way back in 1988, we called “answering machines.” (At another high-tech moment, Donna holds up a CD and calls it “a hard disk.”)

At the end, we see several past Titans joining the current lineup before one of their beloved picnics together. Titans Tower doesn’t look the way it once did, but once again we’ve seen what’s really important: the team stands tall.

COMING UP: Pérez’s panels.

09 October 2011

The New Teen Titans: Games Pocket Universe

As the weekly Robin started to discuss yesterday, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez began mapping out New Teen Titans: Games in 1988. At that time, a young telekinetic named Danny Chase was one of the Titans, Batman’s young crime-fighting partner was Jason Todd, and Nightwing was feeling estranged from his mentor.

Within months, Jason was killed, Nightwing had responded by cutting Danny from the team, and Tim Drake was slipping into the role of Robin—in a story initially written by Wolfman and drawn by Pérez. Those developments meant that Games no longer reflected current Titans continuity. As time passed, its storyline slipped even further behind the DC Universe.

Soon the Games pages that Pérez had drawn belonged in a pocket universe of their own. Rather than toss those aside or rework them, he and Wolfman proceeded with their story. The result is what DC once called an “Elseworlds” story, though less radically redesigned than usual.

This version of DC reality offers starkly different fates for Danny Chase, master spy King Faraday, and Cyborg’s friend Sarah Simms, who works with children who have prosthetics. In this continuity, Tim Drake wears the first, bare-legged Robin uniform, and Dick and Bruce Wayne exchange warm handshakes, as in the pre-Crisis universe.

But otherwise, the Titans are very much like what we fans from the 1980s remember. In fact, in some ways they might be better. After the main action in Games, Pérez shows us that Gar Logan has stopped wearing his green hair in a mullet, which offers hope that Dick will never go down that route.

We can imagine a brighter future for the whole team. Donna might find a less ludicrous costume more quickly and not lose her family. Joey might never go mad. Dick and Kory could live together happily ever after. In sum, Games offers select comics fans the chance to imagine that things will always stay the way they remembered.

The biggest difference lies in the story of Danny, the “Cousin Oliver” of the Titans. When Wolfman invented that character, full of braggadocio and insults, he planned for the young teen to mature, and hoped that eventually people would recognize his good qualities. (Even Pérez didn’t care for Danny.) But readers didn’t come around. Wolfman wrote him off the team, and eventually out of existence.

Games offers an alternative path for Danny, and perhaps his finest moment. Wolfman scripts him realizing he’s reached his limits and then going beyond to protect people, making a big sacrifice in the process. In this continuity, Danny Chase remains a Titan, and becomes a hero.

TOMORROW: Plots within plots.

08 October 2011

Weekly Robin Special: Let the Games Begin

DC published the New Teen Titans: Games graphic novel this season, more than twenty years after scripter Marv Wolfman and penciler George Pérez met to map out their story. Such a big event demands more than a single weekly Robin posting.

I’ll start on a personal note: I had stopped reading the New Teen Titans magazine before DC Comics first announced back in the late 1980s that this book was on its way, so I’m not one of those fans who’ve waited for Games for over two decades.

On the other hand, I have been waiting for two years since DC announced that Pérez had resumed work and that it would soon publish the book. Fortunately, having grown to more than twice the age of the heroes in the magazine, I’d developed enough patience to handle that delay.

In fact, the book has benefited in many ways from the long wait. According to Wolfman’s comments in an interview at Bleeding Cool by new Teen Titans scripter Scott Lobdell:
In 1988, I had come up with the basic storyline, but I was then suffering a terrible writer’s block, the only one in my career, thank God, although it lasted 5 years. George, then-editor Barbara Randall Kesel and I talked over what I’d come up with, and because of my block George went home and typed up the overview, breaking it down and filling it out with ideas, etc. We actually print that plot in the Games hardcover complete with annotations so people can see what had been and what was then changed. He then drew between 60-70 pages before going into a Titans block and stopped. I never dialoged any pages since I was waiting for them all to be finished so I could write them all at once. Also, I was hoping my block would go away as didn’t want to do less than my best on it.

But when we finally came back to the story 23 years later, since we had not really worked out the last 50 plus pages in any depth, and because neither of us could remember what we intended decades before, and the plot, frankly, would have felt dated, we decided to come up with a new story, utilizing and making sense of all the pages George had already drawn, yet written to have an entirely new meaning. I started re-plotting the story, adding in a new villains, plot twists and more, as well as suggesting we change the major villain who was actually behind the whole plot, which was new as well. We also had to come up with all new character-driven scenes to make what was supposed to have been a pure action story into something much more. (As a companion piece to the regular book we were working on, a solid action book would have worked. Twenty-three years later that would not have been satisfying to any of us who had been waiting so long.)

Knowing the new character scenes which George and I worked on together, batting ideas back and forth as we always had, I then was able to dialog the earlier, already drawn pages, in a way that would cleanly set up where we were going to go. When you read it you will assume that was what was intended all along, because the copy and art work perfectly together, but it’s new. George and I would go back and forth and I’d rewrite the ideas and we finally had a story that was much, much stronger than had originally been designed.
That delay also meant that Games has ended up standing outside the standard DC Comics continuity—which might well be a good thing.

TOMORROW: The weekly Robin explores the New Teen Titans: Games pocket universe.

07 October 2011

Getting All Hyper

At Salon, Paul LaFarge discusses the fate of hypertext fiction, celebrated as the coming new thing in the 1990s and forgotten today.

Born into a world that wasn’t quite ready for it, and encumbered with lousy technology and user-hostile interface design, it got a bad reputation, at least outside of specialized reading circles. At the same time, it’s impossibly hard to create, one of the only modes of fiction I know of which is more demanding than the novel. (And then add to that the need to create a user interface, and maybe a content-management system, and is it going to be an app? Suddenly your antidepressants aren’t nearly strong enough to get you out of bed.)

It’s tempting to leave the story there, and to let the hypernovel, or whatever you want to call it, become part of the technological imagination of the past, like the flying car. But I believe that the promise of hypertext fiction is worth pursuing, even now, or maybe especially now. On the one hand, e-books are beginning to offer writers technical possibilities that, being human, we’re going to be unable to resist. On the other, the form fits with life now. So much of what we do is hyperlinked and mediated by screens that it feels important to find a way to reflect on that condition, and fiction, literature, has long afforded us the possibility of reflection.

Just as the novel taught us how to be individuals, 300 years ago, by giving us a space in which to be alone, but not too alone — a space in which to be alone with a book — so hypertext fiction may let us try on new, non-linear identities, without dissolving us entirely into the web.
LaFarge name-checks several print precursors to digital hypertexts: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-69), Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), Júlio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963), and Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London (1989).

He also identifies Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl” and Geoff Ryman’s “253” as the possible “first classics of the genre, both for the quality of their prose and because they found ways to make their fragmentary forms feel purposeful.”

Jackson took the title and some inspiration for her hypertext work from The Patchwork Girl of Oz, of course. Ryman is the author of Was, a fictional study of L. Frank Baum, Judy Garland, and the Oz phenomenon in American culture. I’m just saying.

06 October 2011

“Books…want to be a whole lot cheaper”

At GigaOM, Mathew Ingram contemplates the falling prices of the Kindle and other simple electronic readers, and the falling prices of simple genre fiction in digital form:
…books don’t want to be free; they just want to be a whole lot cheaper than they are. And when you make books (not all books, but some) $4.99 or $1.99 or even 99 cents, people will buy more of them. . . .

There’s even the possibility that books could be free and still make money: Amazon has an ad-supported Kindle, so why not extend that model to the books themselves? Magazine writers publish their content in an ad-supported medium, so why not books? Authors such as Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote many of their novels on a monthly basis as magazine supplements. And Amazon apparently already has a patent that covers advertising-supported e-books.

As we’ve pointed out before, the book is evolving as it becomes digital — there are Kindle Singles that aren’t much longer than a magazine-length feature, and some magazines and newspapers are packaging features in just that format, as well as newer services like Byliner that have been commissioning custom content. A free Kindle could be just the beginning of an explosion of book-like content from Amazon and others: The company is already talking about a “Netflix for books” that would offer content for a monthly fee.

Why not offer a subscription to an author, so I can automatically get whatever he or she writes, regardless of length or format? This would blend the worlds of blogging, Kindle Singles, magazine-length features and novels into one stream of content, and I’d be willing to bet more people would read more as a result. The printed book, as Seth Godin wrote recently, is a fetish of sorts, like an expensive watch: something we buy because we like to look at it, but something that is no longer really functional or necessary. In the end, that’s likely to be a good thing, not a bad one.
I doubt that people would sign up for anything an author writes. But they might well sign up for notifications (and one-click purchasing) of anything she writes, so they can be sure of the genre, main character, or other necessary qualities. If such a system takes place, it will surely change the nature of the writing, just as we can tell where Dickens broke off his serialized installments while making sure readers would come back for the next.

05 October 2011

The Danger with Giving Her Sharp Objects

From the opening chapter of L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz:

The little girl stood still to watch until the train had disappeared around a curve; then she turned to see where she was.

The shed at Hugson’s Siding was bare save for an old wooden bench, and did not look very inviting. As she peered through the soft gray light not a house of any sort was visible near the station, nor was any person in sight; but after a while the child discovered a horse and buggy standing near a group of trees a short distance away. She walked toward it and found the horse tied to a tree and standing motionless, with its head hanging down almost to the ground. It was a big horse, tall and bony, with long legs and large knees and feet. She could count his ribs easily where they showed through the skin of his body, and his head was long and seemed altogether too big for him, as if it did not fit. His tail was short and scraggly, and his harness had been broken in many places and fastened together again with cords and bits of wire. The buggy seemed almost new, for it had a shiny top and side curtains. Getting around in front, so that she could look inside, the girl saw a boy curled up on the seat, fast asleep.

She set down the bird-cage and poked the boy with her parasol.
Image from the opening pages of the Marvel Comics adaptation of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, drawn by Skottie Young from a script by Eric Shanower.

04 October 2011

The First Little Boy to Receive The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

PBA Galleries is selling an unusual copy of the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz this week:
With ink inscription on front free endpaper, “Richard Adlai Watson, from his Godfather R.J. Street, May 23, 1900”; [bibliographers] Bienvenue & Schmidt note that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had its official publication on September 1, 1900,” making this a very early pre-publication copy. In fact, it pre-dates the copy given by [L. Frank] Baum to his brother, which he noted in the May 28, 1900 presentation inscription as “the first copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that left the hands of the publisher.” The present copy was known to Justin Schiller, and in 1970 he speculated that Street was somehow involved in the publication of the book, and took a fresh copy from the press before Baum had a chance to get one.
This thing called the internet allows us to learn more about the people involved in this gift.

Richard Adlai Watson was born 16 Jan 1893 in Buenos Aires, according to his WW2 draft card, so the inscription date indicates that he received the book when he was seven. He went on to Yale, where he wrote melodramatic fiction. After graduating in 1915, he joined the American Bronze Company in Pennsylvania under his brother John Warren Watson, older by ten years and a UPenn grad. The brothers then founded the John Warren Watson Company, which manufactured the “Watson stabilator” and other shock absorbers for automobiles. They worked together for decades.

Since R. J. Street identified himself as Richard’s godfather, I guessed that his first initial stood for “Richard,” and searched for “Richard J. Street.” In 1900 a man of that name was the head cashier at the First National Bank of Chicago. Three years earlier, a guide to US banks said that Street “has a record of twenty-five years’ continuous service with the bank. He has had a very large share in the building up of that institution, and is recognized as the semper fidelis of the First National, and the presiding genius of its affairs.”

What’s the likely connection between Street and the Watson family? The Watson brothers were sons of Thomas T. Watson, born in Ireland about 1848. According to an article in The Insurance Press in 1917, the elder Watson worked for the Equitable Life Assurance Society for thirty-five years, starting as a clerk in Chicago around 1872, the same time Richard J. Street was starting at the First National. So I’m guessing the two young businessmen became friends. From 1889 on, Watson headed the company’s offices in Argentina and Brazil—which is why Richard was born overseas (though he might have been sent back to Chicago for schooling).

The main question is, of course, how Street might have given young Richard a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz even before its author sent a copy to his brother, especially since (contrary to Schiller’s good guess) he was not involved in publishing. And on that I got nothing. Perhaps Street was so important in Chicago business that somebody at the publishing company slipped him a copy. Perhaps he simply dated the inscription wrong—though we expect precision from head cashiers. Perhaps Baum took the first copy from the press but didn’t inscribe it to his brother for another couple of weeks.

02 October 2011

Smith and Doyle on Drake

Today artist Ming Doyle signs copies of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, a graphic retelling of the events in Cynthia Leitich Smith’s novel Tantalize, at the Brookline Booksmith.

In honor of that event, this weekly Robin quotes from Smith and Doyle’s Newsarama interview:

Nrama: What characters in comics would you like to write/draw a story with?

Smith: I’ve always been fond of Tim Drake/Robin. I suppose it’s the YA writer in me. I enjoy the intensity of young, smart heroes. I’d love to write him in either graphic or prose form.

Doyle: Tim Drake’s actually a character I have a lot of interest in as well! In general, I’ve always been drawn to the Bat family and its associates.
Smith has also expressed her admiration for Wonder Woman. Of course, that was before the DC Universe’s latest retelling.

01 October 2011

Cute Couples

Yesterday Anita Silvey’s Book-a-Day Almanac spotlighted The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams:
Published first in 1958, The Rabbits’ Wedding features black and white rabbit protagonists. The artist most likely chose these colors to help delineate the two characters in a limited-color book, but adults interpreted this lovely romp in the forest as an endorsement of interracial marriage.

As Leonard Marcus recounts the controversy in Minders of Make-Believe, the Montgomery Home News condemned the book, then Alabama politicians rallied against the book and spoke out against the director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division, Emily Reed.
Showing how much things have changed, the most frequently challenged book in America last year was And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, a picture book about two male penguins who raise a chick together. Adults interpret that true story as an endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Some people just don’t like seeing certain cute little animals happy together.