31 March 2012

First Glimpse of Barsoom

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom books and I have never had a close encounter. But they were clearly significant to artist Ty Templeton, which he’s been exploring in his Bun Toons series and commentary. In 1975, at the age of twelve, young Templeton came across a John Carter comic book and quickly discovered its appeal.

30 March 2012

Santorum Speaking Out of Both Sides

On 12 March, Rick Santorum told a crowd, according to CNN: “I always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter. Because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.”

Santorum’s manager of speechwriting on this campaign is Seth Leibsohn. His staff also includes two “Senior Communications Advisors” and a “Senior Advisor and Media Consultant.” Loredana Vuoto tells prospective clients that she was “a speechwriter for Senator Rick Santorum (2001-2003).” When asked about a passage in his book It Takes a Family, Santorum claimed that his wife might have written it as a wholly uncredited ghostwriter.

But criticizing other people for doing what he’s been doing is nothing new for Santorum. When he last ran for office as an incumbent senator in 2006, his campaign website declared:
Commitment to Higher Education

In addition to Rick's support of ensuring that primary and secondary schools in Pennsylvania are equipped for success, he is equally committed to ensuring the every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education. Rick Santorum has supported legislative solutions that provide loans, grants, and tax incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable.

Rick Santorum supports increased funding for Pell Grants, and since 2001 funding for the Pell Grant program has increased by 47 percent. Pennsylvania students have benefited tremendously from Pell Grants; providing a college education for our state's youth who otherwise might not be able to afford one.

In addition, Rick has worked to strengthen the many higher education institutions across Pennsylvania from community colleges to four-year universities. Through grants and policy initiatives, Rick Santorum is proud to further the priorities of Pennsylvania's colleges and universities.
Santorum’s family history speaks to the value of higher education. He not only went to college, but he holds two graduate degrees (in business and law). His wife has a law degree. His mother went to college in the 1930s and later earned an advanced degree. His father was a clinical psychologist. His eldest child, twenty-year-old Elizabeth, is a student at the University of Dallas.

In contrast to that past policy and history, during his presidential campaign Santorum has repeatedly made statements like: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!”

That claim is, of course, untrue. When pressed on it, Santorum came up with two explanations, neither of which stand up to scrutiny. First, he claimed that Obama was overlooking people who would be better off getting non-college education or training—but the President already included those Americans in his original remarks on the importance of education.

Later, Santorum claimed that colleges indoctrinate students with “liberal” ideas, and then offered himself as an example of a student whose grades were lowered because of his political positions. People from his home state found that hard to believe since he attended Penn State, hardly a liberal bastion, and his professors recall him as highly ambitious but notably non-ideological. Santorum himself acknowledges that he didn’t move to the right of the Republican Party until later.

As with Santorum’s newly discovered opposition to teleprompters and speechwriters, his complaints about education policy were actually a manifestation of OIP Derangement Syndrome. The real emotion in Santorum’s remarks wasn’t concern for people who’d do better with non-collegiate technical training, but the visceral resentment apparent in his words “What a snob!”

29 March 2012

Don’t Mind Me—Just Go Ahead with Your Salad

After Art Spiegelman’s talk, a bunch of us from the Boston Comics Roundtable went out for dinner and chat about comics, electronic publishing, and electronic cigarettes.

After I’d ordered dinner, I realized that the other three folks at my end of the table were vegans. “Do you have a soy press?” “I’ve actually found some good sausages.” “There are some great restaurants in Cambridge.” (Of course.)

And then my dinner came. I’d ordered the Breakfast Burger: a hamburger with a fried egg, bacon, and cheese. We joked that the only way I could have ordered a less vegan dish would have been to ask for a smear of foie gras and a live oyster.

The Breakfast Burger was pretty good, really. I don’t think I’ll be hungry enough for another for at least a year. There was an odd moment when I realized that the warm liquid dripping on my fingers wasn’t burger juice but egg yolk. Hey, it was all animal protein.

28 March 2012

Spiegelman in Retrospection

Last night I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman at Northeastern University. During the Q&A at the end, an audience member asked what he was working on now, and Spiegelman explained that he had just gone through a period of, if I recall right, “forced retrospection.”

First came the opportunity to republish some of his earliest work, in Breakdowns. That involved revisiting his underground comics of the 1970s. I suspect very few people can casually review their activity during the ’70s without needing time to recover.

Then came the long-gestating Metamaus, a sprawling compilation of material that went into his two-volume masterwork Maus. More than 7,000 drawings, interviews, videos, and other raw material to be assembled in a book-DVD package.

Then the renowned comics festival at Angoulême invited Spiegelman to be president of its jury and receive the Grand Prix de la Ville, an honor which came with a career retrospective at the city museum. So he had to help organize that.

Spiegelman was back from France only four days when he spoke in Boston. He thus barely had his feet on home soil and was quite unsure what project he would take up next. But it’s clearly an interesting moment in his career, when past achievements have been so clearly laid out and codified.

27 March 2012

Oztober Returns Early Down Under

Exciting news from Bendigo!

Ben Wood is following up his “Oztober” marathon of Oz art last year with an exhibit at the Hudson’s Hub gallery starting this week. Prints are available for purchase.

Bendigo, Wikipedia tells me, was a gold-mining settlement in Victoria, Australia, that started to grow in the same decade that L. Frank Baum was born.

25 March 2012

“Robin Is a Shadow of a Shadow”

The last weekly Robin looked at two ways DC Comics responded to the unexpected popularity of its new Robin character in 1992. This is about a third, known as Robin 3000.

The project originated with Byron Preiss, a New York book packager who loved comics and sci-fi and constantly juggled a lot of projects. Among the titles he commissioned were Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien series and Sherwood Smith’s recent Oz sequels. Preiss died in a car accident in 2005, still juggling.

In the mid-1980s, Preiss approached the comics artist P. Craig Russell with the idea of producing a futuristic Tom Swift comic for Simon & Schuster, which then held the license for that technophilic teen. Preiss wrote the script with Steve Ringgenberg.

Russell recalled the project at length, as quoted on this webpage about his work:
It was around ’85 or ’86. . . . after just having finished adaptations of works by the likes of Maeterlinck, Kipling, and Wilde I thought it would be fun to draw a space opera with all the sorts of hardware and futuristic backgrounds I had not drawn since Killraven. A lark. “You know...for kids.” . . .

I had never worked on a project in which the script was being re-written in the course of drawing it. I also had never had to deal, albeit second hand, with such a hands-on art director as I had at S & S. I would send in pages to Byron who would take them to S & S, and then relay to me the needed changes. . . .

…it was finally finished, 58 pages and a cover designed by [Jim] Steranko (an 8 by 11 xerox layout that looked like he tossed it off in a matter of minutes and was absolutely spot-on in its dynamics and composition. I followed it exactly). Nothing happened. It was slated for S & S’s Spring schedule. It was slated for S & S’s Fall schedule. It was slated for Spring. Then Fall. Finally it was slated for bupkis! S & S was not going to be publishing graphic novels.
Preiss’s business model meant he constantly had to sell new titles to pay the costs of current projects while waiting for royalties on those that hit big. So he couldn’t afford to let Tom Swift 3000 die. He held onto Russell’s finished pages waiting for an opportunity.

And then the Tim Burton Batman movie was a huge hit. Tim Drake as Robin was a big hit. The comics market exploded with speculators buying lots of product, especially if it combined an established brand name and a #1 issue.

So Preiss sold DC Comics on the Tom Swift material rewritten to be a variant Batman adventure—what the post-Crisis publisher calling “Elseworlds,” meaning “stories that don’t count as part of our official continuity, even though less than a decade ago we wiped out everything but our official continuity.”
Tom Swift became Tom Wayne, descendant of Bruce Wayne and protégé of Bruce Wayne XXVIII, who had taken up the mantle of Batman a millennium on. Tom Swift 3000 was now Robin 3000! (Officially, the two-issue miniseries is titled Batman: Robin 3000, but the biggest logo on the cover was the same one created for the Robin series.)

Russell explained the necessary changes:
Tom would be re-incarnated as Robin in the year 3000 and new material would be added to incorporate Batman and bracket the story. And why is this guy running around who is now called Robin but is not dressed like him? Um... ’cause he’s undercover... yeah, that’s it, he’s undercover, that’s the ticket. So I called back my ‘Tom’ model, now married, a daddy, and a good 25 pounds heavier and drew the new 18 pages and produced a new cover for the second volume—my Wally Wood/EC Comics/Sci-Fi homage.
The result looks nice, with a mid-1980s MTV vibe on good paper, but it doesn’t read well. It doesn’t draw on the traditional themes of the Robin saga, such as coming of age, inheritance, and justice. Instead, the story’s heart is definitely in Tom Swift territory, all about fantastic flying machines.

Furthermore, the lettering shows how Preiss’s staff crammed the “Tom Wayne” name into existing word balloons. (In addition, Ringgenberg’s name was written poorly enough that many websites credit “Stevev Ringgenberg.”)

As with the Robin miniseries of the same vintage, copies of Robin 3000 are relatively common in US comics shops; more recent comic books are harder to find because, once the comics market bubble burst, they were printed in much smaller numbers.

24 March 2012

Names to Conjure With

Back in the 1970s, my family attended some American Chemical Society conferences because my dad was active in the Chemical Education Division. At one of those events Sherwood “Sherry” Rowland appeared.

That was a big deal because it was the height of the controversy over Rowland’s research showing that chlorofluorocarbons reduce the ozone layer in the atmosphere. Reportedly the CFC manufacturers had hired a scientist to travel around to Rowland’s talks, demanding equal time to raise doubts. (It’s not unlike climate-change deniers today, and in fact some people confuse the two issues.)

Despite the industry objections, the US government and others outlawed CFCs within a few years. In 1985, a paper in Nature reported a growing hole in the ozone layer at the South Pole. (It’s since started to shrink.) Ten years later Rowland and his colleagues shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery. I thought back to my fleeting meeting with the future laureate when he died this month at the age of eighty-four.

But I also thought back to Sherry Rowlands, the call girl whom political consultant Dick Morris tried to impress by phoning the White House during their appointments. When Rowlands became notorious in 1996, I remember wondering, “Is that her real name or her professional name? What kind of call girl would name herself after a controversial scientist?” I never found out the answer.

Nor whether Reginald Denny, the truck driver who was assaulted during the 1992 L.A. riots, is any relation to the British character actor who performed opposite Buster Keaton, Jane Fonda, and Adam West.

23 March 2012

Darrell Issa’s Two Sides of the Stimulus

Debate continues over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the “stimulus bill” that President Barack Obama pushed to lessen the damage of the Bush-Cheney recession, widely called the worst economic downturn in the US since the Great Depression.

Some economists, such as Paul Krugman, felt that stimulus bill should have been larger in order to be fully effective. Others felt that the federal deficit is too large to allow such spending, even in an economic emergency. The consensus within that field is that this bill increased US employment by one to three million jobs in 2010.

Obama’s political rivals, of course, did not accept that consensus (and, to be sure, some economists agree with them). It becomes increasingly difficult to criticize the President about the economy, however, as the economy continues gradually to improve.

This week on FOX News, one Republican leader came up with a new form of criticism. As the Washington Post reported, Rep. Darrell Issa said:
Stimulus was supposed to be quick. In fact, they never intended to spend it and will not completely have effectively spent it until after the president’s re-elect. Always looking at how do you get the maximum hit when the president was up for re-elect.
The ever-suspicious Issa chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, so conceivably he might have actual evidence to back up this accusation. He could have brought up that evidence this week in hearings on the Department of Energy. Yet Issa didn’t do that. Instead, he attacked President Obama for saying something he never said.

In fact, the Recovery.gov website reports that as of this week $787 billion out of the $840 billion allocated in the bill (94%) had already been spent. In June 2011 the National Journal reported that Issa praised that website for providing information to the public.

Furthermore, back in September 2011 Issa was complaining about “the failed stimulus,” and warning against a “second stimulus” and “stimulus II.” So he obviously implied then that the spending was over and had had little effect.

Yet in claiming this week that the law was holding money back until the election and beyond, Issa implied that such spending does improve the economy enough to make voters happy.

When the Washington Post asked Issa’s staff for information, they offered nothing but an unrelated attack on an Obama campaign video. That’s because Issa’s conflicting and illogical criticisms aren’t based on facts. They’re a sign of OIP Derangement Syndrome. The Post labeled Issa’s remark with four Pinnochios, the rating it reserves for the worst “Whoppers.”

22 March 2012

Making Sense of Manga Man

Manga Man, written by Barry Lyga and illustrated by Colleen Doran, explores the premise of a typical manga hero coming to earth in an American high school.

Of course, there is no “typical manga hero.” Ryoko Kiyama is a typical “bishonen” or “beautiful boy” type from one genre of Japanese comics. He’s an adolescent with big eyes and extraordinary hair. He has a tendency to express emotions by turning into a cute, small chibi version of himself. Given his background, Ryoko is comfortable with barely explained gender-shifting, robot attacks, and sitting still to watch nature for several panels.

For Marissa Montaigne, the prettiest girl in her high school, Ryoko is a delightful change from her ex-boyfriend the football captain, but their attraction doesn’t go any deeper than that.

Artist Colleen Doran does a fine job of fitting characters in both styles into the same panels. Scripter Barry Lyga also seems to focus on that contrast rather than on the characters’ relationship, and I didn’t think all his ideas panned out.

For example, because Japanese comics are read right to left, a couple of times Ryoko finds himself moving opposite to his American classmates. He can even foresee the future in a limited, one-panel way. I kept waiting for that to become a major part of the plot, but it didn’t.

At another point, Ryoko reveals his ability to move into the gutters between panels, and thus to move supernaturally between scenes, again emphasizing his identity as a comics character. But then he shows his love interest, Marissa Montaigne, how to do this as well, meaning that she’s also living in a comics universe.

For me that shifts Manga Man from being about a comics character visiting the real world to a Japanese comics character visiting some form of American comics—but not one matching the conventions of any genre I know. And the American characters just weren’t developed enough to stand on their own without a genre background.

Then the reality shifts back again as Ryoko gets in trouble for fighting too rough with his romantic rival. He expects to cause no more damage than in his typical stories, but Marissa’s old boyfriend ends up on a ventilator. Which left me further confused since a long-standing complaint about American comics is that they show unrealistic violence without consequences.

21 March 2012

Farewell to Mordena

This afternoon I got word that my writing-group friend Mordena Babich had died. This wasn’t a surprise since I knew she’d entered hospice treatment after her second bout with cancer, but it rips a big hole in the world. Mordena left a young daughter and husband, many friends, and more fine manuscripts than she would accept praise for.

Here’s the start of her essay “Writing Aikido”:
This past January marks twenty years that I have been practicing Aikido. I’ve been a writer of children’s and young adult fiction for about twenty-five. At first glance there wouldn’t seem to be obvious parallels between fiction writing and Aikido, one pursuit almost entirely mental and the other almost entirely physical. Still, both involve a constant pursuit of excellence, daily practice, and a never-ending effort to improve, learn, and adjust. I’m finding lately that the two disciplines have more common ground than I ever imagined.

I first began to see the connections about five years ago, when I attended a writing workshop with the late Sid Fleischman, the grand old man of children’s literature. Among other bits of practical advice, Sid said that it takes two ideas to make a story, just as it takes two sticks to make a fire. One idea won’t catch fire; it’s just a stick without that second idea to rub against it.

Around this same time, Itoh Sensei often said in class that it takes two forces to take uke’s [the attacker’s] balance – movement in two directions. For example, up and forward. Without the forward, up is just a stretch. Without the up, forward is just pushing. 
At one meeting, long before I read this, I quoted Sid Fleischman’s point to Mordena, and she said, “I know! I’ve been looking for the second stick!” It’s always fun to have a writing-group colleague with the same vocabulary and literary likes.

Mordena pooh-poohed others’ praise or optimism about her own writing, but it definitely deserves more eyes. Check out “Beautiful Beast” at Hunger Mountain or “Blind Date,” part of a series she called Evil Coffee Shop.

20 March 2012

A Play Grows in Brooklyn

The New York Times’s SchoolBook webpages (“News, data, and conversation about schools in New York City”) is running a multi-part article about a production of The Wizard of Oz at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn. Helene Stapinski titled her autobiographical account “The Munchkins Are a Problem: One Mom’s Struggle to Direct the Fifth-Grade School Play.”

Part 1 starts in medias res before flashing back:
“Lollipop Guild! Lollipop Guild!” Gina, the director, shouts. The whole scene comes to a crashing stop. “Can you look a little happy? The witch is dead, you know.”
In Part 2, Stapinski doesn’t realize she’s found one of her Cowardly Lions:
Crockett — whom we haven’t played with since second grade, when he accidentally pushed Dean off the edge of a very high playground slide, resulting in an emergency room visit — is actually very sweet. But he is a rolling, flaming ball of energy, pretending to be a dog and barking at everyone in the room.
In Part 3, the director evidently buys a script off the back of a truck:
Over the Christmas holiday, Gina sends me a “Wizard of Oz” script, which she has purchased for $100 and says needs some tweaking in the opening scene. When I look at the script, I realize it needs more than tweaking. It needs to be totally rewritten. It is nothing like the film version or even the book version and involves blue people, yellow people and red people who narrate most of the story. . . .

Gina makes copies of the script and brings them to the first real rehearsal. She has failed to bind them together, though. She has also failed to put page numbers on them. These two seemingly small missteps add up to a catastrophe. The children, probably 20 out of 30 of them, drop the script repeatedly onto the floor and have no way of putting them back together correctly.
And since the headline says Stapinski ended up being the director instead of Gina, I sense more drama on the way. The articles don’t link from one weekly installment to the next, but clicking on Stapinski’s byline brings them all up.

(Photo above courtesy of the P.S. 29 community via the New York Times.)

19 March 2012

The Origin of the WASP

In yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, Yale librarian Fred Shapiro pointed out that he’d found a 1948 use of the sociological acronym WASP, nine years before the previously known earliest source. The term appeared in the New York Amsterdam News on 17 April:

In America, we find the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) ganging up to take their frustrations out on whatever minority group happens to be handy — whether Negro, Catholic, Jewish, Japanese or whatnot.
The writer was Stetson Kennedy, one of the main figures in Rick Bowers’s Superman vs. the Ku Klux Klan, which I reviewed for The Horn Book. At the time, Kennedy was on an anti-Klan crusade, and reports to New York’s leading African-American newspaper were a natural part of that. Within a few years, McCarthyism would drive him to Europe.

That also pushes the term back toward World War 2, when everyone knew WASP stood for Women Airforce Service Pilots.

18 March 2012

The Mysteries of I, Werewolf

After DC Comics introduced Tim Drake as the next Robin in late 1989, he became popular quite quickly. Of course, he had the good fortune of being introduced just as Tim Burton’s first Batman movie gave the Caped Crusader and superhero comics in general a huge boost in sales.

In 1992, DC tried a miniseries showing Tim as he became a full-time costumed hero. That was the first comic book to be titled Robin. It sold so well the company did another short series, and a third, all within two years.

Those miniseries got caught up in the speculative overproduction of the early 1990s. Robin II’s battle with Anarky and the Joker had only four issues but fourteen different covers, some including holograms. Copies of the Robin/Huntress team-up are still available in sealed polybags for very little money.

But those magazines sold just fine at the time, even though a relatively scrawny adolescent determined to use non-lethal methods was the antithesis of the overly muscled, overly armed, ruthless title characters of the day.

One measure of Robin’s popularity was how projects were massaged to sell under that brand name. One example of this was Robin in I, Werewolf, a short prose novel for young readers that DC published through Little, Brown in 1992. (It probably wasn’t coincidence that Little, Brown’s parent corporation, Time, Inc., had merged with DC Comics’s parent, Warner Communications, in 1989.)

The author of I, Werewolf was Ed Gorman, who also contributed short stories to DC’s Further Adventures of Batman mass-market paperbacks published with Bantam to coincide with the Burton movies. The 64-page book about Robin doesn’t show up on every list of Gorman’s prodigious writing, but Fantastic Fiction caught it. While Gorman’s blog remains active, his website has been taken over by flimflam artists, so there’s no endorsed title list there.

I, Werewolf had spot illustrations by Angelo Torres, who did a lot of work for MAD magazine. Paul Kupperburg (another Further Adventures contributor) has explained:
The secret is, these books used to be edited by the department overseen by the late, great Joe Orlando, an original EC Comics and MAD contributor for whom many great talents did some really strange commercial jobs.
I suspect that Gorman wrote I, Werewolf before the character of Tim Drake was established. And I’m not the only one to think so. A commenter at iFanboy said: “It seemed like they had already written the book and then just inserted Robin in at the end. Like Find > Replace.”

It’s not that Tim Drake acts contrary to his usual character in the book. He’s got the same hard-working, self-sacrificing, and slightly anxious personality as in the comics. But the text refers only to “Robin,” and nothing in the novel is particular to Tim: having a father to worry about, being a tech nerd, and so on. If Torres hadn’t used the character design for Tim Drake, we wouldn’t connect this Robin of this novel to Tim (and even there, Kupperburg complains that this Robin looks like he’s in his early twenties).

Furthermore, the book starts off with “Fifteen-year-old Tim Dayton,” who becomes the victim Robin protects. That name would have been found-and-replaced immediately if book’s editors had been concerned about making Tim Drake stand out. But all they were concerned about, I suspect, was getting the name and character of Robin on the cover.

I wish I knew more about the genesis of I, Werewolf. Was it a story about Dick Grayson or Jason Todd, held until the market and corporate partnerships lined up right? Was it commissioned when DC was still unsure on details of the new Robin? Was it planned to coincide with Batman Returns, which at one point was going to include a Robin who was neither Dick Grayson nor Tim Drake? Or did the editors figure that the kids this book was meant for wouldn’t care which Robin it was?

17 March 2012

Mrs. Baum Speaks to the Press

From the 24 Oct 1914 Duluth News Tribune:
Mrs. L. Frank Baum of Hollywood, Cal., who has been the guest of her sister, Mrs. H. L. Gage, left yesterday for various points before returning to her home. In itself, the announcement seems a simple one, but Mrs. Baum is none other than the wife of the well-known writer of children’s stories, one of which, “The Patchwork Girl of Oz,” has just been shown as a motion picture at the Rex. “The Wizard of Oz” is the most famous of Baum’s books.

“I have enjoyed my short stay in Duluth,” Mrs. Baum said yesterday, just before her departure, “but I would not live anywhere except in California. I am a New Yorker bred and born. Formerly Mr. Baum and I made the trip back and forth every year or so, but when our boys grew older we decided to make our permanent home in California, and now I feel that I could not be happy anywhere else. I left three chrysanthemum plants just beginning to bloom when I came away, and I must see how they are progressing. Besides, I want to see Mr. Baum.

“He wants to see me, too, I am sure,” she continued with a pretty laugh. “You know our ‘Baby’ has married recently, and that leaves us alone. We are more dependent on each other’s society than we were before. Then there is my club work. I think the salvation of a woman when her children have married and gone out into the world is plenty of work. Club work in California is both delightful and exacting, and Mr. Baum has his writing. So we are both provided for.”

Mrs. Baum will go first to Chicago to see a son, leaving about Wednesday for Joliet to see another son. Then she will return to her beloved Hollywood. She said yesterday that the motion picture scenes of “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” were taken in and around Hollywood.
This article is headlined “‘Oz’ Author’s Wife Ends Visit Here; Believes in Work.”

I found it in a search of a newspaper database for the phrase “patchwork girl.” Most of the articles related to the 1914 movie, not Baum’s novel. They were generally positive. Several, it was interesting to see, referred to the movie as adapted from Baum’s “extravaganza,” which was the term for a stage show like the popular 1902-03 Wizard of Oz, but there had been no stage version of The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

16 March 2012

Queen of OIP Derangement Syndrome

This week former half-term governor Sarah Palin said on Fox News:
You could hearken back to the days before the Civil War, when too many Americans believed that not all men were created equal. It was the Civil War that began the codification of the truth that here in America, yes, we are equal and we all have equal opportunities, not based on the color of our skin. You have equal opportunity to work hard and to succeed and to embrace the opportunities, the God-given opportunities, to develop resources and work extremely hard and as I say, to succeed. Now, it has taken all these years for many Americans to understand that the gravity, that mistake that took place before the Civil War and why the Civil War had to really start changing America. What Barack Obama seems to want to do is go back before those days when we were in different classes based on income, based on color of skin.
Yes, in Palin’s mind, the current President of the USA wants to return the country to its social system before the Civil War. (Though, as David A. Graham of the Atlantic pointed out, Palin wasn’t actually able to use the word “slavery” in describing the country at that time.)

All because as a law student Obama supported Prof. Derrick Bell, a former civil-rights lawyer for the US Justice Department, in his campaign for a more racially integrated faculty of the Havard Law School.

Thus, to Palin and her advisors, asking for more integration is actually the equivalent of seeking a return to black slavery and white supremacy. Half a second’s consideration might tell us that’s not what two black men were really seeking, but Palin perceives otherwise.

This is the workings of OIP Derangement Syndrome, combined with ignorance and self-righteousness on an epic scale.

14 March 2012

Children of Hitchcock

Debbie Olson at Oklahoma State University has invited scholars and critics to submit proposals for a book of essays on Hitchcock’s Children:
Although children and youth appear in a great number of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, they are rarely the focus of critical attention. This collection seeks to remedy that oversight and aims to add to the rich and varied tradition of Hitchcock scholarship. Many of the children and youth that appear in Hitchcock films are background or minor characters, yet they often hold special importance.

From The Young and Innocent (1931), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Trouble With Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) to The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) children and youth perform both innocence and knowingness (and so much more) within Hitchcock’s complex cinematic texts.

Though the child often plays a small part in Hitchcock’s films, their significance, both symbolically and philosophically, offers a unique opportunity to illuminate and interrogate the child presence.
It is indeed impossible to watch the crucial sequence in Sabotage (1936) when Sylvia Sidney’s little brother carries the bomb on the bus without laughing.

The volume will define children as “birth to age 12” and youth as “age 13 to 17.” Olson invites prospective contributors to send an abstract of 200-500 words, current contact information, and a brief bio or CV by 30 May 2012, to her email. Completed papers are due 31 August.

While I recognize that Hitchcock did his direct work for the cinema, can’t this volume include a ground-breaking study of the depiction of male youth in his commissioned Three Investigators series?

13 March 2012

One Hundred Years of Sky Island

This year is the centenary of Sky Island, one of L. Frank Baum’s very best fantasy novels. It tells the further adventures of Trot and Cap’n Bill, the little girl and one-legged old sailor Baum introduced in Sea Fairies, with the addition of Button-Bright and Polychrome from The Road to Oz. Unlike those books, Sky Island has a real plot.

However, it didn’t earn Baum as much as he wanted, so for his next fantasy novel he returned to the Oz series. Eventually he merged the two series by bringing Trot, Cap’n Bill, and Button-Bright to the Emerald City, but since Sea Fairies and Sky Island don ’t have the word “Oz” in their title they’ve never attracted so many readers. In the latter case, that’s a shame.

Last May, artist Kevin Merriman posted some unusual character designs for Button-Bright and Trot. Check out the link for his take on Cap’n Bill as well.

12 March 2012

Davy Jones, Rocker

After Davy Jones’s unexpected death on 29 February, a lot of commenters responded by citing or quoting the Monkees’ biggest chart hits—most of which he didn’t sing lead on. Micky Dolenz was the band’s most successful singer, with the best pop voice.

But Davy Jones was crucial to the band as an entertainment entity. Without him, there would have been no Monkees. There might have been a similar television show, but the combination of those performers and their personalities wouldn’t have gelled successfully.

First of all, Jones was cute. So cute he could put over a song like Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy,” which has some of the most heartlessly caddish lyrics in pop:
You’re not the kind of girl to tell your mother
The kind of company you keep.
I never told you that I loved no other—
You must have dreamed it in your sleep.

You’re not the only cherry delight
That was left in the night
And gave up without a fight!
You’re not the only cuddly toy
That was ever enjoyed
By any boy.
Watch the video of that song, and you’ll see that Jones was at heart an English music-hall song-and-dance man. And at the height of the British Invasion, being English was another of his assets.

Jones was already under contract with Screen Gems when the Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider started to develop the sitcom. His manager, Ward Sylvester, was part of the search for other cast members. The show could easily have been built around Jones with the rest of the group treated as his backup band: Davy and the Three Tall Guys! Indeed, his character’s penchant for falling in love drove the plot of the pilot.

But Rafelson and Schneider had a different vision, inspired by the Beatles. They wanted four distinct, interesting personalities. They cast four talented young men. And, crucially, Jones threw himself behind that decision.

In his self-published autobiography They Made a Monkee Out of Me! [doesn’t everyone have a copy?], Jones described an awkward lunch with the other three Monkees early in their training, and how (after bursting out with criticism at Dolenz’s table manners) he broke the ice by gobbling up his salad. If he’d played the aloof Broadway star or the solo teen idol, I doubt the group would have found the chemistry to make their show so entertaining, much less to try to break out of its constraints.

11 March 2012

All the “Reasons for Robin”

For a while I’ve felt I should collect the links for my “Reasons for Robin” postings into one handy round-up, and I’m finally getting around to it.

  1. So Batman can have someone to talk to.
  2. So Batman can have someone not to talk to.
  3. Younger readers can identify with Robin.
  4. Robin displays a broad range of emotions.
  5. He slips, he falls!
  6. Robin, the Boy Hostage!
  7. Under age and undercover!
  8. Comic relief!
  9. Robin is still a kid.
  10. Robin isn’t evil.
Some of those postings connect on to other essays. And eventually, I suppose, lead back to here.

09 March 2012

Pouring Gasoline on OIP Derangement Syndrome

At a press conference on 6 March, a Fox News correspondent asked President Barack Obama about gasoline prices. (Curiously, that correspondent described in advance what Republicans in Congress were going to say. How, I wonder, would he know?) In any event, the question was:

Your critics will say on Capitol Hill that you want gas prices to go higher because you have said before that will wean the American people off fossil fuels onto renewable fuels. How do you respond to that?
In fact, President Obama has never said that higher gas prices “will wean the American people off fossil fuels,” but this is Fox News, a principal network of transmission of OIP Derangement Syndrome, which involves making claims unsupported by evidence or logic that can justify one’s visceral dislike of seeing Obama as President.

Back in 2008 Obama responded to a fast rise in gas prices by saying:
The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing. But if we take some steps right now to help people make the adjustment, first of all by putting more money into their pockets, but also by encouraging the market to adapt to these new circumstances more quickly, particularly US automakers, then I think ultimately, we can come out of this stronger and have a more efficient energy policy than we do right now.
Nothing about “weaning.” Recently Politico did use that word in a story about Energy Secretary Steven Chu that it quickly had to correct. Chu had actually said, “We agree there is great suffering when the price of gasoline increases in the United States, and so we are very concerned about this.”

And at his news conference, Obama’s answer to Fox News began:
Ed, just from a political perspective, do you think the President of the United States going into re-election wants gas prices to go up higher? Is that—is there anybody here who thinks that makes a lot of sense? Look, here’s the bottom line with respect to gas prices: I want gas prices lower because they hurt families.
That seems clear, logical, and sympathetic. But OIP Derangement Syndrome is a powerful malady that affects even the most grandiose intellects. In fact, the more grandiose a person, the harsher the case can be.

Later that same day, Newt Gingrich stated:
I thought today, in one of the most shallow and self-serving comments by a president I’ve heard in a long time, he was candid in his press conference. He said, you know, I’m really worried about higher gas prices because it will make it harder for me to get re-elected. I did not make this up. It was just nice to know that the president once again has managed to take the pain of the American people and turn it into his own personal problem.
Of course, Gingrich did make that up. He projected his own psychological demons onto a stereotype of the President, and thus made clear who’s really “shallow and self-serving,” willing to “take the pain of the American people and turn it into his own personal problem,” and in thrall to OIP Derangement Syndrome.

08 March 2012

Mark Waid and the Evolution in Digital Comics

Mark Waid is one of the best superhero comics scripters around, and has created interesting comics in other genres as well. As a hungry freelancer and occasional editor, he’s very concerned about how digitization is affecting that storytelling form.

Two years ago Waid gave a speech at the Harvey Awards about file-sharing’s effect on the comics business that went over so badly he felt a need to rearrange his notes into an essay on Comic Book Resources. It called for innovation, concluding:
We are the smartest, most creative medium in America. We put out ideas on a periodical basis bam, bam, bam. We don’t put out a screenplay every three years. We don’t invent a TV show every ten years. There are more ideas in one Wednesday in one comic shop than in three years of Hollywood. We’re notoriously bad businessmen, but we are unmatched for creativity and inventiveness, and there are ways to make filesharing work for us rather than cower in fear that it’s going to destroy us.
Of course, the sort of creativity that involves ray guns and retroactive continuity is different from the sort that comes up with successful new business models.

A few months later Waid went into greater length about copyrights and digital comics in a long interview after leaving BOOM! Studios to become a freelancer once again. And late last month Waid previewed a new format for digital comics with this short demo film.

Currently digital adaptations of printed comics struggle to adapt art created for the aspect ratio of a magazine page to the various screen sizes of our devices. The most popular software, such as that from ComiXology, can offer a full-page view (readable only on iPads and similar large tablets, and sometimes not even then), but their main format involves showing each panel or part of a panel in sequence. This can be awkward.

Waid and his artists started with a smartphone screen, using a horizontal aspect ratio, as their basic page or canvas. A space that size can show one to three panels at a time. A “swipe” or tap can bring on the next set of panels, like a traditional page turn, or add elements to the current page, including:
  • an additional panel, not shown to readers before.
  • more of a panel image, which can produce the effect of a camera pulling back.
  • new details within a panel image, which produces the effect of time passing.
  • changing “showing the invisible” elements of the comics form, such as a caption or word balloon.
The result adds the dimension of time to the comics storytelling process while stopping well short of expensive full animation. It does seem innovative, both in format and in narrative possibilities. Whether it will be a successful business model is another question.

07 March 2012

Aspect Ratio Ratiocination

Receiving an iPad for the holidays and seeing Mark Waid’s experiment with digital comics started me thinking about the aspect ratio of books. Why are most books square or taller than they are wide?

This pattern goes back to some of the earliest surviving codexes, and crosses cultural boundaries.

I think the answer rests in the technology itself. A codex was stronger if the pages were stitched up along one of their longer sides. Furthermore, readers quickly found it was easier to hold and use a book if that line of stitching was vertical, supporting the pages and providing a symmetric reading surface.

That format carried over to printed books, which in the West settled into standard sizes (folio, quarto, octavo) based on standard sheets of paper. Even publications that aren’t bound, such as newspapers, usually have a vertical aspect ratio.

Among the exceptions are many picture books, especially from mid-20th-century America: The Little House, The Runaway Bunny, Where the Wild Things Are, and so on. Those share the horizontal aspect ratio of cinema, selected to fill our binocular vision. In fact, when picture books present single images on full spreads, as they’ve increasingly come to do, they almost all have horizontal aspect ratios.

While some trim sizes are more expensive than others, book publishers can choose from an infinite range of aspect ratios. In contrast, an electronic device offers a screen of one defined size. Its proportions might differ from one device to the next. A device might be flippable to offer two ratios (say, 3:2 or 2:3). But if creators or publishers want to take advantage of the full screen, they have to adapt to its dimensions.

Generally the default setting for digital books is still based on a vertical aspect ratio, and that for digital videos on a horizontal aspect ratio. Adaptations of illustrated books seem to be caught in the middle, some going one way and some the other, some trying to offer both. Eventually we’ll probably have a standardized aspect ratio for screens, and designers will start with those dimensions in mind.

06 March 2012

Baum and Burroughs

Publicity for the upcoming John Carter movie has brought a little new attention to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s friendship with L. Frank Baum. Yesterday the New York Times stated:
The Barsoom novels are a little like the Oz novels of Burroughs’s friend and eventual California neighbor L. Frank Baum, whose estate, Ozcot, was not far from Burroughs’s Tarzana. Both are partly reflections of how the authors saw the United States at the time. But even more, they’re escapes from it, written by relatively late bloomers who found in writing a fulfillment that had earlier been denied them.
Baum and Burroughs did have a lot in common, including an upper-class upbringing and education, a series of jobs and moves in early adulthood, and sudden and lucrative success in writing popular fiction. They probably even knew the same neighborhoods in Burroughs’s home town of Chicago; Baum’s publisher for Father Goose and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Geo. M. Hill Company, was on the same block as one of Burroughs’s apartments.

At the same time, Baum was nearly twenty years older, so he probably saw himself as a mentor for this newcomer to the literary world and to California. They met late in 1916, sixteen years after Baum’s biggest hit had come out and four years after Burroughs’s appeared in magazine form. (Tarzan was first published as a novel in 1914.) Thus, the two authors probably had little literary influence on each other.

Baum introduced the young writer to a gentlemen’s lunch club he’d co-founded called the Uplifters, which Burroughs described as a “select group of millionaires, clerks, and other celebrities, all members of the Los Angeles Athletic Club.”

Baum became seriously ill in 1918, which curtailed his social activity, and he died in 1919. Thus, the two authors weren’t friends for long. Burroughs bought his Tarzana estate, much larger than Baum’s Ozcot house and garden, a few months later. By then he was earning large amounts from both press and the movies.

05 March 2012

Publishers and the DPLA

On Friday I attended the event at Harvard about the Digital Public Library of America. I ended up asking the last question of the session, which was about publisher support—or lack of it—for the venture.

Earlier that week, the news broke that Random House was planning to charge libraries up to three times the consumer price for digital books. As the speakers had pointed out, only one of the six major US commercial publishers was offering libraries terms on ebooks close to what readers can pay. Meanwhile, there’s a whole ’nother set of issues over scientific, medical, and technical publishers and what they charge to research libraries for access to papers.

In reply, Prof. Richard Darnton pointed out that publishers have legitimate reasons to be worried about digital public libraries damaging their sales. Prof. John Palfrey said that some publishers were observing the DPLA work with interest. Still, it didn’t sound like such companies were ready to jump in, and that left me wondering how that limited the DPLA’s potential.

Mike Shatzkin discussed just that issue in an essay titled “Libraries and publishers don’t have symmetrical interest in a conversation”:

Because libraries are, at most 5% of a general trade publisher’s business and far less of the ebook business, and because the market is changing so rapidly and because every retailer except Amazon can be said to be struggling to carve out a sustainable position in the global ebook marketplace, there are many legitimate reasons for the biggest publishers to take a wait-and-see attitude about libraries and ebooks. . . .

Of course, libraries view this differently because the big books from the big publishers are a lot more than 5% of their patrons’ interest.
Libraries need the big books more than the big commercial publishers now need libraries. Plus, when government budgets are being slashed and people are questioning the value of public services, libraries don’t have the same economic leverage they’ve had at other times in publishing history.

None of that came as a surprise to me, of course. In fact, I was sitting next to a gentleman who’s made much of his living publishing a local guidebook, and I pointed out that a digital copy of that book available to anyone could conceivably wipe out his business, or at least hurt it badly.

Shatzkin’s essay goes further to suggest that the divergent interests of big publishers and public libraries are further complicated by the industry’s longer game of trying to ensure that there’s enough competition for Amazon not to become a monopoly. Would cooperating with libraries mean hurting Barnes & Noble and other non-Kindle sources of ebooks?

04 March 2012

The Hunt for Dr. Wertham’s Sources

It’s been three years since Oz and Ends last announced its award for Batman research, which is of course far too long. So today we’re spotlighting Stephen O’Day’s Seduction of the Innocent website, where O’Day and readers have identified three of the stories that Dr. Fredric Wertham alluded to when he analyzed Batman comics in chapter 7 of Seduction of the Innocent.

As you might recall, Wertham briefly interpreted Batman and Robin as lovers. (Someday I’ll discuss how that reading undercut the main point of his anti-comics book.) The doctor’s evidence consisted of details like this:

Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend’s arm.
Those panel descriptions and deathless monologue come from World’s Finest, #44, dated February-March 1950. (The same magazine also shows a crime scene that Wertham described elsewhere.)
Like the girls in other stories, Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains and Batman has to give in or “Robin gets killed.”
The three quoted words appear in Batman, #67, with a cover date of October-November 1951. The same story was reprinted in Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s, which included an angry denial of the Wertham interpretation. That means a lot of people saw the panel before anyone saw the ironic connection between those two books—which just shows how often the Boy Hostage found himself in similar situations.
If she [“a girl”] is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick. For instance, Bruce and Dick go out one evening in dinner clothes, dressed exactly alike. The attractive girl makes up to Bruce while in successive pictures young Dick looks on smiling, sure of Bruce.
That describes a scene in Batman, #64, dated April-May 1951.
And there’s some fine “Golden Age” exposition as well.

Crowd-sourcing the search, LostSOTI.org lists descriptions from Wertham’s book that have yet to be linked to specific comics. However, that list doesn’t seem to include two more Batman references:
  • “One young homosexual during psychotherapy brought us a copy of Detective Comics, with a Batman story. He pointed out a picture of ‘The Home of Bruce and Dick’ a house beautifully landscaped, warmly lighted and showing the devoted pair side by side, looking out a picture window.”
  • “Violence is not lacking in these stories. You are shown Batman and Robin standing in a room with a whole row of corpses on the floor.”
And I suppose we could throw a few panels of “beautiful flowers in large vases” in stately Wayne Manor onto the wish list. They probably all lurk in the same stretch from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.

Collectors evidently value comics that show up in Wertham’s book more highly, so there’s an economic incentive to identify them. For folks studying the development of Wertham’s ideas, another, perhaps more valuable sort of unidentified source is the colleague whom he seemed to credit for his reading of Batman: “Several years ago a California psychiatrist pointed out that the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual.” Wertham’s papers are now available to scholars, and maybe they name that psychiatrist.

02 March 2012

Cup of Joe

Among the manifestations of OIP Derangement Syndrome—such a visceral dislike of seeing Barack Obama elected President that one starts speaking in contradiction to facts, logic, or past positions—is “birtherism.” That’s the insistence that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii as legal documents, contemporaneous newspapers, and family friends all attest. Accepting that myth allows people to justify the internal conviction that Obama should not be President without having to acknowledge the real reasons they feel that way.

Birtherists suffer so much from OIP Derangement Syndrome, in fact, that many of them probably don’t even realize that their position doesn’t get any stronger when it’s joined by someone whom the U.S. Justice Department has already found to be racist.

01 March 2012

Digital Public Library Event, 2 Mar.

A friend sent me this announcement for a discussion on the potential of digital libraries tomorrow in Cambridge:

We now have the technology to create the greatest library the world has ever known, and to bring it within clicking distance of virtually every person on earth—at least everyone on the Internet. The technology is available, but is the will and the funding? How will this new creation affect the research of college professors or even elementary school students? And how can it deal with the problems of copyright?

On Friday, March 2, Harvard Library Strategic Conversations will sponsor a program entitled “Building the Digital Public Library of America”. Featured speakers Prof. Robert Darnton and Prof. John G. Palfrey will discuss the Digital Public Library of America project from its beginnings up to the current date.
Darnton will speak about the start of the “DPLA project,” Palfrey about recent developments, and then there will be Q&A. The program starts at 3:00 PM in the Ames Courtroom of Austin Hall, on the campus of Harvard Law School. It’s is free and open to the public.