30 April 2012

Things I Bought at the MoCCA Festival

Brigid Alverson persuaded me to make the one-day trip to Manhattan to attend this year’s MoCCA Festival. So for real money and everything I bought…

My part of a brunch with Brigid (MangaBlog, Robot 6, School Library Journal), Johanna Draper Carlson (Comics Worth Reading, Manga Worth Reading), and Johanna’s mother, who was in the common role of family member dragged to an event of limited interest and being genial about it.

“Drought,” a one-sheet comic by Kenan Rubenstein, whose FoldyComics website I highlighted here but have yet to contribute to. (I have ideas for improving my final page.)

A copy of Guinea PI, vol. 1: Hamster and Cheese autographed by both writer Colleen AF Venable and artist Stephanie Yue. One of the great pleasures of this book is the richness of the supporting characters.

For my collection of comics based in eighteenth-century history, E. J. Barnes’s “Caroline’s Catalog,” about astronomer Caroline Herschel, and Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit, #4, about Massachusetts-born magician Richard Potter.

The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson, Dan Jolley, Joëlle Jones, and Jenn Manley Lee, just because it looked interesting. (I never read the prose original.)

Western, an anthology from Dave West and Colin Mathieson’s Accent UK, since I was impressed by its production values.

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden, a book I’ve checked out of the library enough times that I decided I should own my own copy—which came with Madden’s inscription.

And a piece of original art I’ll write about at the start of next week.

29 April 2012

The Psychoanalysis of Superheroes and Their Fans

This image, by Norm Breyfogle, adorns Spencer Ackerman’s article in the new Pacific Standard on “Comic Con on the Couch: Analyzing Superheroes.”

It’s a profile of Robin [yes] Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who edited the essay collection The Psychology of Superheroes. She’s also written about psychological issues in the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, and has a blog at Psychology Today titled “The Superheroes” as well as her own.

Rosenberg’s website promises some more books this year, including What Is a Superhero? coedited with Peter Coogan, Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care, and What's the Matter with Batman? She’s already written “What’s Wrong with Bruce Wayne?” for Dennis O’Neil’s Batman Unauthorized.

As part of her research, Rosenberg visits comics conventions interviewing cosplayers about their costume choices and what those heroes mean to them. Ackerman reports:
Usually therapy takes weeks or months to cultivate the trust in a doctor necessary for patients to open up. But when Rosenberg asks even the least invasive of questions — Why are you dressed like this hero? — the cosplayers can respond with a surprising amount of intimacy. One cosplayer in a black cloak and orange wig, acting out a part from an obscure Japanese anime show, explains that, just like his character, “I never really knew my father.”

Rosenberg, who loves cosplay and cosplayers, gets reactions like that more often than you might expect. At conventions, “people are so open, so nice and so friendly,” she says. When the orange-haired fellow shuffles on, she adds, “This guy was very psychologically insightful. He understood how he felt. Those people can get quite personal.”

Rosenberg is banking on that. Her unconventional career choice is based on two related hunches. First, superhero fans, used to viewing their idols as allegories for the good (or bad) life, are actually hungry for psychological insight. Second, those allegories provide a prism to introduce and popularize psychology.
I’m sure Rosenberg has considered the irony of hearing honest and open remarks from people in disguise—often masked. Does the costume or the persona provide an extra layer of visual or physical protection that empowers more emotional vulnerability? Or does the melodramatic style of superhero comics and similar cosplay-attracting genres encourage fans to bring emotions to the surface?

28 April 2012

Cold Wind and the Limits of the Superhero Genre

Cold Wind is a short adventure comic written by Dan Mazur and drawn by Jesse Lonergan, independently published by Mazur’s Ninth Art Press.

I saw this story grow from a script that Dan shared with the Boston Comics Roundtable to its final form. Dan writes in screenplay format, not breaking his story into pages and panels. Often he draws his own art, so that’s obviously not a problem. In this case, he left it up to Jesse—who’s scripted his own Flower and Fade, Joe and Azat, and other tales—to divide the screenplay into images. Yet another approach to collaboration.

Dan’s told me a couple of times how he’s no longer a fan of superhero comics because of their repetitive themes. He reads one Spider-Man story, learns that “With great power comes great responsibility,” reads another story—and learns the same thing.

As former Marvel editor Jim Shooter has commented:
Comic books have become like opera. You go to see a particular performance of an old story, not a new story. How will this performer handle that familiar role...?
That familiarity is part of the appeal of a series, or a genre.

At the last roundtable meeting, Dan wondered aloud if Cold Wind is a superhero comic. I said it qualified, despite his ambivalence about the genre. It’s a pumped-up action story taking place against a fantastic landscape. Its characters are largely symbolic, and they work out the fate of the world through violence.

But Cold Wind reflects Dan Mazur’s take on the superhero genre, with the theme that things don’t change significantly. For all the adventure’s sound effects and fury, its surviving characters achieve only a short pleasure before the world spins on.

Cold Wind is on sale today at the MoCCA Festival, in the better Boston-area comics shops, and over the web.

27 April 2012

Why Republicans No Longer Like American Cars

In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Charles Erwin Wilson, head of General Motors, to be Secretary of Defense. In his confirmation hearings, Wilson said he could make decisions for the sake of the country that would be bad for General Motors, but couldn’t foresee such a choice coming up “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”

More recently, many American conservatives insisted on the value of buying American cars, criticizing politicians who drive vehicles from foreign companies. As recently as February 2009, Pat Buchanan was writing about the necessity to “Buy American!” in The American Conservative. It’s part of the basic platform of the Conservative Party USA and the “paleoconservative” America First Party.

Of course, American unions also campaigned for people to buy domestically made cars and other products. And on the right, free-market conservatives argued that products’ national origins shouldn’t matter. Buying American wasn’t therefore synonymous with the American right, but Republican politicians and pundits rarely criticized US industry and often jumped on opponents who did.

That changed after President Barack Obama threw his administration behind resuscitating the US auto companies in 2009. Since then, Republicans and their media voices have become hypercritical, and hypocritical, about American carmakers.

As I noted two weeks ago, Mitt Romney came out against Obama’s policy without being able to say how his prescription for a “managed bankruptcy” was significantly different or better. After Chrysler showed a Super Bowl commercial made by Clint Eastwood, Republican propagandist Karl Rove went on FOX News to denounce it and the bailout. As Charles Blow pointed out, Rove neglected to mention that his own creation, President George W. Bush, had started the loans to Chrysler (since repaid).

And then there’s the saga of the the Chevy Volt. General Motors introduced the Volt as a concept car in early 2007 and brought it to market nearly four years later. Its sales, like those of other cars with electric motors, have been boosted by a tax incentive. The law that included that provision passed both houses of Congress by large margins, with most Senate Republicans voting for it. George W. Bush signed that bill into law. Many other governments have similar provisions to encourage the use of non-gasoline-powered cars.

But because the Volt came out after the Obama’s administration bailout, Republicans can’t say enough bad things about the car. They even make things up. Automotive designer Bob Lutz, normally a right-wing Republican, wrote about this phenomenon in that champion of the planned economy, Forbes Magazine:
I am, sadly, coming to the conclusion that all the icons of conservatism are (shock, horror!) deliberately not telling the truth!

This saddens me, because, to this writer, conservatism IS fundamental truth. It only damages its inherent credibility with momentarily convenient fiction.

So, Mr. [Charles] Krauthammer joins the list of right-wing pundits I no longer take seriously. [Lutz had previously listed Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Lou Dobbs.] After all, how do I know they’re telling the truth when the subject is one I’m not as familiar with as the Volt?

That does leave everyone’s trusted favorite, though. The disarmingly modest, low-key, warm, fuzzy, dependable, kind of your favorite uncle when you were growing up … the Reverend [Mike] Huckabee! He wouldn’t unjustly attack the most celebrated example of American engineering of the last 30 years — or would he?

The other night on Fox, he, too, had his way with the Volt!

So who am I going to believe now? 
Lutz had spotted the symptoms of OIP Derangement Syndrome, which drastically affects how President Obama’s opponents view facts or their previous positions. Of course, at that moment their false statements were affecting Lutz’s own creation. Those same “icons of conservatism” have been “not telling the truth” about many other things as well.

26 April 2012

Alan Moore and the Pitfalls of Unforeseen Success

Folks who blog about superhero comics are apparently supposed to have a moral stand on DC Comics’s decision to commission prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, despite the former’s vociferous opposition.

I don’t view that as a major ethical issue, but rather a business venture that will find its judgment in the marketplace. The American superhero comics industry has grown over the decades from writers and artists taking inspiration from and contributing to collective narratives. Moore knew that when he signed his contracts with DC in the 1980s, and in fact much of his work has grown from other writers’ creations.

Moore’s main beef with DC now is not that the company isn’t abiding by the contracts he signed, but that it is. He just didn’t expect those contracts would still apply to him.

That’s not because Moore thought his work was special. It’s because he didn’t think it would be as successful as it’s been. Moore assumed that Watchmen would go out of print after just a few years. He’s said as much in many interviews, but here’s a recent one from Kurt Amacker:
KA:  I thought we could discuss the initial ownership dispute you had with DC back in the 1980s, wherein you and Dave Gibbons expected to get the rights to Watchmen and its characters back a year after the trade paperback went out of print. But, it never went out of print--and one suspects DC probably knew it wouldn't.

AM:  We were told that. That was the understanding upon which we did Watchmen--that they understood that we wanted to actually own the work that we'd done, and that they were a "new DC Comics," who were going to be more responsive to creators. And, they'd got this new contract worked out which meant that when the work went out of print, then the rights to it would revert to us--which sounded like a really good deal. I'd got no reason not to trust these people.  They'd all been very, very friendly. They seemed to be delighted with the amount of extra comics they were selling. . . .

Now, I've since seen the Watchmen contract, which obviously we didn't read very closely at the time. It was the first contract that I'd ever seen--and I believe that it was a relatively rare event for a contract to actually exist in the comics business. Most of the time, people just signed away all their rights on the back of their invoice voucher. But, I was so pleased with the deal with Watchmen, that I suggested to David Lloyd that we do the same thing on V for Vendetta--which was, again, something that we owned and that we wanted to carry on owning.  The contracts actually are some of the most anti-creator contracts imaginable.  They've got clauses such as, if I refuse to sign for any reason any agreements in the future, DC can appoint an attorney to sign them instead of me. 
Actually, that last is a rather common clause, but not one that publishers try invoking often, if at all. No company wants to work with someone who can’t stand to work with it. I also don’t know if there are any strong precedents for that clause standing up in court.

As for the provision that most arouses Moore’s resentment—that a publisher keeps the copyright holders’ license to issue a literary work as long as it remains in print—that’s completely standard for the book industry.

I’m sure that Ernest Hemingway signed contracts with that clause, and Stephen King, and J. K. Rowling—even after they became bestselling authors. Most authors are happy when a publisher keeps selling a book. That’s a lot easier and more lucrative and less ego-deflating than when a publisher puts a book out of print and reverts the rights. Moore has never denied DC’s statements that the company’s paid him all the Watchmen royalties he’s due—a considerable sum, given the book’s sales in the millions.

It’s probably true that Moore, Gibbons, and DC didn’t expect Watchmen to still be selling strongly nearly thirty years later. No one had the superpower of being able to foresee that future. As Moore admits, he recognized that mid-1980s contract as far better than anything he’d seen before and didn’t consider its terms carefully. But a good contract is negotiated to anticipate all possible outcomes. The Watchmen contract spelled out what would happen if the book stayed in print, and that arrangement is simply industry standard.

By his own account, Moore took the same approach to his movie rights, including not only Watchmen but League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This spring he spoke about that in a BBC interview, quoted here on semi-coherence:
Originally, I was under the illusion that the way that films worked was that you got a lot of option money, and then after a couple of years they decided that they weren't going to make the film. Which was the perfect result, the film didn’t get made, you got the money. Then they actually made a couple of my films, and at that point I decided, well, I'll just distance myself from them as much as is possible.
Again, Moore signed contracts anticipating the most common outcome but didn’t think through the possibility of success.

Perhaps that reflects Moore’s upbringing in the working class of northern England, where folks might not expect anything to work out well, much less phenomenally well. The American publishers and movie producers, in contrast, were ready for things to work out better than they expected. Maybe that’s characteristic of American businesspeople, or maybe it’s just why they were willing to put up the money.

25 April 2012

Harry Potter Changes the Rules Again

Every new Harry Potter book changed the rules of American publishing. The first book signaled the resurgence of fantasy after years of doldrums. Then readers started using Amazon.co.uk to get the second volume. That necessitated worldwide publication dates, which led to midnight book parties.

The New York Times changed its bestseller lists to keep those darned kids from annoying authors of adult fiction. Volumes 4 and above showed that ten-year-olds gladly read books more than twice as long as people expected, and so on.

I thought that the end of the series might mean the end of its disruptions. But the recent release of J. K. Rowling’s digital editions is making the same sort of waves. Not only is she managing those rights herself through her Pottermore site, but her team decided to release the ebooks without digital rights management (DRM) protection.

Mike Shatzkin passes on the results he heard from Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore:
The key to Charlie’s disruption was his willingness to substitute watermarking for DRM. He said it definitely made him nervous to do it, but he couldn’t see any other way to achieve what he wanted for Pottermore. He had to be able to sell to any device; he wanted to be able to allow any purchaser complete interoperability. There was no way to do that and maintain DRM. . . .

Apparently, Potter ebook files started showing up on file-sharing sites pretty much right away after they opened. But before they could serve any takedown notices, Charlie says the community of sharers reacted. They said “C’mon now. Here we have a publisher doing what we’ve been asking for: delivering content DRM-free, across devices, at a reasonable price. And, by the way, don’t you know your file up there on the sharing site is watermarked? They know who you are!” And then the pirated content started being taken down by the community, before Pottermore could react. And very quickly, there were fewer pirated copies out there than before.
Shatzkin also reports that major British publishers were saying they might discard DRM as well. Already Tor announced that it would stop using it. Paid Content quoted an anonymous publishing executive saying that he or she now breaks DRM on ebooks. The industry may decide that going DRM-free is the only way to stem the rising flood of Amazon.

Of course, whenever the Harry Potter books shift the ground in publishing, the big question is whether those changes will benefit, or even affect, ordinary titles. Most books don’t have thousands of people lined up to buy them before pub date. Most authors haven’t become richer than the queen of England and therefore able to take chances with their digital domain.

24 April 2012

Max Acts Out

I may be wrong, but I’m assuming the kid in the metal costume with a pointy nose and an empty chest is dressed as the Tin Woodman. That’s enough Ozzy content for a Tuesday, I decided.

These panels come from this August 2010 installment of Max Overacts, a webcomic about a theatrically minded (i.e., loud, egocentric, and usually irrepressible) nine-year-old. Yesterday I received my copy of the first collected volume of the strip, subtitled Hold On to Your Stubs, mailed to me direct from Calgary.

The comic’s creator, Caanan, published the book in part by soliciting advance orders through Indiegogo last year. The paperback volume is nicely printed in full color. There are previously unseen strips about Max’s older sister, Andi. The only thing I feel is missing is some sort of introduction or commentary.

The book has the horizontal format specified by DC Comics’s Zuda initiative years back. That’s designed for reading on a computer screen, a format that goes back to the movie screen via TV. A lot of other webcomics have adopted the same aspect ratio. Zuda is no more, but its specs live on. As I wrote back here, that's a less common format for books and comics, but I expect we’ll see more of it.

Also from Caanan, a convention sketch of the New Teen Titans, disco era:

23 April 2012

Knock-Offs Come to the Book Business

Fortune reports on a new trend in digital media—knock-off books:
And if you want to buy bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow on Amazon, be careful where you click. A number of Amazon shoppers looking for the book by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman ended up with Fast and Slow Thinking by Karl Daniels, which until recently was also on Amazon. Says Kahneman of his doppelganger, "There is no such expert, it's a rip-off. The comments on it are quite amusing – rather shocking that Amazon allows this sort of thing."
Amazon not only allows such knock-offs to be sold, but it facilitates their creation through its service for self-publishing authors.
All of the apparent copycat books that Fortune found on Amazon were made through CreateSpace, which is a division of Amazon. Authors can use CreateSpace's system to design and self-publish their own books. The books then go on sale on Amazon and other sites. Amazon splits the proceeds with authors.
Those authors use pseudonyms that resemble the original authors’ names (especially for a reader typing a few letters into a search engine) and choose similar titles. Amazon doesn’t vet CreateSpace books until someone complains—which of course reduces its costs while maintaining revenue.

Of course, there have always been quickie books published to exploit a trend or interest. But this sort of knock-off scheme was unprofitable when the time and labor it took to create, manufacture, and distribute a book was too costly to be sure it would reach the market before demand cooled. Digital technology has sped up those steps, especially for “authors” who take their material off Wikipedia.

22 April 2012

A Kid Sidekick in the Comics Business

As I’ve written before, the quick inclusion of kid sidekicks in early superhero comics at the dawn of 1940 reflected not just the industry’s target readership, but also the industry’s work environment. Teen-aged assistants were part of the business.

Jerry Robinson was only eighteen years old when he co-created Robin, for example. Other teens, such as Stan Lee and Bill Gaines, started working at publishers even younger because of family connections.

Carmine Infantino (shown above), who helped to create the “New Look” Dynamic Duo of 1963, had started out in the business even earlier than those men, as he described in this interview in The Comics Journal. Born in 1925, he recalled going to work about 1940:
A chance meeting took me to 23rd Street, this old broken-down warehouse, and I met Harry Chesler. One day I met this artist in the coffee shop, and he told me about it. He was a guy who worked up there, Ken Battenfield, and he said, “Why don’t you come up and look around? Maybe you’ll learn something.” But he said, “Harry’s not a nice guy. I don’t know if he’ll let you stay. But just take a chance.”

So I did. Now, I was told he was a mean guy and he used people and he took artists. But he was very sweet to me. He said, “Look, kid. You come up here, I’ll give you a dollar a day, just study art, learn, and grow.” That was damn nice of him, I thought. He did that for me for a whole summer. . . .

It was my first year in high school, the School of Industrial Arts. So I would probably be 14 or 15. So I hung around and met some artists there and I studied them. That was a very nice thing to do. And a buck a day was a lot of money in those days. . . .

I just sat and studied the art. There were a couple of people whose artwork I studied there. One was Ken Battenfield. I believe, another was Dan Zolnerowich, and a couple of other guys. I’d sit and study their artwork. I’d practice my inking, and then they’d come over and make corrections for me, they’d show me what I was doing wrong and why it was wrong. And they encouraged me to go to the Art Students League at night.

It was a little tough at that time — I was still going to high school. But they pushed it and I knew I needed it, so I started. So during the day I’d go to regular school, then I’d go to Chesler’s for a couple of hours, then I’d run down to school at night. It was a very long day. But when you’re young you can handle that kind of thing.
Which is just the sort of attitude that Tim Drake would display decades later. Infantino got his first comics assignment from Timely editor Joe Simon in late 1941, inking a “Jack Frost” story penciled by another teenager: his high-school classmate, Frank Giacoia.

21 April 2012

Another Hellbound II Review

I’ll shortly start my workshop at the SCBWI New England conference, but I’m logging in to quote my favorite part of Emi Gennis’s review of Hellbound II:
While some of the pieces in this anthology are eerie and ominous tales, others were a bit more lighthearted and silly. Logan Faerbers “Grampire,” comes to mind… a story about what you may have already surmised – a very old vampire! JL Bell and Andy Wong‘s “RobMeBlind.com” also stood out as one of the more humorous pieces. Funny and creative from the set up all the way through to the ending, this story takes a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the horror theme and is well complimented by a cartoony, and maybe even cute (although perhaps that’s not the right word in the context of this subject matter) visual style.
The review offers praise and thoughts on other stories in the anthology, plus sample illustrations. Here’s Steve Cartisano’s interview with me and Andy about the story and horror in general. (Neither of us really like it. Maybe that’s why we tried to be funny.)

20 April 2012

The NRA and a Massive Conspiracy to Deceive Voters

The National Rifle Association got off to an early start on OIP Derangement Syndrome by misrepresenting Barack Obama’s political positions in 2008 even before our country elected him President.

The organization’s dire predictions proved unreliable. Once in the Oval Office, Obama not only hasn’t imposed restrictions on firearms but has actually signed legislation to loosen the laws. But by definition, actual facts don’t affect cases of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

In Salon, Steve Kornacki just wrote about the NRA’s annual meeting and its foundation of delusion:

The psychology of the National Rifle Association can be funny.

You might think the gun rights group would be deeply suspicious of Mitt Romney, who signed a ban on assault weapons and small handguns as governor of Massachusetts and assured voters there that “I don’t line up with the NRA.” And you might think its members would have at least grudging appreciation for Barack Obama’s presidential record, which includes signing a law to allow loaded guns in national parks and which is devoid of any major push for gun ownership restrictions – even as two gun-related tragedies captured national attention.

But no, it’s Romney who’s getting the warm welcome at the NRA’s St. Louis convention this afternoon, and it’s the prospect of a second Obama term that has the group in a panic. The president’s passive record on guns, according to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, is just “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.”

Certainly, this reflects the pattern that has defined much of the conservative opposition to Obama’s presidency. He’s governed as a middle-of-the-road incrementalist, but the right decided before he took office that Obama was a leftist radical, so that’s how they’ll treat him. He could get reelected and sit on this hands for four more years and Obama will still be a gun confiscator to the 2nd Amendment crowd.

19 April 2012

(Not) At the Boston Comic-Con This Weekend

Because I’ll speak at the SCBWI New England conference this weekend, and don’t have the option of an alternate life, I won’t be at the Boston Comic-Con. Physically, that is.

In spirit, I’ll be represented by two publications. First, the Boston Comics Roundtable has issued Hellbound II, its anthology of horror comics, as a handy paperback. Heretofore the collection was available only in an “art edition,” with handmade paper covers and box. The new paperback has all the chills of the first state at a fraction of the price.

Among the stories in Hellbound II is “RobMeBlind.com,” by me and Andy Wong. Formally I’m the scripter and Andy’s the artist, but this was a true collaboration. The inspiration was an anecdote that Andy told at a roundtable meeting. I went home and wrote a script spinning off that. Andy drew my script, turning four pages into five. I suggested ways to clarify the word balloons and darken the art, and Andy inserted what worked for him. (And finally I used my leverage as the book’s proofreader to push for the last page to be hidden by a page turn.)

Jen Vaughn at the Center for Cartoon Studies’ Schulz Library just reviewed the collection, and I’ll quote my favorite passage:
Often the failing of a horror anthology is that you you read WITH the intention of being scared and thus, thumb through the pages bravely. A well-written comic is not necessarily terrifying until at night, it twists itself in the dark of your room, and you can suddenly recall images.

A particular story that follows that logic is RobMeBlind.com, which is about thieves who utilize location-based smart phone apps to figure out when people are gone from their homes. The clever crafting by J.L. Bell and Andy Wong left me awake blinking at my ceiling (possibly at the easy ability people have of giving away information for temporary celebrity). And the dark woodcut panels of E.J. Barnes in Patrick Flaherty’s story The Plague exemplify a great use of comics to set the mood for the story. Hellbound 2 is perfect for the horror fan or lover of hand-made objects, especially if those objects are a skin suit made from their victims.
Also at Boston Comic-Con, Jesse Lonergan will be offering a samizdat collection of images of robots from Boston Comics Roundtable members and other friends. I sent him a sketch of a robot singing, “R. U. R. or R. U. Ain’t My Baby?” Cartooning is outside my comfort zone, but how often will I have the chance to honor Karel Capek and Louis Jordan in one image?

18 April 2012

A Taxonomy of Fantasy

This weekend I’ll be at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ annual New England conference, this year in Springfield (Seuss Country), Massachusetts. I’ll be part of a panel on independent editors and the future of publishing, will teach a workshop on “Defining the Borders of Reality,” and may give away some door prizes.

“Defining the Borders of Reality” is really about fantasy literature, and I’m doing my usual thing of categorizing and defining types. In this I’m guided by such scholars as Farah Mendelsohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy, but I’ve ended up with my own system and labels.

To begin with, I call fantasy literature a “mode,” not a “genre.” My definition of “genres” involves reader expectations for plot while “modes” are defined mainly by setting, including the level of coincidence, action, and emotional reaction that characters of that world accept. Thus, in the phrase “paranormal romance,” the first word indicates the fantasy mode while the second defines a genre demanding certain plot points. Stories from many genres can be told in the fantasy mode. Conversely, a genre like mystery or romance can be told in the realistic, fantastic, historical, melodramatic, or farcical mode.

And then there are my labels for types of fantasy.

Immersion Fantasy. These stories take place entirely in a fantastic world where the laws of physics, mortality, biology, and other aspects of the universe we know don’t apply. Within immersion fantasy, there are many approaches: from “high fantasy” to “magical realism,” from traditionally rooted fairy tales to entirely new cosmologies.

Portal Fantasy. Protagonists travel from an ordinary, recognizable, and unmagical world into a magical one. The plot usually involves getting back home, often after setting things right in the other place. As Mendelsohn points out, portal fantasies are usually quest stories.

Intrusion Fantasy. Something magical enters the ordinary world, and usually has to be forced back, helped back, or experienced and declined. The world typically ends much as it was when the story begins, but the protagonists have learned a valuable lesson about life.

Shadow Fantasy. A world very much like the readers’ own turns out to have magical people or creatures hiding within it. These stories often revolve around protecting those creatures, or protecting oneself from them.

Dimension Fantasy. A world very much like the readers’ own turns out to have pervasive magical layers and forces that most people never perceive. The typical protagonist turns out to have some special aptitude or role in the magical dimension. The universe turns out to be a much bigger, scarier place.

Alternate-Life Fantasy. Through time travel, body-switching, or some other means, protagonists get a chance to view how their lives might be different. These books are usually about, well, learning how life can be different.

Have I left anything out?

17 April 2012

Mapping Oz

David Maxine at Hungry Tiger Press is mapping the history of Oz cartography each Monday. The latest installment examines the map included in The Lost Princess of Oz, which showed the settings of that adventure.

This was the first map to follow the comprehensive “official” pair published two years earlier in Tik-Tok of Oz. David writes:
This careful explanation of existing geographic points proves to me that Baum was looking at a copy of the 1914 map as he wrote. Indeed the 1914 map may have been a crucial plotting tool for Lost Princess. As we've discussed previously, Baum added several countries and locales to the 1914 map that he had not yet written about, such as the Skeezers, Mount Munch, and the Yips. It's possible that Baum had some notion of the plot of Lost Princess back in 1914, allowing him to place the Yip Country near the Truth Pond where the Frogman will bathe, but I think the evidence shows it is far more likely that Baum plotted the book by looking at the map - choosing to begin in one of his unexplored countries (the Yips) and seeing the only nearby landmark was the Truth Pond and he needed to come up with some excuse to make use of it.
Before Reilly & Britton published Tik-Tok of Oz, Baum’s books mentioned a map of Oz only one time. And in that mention, in one of the short stories in The Little Wizard Stories of Oz, Ozma draws an impromptu map for Jack Pumpkinhead to follow [yeah, that’ll work]. However, the story’s narrator never mentions an “official” map of the country or its neighboring fairylands.

After the Tik-Tok map appeared, every Oz book for decades included some mention of a map of Oz. Sometimes authors located their new countries on that map. Sometimes characters had or discussed maps. The authors simply couldn’t disregard that official layout for the country.

I agree with David that Baum looked at the Tik-Tok maps while writing his stories and drew inspiration from them. We also know that Ruth Plumly Thompson kept a copy of a map of Oz on which she drew the new places she created. John R. Neill included double-page maps in his books and took names of the 1914 documents.

In sum, the books and manuscripts Baum wrote up to 1914 shaped the official map of Oz, but the map shaped the stories he and his successors wrote after that.

16 April 2012

Being Carded in College

I used to work in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale. Not just as a student, but as a part-time work-study employee in the Manuscripts and Archives Division.

As a place to walk into every day for a job, it’s hard to top Sterling. It was designed to look like a medieval cathedral, and the card catalogue was in a place of honor in the nave. (The checkout desk was the altar.)

Even while I was there in the mid-1980s, however, other work-study employees were transferring the data on those cards into a new computerized system.

Now the card catalogue is unused, but Ellen Su made this music video to honor it.

15 April 2012

¡Hola, Robin!

This doll action figure might have been the first time anyone dressed Robin in pants.

It’s a Robin figure produced in the 1970s by Lili Lely in Mexico under a license from Mego. As Brian Cronin explains in the latest “Comic Book Legends Revealed” column, Mexico had laws requiring toys to be manufactured domestically, so Mego licensed its molds.

Evidently Lili Lely didn’t believe in a superhero in shorts. Or perhaps it was cheaper to give Robin the same red boots that Superman wore instead of manufacturing pixie boots. The company also made Robin’s sleeves about as long as the other heroes’ and left the R symbol off his jerkin.

I remember the Batman and Robin dolls action figures that my brother and I shared as coming in two distinct sizes, as in the TV shows and comics. But this Robin appears to be the same height as the accompanying Batman and Superman. All in all, one suspects that Lili Lely didn’t appreciate the nuances of the legend.

Nevertheless, in giving Robin green pants and boots, the company presaged the redesigns of the 1990s and beyond.

14 April 2012

“Publishing Is Going Away”?

At Findings, a site devoted to a social-reading service, technologist Clay Shirky talked about the future of book publishing:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a Wordpress install.

The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers. Will we have a movie-studio kind of setup, where you have one class of cinematographers over here and another class of art directors over there, and you hire them and put them together for different projects, or is all of that stuff going to be bundled under one roof? We don’t know yet. But the publishing apparatus is gone.
Publishing isn’t just making something public, as in making it available. It’s bringing the work to the attention of the public. The same forces that have made it easier to make work available are also making it easier to attract attention in some ways, but harder in others: there are many more competitors for readers’ eyes and time.

For that reason, the combination of good vetting and good presentation remain valuable. Furthermore, the “brand” of a publisher (or author consortium, or interest group, or however the business grows) may become more valuable than ever. The little name at the bottom of a book’s spine carried little weight with readers, but knowing an ebook comes from a recognized company could make readers more willing to risk a purchase.

It’s quite possible that publishing organizations will focus on marketing, including publicity, negotiating with popular vendors, and so on. But simply because anyone can make his story about a tree falling in a forest instantly available for readers around the world doesn’t mean any significant part of the public’s going to notice.

13 April 2012

The Bankruptcy of OIP Derangement Syndrome

In mid-November 2008, Mitt Romney, already angling to become this year’s Republican presidential nominee, published an essay in the New York Times that got the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” It concluded:
The American auto industry is vital to our national interest as an employer and as a hub for manufacturing. A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs. It would permit the companies to shed excess labor, pension and real estate costs. The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.

In a managed bankruptcy, the federal government would propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate with a bailout check.
Disregarding Romney’s advice, the Bush-Cheney administration worked out an arrangement the next month for General Motors and Chrysler to receive $17.4 billion in early 2009. This was on top of a $25 billion loan earlier that fall. President George W. Bush stated that “allowing the U.S. auto industry to collapse is not a responsible course of action.” According to Romney’s essay, those actions meant “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.”

Choosing not to give up so easily, in February 2009 President Barack Obama’s administration formed the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry to manage the ongoing crisis in the industry (which also affected other countries). Eventually combined US and Canadian government loans to General Motors and Chrysler totaled $85 billion as the government steered them into Chapter 11 bankruptcy by June.

As Romney acknowledged when he revisited the subject of his editorial last month (using some of the same anecdotes and language), that was the “managed bankruptcy” he asked for. He had written that “new labor agreements” must reduce payroll costs and retiree benefits. There were indeed new contracts with big layoffs, lower pay, and reduced benefits. Romney had said that the management of the companies be replaced. The US government actually forced out the head of GM.

By the time this presidential campaign began, Chrysler had repaid all its loans and GM was once again the biggest car company in the world. Economists agreed that the US government’s actions had preserved thousands of jobs in the automotive industry, not just those companies.

But that left Romney in a quandary. One of the dictates of OIP Derangement Syndrome is that nothing President Obama supports can be good, so to please his party’s base Romney had to find reasons to complain.

He began by ignoring the actions of the Bush-Cheney administration—the actual steps he had opposed back in November 2008. Then he and his staff came up with the argument that the Obama administration had put too much taxpayer money at risk—even though the loans it extended have all been paid back with interest, making them a successful investment.

Back in 2008, Romney wrote, “The new management must work with labor leaders to see that the enmity between labor and management comes to an end.” But in 2012 he complained bitterly that unions now held a big stake in the reorganized companies. As phrases like “the UAWs' union-boss-controlled trust fund” make clear, Romney promoted more enmity between labor and management.

In short, the only major thing consistent about Romney’s two essays on the auto industry, three years apart, was that he was still born in Detroit.

12 April 2012

The Beauty of a Do-Over

On Tuesday cartoonist Jesse Lonergan (Joe and Azat, among the notable titles listed in Best American Comics 2011) provided a précis of his writing process. It adds more detail to what I typed out after I met him at the Boston Comics Roundtable:
I'll plot out the story roughly in a notebook. In the case of this book, which I think will be around 100 pages, I wrote two pages of notes. I then sit down with a sketchbook and go. I draw a six panel grid on every page and fill the panels, no thought given to layout at all. The goal is just to get the images down. . . .

All these pages were numbered and scanned. I'd like to think that there is a purpose to numbering the pages, but I think I do it mainly because I like using my little number stamp to mark the pages.
Last fall Jesse shared the results of a wilder creative method: each day drawing a comics page in a notebook without planning the story at all. Some of my favorite pages of that sequence were actually dead ends, where Jesse decided to give himself a do-over.
You can really see the creative process at work.
Or not.
At one point I thought Jesse was using this exercise to work out ideas for his new graphic novel. But that book will be about high-school baseball in Vermont. So now I think one motivation for these little pages might have been the opportunity to use the little date stamp.

11 April 2012

The Significance of a Pearl Necklace

Frank Miller introduced several icons of the Batman mythos in The Dark Knight Returns, including the Jason Todd trophy case and the phrase “boy hostage.”

Perhaps the most powerful of his visual innovations is the pearl necklace that Martha Wayne wears when she is murdered. The breaking of that necklace, its white pearls spilling loose on the sidewalk, symbolizes how young Bruce’s family was destroyed. It evokes the loss of his parents’ death without showing the violence. If I wanted to get artistic, I could talk about the round, white pearls contrasting with spiky, black batarangs.

The necklace has reappeared in nearly every retelling of and flashback to that event since, including the animated television series and the movie Batman Begins. Often comics creators can simply show a panel of round white pearls falling, knowing their readers (who generally know the mythos already) will read that image to stand for all of Bruce Wayne’s traumatized childhood.

A good demonstration of that iconographic power appears in Noir, an anthology of crime comics published in 2009. The last tale, “The Bad Night” by Brian Azzarello, Fábio Moon, and Gabriel Bá, involves a down-on-his-luck man agreeing to pretend to mug a family and steal a necklace so the owner can collect the insurance.

Nothin’ to worry about,” the narrator says in the last panel—but that panel closes in on the woman’s pearl necklace. And superhero comics readers see that everything can go wrong, and probably will. In fact, the ending makes no sense at all without the symbolic significance that Frank Miller had invested in those pearls two decades before.

That’s all the more striking since Noir wasn’t published by DC Comics, which owns the copyright on Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace, but by Dark Horse. Azzarello has written stories for DC, including the alternative-Batman stories for the “Flashpoint” crossover, which also started with the Waynes’ mugging, but in this case he was building off of that company’s world elsewhere.

10 April 2012

Children Got Travelin’ Shoes

Rehearsals continue for Brooklyn P.S. 29’s fifth-grade production of The Wizard of Oz, as chronicled by co-director Helene Stapinski:
At his first rehearsal, [new pianist/music director] Allan takes all the leads and has them sing their signature songs to his accompaniment to help find the right keys. One by one they climb on stage and let it rip. The rest of the cast is seated, silently, in the auditorium, reading and doing homework, their heads down.

Glinda gets up to sing “Come Out, Come Out Where Ever You Are.” When she delivers the line, “Kansas, she says, is the name of the star,” she is joined spontaneously by a multitude of munchkins, who don’t even raise their heads from their books, but deliver their echo on cue, in unison — “Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.” Their small voices rise up from the dark auditorium, giving me chills.

When Mary Leigh belts out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” everyone in the auditorium just stops what they’re doing and looks up. They sit there, mouths open, as Mary Leigh knocks it out of the park. It’s so beautiful with Allan’s piano accompaniment that I have to fight back a terribly strong urge to sob right there in the auditorium. I just stand there in the aisle and bite my lip and swallow hard.

I realize that it’s not just the song that’s killing me. I look around the auditorium. Aidan, Dean, Eggy (real named Edward), Maddie, Bit, Nicky, and the rest of the munchkins, they’re all slumped or sitting up straight in their wooden backed chairs, but are all paying proud, full attention to their friend and co-star. They look so much older than they did six months ago.
There’s also the challenge of “how to make the ruby slippers magically appear on Dorothy’s feet”—i.e., recreating a movie special effect on the stage. Of course, that wouldn’t be an issue in adapting from L. Frank Baum’s book, where characters handle the silver shoes in a down-to-earth way:
The feet of the dead Witch had disappeared entirely, and nothing was left but the silver shoes.

“She was so old,” explained the Witch of the North, “that she dried up quickly in the sun. That is the end of her. But the silver shoes are yours, and you shall have them to wear." She reached down and picked up the shoes, and after shaking the dust out of them handed them to Dorothy.
Dorothy sensibly puts her shoes on one foot at a time even after she’s inadvertently offed her second witch:
With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted, shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.

09 April 2012

Defining a Sequel, for Marketing Purposes

Godson’s Father James Treadwell’s fantasy novel Advent has been published in Britain, and is getting some fine reviews.

He’s still working out the marketing process, though:
I was invited last week to appear on the BBC News 24 channel “Meet the Author” slot. Sadly, I didn’t get to meet any authors, but I did have a pleasant chat with BBC’s effortlessly genial and knowledgeable Nick Higham.
James was just on an Olympus (Eastercon) panel on the topic “Sequel-itis,” but says on his home page that he’s finishing the “second novel,” not the sequel:
I don’t think [“sequel”] quite describes the relation between Advent and the story that’s falling into its final shape now. Sequels are really the same thing again, aren’t they? — the timescale and events may be subsequent to the first book/film/whatever, but basically they exist to repeat what’s already been achieved. The case of Advent won’t work like that. Presumably you can’t have advents twice, anyway. There has to be an arrival after a coming.
But aren’t sequelae simply things that follow? Advent is an open-ended story, and its last pages set up a story in quite a different place. The result may be as different as The Dark Is Rising from Over Sea, Under Stone, or Witch Week from Charmed Life. But for marketing and saga-construction purposes, those are surely sequels.

08 April 2012

The Quick End of Red Robin

Now that DC has published the two Red Robin volumes largely scripted by Fabian Nicieza, The Hit List and Seven Days of Death, I thought it would be interesting to review comments he made when he took over that series from Christopher Yost.

Nicieza had written Tim Drake’s transition from Robin to Red Robin in the issues of Robin collected in Search for a Hero. I felt that volume suffered from being forced to squeeze into the schedule dictated by Grant Morrison’s “Batman RIP” storyline. In interviews Nicieza clearly liked the Tim Drake character; in the magazines, he didn’t have enough pages to demonstrate that.

Taking over Red Robin in 2010 gave Nicieza a second chance with Tim Drake, this time with no end in sight. At that time, he told Newsarama:
He is “the smart one” of the Bat-family, the thinker and planner. I mean, of course Bruce Wayne/Batman is what he is, and Tim isn’t quite there yet, but Tim at 17 has a more developed intellect than Bruce at 17 did. That’s not to say Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon are dumb, of course they’re not, but Tim’s level of thinking is a bit... thicker... than theirs. For me, Dick is about superior reflexive thinking, Barbara about superior operational thinking and Tim is about superior comprehensive, or all-encompassing, thinking.
What I love about Tim is that he shares some of the strongest traits of various Bat-family members. The intellect and detective skills of Bruce, the ability to lead others and be a friend to others like Dick has and even the ability to make cold, harsh decisions like Jason does.
Those qualities are certainly on display in Nicieza’s Red Robin stories as Tim maneuvers and manipulates, planning ways to take down villains and threats proactively. That created the storytelling challenge of a first-person narrator who’s been planning several steps ahead of the action being shown—but of course can’t spoil the story for us readers.

Within the DC Universe, Tim got the cyberspace beat. Several of Nicieza’s stories involve an evil digital network called the Ünternet, with his old rival Anarky as a touchy ally in that virtual world. Another couple of issues bring on the Mad Men, electronically fueled tricksters who challenge Tim’s logical thinking.

At the end of that interview, Nicieza threw out some teaser questions that referred to a plot thread that Yost had left hanging for him:
“Who[m] has Ra’s al Ghul ordered to take away Tim’s v-card – and will she succeed?”
“And if she doesn’t succeed, who else is on that ever-growing line looking to draw that card?”
As calculated, that talk of sex caught fans’ attention. But Nicieza soon stated: “I only drew the V-card gag answer as a direct result of a thread running that day on the Robin DC Boards. . . . I hadn’t even THOUGHT of [it] much until that thread.”

As Nicieza noted, over the years DC’s storytellers established several young women as romantic interests, and thus potential first sexual partners, for Tim Drake. Nicieza spun out some of those threads. He created a notable cliffhanger with Ra’s al Ghul’s half-sister trying to get pregnant by Tim whether he wants to or not, only to show him saved by another possible partner.

But contrary to some readings of those issues I’ve seen, Nicieza wasn’t trying to turn Tim into a suave playboy. He recently told Comic Book Resources:
Any relationship with a woman is one where Tim is never fully in control. Maybe that’s one reason he doesn’t have any successful ones under his belt—then again, how many 17-year-olds do? I like how Tim is so competent in so many other aspects of his life, but he is still an awkward doof when it comes to dealing with girls.
Tim’s anxious face when he sees what al Ghul is up to fits into the line of anxious faces he’s made when he thought Lady Shiva might sexually initiate him (first Robin miniseries, #4); when his first girlfriend, Ariana, suggested sex (Robin, #40); when he had to face Stephanie Brown’s pregnancy (Robin, #58); and even when Rose Wilson of the Titans made a play for him (Teen Titans: All Around the World). This DC Universe ends with Tim still awkward, still a virgin, and unattached. Nicieza really does know the character’s history.

Back in 2010, Nicieza was looking ahead to another Red Robin storyline based in Tim’s past:
Nrama: It seems Tim would have quite the reaction to Digger Harkness being brought back from the dead but not his own father [since Harkness, better known as Captain Boomerang, killed his father in Identity Crisis]...

Nicieza: …we will certainly touch on Digger’s return very early in my run—with a face to face meeting that will brew and percolate into a larger storyline down the road.
However, that larger storyline never came to pass. DC’s management chose to revamp its entire line for a simpler “New 52” continuity, in which Tim Drake has a new Red Robin costume and a new mission of forming the new Teen Titans. And there was a strict timetable for launching that.

Nicieza therefore had to wrap up his storylines very quickly. He squeezed a visit to Hong Kong and a big fight with a new young villain into a single page in order to leave the series’ final issue for the face-off with Captain Boomerang. What Nicieza planned as “a larger storyline” depended on Tim’s careful, extended planning—indeed, such planning is crucial to the story’s theme.

Logically, the result is an appropriate culmination for this Tim Drake’s character development from 1989 to 2011. Unfortunately, because the action had to be compressed into a single issue, it didn’t pack the emotional punch that Nicieza had no doubt initially hoped for. In addition, the last issues of Red Robin and nearly every other DC series were swamped by fan interest in what the publisher planned next. This saga ended not with a bang but with an “eep.”

07 April 2012

The All-Important Page Turn, in Digital Form

On Mark Waid’s blog, John Rogers shared some principles for digital comics, including:
4.) Information should be dumb.

By dumb I mean "as platform independent as possible." Your comic should work well in a pdf reader on a tablet or laptop or desktop computer, on a website, in an app. Your workflow should allow you to easily slot your comic into as many different platforms as seamlessly as possible. As cool as that Infinite Comic Nova comic is, there's nothing in there you can't do with a bone-dumb pdf- reader. It's all about execution.
I’ve downloaded Waid and artist Jeremy Rock’s digital comic “Luther” on both my desktop computer and my iPad, and wrote about it here.

I found a significant difference in the reading experience on the two platforms even though Waid followed Rogers’s advice by offering the story as a simple PDF file rather than something designed specifically for one machine or operating system.

Waid and Rock designed their comic so that some “page turns” lead to the same image as the previous page but with a significant new element: another panel, word balloons, more visual details. That sort of transition works best when one panel is instantaneously replaced by another. That’s how my primary PDF-reading program on my desktop (Preview for the Mac) works.

However, the iPad is programmed to highlight its “sliding” interface. Moving from one page to the next in a PDF file means that the first page disappears off the left side of the screen while the second slides in on the right. This can look cool, no question.

But instead of seeing a word balloon, caption, or shovel appear in the image in front of my eyes, I see the first image move away wholly and another, similar image arrive. Every element moves, making the new elements harder to spot.

I’ve tried two or three iPad apps that reads PDFs, and they all work by sliding. (Does anyone know of one that can be set otherwise?) Will this apparently inherent programming undercut what Waid and his team are trying to do? Can a story appear on all platforms equally when some platforms are more slippery than others?

06 April 2012

“Too Much Time” with OIP Derangement Syndrome

This week Mitt Romney told a crowd in Pennsylvania:
We have a president, who I think is is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps.
President Barack Obama was at Harvard Law School for three years.

In contrast, Romney spent four years at Harvard earning degrees in both law and business. He credited that education with leading him to his first job and a very lucrative career.

Furthermore, Romney sent three of his five sons to the Harvard Business School. He donated tens of thousands of dollars to the university. He has several advisors from its faculty and cites other Harvard professors as among his biggest influences.

Obviously, Romney thinks that four years at Harvard were good for him. But even three years were too much for a person like Obama.

Romney has started to mirror the symptoms of OIP Derangement Syndrome so well that he’s flirting with the bigotry that lies beneath it. As with Rick Santorum, higher education was never a problem for him until it involved Barack Obama.

04 April 2012

The Sedentary Benedict Society

At one point in Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, a character demands, “Is it really as great as all that? . . . Sitting in a stupid chair doing nothing?” She’s referring to the experience of being in the Whisperer, a mind-control device in the novel.

That description could also be applied to watching television, which the book is quite down on. In fact, the Whisperer involves kids going into a trance-like state and repeating an adult’s thoughts because, for the sort of fantastic reason necessary in middle-grade fiction, the machine needs preadolescents to be effective.

For that matter, “sitting in a stupid chair and doing nothing” might be one way some folks would describe reading.

Ironically, a great deal of the first chapters of The Mysterious Benedict Society consists of characters sitting in a chair doing nothing but listening to other characters. In that part of the book, Stewart sticks quite closely to the point of view of Reynie Muldoon, foremost of the book’s protagonists. Only later does the narrator move into the heads of Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall, and other characters, and only later does the action heat up.

As a result, in those early chapters, we readers learn about the other characters’ experiences and the requisite Threat to the Entire World as Reynie listens, sitting in a stupid chair and doing nothing.

03 April 2012

Changes in Oz We Can Believe In

At VoVatia (mirrored at the Royal Blog of Oz), Nathan DeHoff extended the discussion begun in part here of the power and appeal of the status quo in the Oz books.

After L. Frank Baum’s first two Oz novels, nearly all those stories are structured around the preservation of and return to the status quo. Ozma remains in charge of the Emerald City. Some kids get to go home, others find a home in that city, and still others (especially in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s sequels) are restored to their rightful royal roles. That pattern’s surely a big part of the series’ appeal.

Books that make too great a change in that status quo are unpopular with fans. For example, most Oz fans dislike the way John R. Neill portrayed life in the Emerald City in the three books he wrote. Suddenly the houses become sentient, as Xamyul catalogues. Soon sentient cars roam the streets. Characters like Ojo, Kabumpo, and Sir Hokus don’t have the identities and homes that preceding books established. No later official Oz authors followed up on Neill’s stories, and the few examples of fanfiction that I’ve seen use some of his characters set his biggest changes aside.

The problem isn’t just consistency with the rest of the series, however. In fact, Baum was inconsistent on details large and small. He described characters dying in Oz and wrote that no one died in Oz, cut Oz off from the outside world and showed people traveling there with little trouble, said that magical artifacts could not travel to Kansas and depicted Dorothy encountering a magical artifact in Kansas. Oz fans don’t reject those contradictions; instead, spotting and if possible explaining them is part of the fun.

What makes Baum’s inconsistencies acceptable but Neill’s irksome? I suspect fans would accept the changes Neill made to the Emerald City more readily if his stories were any good. A talented fantasy illustrator, he didn’t have a good sense of character or narrative, nor good editors. As a result, it’s very hard to make any sort of emotional connection to Neill’s books and thus to become fond of them.

Had Neill written stories that readers deeply wanted to be part of the Oz series, we readers would be quicker to accept that the Emerald City became a stranger place in those years. More of us would accept the unexplained changes in the status quo that other books had established.

Edward Einhorn’s Paradox in Oz shows this rule in action from the other direction. It requires deep changes in our understanding of the Oz universe, with all versions of the myth existing in parallel. Yet I haven’t found any Oz fan expressing deep distaste for how that book changes Baum’s creation, probably because it’s a more enjoyable story.

02 April 2012

Willy Wonka to the 33rd Degree

Last month I saw that the National Heritage Museum’s announcement of a conference on Masonic history promised this paper by Bradley Kime of Brigham Young University: “Freemasonry in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

That amused me as an example of academic triviality, so I went looking for more information. I discovered that as of last fall Kime was a TA at BYU, and I found the abstract for another version of his paper at the ACA/PCA national conference:
The film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl’s famous story, has exercised an enormous amount of influence on American popular culture. The film score was nominated for an academy award and Sammy Davis Junior’s cover of “Candy Man” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The original film gave rise to a forgettable Freudian remake in 2005, to new lexical items such as Oompa Loompa and Golden Ticket, and to the unforgettable character of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. Yet, there is more to this morality tale than meets the eye. My research shows that this story is far from being understood or completely unpacked: there are not only strong thematic parallels with Free Masonry, but also biographical details in Dahl’s life that show his own exposure to Masonry. I have used unpublished archival materials, including from the Dahl archives, to outline the remarkable parallels to Masonic ceremonies in the film and to explore possible Masonic influences in Dahl’s life during key moments when the story was inspired and written.
I recognized that PCA/ACA stands for Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association. And I realized that I know that because I myself have presented at the New England Popular Culture Association’s annual meeting. And suddenly this effort didn’t seem so amusingly trivial.