30 April 2013

Bert Lahr and That Certain Air

This is an illustration by Glen Orbik, who specializes in old-fashioned “pulp”-style covers for books and magazines. Orbik portrays MGM’s Cowardly Lion getting spiffed up to visit the Wizard, though I don’t remember his attendants showing so much cleavage. A giclée print of this image is available through the Wildsville Gallery.

In the MGM movie, this scene ends with the Cowardly Lion having his mane in ringlets with a ribbon at one side. (W. W. Denslow and John R. Neill also drew the Lion with a ribbon, at the top of his head, but of course he was always undeniably a real lion.) He happily sings about “The certain air of savoir faire” with his paw extended.

As Patrick Healy reported in the New York Times, playwright Douglas Carter Beane sees Bert Lahr’s portrayal of the Lion as arising from the burlesque tradition of “the nance,” a comically effeminate type of second banana. Indeed, Lahr was a burlesque comedian whose first big break came in 1925 when a scout sent Florenz Ziegfeld a telegram that said:
(That telegram was printed in Stage magazine ten years later.)

Given the MGM movie’s accumulated audience, Lahr’s Lion might be the most watched burlesque “nance” performance of all time.

28 April 2013

Teen Titans Go Younger

Back in 2010, I quoted Young Justice producer Greg Weisman talking about the audience that the show needed to deliver for its network: “I think, from an economic standpoint, we have to hit boys 6 – 14 for Cartoon Network to sell their ad space or whatever…”

As some viewers complained, the show’s pilot skewed heavily toward pleasing that demographic. It was all about young male characters running around and smashing things. The show introduced the female members of the team gradually, and for a long time one seemed like a sitcom caricature of a teen-aged girl.

By the second season, however, important elements of the show seemed well beyond the concerns of “boys 6-14.” Jumping ahead five years meant the characters who had been in their mid-teens were now of college age. What’s more, they were acting that age. Sex is what I’m trying to say:

  • The second Roy Harper was raising a child with his ex, the assassin Cheshire.
  • Cheshire’s sister Artemis was living with her boyfriend, Wally West.
  • Dick Grayson was apparently charming the pants off several young women, one after another. (This appears more in the comic book than the TV show.)
The show introduced less mature characters in that second season, but its complex storyline seemed most suited for older viewers, and not just boys.

The audience evidently wasn’t what the Cartoon Network was looking for because it declined a third season. Instead, the network brought back a version of the Teen Titans show from a decade ago, first in shorts and finally as a half-hour show titled Teen Titans Go.

The producers make a big deal of the same voice actors coming back, and indeed they’re welcome. But many other aspects of the show have changed. The characters have been redesigned as smaller, cuter, and more “cartoony.” Each episode consists of two ten-minute cartoons instead of one adventure (or chapter in a longer storyline). The stories are about the teen heroes in their “off hours,” not fighting villains. In that respect, Teen Titans Go resembles Tiny Titans.

What’s more, the character of Beast Boy has changed in two significant ways. As some viewers noted immediately, he can now speak while in animal form, unlike in the previous cartoon series. (Of course, nothing can stop the Gar Logan of the comics from talking.) Furthermore, he’s no longer vegetarian.

In fact, both parts of the first episode were about food. One half of the show revolved around the perfect sandwich, the other was set in a pie shop. Some of the shorts also revolved around mealtime. In other words, the shift from Young Justice to Teen Titans Go is the shift from the genital to the oral stage of psychological development. We’ll see if that brings in more boys aged 6 to 14.

26 April 2013

Louie Gohmert’s OIP Derangement Syndrome

Rep. Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, can always be counted on to demonstrate OIP Derangement Syndrome. This week’s example:

…this administration has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America.
Wikipedia links Gohmert’s name to two more conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood.

Gohmert’s comment came just days after he claimed, with an equal lack of proof, “We know al Qaeda has camps over with the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border. We know that people that are now being trained to come in and act like Hispanic when they are radical Islamists.”

25 April 2013

They Just Don’t Publish Them Like They Used to

I have a new favorite series of novels for young readers that I’ve never read:
The Square Dollar Boys, by H. Irving Hancock.

As Wannabe Wonderlands shows, these books were advertised in the backs of other series with this stirring copy:
The reading boy will be a voter in a few years; these books are bound to make him think, and when he casts his vote he will do it more intelligently for having read these volumes.
Doesn’t that just scream “adventure”? The semi-colon alone hints that these books are a cut above the ordinary boys’ series fare. And look at that cover art, courtesy of HenryAltemus.com: two young men in suits sitting in a clearly labeled office talking to an older man in a suit.

The Square Dollar Boys Wake Up; or, Fighting the Trolley Franchise Steal appeared in 1912 and was immediately followed by The Square Dollar Boys Smash the Ring; or, In the Lists against the Crooked Land Deal. That was the year of the wide-open Presidential race among Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, so teenaged boys’ interest in political reform must have been near an all-time high. The publisher announced The Square Dollar Boys Still Hunt to come.

Due to the unaccountable vagaries of the market, however, Altemus never issued the third volume.

24 April 2013

Becoming an Author in the Worst Way

On Monday I attended an event at the Cambridge Public Library kicking off World Book Night, a European tradition that’s being promoted here. It involves applying for the privilege of giving away forty copies of a book to people who don’t read much. And somehow it’s connected to the date when Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare died, except not really.

The event featured a panel of three local authors whose novels had been selected for this year’s World Book Night program:

The moderator began the session by asking the authors what books they wish they had written. The answers were, respectively, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The Lord of the Rings. But Gaiman’s answer came with a story, of course—a story about the nature of storytelling.

I see parts of this story on the web, so I know Gaiman has told it before. He might have adapted it for a character, as his memories of reading about fire hydrants and pizzas in America ended up in the mouth of John Constantine in The Books of Magic. But in any event, the full tale was new to me, so I’m sharing it.

Around the age of twelve, little Neil Gaiman desperately wanted to be the author of The Lord of the Rings. Not to write The Lord of the Rings, since that seemed like an unimaginable amount of work and J. R. R. Tolkien had already written it. Nor to write a new book that could stand beside The Lord of the Rings, since that was obviously impossible. Rather, he wanted to be able to hold himself up in the world as author of The Lord of the Rings itself.

So little Neil thought about the most likely way to achieve this goal. He decided to carry his copy of The Lord of the Rings with him at all times in case a trans-dimensional rift opened up and shifted him into another reality like our own in every way but one—it would have no Lord of the Rings.

Little Neil knew he couldn’t simply submit his paperback copy of the book to a publisher in that world; they would ask all sorts of questions about foreign rights. But he could, he decided, convince an adult to type out all of The Lord of Rings, put his name on the front page, and submit that manuscript to a publisher. And surely the firm would recognize the amazing value of this story by newcomer Neil Gaiman, and in that reality he would be forever and after author of The Lord of the Rings.

But then little Neil spotted a loose end that could jeopardize the whole plan: the typist would know that he hadn’t actually written the book. And he saw no way around that danger but to kill the typist.

At that point, Gaiman acknowledged, his younger self faltered on this ingenious plan. Even being author of The Lord of the Rings didn’t seem worth murdering another person. For a while he continued to carry around the book to be ready for the right trans-dimensional rift, but eventually he turned to other ways of becoming an author.

23 April 2013

“Yip” Harburg and the Wizard’s Speech

I had long heard that E. Y. “Yip” Harburg was responsible for the Wizard’s oft-quoted speech as he gave out gifts to Dorothy’s three companions in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. But I wasn’t sure what point he made his input. Was he hanging about the set during filming?

According to Harriet Hyman Alonso’s biography Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist, Harburg was involved fairly early. The studio already had some scripts when assistant producer Arthur Freed contacted Harburg and his musical partner, Harold Arlen, in New York. But according to Harburg’s memory, “Finally Arthur [Freed] agreed with my that we needed a new concept, to experiment, and let the lyrics and music wag the plot.”

What did that mean? Harburg continued:

So we put aside the six or seven existing scripts and started from scratch. We let the songs tell the story, and wrote the scenes around the songs, saving as much of the existing scripts as we were able to cue into the songs. . . .

Whatever weakness existed in the original story we replaced with new ideas. For example, my satiric sense rebelled when the Wizard gave the Tin Man a red pill for a heart and the Scarecrow a white pill for a brain. It was pat—and meaningless. My humorous spirit said, “Put a little bit into this. Why not show up some of the follies we live by?” When a guy goes to college, he doesn’t emerge with any more wisdom than when he went in. All he’s got is a diploma. So let’s be realistic: give the Scarecrow a diploma—and ipso facto, a brain.

In like manner, the do-gooders of the world never achieve hearts, but testimonials. Ergo, a watch for the Tin Man—that ticks like a heart. Plus an inscription for good deeds done. . . . I demonstrated all the parts to Louis B. Mayer and others with all the passion of my schoolboy experience. Thank you, P.S. 64!
Scholars of musical comedies note that the Wizard doesn’t have any songs in the MGM movie. When it’s been adapted for the stage, as Andrew Lloyd Webber has just done, producers often cast a big (if aging) star as the Wizard and insert a number for him. But really the speech Harburg wrote functions like a good patter song.

The interview quoted above originally appeared in Bernard Rosenberg and Ernest Goldstein’s Creators and Disturbers: Reminiscences by Jewish Intellectuals of New York (1982), one of the many sources, published and unpublished, that Alonso drew on. In Max Wilk’s They’re Playing Our Song: Conversations with America’s Classic Songwriters, Harburg restated his approach:
I loved the idea of having the freedom to do lyrics that were not just songs but scenes. That was our own idea, to take some of the book and so some of the scenes in complete verse, such as the scenes in Munchkinland. It gave me wider scope.
To Aljean Harmetz, author of The Making of “The Wizard of Oz”, he said: “The whole Munchkin sequence was done in prose. I threw it out and lyricized it. That was daring…the whole 10 minutes in rhyme. Never done before or since. All rhymed up.”

Harburg also took credit for suggesting Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion and even said things like, “I was torn between whether to have Haley as Scarecrow and Bolger as Tin Man because I thought Haley more of a weakie, more pathos. . . . I would have preferred Buddy Ebsen for either part to Haley or Bolger.”

In fact, Ebsen was cast as the Scarecrow until Bolger asked for a switch to accommodate his dance style, then as the Tin Man during early filming until he became dangerously ill from the makeup. Only then was Jack Haley brought in. So I’m not sure how much Harburg was really involved in casting, aside from perhaps tossing out ideas to producers Mervyn Leroy and Freed.

22 April 2013

The Twisted Dark Journey Across the Atlantic

Among the comics creators planning to display at this past weekend’s Boston Comic Con was Neil Gibson. Unfortunately, the convention was indefinitely postponed because the metro area, as you probably heard, indefinitely shut down the day before.

Very unfortunately, Gibson and his publishing partner had come all the way from the UK with hundreds of copies of his collection Twisted Dark. And they really didn’t want to schlep those books back across the Atlantic. So instead of tabling at the convention, they spent the weekend visiting various comics shops around Boston and giving away copies of the book for free.

I was at stuffed-to-the-ceiling Comicopia in Kenmore Square when the Twisted Dark crew came through, struggling politely to convince store managers that they should take a dozen copies to give away. So out of solidarity I came away with a copy.

Though I’ve scripted a couple of horror stories lately, I’m not really a fan of that mode of fiction. But twist-ending stories are a fine way to develop and demonstrate one’s comics-writing skills. All the tales in Twisted Dark are scripted by Gibson, but the art comes from several artists: Caspar Wijngaard, Atula Siriwardane, Heru Prasetyo Djalal, Jan Wijngaard, Ant Mercer, and Dan West.

I found the first couple of stories to be competent, with a leisurely pace that emphasized mood over plot twists. Since, as I said, I’m not really fond of the horror mode, I wasn’t sure I’d finish the volume soon until I read Erik Sugay’s review for Spandexless and the Comics Alliance, which suggests that it offers more than meets a first glance.

I also checked out Gibson’s comics website and enjoyed ”Hidden Scribbles,” from a series of autobiographical tales of growing up called “The World of Chub Chub.” That’s more what I like.

21 April 2013

The Pants Show That’s Not Actually the First Robin

This is yesterday’s entry from Dan Piraro’s daily comic, Bizarro. The comic for the day before was about Batman and Superman. And Piraro even has a collection of superhero spoofs on the market.

In my hometown paper, Bizarro is a real strip, in the horizontal format, albeit usually a single panel. But other papers and the web run the gags in this aspect ratio. That means Piraro has to redraw every entry with other details; in this case, the horizontal version has another curious framed artwork hanging to the right, next to the lit firecracker. What cartoonists won’t do to keep us entertained.

20 April 2013

Torn About the Eisners, and a Bookstore Appearance

The new Eisner Nominations for “Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12)” present me with a dilemma:
  • Adventure Time, by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, and Braden Lamb (kaboom!)
  • Amulet Book 5: Prince of the Elves, by Kazu Kibuishi (Scholastic)
  • Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse, by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos (Archaia)
  • Crogan’s Loyalty, by Chris Schweizer (Oni)
  • Hilda and the Midnight Giant, by Luke Pearson (Nobrow)
  • Road to Oz, by L. Frank Baum, adapted by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young (Marvel)
Braden Lamb generously collaborated with me on “The Greatest Spy Ever,” our contribution to The Greatest Comics Anthology of All Time.

Eric Shanower gently gave me my first tips on writing for comics, and less gently the valuable encouragement to just get started: “Page One, Panel 1….” Years back, he illustrated my short story “Jack Pumpkinhead’s Day in Court.”

I even owe Chris Schweizer for reacting so politely to my worry about his eighteenth-century characters, as in Crogan’s Loyalty, having facial hair—which would be all wrong for the eighteenth-century British Empire.

So I don’t know whom to root for. But tomorrow afternoon Braden and I, along with his partner in all things, Shelli Paroline; our publisher, Dan Mazur; and Fletcher Hanks successor Joey Peters, will be selling and signing books at Comicopia in Boston’s Kenmore Square neighborhood. Braden and Shelli will be there from noon to three; Dan, Joey, and I have the three-to-six shift. This is one of the short-notice events that popped up after this spring’s Boston Comic Con had to be indefinitely postponed because, you may have heard, the whole metro area was shut down yesterday.

19 April 2013

Sen. John Cornyn on the Low Road

This week President Barack Obama called the U.S. Senate’s 54-46 vote for improved background checks on gun buyers, which wasn’t enough to enact a measure overwhelmingly supported by the American public, a “pretty shameful day for Washington.”

As The Hill reported, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) responded on the Senate floor:
When good and honest people have differences of opinion about what policies our country should pursue when it comes to the Second Amendment…the president of United States should not accuse them of having no coherent arguments or caving to political pressure. The president could have taken the high road…but instead he chose to take the low road…
Cornyn’s complaint about being blamed for “caving to political pressure” comes two months after this New York Times dispatch from February on how members of his own party see him changing political positions because of political pressure:
Mr. Cornyn seems to be shifting discernibly right, as evidenced, Republican observers say, by his recent positions on everything from cabinet appointees to a bipartisan immigration plan.
Of course, Cornyn is already firmly on the political right and has been since supporting George Wallace as a high-school student. But to avoid a primary fight he needs to be even more obstructionist.

Does Sen. Cornyn actually understand how “good and honest people have differences of opinion”? Last week he made a speech on the Senate floor to explain why he wouldn’t even vote to debate gun laws, and FactCheck.org concluded, “Cornyn is putting words in Obama’s mouth that he never said, and then calling them false.”

18 April 2013

Keep Calm and Mind the Gap

I’m quite pleased to have been directed to BBC America’s Mind the Gap webpage, about differences between life in Britain and in America. It’s written for British expatriates in the US, but has plenty of information useful for Americans in the UK, or folks who just enjoy the discrepancies.

For example, American Habits that British Will Never Understand includes “Compulsive sentimentality”:

my husband and I recently checked out of a B&B [in the US] after a two-night stay. Instead of bidding us farewell with a firm handshake and a receipt, the owner – a man in his 50s – latched on to me, then my man, for a prolonged hug. Just when we thought it was over, he announced, “I’ll miss you guys!” No, actually. You won’t.
Other highlights:
Two of the site’s correspondents debate whether Americans understand sarcasm, and an American commenter responds, “I find it hilarious that a British ‘debate’ consists of two people who think the same thing, but one feels sightly more strongly about it.” It takes another commenter to note that there are profound regional differences over the use and grasp of sarcasm within the US.

That debate in turn led me to BuzzfeedUK’s “British People Problems,” such as: “A man in the supermarket was browsing the food I wanted to browse, so I had to pretend to look at things I didn’t even want until he left.”

17 April 2013

Early Disney Television

Earlier this year I read the Carl Barks collection Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes. Though it’s volume 7 of Fantagraphics’s Complete Carl Barks Disney Library, it was the first volume to be printed. It collects Donald Duck comics from 1948-1950, after Bark had hit his stride and established most of his characters.

And I still can’t tell Huey, Dewey, and Louie apart.

But obviously Barks knew them well enough to anticipate how kids would behave in front of a television—even back in 1948, when only a few American families had a set.

16 April 2013

Oz-Stravaganza’s Call for Short Oz Fiction

The Syracuse Post-Standard reports that the International Wizard of Oz Club is co-sponsoring an Oz fiction writing contest as part of the annual Oz-Stravaganza festival in Chittenango, New York, boyhood home of L. Frank Baum.

As the story and contest brochure (PDF) explain, there are four grade categories. The stories from grades 3-8 can be 500 words long, 25% longer than the stories from writers in grades 9-12 and above. But we all know that writing short is harder than writing long.

Entries in each category have to include certain words. For writers in ninth grade and above (including adults), those words are:
1. Magic 2. Forest 3. Courage 4. Hourglass 5. Danger 6. Rescue 7. Castle 8. Home 9. Soldiers 10. Wish 11. Crystal 12. Cyclone 13. Wizard 14. Witch 15. Escape
Entries must be submitted by mail before 8 May. Check out the article and booklet for all the rules and the requisite registration form. First-place winners in each category will be published in the Post-Standard as part of the June festival.

15 April 2013

The Mystery

You might remember this photograph from 2007. That is Godson’s Brother, engrossed in a mystery.

For their shared birthday I usually send Godson and his Brother books, sometimes comics and sometimes prose. My choice for Godson last month was Tui and Kari Sutherland’s The Menagerie. For Godson’s Brother, who reads everything that his eyes fall on, I sprang for two paperbacks: Ellen Raskin’s The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon, I Mean Noel and The Westing Game.

Their mother is a stickler for thank-you notes, which arrived this weekend. Godson’s says in part:
I am very much looking forward to reading them. Captain Awesome away!
(Captain Awesome, the other side of the notecard makes clear, has telekinesis.)

Godson’s Brother wrote:
I really enjoyed reading them!
Well, I thought, that’s what I should expect. Two books couldn’t keep him occupied for long. Probably onto four more by now. Hardly made a dent.

But it looks like Godson’s Brother’s use of the past tense might have been a little poetic license. Today their mother emailed me that Godson’s Brother
ran into our bedroom at 6:10 this morning and exclaimed, “EUREKA! I GOT IT! I FIGURED OUT”…waving The Westing Game around. He sat on the floor, started to read again and said “Ohhhhhhh…”, got up, and wandered out.

14 April 2013

Dick Grayson’s Uncle in the Young Justice Universe

The fictional universe of the Young Justice TV cartoon isn’t exactly like any other version of the DC Comics continuity. And in presenting the origin of Robin in issue #6 of the comic book, the creators of that universe added a significant new detail.

In every version of the DC Universe that I recall, going back to 1940, the Flying Graysons are a three-person act: John, Mary, and young Richard. But in the Young Justice cartoon universe, as shown in issue #6 of the comic, there are six relatives up on the trapeze platform together.

In September 2011 a fan asked Greg Weisman, one of the TV series’s creators, about that uncle. His reply revealed additional information:
Dick's father's name was John. His mother was Mary. And, yes, Cousin John was named after Dick's father. Dick's uncle is named Richard - Rick for short. (Dick was named for his own uncle, obviously - the two elder Grayson brothers were very close.) Dick's aunt was named Karla.
Some of that information never appeared in the cartoon or comic books, but coming from Weisman made it “canonical.”

The larger population of Graysons makes it harder for the creators of the magazine—Art Baltazar and Franco on the script, Christopher Jones on pencils—to explain how everybody but Dick fell to the arena floor when Tony Zucco’s men sabotaged their equipment. The answer, as shown at right, was an elaborate trick involving five Graysons at once.

At the bottom of this panel is the net, lying loose on the ground. In real life, big-top circus flyers always perform with a net. Sometimes they even incorporate that net into their acrobatics. Highwire acts often work without nets, which is why so many members of the Great Wallendas died or got badly hurt in falls. (Which makes it a bit gruesome that they eventually changed the name of their act to the Flying Wallendas.)

(Another notable detail about this panel is the missing “of” in the first caption box. This Young Justice run shows signs of being assembled and published in a hurry.)

After the accident, Dick as narrator describes his new family situation: “My mother and father dead, my aunt and cousin dead, my uncle alive but paralyzed for the rest of his life.” A living uncle!

In September 2011 and again in November, fans asked Weisman for more information on this Uncle Rick. “Is he comatose, mostly paralyzed, something else?” “Will we be seeing more of Dick Grayson's uncle Rick in the YJ series?” Both times, Weisman refused to comment, his way of preserving possible future plot twists from disclosure.

As I’ve written before, Weisman and his colleagues were playing the long game with Young Justice. They set up details that wouldn’t be explained until months later. They skipped five years between seasons and let viewers figure out what had happened in the meantime. And it appears that they included Uncle Rick as a potential complication for the future.

In this universe, Uncle Rick might show up at any time and want custody of Dick, or money from Bruce Wayne. He might recognize the masked hero Robin as moving like a Flying Grayson, just as circus owner Jack Haly does. Uncle Rick might thus be much more formidable than Dick’s Aunt Harriet, who appeared out of nowhere in the 1960s, moved into Wayne Manor, and moved out years later, still clueless.

But the cancellation of the Young Justice TV show and comic means we’ll probably never see that story and know what the continuity’s creators had in mind. Fanfiction writers are offering their own versions, which seem to lean toward the sentimental rather than the dangerous.

13 April 2013

Really Most Sincerely

The biggest Oz news of the weekend is a collision of politics, historical accuracy, and poor taste that arose in the UK in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death.

Opponents of Thatcher’s policies made a concerted effort to drive up sales of a 51-second version of “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead,” written by E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen for the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie. As with the nation’s annual competition to put particular songs on the top of the British charts at Christmas, this wasn’t so much a matter of what music people actually want to hear as what statement they want to make charts make.

The campaign got the song to #3, which normally would mean that BBC Radio 1’s “Official Chart Show” would play it as part of a Top Ten list. But the controller of that station decided that the show would instead report on the song’s placement in its newscast and play a short clip. The whole song won’t appear in the countdown. At least not this week.

As a Facebook commenter noted, Harburg would be pleased—not because of a fresh batch of royalties accruing to his estate but because he was committed to the political left. Harriet Hyman Alonso’s biography Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist, published last year, goes into great detail about his political activity as well as his songwriting.

Thatcher might have the last word, though. Thousands of her opponents probably now have that song stuck in their heads. And so, probably, do you.

12 April 2013

OIP Derangement Syndrome Producing No Good at All

In a front-page analysis for the New York Times, Jackie Calmes reported how OIP Derangement Syndrome, exhibited either by politicians or by people those politicians fear, has made the discussion of many important issues in Washington wholly irrational.
Members of both parties say Mr. Obama faces a conundrum with his legislative approach to a deeply polarized Congress. In the past, when he has stayed aloof from legislative action, Republicans and others have accused him of a lack of leadership; when he has gotten involved, they have complained that they could not support any bill so closely identified with Mr. Obama without risking the contempt of conservative voters. . . .

The challenge for Mr. Obama became evident as soon as he took office, when Republicans almost unanimously opposed his economic stimulus package even as the recession was erasing nearly 800,000 jobs a month. The author Robert Draper opened his recent book about the House, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” with an account from Republican leaders who dined together on the night of Mr. Obama’s 2009 inauguration and agreed that the way to regain power was to oppose whatever he proposed. . . .

In early 2010 Republican senators, including the minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, demanded that Mr. Obama endorse bipartisan legislation to create a deficit-reduction commission. But when he finally did so, they voted against the bill, killing it. . . .

On immigration, Mr. Obama had wanted to propose his own measure because he had promised Latino groups he would do so. But Senate Democrats advised against it, fearing an “Obama bill” would scare off Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has presidential ambitions. Indeed, Mr. Rubio’s office once issued a statement to deny that he was discussing immigration policy “with anyone in the White House,” even as it criticized the president for not consulting Republicans. . . .

On the budget, Mr. Obama has tried both strategies — negotiating personally with Speaker John A. Boehner on a “grand bargain” for taxes and entitlement-program reductions, and when that failed, letting Congress try, which also failed. Now, with the bipartisan effort moribund, the president has decided he has no option but to publicly take the lead to revive negotiations with hopes of drawing some Republican support.

So the budget he is sending to Congress will embody his last compromise offer to Mr. Boehner in December. For the first time, Mr. Obama is formally proposing to reduce future Social Security benefits, if Republicans will agree to higher taxes on the wealthy and some corporations.

Republican leaders already have rejected the overture, based on early reports about it.
The only Obama decision that Republicans in this Congress would agree to is resignation. That won’t change until the 2014 election, if ever.

11 April 2013

We Welcome You

This is a detail from one of the photographs in NPR’s “Witches and Wizards” scrapbook collecting listeners’ memories of Oz.

These young ladies are docents at Dorothy’s House and Land of Oz in Liberal, Kansas. It’s gratifying to see how any girl can represent Dorothy.

The webpage has many more stories, photographs, photographs accompanied by stories, especially of kids in costume. A lot of those stories involve mothers insistent on making a kickass Wizard of Oz outfit and making their progeny wear it.

Me? One year I dressed myself as L. Frank Baum.

10 April 2013

A Mystery with Not-So-Secret Identities

A while back, I had the idea for a mystery story set in the world of mid-1900s American comics publishing. I’m still working on that, but in the meantime I sampled Max Allan Collins’s A Killing in Comics, the first in a series of mystery novels set, well, in the world of mid-1900s American comics publishing.

I should have expected Collins to have worked out this idea already. He’s written many comics himself, including the Dick Tracy newspaper strip for many years, the Ms. Tree private-eye stories, and The Road to Perdition. Collins was the Batman scripter who gave the second Jason Todd his past as a runaway with criminal parents.

Collins is also a prolific writer of prose mysteries, including his award-winning Nathan Heller books, another series built around major modern disasters, and numerous novelizations. So basically he’s already worked out every idea for a mystery story.

A Killing in Comics is clearly inspired by Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow, which has become the authoritative history of the start of the American comic-book industry. It’s a roman à clef about the first generation of DC Comics, or more particularly about the men who worked on its most famous creations, Superman and Batman. But in this book those trademarks are cleverly disguised as Wonder Guy and Batwing.

Thus, instead of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the book gives us Harry Spiegel and Moe Shulman—but they’re almost exactly as Jones characterized the Superman creators. On the Batman side, Bob Kane becomes Rod Krane, Bill Finger becomes Will Hander, and Jerry Robinson becomes…nothing, because unlike the other creators there’s no clear moral conflict in his career. Editor Mort Weisinger is on the scene at Sy Mortimer but as of 1948 hasn’t reached his full potential as a villain.

The detective, Jack Starr, is the troubleshooting vice president of a newspaper syndication service. Though he refers to his father as “the major,” reminiscent of Maj. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, this business is actually successful. It’s also run by a version of Gypsy Rose Lee, a retired stripper of an intellectual kind. That’s the most fictional part of the book.

As with Oz the Great and Powerful, the story is a little less interesting than watching it play out just on the edge of its source material without stepping over the line onto that territory. In this case, the mystery depends on all those comics pros being capable of killing the equivalent of the president of DC Comics. So of course “any resemblance to actual persons…is entirely coincidental,” as the copyright page says.

Further volumes in Collins’s Jack Starr series appear to be inspired by the Li’l Abner Broadway show of 1956 and its roots in newspaper comics, and by Dr. Fredric Wertham’s anti-comics crusade.

09 April 2013

Yes, I Know She’s Supposed to Be Inside the House

Prints of “Dorothy’s World” by John Coulter are available through Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra.

His work is part of the exhibition “Not in Kansas Anymore: A Tribute to The Wizard of Oz.”

I’m unduly fond of “Nikko and Toto” by an artist called Cuddly Rigor Mortis, but that might be because I played the Winged Monkey Who Grabs Toto in my second-grade production of The Wizard of Oz.

08 April 2013

Maps of the Homeland

In this map of the continental United States, the red areas represent where women’s mortality statistics grew worse between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s, as Grace Wyler at Business Insider reports. The blue areas saw substantial improvement in that measure, green small improvement.

In this map, from Mark Newman at the University of Michigan, the redder the area, the more strongly that county voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.

07 April 2013

Photos from Gotham Rooftops

Generally the Oz and Ends editorial team looks on superhero cosplay as an exercise in futility, like wishing the comic books were as good as when you were twelve.

Superheroes aren’t drawn realistically. Their faces, musculature, clothing, and hair are beyond ideal. We see them in the middle of astonishing and yet good-looking moves, depicted with foreshortening and all the other tricks artists have devised. It’s impossible to reproduce that look consistently with actual human bodies, real fabrics, and convention-center settings.

But when cosplayers and photographers get close to the images on the comics page, we have to acknowledge their achievement.

Photographer Mike Halloran caught this image at a 2011 Comic-Con.
ComicChic19 made this outfit for her son.

05 April 2013

Jetmore, Kansas, and Its Lee Harvey Oswald Fan Club

The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser visited a part of rural Kansas to learn about the district of two-term Republican Representative Tim Huelskamp, known for alienating his own party leaders in the House with his refusal to compromise.

Among the residents is Norman Bamberger, a cattle rancher who wants to cut the federal budget—except all the parts he depends on for his business:

Bamberger has 900 cattle, and he’s going on his second bad year in a row. Meat prices are high, good for reaping a profit, but a drought has caused increases in prices of grain he needs to buy to feed his cattle. He supports the automatic budget cuts of earlier this year, except for the one that threatens to reduce the number of federal meat inspectors—which could affect his own business.

“It’s just stupid,” he said. Then, in a jarring attempt at dark humor that most would find offensive, he added: “Where’s Lee Harvey when you need him?”

Concerned about seeming harsh with his reference to the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy, he quickly added, “That wasn’t very nice.”
Of course, the automatic budget cuts were forced by Republicans, like his own Representative. And I’m sure there are other benefits and subsidies for farmers that Bamberger would to see preserved as well.

Bamberger wasn’t the only person in Jetmore talking about political murder. At a gathering of leading citizens—“The group included the mayor, a retired farmer, and the editor of the ­local newspaper, the Jetmore Republican”—Viser heard the owner of an appliance repair shop (shown above) complain the same way:
“Hell, we ought to impeach the little bastard,” [Charles] Leet said. “Asleep at the switch. I keep ­donating to the Bring Back Lee Harvey Committee. It hasn’t worked yet.”

The group chuckled.

“We aren’t rabble-rousers. We don’t want to cause ­trouble,” [newspaper editor Mike] Thornburg said a few minutes later.
In that case, the men of Jetmore might want to make fewer jokes about Presidential assassinations. That habit makes them look like they have OIP Derangement Syndrome.

04 April 2013

Local Heroes

I won’t be attending MoCCA this year, but I’ll be represented at that independent comics festival by a couple of titles from Dan Mazur’s Ninth Art Press. One is The Greatest Comics Anthology of All Time, introduced back here.

And Geoff Halvorsen and I have a story in the inaugural issue of In a Single Bound, a magazine of eight short superhero comics set in Boston and hot off the press.

This tale is really Geoff’s baby. We were talking at a Boston Comics Roundtable meeting about his frustration with finding a structure for his visual ideas, so I listened and thought and came back with a story set at MIT. Dan, the magazine editor, provided great suggestions to make the result more “superheroey.” Geoff handled all the layout, art, and lettering. The result is the Tesla Club’s first tale, “The Infinite Corridor.”

Part of the point of In a Single Bound is that it’s not so “superheroey.” These are stories set in Boston, after all, not braggadocious New York or its other-universe avatars (Gotham, Metropolis). They tend toward the smart, skewed, and parodic. The parody might be directed at the superhero genre or the Hub itself. We’ll see how the collection fares in Manhattan this weekend before it flies back to home base for the Boston Comic-Con.

03 April 2013

More Revisionist Ozian History from L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum revised the character of the Wizard of Oz back to a capable and even lovable showman in his fourth novel in the series, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. After all, it wouldn’t do for Dorothy’s protector on that book’s journey to fairyland to be a child-stealing fraud, which is how the Wizard had last appeared in The Marvelous Land of Oz.

In the latter part of Dorothy and the Wizard, Oz gets to explain himself to Princess Ozma, the very child he had stolen (though no one has the effrontery to bring that up here):
“One day my balloon ran away with me and brought me across the deserts to this beautiful country. When the people saw me come from the sky they naturally thought me some superior creature, and bowed down before me. I told them I was a Wizard, and showed them some easy tricks that amazed them; and when they saw the initials [O.Z.] painted on the balloon they called me Oz.”

“Now I begin to understand,” said the Princess, smiling.

“At that time,” continued the Wizard, busily eating his soup while talking, “there were four separate countries in this Land, each one of the four being ruled by a Witch. But the people thought my power was greater than that of the Witches; and perhaps the Witches thought so too, for they never dared oppose me. I ordered the Emerald City to be built just where the four countries cornered together, and when it was completed I announced myself the Ruler of the Land of Oz, which included all the four countries of the Munchkins, the Gillikins, the Winkies and the Quadlings. Over this Land I ruled in peace for many years, until I grew old and longed to see my native city once again. So when Dorothy was first blown to this place by a cyclone I arranged to go away with her in a balloon; but the balloon escaped too soon and carried me back alone. . . .”

“That is quite a history,” said Ozma; “but there is a little more history about the Land of Oz that you do not seem to understand—perhaps for the reason that no one ever told it you. Many years before you came here this Land was united under one Ruler, as it is now, and the Ruler’s name was always ‘Oz,’ which means in our language ‘Great and Good’; or, if the Ruler happened to be a woman, her name was always ‘Ozma.’ But once upon a time four Witches leagued together to depose the king and rule the four parts of the kingdom themselves; so when the Ruler, my grandfather, was hunting one day, one Wicked Witch named Mombi stole him and carried him away, keeping him a close prisoner. Then the Witches divided up the kingdom, and ruled the four parts of it until you came here. That was why the people were so glad to see you, and why they thought from your initials that you were their rightful ruler.”

“But, at that time,” said the Wizard, thoughtfully, “there were two Good Witches and two Wicked Witches ruling in the land.”

“Yes,” replied Ozma, “because a good Witch had conquered Mombi in the North and Glinda the Good had conquered the evil Witch in the South. But Mombi was still my grandfather’s jailor, and afterward my father’s jailor. When I was born she transformed me into a boy, hoping that no one would ever recognize me and know that I was the rightful Princess of the Land of Oz. But I escaped from her and am now the Ruler of my people.”

“I am very glad of that,” said the Wizard, “and hope you will consider me one of your most faithful and devoted subjects.”

“We owe a great deal to the Wonderful Wizard,” continued the Princess, “for it was you who built this splendid Emerald City.”

“Your people built it,” he answered. “I only bossed the job, as we say in Omaha.”
Some of this history is reflected in the new movie, Oz the Great and Powerful:

  • the Wizard’s full name, with its embarrassing later initials spelling out “PINHEAD.”
  • the assumption that the Wizard must be the land’s savior if he comes from the sky in a balloon bearing the letters OZ.
  • the notion that the Wizard landed in the midst of a fight among the land’s witches.

However, in the new movie the Emerald City is already built, and green instead of made so by green glasses—all the better to bring up memories of the city in the 1939 MGM movie.

02 April 2013

“He wasn’t so much of a Wizard as he might have been.”

This is how Tip, the young hero of L. Frank Baum’s second Oz book, explains the first to his creation Jack Pumpkinhead:

“Where are we going?” asked Jack, when they had resumed their journey.

“I’m not exactly sure,” said the boy; “but I believe we are headed South, and that will bring us, sooner or later, to the Emerald City.”

“What city is that?” enquired the Pumpkinhead.

“Why, it’s the center of the Land of Oz, and the biggest town in all the country. I’ve never been there, myself, but I’ve heard all about its history. It was built by a mighty and wonderful Wizard named Oz, and everything there is of a green color. . . And in the Country of the Munchkins, over at the East, everything is blue; and in the South country of the Quadlings everything is red; and in the West country of the Winkies, where the Tin Woodman rules, everything is yellow.”

“Oh!” said Jack. Then, after a pause, he asked: “Did you say a Tin Woodman rules the Winkies?”

“Yes; he was one of those who helped Dorothy to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Winkies were so grateful that they invited him to become their ruler,—just as the people of the Emerald City invited the Scarecrow to rule them.”

“Dear me!” said Jack. “I’m getting confused with all this history. Who is the Scarecrow?”

“Another friend of Dorothy’s,” replied Tip.

“And who is Dorothy?”

“She was a girl that came here from Kansas, a place in the big, outside World. She got blown to the Land of Oz by a cyclone, and while she was here the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman accompanied her on her travels.”

“And where is she now?” inquired the Pumpkinhead.

Glinda the Good, who rules the Quadlings, sent her home again,” said the boy.

“Oh. And what became of the Scarecrow?”

“I told you. He rules the Emerald City,” answered Tip.

“I thought you said it was ruled by a wonderful Wizard,” objected Jack, seeming more and more confused.

“Well, so I did. Now, pay attention, and I’ll explain it,” said Tip, speaking slowly and looking the smiling Pumpkinhead squarely in the eye. “Dorothy went to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard to send her back to Kansas; and the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman went with her. But the Wizard couldn’t send her back, because he wasn’t so much of a Wizard as he might have been. And then they got angry at the Wizard, and threatened to expose him; so the Wizard made a big balloon and escaped in it, and no one has ever seen him since.”

“Now, that is very interesting history,” said Jack, well pleased; “and I understand it perfectly all but the explanation.”
A number of touches show the influence of the Wizard of Oz stage extravaganza that debuted to great crowds in 1902:

  • the vaudeville crosstalk of the conversation itself. Baum’s first Oz book has relatively little dialogue, and much of it is straightforward and declaratory. With this sequel he began writing patter. That offered more chance to distinguish his characters, but also more chance to stretch for cheap laughs.
  • the omission of the Cowardly Lion as one of Dorothy’s companions, just as Baum omitted him from this book. The big stars of the stage show were the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and this sequel was designed to give the public more of them. 
  • the portrayal of the Wizard as a villainous fraud, as he appeared in the stage show, rather than a good-hearted humbug. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wizard builds a balloon in a sincere attempt to take Dorothy home to Kansas, but he can’t stop it once it’s launched. As Tip retells the story, the Wizard built the balloon simply to escape before Dorothy and her companions could reveal his secrets.

Or is that actually how the people of Oz came to look upon the Emerald City’s former ruler?

01 April 2013

Fooling Ourselves: Are We Hard-Wired for Optimism?

A while back I read about a couple of studies in medical decision-making by Lucas S. Zier, Douglas B. White, and colleagues. In particular, they looked at how medical surrogates responded to doctors saying that there was very little that they could do for a dying patient.

In 2009 the team reported in the journal Chest:

Sixty-four percent of surrogates expressed a reluctance or unwillingness to believe physicians’ futility predictions. They provided the following four main explanations for this belief: a skepticism about physicians’ ability to achieve complete prognostic certainty, a need to see for themselves that a patient was incapable of recovery, a need to triangulate multiple information sources before believing physicians, and a belief that God could intervene to change the course of an illness. . . .

Surrogates who doubted physician’s futility predictions clustered into the following two general groups: those whose doubt was based on religious beliefs (n = 18); and those whose doubt was based on secular considerations (n = 15), such as past experiences with inaccurate prognostication, a secular belief that future-telling is inherently inaccurate, and a need to triangulate physicians prognostications with other sources before accepting the prognosis as true. Surrogates who doubted physicians’ futility predictions on religious grounds were more likely to request continued life support in the face of a very poor prognosis…, whereas those whose doubt was based on secular concerns were not…
Three years later the researchers published further findings in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also looking at how medical surrogates responded to doctors’ good predictions:
Participants’ interpretations of prognostic statements expressing a low risk for death were relatively accurate, but interpretations of statements conveying a high risk for death were more optimistic than the actual meaning. . . . Interpretations of the statement “90% chance of surviving” did not differ from the actual meaning, but interpretations of “5% chance of surviving” were more optimistic and showed substantial variability.
If I interpret the abstract right, people hearing “90% chance of surviving” generally interpreted that as 90%, with only a slight spread to 95%. People hearing “5% chance of surviving” spread that out into 15%, with the center of the bell curve going as high as 40%.

In interviews, the researchers found two reasons for the distortion of bad news: “surrogates’ need to register optimism in the face of a poor prognosis and surrogates’ belief that patient attributes unknown to the physician would lead to better-than-predicted outcomes.”

In other words, our brains may not process bad medical news rationally or accurately.