28 July 2013

Definitely Unround

There are different ways to create a Lego Robin, including the life-size statue shown in the last weekly Robin and the figure created for the Lego Batman set and games and cake.

But the one above gets extra points for tackling a tough challenge. It was posted by crises_crs to Flickr’s CubeDudes group in 2010.

Here’s another take on the same subject from Angus MacLane. That one actually shows the green trunks.

26 July 2013

The Right-Wing Campaign against Health Insurance

This week’s exploration of OIP Derangement Syndrome comes from Norm Ornstein of the center-right American Enterprise Institute writing in the National Journal

When Mike Lee pledges to try to shut down the government unless President Obama knuckles under and defunds Obamacare entirely, it is not news—it is par for the course for the take-no-prisoners extremist senator from Utah. When the Senate Republicans' No. 2 and No. 3 leaders, John Cornyn and John Thune, sign on to the blackmail plan, it is news—of the most depressing variety. . . .

to do everything possible to undercut and destroy its [the health-insurance reform law’s] implementation—which in this case means finding ways to deny coverage to many who lack any health insurance; to keep millions who might be able to get better and cheaper coverage in the dark about their new options; to create disruption for the health providers who are trying to implement the law, including insurers, hospitals, and physicians; to threaten the even greater disruption via a government shutdown or breach of the debt limit in order to blackmail the president into abandoning the law; and to hope to benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil—is simply unacceptable, even contemptible. One might expect this kind of behavior from a few grenade-throwing firebrands. That the effort is spearheaded by the Republican leaders of the House and Senate—even if Speaker John Boehner is motivated by fear of his caucus, and McConnell and Cornyn by fear of Kentucky and Texas Republican activists—takes one's breath away.
Reuters reported on another aspect of this campaign:
Americans for Prosperity launched a $1 million TV ad campaign against the healthcare law this summer to test its message in swing states of Virginia and Ohio. The 30-second ad presents a young pregnant mother who asks questions that suggest the law will raise premiums, reduce paychecks, prevent people from picking their own doctors and leave her family's healthcare to "the folks in Washington."

The group plans a bigger push on TV and social media to persuade young people, especially men under 30, to see the healthcare law as a high-cost liability directed at them.
That group’s old ally, FreedomWorks, is actually trying to convince young people to refuse to join the health-insurance system. That’s right: these right-wing groups are campaigning to convince young pregnant women and men under thirty from obtaining health insurance.

Andrew Sullivan adds
I should realize this by now, but the current GOP clearly believes it is the only legitimate governing party in the US and its response to a loss is to intensify its rage. They never forgave Clinton for being re-elected; and the idea they’d let a black president leave a legacy behind is obviously inconceivable to them. And yes, that’s calling them irrational and not a little racist. But how else do you explain people who are actively attempting to persuade young adults not to get health insurance?

25 July 2013

Editing Dahl

From Stephen Roxburgh’s recollections of editing Roald Dahl’s The Witches thirty years ago, just published in Publishers Weekly:
On May 16, I sent Roald our American copyeditor’s queries, three closely typed pages of minutiae, most of it involving using American English rather than British English. Roald wrote, “I don’t approve of some of your Americanisms. This is an English book with an English flavour and so it should remain.” Here are a few examples:

“elevator vs. lift: I agree elevator for ‘lift’ because most American children simply won’t know what ‘lift’ means.

“candy vs. sweets: I do not agree ‘candy’ for ‘sweet.’ Your children will know what sweets are and anyway it’s important for the witch to say “Sveet-shop.” So no candy or candy-shops, please.

“tuna fish vs. fish-paste: I won’t have ‘tuna fish’ for “fish-paste.’ Please keep this Anglicism. It’s a curiosity even over here.”
I’m pleased that even though Dahl began with a broad statement about “Americanisms,” he made his actual choices based on how well the text would communicate to young American readers.

Also notable in this article is that Dahl originally thought The Witches needed a more conventional ending, as forecast in its original beginning: “I myself escaped twice from the clutches of witches before I was eight years old, and for that I have to thank my grandmother.”

23 July 2013

That Part about Not Needing Money in Oz? That’s Off.

The Disney by Mark blog is reporting that the Disney corporation is preparing what a lot of us expected ever since O.Z. Diggs landed in Oz in the middle of a waterpark ride: a theme-park spin-off of Oz the Great and Powerful.

It will reportedly become part of Disneyland in California, replacing an attracton based on old western movies:
DbM has it from reliable sources that our friends at Imagineering are finishing up concept and show design for an Oz land (or area) and Oz attraction based on the movie Oz the Great and Powerful. It will be located where “Big Thunder Ranch” now stands. An alternate location was at the old Motor Boat Cruise next to it’s a small world, but fire-safety issues with the monorail precluded it.

It is anticipated that the area will have one E-ticket ride and two C-ticket attractions. A restaurant similar to the Magic Kingdom’s “Be Our Guest” but placed in the Emerald City, and a Munchkinland-themed retail store will also be included. Show elements will include a hot air balloon, tornado effects, giant bubbles, and Dark Queen Evanora’s army of Winkies and flying baboons. Word is that China Doll will be featured in the ride. The final attraction mix will be decided shortly, and DbM expects that the announcement about Oz land will be made at D23.
I don’t know the Disney jargon or how reliable this source is. Many of the blog’s commenters are skeptical or dismayed by the prospect. There’s plenty of time for plans to change or develop before the threatened sequel.

For now, the Hollywood studios’ biggest Oz attraction remains Sony Studios’ giant arching steel rainbow, shown above. Sony didn’t produce any beloved Oz movie, of course, but decades back it bought the M.G.M. studio lot, which includes some areas involved in producing the 1939 movie.

22 July 2013

The Real Story of Horton the Elephant

When Dr. Seuss was asked about the genesis of his 1940 picture book, Horton Hatches the Egg, he usually told some variation on the story quoted here at Mental Floss:
I was in my New York studio one day, sketching on transparent tracing paper, and I had the window open. The wind simply took a picture of an elephant that I’d drawn and put it on top of another sheet of paper that had a tree on it. All I had to do was to figure out what the elephant was doing in that tree.
Charles D. Cohen’s “visual biography” of Seuss is titled The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss in part, I suspect, because it seeks to get to the truth behind such anecdotes.

When it comes to Horton Hatches the Egg, Cohen shows that:
  • Seuss had drawn a whale up a tree for Judge magazine in 1927, a dachshund hatching a stork’s egg for Life in 1929, and a walrus hatching eggs in a tree for Judge in 1931.
  • He had drawn elephants with wings for Life in 1930 and a book called Spelling Bees in 1937.
  • He had drawn an elephant sitting on an egg for Life in 1934.
And in 1938 Judge published a one-page “Dr. Seuss Fable” titled “Matilda, the Elephant with a Mother Complex,” about a childless elephant who sits patiently on a chickadee egg, enduring the scorn of her fellow animals, until it hatches. Matilda didn’t go up a tree to do so, but clearly Horton Hatches the Egg had been gestating in Dr. Seuss’s mind for years rather than being inspired by a fortuitous breeze.

The really significant changes are that all those previous cartoons and stories had been for adult audiences, and almost all presented the odd mammal as misguided rather than heroic. The egg-sitting walrus was part of “The Truly-Dumb Animal Shoppe”; the first winged elephants were the product of delirium tremens; the elephant from 1934 cracked the egg’s shell.

As for Matilda, she managed to hatch the chickadee, but it took one look at her, “cried out in terror,…and flapped off frantically.” The moral of that story is: “Don’t go around hatching other folks’ eggs.” That, of course, is quite a different outcome from Horton’s pride at hatching an elephant-bird.

When Dr. Seuss went back to that idea as a recently-hatched children’s-book author, he was able to embrace the nonsense of the image of an elephant in a nest in a tree and create an ending that adults might know is unreal but which rewards Horton. For young readers, Dr. Seuss took his old elephant who defied convention and made him heroic rather than pathetic.

The Seuss, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Seuss analyzes other oft-told aspects of Dr. Seuss’s life as well, such as when and why he adopted pseudonyms and the critical response to The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. It’s worth a look.

21 July 2013

Robin Statuary at Comic-Con

This weekly Robin features photos of two statues of the Boy Wonder on display at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

On the left is an inflatable figure of Robin from the Teen Titans Go! cartoon, about two stories tall, courtesy of Bleeding Cool. I think he’s supposed to be pointing the team into battle (“Teen Titans, GO!”), but given the way the balloon was positioned, I couldn’t help but perceive him as making fun of Raven.

Below is a smaller sculpture of Robin as he appears in the Batman Live arena show—the US version, not the British one I saw. (The US costume includes extra arm pads and those red patches on the outer thighs.) This life-sized figure was constructed of Lego blocks.

For someone who started reading comics forty years ago, it’s striking how “off model” these images of Robin are. Back in 1964, DC Comics felt it had to trumpet “New Look” when it modernized the style of its Batman comics to make them more like the rest of the line.

Twenty years later, the company had to show Jason Todd wearing the exact same costume as Dick Grayson and dyeing his red hair black so as to mollify its licensees. Already readers (and characters) were pointing out the deficiencies of that outfit. And surely some folks in Gotham City might have noticed that a young former circus flyer started dyeing his hair (how many young teen boys do that?) just when Robin reappeared at Batman’s side. But the need to keep the art “on model” trumped logic.

The success of Carrie Kelley in The Dark Knight Returns might have assured DC that its fans didn’t need all Robins to look alike. A couple of years later the company commissioned a new costume from Neal Adams for Tim Drake.

That costume in turn influenced how Dick Grayson dressed in DC’s Animated Universe and, with futher modifications, in its televised Teen Titans offshoot. We’ve since seen new designs for the 1990s Batman movies, for new Robins, for Batman Live, for the Arkham videogames. Each variation, of course, makes it easy for established fans to identify which Robin is which, and each represents a new possibility for collectibles.

It now appears that the original “model” Robin costume never existed in the “New 52” universe. In other words, as these competing statues demonstrate, we’re all “off model” now.

20 July 2013

Back to Slumberland

The good news from Comic-Con: IDW will publish new adventures of Winsor McCay’s little Nemo in Slumberland by top comics talent.

The great news: One of those creators is Eric Shanower.

The baffling news: He’s doing scripts, not art.

I've seen Eric’s McCay homages, most prominently in Promethea. I can’t imagine anyone doing them better. The other guy had better be good.

19 July 2013

The IRS and OIP

With each week, it becomes clearer that the scandal about the Internal Revenue Service supposedly scrutinizing conservative “Tea Party” groups more strictly or slowly than other organizations seeking tax-exempt status was the product of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

The roots of the dispute go back to the founding of the Tea Party, a right-wing reaction to Barack Obama’s election as President. We have to remember that the immediate inspiration in 2009 was a television commentator’s rant about a policy that the administration had never proposed. In other words, from the beginning the Tea Party was based on fearful delusions, not reality.

Then in 2010 the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote overturned decades of precedents in the Citizens United case, opening the door for 501(c)(4) corporations to advertise and otherwise engage in political campaigns without revealing their funders. Naturally, that appealed to lots of groups engaged in some political activity. Many of those were “Tea Party” groups—some genuine grass-roots organizations, some “Astroturfed” fronts for established lobbies, and a few probably scams to enrich their organizers at the expense of gullible OIP Derangement Syndrome sufferers.

All 501(c)(4) corporations are supposed to be “social welfare” organizations, and under a 1950s statute they’re not supposed to benefit just a few people or to be involved in politics at all. But drawing the line between political and “social welfare” activity is hard, so the IRS ruled that such corporations had to devote less than half of their activity to politicking.

Those rules require the IRS to determine who benefits from a 501(c)(4) corporation’s work and how much effort it puts into politics. In fact, the rules require a detailed examination. If the corporation spends 51% of its efforts on political campaigns, it’s not eligible for tax-exempt status; if it spends 49%, it is. The only way the IRS can determine the facts is by asking each organization for answers and documentation.

Of course, it was tough for Tea Party groups to document that they weren’t putting most of their efforts into political activities since they were founded as political organizations. They advocated particular policies and campaigned for or against particular candidates. Many Tea Party members told the media that they’d never been involved in politics before joining the movement—and yet for legal advantages Tea Party groups told the IRS that they weren’t primarily involved in politics at all.

One of the traits uniting and defining the American right wing, including the Tea Party, is paranoid resentment of the government—at least when it’s not offering them benefits and advantages. This attitude became even more pronounced under President Obama. So some of those groups complained to a sympathetic ear: Rep. Darrell Issa, who already showed signs of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

Issa demanded that the IRS investigate whether it was scrutinizing applications from Tea Party groups more strictly than others. Inspector General J. Russell George found that the agency had circulated “Be On the Lookout” (BOLO) lists warning that groups using the terms “Tea Party” and “Patriot” might be primarily political and therefore not eligible for tax-exempt status. This actually seems like common sense, but it would be discriminatory if the agency had done this only for groups on the political right.

IRS managers set up a way to divulge George’s report. It produced a wave of outrage in Washington. People lost their jobs. There are court cases pending. But that wasn’t enough for people with OIP Derangement Syndrome. They insisted, without having any evidence, that the Obama administration had instigated the extra scrutiny. They declared that this scandal was “worse than Watergate.”

Since then, however, we’ve learned that:
And there remains no evidence that the White House was involved at any level.

Issa demonstrated his OIP Derangement Syndrome by releasing partial transcripts of testimony. leaving out parts that undercut his delusion of a political conspiracy. He complained when Rep. Elijah Cummings provided us with a fuller picture. But Issa had really been acting from OIP Derangement Syndrome all along. As The Hill reported:
The Treasury inspector general (IG) whose report helped drive the IRS targeting controversy says it limited its examination to conservative groups because of a request from House Republicans.

A spokesman for Russell George, Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, said they were asked by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “to narrowly focus on Tea Party organizations.”
This week George said he had never seen the documents about scrutiny of groups on the left. But Issa hadn’t asked him to look for them. Under OIP Derangement Syndrome, he was convinced that wasn’t necessary.

18 July 2013

Sorting Out Genres and Modes

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are overstuffed (sometimes literally). Fellow fantasist Bruce Coville credited her, especially at the start of the series, with putting more neat stuff into every chapter than anyone else. But the books also hit all the buttons for several storytelling genres at once.

There’s the genre of the British school story, itself a subsection of coming-of-age narratives. There’s the mystery genre, as Ken Jennings noted. In some books there’s the sports-book genre, where conflicts get worked out on the playing field. And of course there’s the chosen-one-battles-against-evil genre, which many people mistake for all fantasy.

In fact, I don’t think fantasy is a genre at all. It’s what I call a mode. Genres are defined by the plots readers expect: detective solves puzzling crime, couple gets together, gang pulls off heist (or not), soldiers carry out mission, chosen one defeats evil, and so on.

In contrast, modes are defined by their settings and what is possible in those fictional worlds. The major modes I see are:

  • contemporary realistic—stories set in the world that readers recognize as like their own.
  • historic, and thus constrained to some extent by past events.
  • fantastic, breaking the currently known laws and limits of physics. This mode could be defined through science (science fiction) or magic (fantasy). 
  • heightened, in which coincidences, emotions, and stakes are turned up a couple of notches above the realistic. When played for laughs, this produces farce. When played seriously, it’s melodrama.   

Genre stories can be told within each of those modes. Thus, there are mysteries set in a fantasy world, romances told in the historical mode, sports stories with extraterrestrials, crime novels either farcical and melodramatic, and so on.

17 July 2013

Rowling as a Mystery Writer All Along

Last week’s revelation that J. K. Rowling has published a pseudonymous murder mystery sent folks back to the archives for clues they wished they had seen all along: her remarks that she might publish under another name, a brief mention of a Scottish mystery she was trying out.

But the most perspicacious commenter was probably trivia master Ken Jennings, who wrote back in 2007:

I read the Harry Potter books as enormously sophisticated Scooby-Doo mysteries.

Structurally, these aren’t fantasy novels at all. They’re fair-play mysteries in wizard’s clothing–novels with not just plots and characters and setpieces, but “solutions” as well. J. K. Rowling is justly praised for her elaborate and meticulous world-building, but I’m convinced that a lot of that endless detail is just there for standard detective-novel purposes: to distract, to confound, to envelop the real “clues” in a Cloak of Invisibility. . . .

Rowling seems to draw more from the Agatha Christie tradition: a multiplicity of colorful “suspects,” many with hidden agendas; red herrings galore; and a final drawing-room exposition-fest in which Hercule Dumbledore explains How It Was Done.

Just as in a murder mystery, the guilty party is always the least likely suspect. . . . Some of these reveals even involve the Hogwarts equivalent of a Scooby-Doo rubber mask coming off the crotchety caretaker: Quirrell’s turban, Pettigrew’s Animagus disguise, Barty Crouch, Jr.’s Polyjuice Potion. “Like, zoiks, Hermione–it was Old Man Milligrew all along!” . . .

I bet Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter book–talk about a hard act to follow–will be a classic mystery of some kind. I don’t know if it’ll be a hard-boiled gumshoe case, a true-crime police procedural, a classic manor-house throwback, or what, but it’ll be a mystery novel. She’s been writing them all along, after all. It’s just that no one’s noticed.
And couldn’t Rupert Grint play a fine Shaggy?

TOMORROW: What this should tell us about genre.

16 July 2013

“Come face-to-face with acrobatic Munchkins” in Minnesota

Circus Smirkus isn’t the only American youth circus offering an Oz-themed show this summer.

Circus Juventas, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, is also doing a show called “Oz.” Its description:
Summer 2013, audiences will encounter a curious gypsy-circus wandering a bleak and windswept landscape, sweeping along an enigmatic magician, an odious fortune teller, and an organ grinder with a mischievous monkey—but watch out for the Kansas-sized twister that will sweep you up, twist you dizzy, and hurtle you over the rainbow.

Come face-to-face with acrobatic Munchkins and a glittering witch afloat in a bubble, and of course a ruminating scarecrow with no brain, a tin man with no heart, and a quaking lion with no courage. Beware the wrath of a wicked witch or two on your way to the dazzling Emerald City, where the great and mysterious Wizard will grant your wishes only if you accomplish the impossible—finding your way home again via Circus Juventas!
This production runs 1-18 August. Unlike Circus Smirkus, it’s not a touring show: all the performances are at Circus Juventas’s home in St. Paul.

15 July 2013

“I am sorry to hear you are going to publish a poem.”

While writing about Elizabeth Vassall Fox, Baroness Holland, over at Boston 1775, I came across anecdotes of her literary judgment and hosting in the Dictionary of National Biography that I had to share:

Lady Holland possessed a remarkable power of making her guests display themselves to the best advantage. Traits in her character that were by no means attractive rendered her power of fascination the more extraordinary.

[Thomas] Moore tells how on one occasion she asked him how he could write those ‘vulgar verses’ about Hunt, and on another occasion attacked his ‘Life of Sheridan’ as ‘quite a romance’ showing a ‘want of taste and judgment.’ To ‘Lalla Rookh’ she objected, ‘in the first place because it was eastern, and in the second place because it was in quarto.’ ‘Poets,’ says Moore, ‘inclined to a plethora of vanity would find a dose of Lady Holland now and then very good for their complaint.’

To Lord Porchester she once said: ‘I am sorry to hear you are going to publish a poem. Can’t you suppress it?’ ‘Your poetry,’ she said to [Samuel] Rogers, ‘is bad enough, so pray be sparing of your prose.’ To Matthew Gregory (better known as Monk) Lewis, complaining that in ‘Rejected Addresses’ he was made to write burlesque, which he never did, she replied, ‘You don’t know your own talent’ . . . .

In [George] Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature, she met her match. Referring to New England she told him that she understood the colony had originally been a convict settlement, to which Ticknor answered that he was not aware of the fact, but that in the King’s Chapel, Boston, was a monument to one of the Vassalls, some of whom had been among the early settlers of Massachusetts.

She kept a tight rein on her guests when they seemed inclined to monopolise the conversation. [Thomas Babington] Macaulay once descanting at large on Sir Thomas Munro, she told him brusquely she had had enough of the subject and would have no more. The conversation then turned on the Christian Fathers, and Macaulay was copious on Chrysostom and Athanasius till Lady Holland abruptly turned to him with, ‘Pray, Macaulay, what was the origin of a doll? when were dolls first mentioned in history?’ This elicited a disquisition on the Roman doll, which in its turn was cut short by Lady Holland. On another occasion she sent a page to ask him to cease talking, as she wished to listen to Lord Aberdeen.

She…often overcrowded her table. ‘Make room,’ she said to Henry Luttrell on one of these occasions. ‘It must certainly be made,’ he observed, ‘for it does not exist.’ Lord Dudley declined her invitations, because ‘he did not choose to be tyrannised over while he was eating his dinner.’ Lord Melbourne, being required to change his place, got up with ‘I’ll be d—d if I dine with you at all,’ and walked out of the house.

Nevertheless her beauty, vivacity, and the unrivalled skill with which she managed the conversation so that there should never be either too much or too little of any one topic, atoned for everything. 

14 July 2013

Another Robin, with Furry Friends

This portrait of a female Robin with red hair (like Carrie Kelley) and lots of cats (like Selina Kyle, or the fandom version of Damian Wayne) is from Maris Wicks’s blog.

Wicks is the artist of the new book Primates, scripted by Jim Ottaviani, which tells the stories of zoological researchers Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. Here’s J. Caleb Mozzocco’s interview with Wicks for School Library Journal. Among other things, Wicks said:
I figured that First Second was looking for my (cartoon-y) interpretation of the script, otherwise they wouldn’t have wanted me for the job in the first place, so I wasn’t worried about trying to portray the characters in a photo-realistic manner. I did, however, want to capture the feel of each character’s story, and this “feel” (or rather “emotion”) is something that can come across regardless of style.
As above.

13 July 2013

The Awesome

I heard this week that Jesse Lonergan’s graphic novel All Star, about high-school baseball in Vermont, is complete and on its way to the publisher. Good news!

While waiting for the final volume, Tony McMillen interviewed Lonergan for Dig Boston, a conversation that produced these observations:
Robocop is awesome, so is Indiana Jones. Star Wars is the best.

I went through a period starting in high school and continuing through college where I was only interested in the critically acclaimed and respected, which very often is not the same as the awesome. I would be all about those realistic 1970’s movies that start out at depressing and then grind their way to completely hopeless.

Now, I’ve kind of gone back to the twelve-year-old me. He’s right.

The fifteen-year-old me, however, he was clueless and a liar. He said, “I read Gen 13 for the story.”

11 July 2013

Walter Mosley’s Childhood Favorites

Here’s Walter Mosley answering the New York Times Book Review’s question about his favorite childhood reading:
I know that as a working writer I should answer this question in such a way as to make me seem intelligent; maybe Twain or Dickens, even Hesse or Conrad. . . .

But the truth is that the most beloved and the most formative books of my childhood were comic books, specifically Marvel Comics. “Fantastic Four” and “Spider-Man,” “The Mighty Thor” and “The Invincible Iron Man”; later came “Daredevil” and many others. These combinations of art and writing presented to me the complexities of character and the pure joy of imagining adventure. They taught me about writing dialect and how a monster can also be a hero. They lauded science and fostered the understanding that the world was more complex than any one mind, or indeed the history of all human minds, could comprehend.
In 2005 Mosley got to show his love by spearheading a project to republish Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s first Fantastic Four adventure at giant size, one panel per page.

10 July 2013

“Have the end in sight”

The Guardian asked five children’s-book editors with books up for an award [that I’ve never heard of—“Branford Boase”?] for their advice for new authors.

David Fickling of The Phoenix magazine and many books included this in his answer:
People always say that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. If that is true then by far the most important part is the end. Before you set off on a writing project it saves a lot of time to have the end in sight.

That doesn't mean you have to know exactly what is going to happen at the end of your story, but you should have a sense of the ending note in mind. This may also help tell you how long your text is going to be.

And you don't need to tell the editor or publisher what will happen or what it's about either, that's your business. All the editor or publisher really needs is the reassurance that there is an ending and that the narrative will be good. Editing is all about trust.
The last part of Fickling’s comment runs directly counter to what American agents and editors say about synopses: you have to divulge the ending. Otherwise, they won’t trust you to supply a good one. But perhaps Fickling is now used to working with authors who’ve built up trust with him.

09 July 2013

Lifting the Curtain

The season’s most incisive commentary on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz comes from Zach Weiner’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic. Click on the panels above for the full truth.

Thanks to L. Frank Baum Memorial Award winner Eric Gjovaag and journalist Laura Gjovaag for unearthing this emerald.

08 July 2013

Designing Death by Design

I wasn’t bowled over by Batman: Death by Design, by Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor [lots of hocus-pocus science, physiognomic inconsistency, no Robin], but I was intrigued by the new comics scripting format that Kidd developed for this project. A highly respected book designer, he found a way to work visually as well as verbally.

In an interview with Comic Book Resources before publication, Kidd said:
The one thing I did that he [Dave] said he really liked was that -- and I don't know how else to do it -- I didn't do a script that looked like any normal comic book script I know of. In other words, it doesn't look like a movie screenplay. I diagram all the pages out. It's very specific with me showing "This is how big this panel is, and this is what's happening in the panel, and this is the dialogue." Dave said he liked that because it did a lot of his work for him, and that was the idea -- to put as little guesswork in as possible.

But where he pleasantly surprised me was where he would deviate from that. There's actually one big huge deviation at the beginning of the book that just shocked me, and it didn't make me angry, but I had to go "Hmm. Wow."
The image above is from the back of the finished book showing a page from Kidd’s script. Each box is a panel, with a description and speech balloons in small type. Taylor sketched his ideas for those panels in the spaces. (Andy Khouri reported for Comics Alliance that “Kidd said that he also included sketches but that Taylor rightfully asked him to stop.”

Kidd discusses the book’s look in more detail in another CBR interview.

07 July 2013

The Batman ’66 Comic: Retro on the Digital Edge

I wasn’t a big fan of the 1960s Batman television show while growing up. I caught a few episodes, and, though I didn’t recognize the deliberate camp, I caught enough to sense that someone might be having a laugh at my expense.

So my response to the new Batman 66 comic isn’t colored by nostalgia—not by nostalgia for Adam West, that is. On the other hand, I can’t deny liking the return of straightforward heroes v. villain action, bright colors, and clear action from artist Jonathan Case. Writer Jeff Parker’s recreation of the Dynamic Duo’s earnest dialogue is just fine as well.

I recommend reading this comic in its digital form. There are some awkward signs that it’s been prepared for both digital and print publication (word balloons in different sizes, panels that look overly enlarged). But the digital version from ComiXology offers a lot that the print version won’t.

I previously wrote about the digital techniques that DC was touting, asking whether they’d amount to anything more than sound effects over the artwork or what Thrillbent was already doing. They do.

Yes, there are big sound effects popping up over the artwork. Yes, like Thrillbent’s stories Batman 66 adds balloons to panels, adds panels to pages, recolors art, or changes backgrounds while leaving other parts of the screen intact—something print comics can’t do. But the ComiXology platform also lets Batman 66 slide from one panel to the next.

And this story really milks those digital tricks. The first installment of Batman 66 is 95 screens. Some of those screens have multiple panels, some the same panel you just saw with a new detail. But that’s over 90 times something new has popped up in front of your eyes. And Parker’s story is just halfway done. [CORRECTION: Actually just one-third done.]

Even with those new digital tricks, however, the comic looks old-fashioned—on purpose. Case told the New York Post: “I wanted it to scream ‘retro’, so I'm doing some things to emulate old comics (mis-registration, screen tones, and punchy colors).” You can see some of those techniques, looking like mistakes, in his portrait of Robin above.

As a sign of Case’s attention to detail, look at Robin’s legs. While Mike and Laura Allred’s cover for the print edition (not part of the first digital bundle) colors Robin’s legs the same pink as his bare arms, Case shows him in the pallid tights that Burt Ward wore.

06 July 2013

Inclusivity in All Its Dimensions

In the discussion of “multicultural” children’s books that Lee and Low hosted last month, a couple of the respondents said that in order to publish more books about non-white kids American children’s-book publishing needed to become more inclusive.

For example, Prof. Sarah Park Dalen wrote:

I don’t have evidence for this, but I think that most publishers have not diversified their staff enough, have not trained their staff enough in cultural competency, and are still hesitant to take a chance on new authors. Although they know that diversity continues to be an issue, they maintain that all they’re looking for is a “good story,” but perhaps their criteria are still determined by what they already know and are comfortable with.
And Prof. Jane M. Gangi said:
One theory is that editors are quite often white, and quite often supported by husbands who make more money than they do. We tend to choose books that “mirror” us.
I think publishing has become more ethnically inclusive over the past eighteen years, the period which Lee and Low highlighted. So while more diversity among editors might help, it doesn’t appear to be a big part of the solution. Furthermore, Gangi’s use of the word “husband” highlights another form of homogeneity in children’s publishing.

The British author Jonathan Emmett wrote about that sort of diversity last month in The New Statesman, arguing that (British) children’s publishing is too dominated by female tastes to appeal fully to boys:
Although there are plenty of men such as myself writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female. It’s predominately women publishers that select picture books for publication, women teachers that choose which books to read in nurseries and infant classrooms and women customers that purchase picture books for reading at home. Women aren’t keeping men out of these gatekeeper roles, the imbalance is there because relatively few men are interested in occupying them, but as a consequence picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones.

Even picture books that are intended to appeal primarily to boys reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be buying them as well as the child they’re bought for. Picture book pirates are less prone to combat than their counterparts in other media, monsters and aliens less frightening, vehicles and machines less technically detailed. Elements of danger and threat are tamed or omitted altogether on the grounds of being unappealing or inappropriate. In short, picture books with boy-friendly themes tend to be cuter and tamer than similarly themed TV shows, films or video games.

I think the failure of picture books to accurately reflect the full range of boys’ tastes is deterring many boys from developing a reading habit.
Emmett’s essay builds off his Cool Not Cute writings. He puts a lot of stock in studies showing that boys and girls have affinities for different types of toys. (Other studies have found that adults often offer a diapered infant different types of toys depending on whether they’ve been told the baby is male or female, so those affinities may not be fully natural.)

The question of gender balance in publishing, especially children’s publishing, arises periodically. Editorial Anonymous discussed it in 2007. Publishers Weekly discussed it about the whole industry in 2010. Robert Lipsyte discussed it in the New York Times in 2011.

It’s hard to deny any of those observations about the people who populate publishing offices. The argument that they therefore unwittingly share a certain outlook that limits their choices of authors, books, or marketing tactics is more debatable, but worthy of examination in both dimensions. But we’re still left with the looming issue of the market.

05 July 2013

A Holiday for OIP Derangement Syndrome

At Salon, Alex Seitz-Wald reported on how FOX News has been trying to exploit the Independence Day holiday and present President Barack Obama as unpatriotic:
“Obama Spends $100M on African Trip But Cancels Marines’ July 4th Fireworks,” the headline on FoxNation read. “Shocking! While Obama Funds Syrian Rebels, Military Bases Must Cut Fireworks Celebrations,” another read. . . . Fox gave the controversy airtime twice this week, also contrasting it with the spending on the presidential trip to Africa.
But Seitz-Wald noted the real reason for cutbacks in Independence Day fireworks: the federal-budget sequestration. He wrote, “a handful of military base commanders are deciding to forgo their annual Independence Day festivities, which can cost up to $100,000, in order to devote their diminished resources to other arguably more important things like keeping people employed.”

Of course, the mendacious American right has been trying to blame Obama’s White House for the sequestration of funds. Of course, they’ve also been claiming that those cuts are too small to have any real effect—one of the hallmarks of OIP Derangement Syndrome is that consistency doesn’t matter as long as one can blame President Obama.

During budget negotiations with recalcitrant Republicans in Congress, White House officials did propose sequestration as a spur to reaching a real compromise. At the time everyone publicly agreed that such an outcome would be so ham-handed and counterproductive that they’d work very hard to avoid it. The Senate did so. The White House did so. But recalcitrant Republicans in Congress decided that their party faithful would prefer across-the-board budget cuts in the middle of the fiscal year to any budget compromise with President Obama.

Once the sequestration took effect, however, many voices on the right claimed that it was Obama’s fault. Or they pointed to specific, often symbolic cuts, like fireworks at military bases, and suggested that the President was choosing to cut those. Neither claim stands up to half a moment’s scrutiny.

Let’s try a thought experiment. In the 2012 elections for the House of Representatives, half a million more Americans voted for Democratic candidates than for Republican candidates. But because of how state legislatures have drawn House districts, the Republicans retained their slight majority in the House. But let’s imagine that they didn’t.

Instead, consider what would have happened if the House, Senate, and White House were all under Democratic control, all with the support of clear majorities of the American people. Obviously those bodies would have come to a rational budget deal. People on the right would probably claim that any such deal would involve too many taxes, but they can’t honestly deny there would have been a deal. In that case, there would be no sequestration now.

The only reason we’re seeing the sequestration cuts is because the the Republican majority in the House. And the only people who claim otherwise are suffering from a severe case of OIP Derangement Syndrome that causes them to say false things.

04 July 2013

The Invention of Rewriting Revision?

Declaration of Independence.  ... Digital ID: psnypl_mss_1228. New York Public LibraryI’m looking at successive drafts of the Declaration of Independence while considering Craig Fehrman’s Boston Globe essay on revision in writing.

Fehrman says that Hannah Sullivan’s The Work of Revision posits that “revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century.”

More specifically, she argues that approach to rewriting is a product of the typewriter, cheaper typesetting, and word-processing programs. In days when paper and printing were rarer resources, authors didn’t see so many versions of their work and therefore took fewer opportunities to rewrite.

Yet the article omits some counterexamples. It cites John Milton’s “Lycidas” as an example of a writer making “local tweaks instead of significantly recasting.” It doesn’t mention that Milton issued Paradise Lost in two forms, the first divided into ten books and the second into twelve, as he revised his work. Alexander Pope published three versions of The Rape of the Lock within a decade.

Fehrman says Sullivan cites the Romantics as a school that “made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts.” Yet no great English poem was more fussed over and rewritten (not always to good effect) than William Wordsworth’s verse autobiography, posthumously published as The Prelude.

The Work of Revision doesn’t appear to go deep into English literary history, or to find the same trends in the literature of other languages where the same typesetting technologies applied. The catalog copy names only Modernist authors, contrasted with a nameless swarm of “Romantics,” and the earliest name in the table of contents is Henry James.

It might be more accurate to say that the Modernists, in contrast to their immediate literary predecessors, talked a lot more about revision, and about what hard work it was. And that would be significant in how they, and we, think about art. But are writers really driven more to revise now, or do we just see and hear about it more often?

03 July 2013

Missing Voices in the Discussion of Multicultural Book Sales

Last month Lee and Low asked on its blog, “Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased In Eighteen Years?” That’s an important question, and the posting attracted a lot of attention, mostly echoing the concern without offering new insight. Roger Sutton at The Horn Book was one of the few I saw who asked some follow-up questions.

I didn’t see anyone noting the huge missing voice in the discussion. Lee and Low had invited responses to its question from six professors of children’s literature, one book review editor, two authors, and one librarian/author, Betsy Bird. All important perspectives, but by no means a cross-section of people in the American children’s-book field.

In those responses, Kathleen Horning of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center explicitly blamed Barnes & Noble, though not based on direct knowledge. Poet Nikki Grimes spoke of “blockbuster-craving bookstore markets.” Rudine Sims Bishop of Ohio State mentioned ”my closest big chain bookstore” as an example. Several people spoke of the lack of “marketing.”

And yet the discussion didn’t include one bookseller or person working with booksellers. None of the respondents described working in a bookstore. None described seeing how most families actually buy or choose books. None indicated any experience in marketing a product, much less in working with the publishing industry’s minuscule marketing budgets.

And information from the commercial sector is vital to this conversation because individual sales are more important and influential in children’s publishing than ever before.

At one point, libraries and schools comprised a large and influential segment of the market for children’s books. Today they represent a much smaller portion of the overall sales. Professional book reviewers have become less influential and ordinary readers’ feedback more so.

At one point, publishers and bookstores were mostly family-run, and managers could take a risk or even a loss on certain books they thought were important without having to justify their actions to higher powers. (Lee and Low is a mission-driven press of that sort.) Today most children’s books come from publicly-traded corporations under pressure from stockholders to maximize profits, and bookselling is dominated by two more publicly-traded corporations, B&N and Amazon.

At one point, booksellers and publishers had no real-time systematic data about what books were selling. Now they have weekly reports from BookScan, Ingram, the big chains, and other sources. Amazon can track not only what its customers buy but what other titles those customers buy and what they look at without buying.

The strength and danger of profit-seeking corporations is that they want to make money any way they legally can. They may forgo immediate opportunities to increase long-term profitability (e.g., stepping away from a deal with cookbook author Paula Deen after she became a shameful punchline), but they’re always chasing those profits. And with the data that companies like Amazon and BookScan are collecting on book traffic, they can spot and chase unexpected areas of sales.

When Horning wrote, “I’ve heard many times from publishers that the ‘buyers at B&N’ believe multicultural books don’t sell,” the obvious next question is whether that’s true. Do B&N buyers still believe that? Does any data support that belief? Does data from other booksellers refute it? Have things changed over the past two decades? Only when we’ve probed the reality of bookselling can we dismiss any such belief as “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I understand why Lee and Low’s round-up didn’t include voices of booksellers. Chain buyers are a private bunch. Sales data is proprietary. Sales and marketing people at publishing companies (including Lee and Low itself) wouldn’t want to upset their major customers by complaining. And no one in this discussion would want to be the sole voice saying that “multicultural” books are less profitable than mainstream books.

But if the problem is, say, the inequities of wealth and education in a country affected by structural racism and growing inequality, with one result being disproportionately low sales and profits for books that are clearly about non-white children, then we’re not going to find the solution within the profit-seeking corporate sector.

02 July 2013

The Wizard’s Not the Only One Hiding Something

Dan Piraro writes of this Bizarro cartoon, which appeared Sunday: “I like the art on this one, especially the body language of the Tin Man. There are also a whopping 8 hidden Easter eggs in this one. See if you can find them all! (Or don’t. I’m not trying to push you around.)”

01 July 2013

Bruised, Wiser and Triumphant

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review included Adam LeBor’s
essay on the challenge of writing thrillers after journalistic training:

In theory, writing a thriller is simple. The basic formula reaches back through the ages, to the “Odyssey” and the Bible. Take a flawed but likable hero, send him on a perilous journey where he is forced to confront his inner demons, increase the danger at every stage, have an ally or two betray him, but ensure that he eventually vanquishes the enemy, emerging bruised, wiser and triumphant.

The practice, however, is rather more complicated. At first, I found my experience as a foreign correspondent a positive hindrance when it came to fiction. . . . The essence of journalism is revelation and explanation: We present the causes and consequences of an event for the reader. We answer the questions, convey the complexities and do the thinking so you don’t have to. Or not too much.

The essence of fiction, especially thriller writing, is exactly the opposite: obfuscation, mystery and deception loop through a maze of switchbacks — ideally strewn with the dead bodies of double agents, dupes, femmes fatales, sinister businessmen. “It’s important to be judicious with the facts in a novel,” the writer Alan Furst told me in a phone interview. “Not to give too much away too soon and to move the story along to keep the reader hooked.” A large part of the reader’s pleasure in reading thrillers and crime and mystery books is finding his way through and making the connections himself…
I recall hearing Mark Peter Hughes, author of A Crack in the Sky, speak to the same point in a workshop. Part of making a good plot is to throw up obstacles and frustrations in the way of your protagonist, he said—but what you’re really doing is throwing obstacles and frustrations in the way of your readers.