31 August 2013

I Was Expecting Someone Much Older, Too

I enjoyed Publishers Weekly’s roundup of publishing industry veterans’ memories of their early days on the job in days of electric typewriters, fax machines with rolls of shiny paper, mechanical paste-ups, smokers in the office, and even elevator operators.

Here’s a story from Howard Reeves of Abrams Books for Young Readers:
I calmly left the lobby, and ran to [editor] Martha Kaplan’s office. “I just asked Gloria Vanderbilt who she was,” I said.

Martha rolled her eyes and dropped her head in her hands.

“I was expecting someone much older.”

She lifted her head slightly. “Perfect.”

Martha came and fetched Ms. Vanderbilt. Before they disappeared down the hall, I heard Martha say, “Of course he knew you were coming, but he says he was expecting a much older woman.”

I swear Ms. Vanderbilt’s lips twitched ever so slightly.
Dinah Stevenson of Clarion Books:
Old-fashioned crafts like spinning and blacksmithing are being revived. I bet pre-separating artwork won’t be among them.
Ginee Seo of Chronicle Books:
I would sometimes curse the day I told any agent I liked fantasy because those manuscripts were always long, and carrying them plus other submissions for weekend reading made for an incredibly heavy haul.
But my enjoyment was tempered by seeing some of those veterans date their hoary tales to “back in the ’80s,” “in the mid 1980s,” and even “in 1992.” I myself started work in publishing in 1987 (a year earlier if you count a summer job). And I suppose my stories of maintaining the department’s email connection to the Soviet Union would seem unfathomably antique to many professionals today. But still, I’d prefer not to be older than any of the industry’s old-timers.

30 August 2013

Surveying OIP Derangement Syndrome

There are a lot of questions now about how the US government should respond to Syrian government atrocities, though the Constitution’s requirement of congressional approval before non-emergency military action should not be among them.

However, for people whose foreign policy is driven by OIP Derangement Syndrome, President Barack Obama’s move toward attacking Syrian military sites has helped to clarify things. Now those folks know they definitely don’t like that idea.

An NBC News survey captured that effect, as Nate Cohn highlighted in the The New Republic:

Surveys conducted earlier this year showed that Republicans were consistently more likely than Democrats to support striking Syria if Assad used chemical weapons. But partisanship is powerful in the age of President Obama, powerful enough to overcome longstanding partisan preferences on international affairs. . . .

In every previous survey, Republicans were most likely to support attacking Syria. Each poll showed more than 50 percent of Republicans willing to strike Assad if he used chemical weapons. Today’s NBC News poll shows far less Republican support, with just 41 percent in support and 49 percent opposed. That’s 15 points less than April’s Pew Research survey, which found that 56 percent of Republicans would support strikes. In comparison, Democratic support hasn’t declined—46 percent support strikes, just like in April.
The most isolationist Republicans were already opposed to getting involved in the Syrian civil war, but this shift in party opinion is significant in both its size and its timing—just when the Assad regime has actually used chemical weapons and the Obama administration is speaking about a harsh response. That shift is reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s 180° spin in 2011 on whether the US should participate in an attack on Libya right after President Obama took that course.

That wasn’t the only survey that caught OIP Derangement Syndrome this month. Public Policy Polling, whose lean to the left didn’t stop it from predicting last November’s election results well, added this question to a survey of Louisiana Republicans on their presidential choices for 2016:
Who do you think was more responsible for the poor response to Hurricane Katrina: George W. Bush or Barack Obama?
Besides those two men’s names, respondents could choose “Not sure,” which we therefore have to treat as incorporating “I don’t want to answer this silly question.” And that was the most common response, with a plurality of 44% of the 247 Republicans responding.

But 29% of Louisiana Republicans told PPP that Barack Obama, serving his first year in the US Senate in 2005, was more responsible for the slow US government response to Hurricane Katrina than George W. Bush, then the President. Only 28% heard those two names and agreed that Bush had more responsibility.

While it was possible to present these results as evidence of Republican ignorance, as Talking Points Memo did, that’s too charitable. More than a quarter of the Republicans polled gave an answer that they must have known was untrue in order to say something bad about President Obama.

29 August 2013

A New Angle on Narrative Momentum

A few days ago, author Gail Gauthier raised the topic of “momentum” as it applies to narrative on her Facebook page. In physics, an object’s momentum is defined as its mass times its velocity. Velocity, in turn, is defined as distance traveled over time.

During the discussion, I realized that all those physics concepts can be metaphorically applied to narrative.
  • “Distance” is a measure of change in a particular direction. Not just random activity or events, but action along a particular vector, usually defined by characters’ desires and plans.
  • “Time” relates to narratives in two ways: the passage of time experienced by the characters and, probably more important, that experienced by readers.
  • “Mass” is a good equivalent for the significance of events, determined mostly by the stakes for the main characters.
Thus, narrative momentum is the product of significant stakes and change in a particular direction, both as sensed by readers. When readers see more change happening along the main narrative vector, they sense more momentum. When readers can read those scenes faster, they sense more momentum. And when the stakes are higher, they sense more momentum.

28 August 2013

“A kind of literary amnesia” about Violence

The Boston Globe’s recent interview with Michelle Ann Abate, professor of children’s literature at Ohio State, included this discussion of violence in books for young readers:
IDEAS: You went back and reread children’s books from throughout history for your research. Did those books become more violent and realistic over time?

ABATE: It’s actually the opposite of that. I was also surprised by the level of specificity and by the sensational nature of what I was reading. We tend to think of today’s young adult books as being more realistic. But the earlier books were incredibly graphic and violent. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes,” which was first released as a magazine serial in 1912, is a great example. There are tons of killings—people killing people, people killing animals, animals killing people. All of them are really gruesome and gory. The same thing’s true of “Alice in Wonderland” and a bunch of other classics, books that would never be challenged today. These examples are all conveniently forgotten when there’s a public outcry about a particular book for being so graphic and so violent. It’s almost a kind of literary amnesia.

IDEAS: It sounds like you’re talking about “The Hunger Games.”

ABATE: It’s funny—“The Hunger Games” gets so much bad press for promoting violence. But actually the books are doing the exact opposite. The entire first book is a cautionary tale about the horrors of violence and the senselessness of killing. It’s not glorifying violence, it’s condemning it with very little ambiguity. When you have a parent or a school board complaining about these books, in many cases they haven’t read the books themselves, or they’re picking out a chapter, a page, a scene.
The Tarzan books don’t seem to be written for children, but then neither did Suzanne Collins write The Hunger Games for all ages.

Abate is author or editor of half a dozen books of literary criticism, including Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature, Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism, and Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature, with Kenneth B. Kidd.

27 August 2013

Ruffles and the Invaders

Here’s a magical moment from L. Frank Baum’s Queen Zixi of Ix, first published in St. Nicholas magazine under the title (for reasons that become obvious) “The Magic Cloak”:
Today, as they came slowly down the garden walk, Tallydab noticed a splendid cloak lying upon the path. “How very beautiful!” he exclaimed as he stooped to pick it up. “I have never seen anything like this since the Princess Fluff first rode into Nole beside her brother the king. Isn’t it a lovely cloak, Ruffles?”

The dog gave a subdued yelp and wagged his stubby tail. “How do I look in it, Ruffles?” continued the lord high steward, wrapping the folds of the magic cloak about him. “How do I look in such gorgeous apparel?”

The dog stopped wagging its tail and looked up at its master earnestly. “How do I look?” again said Tallydab. “I declare, I wish you could talk!”

“You look perfectly ridiculous,” replied the dog in a rather harsh voice.

The lord high steward jumped nearly three feet in the air, so startled was he at Ruffles’ reply. Then he bent down, a hand on each knee, and regarded the dog curiously. “I thought at first you had spoken!” said he.

“What caused you to change your mind?” asked Ruffles peevishly. “I did speak, I am speaking. Can’t you believe it?”

The lord high steward drew a deep sigh of conviction. “I believe it!” he made answer. “I have always declared you were a wonderful dog, and now you prove I am right. Why, you are the only dog I ever heard of who could talk.”

“Except in fairy tales,” said Ruffles calmly. “Don’t forget the fairy tales.”

“I don’t forget,” replied Tallydab. “But this isn’t a fairy tale, Ruffles. It’s real life in the kingdom of Noland.”
Noland suffers a couple of invasions in the course of this book, and both times Ruffles proves his loyalty by helping out his master and the regime. The second and more dangerous set of invaders are the Roly-Rogues, shown above. Earlier the encroachment came from Ix:
When the army of Ix had climbed the mountain and was marching down again toward Nole, the lord high steward [of Noland] sent his dog Ruffles to them to make more mischief. Ruffles trotted soberly among the soldiers of Ix, and once in a while he would pause and say in a loud voice, “The army of Noland will conquer you.”

Then all the soldiers would look around to see who had spoken these fearful words, but could see nothing but a little dog, and Ruffles would pretend to be scratching his nose with his left hind foot and would look so innocent that they never for a moment suspected he could speak.

“We are surrounded by invisible foes!” cried the soldiers, and they would have fled even then had not Queen Zixi called them cowards and stubbornly declared they only fancied they had heard the voices speak. Some of them believed her, and some did not, but they decided to remain and fight since they had come so far to do so.
Psychological warfare is so much easier if you have a talking dog.

25 August 2013

Titans vs. X-Men

A Twitter comment from UK artist Randolph Hoyte alerted me to Chris Sims’s Comics Alliance essay on Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans. Sims is careful to note that his assessment of that magazine versus its predecessor is a matter of taste and “probably has a lot to do with reading X-Men as a kid and not getting around to The Judas Contract until I was in my 20s.”

As I’ve noted before, Sims was twelve in the 1994, and the comics we read when we’re twelve shape our tastes and memories, for better or worse. I was in my late teens when New Teen Titans was published, and hadn’t read previous versions of the team. The magazine thrilled and pleased me by doing all I’d learned to like in superhero comics and more besides. I can reread those stories and enjoy the nostalgia, but it’s next to impossible to find the same thrill in other superhero stories—and nothing’s more disappointing than picking up a story touted as “classic” and finding that it’s, well, just a superhero comic showing the traits of the time it was written.

It’s fair to compare New Teen Titans to Uncanny X-Men, Marvel’s alternate-superhero team book of the same era, as Sims does. Wolfman, Pérez, and their editor Len Wein probably did pitch their Titans revival as a possible answer to Marvel’s mutant magazine. And the X-Men issues that Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum created in the late 1970s and 1980s are top-notch.
But Sims gives more space in this essay recounting favorite moments from X-Men #132 (“Wolverine gets dropped through four floors to the sewer, then comes back at the end ready to literally murder everyone he sees”) than discussing any New Teen Titans story, for better or worse. It’s true that X-Men “feels like a product of the Modern Age,” but that’s because a big part of the “Modern Age” (at its height around, oh, 1994) was Wolverine killing lots of people. A look at The New Teen Titans should highlight its storytelling, perhaps noting some qualities that the “Modern Age” left behind.

Unfortunately, Sims’s aside about when he read “The Judas Contract” is the only time he mentions that best-remembered New Teen Titans storyline. And the only page of Wolfman and Pérez’s work illustrating the essay is one that introduces a supporting character (one whom many readers hate far more than I think is healthy). Those details indicate how glancing this assessment is.

Let’s start instead with the differences between Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans to isolate the qualities of each. Wolfman and Pérez worked with a different universe and characters, and they created a different type of superhero saga.

The Uncanny X-Men had the overall theme of being outcast. The Marvel mutants were disliked and hunted by authorities. Their headquarters was a shadowy private school in upstate New York. In contrast, the Titans were celebrities who worked with the government out of a T-shaped skyscraper on an island in the East River.

Even the Titans who felt like outcasts fit in better than almost anyone on the Marvel team. X-Men’s “demonic” character was Nightcrawler, who had a barbed tail, blue skin, and a habit of disappearing in a puff of brimstone. The Titans’ equivalent was Raven, daughter of a horrific giant four-eyed red demon who looked like…a beautiful thin girl with straight dark hair wearing a hooded cape. Cyborg had major body issues, but he was a big, handsome jock. In fact, as Pérez drew them, all the Titans looked like supermodels, and the one who was a supermodel looked like a Playboy fantasy. Being accepted and popular wasn’t their problem. Their challenges grew from their internal lives and their pasts.

The overall theme of the New Teen Titans was inheritance. All four of the established heroes were sidekicks or younger versions of adult heroes, with varied feelings about their mentors and legacies. The three new heroes were all at odds with their parents. (One was sold into slavery by her father, another crippled when his father opened an interdimensional rift, and then there’s that four-eyed giant red demon—the usual issues.) The magazine’s breakout villain, Deathstroke the Terminator, was the epitome of a toxic father. The villainous cult of Brother Blood was a corrupted reflection of the new “family” that the Titans were creating for themselves.

The best and most innovative New Teen Titans stories focus on family: the ground-breaking issue built around Wally West’s letter to his parents, Starfire’s rivalry with her sister, Changeling’s rage at the killers of his adopted mother, Donna Troy’s search for relations, Dick Grayson’s decision to move past being Robin, and even “The Judas Contract.” Those emotional issues reflect the superhero storytelling style of the early 1980s when the big fights were held together with extended melodramas full of thought balloons.

As Sims says, that sort of superhero saga might not be to everyone’s taste. Undoubtedly my own fondness for those stories is rooted in the fact that I was in my late teens when they appeared. But the best of Wolfman and Pérez’s work stands up just as well as Claremont, Byrne, and Cockrum’s, and may hit deeper emotions.

24 August 2013

The New Didacticism

The International Reading Association’s Literacy and Social Responsibility Special Interest Group has announced a new award for children’s books: The Social Justice Literature Award.

The group’s announcement says:

This award is presented to honor books that address social responsibility towards individuals, communities, societies, and/or the environment as well as invite reflection and socially responsible action by the reader. . . .

Selected books include picture books and non-picture books, with poetry, narrative, and nonfiction titles appropriate for each category. Books selected for a given year must be published in the United States by the end of the preceeding year…[and] must meet the following criteria:

Strong Literary and Artistic Qualities, including but not limited to:
  • Fostering respect and understanding of a diverse population
  • Promoting equity, justice, peace, and/or social responsibility
  • Presenting social issues in their complexity
  • Addressing social responsibility towards individuals, communities, societies, and/or the environment
Reader Response:
  • Appealing to the intended audience
  • Inviting reflection and socially responsible action by the reader
  • Analyzing causes of injustice and revealing alternatives and/or challenges to the injustice, opening the imagination to other possibilities
I support the social goals stated in the award criteria. I don’t think that books which promote such ends or are even written to promote them must necessarily come across as didactic. Nor do I think that books without explicit political or social messages really lack political and social implications. And I even think that the American children’s-book industry is already somewhat didactic, though it may resist that label.

Still, I see in this award description a conflation of “Literary and Artistic Qualities” with political goals and outcomes. I’d prefer to see an award for books that promote those ideas or explore those themes and also exhibit strong literary and artistic qualities separate from ideology.

23 August 2013

Rep. Kerry Bentivolio’s Plan to Avoid Being a Laughingstock

Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan provided this week’s example of OIP Derangement Syndrome. As quoted by Buzzfeed and elsewhere, Bentivolio responded to a question about presidential impeachment at a Birmingham Bloomfield Republican Club meeting by saying:
If I could write that bill and submit it, it would be a dream come true. I feel your pain and I know. I stood twelve feet away from the guy and listened to him. I couldn’t stand being there, but because he is president I have to respect the office. . . .

I went back to my office and I’ve had lawyers come in. These are lawyers, PhDs in history, and I said, “Tell me how I can impeach the president of the United States.”

Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughingstock if you’ve submitted the bill to impeach the president…
OIP Derangement Syndrome usually begins with a visceral feeling of dislike about seeing Barack Obama as President. That feeling is clear in the way Bentivolio emphasizes “pain,” how he “stood 12 feet away from the guy” and “couldn’t stand being there.” Physical proximity is not a factor in rationally disagreeing with someone else’s political ideas.

Many people with OIP Derangement Syndrome seek out an acceptable reason for that visceral feeling, an excuse to tell themselves and others. Bentivolio’s dislike is so strong that he dreams of writing a bill to impeach the President, which would suggest that he needs to find very strong reasons.

But the representative is still working on that last part. He’s ready to unseat a twice-elected President, but he doesn’t have “evidence.” For rational people, collecting evidence precedes making an important decision. For Bentivolio and others with OIP Derangement Syndrome, the desired conclusion comes first, then the attempt to justify it.

As a member of Congress, Bentivolio is actually a fluke. The Republican who represented that district in Michigan botched his reelection in 2012, leaving Bentivolio as the only party candidate on the ballot. He started as a “Tea Party” candidate trying to keep the congressman from moving to the left and ended up as congressman himself.

It’s unclear when Bentivolio started to develop his current political drive. According to Human Events, he was “a local volunteer in Republican campaigns going back to Ronald Reagan in 1980.” Yet the story he told National Review put more weight on a running into Tea Party protesters:
One weekend, as he drove around in a rented car, he noticed a group of what appeared to be Revolutionary War reenactors. Intrigued, he pulled over.

“People told me they were the Tea Party, and I said, ‘You’re supposed to be in Boston!’” he says with a laugh. “And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean by that?’ ‘It stands for Taxed Enough Already.’ I said, ‘Well that’s a good idea!’”
Such Tea Party demonstrations were a 2009 reaction to the election of President Barack Obama.

Bentivolio was, among other things, a schoolteacher, and by the 2011-12 year he had developed a bad reputation for talking “constantly in class about political stuff,” as reported in the Detroit Free Press.

But he also acted in a friend’s amateur movie called The President Goes to Heaven, released in 2011, about a Bush-like President faking an attack on New York skyscrapers. And there was an odd moment in his campaign when he and his brother traded accusations of mental instability. So we may well see more news from Rep. Bentivolio, once he concludes his important campaign against traffic cameras in the District of Columbia.

22 August 2013

The Visual Display of Edward Tufte

About a quarter-century ago, I was a young Editorial Assistant at a publishing company, and someone handed me a copy of Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I already had a copy of that book, a holiday present from my mother. (I think I’d entered a “hard to shop for” period after years of easily identified obsessions.) I’d found The Visual Display of Quantitative Information quite interesting, both in its content and in its backstory: Tufte had self-published the book back when desktop-publishing programs were new and Amazon and print-on-demand barely conceived of. I read that he was making big money from the book and/or speeches and consulting contracts based on it.

That success evidently caught the attention of higher-ups at my employer. One of them sent a copy of the book down to the editors on my floor along with a memo to look into this and do something about it. I saw one of those editors carrying around the book and naively piped up that I was familiar with it already. That was how I came into possession of a second copy of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I was too new to realize that corporate activity around the book wasn’t really driven by a wish to start publishing oversized volumes on quantitative displays. Rather, it was driven by a wish to satisfy the higher-ups’ desire to have someone handle this matter. The book was like the monkey in the old Harvard Business School analogy: passed off from one desk to another within the organization until someone figures out a way to toss it back outside.

I don’t clearly recall how the episode ended. I think I was still wrestling with how best to explain “We can’t afford him” when word arrived that our department’s higher-up had passed along the book because an even higher higher-up had given it to her, so she wasn’t really pushing for any action. Tufte went on to self-publish more volumes without being bothered by us.

All of which leads up to the news that for several years Edward Tufte has been working on large-scale sculptural installations, sometimes in collaboration with stone worker Dan Snow. Three that caught my eye are:
Tufte’s website says the next open-house viewing at Hogpen Hill Farms in Woodbury, Connecticut, will be on 5 Oct 2013.

21 August 2013

What Fell Out of 52 Pickup

It was a warm, clear day when I heard that crime novelist Elmore Leonard had died after well over eighty years and forty books. That news reminded me that I’d been meaning to write about the experience of recently reading one of his novels—52 Pickup, to be exact—in digital form.

Like many caper novelists, Leonard wrote lots of short scenes and jumped from one point of view to another as needed. When one of those shifts occurred within a chapter, his print publisher followed the usual format of leaving extra space between the end of one section and the start of another. If those blank areas wound up at the bottom or top of a typeset page, the publisher hauled out the simple • dingbat to alert readers to the otherwise hard-to-spot section break. 

Typesetting conventions for ebooks are different, however. Most notably, the standard ebook format follows most web pages (including this one) by putting an extra line space between paragraphs and not indenting the first line of each new paragraph. 

In converting 52 Pickup to its digital format, HarperCollins ebooks reformatted the paragraphs: no indent, extra space in between. But it also wiped out the extra spaces between one section and the next. If there was a dingbat on the printed page, the • also appeared in the digital form, but most shifts from one point of view and scene to another come with no such signal for readers. That meant Leonard’s transitions, originally smooth, were bumpy, requiring me to notice the shift, stop, and look back to confirm when it happened.

The copyright page of the 52 Pickup ebook says it was converted in 2002. I hope the process has grown more sophisticated since, but then I’d hope it would have been applied to older books. It’s an easy fix, and Leonard and his readers deserve better. 

20 August 2013

Market Report on “Oz Incorporated”

Earlier in the summer I caught a performance of Circus Smirkus’s “Oz Incorporated” show. Each year this traveling youth circus has a theme, lately one based on some cultural milieu of the twentieth century: superheroes, journalism, pirates, westerns, science fiction. Sometimes those shows have had narrative arcs.

This year’s production took its inspiration from The Wizard of Oz (mostly the 1939 movie rather than the book). But it didn’t really try to retell the story; rather, the show relied on audiences recognizing moments and characters from the source material and tying those together for themselves.

This show also shifted the setting of Oz to a modern office building and corporation—think How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Thus, the Wizard is a charlatan CEO, Glinda his executive assistant, and the Munchkins hand-puppet workers in a phone bank. The usual arch to the backstage was treated as an elevator door. I’m not sure how much of that biting satire the youngest members of the audience got.

The Scarecrow came on as a mop-headed, mop-wielding janitor in the building. The Tin Woodman was introduced through a juggling act, with a juggling club doubling as his oil can. And the Cowardly Lion was a big fellow in a suit, too soft-hearted for the corporate world. Interestingly, the Wicked Witch of the West was played by a young man in a stylized modern performance.

But I don’t want to put too much weight on Smirkus’s narratives because they’re really just strings to hold the pearls of the acrobatic and clowning acts. Thus, the Emerald City guards performed on unicycles and trampolines, the Flying Monkeys on trapeze, and the lions and tigers and bears on slack and tight ropes. The Wizard performed several bits of poor magic and also came out as a giant head on stilts.

When I first saw Circus Smirkus perform decades ago, the performers came in a wide range of ages. The same held true when the organization was featured on the Disney documentary series Totally Circus. But today most of the cast are in their mid-teens, young adults rather than older kids.

Every year I hope to see Smirkus present tricks I hadn’t seen before, and the show rarely disappoints. This year those were slack-wire techniques, new moves with juggling clubs, and a unicycle with three wheels. Like this.

19 August 2013

Is Analyzing The Killing Joke Like Dissecting a Frog?

Retiring Batman scribe Grant Morrison went back on Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast this month and proclaimed his interpretation of The Killing Joke, a landmark graphic novel from 1989. As Robot 6 and Comics Beat reported, Morrison declared:
No one gets the end, because Batman kills the Joker. . . . That’s why it’s called The Killing Joke. The Joker tells the “Killing Joke” at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story—he finished it. . . . the laughter stops, it abruptly stops, it’s quite obvious. . . .

But he did it in such a way that it’s ambiguous, so people will never have to be sure, which means it doesn’t have to be the last Batman/Joker story. It’s brilliant!
This wasn’t a new theory. One can find traces of such speculation or interpretation on the internet for years. Artist Brian Bolland joked about the perceived ambiguity in his afterword to a recolored edition without resolving the questions. But letterer Richard Starkings recalls Bolland saying that he didn’t try to show Batman killing the Joker.

Prof. Scott Eric Kaufman rejected Morrison’s interpretation wholly, in part in a skilled interpretation of art and words and in part because it came from Morrison.

In fact, fans who think Batman kills the Joker don’t even agree on the method. Does he, as Morrison said, wring or snap the man’s neck (and, if so, where is the sound effect)? Or does Batman jab the Joker with one of his own poisoned needles (and does Joker venom even work on the Joker)?

The folks at Bleeding Cool did the important journalistic work of digging up Alan Moore’s script for that final page—which it say the site lifted material from the feed of transcriber Mr. Phil Jackson.

Moore didn’t write that Batman kills the Joker. He didn’t ask Bolland to depict the scene with any ambiguity, and he was quite explicit about motivation, symbolism, and multiple meanings elsewhere. (As I noted before, Moore opened this script by writing paragraphs about the endpapers of the book—that’s detailed.) Bolland’s drawings for the final page closely follow Moore’s very detailed descriptions.

But the sound-effects lettering is significantly different from what’s in the script. As Moore wrote the scene, the laughter ended in panel 5, the center of the nine-panel grid. Police sirens appeared in panels 5 through 7, in 8 “we can no longer hear the sirens” [I can’t bring myself to capitalize like Moore], and in 9 the sirens resume—presumably as the police take the Joker away.
Ultimately the book followed a different timing. The laughter continues for through panel 6 and off the right side of the grid. The sirens don’t recur for the last panel—which is a major improvement over having a bunch of EEEs breaking into what Moore sought for that image: “more an abstract design than anything else.”

Who made those changes and when? The evidence currently available doesn’t say. They probably occurred in the editing process as Moore, Bolland, and their editors discussed the book. So whatever Moore might have meant originally could have changed by the final product. But Bolland would still have needed to know what to draw.

Furthermore, Morrison’s interpretation puts a lot of weight on how “the laughter stops,” a phrase he repeated. But in the final book, the laughter doesn’t stop in panel 5 when Batman touches the Joker. Nor does it stop in panel 6—it continues off the right side.

So what have we learned or relearned from this worldwide discussion?
  • Grant Morrison likes people to think he has secret knowledge. (And to be fair, sometimes he really does.)
  • Superhero comics are a collaborative art form. The storytelling is the product of the writers, artists, letterer, and editors, with only the final product containing all their contributions.
  • A lot of fans really wish Batman could kill the Joker.

18 August 2013

Spotting a Familiar Name

A few months back there were a lot of pictures of Damian Wayne with Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but I don’t recall having seen this one in my feeds. (Of course, there were a lot.)

This picture comes from Luciano Vecchio, an artist from Argentina. I first saw his work when I was editing the International Wizard of Oz Club’s Oziana fiction magazine, and art director Marcus Mébès recruited him to illustrate some stories. When I contacted him directly a while later, Luciano told me he’d gotten too busy with paying jobs to do more volunteer fan work, and I told him that was the best news an aspiring professional artist could share.

I ran across Luciano’s name in the second collection of comics spun off the Young Justice TV show. He drew a couple of issues of that magazine, as well as cartoon-style comics about the Avengers and Green Lantern. Earlier work includes the Sentinels, about a second-generation superhero team, from Drumfish. Here’s Luciano’s Deviant Art page.

Starting soon, Luciano will be the regular artist on the new Beware the Batman! magazine written by Ivan Cohen, which DC promoted this spring with a free preview comic scripted by Scott Beatty.

17 August 2013

Wild Goose Egg Chase in Colorado

In the November 2012 presidential elections, 2,569,516 people voted in Colorado. The Obama-Biden ticket won 51.5% of the state’s vote, with a 137,858 (5.4%) margin over the Republican ticket.

When Scott Gessler was elected Colorado’s Secretary of State in 2010, he made a priority of increasing restrictions on voting, a popular cause and tactic with others on the American right. For example, he ordered county clerks not to send ballots to some troops deployed overseas.

In the months leading up to the 2012 election, Gessler tried to purge voter rolls, but found such piddling evidence of a problem that he gave up the effort. He had identified only 141 names to challenge, the equivalent of 18.1% of the 779 citizens whose registrations his office might have lost through a software problem.

This year Gessler had his office compile a list of 155 people who he said might have voted illegally in 2012, not being citizens. That number of alleged illegal voters was .006% of the total electorate, well below the count needed to change the presidential result. In fact, all together those voters would not have been enough to knock the Socialist Equality Party off the last place in the official results.

Gessler sent his lists of suspicious voters to the district attorneys of the counties where those voters lived. The DA for Boulder County, Stan Garnett, received 17 names, or 11.0% of the list. Boulder County contained only 5.8% of Colorado’s population in 2010. But it’s a heavily Democratic area.

This week Garnett announced the results of the investigation his staff had to do on those voters for the Secretary of State. All 17 “were citizens and were able to easily verify their status.”

Gessler’s rate for finding illegal voters in Boulder County was thus 0.00%. But he’s still making the suppression of allegedly illegal votes a priority.

16 August 2013

Judging Chuck Grassley’s OIP Derangement Syndrome

Among the fights quietly going on in Washington is the effort by Republican senators to slow or stop President Barack Obama’s nominations to the federal judiciary.

With the President characteristically nominating moderates to the bench whose records raise no substantive objections, and without a majority in the Senate, the Republicans’ main weapon remains the filibuster.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has come up with a new tool: a proposal to cut three seats on the DC Circuit while adding two elsewhere. In a curious claim, Grassley argued that having one fewer federal judge will lessen the workload on the rest.

Grassley rests his case on the fact that the DC Circuit handles far fewer cases than other federal appeals courts. But there are several big holes in his argument for efficiency and fairness:
  • The DC Circuit’s cases are more complex than those arising in other parts of the country, and often more influential. Chief Justice John Roberts has written, “It is when you look at the docket that you really see the differences between the D.C. Circuit and other courts” (PDF article).
  • The Judicial Conference, which is the voice of federal judges, asked for more appointees elsewhere than Grassley’s bill would provide, but didn’t suggest a reduction in the DC Circuit (PDF letter).
  • As Doug Kendall pointed out for Reuters, Grassley “proposed that his bill take effect immediately on passage, rather than at the start of the next presidential term—which is the usual practice.” In other words, it’s an unprecedented limit on this President.
  • In his first thirty years in the Senate, Grassley never tried to shrink the DC Circuit Court so drastically. Only now that President Obama faces three openings on the DC Circuit does the senator perceive a need for—what a coincidence!—three fewer seats.
In fact, under President George W. Bush, Grassley voted to confirm the tenth and eleventh judges on the DC Circuit—the same bench he now claims should have no more than eight judges. And since those votes, the workload on those judges has gone up rather than down.

Grassley has complained, “members on the other side were convinced seats didn’t need to be filled a few years ago.” But according to the Washington Post, that refers to bills aimed at reducing the DC Circuit to its current number of eleven judges, not to eight. (Grassley voted for that particular bill, but it died in the Republican House.)

Tussles over judicial nominations are common in the American system, of course. There’s plenty of hypocrisy in that area, but Grassley’s bill is more hypocritical than other efforts.

Furthermore, his performance went beyond hypocrisy into hysteria when he claimed five times in one hearing that President Obama was “packing the court.” As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and numerous commentators reminded the Iowan, that term refers to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposal to change the number of seats on the Supreme Court so he could appoint more justices. Grassley was actually born in the year Roosevelt took office, so he really should remember that history better.

The only person trying to change the number of judges on a court to affect their decisions is Sen. Grassley himself. In implying that President Obama was trying to do the same, he exhibited the dissociative symptoms of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

15 August 2013

Where to Find the Runaway Bunny

Fuse #8’s catalogue of public children’s-literature statuary in the US alerted me to the Runaway Bunny statue outside the Westerly Public Library in Rhode Island. The bronze figure, by Connecticut sculptor Joan Binney Ross, was installed in 1998.

Earlier this summer the sculpture was vandalized, painted with “vulgar graffiti and the letters ‘KKK’,” as the Providence Journal reported, based on now-unavailable story from the Westerly Sun. Depending on the grammatical connection between the vulgarity and the initials, that could have been either a pro-KKK or anti-KKK message.

The library and park staff had difficulty removing the paint, so they contacted Ross, who recommended a cleaner. The AP reported that the bunny was restored to its original condition.

The Stonington-Mystic Patch carried an image of the vandalized bunny. Noting that similar graffitti had been painted elsewhere in the area, it asked readers if they recognized the “tag,” but there don’t appear to have been any breakthroughs. That site also posted a video of the cleanup.

Some of those articles referred to Margaret Wise Brown, author of The Runaway Bunny, but none named the book’s artist and designer of the original bunny, Clement Hurd.

13 August 2013

No Place Like the Hospital

This month Entertainment Weekly’s website reported on a new Oz-themed TV show, sort of:
CBS is taking a big swing with a new project with a higher-than-high concept: Wizard of Oz medical drama.

The broadcaster has inked a deal to develop a series titled Dorothy, described by the network as “a medical soap based in New York City, inspired by the characters and themes immortalized in The Wizard of Oz.”
There’s no more information on the drama than that, as far as I can tell, yet the news has already kicked up a lot of talk on television websites.

Which is the point. Without the link to a beloved property like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this would be just another medical drama set in the big city. The executive producers pulled a similar trick with Elementary, spun off the public-domain Sherlock Holmes mythos and promoted as such.

I don’t doubt that the show’s creators might take inspiration from the basic Oz story: a young female character named Dorothy looking for a home, three male companions who feel inadequate, and so on. But if The Wonderful Wizard of Oz weren’t both famous and free, the network would never mention that vague inspiration. No, Dorothy would then be an entirely original show, any resemblance between it and preceding stories entirely coincidental.

12 August 2013

“You do Batman stuff all the time.”

As long as I was talking about Ty Templeton’s Batman work, it seemed like a good time to share his autobiographical “Bun Toons” webcomic about being a father of teenagers.

Click through to see what impresses Templeton’s kids even more than dinner with the Governor-General of Canada.

11 August 2013

The R Stands for Hope

While I was disappointed that the second episode of Batman 66 doesn’t use any digital storytelling tricks, the story by Jeff Parker is fine. Robin plays a crucial role, rightly embodying the “idealism of youth” and receiving praise from Batman at the end.

Ty Templeton drew the Boy Wonder with a classic design, green gloves and bare legs, even while climbing on an iceberg. In contrast, Jonathan Case’s pictures in the first issue showed pale tights and darker, almost black gloves, as Burt Ward often wore on the television show.

10 August 2013

Guided View Gone

I was disappointed to find that the second episode of the Batman 66 comic (digital issues #4-5, paper issue #2) does not have the digital tricks of the first.

As I described back here, the first story combined ComiXology’s “guided view” method of sliding from one panel to another with the sequences of similar panels as pioneered by Thrillbent to create a digital comic that has almost 300 “page turns,” or new elements, appearing over the course of the story.

Jonathan Case drew extra art to take advantage of that format so that readers could, for example, see three sequential pictures of Batman shinnying up a rope to the Riddler’s biplane. A single panel in the printed version served as up to half a dozen in the digital format, which the publisher modestly labeled “DC2.”

In contrast, the second story has fewer than fifty page turns, each simply a shift to the next half-page of the printed comic. (Each digital page is the top or bottom half of one page in the printed version.)

Ever alert for conspiracy theories, the Bleeding Cool website suggested that the reason for the change was a patent dispute. ComiXology’s “guided view” might infringe on patents from 2006-2012 owned by Disney, now owner of Marvel Comics.

However, commenter Hsielke at reported a more mundane explanation:
I contacted comixology and found out that not until chapter 10 will [Batman 66] be DC2 again. I also saw in an interview with the writer that they will not be doing all in DC2 because if they did they would not be able to hit their deadlines.
Which makes sense: drawing more pictures takes more time. Learning the new storytelling tricks takes more time. But I think it will be time well spent.

09 August 2013

Eric Cantor’s Upside-Down OIP Derangement Syndrome

This week’s prime example of OIP Derangement Syndrome is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose ideas of up and down have apparently become reversed since the election of President Barack Obama.

In a television interview this week Cantor said of his Republican Party’s legislative strategy:
What we are trying to do is fund the government and make sure also that we take away the kinds of things that are standing in the way of a growing economy, a better health care. And all the while keeping our eye focused on trying to deal with the ultimate problem, which is this growing deficit. And that means when we get to the issue of the debt ceiling, it’s not some sort of fictional process or just a process that we go through. What raising the debt limit means, it’s increasing the credit limit. For too long now, Washington has disregarded the fact that that does — what that does is it burdens our kids and theirs.
As numerous commenters pointed out, there is no “growing deficit.” The federal budget deficit did grow significantly in the aftermath of the Bush-Cheney recession. Cantor was in office at the time, so he should have noticed. But since we regained a “growing economy” under President Obama, the deficit has shrunk.

Cantor’s politics have actually been “standing in the way of a growing economy, a better health care,” as when he tried to steer the US government toward default and led votes to end health-insurance reform. But again, OIP Derangement Syndrome evidently makes Cantor see things in reverse.

Cantor’s comments on the debt limit likewise have a “down is up” quality. During the Bush-Cheney administration he voted to increase the debt limit five times. That was a period in which the deficit actually grew, starting from a surplus at the end of the Clinton administration. Only when a new President took office did Cantor suddenly decide that it “burdens our kids” to raise the debt limit—i.e., to actually pay for the goods and services that the Congress he nominally helps to lead has already ordered.

08 August 2013

Our Cover Story

Back in April, when the FBI released surveillance-camera photographs of its main suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, a number of people recognized Dzokhar (Jahar) Tsarnayev: his high-school wrestling coach and teammates, other classmates from Cambridge and UMass Dartmouth, and so on.

Some students in Jahar’s dorm even joked about the resemblance between their friend and one of the bombers. But no one called the police because no one believed Jahar would commit mass murder.

The Tsarnayev brothers were caught the next day after they had apparently committed one more murder and other violent acts. Someday we in greater Boston might look back on that day and acknowledge how much went wrong: the shootout with lots of stray bullets against two guys with only one gun, the police officer nearly killed by fellow officers’ bullets, the search cordon that missed Jahar Tsarnayev’s hiding-place even as business shut down in several surrounding towns (including my own). Right now we’re still too pleased that that Friday ended as well as one would want.

But we’re still left with the paradox of the terrorist whom people recognized but no one could believe. Rolling Stone magazine explored that reality in its recent cover story about Jahar Tsarnayev, with the cover line “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”

In some countries, identifying a suspect as “The Bomber” and “a Monster” before he’s tried and convicted would be seen as prejudicial. But here lots of folks reacted to the magazine cover as an outrage, suggesting it “glamorized” Tsarnayev because Rolling Stone’s cover usually features rock stars. Of course, it rarely calls those stars monsters.

On WBUR’s On Point, host Tom Ashbrook kept repeating that the Tsarnayev image was a “selfie,” as if that compounded the glamor. In fact, that means Tsarnayev took the picture himself with a cell phone, not a fancy camera, and with no makeup artist, hairdresser, or other handlers. That’s how he wanted to present himself online, but that’s also how he looked—which is really what’s so troubling about the image.

In response to the Rolling Stone cover, a state police photographer leaked images of Tsarnayev’s capture. That violated rules about evidence, prejudicial material, and secrecy, but the man was outraged. Why Tsarnayev supposedly looked less sympathetic when he was bleeding, helpless, and surrendering I don’t understand.

Reports keep coming out about the Tsarnayevs, most recently the news that older brother Tamerlan subscribed to various conspiracy-theory periodicals. Today’s Boston Globe noted that in searching the brothers’ apartment and confiscating relevant material, the FBI took away books on Islam but left behind non-Islamic right-wing conspiracy books. “Maybe it’s because it didn’t fit into their thinking about him,” mused one neighbor.

If we’re ever going to figure out what happened with the Tsarnayev brothers, and how to head off trouble from other young men in similar situations, we’ll have to stop fitting people into our thinking and accept some troubling facts: that friendly, handsome boys can turn into murderers; that overreaction can be just as fatal as the initial crime; that ideologies can be excuses for violence instead of spurs.

07 August 2013

Our Cancers, Ourselves

Today Nature announced an agreement between the National Institutes of Health and the heirs of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cancerous cells, denoted “HeLa,” have proved remarkably long-lived and therefore useful for medical research.

As described by Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Lacks had a hard life even before developing that virulent cancer. Her family received no compensation and minimal recognition for her contribution to modern medicine. Under the new agreement, family members will be on a committee that considers requests for research and publication of genetic data using the HeLa cells, restoring the principle of people being in charge of their own tissue and biological information.

There’s an irony in this situation, of a sort I first noticed in another case of horrible medical care given to an African-American in Jim-Crow America. In 1947 San Francisco doctors diagnosed Elmer Allen, a Pullman porter, with bone cancer. Considering his leg (or simply Allen himself) untreatable, they injected that leg with plutonium in order to study how the radioactive element affected the human body. Three days after the injection, the doctors amputated that leg and sent him home to die.

Allen lived for forty-four more years. He died in 1991, one year before reporter Eileen Welsome connected him to the records of the plutonium experiment. He never knew how badly his doctors and government had treated him, but Allen was reportedly bitter all his life about having lost his leg and career. Yet that amputation, as heartless as it was, may in fact have saved him from the bone cancer.

Similarly, Henrietta Lacks’s descendants view her undying cells as a surviving part of her, yet if she had had the option of killing or getting rid of that cancer she would surely have been glad to take it, and to think of those cells as something apart from herself.

06 August 2013

Why Thompson Oz Books Smell a Little Like Vanilla

Back in 2009 I wrote fondly about the smell of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books, as originally published by Reilly & Lee in the 1920s and ’30s. Lots of American books of that era shared the same perfume, though perhaps not as strongly, given that publisher’s low budgets.

This summer the Smithsonian blog noted an article from the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers on the chemistry of that smell:
Scientists say that “old book smell” is more than just mustiness; it contains hints of grass and vanilla. That’s because all the compounds used to make the book release distinctive odors as they break down. For example, lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent.

It’s even possible to approximate the age of a book based on its smell. Chemists have identified 15 substances often present in books (known as VOC’s) that degrade (and therefore emit a gas) at a predictable rate.
The abstract of the underlying scientific paper, published in 2009, goes into more detail:
The main volatile degradation products of paper, constituting the particular “smell of old books”, were determined using headspace analysis after a 24 h predegradation procedure. Using supervised and unsupervised methods of multivariate data analysis, we were able to quantitatively correlate volatile degradation products with properties important for the preservation of historic paper: rosin, lignin and carbonyl group content, degree of polymerization of cellulose, and paper acidity.
Those scientists, some working with the Centre for Sustainable Heritage in Britain, appear to have been most interested in the preservation and dating of books. But I can also imagine interest in their findings from people who wish to create books as luxury items. What could be more luxurious than a book that smells wonderfully old but is actually in great shape?

05 August 2013

A Tale of Two Pandas—or Was It Three?

Last week the Hollywood Reporter noted the end of a lawsuit against Dreamworks concerning copyright claims on its movie Kung Fu Panda. A Massachusetts artist alleged that the studio had violated his copyright on a martial-arts panda character, registered in 2000. He could document that he had submitted his work to Dreamworks and received a form letter in reply saying that the company didn’t look at such work, but hadn’t received the full submission package back.

The plaintiff offered such exhibits as this, positioning one of his drawings alongside some images from Kung Fu Panda or its marketing.

However, Dreamworks’s lawyers came back with their own exhibits, including this juxtaposition of the plaintiff’s work alongside images from a Disney coloring book published four years earlier:
That obviously made it harder for the artist to maintain, as he had testified, that his own work was entirely original. The judge was already displeased that he had destroyed the paper and pixel trail leading up to the creation of his work just after seeing the first preview of Kung Fu Panda, when it would theoretically have been most important. Last week he withdrew his claim permanently.

04 August 2013

Bishop’s Gotham Knights

I spent the afternoon at the Boston Comic-Con, where my first purchase was a keychain from the collection of DrawingBishop.com, also available through Etsy. I chose the 1996-2011 Nightwing, not shown in this gallery but obviously available. No “New 52” versions, as I recall.

My eye was first caught by this “Flying Wayne Sons” print, but on closer examination I thought it was just encouraging bad behavior from Damian.

03 August 2013

Page by Gulledge

In her graphic novel Page by Paige, Laura Lee Gulledge harnesses the power of surrealism to explore the inner life of a teen-aged artist new to Manhattan.

That visual invention is what really carries the book because, although there’s tension involved in Paige’s search for friends and confidence, her journey doesn’t run her into any wrenching twists or setbacks.

Like The Plain Janes, this story involves absurdist guerrilla public art. Apparently that’s a thing kids do now. Or wish they could.

01 August 2013

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From the Reddit “Ask Me Anything!” discussion with Ethan Nicolle, co-creator of Axe Cop, on how his brother Malachai has developed as a writer from age five to age nine:

He also has begun to get a better understanding of story, why it is good to give the bad guys a motive and to make the good guys almost lose. These were concepts that made no sense to him when he was five. He likes surprising and tricking his audience now.
And as for the violence in the comic:
I always…try to envision it the way HE sees it and not the way it would happen in reality. He think[s] in video games and toy battles. One very revealing moment was when we watched this fan-made live action Axe Cop movie, which is basically episode 1 verbatim, shot for shot in real life. When Malachai saw it, he had to shut his eyes, and it scared him. He is not thinking in reality. That is why when he says something that would be really violent in real life, I don't draw it that way. Most of the bad guys heads pop off like toys. I think that kids are much better at discerning cartoons from reality too.
And Malachai himself on when he might stop writing Axe Cop:
I think I will stop when I don't have that crazy imagination any more. Around 18.