31 October 2013

Where to Find the Essex County Wax Museum

As a Halloween treat I offer an online pointer to “The Essex County Literary Wax Museum & Menagerie,” a four-page comics story scripted by me and brought to life by Alex Cormack, with an editing assist from Jesse Lonergan.

This story appears in Minimum Paige, a comics anthology published by the Harvard Book Store a couple of years back. It’s also collected in Alex’s new art book.

30 October 2013

The Editorial Wee

The New York Times obituary for Sid Yudain, rounder of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, contained an anecdote that seems like it should be in a children’s book—except that no child today would understand it.

Yudain was the seventh of eight children growing up in Connecticut in the 1920s and ’30s.
“For some reason or other, we were all spirited kids, but we didn’t have real fights,” Mr. Yudain recalled in an interview with Roll Call in 2005. “When we got mad at each other, we published these newspapers. We had a little Remington portable typewriter — I guess it was one of the first ones that came out, and we all learned how to use it, even when we were really small — and we published these newspapers, writing editorials against each other instead of staging fists or rocks or something.”
Typewriters? Household newspapers? Why go to all that trouble when you can use the internet to tell the whole world about your yucky sibling?

29 October 2013

Games Acknowledgements Play

At the end of Fantasy Baseball, author Alan Gratz thanks a number of writing colleagues (including Laurel Snyder) for their support, and a number of literary estates, including those of Brian Jacques, Madeleine L’Engle, and the still-quite-alive Ingrid Law, for permitting him to use characters under copyright.

Also among the latter group is: “the estate of Ruth Spencer-Davies for letting me borrow the inimitable Nanny Mae and her feline companion Mrs. P.”

There was no Ruth Spencer-Davies.

Nanny Mae shares some characteristics with P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins and perhaps Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda (better known as the cinematic Nanny McPhee). But, whether pushed by copyright requirements or not, she appears to be Gratz’s own creation.

The conceit of Fantasy Baseball is a boy caught in a realm of make-believe characters. We readers have to believe that Nanny Mae is such a character, from a series we’ve never read or perhaps one we’ve forgotten. And the line in the acknowledgements serves that fictional purpose.

I’m running this on a Tuesday because Dorothy Gale is a major character in Fantasy Baseball, founder of the team Alex Metcalf finds himself playing for. Other characters from the Oz books also appear, including Scraps, Tik-Tok, and Jack Pumpkinhead. The threat underlying the plot is that those characters will be forgotten in our culture and disappear from the playing field.

But if Nanny Mae lives on with no other evidence for her existence on the web, then surely Jack Pumpkinhead will, too.

28 October 2013

Greatest “Between Good and Awesome”

Back in April, Brian Gardes at the Stumptown Literary Review provided a very nice review of The Greatest of All Time Comics Anthology:
As with most anthologies there were some stories which were more successful than others. However, under the careful eye of editors Dan Mazur and Jesse Lonergan, these variations in quality fluctuate between good and awesome. . . .

While it is often a risk to purchase an anthology, I cannot recommend The Greatest of All Time Comics Anthology enough. It has a solid creative line up, great production values (twenty color pages in a small press book?!?!), and an enjoyable read from cover to cover!
Braden Lamb and I collaborated on one story in that collection, “The Greatest Spy of All Time.” Braden and his wife, Shelli Paroline, won Eisner Awards this summer for their work on Adventure Time, so I can’t argue that this publication was the highlight of the past twelve months for him, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Ninth Art Press’s next comics anthology will be about subcultures; here’s the call for submissions.

27 October 2013

Hop to It, Chum

This is Joey, a dwarf Siamese rabbit with big dreams, photographed by Robyn Beck in Long Beach in October 2012.

25 October 2013

Prescription for OIP Derangement Syndrome

As President Barack Obama’s administration fixes the new federal health-insurance website, it’s valuable to compare responses to that endeavor with responses to the last administration’s big foray into health benefits: Medicare Part D.

The Washington Post described how that law was enacted for President George W. Bush in 2003: “During the vote, which was of unprecedented length, the House Republican leadership cajoled, berated and twisted arms, barely controlling a conservative revolt…” A June 2004 article in the Millbank Quarterly noted that was “by far the longest known roll-call vote in the history of the House.” Majority Leader Tom DeLay promised a favor to one reluctant Republican which later brought him a public admonition from the Ethics Committee. In the end that bill passed in the House 220-215 with members of both political parties on both sides.

Almost immediately the law’s price tag changed, as the Washington Post reported in 2005:

Beginning with his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush pledged to keep the total cost of the drug benefit to $400 billion over 10 years. An estimate by the Congressional Budget Office was close to Bush’s figure.

But shortly after Bush signed the program into law in December 2003, the White House revised its projection to $534 billion, but it never offered a detailed breakdown of that estimate.

Last March, Richard S. Foster, Medicare's chief actuary for nearly a decade, said administration officials threatened to fire him if he disclosed his belief in 2003 that the drug package would cost $500 billion to $600 billion. . . .

As recently as September, Medicare chief Mark B. McClellan said the new drug package would cost $534 billion over 10 years. Last night, he acknowledged that the cumulative cost of the program between 2006 and 2015 will reach $1.2 trillion, but he cited several major savings and offsets that he said will reduce the federal government's bottom-line cost to $720 billion.
Medicare Part D was a big contributor to the budget deficits that the Bush-Cheney administration left to its successor. (In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Affordable Care Act would save the federal government money over ten years because it would make our use of health care more efficient.)

When Medicare Part D finally went into effect on 1 Jan 2006, there were lots of problems. On 18 January, the Washington Post reported on “tens of thousands of elderly and disabled Americans, their pharmacists, and governors struggling to resolve myriad start-up problems.” In particular, the paper had already said, the “online interactive tool…pitched as a high-tech way to help the 43 million Medicare beneficiaries sort through all the drug coverage choices” had run into troubles and missed deadlines.

Meanwhile, Tom DeLay left office under an ethical cloud. His replacement as House Majority Leader in early February 2006 was John Boehner. That Ohio representative had voted for Medicare Part D but had not been part of the party leadership at the time and therefore bore limited responsibility for the law.

On 6 Feb 2006, five weeks after Medicare recipients were supposed to start enrolling, Boehner went on the friendly confines of FOX News Sunday and criticized one aspect of the program: “The implementation has been horrendous. We’ve made it far more complicated than it should be. . . . I think the implementation side continues to need to be improved.” The interviewer then turned to Boehner’s interest in “meat and potato issues” and his “perpetual tan.”

Talking Points Memo also quoted Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) as saying, “This is a huge undertaking and there are going to be glitches. . . . Rather than trying to scare and confuse seniors, I would hope that we can work together as we go through the implementation phase to find out what is wrong with the program and if we can make some changes to fix it, let us do it and let us do it on a bipartisan basis." That was on 15 Feb 2006, six weeks after the enrollment started.

And Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Georgia) said in the same forum: “Like most significant programs, the new benefit has not gone without a few isolated glitches and unexpected problems. But I believe that if there is anything wrong with the plan, most of it has been fixed and that that hasn't can be fixed over time.”

As late as 6 Apr 2006, more than three months after enrollment opened, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pennsylvania) insisted: “Any time something is new, there is going to be some glitches.”

None of those congressmen demanded that the entire law be repealed, defunded, or seriously delayed. None called for the resignation of Cabinet secretaries. None referred to the program as a horrible threat to the federal budget or individual freedom. None voted to shut down the government as it started or urged their states not to cooperate with it. And while many Democratic elected officials didn’t like aspects of Medicare Part D and the way it was passed, they didn’t do those things, either. The double standard apparent in the responses is a hallmark of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

24 October 2013

Before “New Media Day” Gets Old

SCBWI New England’s “New Media Day” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art made clear that publishing has entered a period of hybridization, combining both print and digital books published both by companies and by authors.

Despite all the stories and insights, though, my biggest takeaway was that the website Scribd.com likes to be pronounced with a short I.

Here I am with Mary Jane Begin, Gail Gauthier, and Emilie Boon, who were on a panel I moderated, and (second from left) artist Ruth Sanderson.

I can’t see why people keep asking me to moderate panels; I’m really quite shy and retiring.

22 October 2013

Remember When Oz Was on TV Only Once a Year?

Deadline has passed on the news of another television series based in some small way on the Oz mythos:
Lifetime has put in development Red Brick Road, from the Wolper Organization, Vertigo Entertainment and Warner Horizon. Written by Tim Schlattman (Dexter) based on an concept by artist Rob Prior and executive produced by Roy Lee and Adrian Askarieh, Red Brick Road is described as an edgy, Game Of Thrones take on the world of Wizard Of Oz.

In the classic 1939 feature, when Dorothy set off for the Emerald City, she followed the Yellow Brick Road. But among the yellow bricks at Dorothy’s feet, there was also a swirl of red bricks. They’ve been there the whole time in plain sight. Unnoticed. Unexplored. Which raises the question — just where do they go? Red Brick Road will answer that by following Dorothy down that fateful path, taking her to the oldest, darkest and most dangerous parts of Oz to find what became of her friends who all have gone missing.
Actually, the red bricks were just the negative space around the yellow bricks, but they’ve been intriguing fans of the movie since the video era began.

As Deadline notes, TV networks have bought four other Oz-themed projects recently, including:
  • “NBC’s drama Emerald City, a dark reimagining of the classic tale of Oz in the vein of Game Of Thrones”—there’s that comparison again.
  • “CBS’ Dorothy, a medical soap” noted back here.
  • “the CW’s Dorothy Must Die, a revisionist take on L. Frank Baum’s classic based on the upcoming young adult novel by Danielle Paige.”
  • “Syfy’s miniseries Warriors Of Oz from director Timur Bekmambetov, a fantasy-action reimagining of the classic story.”
Note how all claim both to be rooted in the beloved public-domain property and to offer a completely new, usually darker take on it. Odds are that most of these shows will never be broadcast as series, but some may end up competing against one another.

21 October 2013

Battling for Space

On Saturday a bunch of us were standing around the Million Year Picnic comics store looking at my newly purchased copy of Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, volume 1. (Okay, one of us was Jeff Smith.)

We were struck by the book’s size: 6 inches wide by 8.5 tall. That’s what publisher First Second has chosen as its “typical trim size.” (This spring the company tried 7 by 9 inches for the first time on a book for younger readers, more like a picture book.)

We weren’t convinced that size was ideal for Battling Boy. It’s an epic story of, basically, a godling come to Earth to fight huge monsters. Pope’s draftsmanship combines small details and messy chaos. Likewise, his lettering is too full of energy to be crisp. Those pages might have much more impact at a larger size.

But there is hope. According to this interview with Bleeding Cool, Pope and First Second are planning “a black and white oversized artists edition” for his 1990s THB comic, and:
We might even do this with Battling Boy depending on how the popularity is. My drawings are huge and a lot of the artists I meet in the industry give me the only complaint I’ve heard about Battling Boy which is that they wish it was black and white like THB where they can really see the line work.
Until then, maybe one quality that makes Battling Boy a comic for kids is that their eyes can get more out of it than us readers on the aging side.

20 October 2013

More on Nightwing, #93

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the controversy over Nightwing, #93 (published in 2004), and how Wikipedia’s one-sentence description of that comic book’s script was rewritten in 2010 to say the opposite of what it originally said.

Another source in assessing that situation was Birds of Prey scripter Gail Simone’s conversation with Nightwing scripter Devin Grayson in The Pulse website in June 2004, while the storyline was playing out. I found the text of the relevant exchange, copied before the interview disappeared from the web. Here it is for the record:
THE PULSE: Another reason this year has been hard for Nightwing is the breakup of his relationship with a very smart redhead whose book I happen to write [i.e., Barbara Gordon]. Dick’s obviously a physical character, especially lately, and I think you and other writers have clearly established that he’s not a loner. Without giving too much away, the ending of #93 had rather a shocking event in Dick’s love/sex life. Was this a one-time thing, a moment of weakness and disorientation, or is Tarantula something more to Dick?

GRAYSON: That particular moment was actually not consensual. Dick’s body sometimes has a mind and life of its own, and in this case, his heart was very clear (as were his words) about not wanting to be engaged that way at that time. But Catalina [a.k.a. Tarantula] overwhelms him to some extent, both physically and emotionally. He feels responsible now for, essentially, the destruction of her soul, and as of issue 93 (and this continues into 94), he’s not yet sure how to redeem her or himself, so she’s really got an odd kind of control over him while he tries to catch his breath and figure that out. She’s crystal clear about what she wants to be doing and how she wants him to factor into it – utterly undaunted by recent events – and Dick is, at this point, basically being dragged around behind her (this actually becomes literal in 94). Through a combination of shock and moral anguish, Dick has, to some extent, surrendered to her will. And in that particular situation, the sex itself was practically allegorical. I don’t mean it didn’t really happen, but rather that it was a final physical manifestation of an emotional violation that went much deeper.
Two months later Devin Grayson had the Q&A with fans in which she referred back to this conversation: “For the record, I’ve never used the word ‘rape,’ I just said it was nonconsensual (I know, aren’t writers frustrating? *smiles*).”

Curiously, in an exchange on the Legions of Gotham message board dated June 2004 (though at one point I recorded it as having occurred in January 2005), Devin Grayson was explicit:
from aneurysm: Theres been alot of online debate about what actually happened at the end of Nightwing #93. Was Dick raped? Was it consensual? Did they actually do anything other than a bit of dry humping? Everyone seems to be debating this and coming up with crazy explanations (the weirdest I've heard is that Tarantula drugged Dick!).

Devin Grayson: Okay, let’s see if I can clear this up while still retaining some necessary vagueness. The facts: if you’re over seventeen, that was way more than dry-humping. If you’re a younger reader, well, they were just being friendly. ;-) There were no drugs involved beyond the very potent chemical cocktails of pheromones with which we all come naturally equipped. The act was not consensual – Dick did not want to be touched, as he stated, and physical intimacy – especially with Catalina – was the last thing in his head or heart. He was, essentially, raped, though I think in an emotional and spiritual sense even more than in the physical sense. He almost certainly has the power to best Tarantula physically, but she definitely overwhelms him in other ways.
I think it’s significant that Devin Grayson said she had to maintain “some necessary vagueness” and attributed her frustrating coyness in the other Q&A to being a writer. Those phrases are why I read her combination of statements as signs of a storyteller trying to balance between giving readers the information they need to interpret her narrative and not spelling out that story before it concluded (several issues and one Batman crossover later).

The result was clumsy and, especially in combination with the delayed conclusion, frustrating and even infuriating for fans. Devin Grayson herself expressed regrets in a mid-2005 Q&A:
What made you come up with the idea to have Nightwing being raped in Nightwing #93?

What happened between him and Catalina on that rooftop was a physical manifestation of a much deeper marginalization of power. In hindsight, I regret it — not because it was controversial, but because readers have paid more attention to that moment than to the one that truly shattered Dick — the moment when he stood by passively in the face of someone’s murder. That was a far worse subjugation of everything he stands for than the subsequent physical violation.
At that point the story of Dick and Catalina’s relationship had ended—though Dick would continue working out his feelings about the murder in hard-to-follow ways over another year of issues.

18 October 2013

“I don’t believe this story.”

In a month when more than half the House Republican Caucus voted to send the US Treasury into default, examples of OIP Derangement Syndrome aren’t hard to find.

But it seems next to impossible to top Zeeda Andrews, who was given time on FOX News to tout the quickly fizzling “Truckers Ride” protest. Media Matters collected Andrews’s past public commentary, including this claim:
This is the Seals that killed Osama Bin Laden. I don't believe this story. He is alive call me crazy but, Osama Bin Laden is our President Obama do your research. The CIA has been preparing for this since he was a boy. They have same height, bone structure, hands and ears both are left handed the Osama face was created by Hollywood.
Granted, this was a comment on YouTube, the least coherent and intellectual form of verbal communication humans have yet devised. But it seems to be only a short step from there to FOX News.

17 October 2013

A Grim Tale from Australia

The New York Times’s obituary for Australian criminal turned author Mark “Chopper” Read contained an eye-catching paragraph:
His children’s book, “Hooky the Cripple: The Grim Tale of a Hunchback Who Triumphs” (2002), tells of a boy who is abused by the village butcher and who, on his 21st birthday, lashes back. Illustrated with Gothic intensity by the Australian artist Adam Cullen — Hooky brandishes a bloodied knife on the cover — the book was described by a Melbourne reviewer as “curiously poetic.”
I’ve long thought that Australian children’s media played rougher than its American and British counterparts, but this seemed extreme even for the antipodes.

I found a different assessment in the Network Review of Books via something called the Australian Public Intellectual Network:
Read has turned to the seemingly unlikely genre of fairy tale, to produce what might be, nominally and controversially, considered a children’s text, although one certainly more suitable for the upper end of the juniors’ market. Adults too, as the general tenor of the work’s subtitle - The Grim Tale of a Hunchback Who Triumphs - indicates, will find here the disturbing blend of dark humour and perverse personal morality that characterises the ‘Chopper’ world-view.
I’ve therefore concluded that Hooky the Cripple merely borrows the the form of the illustrated storybook. It really belongs in the category of books made to remind adults of children’s books and sold on the basis of their authors’ celebrity.

16 October 2013

I Could Just Eat This Up

I look askance at our current culture’s habit of declaring that something is the best Thing EVER, so that may slightly dampen my expression of enthusiasm for Betsy Bird’s “Re-Sendakify Sendak Project”: inviting a recently celebrated children’s-book illustrator to create art for one of Maurice Sendak’s books in the style of another celebrated children’s-book illustrator.

The example above shows the opening panels from Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in the style of Jules Feiffer’s Village Voice cartoons as drawn by Nick Bruel.

Other works of elevated collective genius in Bird’s posting include Pierre in the style of Chris Van Allsburg by Nathan Hale and Bumble-Ardy in the style of Richard Scarry by K-Fai Steele. And then the next generation gets into the act.

It’s the best thing ever.

15 October 2013

Miss Piggy Goes Shopping for Shoes

From the Smithsonian magazine’s blog:

To welcome Miss Piggy [to the national collection], Smithsonian magazine’s editors treated her to a photo shoot featuring two of the Institution’s most valued treasures—Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and the Hope Diamond. Pairing the Muppet with the diamond required a secret, predawn escort to the Natural History Museum and an armed guard at the museum's Gems Hall. After staging and art direction by Erickson, she was photographed wearing a necklace bearing the 45.52-carat stone by the award-winning fashion photographer Cade Martin.
And then there was this shot.
Among the other Muppet manifestations now at the Smithsonian is the original Grover, who had dark green fur. If I were a young museum visitor I’d find that very confusing. In fact, I’m a little weirded out by him now.

14 October 2013

SCBWI New England’s New Media Day, 19 Oct.

On Saturday, 19 October, I’ll be at SCBWI New England’s New Media Day, a series of presentations and panels designed for published authors and illustrators of children’s books. This event will take place at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art from 9:30 to 3:30.

The morning sessions feature technology analyst James McQuivey on “Digital Disruption” in publishing and literary agent Rubin Pfeffer on “Books and Beyond.”

After lunch comes a panel that I’ll moderate, titled “OP to E: Bringing Books Back to Life.” The panelists are three SCBWI members who converted their out-of-print titles into digital books:
Finally, event organizer and nonfiction author Melissa Stewart will interview author-illustrator Ruth Sanderson on “Surviving and Thriving in Children’s Publishing” over thirty years.

The registration date for this event has passed, but I hope to come home with some keen insights into the new world of publishing.

13 October 2013

A Festschrift for Dick Grayson?

Soon after I started the weekly Robin, I realized that the 75th anniversary of the introduction of Dick Grayson/Robin was going to arrive in 2015. Of course, sometime when I was a lad I realized that I’d be around for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America, and that turned out to be a bust.

DC Comics and its fans like anniversaries of all sorts: notable years (60th!), notable issues (#500!), and even some milestones notable only to insiders (the upcoming Detective Comics, vol. 2, #27, will be special because Detective Comics, vol. 1, #27, introduced Batman, don’t you know?).

So the company probably has something planned, but will it reflect all that the character represents? I doubt it, especially since two years ago the company decided to erase from its current continuity most of the history that made Dick Grayson notable.

This weekend the medievalist behind Thoughts About Dick Grayson proposed a collective celebration in some form, perhaps including scholarly essays. There’s a tradition of that with Batman, including semi-authorized collections Batman Unauthorized, edited by Dennis O’Neil; Batman and Psychology; and Batman and Philosophy. Surely those Caped Crusader anthologies need a brightly colored companion volume!

Mary Borsellino’s Boy and Girl Wonders: Robin in Cultural Context, published in digital form through Lulu, is the only book-length study of the Robin mythos that I know of. And its focus is rather narrow, growing out of Project Girl Wonder.

Self-publishing technology makes it possible for such a volume to reach fans. Indeed, such a volume might have to be created non-commercially. In 2010 Keith Dallas, author of The Flash Companion, wrote: “DC has significantly raised its licensing fee to the point where it's now cost prohibitive to produce material like this.” But would a scholarly book require the same official authorization as that TwoMorrows volume, full of pictures of DC’s trademark characters? On the other hand, would a scholarly publisher see enough green in Robin?

12 October 2013

A Look at Leroy Lettering

Letterer Todd Klein describes using the Leroy tool used regularly on EC horror comics in the 1940s and ’50s. That lettering was done by Jim and Margaret Wroten, occasionally with assistants.

I’d made the common assumption that those letters were produced by some form of typesetting machine, but Klein explains that they were still drawn by hand:
It has a mechanical look, but is actually pen and ink, made with the Leroy lettering system of scriber and templates manufactured by the Keuffel and Esser company, and created for comics almost exclusively by Jim Wroten and his wife Margaret. The Leroy system was intended for technical artists doing things like machine parts diagrams and architectural drawings.
The letterer drew each letter by following a groove in the template.

According to the Tales from the Crypt collection, Jim Wroten was originally a salesman for Keuffel and Esser, which made tools for architectural and drafting firms. Wroten found a market for the Leroy tool in comics when the industry boomed in the early 1940s. In 1945 he and his wife Margaret joined William Moulton Marston’s Wonder Woman team, according to Bhob Stewart at Potrzebie, who apparently interviewed Margaret Wroten in 1996.

Klein thinks the Wrotens had worked on the earliest Wonder Woman pages; perhaps they’d done so as freelancers, or perhaps someone else was using a Leroy template. That’s the problem with Leroy lettering—it has very little individual style.

Max Gaines, publisher of the Wonder Woman magazines at All-American, gave the Wrotens more business when he started Educational/Entertaining Comics, and his son Bill kept them on after suddenly inheriting the firm. By the 1950s, Klein notes, the Wrotens’ system had become more flexible:
By the time of their work in EC Comics, the Wrotens had a variety of Leroy templates to use for different size lettering. They used vertical letters for regular text and a larger size slanted to the right with a thicker pen point for emphasized words. I believe the Wrotens did only the actual lettering, leaving the balloon and caption borders for the artists of the stories. This accounts for the wide variety of balloon shapes and styles at EC in particular.
Though editor Al Feldstein didn’t care for the Leroy style, it fit well with his approach to writing comics: he scripted the stories, laid out the pages, and had the Wrotens insert the text at the tops of the panels. Only then did the pages go to the editors to fill with art. Feldstein’s stories often had a lot of text, and the Leroy characters kept that text clearly legible, if characterless.

11 October 2013

OIP Derangement Syndrome Not Shut Down

The ongoing House Republican shutdown of the federal government has produced new manifestations of OIP Derangement Syndrome in the form of outlandish accusations about President Barack Obama. Among the choice rumors:

As laughable as those reports are, we must remember that unfounded rumors have been part of the right-wing arsenal for years. I analyzed Presidential rumors at Snopes here and here, finding that there have been many more false reports about Democratic politicians than Republicans, and far more about President Obama than his predecessor.

In fact, just as the shutdown started, some provocateur went onto Healthcare.gov with a highly detailed false claim about trying to sign up for health insurance and being fined thousands of dollars as a result. Outlandish lies are regular part of the American right wing’s approach to politics today.

10 October 2013

This Is Your First Time?

In the New York Times’s review of the New Yiddish Rep’s production of Waiting for Godot, I noticed that the Boy is being played by nine-year-old Nicholas Jenkins.

I know New York is a cosmopolitan melting-pot, but it still struck me that a lad named Nicholas Jenkins had probably not grown up hearing Yiddish.

In fact, the theater company has shared a video of “Nicholas Jenkins’ First Yiddish Lesson.”

And it turns out Nicholas and I have something in common. At an early age we both played a Flying Monkey in The Wizard of Oz.

09 October 2013

Parity in Publishing?

On Wednesday, 16 October, the University of Connecticut in Storrs will host a panel on “Gendered Publishing: The State of the Profession for Women Writers and Illustrators of Children’s Literature.” The discussion starts at 6:30 in the Class of 1947 Room of the Homer Babbidge Library. Participants are:

  • Barbara McClintock, author/illustrator
  • Gene Kannenberg, Jr., director of ComicsResearch.org
  • Lisa Rowe Fraustino, professor and department chair of English at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU)
  • Susannah Richards, associate professor of Education at ECSU and member of the 2013 Newbery Award Committee
On that recurring topic, last month The Horn Book published Martha Parravano’s essay “It’s Always Men’s Night at the Caldecott.” Since we live in the Most Overstated Era EVUH!, we can accept that Parravano’s “Always” actually referred to men winning the Caldecott Medal 63% of the time over seventy-five years. Over the last twenty years, male artists have been even more commonly rewarded: sixteen men and four women have won the Medal.

However, a commenter signing on as “Scope Notes” noted:
Total side note here, but an interesting thing I’ve found is that the Newbery has nearly identical numbers, but in reverse – 66% female to 34% male.
Over the past twenty years, fourteen women and six men have won the Newbery Medal—again, a growing disparity.

Of course, we should include a much harder factor to measure: how many men and women are writing or illustrating children’s books? Which gets us to another question: how many women and men are trying?

I started attending SCBWI conferences about twenty years ago, and immediately saw how women outnumbered men in the audience. In organizing those conferences, we always ask the host hotel to turn a men’s bathroom into a ladies’ room for the day. Yet the gender ratio of people on the podium—i.e., the authors and artists who have achieved recognition in the field—is usually closer to parity.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is how most parts of the children’s-literature chain—literary agencies, publishing departments, review journals, library staffs—are more female than male, though not as often at the top. And then there’s the question of who’s reading the most books.

08 October 2013

Oz at the Farnsworth, Opening 12 Oct.

The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, is about to open a new exhibit: “The Wonderful World of Oz—Selections from the Willard Carroll/Tom Wilhite Collection”. The exhibit coincides with the 75th anniversary of the MGM Wizard of Oz and opens on Saturday, 14 October. The museum says:
The show, drawn from the world’s most comprehensive collection of Oz materials, which is based in Maine, will run through March 2014 in the museum’s Crosman Gallery. . . .

Included in the Farnsworth exhibition will be the most complete surviving [MGM movie] costume (worn by the green Lollipop Guild Munchkin), one of Dorothy’s pinafores and blouses, examples of the many illustrated versions of [L. Frank] Baum’s books (including the finest known copy of the first edition, first state “green imprint” of Baum’s initial book in the series), rare or one-of-a-kind posters from the various motion picture and stage productions, and a remarkable array of other Oz memorabilia from the Willard Carroll / Tom Wilhite Collection.

Among the major pieces to be displayed is the Hourglass that the Wicked Witch of the West uses in the 1939 film to show Dorothy “how much longer you have to be alive.” Margaret Hamilton, who played the witch, lived during her later years on Cape Island, off Newagen, Maine.
I’m not sure “her later years,” “how much longer you have to be alive,” and “Maine” is really the juxtaposition the museum is looking for in boosting the local angle.

It looks like Willard Carroll’s book I Toto: The Autobiography of Terry, the Dog who was Toto, has been republished in connection with this exhibit and/or anniversary, and Down East is issuing a new edition of John Fricke’s The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic.

07 October 2013

Al Jaffee Archive Folded into Columbia Library Collection

When I was a boy, my favorite in MAD’s “usual bunch of idiots” was Al Jaffee. I especially liked his Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions series. I can’t really say why I bought those paperbacks more than those from any other cartoonist in the magazine, but I did. Jaffee was also known, of course, for the magazine’s last-page fold-ins.

In July, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University announced that it had acquired Jaffee’s archives. Its press release stated:
Jaffee was in the first graduating class of the LaGuardia-founded High School of Music & Art, where he met his long-time colleagues Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and Al Feldstein. Jaffee began his cartooning career working for Stan Lee on comic books such as Patsy Walker and Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal, and his Tall Tales comic strip appeared in the New York Herald Tribune for six years.
Plus MAD, which Jaffee has contributed to for nearly sixty years.

The New York Times just reported on the impending arrival of the first batch of material, and also provided more facts on the gift. Most notably, the librarian who approached Jaffee at last year’s New York Comic-Con, Karen Green, started as a specialist in ancient and medieval history. But she also “led a secret life as a cartoon and comic book fan.”

Green is now the library’s graphic novels specialist. And the Rare Book and Manuscript Department also houses material from former Columbia student Jerry Robinson (I think he dropped out after finding work on Batman) and X-Men scripter Chris Claremont.

06 October 2013

Unanswered Questions about Nightwing, #93

Nightwing, #93, is undoubtedly the most controversial issue of that magazine. It’s the low point of a long story arc that writer Devin Grayson was creating. The villain Blockbuster had destroyed most of Dick Grayson’s life in Blüdhaven. In this issue the beautiful vigilante Tarantula shot Blockbuster dead in front of Dick, wracking him with guilt for not stopping her, and then forced him to have sex with her.

That magazine came out in the late spring of 2004 with a July cover date. In #94, Nightwing’s voice disappeared from the narration—a loss of self. The book then went into a Batman crossover, and in #100 that part of Devin Grayson’s long arc culminated with Dick regaining his initiative and capturing Tarantula for trial.

In August 2004, as that narrative was still unfolding, Devin Grayson sat for this interview. Like any good storyteller being paid to maintain suspense, she didn’t give away the ending to the arc. And part of that ending was Dick coming to terms with what had happened to him, identifying himself as a victim rather than someone to be blamed.

As a result, Devin Grayson resisted explaining what to make of that scene with Tarantula, writing, “For the record, I’ve never used the word ‘rape,’ I just said it was nonconsensual (I know, aren’t writers frustrating? *smiles*).” But she practically begged readers to stay tuned for the story’s resolution:
I think if you read through issue 100, you’ll see some of the response you’ve been waiting for. . . . The nature of stories is to set up and resolve conflict. We’re just not at the resolution stage with this story yet, and I apologize if it’s taking too long. . . . I really wish we could have this discussion after issue 100, because then I could see if you felt that any of your questions were answered in the normal course of the story, which is of course always the goal. This is meant to be a story about heroism and identity – how do we respond heroically (if that’s our default or aspired-to setting) when we lose all indication of our heroic identity?
As I read those comments, Nightwing’s realization that he’d been raped was a crucial part of the narrative. Though that was part of Devin Grayson’s story all along, she didn’t want to reveal that resolution prematurely in an interview; her coy language kept the question alive for readers. Many of those readers reacted angrily to the suspense and the language, accusing her of fogging the difference between “nonconsensual” sex and rape when her real point may have been that there’s no difference.

Was that theme indeed part of Devin Grayson’s story proposal and scripts? I’ve seen reports that the #93 script was available online at one point, but by now it’s disappeared. And the record of that script is getting muddied on that authoritative source of comic-book history, Wikipedia.

On 27 Sept 2006, an anonymous Wikipedia editor added this sentence to the “Controversy” section of Wikipedia’s entry on Tarantula:
This is further confused by the script for Nightwing #93 specifically mentioning (in parentheses) that this scene was a rape.
But 20 Oct 2010 that sentence was changed by another anonymous editor to:
This is further confused by the script for Nightwing #93 specifically mentioning (in parentheses) that this scene was sex and not a rape.
The citation that followed both sentences in fact predated them both, and really belongs to the preceding sentence. It pointed back to the interview quoted above—which reveals nothing about the script.

Thus, Wikipedia has contained two contradictory statements, both purporting to be based on the same document. It’s possible that the first statement was false, though it survived without correction for four years when the script might still have been available for confirmation. It’s possible that the second statement is false. But they can’t both be true.

Thus, not only is Nightwing, #93, a controversial narrative, but someone has distorted the publishing history of that narrative and falsely reinforced a particular view of the controversy.

04 October 2013

Doing the Math at the World War II Memorial

After the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives shut down the federal government this week, the World War II Memorial in Washington became a battlefield for camera-hungry Republican legislators. National Park Service sites aren’t essential to people’s health and safety, and that memorial therefore closed after the Republicans refused to pass a budget or a continuing resolution free of extraneous provisions.

A charitable organization called Honor Flight had already flown some aged WW2 veterans to Washington to visit the site. When those vets arrived, some Republican legislators were on hand to move aside barriers. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) established the first sentence of his obituary by berating a polite park ranger for following her instructions to keep people out of the closed site. That was one day after Neugebauer had gone on the radio to boast about the shutdown.

As many people noted, Neugebauer was thus helping to close government sites and blaming the federal employee who therefore received the assignment to keep one site closed. That park ranger was working without pay while Neugebauer, through a legislature quirk, continues to receive his salary.

There’s another element of that conflict that I haven’t seen discussed. The first veterans to visit the memorial on Tuesday were a group from Mississippi. Before every Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight trip from that state, the Gulf Live blog has profiled all of the veterans participating. Here are their photographs, starting with men on a 2012 flight and then the men (and one woman) who flew to Washington this fall.

I can’t help but notice that every single veteran on those flights from Mississippi appears to be white. Surely there are black veterans from Mississippi. The 2010 census found that 37% of Mississippi’s population is African-American. Back in 1940, just before the US entered WW2, that percentage was even higher: 49% black. [I’d link to the US Census Bureau, but the shutdown means its website can’t offer any useful information. Those figures come from a news article and a book.] Some of those Mississippians must have served the US during WW2.

If one were to choose 83 Mississippians randomly today, the odds of getting a group with no African-American in it are .63 to the 83rd power, or about .000000000000002%. So it seems significant that Honor Flight has not brought a single African-American veteran to Washington from Mississippi.

I’m not saying that anyone involved in the charity deliberately discriminated against black veterans. There are many factors that could contribute to the lack of African-Americans on those flights: discrimination by military recruiters, migration out of and into the state, life and health expectancies, the social networks that recruited vets for these flights, and so on. Sadly, all of those factors have some link to America’s history of anti-black bigotry, a topic today’s right wing tries hard to deny and yet fuels OIP Derangement Syndrome.

I looked at some other photos of the confrontations at the WW2 memorial, which involved veterans from other states. I didn’t see any African-American WW2 veterans in those pictures, but I’d be pleased to be pointed to pertinent examples. Only the Mississippi contingent had been systematically profiled by the press back home, allowing this analysis.

What does that reality mean for the Republican in Congress who went to the memorial and insisted those veterans get to visit? They were willing to slow America’s economic recovery from the worst crisis since the Great Depression; to stop pay for hundreds of thousands of workers; to shut down information for the public; and to halt funds for medical research, early childhood education, and other important government functions. But they wanted to be seen making sure the hard consequences of their vote didn’t inconvenience a group of old white men (and one woman). They were playing to the cameras, and playing to their base.

03 October 2013

Daniel Pucca’s Mini, and Adolescent Memories

Yesterday I discussed Daniel Pucca’s mini-comic My Dutch Foreskin, focusing on the lettering. Because that’s the first thing you think of when you read that title, right?

Pucca was an American in a Dutch intermediate school when word came down that the health exam would require boys to roll back their foreskins. He didn’t know what that meant. (The comic establishes that at that moment Daniel was living with his grandmother, so he didn’t have anyone he felt comfortable asking.) When he found out, he thought something was terribly wrong with him.

Like Pucca, I was born in the period when almost all American boys were circumcised soon after birth. So was my father. I don’t think I saw an uncircumcised penis until I was in junior high, when gym class included showers with a single classmate, a newcomer from Australia, who still had a foreskin. He was thus in the opposite position from young Daniel in Holland. I didn’t know that fellow well, so I have no idea of how his experiences mirrored Daniel’s, but that memory helped me appreciate My Dutch Foreskin.

A few years further on, I recall another immigrant classmate—a nice guy from Russia—feeling acutely embarrassed on a high-school trip to Montreal when he had only a tiny European-style men’s bathing suit while the rest of us boys were in baggy American trunks. (Mind you, the baggy shorts of the 1980s were nothing compared to the voluminous fashions of more recent decades.)

I remember my immigrant classmate standing at the side of the Montreal Olympic pool in his snug swimsuit, asking if anyone had another suit to lend him. But of course we were all away from home, and in the pool besides. We kept telling him to just get in the water where none of the girls could see clearly. But of course the only cure for adolescent self-consciousness is time.

02 October 2013

It’s All Dutch to Me

One of the most interesting mini-comics I picked up at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo this weekend was Daniel Pucca’s My Dutch Foreskin, published through the A28 Press cooperative.

This story starts with the author on his first day at a new school—in the Netherlands. As an American kid, he struggles to make himself understood, even with a dictionary.

The action then jumps ahead a couple of years to the day when Daniel and his Dutch friends are sent home with a note to parents saying there will soon be health exams. That letter contains a Dutch word our hero doesn’t know. He looks it up, and finds that it’s the equivalent of an English word that he doesn’t know, either. Another pile of books later, and Daniel learns what a “foreskin” is.

Given that theme of communication barriers, Pucca made a fine choice to have his characters’ Dutch dialogue printed in Dutch. But printed below those bright red letters are English translations in a pale blue (not visible in the image above). The comic comes with a translucent plastic red film in a tulip-shaped holder. Place that over the Dutch word balloons, and the red lettering fades while the blue lettering becomes darker and easily legible.

One can also puzzle out the English just by careful observation, preserving the tulip-shaped translator in pristine form. Either way, Pucca has found a nifty visual way to recreate his childhood experience with language barriers. My Dutch Foreskin must have cost a bundle to print and assemble, but it’s a fine mini at a good price.

01 October 2013

Munchkin Economics

Mari Ness harrumphs over a comment from a Citibank economist: “The world’s largest economy looks like the Land of Oz run by munchkins.” Quoting largely from L. Frank Baum’s The Emerald City of Oz, Ness writes:
Allow me to say, alas, if only.

I have, of course, been one of the loudest and fiercest critics of Ozma, the girl Ruler of Oz, carefully documenting all of the numerous historically attested examples of what I have termed "Ozma fail," including, but not limited to, actions leading to gross injustice, kidnapping, an attack on the Emerald City, war or genocide. So I think I cannot be accused of bias when I say both "if only" and "how unfair," or of gross partisanship if I take up cudgels in her defense.

Oz, after all, is arguably one of the most successful economies in the known or unknown universe, so wealthy that it can even offer a free suite of rooms, elegant food, and free jewels to American hobos who just happen to be passing by. The Emerald City also provides lavish parties and entertainment at no cost to the local population. Areas of the kingdom suffering economic distress can apply for and receive economic assistance from the central government in the Emerald City. The result is an economy that is the marvel of the magical world. . . .

Mind you, by the standards of Citibank's chief economist, some aspects of the Oz economy may seem a bit alarming. Oz, after all, is a centralized, planned economy offering free universal health care (provided by magic wand and natural, genetic immortality) and education -- an education which children and college students are literally forced to swallow down. Farmers are forced to turn over all agricultural surpluses to the Emerald City to be stored in giant warehouses to be distributed for the common good; products are evenly distributed, with no profit margin. . . .

To be fair, this economy is run by Ozma, not Munchkins. Point to Citibank.
Even there, however, I think the economist’s comments are unfounded. Munchkinland is usually called the most pleasant and peaceful quadrant of Oz. Even shortly after the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, the populated areas that Dorothy visits seem prosperous and developed with little evidence of recent hardship.

The Munchkins appear to have distributed government power more evenly than people in other parts of Oz. Rather than a single ruler, three Munchkin gentlemen greet Dorothy alongside the visiting Good Witch of the North. By the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Baum established strong monarchs for the Quadling and Winkie Countries and the Emerald City’s central region, and later stated that the Gillikin Country lacked such a ruler and was the wildest part of Oz. And in Munchkinland? While Baum made occasional brief mentions of an unnamed Munchkin king, that figure leaves so little impact that I’m not sure he really existed or was more than symbolic. And yet the Munchkins remain prosperous and happy.

We can ask related questions about the Munchkinland in the MGM movie. We meet a mayor, a coroner, uniformed soldiers, and representatives of two civic organizations. There’s a village in good repair and a good road. Clearly civil society continued even under the Wicked Witch of the East. Munchkinland is one of the two pleasant parts of Oz that Dorothy visits in the movie, the other being the Emerald City—where citizens run to a humbug wizard at the first airborne sign of trouble.

The Citibank economist used “Munchkins” as a synonym for “little people,” and suggested that little people can’t run an economy. That may be how life looks to Citibank, but most people would rather have a society run by and for the little people as a whole than by humbug wizards, straw men, or even pretty young absolute monarchs.