31 December 2013

The Two Dorothys

From the Charlotte Observer’s web coverage of an Oz exhibit at the local UNC library:
In the novels, Dorothy is a heroine, an adventurer who strikes out on her own and often saves the male characters in the story. But in the movie, she’s the damsel in distress, who needs men to lead her to safety.

“In the book, Dorothy kicks butt. She takes action. She’s on a quest. She is the person in charge,” said [English professor Mark] West. “In the movie, Dorothy says, ‘If I ever seek my heart’s desire again, I shall look no further than my own backyard.’ She is basically like a dog with her tail between her legs.”
To be fair, in the movie Dorothy wets the Wicked Witch of the West while she’s saving the Scarecrow from fire. But in the book she deliberately throws water on the old lady because she’s angry.

I blame MGM and Louis B. Mayer’s rah-rah ideology for the changes.

(Hat tip to Blair Frodelius’s Daily Ozmapolitan.)

30 December 2013

Profit and Loss

Last week the New York Times published book editor Gerald Howard’s essay reminiscing about editorial tasks in the early 1980s:

I had the idea that we should reissue two early novels by the fine writer Alice Adams. In order to clear the sum of money necessary to do so, I had to generate, by myself, calculator and production cost sheets in hand, a profit-and-loss statement, or P. & L., which would then be signed off on by various departments. My last hurdle in executing this modest financial transaction of maybe $7,500 was to secure the initials of our chief financial officer. A numbers guy. Not much of a reader.

Like all publishing P. & L.’s, ours factored in typesetting, cover art and printing costs, marketing, overhead, the cost of money and the revenue from projected sales and subsidiary rights to spit out a percentage figure on the bottom line that indicated the likely return on investment. (When I first was confronted with one of these forms, I thought, so that’s what a “bottom line” is. Interesting.) We were theoretically required at that time to have our P. & L.’s yield a return of at least 8 percent, and I had become adept in ways to make or exceed that number. You could shave on the cover art. You could shave on marketing and advertising. You could basically lie about projected sales and hope no one called you on it. The techniques I had developed in college to make my ham-handed chem lab experiments yield the proper results found a practical new use.

So there I was in our C.F.O.’s office with a P. & L. that just eked out a 7 percent return. He looked at that piece of paper dubiously. He looked at me dubiously. I made some weak noises about literary excellence, backlist sales, commitment to authors. He continued to look at me dubiously. Then, with that wry and sad expression with which financial people have regarded liberal arts people since at least the invention of movable type and perhaps even written language, he signed off on my shortfallen P. & L. and said to me, “You know, we could make more money by just putting this advance into a certificate of deposit.”

I produced the properly crestfallen face because I knew he was right. Inflation was rampant and C.D.’s were paying 10 percent per annum or more. What a drag I was on the corporation. But I grabbed the P. & L. before he could have second thoughts, thanked him and backed out of his office.
Note, however, that the CFO did sign off on the investment.

I interviewed for a job with Gerry Howard a couple of years after this must have taken place. One of my first tasks on the editorial job I did get was running a P&L on one of the two desktop computers the Editorial Department then owned. I guess I should be pleased I wasn’t doing the calculations by hand.

29 December 2013

Young Justice Time

Last month the Nerdy Show podcast interviewed the creators of the Young Justice TV show, Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti, on the release of a videogame tied to the show.

That game is set between the TV show’s two seasons, which take place five years apart—one of the striking ways this cartoon used narrative time. In addition, each episode and each sequence have precise stamps of time and place (which Weisman and Vietti said proved to be a real headache), and the companion comic book had to fit into the same timeline.

In the interview Weisman explained how showing the passage of time was integral to the show’s main themes and narrative:
We felt that we were doing a show about growing up, gaining responsibility, gaining powers, gaining experience. . . . The first season takes place over six cohesive months, from July 4 to January 1, and our second season, and this was always the plan, takes places from Jan 1 to July 4, so it’s six months cohesive as well. . . . So in one sense we were always doing “a year in the life,” it’s just that half the year took place five years ago.

In order to tell a story about growing up…and the life of a teenager in particular, you just can't show that in six months or even in one year. And so if you’re going to show how Robin has evolved, or rather what I should say is Dick Grayson has evolved, then we want to see him as Robin in season one and Nightwing in season two. [We want to see him] advance from being an incredibly competent but still relatively immature thirteen-year-old kid to being a leader. You’re not to going to see that over the period of six months. . . . You needed to see him become Nightwing, you needed to see him become a true sort of heir to Batman, whether he wanted to or not, and that meant jumping. So it made the time jump somewhat inevitable. And I don’t just mean Dick Grayson, it was true of Wally West and Artemis and everyone who was a lead in season one—we really wanted to see…how they grew.

And so the time jump, I’m not saying it was planned from moment one, but it was something that we talked about from really early on in the development of the show, and certainly by the time we were in…preproduction of season one we knew we were going to do the time jump for season two—assuming we got a season two.
The show never got a season three, so we don’t know what Weisman and Vietti might have had planned for that season’s timeframe.

Both Weisman and Vietti are working on new projects. For Weisman, one is a new series of novels about a teen-aged girl in the Caribbean, starting with Rain of the Ghosts.

28 December 2013

What “Young Justice: Legacy” Says About Dick Grayson

In the new Young Justice: Legacy videogame, both Dick Grayson as Nightwing and Tim Drake as Robin are playable characters. The game’s story is set in year three of this continuity’s timeline, meaning Dick must have become Nightwing relatively soon after the events of the TV show’s first season. However, it doesn’t look like we see that transition.

In this compilation of scenes linking game play, Nightwing is uncharacteristically quiet. I suspect that voice actor Jesse McCartney was unavailable to record lines for the game.

Instead, the character at the center of the story appears to be Artemis, and the main antagonist is her sister. Thus, even though seven of the twelve playable heroes are male, the central characters are female. That would be refreshing except for what it hints about which voice actors were underemployed.

I should acknowledge that these remarks aren’t based on, like, playing the game. Anyone who has actual experience in that arena is welcome to add better comments.

27 December 2013

Filibuster Statistics

It’s been a month since Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the Senate’s rules on what level of cloture is required for confirming some Presidential appointments. That allowed the Senate to confirm several eminently qualified judges and agency heads.

Republicans continue to make dire threats about what they’ll do if they gain the majority again. Apparently they believe such warnings of one-party rule make that prospect more appealing for American voters.

In the meantime, it‘s worth reviewing some of the numbers that led up to Reid’s decision.

Number of all Presidents’ nominees for district court judgeships filibustered between 1917 and 2008: 3.

Number of President Obama’s nominees for district court judgeships filibustered: 20.

Average number of times per year that the Senate invoked cloture, signaling a filibuster, between 1917 and 2000: 2.3.

Average number of times per year that the Senate invoked cloture under President George W. Bush: 17.5. (Over 40% of those events occurred in the 2007-08 Congress when Republicans were in the minority and filibustering on behalf of the President.)

Average number of times per year that the Senate has invoked clouture under President Obama: 27.

In October the Senate Republican minority filibustered the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D–Cal., shown above) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The last time a sitting member of Congress’s appointment had been blocked by filibuster: 1843.

26 December 2013

Keep the Holiday Spirit Rolling

Most people haven’t had the pleasure of seeing comedy writer Steve Young clean a kitchen, but I promise you it’s artistry.

The same attention to sanitary detail pervades the holiday songs that he’s recently shared on YouTube and CBS’s Late Show website. Tune in to these videos for some fine finger-picking and rhyming:
Steve is also coauthor of Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, which now offers compilations through iTunes.

25 December 2013

The Tradition of the Gävle Goat

For this holiday, Oz and Ends brings you the story of the Gävle Goat.

As Slate describes, the Gävle goat was instituted all the way back in 1966, when two brothers—an advertising consultant and a fire department chief—organized an effort in the city of Gävle to build a large straw statue of a goat for Christmas season. The goat represented one of the two that pull Odin’s chariot in Scandinavia’s pre-Christian pagan lore. It lasted just a few minutes into the New Year before it burned down.

Now you’d think that building a forty-foot-tall statue out of straw (over a metal frame) in honor of the winter solstice would just invite a bonfire. Even in Sweden, where there’s such a steady supply of snow to keep the straw cold and wet. But Gävle works to prevent its goat from burning. There are flame retardant chemicals, volunteer watches, police patrols, and webcams.

And those measures usually don’t work. The news reports I’ve seen differ on how often the Gävle Goat has been torched, though they agree that number is in the high twenties—i.e., more than half the time. The counts might be confused by the fact that it’s been destroyed in other ways: hit by cars and dismantled by hand (and foot). In 1970 the goat survived less than a day, though those young arsonists were caught. In 2005 people costumed as Santa Claus and the Gingerbread Man shot a flaming arrow at the goat and escaped.

In 2010 the goat survived the entire season, though there was a plot to steal it by helicopter. In 2011 it went up in flames on 2 December. In 2012 it survived until 12 December. This year, the goat went up in flames over the weekend. So at least it’s lasting longer.

Despite the widely reported tradition of destroying the Gävle Goat, it’s illegal to do so. In 2001 a visitor from Cleveland torched the goat, thinking he was participating in a local tradition. He was arrested, jailed for eighteen days, and fined SEK100,000, which he didn’t pay. Apparently the tradition is to set fire to the goat and get away.

24 December 2013

Santa Claus and the Modern World of Central Heating

One of the hallmarks of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy writing was the crossover—and often conflict or rivalry—of fairy-tale traditions with modern technology. Here’s a passage from the final chapters of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, published in 1902.
By and by people made ships from the tree-trunks and crossed over oceans and built cities in far lands; but the oceans made little difference to the journeys of Santa Claus. His reindeer sped over the waters as swiftly as over land, and his sledge headed from east to west and followed in the wake of the sun. So that as the earth rolled slowly over Santa Claus had all of twenty-four hours to encircle it each Christmas Eve, and the speedy reindeer enjoyed these wonderful journeys more and more. . . .

However, there was one evil following in the path of civilization that caused Santa Claus a vast amount of trouble before he discovered a way to overcome it. But, fortunately, it was the last trial he was forced to undergo.

One Christmas Eve, when his reindeer had leaped to the top of a new building, Santa Claus was surprised to find that the chimney had been built much smaller than usual. But he had no time to think about it just then, so he drew in his breath and made himself as small as possible and slid down the chimney.

”I ought to be at the bottom by this time,” he thought, as he continued to slip downward; but no fireplace of any sort met his view, and by and by he reached the very end of the chimney, which was in the cellar.

”This is odd!” he reflected, much puzzled by this experience. “If there is no fireplace, what on earth is the chimney good for?”

Then he began to climb out again, and found it hard work—the space being so small. And on his way up he noticed a thin, round pipe sticking through the side of the chimney, but could not guess what it was for.

Finally he reached the roof and said to the reindeer:

“There was no need of my going down that chimney, for I could find no fireplace through which to enter the house. I fear the children who live there must go without playthings this Christmas.”

Then he drove on, but soon came to another new house with a small chimney. This caused Santa Claus to shake his head doubtfully, but he tried the chimney, nevertheless, and found it exactly like the other. Moreover, he nearly stuck fast in the narrow flue and tore his jacket trying to get out again; so, although he came to several such chimneys that night, he did not venture to descend any more of them.

“What in the world are people thinking of, to build such useless chimneys?” he exclaimed. “In all the years I have traveled with my reindeer I have never seen the like before.”

True enough; but Santa Claus had not then discovered that stoves had been invented and were fast coming into use. When he did find it out he wondered how the builders of those houses could have so little consideration for him, when they knew very well it was his custom to climb down chimneys and enter houses by way of the fireplaces. Perhaps the men who built those houses had outgrown their own love for toys, and were indifferent whether Santa Claus called on their children or not.
Fortunately, the modern world also afforded Santa a solution for this problem.
“I will make all loving parents my deputies!” cried the jolly old fellow, “and they shall help me do my work. For in this way I shall save many precious minutes and few children need be neglected for lack of time to visit them.”

Besides carrying around the big packs in his swift-flying sledge old Santa began to send great heaps of toys to the toy-shops, so that if parents wanted larger supplies for their children they could easily get them; and if any children were, by chance, missed by Santa Claus on his yearly rounds, they could go to the toy-shops and get enough to make them happy and contented. For the loving friend of the little ones decided that no child, if he could help it, should long for toys in vain. And the toy-shops also proved convenient whenever a child fell ill, and needed a new toy to amuse it; and sometimes, on birthdays, the fathers and mothers go to the toy-shops and get pretty gifts for their children in honor of the happy event.
After all, Baum had been editor of The Show Window, a trade magazine for retailers, just two years before writing this book. He had abiding faith in the power of American shopkeepers.

23 December 2013

Phil Robertson “Blind and Naïve to the Suffering of Others”

This month a widely discussed article in GQ quoted the duck-call magnate and reality-television personality Robertson saying, among other things:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field. ...They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, “I tell you what: These doggone white people” — not a word! ...Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
We have to wonder then where “singing the blues” came from.

The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, who also grew up in northern Louisiana, calmly commented on Robertson’s claim:
While this is possible, it is highly improbable. Robertson is 67 years old, born into the Jim Crow South. Only a man blind and naïve to the suffering of others could have existed there and not recognized that there was a rampant culture of violence against blacks, with incidents and signs large and small, at every turn, on full display. Whether he personally saw interpersonal mistreatment of them is irrelevant. . . .

Furthermore, Robertson doesn’t seem to acknowledge the possibility that black workers he encountered possessed the most minimal social sophistication and survival skills necessary to not confess dissatisfaction to a white person on a cotton farm (no matter how “trashy” that white person might think himself).
It’s not at all difficult to find signs of racial bigotry all around Phil Robertson as he grew up, allegedly untouched by that environment.

Phil Robertson was born in 1946 outside the town of Vivian, Louisiana, in the northwest corner of the state. That town is in Caddo Parish, where the big city and county seat is Shreveport. In the same year Robertson was born, a group of white men lynched a black war veteran named John C. Jones in the neighboring county. After the local law-enforcement system failed, the federal government stepped in, bringing men to trial in Shreveport. The all-white jury acquitted all the defendants in 1947. When Jones’s widow sued a sheriff for releasing her husband to the lynch mob, her suit was thrown out of court. Obviously Robertson played no role in those events, but he also seems blind to what message they sent to local African-Americans.

Like the rest of the American South, Vivian was strictly segregated on racial lines. Even today in the town’s Kansas City Southern railroad station, “Formerly segregated waiting rooms are found inside on each side of the ticket office.”

In 1954, when Robertson turned eight, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the schools in Caddo Parish remained racially divided for another decade. Robertson attended North Caddo High, which was all white. The school’s teams are called the Rebels, and until recently the mascot was a Confederate man.

Not until 1965, the year after Robertson graduated from high school, did the Caddo Parish schools start to integrate. In Shreveport, the C. E. Byrd High School opened to a total of three African-American students. One of them, Brenda Braggs, described her experience this way:
I cried many days. . . . They called me black this, and you black that. But my mother kept saying, “You can do this.” And I never gave up.
That effort to desegregate the Caddo Parish schools took several years. Officials tried redistricting, busing, and merging historically white and black schools. Whites launched private schools for their own children and cut the public-school budget.

Meanwhile, Robertson attended Louisiana Tech University, playing quarterback for its football team from 1965 to 1967. That university also desegregated under court order in 1965, and then expelled its first black student under what Breaking the Line author Samuel G. Freedman called “a dubious accusation of theft.” Robertson’s successor as Louisiana Tech quarterback was Terry Bradshaw, who in his autobiography Looking Deep wrote about not having any black teammates until he came to Pittsburgh; “It didn’t take me long to figure out I was prejudiced,” Bradshaw’s book says.

In his twenties, Robertson went into teaching. I can’t find information on where he taught or when he settled in Monroe, Louisiana, his current home. However, that city’s struggles against racial discrimination in the schools are well documented. Isabel Wilkerson’s history of the African-American migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, profiles Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who left Monroe in 1953 because of the obstacles he encountered there. In 1960, the mayor of Monroe sent a telegram to the Louisiana state legislature urging them to continue fighting for racial segregation and “our traditional way of life.” The first black student to attend Monroe’s Neville High School in 1965 “suffered daily harassment and was often the victim of beatings by Monroe Police officers who, ironically, were assigned to protect him.” Canadian children’s book author Pamela Porter remembered moving to Monroe in 1968 and experiencing its schools:
Living there was quite an eye-opening experience for me because Louisiana was fighting very hard not to desegregate and only desegregated by a Supreme Court order. . . . Just ordinary experiences in that place were extraordinary for me because I hadn’t been used to seeing such blatant racism.
And of course Monroe wasn’t exceptional in the Deep South at the time. Hundreds of other cities were going through the same transition.

It’s impossible to credit Phil Robertson’s claim that he didn’t witness any of this. He just chose not to notice other people’s suffering.

22 December 2013

Christmas Colors

For some unaccountable reason, this snapshot is included among the embarrassing family photos in the You’ve Got to Be Kidding blog’s posting titled “Wal-Mart Called—Your Christmas Photos Are In.” I think you’ll agree that it’s hardly embarrassing at all, especially in the context of the rest.

21 December 2013

The Problem of Resentful Reading

Fifth-grade teacher Pernille Ripp in School Library Journal on “Why Reading Sucks: Talking honestly with kids might make them more passionate readers”:

On posterboard, I wrote the heading, “Why Reading Sucks,” and asked the kids to name their own reasons for why this might be the case. At first, the children darted glances at one another, not quite sure where this crazy teacher was headed. Then one student finally blurted out, “I don’t think a teacher has ever asked me that!” . . .

When we looked over the list we had created together, I agreed that these were valid reasons, indeed, why reading may not be the most favorite thing to do for a child or even many adults. Some children hate sitting still; others find reading boring, time consuming, or restrictive. They resent that they are forced to read certain books or at a certain time. They feel pressured, and some believe that they are bad readers. What it all adds up to is a miserable reading experience, and that is what we have to fight.

I thanked the kids for their honesty, and then asked them for their solutions. One after another my students raised their hands. “Can we pick our own books?” “Yes,” I replied. “Do we have to read a certain amount of minutes and log it?” “No,” I said. “I expect you to read every night and you only log it in [class].” “Do we have to finish every book we start?” “No,” I assured them.
Ripp originally wrote this piece for her blog in September. She also offers a survey asking kids how they are as readers.

The day after the SLJ site published Ripp’s essay, she had a baby.

20 December 2013

An Apology Is Owed

Andrea Peyser (shown here, courtesy of New York Magazine) left a lot out of her column demanding that President Barack Obama apologize to “us” for behavior at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela earlier this month.

For example, Peyser left out how she hadn’t been there (despite writing another column about having met Mandela). She based her “reporting” entirely on viewing a few photographs from the event on the internet. And on her superhuman ability to read the minds of both the President and Michelle Obama halfway across the world.

Peyser left out that all the other photographs from the event, including those that undermined the story she was spinning. She left out how Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who snapped the shot that incensed her, had written a warning that those pictures were being selectively shown and misinterpreted.

Peyser complained about an image of the President participating in a “selfie” photo with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron. But she left out the fact that Schmidt had initiated that action and instead chose to suggest it had been Obama’s idea. Peyser left out how former President George W. Bush’s Instagram account shared a photograph of himself smiling with Bono at the same event.

What did Peyser definitely not leave out? Schmidt’s nationality. In a column demanding respect for women, Peyser called Helle Thorning Schmidt:
  • “Denmark’s voluptuously curvy and married prime minister.”
  • “a Danish pastry.”
  • “the Danish hellcat.”
  • “the cross-legged Danish cupcake.”
  • “the Danish tart.”
  • “the Danish hottie.”
  • “the Danish object of his desire.”
Peyser also sniffed at Schmidt’s “long Scandinavian legs covered by nothing more substantial than sheer black stockings,” as if the prime minister should have worn shin guards to an outdoor formal event in summer.

Why eight mentions of Schmidt’s ethnicity? Could it be that Peyser wanted to drive home the fact that Schmidt is blonde (as in Peyser’s phrase “blonde bimbo”)? I can’t see any other explanation for such poor, repetitive writing.

Yes, the New York Post went to the extremes of OIP Derangement Syndrome and accused President Obama of lusting after blonde women.

19 December 2013

Merlin Then and Now

A year ago, Yale University Press published Anne Lawrence-Mathers’s A True History of Merlin the Magician. It was a “densely written monograph,” according to Publishers Weekly, which explored the cultural manifestations of Merlin in late medieval Europe, starting with mentions in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s supposedly nonfiction history of Britain.

The Guardian’s Kathryn Hughes just decided to review the book, and her review focuses on the shocking revelation that Merlin was fictional: “It turns out that Merlin isn't real. He is, in fact, a big fat hoax, made up by a writer who had run out of things to say and was getting desperate.”

Hughes highlights how Geoffrey’s original presentation of a British prophet at “a time of great dynastic insecurity” was reassuring, and even told his local readers that “Britain had always played a special part in God's great plan. In the process, a small island stuck on the edge of the known world started to believe that it might just matter.”

Does that mean Britain’s special place is based on fraud? Hughes’s review seems to suggest Britain is really special in another way: as a cultural leader, creating in Merlin a shape-shifting trickster that becomes popular across Europe and across time.

But note the comments on the article, with Welsh readers insisting that Merlin was a real figure from Welsh myth and that non-Welsh authors have robbed the nation of its cultural heritage.

18 December 2013

Wizard of Oz Movie Conference in Brighton, 21-22 Nov 2014

On 21-22 Nov 2014 the University of Brighton in Britain is hosting a conference on The Wizard of Oz and the Western Cultural Imagination.” It’s aimed at “celebrating and interrogating 75 years of the MGM Musical.”

Here’s the call for proposals:
The Wizard of Oz has received sustained interest from audiences, sparking numerous spinoff films (Return to Oz; Oz: The Great and Powerful, Yellowbrickroad), musicals (Wicked; The Wiz), and TV Programmes and documentaries (The Tin Man; The Secret of Oz). Baum’s original tale has been reanimated and illustrated numerous times (most recently by Graham Rawle) and the book and film has inspired and featured in pop music albums by the likes of Elton John (Yellow Brick Road) and Robbie Williams (Swings Both Ways). The music to MGM’s Wizard of Oz also contributed to the public responses to the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013.

Despite being firmly embedded in the Western cultural imagination, the legacy of The Wizard of Oz has received rather sparse critical reception. Taking place in the same month that saw the release of the film in the UK, this conference seeks to fill this void and explore the film and its legacy through a series of innovative presentations that explores ideas such as:
  • The Wizard of Oz within American and UK television programming;
  • young women’s agency;
  • representations of twisters, tornados, and hurricanes;
  • Technicolor and the emergence of colour film;
  • the Hollywood musical;
  • stardom and fandom;
  • intermedial history and the story’s migration to other media;
  • paratexts, advertising and memorabilia;
  • music, magic, witches and myth;
  • representations of the American rural landscape and the Depression;
  • gender and sexuality;
  • the Wizard of Oz and cultural capital;
  • carnivals, travelling shows, and fairgrounds;
  • costume and the iconography of shoes.
Proposals are welcomed from all academic disciplines and can take the form of a paper, performance, artwork or poster presentation. Innovative presentation formats are encouraged. The conference will include a fancy dress, sing-along screening of the film.
The conference organizers are Dr. Frank Gray and Dr. Louise Fitzgerald of the University of Brighton and Dr. Kieran Fenby-Hulse of Bath Spa University. People interested in presenting papers 15-20 minutes long can send proposals consisting of a 300-word abstract to ozat75@gmail.com by 1 Mar 2014. The conference already has a web address and a Twitter account and hashtag of “ozat75.”

17 December 2013

A Very Bad Man

Last week’s news that the federal government was going to extract some money from J. P. Morgan for its complaisance in Bernard Madoff’s investment fraud included the detail that the investment bank had ignored “Oz-like signals.”

I went looking for the context of that phrase. I couldn’t find the original document, only court filings that quote part of it, and always the same part. Michael Cembalest, Chief Investment Officer at J.P. Morgan’s Global Wealth division, wrote that “Oz-like signals…too difficult to ignore” were why he refused to do business with Madoff’s firm.

Among Cembalest’s “red flags,” according to Forbes, was that “his due diligence team was not allowed to meet Madoff and discuss his investment strategy.” And indeed, not meeting with visitors is a trait of the Wizard in both L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the MGM movie based on it.

However, it appears that Cembalest didn’t compose that metaphor until after Madoff’s fraud was revealed, according the court filing (PDF download). The quote came from a memo to investors assuring them, in a somewhat self-congratulatory way, that his division hadn’t done business with Madoff.

By then the Telegraph and other news media had begun to liken Madoff to the humbug Wizard. It seems to have become a standard trope: even a lawyer defending a Madoff employee used it in court this fall. Baum’s Wizard claimed to be a good man, just a poor wizard, and eventually he redeemed himself on both counts. We don’t seem to expect the same of Madoff.

16 December 2013

Networks Toying With Us?

In the latest “Fat Man on Batman” podcast, writer Paul Dini spoke candidly about recent trends in superhero cartoons on television (as transcribed by Vi):

There’s been…a sudden trend in animation, with super-heroes. Like, “It’s too old. It’s too old for our audience, and it has to be younger. It has to be funnier.” And that’s when I watch the first couple of episodes of Teen Titans Go!, it’s like those are the wacky moments in the Teen Titans cartoon, without any of the more serious moments. “Let’s just do them all fighting over pizza, or running around crazy and everything, ’cause our audience—the audience we wanna go after, is not the Young Justice audience any more. We wanna go after little kids, who are into—boys who are into goofy humor, goofy random humor, like on Adventure Time or Regular Show. We wanna do that goofy, that sense of humor, that’s where we’re going for.” . . .

They’re all for boys. “We do not want the girls.” I mean, I’ve heard executives say this…, saying like, “We do not want girls watching this show.” . . . They. Do. Not. Buy. Toys. The girls buy different toys. . . .

I’ll just lay it on the line: that’s the thing that got us cancelled on Tower Prep, honest-to-God was, like, “We need boys, but we need girls right there, right one step behind the boys”—this is the network talking—“one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.” And then we began writing stories that got into the two girls’ back stories, and they were really interesting. And suddenly we had families and girls watching, and girls really became a big part of our audience, in sort of like they picked up that Harry Potter type of serialized way. . . . But, the Cartoon Network was saying, “Fuck, no, we want the boys.” Action, it’s boys’ action, this goofy boy humor we’ve gotta get that in there. . . . And I’d say, but look at the numbers, we’ve got parents watching, with the families, and then when you break it down—“Yeah,…we’ve got too many girls. We need more boys.” . . .

And then that’s why they cancelled us, and they put on a show called Level Up, which is, you know, goofy nerds fighting CG monsters. It’s like, “We don’t want the girls because the girls won’t buy toys. . . . Boys, boys, boys. Boys buy the little spinny tops, they buy the action figures, girls buy princesses, we’re not selling princesses.”
In fact, we already knew this.

Back in 2010, as Young Justice was launching on the Cartoon Network, co-creator Greg Weisman said:
I think, from an economic standpoint, we have to hit boys 6 – 14 for Cartoon Network to sell their ad space or whatever, so if you think of it as a bull’s eye with concentric circles, that’s the bull’s eye we have to hit.
I quoted that back here. Weisman and his fellow creators wanted to do more than that, and they created a fine show that appealed to a wider set of viewers. In fact, it did all the things that Dini just said the Cartoon Network didn’t appreciate. The mood was generally serious instead of goofy. There were lots of female characters and relationships. The story was serialized. And in the second season, the story became even more complex, with more adult themes.

When Young Justice wasn’t renewed after two seasons, Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool declared amid comma splices that the decision was “down to lower toy sales than expected.” As Weisman told the Denver Comic-Con, merchandise sales can make up a large part of the revenue for a show for the Warner Bros. A surplus of Green Lantern merchandise was a factor in the simultaneous cancellation of the Green Lantern animated show.

But in fact the Young Justice toy line was cancelled in April 2012, weeks before the second season launched. Production on that season continued through October, and the show itself ran until March 2013. Though the lack of toy revenue would have affected the larger corporation’s calculations about the show (both Warner Bros. and the Cartoon Network are part of what’s still for the moment called Time Warner), the show still had the chance to pull in an audience.

But that had to be the right sort of audience. As viewers of commercial television, we always have to remember that networks don’t make their money by providing us with entertainment. Their business is to supply their advertisers with our attention. And if those advertisers want the delivery of males aged six to fourteen, because that’s who will ask for their products, a larger audience of other eyeballs isn’t going to offer them much more value. In this era of “narrow-casting,” basic cable channels and Saturday-morning cartoons all have niche audiences to deliver.

15 December 2013

How Do Comics Represent Kids? In Multisyllabic Words or Less

The 2012 issue of The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics focused on comics, picture books, and childhood. Now there’s a call for proposals for an anthology on the “Representations of Childhood in Comics”:
Childhood is now widely recognized as a social construct (Fass, Jenks, Mintz). As the artifice behind the construction of childhood has been revealed, there has been a marked increase in the analysis of children and childhood in contemporary culture (Demarr and Bakermann, Edelman, Latham, McLennan, Renner, Stockton).

Despite the increase in scholarly attention, depictions of childhood in comics and other forms of comic art are ripe for further study. . . . This is an especially interesting area of inquiry given the somewhat vexed association comic books have traditionally maintained with childhood.

In an attempt to continue developing the scholarly focus on childhood, as well as comics, we seek proposals for scholarly articles that analyze, explore and interrogate depictions of childhood in comics or comic art for inclusion in a book-length anthology. We welcome all proposals, although, based on responses so far, we are particularly interested in more submissions regarding depictions of childhood in comics aimed at adults.
The editors’ potential topics include:
  • What do comics teach us about current constructions of childhood?
  • How do comics resist or undermine contemporary constructions of childhood?
  • How can comics help us better understand the role of children in a given societal context?
  • How do comics shed light on the relationship between children and adults? Between adults and their own childhood?
  • How can depictions of childhood be understood as metaphors for specific cultural phenomena, values, disruptions or evolutions?
  • What anxieties regarding culture, politics, education, etc. do comics reveal?
  • How have ideas regarding childhood affected comics?
Proposals should consist of an abstract of 300 words and a short curriculum vitae. Send them to Mark Heimermann, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Brittany Tullis, St. Ambrose University, at heimermanntullis@gmail.com by 1 Jan 2014. Full papers will be due by 1 June 2014.

12 December 2013

The Remains

Rebecca Mead and George Prochnik’s essay “Book-Club Guide to a Remaindered Book” has got to be the least-sympathetic-to-authors article on publishing that I’ve read for a long time. Even if it’s mercilessly accurate:

1. When the author’s agent initially asked the author who he thought the readers of his proposed book would be and he defensively replied, “Everyone,” do you think the author should have immediately realized that there is a thin line between everyone and no one?

2. Did the agent’s pitch that the proposed book “brilliantly bridges genres” give the author license that caused him to, in the later words of his agent, “miss the boat” completely, by failing to inhabit any genre whatsoever?

3. Did the negligible advance justify the author’s contention that he could “write what I liked,” without regard to the book’s marketability, plausibility, or legibility?

4. Why do you think the agent stopped returning the author’s phone calls?
I mean damn.

10 December 2013

He Could Play the Wizard. Then Again, He Could Play Anybody.

For its latest “By the Book” column, the New York Times Book Review interviewed actor Bryan Cranston, who’s not an author but has read audiobooks, and is much more famous and admired than many authors. Among the questions:
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

The “Wizard of Oz” novelist, L. Frank Baum. . . If he really was a racist as is rumored. And if so, how could he write such a heartfelt story? Were the Munchkins a metaphor? Did he have the Wicked Witch of the West killed off because he hated green people?
The question of racism involves Baum’s editorials on the Sioux, which I discussed back here. The Munchkins as metaphor might refer to the silly Populist allegory theory. As for the Wicked Witch, she was green in MGM’s Technicolor movie; in Baum’s book, she had only one eye.

But Cranston’s fundamental question remains: What is the source of heart-warming art? Does it require an author to be pure of heart himself? Or is that a requirement we fans wish to impose?

09 December 2013

Stuck in the Past

As I described yesterday, in 1986 DC Comics published a two-part story about Titans member Starfire confronting the apartheid regime of South Africa.

At the time, the US and UK were debating economic sanctions on that country, meaning that people who’d have no qualms about seeing a superhero use violence against an oppressive imaginary government felt the need to write in about the political implications of this storyline.

Associate Editor Mike Gold published several letters praising and criticizing the issues, starting with an anonymous complaint in Teen Titans Spotlight, #5. A proud Chicago leftist, he tended to snap back at critics. The fact that publisher Jenette Kahn had enthusiastically approved the issues probably offered some reassurance.

One letter, for example, complained that the magazine hadn’t reported that the South African government had repealed its pass laws. Gold replied that that had happened after the magazines had gone to press, and that the letter-writer hadn’t reported the government’s harsh new emergency decree.

Teen Titans Spotlight, #6, printed six letters on the Starfire story, three from outside the US. Two writers asked that their addresses, and in one case name, not be printed. Two of the writers identified themselves as having spent some time growing up in South Africa or Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and a third had spoken to a friend who had. Significantly, none identified himself as black or in contact with black Africans. Neither did any of those writers identify himself as white—their whiteness is obvious from their comments, and they treated that status as the unspoken norm.

The critics offered various concerns about the story, starting with a fourteen-year-old saying, “Just please focus on things that kids can identify with, because I really don’t think apartheid is one of them.” Many of those arguments were familiar in the period: that blacks in South Africa were better off than people in selected other African countries, that the “liberal-left” media ignored aspects of the conflict or would do so in an imagined future, that establishing democracy in South Africa would bring on “a bloody melee of warring tribal factions.” Those writers left out important facts, like the South African military activity in neighboring states or the apartheid government’s work to roil ethnic rivalries.

Most of the critics insisted that they personally opposed apartheid and racism. Larry J. King of Vermont stood out by calling the Starfire story “an almost totally untrue diatribe about the benign government of South Africa.” He asked, “Instead of picking on South Africa, why didn’t you have Starfire end up in one of the Communist countries and smash their corrupt form of government?” In reply Gold noted that many comics had used Communist regimes as villains.

(Three years later King turned in some names from the comics industry to The American Spectator’s “enemies list”: Alan Moore, Danny [sic] O’Neil, Frank Miller, and George Pérez. What had they done wrong? O’Neil “criticized mankind’s treatment of the environment”! Miller was “afraid that the religious right intends to censor his work”! Pérez was “a committed feminist”! What’s more, King complained, several people in the comics industry opposed homophobia. He appears to have been a boilerplate reactionary, in other words.)

Teen Titans Spotlight, #6, also ran a heartfelt letter from a Scottish teenager named David Stalker whose father had moved the family to South Africa in the early 1980s and then died in a mining accident. Stalker remembered his disdain for the poor black Africans he’d seen and the kindness of white South Africans to his family. He didn’t see the latter people reflected in Marv Wolfman’s story (in which all the whites are officials of the apartheid government, particularly security forces). But Stalker also acknowledged that he was coming to see more wrong with the apartheid system now that he was home in Scotland. Stalker went on to become an executive in the video game industry, indirectly responsible for bringing Grant Morrison into that field.

I didn’t read those Teen Titans Spotlight issues back in 1986; I was busy in college. Therefore, I first encountered them in the past decade, after the apartheid regime had been dismantled, the Cold War had ended, Mandela had served a term as President of South Africa and retired. Not only was the story now a historical artifact, but so were those right-wing responses to it.

Nevertheless, those doctrinaire Cold-War positions proved still to be alive this week after Mandela’s death. Some on the American right felt compelled to object to praise for him, even from their political allies. He was, they shouted, a “Communist”! A “terrorist”! An advocate of “anti-white racism”! It was as if those right-wingers were stuck back in 1986 with no knowledge of what has actually happened since.

When Teen Titans Spotlight, #2, was in stores, it was possible to imagine scenarios for South Africa that might justify continuing to do unfettered business with the apartheid regime. But we’ve run the experiment now. The sanctions put pressure on the National Party. Mandela was freed and took power in a democratic election. He advocated racial and sexual equality, reconciliation, and unity. He stepped down from power after one term. There has been no race war, no government takeover of the economy, no support for armed rebellion against other democracies. South Africa has become an economic and political anchor for its region. National Review Online writer Deroy Murdock had the class to say he’d been wrong about Mandela. If only more on the right could do the same.

08 December 2013

When Starfire Attacked Apartheid

Reactions to the death of Nelson Mandela this week prompted me to look back on the first two issues of Teen Titans Spotlight from 1986, issues grandly headlined “Apartheid No More!”

That story focused on Koriand’r, or Starfire, just returned from her planet to Earth after her political marriage had broken up her relationship with Dick Grayson. Kory finds herself in South Africa. She breaks up a mob lynching an informer but then sees the white government’s security forces attacking blacks whether or not they were part of the mob.

Writer Marv Wolfman used Starfire’s lack of knowledge about Earth and her highly emotional responses to events to introduce the situation in South Africa and to propel the narrative. The story’s anti-apartheid leader is Father Nelson Mandutu, a composite of Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and perhaps Steven Biko or any of the other South African activists who died in government custody. At the end of the first issue, it appears that Starfire has killed him accidentally.

In the second issue, Kory, all the time wishing that Dick were there to tell her how to do things, solves the mystery of Mandutu’s death, stops a massacre, and exposes the real killer. When Starfire flies away from South Africa to rejoin the Titans, she hasn’t done away with apartheid, of course, but the comic book has brought more visibility to that form of oppression.

Of course, DC Comics wasn’t wading that far into controversy. Almost everyone in the world condemned apartheid at that point. The issue roiling the west was whether governments or investors should increase economic sanctions on South Africa and companies doing business there. That debate was particularly hot on American campuses (like mine) because universities had so much money to invest. Later in 1986 the US Congress would override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a law requiring stricter sanctions. In the UK, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was standing against a similar bill.

Wolfman wrote an essay in the first issue of Teen Titans Spotlight justifying the story, in part because as writer-editor he needed to fill the pages set aside for letters until letters started to arrive. He had wanted to write a story about South Africa for years, he said, and artist Denys Cowan had actually drawn such a story for Marvel, only for the company to sit on it. The mainstream superhero publishers rarely try to get ahead of public sentiment, after all.

TOMORROW: And finally the letters arrived.

06 December 2013

Ragging on the Vatican Embassy

The past two weeks allowed us to observe the birth and death of a fresh manifestation of OIP Derangement Syndrome. The phenomenon surfaced on 20 November as the National Catholic Reporter ran a story quoting James Nicholson, former head of the Republican National Committee, and a handful of other former US Ambassadors complaining about a change in the US Embassy to the Vatican. Some called it part of a pattern of administration attacks on “religion,” by which they meant their religion.

The right-wing clearinghouse Breitbart.com picked up that story on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The next day, the Washington Times, founded and maintained until 2010 by the Unification Church, ran a story headlined, “Obama’s call to close Vatican embassy is ‘slap in the face’ to Roman Catholics”. That story relied entirely on Breitbart, which in turn relied entirely on the National Catholic Reporter. The Washington newspaper did not bother to report the State Department’s press briefing on the issue.

(Digression #1: The Washington Times just published a column criticizing Pope Francis‘s first encyclical as based on “a disturbing ignorance.” But evidently that wasn’t a slap in the face to Roman Catholics because the author insisted he was writing with “deference and respect.”)

(Digression #2: I’ve previously noted a pattern of right-wing media playing up incendiary cultural stories just before Thanksgiving, when many government offices shut down and spokespeople are unavailable to refute falsehoods.)

Dynastic Presidential aspirant Jeb Bush picked up the “Vatican embassy closing” story and in a tweet tried to tie it to a controversy over the Affordable Care Act. The National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to capitalize on it with a webpage headlined “Obama Closes Vatican Embassy.”

And the whole thing turned out to be illusory. Normally we use the term “closing an embassy” to refer to breaking off or suspending diplomatic ties, but in this case it referred simply to moving the US Embassy to the Vatican to another office building closer to Vatican City. The embassy will be in another part of the same building as the US Embassy to Italy, allowing for more efficient operations and security at a smaller cost. The State Department had started to consider that idea when Gov. Jeb Bush’s brother was President.

CNN, the Washington Post, and Politifact all deemed the right-wing complaints bogus. But facts don’t matter to people suffering from OIP Derangement Syndrome. Especially when they think they’re on a mission from their God.

05 December 2013

Princesses in Golden Dreams

Ruth Sanderson paints really nice fairies and princesses. She’s also really nice herself; we worked together on an SCBWI bookstore event this fall.

There’s an exhibition of Ruth’s work at the Norman Rockwell Museum right now through February: “Dancing Princesses: The Fairy Tale Art of Ruth Sanderson.” That museum now owns the original paintings for her version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The opening reception for this exhibit takes place on Saturday, 7 December, from 4:00 to 6:00 P.M.

In addition, Ruth is participating in the Cottage Street Open Studios in Easthampton, Massachusetts, on Friday (10:00 to 4:00), Sunday (noon to 4:00), and Saturday, 14 December (10:00 to 4:00).

And for folks who can’t make those events, she’s published a 224-page hardcover book titled Golden Dreams: The Art of Ruth Sanderson. Below, courtesy of Fairy Tale News, is an image showing how Ruth assembled the painting above with sketches and photo references.

03 December 2013

Parade Balloons Over 75 Years

Macy’s 1939 parade included a Tin Man balloon to promote MGM’s new movie, The Wizard of Oz.

For the movie’s seventy-fifth anniversary (which is actually next year), the movie’s current owner, Time Warner, paid for another balloon. According to Yahoo TV, “Macy's repurposed an older balloon. . . . The designers took a balloon shaped like a — see if you can follow — hot-air balloon and decorated it with images of the beloved L. Frank Baum characters.” The portraits were hand-painted.

01 December 2013

More Retrospective Than Retroactive

A while back I looked at DC Comics’s Legacies miniseries, a summary of its 1986-2011 superhero universe’s history. Just after Legacies the company announced a line called DC Retroactive, pitched as exercises in nostalgia.

Editor Ben Abernathy told Newsarama that “the opportunity to revisit that era, with the creators who made it great, is a welcome change from everything else going on in the industry these days.” It was almost an explicit admission that DC’s audience had become middle-aged folks chasing memories of their early teens.

That announcement ran in mid-April 2011. At the end of May, Newsarama was running breathless stories about DC’s “New 52,” which replaced the latest continuity with a new one. That news took up all the attention of comics fandom and critics, leaving little for the DC Retroactive magazines when they came out. I don’t know if this fact is at all pertinent, but Abernathy is no longer with DC Comics.

The idea behind DC Retroactive was to publish stories in the style of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s from creators who had worked on the properties then. There were triads devoted to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Justice League. (There was no Teen Titans equivalent, but Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s finally-completed Games would push similar buttons.)

The only DC Retroactive book to feature a Robin was the 1980s Batman issue. It was created by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham, collaborators on the Batman: Son of the Demon graphic novel from 1987. But Barr’s story has more connections with Detective Comics stories he created with Alan Davis featuring a young Jason Todd.

Thus, as in Barr’s issues of the digital Legends of the Dark Knight, we see a Batman who calls Robin “chum” and shouts to him not to look at one of the villains kills another. The bat-cave’s criminal files are actually file cabinets.

Robin adds puns to a fight scene and needs to sit on a Gotham phone book to drive the Batmobile. It would have been nice to see Davis‘s small, spindly Robin in these scenes instead of Bingham’s bigger, tougher-looking version.

Barr’s DC Retroactive story is also a sequel to his Year Two series from 1987, set before any Robin. (A previous sequel, Batman: Full Circle from 1991, had brought Dick Grayson into the story.) All these stories featured a murderous vigilante named the Reaper, a role taken on by a series of people.

Year Two has been controversial for many Batman fans because it shows Bruce Wayne thinking about using a gun in his war on crime—and not just any gun but the gun that killed his parents. The fact that the story ends with him deciding against that method doesn’t stop many readers from declaring that action completely out of character.

At the end of its 1994-95 Zero Hour crossover, DC apparently repudiated the Year Two story. Yet here the Reaper is back. The DC Retroactive: Batman—The ’80s comic book even reprints the story that ends with Bruce holding up the old gun. This magazine was thus an exercise in reclamation not just for old readers but for an old writer.

(As I composed this posting, I discovered that weekly Robin essays comprise this website’s discussion of Jason Todd. Needless to say, I agree with most of the insights there, but I disagree on reprinting them without permission, credit, quotation marks, or links.)