31 January 2014

Keeping Executive Orders in Order

Faced with a resistant Republican minority in the Senate and majority in the House (albeit not one that gained a majority of Americans’ votes in 2012), President Barack Obama has announced that he will do what he can for the country through executive orders.

Naturally, people who think Obama doesn’t deserve to be President, despite being elected and reelected by majorities, have to find something wrong with him exercising the powers of the Presidency. Even before the State of the Union address, rookie Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) was tweeting that Obama was becoming a “Kommandant-In-Chef” [sic].

But the American Presidency Project tabulates Presidents’ executive orders. Its figures show that:
  • Presidents have used the power of executive orders since George Washington. That includes all the first generation of Presidents from the right wing’s beloved Founding Fathers.
  • The last President who issued fewer executive orders in his first term than President Obama was Benjamin Harrison, well over a century ago.
  • Among all Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Steve Benen showed at the Meddow Blog, President Obama has issued the fewest executive orders per year in office. He could issue as many orders in the next three years as George W. Bush issued in his first four and still not match the total issued by Ronald Reagan.
And, of course, very few of the President’s critics on this issue can point to evidence that they made similar complaints about the previous administration’s use of executive power.

Again, the problem isn’t actually the mechanism of executive orders. It’s the visceral dislike some people feel on seeing Barack Obama exercise any Presidential authority, forcing them to search for a socially acceptable way to justify their feelings.

30 January 2014

Balloonacy at the B.C.R.

This evening the Boston Comics Roundtable did an activity I invented called Balloonacy. It didn’t pan out exactly as I’d imagined since we’d talked so long about how to make the group more active that there wasn’t as much time left for an actual activity. But I think it was fun and productive for those involved.

I started by drawing the classic ellipsoid balloon with a short pointy tail and the letters “B.C.R.” inside. I posited that that’s the comics equivalent of a sentence with a period at the end. It’s a straightforward statement.

Then I challenged folks to draw balloons in which the lettering, punctuation or other marks inside the balloon, balloon shape, tail shape, or some other visual detail would give the letters “B.C.R.” a different meaning and perhaps sound.

The group then drew (in no particular order):
  • classic thought balloon.
  • dotted whisper balloon.
  • balloon with four tails, for four (or more) people speaking simultaneously.
  • balloon with nine tails over a cityscape to signal a chorus of millions.
  • collage of balloons all saying the same thing.
  • fancy letters for ornate speech.
  • The Yellow Kid with a message on his nightshirt.
  • balloon shaped like a luscious pair of lips.
  • burst balloon for shouting.
  • scroll-shaped balloon with blackletter/Gothic letters for a town crier.
  • three connected balloons each containing one letter for a single, slow, deliberate speaker.
  • three separate balloons each containing one letter pointing to a single depressed figure.
  • three separated balloons each containing one letter with tails pointing different places to denote three speakers.
  • balloon with tail going off the page to an off-panel speaker.
  • block letters and block balloon for a carnival barker.
  • two forms of white letters dropped out of a black balloon, one with the wavery white border that Todd Klein gave to Dream in Sandman. (We also looked at his Delirium balloons.)
  • wavery letters for a spooky voice.
  • icicle-dripping balloon for disdain.
  • two variations of rebuses spelling out “B.C.R.,” one assigned to a mime.
  • balloon with a long, meandering tail suitable for a character who talks and talks without getting to the point.
  • balloon containing musical notes as well as letters for singing.
  • letters strung out on an undulating musical staff for more singing.
  • wavery-bordered balloon with its tail dropping off the bottom of the page where the speaker is collapsing in a faint.
  • two balloons, one overlapping the other to show an interruption.
  • balloon blocked by the side of a panel as something interrupts.
  • vertical balloon containing Japanese kanji sounding approximately like “B.C.R.” 
  • huge letters from a loud character flattening other characters.
  • tiny, lowercase letters within a big balloon for quiet speech.
  • two examples of giant block letters crowding the edges of their balloon.
  • square block letters in a squarish balloon for a real square.
  • letters drawn within concentric radio waves spreading from an antenna.
  • jagged-edged balloon and with a lightning-bolt tail to denote electronic communication.
  • big block letters with small exclamation points instead of periods—verging on a sound effect!
  • round balloon with no tail for a disembodied or off-panel speaker.
  • squarish balloon and lettering for a robot.
  • balloon with its tail ending in a starburst against a window—a recent way of showing that someone is speaking inside that building.
  • various typographical symbols before the letters to indicate profanity.
  • chevrons on either side of the letters and an asterisked footnote to indicate speech in a foreign language (or, some people thought, HTML).
  • tailless thought balloon broken up with breath marks to denote psychic communication.
  • a long, boring speech wallpapered on the back of a panel.
We also came up with three balloons that not everyone agreed on how to interpret.
  • thought balloon with a pointed tail instead of the trail of puffs that thought balloons usually have. Could this indicate thinking aloud?
  • three numbered boxes each containing one letter. I didn’t catch the discussion on that one.
  • balloon butted up against the edge of a panel. That usually means the same thing as a balloon fully inside a panel—it doesn’t seem to reflect anything more than the available space and the preference of the editor and letterer who place that balloon. But perhaps it could have storytelling significance. Say, one dominant character’s speech balloons are always in the center of a panel and another’s are always crowded to one side.
  • word balloon in the shape of a real helium balloon with a knot at the bottom. What might this symbolize?
And that was just balloons. We haven’t yet talked about other ways comics show the invisible.

29 January 2014

The Anti-Marriage Activists

For the last few years I’ve used the term “anti-marriage” for people trying to limit marriage only to couples they approve of. They claim they’re in favor of marriage, even trying to protect it. But if you’re trying to limit or restrict a behavior, you’re against that behavior.

After all, people who want to restrict access to abortion are anti-abortion. People who want to limit access to guns are anti-gun. People who want to minimize pollution, or crime, or musical comedies are anti-pollution, anti-crime, and anti-musical comedy, respectively.

But I didn’t foresee a politician fulfilling that definition by proposing to do away with marriage laws entirely. That’s what state representative Mike Turner has proposed to do in Oklahoma.

As Think Progress noted, this mirrors one of the “massive resistance” tactics in the Jim Crow states, shutting down public schools for all students rather than integrating them. Of course, those segregationists insisted they were trying to protect education.

28 January 2014

Oz Comes to Kansas

This 1906 postcard shows a scene from the popular stage extravaganza based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. The producers made such cards available at the end of each performance in the hopes that people would recommend the show to their friends—as “Will” did with this one.

The Cowardly Lion is at the left, Imogene the Cow (the show’s more-easily-performed substitute for Toto) at the far right. The Tin Woodman stands above the word “funny” and the Scarecrow above the W in “Will.” Dorothy kneels near the center. The figure upstage in the center with striped sleeves is the Good Witch, bringing on a snowstorm to counteract the effect of the Poppy Field—a plot point invented for this show and then reused in the 1939 MGM movie.

This postcard is from the University of Kansas library’s new “Magic of Oz” exhibit, featuring documents and artifacts from the collection of alumna Jane Albright. Jane’s been very active in the International Wizard of Oz Club for many years, especially in organizing events.

Unfortunately, the opening of this exhibit has coincided with a health crisis in Jane’s family, so she’s been unable to visit it herself. Everyone in the Oz fan community wishes Jane’s husband a swift and full recovery so they can enjoy sharing her impressive collection with folks in Kansas.

27 January 2014

Alice in Guildford

Charles Dodgson settled his sisters in Guildford, England, and died there in 1898. In 1990, the town commemorated his most famous work by installing a couple of impressive statues.

On the grounds of Guildford Castle, near the Dodgson home, is Jeanne Argent’s statue of Alice going through the looking-glass. Details include striped stockings. The glass can make impressive effects on film.
On a river bank sits Edwin Russell’s “Alice and the White Rabbit.” Though her hair and dress may seem more modern, this Alice looks more like the real Alice Liddell.

26 January 2014

Robins of the Future, Glimpses of the Past

Detective Comics, #27, in DC’s new numbering is a collection of out-of-continuity Batman stories inspired by how that character debuted in the first volume of Detective Comics, #27.

I wasn’t thrilled. The most Robin-heavy story shows four of Batman’s companions from the 1986-2011 continuity returning to the bat-cave to celebrate Bruce Wayne’s birthday. Peter J. Tomasi’s tale aims too hard to please fans by avoiding all sign of loss. Damian is a trenchcoated crusader as in Batman, #666, but, unlike what that story told us about that future, Dick Grayson is still alive. Dick even has both eyes, unlike in the current Batman Beyond series, and blue fingerstripes. Tim Drake is still active too, also unlike the Batman Beyond continuity. Barbara Gordon is walking again. Even Alfred is alive, and Bruce can still kick butt. It’s a story nominally about aging with no actual change or physical deterioration.

Another story set in another future introduced a new Robin for a version of the 23rd century.
This is the only glimpse of the character. His name and history are blanks.

I’m not the only comics history fan who saw this image and found myself thinking of Dwayne McDuffie’s December 1989 memo to colleagues at Marvel about the lack of diversity in the publisher’s pantheon. McDuffie wrote:
In the past year, 25% of all African-American super-heroes appearing in the Marvel Universe possessed skateboard-based super powers. In an attempt to remain on the cutting edge of comics, I hereby propose a new series that will fully exploit this exciting new trend…

Teenage Mutant Negro

When a group of teen-aged negroes from cosmic-powered skateboards, their lives are forever changed! A team of distinct characters join together, swearing an oath to use their powers for good.

ROCKET RACER: A black guy on a skateboard.

NIGHT THRASHER: A black guy on a skateboard.

DARK WHEELIE: A black guy on a skateboard.

And their leader, a mysterious black guy on a skateboard known only as “that mysterious black guy on a skateboard.”
Rocket Racer and Night Thrasher were in fact two new heroes in the Marvel Universe. I think Dark Wheelie was just a joke.

Less than four years later, McDuffie cofounded Milestone Media with three other African-American comics writers and artists—Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle. They aimed to fill a market and cultural gap with comics about an array of superheroes of color living in the Midwest city of Dakota.

Of the Milestone heroes, the most successful proved to be Static, created by McDuffie, Robert L. Washington III, and John Paul Leon. Static was a teenager. He had a superpower, controlling electricity. He was black. But he didn’t have a flying skateboard!

No, he had an electromagnetically levitating disk, at first a garbage can lid and later a manhole cover, that he stood on as it flew through the air. Very much like a, well, flying skateboard.

25 January 2014

The “Owl and Pussycat” Experiment

The Boston Comics Roundtable is conducting a group exercise we call “The Working Method.” One member writes a short comics script—only three pages in all. Artists take that script as far as they choose—character designs, thumbnails, pencils, or all the way to inks and letters.

Members did this first a couple of years ago, at the suggestion of artist Jay Kennedy. One of the resulting comics, “Amazons v. Valkyries” by Lindsay Moore and Laurel Lynn Leake, was eventually published in the Minimum Paige anthology.

The current exercise is using a script by me titled “Owl and Pussycat.” I gave myself the challenge to tell a superhero tale in only three pages, a story that I as a kid could have picked up and understood at the basic level. There are, to be sure, many unanswered questions left about Owl, Pussycat, and their evil nemesis Dr. Megalo—unanswered even for me.

At this point participating BCR artists are sharing their designs for Owl and Pussycat on a Tumblr page. The sketch above is by Roho, for instance. I see my job now as to keep quiet about how I might have imagined those characters or the setting, page layout, overall look, etc. in order to leave the artists with maximum freedom to make their own choices. At the end of February the whole group will sit down and discuss the different choices people made.

This exercise is also open to folks who aren’t involved in the Boston Comics Roundtable, or even in Boston. Here’s the link. We expect to post further scripts of different sorts in the future.

24 January 2014

Politifact Profiles

This week Politifact released a list of the top-ten politicians it and its regional affiliates have fact-checked.

Because the service launched in 2007, Barack Obama has been President for most of its existence, so it’s not surprising that he’s the most fact-checked person. Nor is it surprising that the people ranking second and third behind him are his main opponents from 2012 and 2008, Mitt Romney and John McCain. But Politifact has fact-checked Obama far more often (500 times) than Romney (204) and McCain (170) combined.

What’s more significant lies underneath those rankings in Politifact’s findings on each politician. It ranked President Obama’s statements True or Mostly True 46% of the time. In contrast, Romney was True or Mostly True only 31% of the time and McCain 38%. Add the Half True category to the men’s totals—after all, they are politicians, used to emphasizing one side of the argument—and the percentages are Obama 73%, Romney 59%, and McCain 56%.

We can also look at the three men’s numbers from the bottom up. Politifact gave only 2% of the Obama statements its lowest rating of Pants of Fire, and deemed another 13% False (total: 15%). Romney had 9% Pants of Fire and 16% False (total: 25%). McCain had 5% Pants on Fire and 22% False (total: 27%).

Either way we look at it, President Obama adhered to the facts more often than his major opponents. He made fewer statements that the service judged to be whoppers. And not just by a little bit, but by a 10% margin or more.

Nevertheless, one of the beliefs that people with OIP Derangement Syndrome share is that President Obama is dishonest. But that’s just another way they’ve divorced themselves from reality. In actual fact, Politifact has subjected Obama to more scrutiny than any other politician, and has assessed him to be more factual than the Republican Party’s chosen candidates.

23 January 2014

Historical Fiction from Ancient History?

At the Oxford University Press blog, Yale professor Colleen Manassa suggests that ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) saw the birth of historical fiction:
During the New Kingdom, particularly the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, the “Ramesside Period,” another literary efflorescence occurred. Among the genres of this new corpus of literary productions are stories that can be most properly described as works of “historical fiction.” Set in the past with attested historical characters, these works of historical fiction are an ancient Egyptian counterpart, albeit ultimately unrelated, to the mammoth corpus of modern historical fiction from Sir Walter Scott, Patrick O’Brien, and George McDonald Frasier to Ken Follett and Philippa Gregory. . . .

The second story, known by its modern title The Capture of Joppa, opens with an Egyptian army besieging ancient Joppa, located near modern Jaffa. The beginning of the story is lost, but the preserved portion describes a group of drunken individuals and chariot horses being safely put away lest they be stolen by the Apiru, a group of local brigands. The Egyptian general Djehuty — another attested historical individual — is holding a conference with the enemy rebel of Joppa, apparently in a neutral space outside of the city walls. The enemy ruler of Joppa, who remains unnamed, is obsessed with seeing the staff of pharaoh, and in a moment of slap-stick humor, Djehuty obliges by smiting the ruler with the staff.

With the ruler of Joppa incapacitated, but not dead, Djehuty puts into motion one of the first attested ruses in ancient military history: he pretends to surrender to the city of Joppa, presenting hundreds of baskets as the “tribute” of his capitulation. Unknown to the citizens of Joppa, Egyptian soldiers are hidden within the baskets, and they promptly capture the city in what can only be described as a Trojan-horse style story. While the basket stratagem is in the realm of fiction, the setting of the story, Joppa, and its protagonist, Djehuty, are known through archaeological and textual sources — The Capture of Joppa truly is one of the world’s first examples of historical fiction.
One of the hallmarks of historical fiction, I believe, is that both authors and readers understand that it’s fiction. Even something as carefully researched to accord with documented events as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is nonetheless presented as one author’s imagined recreation of the past, not as how people actually thought and events definitely occurred. How did the Egyptians of the New Kingdom understand these tales about figures and events they knew from their history? Did they consider The Capture of Joppa as an entertaining legend or as history?

Another hallmark of historical fiction for me is the determined effort to depict the past as different from the present. That makes it a different mode of storytelling from realistic contemporary fiction, more akin to fantastika in the challenge of smoothly introducing readers to an unfamiliar setting. Again, does that criterion apply to The Capture of Joppa and Manassa’s other examples of ancient historical fiction? Did Egyptians enjoying the story of Djehuty also hear clues that his world was not like theirs?

22 January 2014

The Yellow Block Road

The search for an image for yesterday’s posting led me to Nick Pascale’s recreations of scenes from the MGM Wizard of Oz in Lego blocks. It looks like Pascale confined himself to Lego pieces that were commercially available, not modifying them as other hobbyists do. That still offered a wide range of pieces.
Pascale’s scenes start with Uncle Henry’s farm in black-and-white photos and move on to the full-color scenes in Oz. I don’t see a way to link to only the Wizard of Oz pages within his Storybook Characters series, but they’re all down at the bottom of that alphabetical compendium.
Meanwhile, another Lego hobbyist, Jeremiah KC, has proposed a special “Road to Oz” set for Lego to release this year during the movie’s 75th anniversary.

And on a bigger scale, Gizmodo reported on how twelve builders collaborated on a huge Wizard of Oz Lego landscape at the Brickworld convention last year.

21 January 2014

“One Person Plays Two People”

A lot of young actresses have played at roles from MGM’s Wizard of Oz over the decades, but this weekend I read about a new way it inspired one young viewer.

Sunday’s New York Times featured a conversation between Allison Williams of Girls and Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City, talking about their acting careers.

Williams described her start this way:
Even before I knew what acting was, I told my parents I wanted to do what they did in The Wizard of Oz, where one person plays two people and can put on different costumes. That’s how I articulated it the first time. I was about four. It was dress up.
I’d never considered way of interpreting the double-casting of the farmhands: seeing their “real” selves from Kansas (as opposed to their unfilmed selves as Hollywood actors) playing at being Dorothy’s companions in Oz.

20 January 2014

Non-Fiction over Novels in Schools?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s essay “Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students” at BookForum starts like this:
It wasn’t until my second reading of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, over a decade after it first had been assigned to me by my public high school English teacher, that I understood that Jake’s dick didn’t work. The word “impotence” never shows up in the book, and in my teenage mind it didn’t pose a huge problem between him and Lady Brett. Couldn’t they just dry hump as everyone else in the tenth grade did? Abstract notions of emasculation—how that related to bullfighting, trench warfare, loss, diminution, dying—did not even occur to me.
That particular novel seems like an odd choice for high-schoolers, not just because of its sexual import but also because it’s about disillusioned adults approaching middle age. I know reading is supposed to broaden a person, but developmentally teens have their own concerns to deal with.

Vargas-Cooper’s solution for such disconnects is for high-school classes to teach more nonfiction. However, that nonfiction could be just as foreign to teenagers’ concerns.

In fact, I recall reading a wide range of literature in high-school English: not just novels and plays and some poetry but also John McPhee and Joan Didion and other essayists. I don’t know how my high school in the 1980s compares to Vargas-Cooper’s, but from what I read today, I’m more concerned that today’s English classes are all about writing the five-paragraph essay demanded by tests instead of either good fiction or nonfiction.

19 January 2014

The New Team

Fans eagerly looking forward to the new Superman/Batman team-up movie were disappointed this week with news that their cinematic meeting would be postponed because Ben Affleck, cast as Bruce Wayne, broke his leg. That report turned out be false, though the delay is real, hopefully because the studio thinks this movie could be better than the two heroes’ last ones with a good script.

Still, the whole situation put us in mind of the lead story in World’s Finest, #75 (March 1955), written by Bill Finger and drawn by Curt Swan: “The New Team of Superman and Robin!”

Like other memorable stories that appeared at regular intervals in the 1940s and ’50s, the premise of this adventure was a threat to the Dynamic Duo’s partnership. Batman is laid up with a broken leg, so Superman comes to Gotham City and teams up with Robin to track down the fearsome Purple Mask Gang.

The tale’s emotional focus is lonely Batman moping around his cave, sadly poking at clues, and worrying that the Boy Wonder won’t want to return to their old methods now that he’s had a taste of flying. Of course, like nearly all the stories of that period, it ends with a return to the status quo ante. And, as with Ben Affleck, Batman’s leg turns out to be just fine.

“The New Team of Superman and Robin!” was reprinted in Superman in the Fifties, as well as other collections.

18 January 2014

Free to Be…You and Me in Retrospect

The H-Childhood list just published a review of When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made, a scholarly anthology looking back on Free to Be…You and Me edited by Lori Rotskoff and Laura L. Lovett:
In their introduction to the collection, Rotskoff and Lovett note that “the landscape of childhood (now) harkens back to the sharply divided sex roles of the Leave It to Beaver era,” a shift that left them asking: “What happened to the ideals that inspired Free to Be ... You and Me?” (p. 2). It is this broad and deeply important question that motivates the book, a nostalgic look back that is firmly rooted in a thoughtful social and political analysis. They treat the original text “as an artifact that registered concerns unique to the moment that produced it, and as a cultural landmark that still generates new meanings today” (p. 3). Overall, the collection attends not only to questions of gender, which are of course central, but also to their intersections with questions of race, ethnicity, and to some extent sexuality. . . .

One of the many strengths of this collection comes from the great variety of vantage points from which the contributors reflect on and analyze this cultural phenomenon and its impact forty years later. Rotskoff and Lovett are historians, and the collection includes pieces by other academics: specialists in history, sociology, psychology, politics, gender studies, and cultural studies. Some contributors are celebrity artists and activists, like Free to Be’s creator Marlo Thomas herself, as well as Alan Alda and Gloria Steinem. They are joined by composers, producers, television and film writers, and performing artists of many stripes. Some contributors are leading journalists and bloggers who write about gender issues, family, media, and politics. . . .

Right from the outset, in their introduction, the editors explicitly welcome readers drawn to the title by their own personal memories of Free to Be, and the book is written and edited in a manner that will indeed welcome those readers. But there is also thoughtful, nuanced work of scholarship here. The essays engage Free to Be from a diverse array of perspectives, situate it in a clear and compelling historical context, and bring to bear satisfying cultural analysis and cultural criticism.
Free to Be…You and Me wasn’t one of my favorite books by any means, but it was certainly a touchstone of my childhood. I recall school chorus presentations based on it. In college I became friends with a girl who appeared in the accompanying movie.

In fact, growing up in a progressive family and suburb, it was hard to imagine anyone rejecting its affirmations. Even now I find myself considering issues of gender through the lens that Free to Be provided (which actually feels somewhat limiting when it comes to transgender issues).

17 January 2014

George F. Will Senses I’s, as in “OIP Derangement Syndrome”

Back in June 2009, George F. Will criticized President Barack Obama for being “inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun.” At Language Log, linguist Mark Liberman tested Will’s judgment:
I took the transcript of Obama's first press conference (from 2/9/2009), and found that he used 'I' 163 times in 7,775 total words, for a rate of 2.10%. He also used 'me' 8 times and 'my' 35 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 206 in 7,775 words, or a rate of 2.65%.

For comparison, I took George W. Bush's first two solo press conferences as president (from 2/22/2001 and 3/29/2001), and found that W used 'I' 239 times in 6,681 total words, for a rate of 3.58% — a rate 72% higher than Obama's rate. President Bush also used 'me' 26 times, 'my' 31 times, and 'myself' 4 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 300 in 6,681 words, or a rate of 4.49% (59% higher than Obama).
But curiously Will had never made the same “inordinately fond” critique of George W. Bush. He was close enough to Bush to slip the candidate an index card revealing a question he’d ask on the air, but evidently didn’t listen closely to how Bush answered questions.

In October 2009, Will expanded his criticism to include First Lady Michelle Obama, evidently trying to respond to takedowns like Liberman’s by offering numbers:
In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns "I" or "me" 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences conveyed the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago's case compelling.
Liberman again tested the context of Will’s remark:
Barack Obama's Olympic remarks included 26 first-person-singular words out of 1130, for a rate of 2.3%. This is slightly below his typical rate for presidential press conferences, and a bit more than half the rate of the George W. Bush pressers that I measured earlier (2.3/4.49 = 51%, to be precise). . . .

It's true that Michelle's tally was higher — 45 first-person-singular words out of 781, for a rate of 5.76%.

This is almost as much as the 6.4% first-person-singulars registered by Nancy Reagan's statement on Edward Kennedy's death, or the 7.0% achieved by her remarks at the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan in 2001, or the 10.0% notched by her discussion of the assassination attempt on her husband.
We’ll recall that Will was close enough to Ronald Reagan to help coach him for a Presidential debate and then go on TV as a “journalist” to declare that Reagan had won performed well. But Nancy Reagan’s use of pronouns didn’t get under his skin the way Michelle Obama’s does.

In May 2012, Will regurgitated his idea once more, saying on television:
If you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent, which would be a mercy to us and a service to him, actually.
Once again, Liberman shared actual evidence from the radio addresses of the last five Presidents, starting with Reagan. Once again, Barack Obama scored lowest on the use of the “first-person singular pronoun.” Fed up with such claims, Liberman declared Will’s statement to be a lie.

Will’s thought process is clear. He has such a visceral reaction to hearing this President that he has to justify that feeling to himself in a socially acceptable way. He therefore complains that President Obama (and his wife) are too focused on themselves. In fact, Will’s problem is obviously that he doesn’t like to hear people like them speaking from a position of authority and respect, regardless of what pronouns they use.

15 January 2014

Writing for “the Saddest Little Girl in the World”

Here’s Jimmy Gownley, author of the Amelia Rules! series, on the Comic Book Diner podcast a couple of years back, talking about his response to criticism that his comic for kids shouldn’t tackle tough emotional topics:
The trick, and this is the hokiest thing in the world and is completely corny and you guys will be like rolling your eyes, but I always picture like writing Amelia for one person: the saddest little girl in the world. Okay? . . .

You don’t know if she has any friends, you don’t know if she has any family or any money, but she’s, like, in a library, right? And she’s just miserable. And she has this book.

And so what am I going to say to her? Well, I want to say something that’s funny, hopefully. I want to say something that’s uplifting, ultimately. But I also want to say something that’s true, because false hope isn’t hope. It’s just a lie.

So that’s what I try to do. And the truth of the matter is that sometimes childhood is not “suitable for children.”
These remarks appear at about 42 minutes into podcast episode 50. I can’t find a link to that episode on the Comic Book Diner website, but cohost John Gallagher has a link here.

14 January 2014

Leaving Us Wishing for More

Marvel Comics has halted its series of adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books at the end of Baum’s first series: The Emerald City of Oz, which [***SPOILERS***] brings Dorothy Gale and her family to the Emerald City and cuts Oz off from the Great Outside World.

Alas, that means we won’t see Eric Shanower’s and Skottie Young’s retellings of The Patchwork Girl of Oz, Rinkitink in Oz, The Magic of Oz, or other volumes in Baum’s second series, at least anytime soon.

This isn’t a surprise, given the natural sales decline over the life of a series and the smaller number of issues that Marvel allotted to the most recent books. Young announced the development last October.

Is it too optimistic to see Marvel.com’s own interview with Shanower and Young as leaving the door open for future volumes?
Marvel.com: Are than any remaining stories in the Oz line you'd like to explore at some point?

Eric Shanower: Yes. I think it would be great to adapt the rest of the Baum Oz books to comics; I’d especially like to see comics adaptations of “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” and “Rinkitink in Oz,” and maybe some of Baum’s Oz-related fantasies like “Sky Island” and “Queen Zixi of Ix.” But I’d want to work with an artist of Skottie’s caliber. I’ve been working on one Oz project or another my whole career, and I know these Marvel Oz adaptations won’t be the last. Some sort of Oz material is always popping up on my radar.

Skottie Young: I definitely want to draw that Patchwork Girl. I actually wish that would’ve come up sooner. It’s bittersweet because I really want to play with the character, but I also know it’s good to take a break. Ah, we’ll see what happens!
These comics have sold well in book form (that’s how I buy them), so continued strong sales could make a new volume look like a good economic bet. Meanwhile, both Eisner Award-winning creators are busy on new projects.

13 January 2014

The Lion’s Panels and Mine

Back in November I shared this image of a medal-bearing lion, drawn by Denise Ortakales as a symbol of the New England conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators on 2-4 May 2014.

The full image has now appeared on the web, and I was right in seeing a link to the Cowardly Lion. Look at the wall behind the award-winning feline artist, and you’ll see a comics page depicting a fight between a lion and a vested Winged Monkey.

The full SCBWI New England Conference schedule is on the same page. I’m leading a workshop on “Building Narrative Momentum” and moderating panels on “Publishing Bravely” and “Hybrid Publishing.” (I think I’m also moderating “Publishing In and Out of New York” on Sunday.)

12 January 2014

Another Look at Leaving the Manor

This is from Comics Should Be Good!’s series “The Line It Is Drawn,” this week a challenge to draw well-known comics characters in an homage to a well-known painting.

This is, of course, a reworking of the opening pages of “One Bullet Too Many” from 1969 as Norman Rockwell’s “Breaking Home Ties.” The subject was suggested by Keith Alan Morgan.

The artist who drew this, Bill Walko, created the webcomic The Hero Business and is a mainstay at Titans Tower.

11 January 2014

The Everlys Apart

On Thursday I quoted record producer Dave Edmunds on working with the Everly Brothers as they tentatively recorded again after a decade apart. Edmunds also noted:
Something that struck me about Don and Phil was, that I have never before encountered such a disparity of personalities and opposing values in two brothers. You get on well with one, at the cost of not getting on well with the other. I never met anyone who was close to both. While Don and I hit it off so well, I never managed to unravel Phil, and vice versa.
On the other hand, Joel Selvin found Phil more congenial, as he wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle this week:
These two brothers could fight. They refused to do joint interviews and only posed for photographs together by appointment. Their contract not only called for separate dressing rooms, but separate stage entrances. “I don’t know,” Phil Everly once told me. “You’re up there nose-to-nose at the microphone and pretty soon, he starts breathing your air.”

It was a Biblical torture. Two brothers forced together, unable to make their separate ways in the world, dependent and resentful of one another the whole way. . . .

The two brothers couldn't have been more dissimilar. When they were out on the road together, Don was a raucous, outgoing, life-of-the-party type, while his brother was a quiet, cordial and soft-spoken gentleman.

A mutual friend, songwriter Sharon Sheeley, sent me to meet Phil Everly backstage at a show at the Circle Star Theater in the late ’80s. A loud party spilled out of one dressing room into the hallway. A bunch of biker-types and their ladies crowded into the room, drinking bourbon out of Styrofoam cups. In the center of the throng was Don Everly.

Down the hall, at the far end of the corridor, in another dressing room, sitting on an upended suitcase and looking at a magazine all by himself was Phil Everly. He was glad to have company.
I have a couple of compilations of the brothers’ solo recordings from the 1970s and early ’80s. Many of the tracks sound incomplete, like their demos. Every so often one pops out because of the double-tracked harmonies.

As All Music said about one collection, “Don, freed of the brotherly harmonies, usually likes to sing solo lead against backup choruses, while Phil often re-creates brother-like duo vocals.” As hard as the Everlys found it to work together, that was when they were truly the best.

10 January 2014

The Blockage of OIP Derangement Syndrome

With Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey suddenly forced to respond to clear evidence that his deputy chief of staff and other appointees abused government power on his behalf, the American right is flopping around for a response. And the consensus is, of course, to complain about President Barack Obama.

This morning’s conservative talking point appears to be that Christie’s press conference was more forthright and responsible than Obama’s response to problems. For example, Talking Points Memo reported on this discussion on Morning Joe:

Mika Brzezinski said the presser trumped the President’s response to last year's scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service.

“Obama said he didn’t know about it, but he didn’t do what Chris Christie did,” Brzezinski said. “Which was say, ‘But I’m responsible, and I don’t know what I did in my office, and I’ve got to do a lot of soul-searching to figure out why people felt they could do this. I thought that was extremely —”

“Have you ever heard Barack Obama say that?” host Joe Scarborough chimed in.
I’ve seen others try to draw parallels to the poor healthcare.gov rollout, the ATF’s “gun walking” investigations that go back to the Bush-Cheney administration, and the National Park Service closings. And, of course, Benghazi.

But a clear look at those issues shows that they’re not parallel to the Christie administration’s abuse of power. No one has found a White House deputy chief of staff telling an agency head to cause trouble for people because the head of their political jurisdiction didn’t cross party lines to endorse the President. After months of investigation, no one has linked the misreported IRS scandal to the White House, much less to directives from someone at the level of a deputy chief of staff.

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, insists that he’s never heard President Obama take responsibility for things that happened under his administration. His brain has apparently failed to retain contrary news stories of the past few years. For example, “Obama Says He Is Ultimately Responsible for Benghazi Security” (The Hill, 28 Oct 2012), and “President Obama Apologizes to Americans Who Are Losing Their Health Insurance“ (Washington Post, 7 Nov 2013).

In sum, President Obama has accepted ultimate responsibility for government problems, even for things he and his White House staff didn’t cause. Governor Christie disclaims responsibility for actions of his deputy chief of staff and others on his behalf. People affected by OIP Derangement Syndrome can’t remember the former and somehow see something to admire in the latter.

09 January 2014

Recording the Everlys’ Comeback

In the early 1980s Don and Phil Everly patched up their professional partnership for the sake of their rabid British fans. They had a reunion concert in London and then recorded a couple of albums there. Here’s some of what producer Dave Edmunds said about the struggle of getting the brothers back into the recording studio at the same time:
The band and I would show up at noon and work on the arrangements, as far as we could without Don and Phil’s input and participation. Don would arrive at about 3 p.m., and could be persuaded to sing a guide vocal and discuss arrangements, but would usually prefer to sit in the control room relaying humorous anecdotes from his legendary career, as though deferring the awful moment of commitment.

While I was quite happy listening, enthralled by his stories of the early recordings they had made, the methods they employed, and the impressive musicians they had available to them, along with many hair-raising tales of their early touring years, we were making slow progress in the vocal department.

Phil would arrive at the studio even later than Don, and, both having made prior dinner arrangements, would consequently leave the studio around seven in the evening. It was even more problematic coaxing Phil up to the microphone. At first he suggested that Don should sing his part first, and that he would add his harmony later.

Now, anyone familiar with their music, and who has listened to Don Everly’s solo work, will be aware of the fact that Don sings completely differently on his own, constantly altering his phrasing, and will rarely sing anything the same way twice. It is inconceivable that Phil was not aware of this fact, but insisted that we do it his way. It was like trying to separate yin from yang. We tried this approach once, but I found it to be a miserable experience, with Phil becoming frustrated and throwing the occasional prima-donna fit. Eventually, after some prodding, I persuaded them to share the microphone, with some magnificent results, once they warmed up and became familiar with the songs.
My favorite track on that EB84 album was “You Make It Seem So Easy,” written by Don. Listen to how they put six syllables into “you”—followed by a cascading seven in “easy.”

08 January 2014

Plenty of Everly Brothers Songs to Discover

I was sad to hear about the death of Phil Everly over the weekend. No musicians have given me more pleasure than him and his brother Don. Their 1950s hits for Cadence ensured that the voice of the American teenager was central to rock’n’roll music, but their harmonies (and the guitar licks Don usually came up with) made those songs last.

Of course, one downside of classics is that they become familiar. Almost all those early Everly songs are about teenage love or (more often) heartache, or they’re self-consciously quaint Americana. Phil helped to build that repertoire by writing “(Girls, Girls, Girls Are) Made to Love” and “When Will I Be Loved?”—crystalline in their emotion but subtle. Luckily, their main songwriters, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, could draw variations on the main theme. “Wake Up, Little Susie” played the awkward end of a teenagers’ date for tragedy; “Poor Jenny” played it for farce.

But after the Everlys signed a giant contract with Warner Bros. and then lost the Bryants’ services, their catalogue turned toward the maudlin. The tempos slowed, the tears jerked. The singing was still wonderful, but those early-1960s records aren’t my favorites.

And then the hits dried up. The Everlys also hit some personal rough patches. Those things happened around the time that the Beatles arrived in America; ironically, the brothers had two more good years on the British charts. Yet they continued to write and record songs together through the late 1960s and into the early ’70s, first for Warners and then under a new contract with RCA.

And a lot of those songs are terrific. In what turned out to be his last interview, with Paste magazine, Phil Everly ruled out ever recording or touring with Don again but added:
Have you heard our Pass the Chicken and Listen album? It’s a strange damn title, but Chet Atkins produced it. So for anybody who’s actually interested in our stuff and wanted to hear something, they ought to listen to that album. It’s a very interesting album. I don’t sit around and listen to our stuff at all—it’s just what I remember. And my favorite song on the thing is called “Lay It Down, Brother.” But whenever people talk about Don and I recording again—which almost everybody usually mentions—I always say ‘Well, there’s plenty of things that you haven’t heard! Plenty of things out there to discover!’
Casting around for a hit or an older audience meant the Everly Brothers got away from the formulas of their early career. Their love songs became more mature. “Up in Mabel’s Room” (co-written by Phil) is on the edge of blue. “Woman, Don’t Try to Tie Me Down” is caddish. They tried the quasi-medieval “Lord of the Manor,” the singer-songwriter confessional “I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas” (by Don), even mild psychedelia. Nothing like their big familiar hits, but all immediately identifiable as Everly Brothers recordings. And all fresh to the ears.

07 January 2014

Ozma with “Tresses of Ruddy Gold”

This is Brigette Barrager’s portrait of Ozma, created for the Gallery Nucleus exhibit.

Barrager’s webpage shows a sketch for this image, as well as some other preliminary sketches of Ozma and Dorothy. They look like what might have graced the Oz books if they’d been published about 1960.

06 January 2014

More Hastings

Leigh Dyer is a self-taught metal sculptor working out of Hastings, the English town best down for a battle that took place nearby nearly a millennium ago.

Hunt, who heads Incurva Studios, is adorning the town with statues that combine sea life with giant chess pieces. As the English Chess Federation reported, the town already had a giant chess board in a park. But now it also has:
In addition, Dyer’s giant winkle on a column with fish, a separate work, looks a lot like a pawn.

05 January 2014

Beast Boy in Turnaround

Last month the artist Karl Kerschl shared six pages drawn and colored for the Teen Titans: Year One miniseries (published in 2008 and discussed back here) but yanked from the book. (Thanks to Icon_UK for spreading the word about Kerschl’s posting.)

Garfield Logan, known at different times as Beast Boy and Changeling, was originally a different sort of kid sidekick from the Doom Patrol comic. He made a cameo appearance in one early issue of Teen Titans, returned for a couple more issues when that series resumed in the mid-1970s, and then flowered as the main comic relief in Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans of the 1980s. Beast Boy is also one of the five Titans included in the TV cartoons.

As a result, there was fan interest in seeing what he was up to while the Titans formed, but he wasn’t on that first team and part of their first storylines. In fact, his status as a lonely kid eager to join the big kids’ team is key to his characterization in some stories.

Kerschl described what he and scripter Amy Wolfram were aiming for in these discarded pages:
The original concept was to do a two-page Beast Boy sequence at the end of each issue, telling the story of Beast Boy (always depicted as an animal) looking for the Teen Titans he’s heard so much about because he wants to join. He visits the locations from the story but is always too late to catch them. In the end, I guess he would have found them and he’d have been included in Teen Titans: Year Two. Presumably.

Anyway, only the first sequence got printed, but when someone actually noticed that we were doing something fun, we were ordered from on high to remove the Beast Boy story from the issues because “animals in the DC Universe don’t talk.”
This seems all too typical for Gar Logan. He’s always had hard luck, which he hides behind jokes and bonhomie. Gar aches for family and admiration more than anyone, but he’s never become a star—always an ensemble member. (Well, Beast Boy did headline a four-issue miniseries in 2000—but even that had to feature a couple of rescues and cover appearances by Dick Grayson, and it was reprinted inside a Teen Titans collection.)

So Kerschl’s news that Gar Logan was supposed to have a solo spotlight in Teen Titans: Year One, only to be unceremoniously dropped, makes me imagine an episode within DC’s previous continuity:
“Hey, Dick—it’s Gar! How ya doing? . . . Oh, nothing, I just wanted to pick your brain about my movie deal. Haven’t I told you? . . . Anyway, the studio guys and I have been having meetings about the best way to brand it: Changeling or Beast Boy? Or maybe Beast Boy: The Changeling!

“It’s a feature about my origin: I get powers, become a major TV star, then have to choose between that and saving the world. Real life, just a little compressed. Don’t worry—I make the right choice, of course.

“The sequel might have space for the Titans as supporting characters. Nothing against team movies—they’re great for heroes who don’t have the fan bases to finance a feature individually. But, you know, there’s X-Men and then there’s Iron Man, right?

“Since you were in the business, kind of, I thought I’d ask what you thought about the title—Hang on, I’ve got a call coming in from my agent.

“Hey, Ellie! What’s new today? . . . Really? . . . Did they say why? . . . But they knew about the green when they optioned. It’s kind of my thing. . . . New people? Yeah, I know how it is. Any chance of— . . . Oh. Okay. Well, I guess I can take that motion-capture job after all. . . . A different direction? Well, good luck to them getting a real orangutan to hit his marks! . . . Yeah, Ellie. Thanks for telling me.

“Dick, you still there? Well, anyway, these movie deals, they, you know, take a long time. So don’t spend too much energy on that title thing, all right? . . . Say, do you know what the Titans are paying these days?”

02 January 2014

All the Young Humans

Humans of New York is Brandon Stanton’s photography blog, which recently featured this portrait. The blog led to a book of the same title published this year by St. Martin’s.

The collection is wonderful, full of color and personality and very short stories. Stanton is particularly good at capturing kids. Of course, it helps that he’s walking the streets of New York, where the combination of human density, variety, and appreciation of difference produces a very wide spectrum of style, even in the young.

I was planning to recommend the book even before I spotted one of my college roommates, Jefferson Mays, and his wife inside.