30 September 2014

A Myth about Oz’s “Women in Strong Leadership Roles”

A new myth about banning The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has cropped up and spread on the web.

Back in March 2013, R. Wolf Baldassarro posted a blog essay about objections to the book. Baldassarro isn’t a librarian, educator, or scholar. He’s a “seasoned paranormal investigator” who happens to feel strongly about book banning.

I found several faults with that essay, including falling for a 2004 Deadbrain hoax about Jerry Falwell and misquoting sources.

Baldassarro’s essay also said about the book:
Nevertheless, it has come under attack several times. Ministers and educators challenged it for its “ungodly” influence and for depicting women in strong leadership roles. They opposed not only children reading it, but adults as well, lest it undermine longstanding gender roles.

In 1928, the city of Chicago banned it from all public libraries.
Note that the words “depicting women in strong leadership roles” were Baldassarro’s own. While ascribing that thought to “Ministers and educators,” he didn’t cite any source, person, place, or date for that complaint.

Despite (or because of) how it overstated the evidence, Baldassarro’s essay got quoted on Buzzfeed and other sites.

Then this February Kristina Rosenthal at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlane Library posted her own essay on the book’s troubles with librarians and censors, which said:
In 1928 all public libraries banned the book arguing that the story was ungodly for “depicting women in strong leadership roles”. This argument remained the common defense against the novels from ministers and educators through the 1950s and 60s.
Baldassarro’s statement about a supposed policy in Chicago thus became a statement about “all public libraries,” and his phrase “depicting women in strong leadership roles” appeared as if it were a direct quotation from those 1928 book banners. That’s shoddy scholarship.

Furthermore, that statement doesn’t stand up to the briefest historical scrutiny. In 1928, Reilly & Lee was publishing one book every year in the Oz series, and would continue to do so for over a decade. How would that have remained economic if “all public libraries banned the book”? Hollywood adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a feature film in 1925, a cartoon in 1933, and a major feature in 1939. If the book had so many opponents, why was it so broadly popular?

Was there really widespread opposition to “women in strong leadership roles,” even in a fairy tale, in 1928 America? Women had just finished serving as governors of Wyoming and Texas. In 1929 nine women took seats in Congress, including one elected from Illinois.

Finally, people who actually read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz know that its “women in strong leadership roles” consist of Glinda and possibly the Good Witch of the North; two others, the Wicked Witches, are actually eliminated. Meanwhile, the story shows the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all becoming males in strong leadership roles.

I don’t think there’s any evidence of widespread, powerful objections to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or its sequels based on their depiction of Glinda, Ozma, or Dorothy as strong females. There’s certainly no evidence that was cited in 1928 as a reason for “all public libraries” or any to ban the book. That’s a myth based on our wish to see ourselves as greatly superior to the people of past decades.

29 September 2014

Here Be Monsters! Animated at Last

As the movie The Box-Trolls opened this weekend, I thought it was interesting to look at what I wrote about its source material, Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, back in 2007:
Snow's art reminds me of the great Quentin Blake's, and most of the fun of the book starts with them. Indeed, it looks like the whole story grew from the illustrations, and Snow was creating animations alongside his manuscript. Some of those short videos can be viewed at the book's homepage, or this page from Atheneum.

And that may be a reason I just wasn't turned on by Here Be Monsters! It feels like the scenario for an animated movie. In that format, the whimsical plot and characters could play out without interference from the prose. The actions are nifty and new, but the descriptions of those actions are flat and the depictions of emotions even more so. (Page 48: "...Willbury asked in a puzzled voice." Page 49: "Arthur looked sad.")

Here Be Monsters! also suffers from a quality shared by a number of classic animated movies: a dearth of significant female characters. By page 100, we've met young foundling Arthur, his grandfather, his powerful and eccentric protector Willbury, four little refugees from the underground, two even tinier refugees--and they're all male. We've glimpsed a secret society of cheese-hunters--also all male.

Sure, there's a woman who swipes at Arthur's artificial wings when he steals bananas from her greenhouse (a quickly vanishing antagonist). There's an unintelligible sea-cow separated from her children (a purely symbolic mother figure). Willbury mentions a female colleague. And the "Taxonomy of Trolls and Creatures" in the frontmatter hints at the eventual arrival of "Rabbit Women," sort of: "Very little is known about these mythical creatures..." Well, that's the problem, isn't it?

Page 110 finally brings the first extended glimpse of the women of Ratbridge:
There were an awful lot of ladies doing an awful lot of cackling. And as they cackled, they tottered slowly down the streets, their bottoms wobbling behind them. Arthur had not seen bottoms like these before. From the way the ladies paraded their derrieres, it seemed that to have an interesting behind was very much the thing!
These ladies are in thrall to a "Fashion Princess" who's obviously a nasty con artist, and just a little less obviously the male villain in drag. And by that point I'd stopped reading.
The book has indeed become an animated feature film. Significantly, it now has a girl alongside young Arthur as one of the main characters, prominently featured in the advertising. At least one review has commented on how the box-trolls themselves are still all male, but at least there was some progress in the intervening seven years.

28 September 2014

Beyond Batman Beyond

It’s interesting to watch what DC Comics has done with its Batman Beyond storyline this year, reflecting changes in its target audience.

Batman Beyond was a spin-off of the very successful 1990s Batman TV cartoons of the 1990s. Les Daniels’s Batman history states, “a new show was requested that might skew toward younger viewers.” The resulting cartoon was set in the future when the world has more advanced technology and Bruce Wayne is a goddamn octagenarian. The new Batman was a hot-tempered teenager named Terry McGinnnis.

This show was an extension of the DC Animated Universe, thus not tied to the publisher’s main comic-book continuity. There was an accompanying comic book in 1999-2001, but readers were supposed to keep it separate in their minds from the main Batman titles of the time.

In this version of the future, Barbara Gordon has long ago retired as Batgirl and now holds her father’s old job as police commissioner. She was romantically involved with Dick Grayson when they were college-age, then later with Bruce Wayne for some unspecified period, and is now married to someone else. Dick himself, having established himself in the DCAU as Nightwing, has left Bruce’s team and is nowhere to be seen.

Batman Beyond lasted for 52 episodes plus a TV movie—a respectable but not sterling run. Nevertheless, it made a strong impression on a lot of viewers, including Kyle Higgins. He told Comics Alliance:
I was such a huge fan of the show. The DC Animated continuity was my introduction to DC Comics growing up. So I know that stuff inside and out, and I actually know it better than the books.
Higgins’s fondness for the cartoon is also evident in how he spoke about it on Kevin Smith’s podcast and in other interviews.

In 2010, DC launched a series of new Batman Beyond runs scripted by Adam Beechen. One of his mandates was to tie the world of the TV cartoon more closely to the DC comics (though those were about to go through some sudden changes themselves). Beechen brought back Dick Grayson, revealing that he’d stepped away from crime-fighting and from Bruce Wayne after losing one of his eyes in a fight.

That was the history Higgins inherited when he took over DC’s digital-first Batman Beyond series in 2013. His series was subtitled “2.0” because it showed Terry McGinnis breaking away from Bruce as mentor and working instead with Dick. Higgins was thus writing two different versions of Dick Grayson as he finished his Nightwing run and started this series.

In a story titled “Mark of the Phantasm” (digital issues #25-31), Higgins and co-writer Alec Siegel dug deeper into the relationships among Barbara, Bruce, and Dick. Craig Rousseau provided the art for the scenes set in the future, adhering to the standard Batman Beyond style. Phil Hester penciled scenes set in the past, following the style of the earlier Batman: The Animated Series cartoon and its spin-off comics.

Issue #28 shows Barbara and Dick telling Terry how they broke with Bruce. In their early twenties they had started to rekindle their relationship and Dick was ready to propose, only for Barbara to discover she’d become pregnant by Bruce—only for Barbara to miscarry after intervening in a mugging.

Remember, this story appeared in a continuity created to “skew toward younger viewers.” But that was back in 1999. Those same viewers have aged fifteen years and are ready for plot twists based on sexual relationships and spontaneous abortion. They got that more adult story even within the nostalgic visual style that Hester provided.

In another sign of the DCAU’s hold on today’s comics readers, the main DC Comics continuity is being disrupted by a crossover story called “Future’s End,” and Terry McGinnis as a next-generation Batman is in the middle of it all. While he still represents only one possible future for the company’s main continuity, he’s also what the company thinks its present-day readers want to see.

27 September 2014

Praying to Adidas

Of the items I read on the web this week, my favorite might well be this Gawker essay from July about a claim by right-wing “militia” members that they’d found and photographed a “Muslim prayer rug” abandoned on the US-Mexico border.

Adam Weinstein analyzed their photo thusly:
1. Here we see a waist hemline on the Muslim prayer rug.

2. This would be a sleeve opening on the Muslim prayer rug, just above the diamond-hatch red-and-white pattern so popular among lower-tier football clubs and militant Muslim prayer-rug salesmen.

3. Islamic scholars and Arsenal fans will immediately recognize "die marke mit den 3 streifen" [Adidas trademark] here on the Muslim prayer rug.
Of course, that didn’t stop the Lieutenant Governor of Texas from repeating the old rug tale this week.

26 September 2014

Gingrich’s Leap of Language

On Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama spoke about the expansion of the US war in Afghanistan and Iraq into ISIL-occupied Syria. The White House transcript of that statement is here, pegged to the time of 10:14 AM.

Former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich responded with a series of tweets.

On the other hand, Gingrich did not have the courtesy to listen to the speech himself, check the official White House text, or wait less than twenty minutes for C-Span to review its real-time transcription.

As the New York Times patiently explained:
…as any regular C-Span viewer can tell you, the network’s real-time captioning produces some far from accurate phrasing. In fact, later in the day, C-Span had Mr. Obama “partnering with African on Jupiter” on clean energy projects. What the president said was “partnering with African entrepreneurs.”
When faced with what he recognized as a “weird” text, Gingrich couldn’t simply consider that there might be an error and hold off commenting until he found more information. Instead, he fit that into his false image of President Obama’s foreign policy and leapt to criticize it. That’s another sign of Gingrich’s ongoing OIP Derangement Syndrome.

25 September 2014

Crowdsourcing Archeology

I caught this interesting story from the Guardian earlier in the week.

It seems that back in September 1954, some archeologists were exploring a site in London before an office building went up there, and in the last hour of a Saturday afternoon they discovered a Roman temple. The Temple of Mithras, to be exact.

It’s almost unfathomable to me as a New World native, but the British authorities apparently have so many Roman ruins to oversee that they decided this one couldn’t interfere with the construction project.

To be sure, there was a lot of press attention, and crowds so large that police had to be called in, but in pretty quick order the temple ruins were simply “moved and haphazardly reconstructed on another part of the site.” Without good documentation or preservation.

The Guardian picks up the story:
Now Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA) experts are trying to recover as many memories of the site as possible, and hope to discover colour photographs or even paintings to help with the project to reconstruct it yet again, this time accurately and back on its original foundations.

Site records say the stones were originally joined with pink mortar, but apparently no samples were kept. They hope a visitor may have left with a souvenir piece of mortar in a pocket, and that it’s still out there in a cardboard box on top of a wardrobe.

Already a ticket has turned up that suggests some of the visiting public were allowed to help with the digging. A startling letter, evidently from the friend who secured it for the donor’s aunt, said: “One has to get a ticket from Humphreys of Knightsbridge. We did this and got one for you too because they say today is the last day! So do go along … We found bones and a tooth.”
So this is a project to recover memories and artifacts of an event sixty years ago, in order to better preserve a site (already disturbed) from somewhat less than two thousand years ago.

24 September 2014

Carol Tilley on “When Comics Almost Died”

On Monday night I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois on Dr. Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comics in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I knew that basic story well from Jules Feiffer’s Greatest Comic Book Heroes and more recent books. In fact, I remember finding a copy of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in a library during a high-school summer and wondering at its form of argumentation.

Tilley’s research has filled out that picture in several ways. One was, as I noted back here, to document how Wertham edited his notes on counseling sessions when he wrote his book, making his young patients say what fit his thesis and leaving out significant evidence that would undercut it.

Another, and for me this was a highlight of Tilley’s talk, was to collect and display the letters from young comic-book readers to Wertham arguing against his conclusions. They pointed out, sometimes eloquently, that they were more representative of kids who enjoyed comics than the juvenile delinquents and troubled youth he saw in his psychiatric practice.

Tilley had also found those teens’ yearbook photos and interviewed them so she could put (perfectly ordinary) faces up on the screen beside their names and words. Evidently Wertham read through their letters, marking grammar, punctuation, or spelling mistakes, before filing them away and never answering.

After Prof. Tilley’s talk, the question came up about how Wertham, a very progressive child psychiatrist who set up a practice in Harlem and provided evidence for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, could be so oppressive when it came to comics. My view was that all those actions came from the same crusading desire to protect vulnerable children. These days most book challenges in America seem to come from the political right, but the anti-comics critics were all over the political spectrum.

Afterwards, a bunch of us went out for dinner and had a lot of laughs, so I should start calling Prof. Tilley “Carol” now. If you get a chance to see her “When Comics Almost Died” lecture, take it.

23 September 2014

Finding Neverland Has a Lot to Answer For

In 2004 Miramax released Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp playing a handsomer-than-real-life James M. Barrie, Kate Winslet as a more-widowed-than-real-life Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, and Freddie Highmore as one of her less-doomed-than-real-life sons.

It was a modern “prestige picture,” with a historical setting, literary roots, paeans to preserving childhood imagination, and a noble dying parent. All the odd aspects of Barrie’s relationship with the Llewellyn Davies family and of late-Victorian Britain were blurred away.

That movie made $116 million worldwide, more than four times its production budget. More important, it was nominated for seven Oscars and won one (for best score), which is what studios want in a prestige picture. Harvey Weinstein is now producing a Broadway musical based on it.

Two years later the Weinstein Company offered Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter. Last year Disney (owner of Miramax) gave us Saving Mr. Banks, with Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney; the company entered that deal to protect its brand, but the result was another prestige picture that distorted literary history.

There were, to be sure, earlier biopics about British children’s-book writers, such as Dreamchild (1985) with Ian Holm as Lewis Carroll and Shadowlands (1993) with Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis. But those were about the contrasts between childhood literature and adult life, not about fantasy stories making everybody happy again.

It’s possible that Hollywood now thinks it’s run out of dead British children’s authors who are famous in the States. (Evidently E. Nesbit is not well known enough, and her solution to family troubles too worrisome.) The studios have therefore moved on to American children’s-book writers.

This week the Hollywood Reporter broke the news that New Line Cinema bought the script for Road to Oz, a biopic about L. Frank Baum. The writer, Josh Golden, has even been working with one of the Finding Neverland producers, Nellie Bellflower. (And somehow the team of Golden and Bellflower doesn’t seem like they would turn out an unflinching look at the human condition.)

The John Ritter TV movie The Dreamer of Oz (1990) already showed it’s possible to fit Baum’s life into the arc of a man prone to fantasizing who redeems himself through telling children’s stories. Oz proved its potential to generate international box-office success with Oz the Great and Powerful last year (and its potential to lay an egg with this year’s Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return). So this screenplay might actually get made.

Interestingly, New Line is part of the same Time Warner corporation that owns rights to the 1939 MGM movie. This biopic might therefore be able to use elements from that film, which Baum never saw, but which could trigger the requisite warm nostalgia from viewers who don’t know the real story.

22 September 2014

Philip Pullman in Three or Fewer Dimensions

Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library has a podcast called “Bibliofiles,” and this comes from its new conversation with author Philip Pullman:
I’ve written four fairy tales. I call them fairy tales—I Was a Rat!, Clockwork, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and The Scarecrow and His Servant. They’re different from my novels because the characters are flat rather than round. That’s the way I think of it.

When I’m doing a novel such as the Sally books or “His Dark Materials,” the purpose, what you’re trying to do, is make the characters as real as you can make them, which involves a certain amount of three-dimensionalism. Now you know they’ve got depths, depths sometimes which they’re not aware of themselves. So you want to make those characters as real as possible.

But in a fairy tale, such as the four books I’ve mentioned and of course, “Puss in Boots,” I've done that, and the Grimm tales, the Tales from the Brothers Grimm, character isn’t such an important thing. All the characters in a fairy tale are pretty flat, really. They don’t have much depth. And the interest of the story is not in the psychological complexity of the character so much is in the incident and what happens and what succeeds and will follow it. So they’re different kinds of writing.
Pullman is of course pulling from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, as well as the Victorian distinction between “novels of incident” and “novels of character.”

21 September 2014

Burt Ward’s Karate Lessons

In 1965 Burt Ward did some karate demonstrations as part of his audition for the part of Dick Grayson/Robin on the upcoming Batman TV show. Those somewhat awkward screen tests are now on YouTube, of course.

Ward’s Wikipedia entry states that he had a black belt in Taekwondo—but that statement is followed by the ominous “[citation needed]” note.

In fact, back in November 1968, Black Belt magazine reported on Ward’s attempt to catch up to what his publicists were saying about his martial-arts skills. It says that “chopping a brick in half” for his screen test was “a trick he’d picked up from karate enthusiasts.”

Ward started to study with Young Ik Suh (1939-2013), a local Taekwondo teacher from Korea. At first he worked on the moves needed for the next day’s filming, according to the Black Belt article. But after Bruce Lee appeared on the show as the Green Hornet’s partner Kato, Ward felt he needed deeper knowledge.

Young therefore developed a six-month “Quick Course in Karate” to teach Ward the fundamental concepts and over 300 moves. The article is written in the same breathless prose the studio publicists would have used, and it’s unclear when during the show’s run those lessons took place. By the time the magazine appeared, Batman was off the air.

19 September 2014

“He’s got a lot to do with that”

From the New York Times, a textbook example of OIP Derangement Syndrome preventing someone from seeing her best interests:

The Affordable Care Act allowed Robin Evans, an eBay warehouse packer earning $9 an hour, to sign up for Medicaid this year. She is being treated for high blood pressure and Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder, after years of going uninsured and rarely seeing doctors.

“I’m tickled to death with it,” Ms. Evans, 49, said of her new coverage as she walked around the Kentucky State Fair recently with her daughter, who also qualified for Medicaid under the law. “It’s helped me out a bunch.”

But Ms. Evans scowled at the mention of President Obama — “Nobody don’t care for nobody no more, and I think he’s got a lot to do with that,” she explained — and said she would vote this fall for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who is fond of saying the health care law should be “pulled out root and branch.”
It’s not clear what Evans meant by “Nobody don’t care for nobody no more, and I think he’s got a lot to do with that.” If she meant that there’s a lot of antagonism in the country, that’s true, but President Barack Obama isn’t a source of hostility; he’s the recipient of hostility from people like her. If Evans was saying that people don’t look after each other, then the President’s health-insurance reform tried to counteract that trend—as she has experienced.

Thanks to a Democratic governor, Kentucky is one of the states that voted against President Obama but accepted federal money to expand Medicaid to help people like Evans. It did so, however, under the name Kynect, shielding people from having to acknowledge they were benefiting from this President’s policies. As a result, the number of uninsured Americans has gone down considerably in Kentucky while it remains high in other states, like Texas.

18 September 2014

Not a Perfectly Normal Route to Publication

Publishers Weekly’s twenty-year retrospective on Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal details how unusual its route to print was.

The book came out of Harris’s conversation with an editor about a book on sexual health for middle-graders, but that editor ultimately chose not to acquire the book.

Harris then did what new authors are specifically told not to do: she partnered with an illustrator, albeit one with a Caldecott-winning family heritage:
With the idea firmly planted, Harris decided she wanted to write a full manuscript before submitting it to any publishers. “It’s complicated and complex, and it’s loaded material for many people,” she explains. It was at this early stage that she called on Michael Emberley, a fellow then-Bostonian who she “knew a little bit. I told him I wanted to talk with him about working on a book about sex and sexual health, and he said, ‘I’ll be right over,’ ” she recalls. When they were able to collaborate on a handful of illustrations that were appealing to kids and also provided information, “I knew we were a team,” says Harris.

The pair submitted their manuscript to several houses with the caveat that the project not be significantly altered.
And that’s another thing not to do, or at least to be aware that such insistence comes at a cost.

In Harris and Emberley‘s case, the press most interested in the project as is was a new and largely unproven company, Candlewick Press. Perhaps that publisher’s European roots—as the American wing of the U.K.’s Walker Books—made it more open to the book’s frank approach.

16 September 2014

Breakfast in Oz

Perhaps L. Frank Baum’s biggest strength (and occasional weakness) as a writer was in how he exhibited all of his characters’ different outlooks and habits—usually without judgment.

For example, here’s a moment from The Lost Princess of Oz, as Scraps the Patchwork Girl, who doesn’t have to sleep, explains what she’s found in the night, and other characters eat their morning meals:
“The Sawhorse and I made a journey in the dark, while you were all asleep, and we found over there a bigger city than Thi. . . . It isn’t far to the city. We can reach it in two hours after you’ve had your breakfasts.”

Trot went back and, finding the other girls now awake, told them what Scraps had said. So they hurriedly ate some fruit—there were plenty of plums and fijoas in this part of the orchard—and then they mounted the animals and set out upon the journey to the strange city. Hank the Mule had breakfasted on grass and the Lion had stolen away and found a breakfast to his liking; he never told what it was, but Dorothy hoped the little rabbits and the field mice had kept out of his way. She warned Toto not to chase birds and gave the dog some apple, with which he was quite content. The Woozy was as fond of fruit as of any other food, except honey, and the Sawhorse never ate at all.
It all sounds very pleasant, except for those little rabbits and field mice Dorothy is worried about. But nobody says nothing.

15 September 2014

Another Childhood Illusion Shattered

Tonight I attended Leonard Marcus’s talk about Robert McCloskey on the centenary of the author-illustrator’s birth. (It turns out he was born in Hamilton, Ohio, now home of this sculpture. But I digress.)

Marcus showed a photo of the doughnut-making machine from Homer Price and remarked how there are only two places to see such a machine now.

“Well, it’s good that someone preserved that model of doughnut-maker,” I thought. “I’m surprised there are so few left—maybe it really didn’t work well, so most of the machines were pulled apart.”

But that wasn’t what Marcus was saying. If I understood him correctly, only two examples of that machine were ever made. One was for the Walden Wood film studio when it adapted Homer Price as a short film in 1963. McCloskey was a friend of the studio owner and spent a lot of time there in later life; as a lifelong tinkerer, he might well have helped to build that machine.

The other was a replica built and displayed in the Municipal Building back in Hamilton, amid McCloskey’s architectural decorations. It’s not clear whether that one was made to work or just to look like the picture in the book.

All along I’d thought that was a standard type of doughnut-maker from the 1940s. After all, I’d seen it in action in that movie, operated by a boy who looks just like Homer Price (and couldn’t act for beans).

But it sounds like McCloskey made it up, based on real, less compact doughnut-making machinery. I feel like Freddy and Louis discovering that the Super Duper can’t lift his car out of the ditch.

14 September 2014

Titans on Stage and Screen?

This is Darwyn Cooke’s variant cover for The Teen Titans magazine, to be published this fall. It shows not the current version of the team but the “original” five members, who weren’t actually the original members since Speedy was added retroactively.

(Once Speedy/Roy Harper became the anti-Dick Grayson, that added some needed spice to the original team. But back in 1964-66, he was merely an occasional guest.)

I see two problems with this image:
  • I can’t see how it will fit on a comic book cover. All of Cooke’s art for that month has the same dimensions, with no common area of focus. Maybe they’ll all be tipped on their side with the magazine titles and indicia in the black area at bottom—Cooke does tend to tell his superhero stories in a movie-screen aspect ratio these days. 
  • More important, Roy Harper plays the drums, not bass guitar; he was even in a group that had gigs, called Great Frog. Dick Grayson plays guitar. And I don’t think Garth (Aqualad) could practice electronic keyboard without electrocuting himself.
No one likes the idea of the old Teen Titans enjoying a hi-fi party more than I, but are these the real Teen Titans?

And speaking of that question, there was buzz from Variety that the TNT network might order a pilot of a Titans television show. The story summary:
In the pilot, [Dick] Grayson “emerges from the shadow of Batman to become Nightwing, the leader of a fearless band of new Super Heroes including Starfire, Raven and many others. Titans is a dramatic adventure series that will explore and celebrate one of the most popular comic book titles ever.”
Starfire and Raven were part of the new team introduced by Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, and editor Len Wein in 1980. They’re also members of the team made popular on the television cartoons. It’s unclear whether any older Titans, who were sidekicks like Dick, have a role in this series. Then again, it’s still very uncertain whether there will be a series.

11 September 2014

Gauging Jason Segel’s Knowledge of Children’s Literature

The news that actor Jason Segel has published a children’s book made me wonder if he had produced good, or even adequate, literature or if this was yet another celebrity publication.

True, Segel wrote the script for The Muppets and other movies, and he’s not really a household name. But did the level of recognition he’s gained in Hollywood mean he received less editing and more resources than an average first-time children’s author? And why did this book need a coauthor, Kirsten Miller?

This afternoon I heard Segel interviewed about the book on Radio Boston. In response to the host’s mention of the scary bits of the Wizard of Oz movie, Segel immediately asked, “Have you seen Return to Oz?” He described that movie’s use of electroshock but also noted that other scary parts come “from the books.” So I’m ready to grant that Segel knows children’s literature.

One striking pattern in the interview is how Segel cited all sorts of children’s media together: Roald Dahl and The Goonies, the Oz books and the Oz movies, Coraline and The Muppet Show. Is that how young readers/viewers think of their stories in this world of quick and close cinematic adaptation?

10 September 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

From Marc Tyler Nobleman’s interview with comics scripter Arnold Drake:

when Bill [Finger] was looking for an idea for Batman, one of the tricks that he used was to open up the Yellow Pages in the phone book and just kind of ripple through it. Where his fingers stopped he’d say, “Piano tuner…I wonder if there’s a story in a piano tuner?”
And then, of course, Finger would imagine the piano to be giant-sized.

09 September 2014

Graphic Design in Oz

This week brought news of a couple of new editions of The Wizard of Oz that concentrate on visual detail.

As the Deseret News reported, Gibbs Smith’s BabyLit line is publishing a board-book abridgment of L. Frank Baum’s story that uses its emphasis on color:
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Colors Primer” reflects the colorful, busy world of Oz. Each page is based on one of the story’s key features or characters of that color surrounded by many other objects. For example, the yellow brick road fittingly represents the color yellow while the Tin Man represents the color silver.
There are no ruby slippers in this edition, of course. The text is by Jennifer Adams and the art by Alison Oliver.

Rockport Publishers is issuing an edition of the full novel in its Classics Reimagined series, with new art by Olimpia Zagnoli. (Note her initials.) All Zagnoli’s illustrations are in black, white, green, and gold, combined in minimalist graphics. The Huffington Post featured a number of those graphics. They’re striking but not warm, leaving me to wonder what the target audience for this edition is.

07 September 2014

Grayson’s Future End

Modern comic-book writers often dread big crossover events, at least when they’re not in charge. Whatever storylines they might have mapped out over several issues have to be put on hold for one or two episodes tied into a larger conflict determined by the publisher’s top staff or star writers. But crossovers tend to sell more copies of all the titles involved, and often continue to sell in paperback form, so the industry keeps ordering them up.

Currently the big crossover event from DC is “Futures End,” not to be confused with the last crossover, “Forever Evil.” (The company seems to have a thing for those initials. I will refrain from making a scatological joke about what they really mean.) “Futures End” is set five years into one possible dismal future for the DC Universe.

As I explored back here, in the DC pantheon Dick Grayson has long represented hope for a better future, so to showcase how awful a future is the company often shows how badly Dick Grayson’s life has turned out. Grayson: Futures End, published last week, is squarely in that tradition.

That situation freed up Grayson writers Tom King and Tim Seeley (they plotted the issue together, King wrote the dialogue). Working within a timeline that’s supposed to be averted, they don’t have to leave the door open to further stories or other crossovers. They can start at Dick’s sad end and work backward—which they do.

Each page in the magazine takes place “Earlier” than the preceding page, hopping backwards in time from five years in the future (as in “Futures End”) to Dick’s childhood. Characters allude to events, promises, and in-jokes that we don’t see for another few page flips. As one commenter noted, the issue is like a sestina, with certain details—ropes, codes, last days—popping up rhythmically. It demands, and rewards, immediate rereading.

I hesitate to call this a self-contained story because it depends completely on readers’ knowledge of the legend established in Detective Comics, #38: when extortionists put acid on the ropes of the Flying Graysons’ trapeze apparatus, causing Dick’s parents to fall to their deaths. But it surely brings its own story to an end (as in “Futures End”).

As promised, King takes the opportunity to offer his “New 52 Universe” explanation for why Robin dresses in stoplight colors. That’s not because Dick as a circus performer and/or little kid likes bright colors, the explanations in some previous versions of the mythos. (The “New 52” Flying Graysons wear blue, and the “New 52” Dick becomes Robin in his mid-teens.) Rather, the colors are Bruce Wayne’s way of making night patrols harder for Dick so he has to be more careful. I’m not sure that will go over well with fans of either character.

Grayson: Futures End also shows Barbara Gordon as Batgirl suggesting that Dick’s ideal romantic partner is someone who treats him like Bruce. Fifteen years ago the company was adamantly against Barbara likening Bruce and Dick’s relationship to a romance. Now DC is embracing the metaphor. But perhaps only in this not-necessarily-so future.

Which brings me to the remaining mystery of this magazine—when its timeline is supposed to deviate from the “New 52” present that DC’s line will presumably return to at the end of the crossover. Does that deviation produce the events we see: Dick and his agency handler Helena Bertinelli becoming lovers, Dick becoming willing to kill? In other words, when exactly does Dick’s life start to turn out badly?

06 September 2014

Jesse Lonergan, Kids, and the Human Condition

From the Comics Alternative interview with Jesse Lonergan, author-illustrator most recently of All Star:
When I first got into [making] comics, the only ones that I was really into were comics that were based in some form of reality, and I was pretty disdainful of everything else. I was very much taken with the low-concept idea of narrative. The kind of stories where people would ask what it was about, and the only thing I could say was, “It’s about life!”

As I’ve gotten older that’s changed, and now I find myself more interested in high-concept ideas. I find myself returning to the things I liked in childhood. I, like most kids, wasn’t so concerned with the human condition then.
Ironically, All Star is set in the sort of small Vermont town where Lonergan was a kid. It’s very much about life. But his new projects are about larger-than life rock bands, Formula 1 drivers, and mythical figures from the Old West.

05 September 2014

When OIP Derangement Syndrome Is in Fashion

Last week President Barack Obama held a news conference to address the US economy, foreign policy challenges, and other topics. And one day later, as shown above, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) went on a right-wing political site called NewsMaxTV to complain:
There’s no way any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday. When you have the world watching…a week, two weeks of anticipation of what the United States is gonna do. For him to walk out — I’m not trying to be trivial here — in a light suit, light tan suit…
Imagine what detail King would lead with if he were trying to be trivial!

Now not everyone can match up to Rep. King in looking like a recently awoken city boss, perhaps from the old Soviet Union. Nor does everyone else have the finely calibrated fashion sense to know when one can criticize someone else for dressing too casually while not wearing a tie.

But we can note that past Presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton wore tan business suits during official events without attracting such criticism.

Double standards like King’s are a symptom of OIP Derangement Syndrome. So is hyper-intense focus on trivial details in an attempt to deny the real reason for one’s visceral reactions to seeing Barack Obama at work as President.

04 September 2014

Viewing Bad Houses

While reading Bad Houses, a graphic novel by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, I got to thinking about the trope of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”

Because one of the story’s main characters, Anne, could fit that mold. She dresses quirkily. She has interesting hair—with a stripe of dye and locks designed to look like a sunflower, as revealed by making-of pages in the back of the book. And her romantic interest definitely jolts the story’s young male lead, Lewis, out of a rut.

But Anne’s not a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” because the story isn’t told just from Lewis’s point of view. We also get to see Anne’s story, including her background and secrets, down to her embarrassment about the hole in her bright striped stockings. We also see the stories of the young people’s mothers, one a hoarder filling up a house and the other an estate-sale specialist emptying them.

So one key to avoiding the cliché of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” may be—surprise!—to treat young women as full characters in their own right.

03 September 2014

Just Like Starting Over

From novelist and book critic Lev Grossman’s interview with Publishers Weekly:

Whenever I finish a novel I think: aha, I get it now, I know how to write books. I was doing it wrong before, but this time it’s going to be easy. I’ll get it right, first try.

And now I’m onto my next book and I’m floundering all over again. I forgot how hard it is. You fall right down to the bottom of the ladder again.
Grossman’s latest is The Magician’s Land.

02 September 2014

Did The Economist Solve a Winkie Con Mystery?

The Prospero blog on The Economist’s website filed a report on this month’s Winkie Convention last month, taking note of the extensive schedule of panel discussions that I helped to put together and other activities.
This year, propelled by the publicity for the anniversary of the MGM film, Winkie Con moved from the mid-California Monterey peninsula down to San Diego. The relocation was due in part to San Diego’s proximity to neighbouring resort town, Coronado, where [L. Frank] Baum wintered and wrote several novels. It was also the first year the usually humble Winkie Con expanded to offer a broad conference-style schedule, with concurrent panels discussing subjects such as the strong feminist characters in Baum's books and the rise of fantasy and sci-fi fan culture. Attendance spiked to over 350; many attendees were newer fans, who had found their way down the yellow brick road via the musical "Wicked" or "Oz the Great and Powerful", the new Oz film released in 2013.

Prospero, a first-time festivalgoer, was shown plenty of “ozpitality” and welcomed into many exclusive but never exclusionary events. On the opening day, Aljean Harmetz, a journalist and historian whose mother worked in the MGM costume department for 20 years, screened "The Wizardry of Oz", a 1979 documentary follow-up to her exhaustively detailed book, "The Making of the Wizard of Oz". On the second afternoon, a tightly packed audience strained to hear a Q&A with Priscilla Montgomery Clark, one of the munchkins in the MGM film, who is now in her 80s. A family reunion-style slideshow gave regular Winkie Con organisers and participants a chance to reminisce about the years of lighter programming and more intimate festivities. “There’s Dan again,” someone murmured as the slides shuttered past. “He was a marvellous Dorothy.”

Nearly two-dozen of Baum’s The Wizard of Oz books are in the public domain in America, as is the 1925 film. This makes for a rich ecosystem of Oz-related fan culture that continues to snatch up new graphic novels and support reinterpretations of the original characters. At the swap table, a Winkie Con tradition, one could pick up or drop off gently used books and artwork, or borrow stapled short stories from a stack of unpublished fan-fiction.
Oh ho! In fact, one was not supposed to borrow those short stories but to read them in that room. My story “Post-Transformative Stress” disappeared for several hours during the convention, prompting some anxious “no questions asked” announcements. Eventually it reappeared on the table with no questions answered. Had Prospero mistakenly taken it for a closer read?

No harm done. This year’s contest judges had already done their work and chosen which essays, stories, and artwork should win prizes. “Post-Transformative Stress” came away with one. It throws together Dr. Pipt from Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz (shown above) and Iva the kitchen boy from Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Wishing Horse of Oz. No wonder it might have been so compelling.

01 September 2014

That Charlie Chapter

This weekend the Guardian printed a chapter from an early draft of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with new illustrations by Quentin Blake.

And it was crap.

And Dahl knew it was crap. He heavily rewrote this chapter. Comparing it to the novel’s final text shows that Dahl recognized that it was more effective to have five children with particular personalities touring the Wonka factory instead of ten, with two peeled off at each stop. He realized that showing children punished for simple disobedience instead of failings specific to each child would get repetitive. Dahl saw those problems, fixed them in a revision, and filed these early pages away.

In promoting this publication, the Guardian stated:
A lost chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, deemed too wild, subversive and insufficiently moral for the tender minds of British children almost 50 years ago, has been published for the first time.
On first reading, that suggests the chapter was suppressed for being “too wild, subversive, and insufficiently moral.” In fact, it was suppressed by the author for being crap.

The finished book was what ran into trouble when Dahl tried to find a British publisher. Though set in Britain, it took three years after its publication in New York before a London publisher took a chance on Charlie.

That comes from a longer and more thoughtful article by Lucy Mangan, presumably adapted from her book Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.