29 November 2015

We Are Dead Robins?

In DC’s current continuity, there have been four official Robins, and three of them have been dead for times ranging from a few minutes to maybe a year or so. (The second Tim Drake is the one who’s never died, even a little. Yet.)

But for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Sensational Character Find of 1940, the publisher has unleashed a big crop of wannabe Robins in a magazine called We Are Robin. That provides lots of young people to die heroically before their time. Indeed, one character died in the first story arc, and the current crossover is titled “The Robin War,” so there will be more casualties.

The first few issues of We Are Robin reminded me most of the opening issues of Runaways, a series that Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona created for Marvel Comics back in 2003. Both stories follow a band of teenagers with a wide range of ethnicities, class backgrounds, personal looks, and speaking styles. So far, however, none of these Robins has grown on me, and that’s kind of important if I’m going to care about whether they’ll die.

I do like the idea of ”Robin” as not simply an individual or a job, but an ideal.

28 November 2015

Archie Across the Globe

This week the New York Times ran a profile of Ahmad Saeed, a bookseller in Islamabad, Pakistan.

He inherited the business from his father this spring, and one of his first tasks as owner was accepting visits from “elderly men” who had come to apologize for shoplifting in their youth.

According to the Times of New York:
One of the penitent former book thieves who dropped in was Suleman Khan, the vice chancellor of Iqra University, in Islamabad.

“He came to say that when he was a child, 6 years old or so, he stole an Archie comic book and my father saw him,” Mr. Saeed said. “He said he was afraid he was going to get slapped, but my father said: ‘This is good that you like books. So every day you can take a book but keep it in mint condition and return it when you’re done so I can still sell it.’”

And then the vice chancellor said, “Everything that I am now, I owe to your father.”
That story seems remarkable in many ways, not least in how a comic story about teenagers inspired by life in Depression-era Haverhill, Massachusetts, could speak so powerfully to a six-year-old in Islamabad decades ago.

But Dr. Khan clearly isn’t the only Archie fan in that region of the globe. In 2014 a company executive told the Times of India that India was full of loyal readers. Riverdale is now home to characters of South Asian heritage, such as aspiring filmmaker Raj Patel, and Archie visited Mumbai in 2011, falling for Bollywood star Amisha Mehta.

27 November 2015

Turkey in the Straw Poll

This week Public Policy Polling released the results of a Thanksgiving survey (PDF download) which provided new evidence of OIP Derangement Syndrome among self-identified conservatives and Republicans.

The questions were all Thanksgiving-themed, such as respondents’ favorite pies, whether stuffing should be called dressing, and which Presidential candidates people might and might not like as Thanksgiving guests.

And then there was this question:
Do you approve or disapprove of President Obama’s executive action last year to pardon 2 turkeys rather than the customary one turkey at Thanksgiving?
Choices were approval, disapproval, and “not sure,” which we should assume includes “don’t give a darn.”

The results were quite widely split by party affiliation and political leaning. As PPP reported, “Only 11% of Republicans support the President’s executive order last year to 38% who are opposed—that's a pretty clear sign that if you put Obama’s name on something GOP voters are going to oppose it pretty much no matter what. Overall there’s 35/22 support for the pardon of Macaroni and Cheese thanks to 59/11 support from Democrats and 28/21 from independents.”

But what’s really telling (though not told by PPP) is that Presidents started “formally” pardoning turkeys each year back in 1989, and there have always been two turkeys involved. The breeders provide a matched pair in case one doesn’t look like it can handle the ceremony. Here, for example, is the report on President George W. Bush pardoning two turkeys in 2007.
In other words, 38% of Republicans opposed the current President pardoning two turkeys even though they’d seen his predecessor do that same thing eight times, simply because PPP’s question presented them with a chance to express disapproval of “executive action,” doing something other than “customary,” and “President Obama.”

25 November 2015

An Update to Parrotfish for This Historical Moment

Ellen Wittlinger’s article in The Horn Book about updating her novel Parrotfish (published in 2007) is testimony to changes in society and in language.

Wittlinger’s novel is considered the first modern young adult novel with a transgender protagonist. In writing it, she consulted with Toby, a twentysomething friend of one of her children who was female-to-male transgender. That was only ten years ago, but the first edition’s language was already out of date.

Wittlinger writes:
In the ALAN Review interview, and often in the original edition of the book, I used the word transgendered. This usage is no longer correct. If you say, for example, that paper has “yellowed,” something has happened to the paper to make it yellow. But “yellow paper” has always been yellow, just as transgender people have always been who they are — nothing has acted upon them to make them transgender. As the GLAAD Reference Guide points out, “You would not say that Elton John is ‘gayed’ or Ellen DeGeneres is ‘lesbianed,’ therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is ‘transgendered.’” Scratch the “-ed” ending.

But the word that bothered me — and critics — most was tranny. A decade ago, Toby felt it was a word that transgender people would use amongst themselves or to refer to themselves, and that’s how I used it in the book. But the word has evolved to be defamatory. GLAAD’s entry says, “Please note that while some transgender people may use ‘tranny’ to describe themselves, others find it profoundly offensive.”
In this age of digital publishing, it’s relatively easy to make such changes in electronic books and new printings. The existing paper copies of Parrotfish will, of course, remain the same. Wittlinger also states that 2007 remains the novel’s “historical moment” even with the terminology changes.

She also expects further change in this area of language. When GLAAD issued the ninth edition of its Media Reference Guide in 2014, it stated it had been publishing that reference for “over 15 years.” At 66 pages, with a lot of white space in the design, it’s not a hefty text. Nonetheless, at the pace it’s been revised so far, that ninth edition will need replacement in 2016.

Given how sensitive we are these days about language and other signifiers, I wonder how soon there may be complaints about print copies of Parrotfish being not just of its historical moment, but insensitive. It took only three days after Wittlinger’s essay appeared for a pseudonymous commenter to take issue with its spelling of “cis-gender”—a very new word that’s appeared in three different forms (“cisgender,” “cis-gender,” and “cis gender”) in news stories this month.

24 November 2015

“It was gingham, with checks of white and blue”

Yesterday Bonhams sold a dress for $1,565,000. It was made for a Kansas farmgirl in the early 20th century.

Now that sum’s only about half of the price of the Cowardly Lion costume Bonhams sold last year, but it’s still high enough to place this outfit fourth on this list of most expensive Hollywood costumes.

Two other garments on that list are also dresses made for Dorothy Gale, one used for only a couple of weeks of filming before the director was replaced.

This dress had an excellent provenance, starting with labels inside that identify its wearer as “Judy Garland” rather than a stand-in. As for after it left the studio, “This blouse and pinafore were retained by Kent Warner, the costume collector employed by David Weisz Co. to help organize the 1970 MGM Auction who subsequently cherry-picked many of the best pieces for himself.” It was last sold at a Christie’s New York auction in 1981.

23 November 2015


I was impressed by Brooklyn artist Adrian Landon’s mechanical horse.

Click on the picture to see a video.

I was a little disappointed to read that it’s powered by a small electric motor rather than by the wind. I guess the Strandbeests have spoiled me.

22 November 2015

Sam Hamm’s Plan for Robin, part 3

Way back here, I was sharing excerpts of Sam Hamm’s early screenplay for the 1989 Batman movie, a version that featured Robin. Here’s more.

At this point, Dick Grayson’s parents have been killed during their trapeze act—not by Boss Zucco ’s enforcers but by the Joker. Dick wants to go after that villain. Bruce wants him to stay safe in stately Wayne Manor. They fight. In losing the fight, Dick figures out that Bruce is Batman.

TIGHT ON a tiny electronic device: two cylindrical steel casings bracketed together, topped by a DIGITAL TIMER.

BRUCE watches the TIMER tick off seconds: 30. 29. 28. At 25 seconds, BRUCE kills the countdown and CLAPS THE DEVICE into an empty packet on his utility belt.

He stands up wearily. Behind him, hanging back discreetly in the shadows, is his loyal butler ALFRED.

Where's the boy?

Upstairs. He's quite docile.

I know the feeling. It won't last.
He's a long way ahead of where I was at his age.

Respectfully, sir... there'll never be another one like you.

BRUCE smiles sadly. He takes a moment to survey the Batcave as ALFRED looks on tremulously.

How long's it been, Alfred? A quarter of a century?
It seems like yesterday. I guess we ended up doing more harm than good.

Don't ever say that, sir. Don't ever believe it.

If not for you I never would've made it. You know that. My own parents couldn't have...
(taking Alfred's shoulders)
... The boy, Alfred. You'll both be provided for. Don't let all this go to waste.

Their eyes lock for a long moment. ALFRED is unable to speak. Finally BRUCE turns and starts slowly up the long circular stairway which leads from the Batcave to Wayne Manor.
After some foofaraw, Batman goes out to confront the Joker, armed with nothing but an advanced fighter plane equipped with missiles.

He LAUGHS INSANELY as the BATWING bears down. At the last instant he hoists a SUBMACHINE GUN. BULLETS pepper the dome of the cockpit.

BATMAN'S MISSILE goes wide right, EXPLODING on the sidewalk. The JOKER drops to the street, unharmed, as the BATWING swoops past. The rear stabilizer wing is trailing THICK BLACK SMOKE.


BATMAN knows he's in trouble. He buckles a parachute around his chest, finds a button on the control panel. THE COCKPIT DOME flies free of the BATWING, leaving BATMAN exposed to the buffeting wind.


He's scored a hit. He HOWLS IN TRIUMPH. But his maniacal glee is short-lived.

Standing not twenty feet away, in the clearing smoke from the rocket explosion, is an ominous figure in a RED-AND-GREEN GYMNAST'S SUIT.
This is obviously some new usage of the word “ominous.”
DICK GRAYSON -- eager for the kill -- sets out in pursuit of the JOKER.


BATMAN is losing altitude. HIS CAPE billows wildly around him as he reaches for a SECOND BUTTON -- this one labelled 'EJECT.'

He punches the button. His SEAT disengages. But Batman finds himself suddenly JERKED BACK INTO THE COCKPIT.

HIS CAPE HAS SNAGGED ON THE EJECTION MECHANISM!!! He clutches frantically at this throat as the plane plummets to earth!


THE JOKER, on the lam, darts around a parade float. DICK vaults onto the float, LAUNCHES HIMSELF into the air, and DROPS the JOKER with a flying tackle.

But before he can strike... A RESOUNDING CRASH shakes the street.


The plane lies in pieces on the pavement. FLAMES ERUPT. BATMAN's been thrown free, but he's PINNED BY THE WRECKAGE. It's a matter of seconds until the gasoline tank goes up.


DICK watches in shock. On one side, the killer of his parents. On the other, BATMAN -- who will surely die unless someone pulls him free.

There's only one choice, and they both know it. DICK glares at the JOKER for the merest of seconds, then TURNS HIM LOOSE. MAD LAUGHTER echoes in the streets as the JOKER escapes -- and DICK races off to BATMAN's aid.


BATMAN grimaces in agony as DICK struggles to free him. His right leg -- shattered -- is like rubber beneath him. His ribs are crushed. He's barely alive.

How did you...

I hitched. MOVE IT!

DICK drags BATMAN to safety as the remnants of the Batwing BLOWS UP.

The Joker. Is he -- ?

DICK spots an abandoned .38 on the pavement -- left there by one of the JOKER'S GOONS.

Forget it. Relax.
(reaching for the gun)
... He's mine now.


THE BATMAN tries to pull himself erect. The pain is unendurable. His body has finally failed him.

He collapses on the pavement, powerless to intervene, as DICK races off with murder in his eyes.
Okay, now it’s a teenager in a red-and-green gymnast’s suit with a gun. Because that’s what the Batman mythos is all about.

But it’s interesting that Hamm was decades ahead of The Incredibles in warning about the danger of capes and aircraft.

21 November 2015

The G-Man Retcon

Chris Giarrusso created his comic G-Man in bits and pieces: short stories, backup features, comic strips, half-parodies of other superhero sagas.

As the Image Comics webpage for the first volume says, G-Man: Learning to Fly “Collects the origin of G-Man and Great Man, the G-Man Christmas Story, Mean Brother/Idiot Brother adventures, and a complete collection of the original G-Man comic strips that started it all.”

Because that book is a grab bag, its pieces come in different sizes and lengths. Some were obviously designed for different sizes, and they have different storytelling rhythms. It’s still a fun read. We see Mikey and his big brother Dave gaining their powers from the family’s magic cape. Several of their (male) friends already have superpowers, with no explanation. It’s just a fact of life at their school.

Two G-Man miniseries/graphic novels followed, each with a wider focus showing more of the brothers’ universe. There’s more explanation of the magic cape in Cape Crisis, the best of the volumes. We meet the Color Guardians, female classmates who are one unfathomable mass to the boys, and the Suntroopers and Thunderfriends teams of grown-up heroes.

The latest G-Man installment comes from another publisher and takes another form: an illustrated middle-grade novel written as a daily journal, like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Rachel Renee Russell’s Dork Diaries. Most of the pictures, supposedly by young Mikey, are in a simpler, line-art style which Giarrusso is also using for a weekly online comic strip. There are occasional full-color pin-up pages as well, in the guise of photos taped into the journal.

In addition, The G-Man Super Journal: Awesome Origins is a prequel, going back not only to before Mikey gained his powers but before all his friends had theirs. It folds in characters who first appeared in the graphic novels, such as the Color Guardians, Cool Wraps, and that annoying kid Tony. And it offers explanations for how all the kids got their powers. Actually, several explanations for each: alien birth, divine descent, freak accidents, top-secret website in Japan, and so on. As a result, G-Man: Super Journal is now the most complete introduction to the G brothers’ saga.

Whereas Learning to Fly’s big scenes are mostly at home and Cape Crisis on the playground, Awesome Origins is driven by events at school: Mikey’s struggle with a teacher who doesn’t like superheroes, tests to join the Suntroopers, and most especially that annoying kid Tony. The illustrations have a deadpan sarcasm that (along with the superpowers, of course) distinguishes this series from its diaristic forebears.

I still prefer the G-Man comics, but a mostly-new G-Man story in illustrated prose form is still a lot of fun. And its publisher’s wider distribution might bring new readers to all the volumes.

20 November 2015

Weighing the Woes of White Americans

Janell Ross in the Washington Post this week:

In a new poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) on Tuesday [PDF download], a whopping 43 percent of Americans told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as large a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups.
To be precise, half of all white Americans feel that way. Less than 30% of blacks and Hispanics agree. Ross continues:
White Americans feel put-upon and mistreated — and large shares of non-white Americans do not seem to have any knowledge of the challenges that white Americans say they face.

Of course, there are always aspects of other people's lives that we do not or cannot understand. But the sheer size of the racial/ethnic gap concerning perceived discrimination against white Americans is particularly interesting because there is very little in the way of objective evidence of this discrimination and the disadvantage that typically follows. On just about every measure of social or economic well-being, white Americans fare better than any other group.

That's true of housing and neighborhood quality and homeownership. That's true of overall health, health insurance coverage rates, quality of health care received, life expectancy and infant mortality. That's true when it comes to median household earnings, wealth (assets minus debt), retirement savings and even who has a bank account. . . .

White Americans are, as a group, born healthier and live longer and get better health care, jobs, education and housing in the years in between. Yet half of white Americans believe that discrimination against them is as big a problem in their lives as it is for those of people of color. But there's just no evidence to back that up.

What does exist is ample evidence of continued-but-shrinking racial and ethnic inequality in many arenas and utter stagnation and backsliding in others. Basically, what's changed since the 1950s — outside of technological innovations such as this here Internet — is that white Americans no longer have an exclusive or almost-exclusive hold on the best housing, jobs, schools or the ballot box.
The question on the latest PRRI American Values Survey was “Just your impression, in the United States today, is there a lot of discrimination against any of the following groups or not?”

In past polls, the most comparable question has been whether respondents agree with the statement “We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.” Agreement hovered between 38% and 49% from 1987 to 2012. So the perception that, despite empirical evidence, whites suffer from discrimination as much or more than non-whites doesn’t appear to be new, nor growing, in that period.

The new survey also notes that the perception of anti-white discrimination among whites is much higher within the “working class” (60%) than among people with college degrees (36%). A recent analysis of American mortality rates from 1999 to 2013 by Anne Case and Angus Deaton also found that educational difference was a significant dividing line among middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans. People who had any college education died at a slightly smaller rate over that period. But mortality for people who had no college had gone up so much as to produce a strikingly higher mortality rate for the entire age/race cohort.

Thus, white Americans without college education might well be justified in perceiving a more difficult life than they expected. But they’re more likely to blame that on “discrimination” against whites rather than, say, a changing economy.

19 November 2015

When Nate Wright Met Greg Heffley

Yesterday’s post left aspiring comic-strip artist Jeff Kinney working at an online “edutainment” company while corresponding with full-time comic-strip artist Lincoln Peirce.

As I described back here, Kinney’s employer saw some potential in a middle-grade novel in diary form that he was working on. At his boss’s suggestion, he added more illustrations and shared the novel day by day on the company’s website.

That story found a young online audience quickly, a book deal only after a couple of years. That was the start of the huge Diary of a Wimpy Kid phenomenon, now stronger than ever.

Kinney continued to work at that company until relatively recently, overseeing the launch of Poptropica. That online videogame platform is built around “islands,” each having its own game and style. Kinney asked his friend Peirce if he was interested in licensing the Big Nate comic strip to the site.

In 2010 the Washington Post reported what happened:
On Valentine's Day last year, Poptropica launched "Big Nate Island," the interactive world of sixth-grader Nate Wright and his adventures as a "self-described genius" and "all-time record-holder for detentions in school history."

Kids went wild. "All I remember is that Jeff called me after the first 48 hours and said: 'You crashed the server,' " Peirce recalls. "It was their biggest launch by 20 percent."

The sudden online popularity of "Big Nate" led to Peirce's long-sought major book deal, with no less than HarperCollins. "Big Nate: In a Class by Himself" just spent 11 straight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
That first Big Nate book series is one of many modeled on Diary of a Wimpy Kid: prose with lots of line art, paper-over-board covers, humorous slice-of-life stories, and so on. Its success prompted the comic strip’s syndicate to finally issue Big Nate comics collections. Meaning that after years of having no books and a daily deadline, Lincoln Peirce had two fast-selling book series and an audience beyond newsprint.

And all because he’d been nice enough to write back to an aspiring young college artist. It’s almost as if this publishing story has a moral.

18 November 2015

Big Nate in a Small Pond

One of the minor pleasures of visiting my dad in the Washington, DC, area is the Washington Post comics page. For some reason it’s unusually large. (Perhaps the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder and major owner of the rival Washington Times, didn’t like comics?)

Among the comic strips I enjoyed there, years before it came to the Boston Globe, is Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce. Given its quality and longevity, and its appeal to kids, I assumed that there were Big Nate collections like the bestselling collections of Peanuts, Garfield, and Calvin and Hobbes when I was young. But with fewer and fewer children reading newspapers, that ready market no longer existed.

Lincoln Peirce kept plugging away, the way daily-strip artists have to do. He also generously offered advice to a hopeful artist eight years younger. This Washington Post story from five years ago tells that story:
It was the early '90s, and [Jeff] Kinney was an aspiring cartoonist at the University of Maryland, as well as a big fan of the comic strip "Big Nate," which he read in The Post. Kinney wanted advice on how to break into the business, so he wrote several cartoonists, including Peirce, creator of the recently syndicated "Big Nate."

Up in New Hampshire, Peirce was struck by Kinney's outreach. "His letter was so different from other letters," Peirce recalls. "And not just because it was five to six pages long. Even early on, he was very talented and very ambitious."

Instead of eyeing him warily, Peirce did the professionally generous thing: "I wrote him back."

Kinney the college cartoonist was thrilled. "It was a handwritten letter, which included many drawings that provided guidance on how I could improve my prospects," he recounts.

For more than two years, mentor and student exchanged handwritten and hand-drawn insights into their craft.
Meanwhile, the world wide web grew, and the newspaper business shrank. It was not a good time to start a career as a daily newspaper cartoonist. Kinney ended up working as a designer for an online “edutainment” company.

TOMORROW: Returning the favor.

(Thanks to Karen Jordan Allen for the link.)

17 November 2015

When Maps Came to Oz

The Oz stories that L. Frank Baum wrote up through 1914 shaped the maps that he and his publishing team included in that year’s novel, Tik-Tok of Oz. That stands to reason.

Less obviously, those maps shaped the Oz stories that Baum told afterward. None of the Oz novels up through Tik-Tok mentioned maps at all. (In the Little Wizard Stories collection, “Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse” describes Ozma drawing an impromptu map for Jack to follow to save two lost children.)

In contrast, every Oz novel that followed Tik-Tok included some mention of a map, often an “in-universe” map known to the people of Oz themselves.

The Scarecrow of Oz:
“I’ve been to the Land of Oz before,” said Button-Bright, “but I’ve never been here.”

“Did you ever hear of Jinxland before?” asked Trot.

“No,” said Button-Bright.

“It is on the Map of Oz, though,” asserted the woman, “and it’s a fine country, I assure you. If only," she added, and then paused to look around her with a frightened expression. “If only—” here she stopped again, as if not daring to go on with her speech.
Rinkitink in Oz begins this way:
If you have a map of the Land of Oz handy, you will find that the great Nonestic Ocean washes the shores of the Kingdom of Rinkitink, between which and the Land of Oz lies a strip of the country of the Nome King and a Sandy Desert.
The Lost Princess of Oz doesn’t include the word “map,” but there are extended passages about Oz geography, and Baum sketched a map to appear in the book, as David Maxine discussed at Hungry Tiger Talk.

The Tin Woodman of Oz:
“I have a map of Oz in my pocket,” persisted the boy, “and it shows that the Winkie Country, where we now are, is at the west of Oz, and the Munchkin Country at the east, while directly between them lies the Emerald City.”
The Magic of Oz:
In the central western part of the Gillikin Country is a great tangle of trees called Gugu Forest. It is the biggest forest in all Oz and stretches miles and miles in every direction—north, south, east and west. Adjoining it on the east side is a range of rugged mountains covered with underbrush and small twisted trees. You can find this place by looking at the Map of the Land of Oz.
Glinda of Oz:
“This is funny!” she exclaimed. “Did you know, Ozma, that there were people in your Land of Oz called Skeezers?”

“Yes,” replied Ozma, coming to her side, “I know that on Professor Wogglebug’s Map of the Land of Oz there is a place marked ‘Skeezer,’ but what the Skeezers are like I do not know. No one I know has ever seen them or heard of them. The Skeezer Country is ’way at the upper edge of the Gillikin Country, with the sandy, impassable desert on one side and the mountains of Oogaboo on another side. That is a part of the Land of Oz of which I know very little.”
The Tik-Tok maps are, after all, credited to Prof. Wogglebug.

15 November 2015

“A depth that other superhero comics didn’t have”

A few months back, as McFarland sent out the first copies of Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder, editor Kristen L. Geaman asked all of us contributors to describe what our essays were about.

Here’s how I summed up my essay “Success in Stasis: Dick Grayson’s Thirty Years as a Boy Wonder” for the project’s Tumblr page:

The first chapter of the book looks at the first thirty years of stories about Dick Grayson, from his debut in 1940 until he leaves Wayne Manor in 1969. That was a period of stasis for the character, with no growth and no rifts with Batman that weren’t solved by the end of a story. Yet it was also the period that established Robin the Boy Wonder as a household name.

This chapter argues that the partnership of Batman and Robin was crucial to how those characters survived in the late 1940s when almost all other costumed superheroes stopped being published. The emotional bond between Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne, explored most often in stories written by Bill Finger, gave their adventures a depth that other superhero comics didn’t have.

Robin thus became DC Comics’s preeminent symbol of youth, and the 1960s produced a roiling youth culture that forced the company to make changes in Dick Grayson’s life. After thirty years in his early to mid-teens, he had to grow up.
That highlights the hypothesis I arrived at while preparing that essay: that the emotional bond between Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dick Grayson/Robin was the crucial ingredient that made their series survive when most superheroes faded away. And Bill Finger, co-creator of the characters, was the storyteller who did the most to establish and explore that bond.

14 November 2015

Planetary Copyright

Here’s an interesting wrinkle about international copyright protections:
The classic novella “The Little Prince” fell into the public domain this year in much of the world but remains under copyright in France because of an exception that grants a 30-year extension to authors who died during military service in World War I and II.
There’s a logic to that provision, I suppose. If a society bases copyright terms on an author’s life, but an author dies before his or her time while fighting for the society, then the society extends the copyright term to about what it would otherwise have been. Still, I wonder what specific cases gave rise to this exception.

That passage comes from a New York Times story on a dispute over the copyright of Anne Frank’s diary as originally published. That copyright is the main asset of a foundation, which wishes to extend its term by calling Anne’s father a coauthor of the text. Other institutions, hoping to make the diary more widely accessible and/or mindful of Holocaust deniers’ claims that Otto Frank invented the story to begin with, are resisting that move.

By the logic of the French law, the term of Anne Frank’s copyright could be extended based on what her natural lifespan would have been—meaning even longer protection than basing the term on her father’s lifespan. Of course, few countries follow France’s example.

Meanwhile, the foundation already authorized the editing and publication of a more complete version of Anne Frank’s diary, which has its own copyright term based on the life of the scholarly editor.

12 November 2015

Kryptonian Babysitting Service

There’s a lot to like in the new Supergirl television series, but there’s one detail in the introductory voiceover that I don’t like at all.

That line repeats a detail from the pilot, which shows Kara’s family sending her from Krypton to Earth. Her mother is a judge, showing how Kryptonian women could exercise authority.

In those scenes, Kara is about thirteen years old. Her cousin Kal-El is still a little baby. And their parents know that when the kids arrive on Earth they’ll have extraordinary powers—the yellow sun, you know.

But the women don’t tell Kara that she’ll have to be careful not to hurt the natives, or that she can be a hero. They say her job is “to look after your baby cousin, Kal-El.”

Kara replies, “I won’t fail Kal-El, or you.”

The grown-ups don’t tell Kara that she should do this “because you’re older, and he’s just a baby.” They don’t say she should do this “until he can look after himself.” They present this as her one and only mission in life.

The credits go on to explain that Kara’s spaceship was knocked off course, causing her not to arrive on Earth until her cousin has already grown up and become Superman. But she’s still in her teens. The series picks up a few years later when she’s in her early twenties. (Most comic-book versions of Supergirl are in their teens, but there is some precedent for a twentysomething.)

At first Kara says, “I didn’t have a mission anymore. But even though I had all the same powers he did, I decided the best thing I could do was fit in. After all, Earth didn’t need another hero.” Over the first couple of episodes, she decides to discard that attitude and be a superhero as good as her cousin.

Comics writers have gotten a lot of stories out of Supergirl’s wish to match her older, established cousin’s heroism. I have no problem with that being a big theme in this series. But here that theme is tied onto the notion that her job was to look after the family’s sole surviving male.

11 November 2015

Appropriate and Appropriation

Smart analysis from Timothy Burke, history professor at Swarthmore College:

What’s being called appropriation in some of the current activist discourses is how culture works. It’s the engine of cultural history, it’s the driver of human creativity. No culture is a natural, bounded, intrinsic and unchanging thing. A strong prohibition against appropriation is death to every ideal of human community except for a rigidly purified and exclusionary vision of identity and membership.

Even a weak prohibition against appropriation risks constant misapplication and misunderstanding by people who are trying to systematically apply the concept as polite dogma. To see one example of that, look to the New York Times article, which describes at one point a University of Washington advice video that counsels people to avoid wearing a karate costume unless you’re part of the real culture of karate. But karate as an institutional culture of art and sport is already thoroughly appropriated from its origins in Okinawa, and it was in turn an appropriation of sorts from Chinese martial arts–and no martial arts form in the world today is anything even remotely like its antecedents in practice, form or purpose. Trying to forbid karate costuming to anyone but a truly authentic “owner” of the costume is a tragic misunderstanding of the history of the thing being regulated. It’s also a gesture that almost certainly forbids the wearing of a costume that has a referent that is not wholly imaginary. If a karate outfit is appropriation for anyone but a genuine Okinawan with a black belt, then so also are firefighters, police, soldiers, nurses, doctors, astronauts and so on. Even imaginary characters are usually appropriations of some kind of another, drawn out of history and memory.

It is precisely these kinds of discourses about appropriation that are used by reactionaries to protest Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall, or to assert that a tradition of a particular character or cultural type being white or male or straight means it must always be so. It might be possible to configure a critique so that appropriation from below is always ok and appropriation from above is never ok, but that kind of categorical distinction itself rests on the illusion of power being rigid, binary and fixed rather than fluid, performative and situational.

What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression.
I’ve been trying to remember Halloween costumes from my years at Yale. I don’t remember the types of costume that the administration felt compelled to warn students against this year. In fact, I have a hard time imagining anyone in that period thinking variations on blackface would ever be appropriate—and I do remember clear moments of racism and other bigotry. But maybe I just didn’t go to those parties.

10 November 2015

The Emerald City in the Gutter

Here’s another view of the map of Oz as issued by Reilly & Lee. Can you spot two big differences between it and the map shown last week, from David Maxine’s Hungry Tiger Talk blog?

One difference is that this is a later reprinting of the map that first appeared in Tik-Tok of Oz (1914). As David discussed, the compass rose originally put east on the left and west on the right, contrary to the usual approach. At some point in subsequent decades, the publisher changed the labels so “E” was on the right as usual.

Of course, that change also meant the map showed the Winkie Country to be east of the Emerald City instead of west, as all of L. Frank Baum’s books described it. But his successors Ruth Plumly Thompson and John R. Neill started to state that the Winkies lived to the east, conforming to the reprinted map and its conventional compass.

Another difference is that the version of the map above is a broadside while the image David showed was scanned from an early copy of Tik-Tok of Oz, where it served as the endpapers. And that highlights a feature I find really interesting from the perspective of book design.

This map had to look good both as endpapers, when a thin strip of its middle would be concealed in the book’s binding, and as a poster or broadside lying flat. The artist accomplished that by making sure that almost no sites and no lettering fell within that central strip. Some large labels bridge the strip, such as the word “GILLIKIN” in the top quadrant—but there’s a little extra space between the second I and the K that could disappear into the binding.

The Emerald City was a challenge because Baum was clear that it’s in the middle of Oz—and thus in the middle of this map. How to keep it from vanishing into the gutter? The artist’s solution was to depict the city as a horizontal oval, with the word “Emerald” on the left and “City” on the right. (David Hulan once pointed out that the oval approximates an “emerald cut” in jewelry.) Then when the central strip of the map is hidden (look back on David’s map), the city appears as a circle and its full name remains legible.

On the accompanying map of Oz and surrounding countries, shown below, the Emerald City is safely off-center. And it appears as a circle, as it would appear in the endpapers form of the Oz map. This time the artist tried to keep other labels and locations out of the central strip. In the image from Wikipedia below, you can see where that got tough.

08 November 2015

“Some outstanding work” in Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder

Here are nice quotes from reviews of Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder, edited by Kristen L. Geaman and published this year by McFarland.

John DeNardo, Kirkus Reviews:

“Dick Grayson, aka. Robin, Batman’s young sidekick, [has] been around nearly as long as the caped crusader but rarely sees any media attention. That is, until now, with this collection of scholarly essays. Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing and Batman is an interesting collection that features critical analyses and essays about the most overshadowed sidekick in comics. Also included are interviews with the Boy Wonder’s past and current creators Chuck Dixon, Devin Grayson and Marv Wolfman. Collectively, these essays examine Robin’s place in comics and his evolution across the decades—all within various contexts like trauma, friendship, feminism and masculinity.”
Nick Smith, ICv2 (4 Stars out of 5):
“Some outstanding work . . . for anyone who wants insights into the detailed history of Dick Grayson, as Robin and as Nightwing, and into the creative processes that have guided the character over such a long time, this is a valuable work, well worth reading. It should also be of interest to anyone interested in writing any company-owned character, because the history and interviews may prevent career-threatening pitfalls. Its price may keep it out of the hands of some fans, but it belongs in most libraries, at the least.”
As I wrote last week, the preview function on Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites offers an overview of the book and a good chunk of the first essay, by me.

04 November 2015

A Golden Time for a New Golden Compass?

The news that there’s a deal for a television adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is very intriguing for us fans. It also shows how the economics of special-effects adventure dramas have changed in recent years.

In 2007, New Line’s adaptation of The Golden Compass cost an estimated $180 million to make. But that movie just didn’t capture the books’ magic, earning only $70 million in the US. That was so little that New Line’s parent corporation restructured the division the next year, bringing it under the control of Warner Bros. (The film made more overseas, but most of that money went to distributors, not the studio.)

Now television shows like Supergirl can afford digital visual effects on the same level, despite having a lower budget. And miniseries have become quite lucrative. So it’s possible to conceive of a His Dark Materials adaptation that’s not only visually stunning but tells the complete story of the three books.

Philip Pullman is part of this new deal. So is New Line, perhaps because it still holds the dramatic rights, and Scholastic. The production company, Bad Wolf, is new, without any completed projects, but its founders have brought on the BBC, their former employer. They also have ties to HBO, which would be a prime customer for the series in the US. All that makes me feel a little more hope than usual that this announced deal will lead to an actual show.

03 November 2015

zO fo paM suoiretsyM ehT

At the Hungry Tiger Talk blog, David Maxine has been presenting his research into the many maps of Oz. In his latest, he shares information about the map that appeared in Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), as shown above.

David quotes material showing that L. Frank Baum:
  • sketched a map of Oz for a young reader while working on the musical that became Tik-Tok of Oz, according to his composer, Louis F. Gottschalk.
  • sketched a supplemental map depicting the adventure in The Lost Princess of Oz (1917) based on the first.
He thus reaches the convincing conclusion that Baum himself sketched the preliminary version of the Tik-Tok map.

The main mystery of that map is why its compass is reversed, with east shown on the left and west on the right. Baum’s texts are consistent about east and west—the Winkie Country is always to the west of the Emerald City, for example, and traveling west in the Winkie Country takes one to the edge of Oz. Likewise, the Lost Princess map is consistent with the earlier Tik-Tok map, with west on the right. But if one were to hover in the air over Oz in a balloon facing north, would it look like that map?

For David, the consistency suggests that Baum actually pictured Oz that way, with east to the left and west to the right. I'm not so sure that’s the only explanation.

Even in its early years, the Reilly & Britton publishing firm seems to have been a bit slapdash in how it assembled the Oz books. A couple of years ago I wrote an article about the art program for The Patchwork Girl of Oz, which included reusing many of John R. Neill’s illustrations, including at least one that Baum had rejected.

I therefore think there’s a possibility the Tik-Tok map ended up with a reverse compass because no one noticed that mistake till all the hand-lettering was done. Then, with the book ready to go to the printers, everyone (including Baum) just decided to live with the oddity. As for the Lost Princess map, Baum clearly based that off the earlier one, and it would have been much easier for him to maintain its orientation than to redraw the borders in reverse.

Unfortunately, correspondence between Baum and his publisher during the time when the map was created appears to be lost. We therefore don’t know what Baum asked for or settled for. But it’s clear that he accepted the map as published, with its unorthodox orientation.

02 November 2015

“What’s New” with Wondermore, 7 Nov.

On Saturday, 7 November, I’m going to moderate a panel of new children’s-book authors at Wondermore’s “What’s New in Children’s Books” conference at Lesley University in Cambridge.

The panelists are:
We’re going to talk about their paths of publication, favorite childhood reading, and advice for young creators.

This conference is designed for teachers, librarians, and other professionals who help kids learn to read and enjoy books. Other speakers include author-editor Anita Silvey, author-illustrator Rebecca Bond, bookseller Terri Schmitz, and school librarian Christian Porter. The presentations start at 9:00, and are scheduled to finish in early afternoon.

(Wondermore used to be known as the Foundation for Children’s Books. It’s now focused on bringing books and book creators to urban schools.)

01 November 2015

A Robin Reader

Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder is a collection of serious essays about the sensational character find of 1940, published on the occasion of his 75th anniversary.

The book’s editor is Kristen L. Geaman, a medievalist, and many of the other contributors are also academics. Most don’t specialize in comic books or popular culture but are long-time fans of Dick Grayson in his various roles in the DC Universe. They combine rigorous scholarship with affection for the character. And one of those contributors is me.

In fact, my essay is the first in the book because I volunteered to cover the first thirty years of Dick Grayson stories, from his debut in 1940 to his departure for college in late 1969. I discuss the storytelling advantages of a sidekick, the emotional depth that Dick brought to the Batman saga, and Dr. Fredric Wertham’s complaints about the Dynamic Duo’s relationship.

On both Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s website, it’s possible to read a good chunk of my essay through the preview feature. Check it out and see if you want a copy of the whole book in print or digital form.

(Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder doesn’t contain any illustrations from the comics, and it wasn’t authorized by DC Comics—hence the non-trademark-conforming costume on the cover.)