30 September 2017

Pocketing the Bad Machinery Series

I heartily enjoy John Allison’s Bad Machinery graphic novels, following a team of teen detectives in the fictional mid-sized city of Tackleford, England.

Allison created these stories first as webcomics, and they retain that form’s rhythm. Each page has a payoff of its own. The narrative can jerk ahead in time from one to the next. That serves the sprawling stories well since they’re as much about upper-school personalities and the British class system as that term’s mystery.

Allison drew his pages to the dimensions of a computer screen, about half again as wide as they are tall. As a result, the first print editions were more than a foot wide, floppy and hard to shelve. I loved the stories, but I didn’t have space for them all.

Oni Press has started to reissue the Bad Machinery books in “Pocket Editions,” a shade less than nine inches wide. That makes them the same size as the seventh and latest volume, The Case of the Forked Road, which Allison created in a more traditional vertical format for print.

I was worried, however, that my aging eyes wouldn’t be able to read the balloons on the smaller pages. But I took a chance on the first two volumes, The Case of the Team Spirit and The Case of the Good Boy, and my eyes worked fine. While I still don’t see as many commas of direct address as I’d like, Allison’s verbal wit comes through just as well as his visuals.

(In addition to the seven Bad Machinery novels, one of the Tackleford teens, Charlotte, crosses over into another of Allison’s series in Murder, She Writes, set in the cutthroat world of children’s publishing. It’s a fine introduction to Allison’s work.)

16 September 2017

The Original Charlie Bucket

The press in both Britain and America is abuzz with reports that Roald Dahl originally wrote of Charlie Bucket, hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as black. These grew out of a radio interview with Dahl’s widow and his authorized biographer, Donald Sturrock.

In fact, Sturrock reported how Dahl’s early drafts described Charlie as a “small NEGRO boy” back in 2011 in his biography Storyteller. At that stage the novel’s plot turned on Charlie being sprayed with quick-drying chocolate and mistaken for one of Willie Wonka’s “chocolate boys,” an awkward state that nonetheless lets him witness a theft and solve a mystery.

Dahl already had his eye on the American market, with agents in New York and Hollywood and direct contact with editors at Alfred A. Knopf. His widow, who didn’t meet Dahl until a decade after he wrote Charlie, suggested that a part-American sensibility was why he first imagined the young hero as black. Of course, it might simply have been a mental association of chocolate and brown skin.

In the radio interview Sturrock said that an agent recommended that Dahl drop that idea. He didn’t name the agent, but he used the pronoun “she,” ruling out Dahl’s British representative, Laurence Pollinger. According to Sturrock, “She said people would ask: ‘Why?’” Which might have been an unfortunate reflection of the U.S. market, or might have been a polite way of warning Dahl off of a racial stereotype.

As we know, in subsequent drafts Dahl stopped describing Charlie as black and also gave Willie Wonka an enslaved African workforce. That should undercut any simple suggestion that Dahl was unusually enlightened in imagining a black hero for a children’s novel in the early 1960s.

14 September 2017

“The only one there is you.”

From novelist David Burr Gerard at LitHub, writing about the biggest influences on him as a storyteller:

And if I hadn’t fallen in love as a child with The Monster at the End of This Book, I’m not sure I would have fallen in love as a teenager quite so hard, or in quite the same way, with Kafka…
The essay touches on child empowerment, the reader’s relationship to a narrative protagonist, and the ambivalence of recognizing the self.

08 September 2017

Golding and the Girls

Recently news broke that a Hollywood studio optioning a remake of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with marooned schoolgirls instead schoolboys. I saw some people suggesting that adaptation missed how the novel is a critique of male behavior; others said that wasn’t what Golding had in mind at all. So I decided to look into the question.

As the book was being published, Golding told his publisher:
The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island.
It seems clear not only that Golding hadn’t set out to discuss male behavior. Indeed, his use of the generic word “children” for the all-boy cast of characters hints that he believed boys were representative of all children.

And that’s confirmed by Golding’s later comments. Peter Brook, who eventually directed the best movie adaptation of the novel, recalled hearing Golding respond to Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel’s suggestion to add girls to the cast:
Mr. Spiegel, I wanted the film to be an allegory on the human race. “Man” suggests all, “boy” equally—if you bring in boys and girls you’re forced to bring in secondary side issues, sexual attractions, conflicts, problems of puberty…
Indeed, a teacher casting the play in a co-ed school found something similar: “while having the female actors read lines with the male actors during auditions, Williams noticed that the teasing dialogue had turned into flirting.” Surely Golding, a schoolteacher, understood those issues arose in an all-male group as well, but they weren’t as open, especially with such young boys.

However, that quotation also shows that Golding was considering male as the default gender, especially when discussing “the human race.” In the introduction for a reissue of the novel, Golding expressed that idea at even more length:
When girls say to me, and very reasonably, “Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?” my reply is I was once a little boy. I have been a brother, I have been a father, I’m going to be a grandfather, I have never been a sister or a mother or a grandmother, so this is why I wrote it really about little boys. That’s one answer. Another answer is of course to say if you, as it were, scaled down human beings, scaled down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.

Don’t ask me why, and this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from Hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing at all to do with equality at all. Women are foolish to pretend they’re equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down so to speak into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society. That’s another reason why they were little boys.

The other thing is, why weren’t they little boys and little girls? We being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.
After considering these quotations, I concluded that it was clear Golding didn’t intend to write about masculinity, but also couldn’t conceive of masculinity as an issue in the problems he set out to explore. Which looks like an aspect of the male behavior up for critique. Unknowingly, or in defiant denial, Golding portrayed the worst of male behavior while insisting he’d done no such thing.

05 September 2017

Julia Anne Young Reenvisioning Oz

Artist Julia Anne Young created this model as an exercise for an SCBWI New Jersey conference. Maria Middleton, Art Director for Random House Children’s Books, assigned the people in her illustrators’ intensive workshop to “put our own spin on any character from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, write an original story brief, and illustrate a story scene.”

Young imagined Dorothy Gale as “a camp counselor for The Flying Monkey Scouts,” rescuing one of her charges from a whirlpool. (She also implicitly reimagined Dorothy from the blonde girl that John R. Neill drew while retaining the blue checks and red shoes from the movie.) We can see Young’s whole process here at 24 Carrot Writing.

Julia Anne Young’s story doesn’t exist (yet). From the workshop she took home ways to improve this picture further. So we might yet see future versions of this adventure.