14 August 2017

“Dark stuff for 8–12 year olds”

Highlighting Patrick Hogan’s essay “A Children's Book About Aliens Turned Me Into a Socialist” at Splinter, about the My Teacher Is an Alien series by Bruce Coville:
When I spoke with Coville over the phone, he said the social justice bent of the series was a bit of an accident after the surprise success of the first book, which was intended to be a one-off adventure novel. His other novels (and he has written a lot of novels) rarely indulged in politics, but he was inspired to add an element of social criticism the Teacher is an Alien series after reading the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol.

“The pleasure of writing about aliens is they could see our nonsense from the outside,” Coville told me. “It’s an insane way to live.”

In the final book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, the child protagonists of the first three volumes are given the task of convincing the Interplanetary Council to not blow Earth up (the planet having, as the title hints, flunked its alien evaluation). As part of the assignment, their alien teacher, Broxholm, takes them on a tour of Earth and asks them to answer for humanity’s behavior. They hit up war zones, impoverished cities and, most notably in my memory, a refugee camp . . .

That’s dark stuff for 8–12 year olds. It was dark for Coville, too, who said the research he conducted for the segment of impoverished and war-torn areas of the world was harrowing.

“I got away with it because it was the fourth book of the series,” he said. “That book sold a million to a million-and-a-half copies but I feel like a lot of it was a secret between me and the kids who read it.”
Hogan recalls only one other title in his school library with a waiting list: How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.

20 July 2017

DeConnick Scripting from the Dialogue

In this 2011 interview with with Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter, comics scripter Kelly Sue DeConnick described her method of writing dialogue:
DeCONNICK: I suspect that’s more a result of the actor training than anything else, but I’m sure they’re all related.

SPURGEON: You even work from dialogue first as opposed to structure or visual cues or graphic beats. How does a page form when you work from dialogue first?

DeCONNICK: A looooooot faster than if I try and break things down into panels as I go. [Spurgeon laughs] It took me a while to figure out that that was the best approach for me, and I still forget it sometimes and try to pound it out panel by panel and it’s just... torturous. And not very good.

Okay, so, when I get to scripting, I’ve already got my outline. So I know what the scene is and who's in it. Without sounding too pretentious—I hope!—I just kind of let them talk. It’s like…well, I was an actor, right, but I was also a professional improv actor for three-plus years. So, it's like improvising a scene—only I'm playing all the characters. I take down the dialogue and then I go back and look at it. I cut what I don’t like. Then I start breaking the scene down into beats the very same way an actor breaks down a script. The big beats? Those are page turns. The smaller ones are panel breaks. More important beats call for bigger panels—though I never dictate that sort of thing, I only suggest.

Some beats are silent. . . .

Oh, hey—I remembered something about actor training that is directly relevant to writing comics—psychological gesture. I thought of you this morning when I was acting out a panel at my desk trying to decide if the gesture I was asking for felt right.

SPURGEON: What is psychological gesture exactly? Can you describe what it is about a certain gesture that you feel is valuable to consider when putting together a script?

DeCONNICK: It’s pretty much exactly what you’d think—it’s something the actor does with his or her body to give the audience additional information about what’s going on in the character’s head. It’s a simple enough idea, but it’s one of the things that makes acting an art form and not just Pretty People Playing Telling Lies.

So, for instance, my scripts often indicate when characters are making eye contact—or more importantly, when they’re not. People sometimes touch their mouths when they’re lying, cover their eyes or foreheads when they’re ashamed. I consider it valuable because it adds information that isn’t in the dialogue.
I am, of course, not convinced that it’s so easy to tell when people are lying, or to convey that in a way most readers pick up. But I am intrigued by DeConnick’s approach to scripting as acting on the page.

18 July 2017

The Tin Woodman of Forkland

Starting in 1993, Jim Bird has been building statuary out of old farm equipment and hay bales on his fields in Forkland, Alabama.

Among those figures is this “32-foot sculpture of the tin man from Oz, assembled from old bathtubs, 55-gallon drums and a discarded fuel tank—and topped with an old fertilizer spreader.”

As of 2015, this was the most expensive of Bird’s statues since he spent $40 on paint; otherwise, he has a rule not to spend more than $5. The heart has text which reads, “Jim loves Lib.” That’s a message for Bird’s wife Lib; he started building his figures when she was on a trip and he missed her.

(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

17 July 2017

Airlocked-Room Mystery

In 2002, M. T. Anderson began his novel Feed with the line, “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

The first narrative page of Stuart Gibbs’s Space Case from 2015 includes the line, “Life in outer space sucks. Believe me, I know.”

I note that parallel not to underscore the similarity of the two books in the science fiction mode, but to introduce how they zoom off in different directions from that point.

Anderson wrote a young adult novel that took place mostly in its enervated narrator’s head and conversations. The big dramatic turns are shopping expeditions and a fatal disease. It turns out the moon isn’t the only place that completely sucks.

Space Case, in contrast, is for “Ages 8-12.” It’s plot-driven, not character-driven. The hero’s sucky life on the Moon gets a jolt of excitement from a mysterious death that only a twelve-year-old can solve. With a limited cast of characters, the lunar base a fine set-up for a murder mystery.

In the end, however, the science fiction wins out over the mystery in Space Case. The explanation for the death turns out to involve a scientific discovery that the narrator and readers weren’t privy to earlier in the story. Though that resolution’s beyond the bounds of current science, it’s not beyond the bounds of a science-fiction fan’s imagination.

15 July 2017

Work with Children and Animals

This call for papers came up on the H-Childhood email list:

Child-Animal Relationships in Comics: Historical and Transcultural Perspectives

Many of the most well-known comics protagonists have pets or animal friends, loyal sidekicks in their daily lives and adventures: Charlie Brown has Snoopy, his independent, precocious dog, Calvin has Hobbes, a stuffed tiger acquiring life through the boy’s imagination, Beano’s Dennis the Menace eventually acquired an equally destructive canine companion called Gnasher, Tintin (successfully eluding the adult-child distinction, but remaining in many ways a child with a degree of agency accorded only to adults) has Snowy.

Already the Yellow Kid was accompanied by several stray dogs, cats and other animals, who accentuated the action and the humor. Decades later, the importance of animal sidekicks persist, as exemplified by the series devoted to Spirou’s fantastic, semi-domestic Marsupilami. That these children and their animal friends combine characteristics of both adults and children not only accounts for their appeal to a broad audience but also highlights the complexity underlying these characters in spite of their flattened, polyvalent essence. Thus, for Umberto Eco, “Schulz’s children create a little universe in which our tragedy and our comedy are performed” and “Snoopy carries to the last metaphysical frontier the neurotic failure to adjust”.

Even though child-animal relationships have been a staple of comics production, they remain overlooked by comics scholarship, which is only tentatively broaching the study of children and comics, as exemplified by recent publications (Abate and Sanders; Gordon; Heimermann and Tullis). In expanding on existing scholarship and combining it with studies on picture books and comics as well as animals in comics (Groensteen; Hatfield; Hatfield and Svonkin; Sanders), this anthology seeks to build stronger bridges between the fields of comics studies, childhood studies and animal studies in order to take a first step towards a more profound and holistic understanding of the roles and relationships of animals and children in comics. It is particularly interested in historical studies (from the mid-nineteenth century onwards) and transcultural comparisons of child-animal relationships in comics that engage with one or more of the following aspects:
  • extent of questioning or reproduction of conceptualizations of childhood and childishness
  • relationship to adults and adulthood
  • degree of agency accorded to both children and animals
  • role of eccentricity for both child and animal characters as well as the supporting cast
  • othering and interaction with others
  • representations and roles of family life
  • portrayal and presence of schools and other civil and social institutions
Please send abstracts of 500 words (for a 7000 word contribution) to Maaheen Ahmed by 31 August 2017. Accepted contributions are due by 31 January 2018.

The volume will be published in late 2018 by the University Press of Liège as part of the ACME series on comics studies.

13 July 2017

What the New Spider-Man Comes Home to

Back in 2014, it was widely reported that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a superhero movie crossed with a 1970s political thriller. That’s why the sight of Robert Redford, star of Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Brubaker, in the film was so resonant.

In the same way, I think Spider-Man: Homecoming as a superhero movie crossed with a 1980s high-school romantic comedy. The sort of movie on which John Hughes made his name. The genre that such other talents as Cameron Crowe, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, and Savage Steve Holland contributed to.

In the midst of the usual superpowered action and angst, there are a lot of laughs about the culture of high school, as seen from the student perspective. Adults are either petty tyrants or ineffectual scolds (even Captain America). High-school rituals like the morning news bulletin, homecoming dance, and academic decathlon are both laughable and life-or-death important. Everyone else seems to be having more fun.

In many ways, the high school in Spider-Man: Homecoming is a welcome update to the schools in those earlier movies and in the original Spider-Man comics. Peter Parker attends a high school devoted to science and technology, so by older standards everyone’s already a nerd. His rival Flash Thompson isn’t the football captain; he just has a big mouth and sharp tongue. And the student body is very ethnically diverse.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t seem shy about its cinematic pedigree. The movie even includes a clip from Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an iconic example of the genre. The soundtrack features the Ramones, the English Beat, and A Flock of Seagulls. The homecoming dance has an ’80s theme, which would be exotic for characters born in this century but is nostalgic for some of this movie’s target audience.

My friend Dan Mazur has said that he used to enjoy Spider-Man comics and their common theme of “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” But eventually he noticed that almost every story came back to “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” And he began to think that comics should find more to say. [More on that here.]

That’s not the theme of this Spider-Man movie, however. It’s not an origin story, as in Amazing Fantasy, #15. We don’t see Peter Parker bit by the spider, we don’t see him try pro wrestling, we don’t see him ignore the burglar who kills his uncle. At no point does he really think about tossing everything away or just showing off, as Peter has occasionally done in the comics and previous movies.

Instead, when Spider-Man: Homecoming starts, Peter is already determined to take on great responsibilities as a costumed crimefighter. Indeed, he’s too eager. The major moment of character growth is actually stepping away from big, flashy responsibilities in favor of staying home. The Homecoming subtitle refers to how the story immediately follows from Captain America: Civil War, the high school dance, and Peter’s decision to focus on his own neighborhood.

The main theme of this Spider-Man is thus the same as those earlier high-school movies: stay true to yourself and your real friends, and you’ll get through this.

12 July 2017

Gendered Journaling

This is from the opening of Henry Reed, Inc., written by Keith Robertson and published in 1958.

This is a journal, not a diary. Diaries are kept by girls and tell all about their dates and what they think of different boy friends. My mother says that men keep diaries too, that the most famous diary in the world was kept a long time ago by an Englishman named Pepys. That may be so, but when I read about pirates and explorers and sea captains they always keep journals, so this is going to be a journal. It is going to be a record of what happens to me this summer in New Jersey.
And this is the opening of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney, as first published on the FunBrain website in 2004 (later published on paper in 2007).
More than four decades and a wave of feminism separate the two books, but both young male narrators insist, “This is a journal, not a diary.”

25 May 2017

The Missing McCloskeys

Tonight I took in the Robert McCloskey exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts through 18 June. And I realized I deeply know only half the man’s work—the first half.

In the 1940s McCloskey put out four fine books, including three extraordinary ones: Lentil (1940), Make Way for Ducklings (1941), Homer Price (1943), and Blueberries for Sal (1948). I grew up with copies of all those books in the house, along with Centerburg Tales, the 1951 sequel to Homer Price.

But I didn’t grow up in an intimate relationship with One Morning in Maine (1952), Time of Wonder (1957), or Burt Dow, Deep-water Man (1963). I knew those books from the library, perhaps, but at a much shallower level. Most of the art felt new to me.

All of McCloskey’s books were published before I was born and were thus available to me as a child. But only the first batch were published before my mother’s adolescence. So perhaps she chose those for me because she remembered them fondly from her own childhood.

Notably, this one-room exhibit didn’t include work from any of the books McCloskey illustrated without writing, such as Journey Cake, Ho by his mother-in-law Ruth Sawyer (1953, a Caldecott Honor Book) and the Henry Reed books by Keith Robertson (1958-1970). Both of which I recognize immediately without remembering anything about their contents. In fact, I realize I’ve got the latter series amalgamated with the Henry Huggins books by Beverly Cleary. Much to revisit.