07 December 2017

Guest Reviewer on The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Godson has some things to say about The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage:
…the book ostensibly isn’t on the scale of the trilogy. I was somewhat worried, until I realised that whilst the book limits itself to the Thames, almost entirely to Oxfordshire, and for swathes two buildings, the adventure is still epic beyond belief.

To think critically for a moment, this book can almost be called magic realism, not fantasy. Or at least it is fantasy of the Terry Pratchett school - it can tell very ordinary stories on a heroic scale. The echoes of Pullman’s predecessors and contemporaries are obvious. Add Pratchett’s humour to Gaiman’s dark twist (Pullman jokingly called La Belle Sauvage ‘His Darker Materials’) to C. S. Lewis’ storytelling and worlds to Lewis Carroll’s allegory (and, as one critic pointed out, the fact that Pullman’s heroine is called Alice is slightly on-the-nose) and you begin to approach Pullman’s brilliance.

Approach, mind you - La Belle Sauvage is a clinic in how to structure a novel, allaying each fear I had almost as soon as I had it, the pattern mimetic of the action itself. It brought to my mind the episodic nature of the Icelandic Sagas at one point, a Christie-esque murder mystery at another, thrillers, love stories and epics at others. It transcends genre, and does so to the tune of Pullman’s beautifully simple prose, that captures in the same way as the originals a Romantic quality that is inherently readable for everyone.
The full essay is on his school’s book blog.

18 October 2017

“Comics and Medicine” Coming to MICE, Oct. 21

The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) is coming up this weekend, and on Saturday I’ll moderate a panel on “Comics and Medicine.”

This session is being organized by Matthew Noe, the Graphic Medicine Specialist for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, New England Region. He wrote about it here on the agency’s blog.

Here’s an extract from Matthew’s posting:
In anticipation of this panel, I asked each panelist to say in a few sentences what graphic medicine is to them. Here are their responses – a bit of a teaser of the panel to come!

Cathy Leamy: Graphic medicine is anything involving comics/cartooning and health and illness. I love that it’s not rigid and nailed down; the door is open for all kinds of explorations and investigators. Health education comics, illness memoirs, analysis of comics for medical themes, art therapy, teaching self-expression and empathy through comics making – so many applications are possible, and we all benefit from the cross-pollination of being exposed to them.

Kriota Willberg: My goal as a cartoonist making GM is to normalize medicine and the body. I hope to make illness, anatomy, and science a benign and familiar trio of actors in our lives, thereby mitigating the anxiety and confusion that often effects patients and their families, and stigmatizes the ill.

Iasmin Omar Ata: [To me, graphic medicine is] using unique mediums to heal through the power of art. Particularly in comics and games, there exists such an opportunity for those with illness to speak, be heard, listen, and heal.

Matthew Noe: Graphic medicine, beyond the strict definitions and the difficult task of reigning in what exactly it means to be a comic, is about communication. Patients communicating with physicians. Physicians communicating with patients. Family communicating with family. Comics can give voice to the voiceless, clarity to the unclear, and can help us refocus medicine on the human.
I’m looking forward to hearing more! Our session is at 11:00 A.M. on Saturday in the Auditorium of University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.

06 October 2017

Choice Bits from M. T. Anderson

Entertainment Weekly’s interview with M. T. Anderson about his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand, focused on its timeliness and political overtones—which came as a surprise to the author. Here are some of his remarks, insightful as always:
I wrote the first version of it like four years ago at this point. Supposedly I had no idea what this political climate was. There is a health care element — like this kid has this weird disease, somehow alien-inspired disease, and his health care won’t cover it. And at the time I actually remember thinking “Oh, with the ACA going into effect, by the time this is published I bet that this will seem kind of backwards.” Like it would seem like a throwback. . . .

I think that the tension that was probably there in my mind — that I was expressing — was after the 2008 crash, suddenly a couple of years later, everyone is saying, “Look, the economy’s doing great!” But of course, the “economy” — that did not extend to about 95 percent of the population; 95 percent of the population was still in a horrible state. I didn’t think of this as I did it, but then it was immediately clear later: Even the fact that the wealthy now, literally, there is space between them and the rest of the population in this book because the wealthy are now hovering in aerial condos a mile above the Earth’s surface, with access to all this vuvv tech and all this alien tech and all this alien medicine and everything else, while the rest of us are falling around on Earth still. That is, in a sense, I feel also a great representation of how it feels right now. Kind of like a gap between that upper one percent and the rest of us. . . .

If you had talked to people 10 years ago to say that their book was somehow relevant to specific political events, it seemed really kind of embarrassing. It felt like that was a cop-out somehow. . . . there was a phase where dystopian fiction was in but it did not yet have that feeling of complete urgency, except for stuff like Cormac McCarthy. It was a little bit more fun window-dressing to suggest teen angst than it was about a truly political situation in some ways.
In an alternate universe, as the kids say, we’d still be talking about dystopian, apocalyptic near-future science fiction that way.

04 October 2017

Years before Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies sits in a long line of novels about shipwrecked voyagers stretching back to the beginning of the English novel with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Other famous examples of the “Robinsonade” genre include Gulliver’s Travels, The Swiss Family Robinson, Enoch Arden, Haakon Haakonsen: En Norsk Robinson, Treasure Island, The Blue Lagoon, The Black Stallion, and Island of the Blue Dolphins.

The example that Golding cited as inspiration was The Coral Island and a Tale of the South Pacific, by R. M. Ballantyne. He explicitly alluded to that book twice in Lord of the Flies and borrowed two of its main characters’ first names. In Ballantyne’s tale three boys are shipwrecked on an island, look after themselves and friendly natives, fight off pirates and unfriendly natives, and convert natives to Christianity. Really their island’s not that deserted.

One novel resembles Lord of the Flies in its premise a lot more: Deux ans de vacances (Two Years’ Vacation, also titled Adrift in the Pacific, A Two Years’ Holiday, and A Long Vacation), written by Jules Verne in 1888. Verne liked Robinsonades, publishing two others before this one: The Mysterious Island (titled L’Oncle Robinson in its first, discarded version) and Godfrey Morgan.

In Deux ans de vacances, a group of mostly British schoolboys are cast ashore on an uninhabited, unmapped island. They organize themselves into a rudimentary society, the older boys looking after the younger ones. They hunt wild animals. They see no other humans for two years until a ship comes by.

In those respects, Lord of the Flies is more like Deux ans de vacances than The Coral Island or any of its predecessors. And the similarities don’t stop with the thick lines of plot. In the first English edition of Verne’s novel, titled Adrift in the Pacific, the younger boys are frequently referred to as “little ones.” In Lord of the Flies, the younger boys are “littluns.” (The 1967 translation of Deux ans de vacances, titled A Long Vacation, comes up with the jargon “Elbees,” short for “little boys.”)

There’s no evidence that Golding ever read Deux ans de vacances. The 1889 British version was reprinted in 1927, 1934, and perhaps other years, however. Golding said he and his wife shared a number of island adventure stories before he got the idea to write about how boys would really behave on an island. Adrift in the Pacific might have been one of them. If not, then there are some mighty strong coincidences.

02 October 2017

Dahl’s Chocolate Boy

Last month I wrote about the suddenly fashionable but not really new news that Roald Dahl had originally described Charlie Bucket as black.

Maria Russo of the New York Times interviewed Catherine Keyser, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, about the part of Dahl’s early draft for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Keyser identified the agent who advised Dahl against making Charlie black as Sheila St. Lawrence of the Watkins Agency in New York. She had pushed Dahl into giving children’s books a try, so she was a big part of his literary success and wealth. Their working relationship ended in a transatlantic row, of course.

In the first draft Charlie’s status as a “small NEGRO boy” became significant in a scene that Keyser summarized like this:
Charlie ends up in the Easter Room, where there are life-size candy molds of creatures, and one of these life-size molds is shaped like a chocolate boy. Charlie is fascinated by this. Wonka helps him into the mold and gets distracted. The mold closes, and the chocolate pours over his body and he is suffocating and nearly drowning in it. And it hardens around him, which feels terrible. He’s trapped. He’s alive but can’t be seen or heard. No one knows where he’s gone. Then he gets taken to Wonka’s house to be the chocolate boy in Wonka’s son’s Easter basket. . . .

As far as this version goes, I think it is a really powerful racial allegory that might seem very surprising coming from Dahl. I think the mold in the shape of a chocolate boy is a metaphor for racial stereotype. In the early 20th century, chocolate marketing in both the U.S. and England was very tied up in imperialist fantasies and in connecting brown skin with brown chocolate.
I can’t help thinking that Keyser’s reading of the episode as a “powerful racial allegory” is too charitable to Dahl. He was not known for his broad sympathies, after all.

What’s more, the guiding pattern in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that the kids get in trouble because their personal weaknesses draw them toward a certain type of candy, and they end up nastily transformed in some way related to that candy. This Charlie is “fascinated” by the chocolate boy mold, even wishing to get inside. It feels like Dahl was thinking that a black boy would naturally be drawn to the chocolate boy mold. That’s the suffocating stereotype itself, not an allegory for it. Dahl eventually dropped that characterization of Charlie and that episode, letting him sharpen the book’s moral allegory.

Another part of the interview:
When you started your research, had anyone else ever written about “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy”?

No. It was mentioned by Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, and it was mentioned in Lucy Mangan’s popular book “Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.”
So actually I think the answer to that question is “Yes.” Even if, as Keyser goes on to state, no previous author had looked at the episode “in great textual detail.”

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.

29 August 2017

No Need to Visit Skull Castle

Seeing Dirk Gringhuis’s 1964 Mystery at Skull Castle in David Maxine’s collection made me curious about it. Fortunately, David has already shared a thorough review that answers nearly all my questions about the book and its connections to the Oz series.

Just a taste:
The boys [Bram and Piet] are secretly saving money to purchase a new buggy for Piet's uncle. They move their savings to the old burnt-out castle for safekeeping. While at the castle they find a stash of jewels and seconds later meet Major Willoughby, supposedly the long lost heir to the man who built the castle, and his East Indian servant, Singh. The Major cons the boys into leaving their money in the same niche that the jewels were in and tells them to keep quiet about the discovery. . . .

Bram and Piet are stupid and oblivious. They are gullible to every idiotic suggestion and notion the Major tells them. They ignore the truth even when little Bertram is telling them flat out he just watched the Major steal the jewels. Even after they manage to escape their bonds in the castle they don't run for help in town but allow themselves to be cornered on the shore of Lake Michigan where they cower until Piet's uncle solves the mystery (he recognized the red mud of the castle grounds on the major's wagon wheels) and comes down to the shore where he hears the commotion and shoots the Major. In a children's mystery, shouldn't the main characters be the ones to find the solution?

Not only do Bram and Piet not solve the mystery, their primary goal at the beginning comes to nothing, since the uncle has no interest in a new buggy.
Kirkus Reviews was no more complimentary in 1964: “An incredible, poorly plotted story . . . In the story which amounts to little more than a wild chase, the boys and lesser figures are paper thin.”

28 August 2017

An Upsetting Tap on the Shoulder

In a conversation with novelist John Le Carré arranged and recorded by the New York Times Book Review, the espionage historian Ben Macintyre spoke of being recruited for the British secret service MI6 by a man calling himself “Major Halliday”:
It was the typical sort of tap on the shoulder. It was quite amusing, really. A don that I didn’t know terribly well came barreling up and he said, “What are you doing after university?” I said, “I don’t really know.” And he said, “Well, there are some parts of the Foreign Office that are different from other parts of the Foreign Office. In a sense, they are different from the Foreign Office itself.” He went on for about five minutes. Of course, I knew exactly what he was saying, although he never actually said it.

So I went along to Carlton House Terrace [where MI6 had an office]. And there was very clearly more than one Major Halliday, because other people I know were recruited by a completely different Major Halliday. Mine had on socks and sandals, which was quite upsetting at the time.
Le Carré’s new novel is A Legacy of Spies. Macintyre’s latest is Rogue Heroes.

26 August 2017

Picturing an Author-Illustrator as Her Book

Here’s a nice quote from John Rocco, artist of the upcoming picture-book biography Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton, written by Sherri Duskey Rinker. Burton was known to friends and relatives as “Jinnee.”

At first it was hard to wrap my head around the idea of illustrating a book about another children’s book artist without just showing her drawing…

But a lot of Jinnee’s personality came through as I went through her sketches and books. I suddenly realized that she was the embodiment of The Little House. She had an appreciation for technology and moving forward, but was much more closely tied to a simpler life. To portray her symbolically as her book’s little house, which was surrounded by daisies, I pictured Jinnee wearing a skirt emblazoned with daisies.

And when I learned that she was a dancer, I wanted her dancing across the page as she created her art, and tried to capture the sense of flow and movement across the pages of her own books, and to pay homage to her meticulous sense of design.
Rocco is quoted in this Publishers Weekly article about the new book and reissues of two of Burton’s picture books, including The Little House.

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.