A Report from Comic-Con 2016

Designated Survivor ad, side of building, downtown San Diego, 20 July 2016[Taps microphone.] Greetings, fellow nerds, fans, and affiliated wanderers! If I may interrupt the daily (hourly?) reports of chaos and pain that saturate your newsfeed, I’ll bring you what I hope is a satisfying report from this year’s Comic-Con. Yes, while the Republican National Convention was busy opening a hellmouth in Cleveland, I was in San Diego, learning and talking about comics. In some wonderful ways, Comic-Con is the opposite of our contemporary dystopian moment.  In other ways, it’s also symptom of that same moment.

Sure, I’m aware that Comic-Con is now an entertainment-industry promotion-palooza (also featuring comics). I know that every available surface entices us to consume (watch the new show, buy the action figure, get the Lego set, etc.). And I’d love it if it comics were more of a central focus than they now are.

But to accentuate the positive for a moment, Comic-Con is a community of nice people — whether they’re comics people or TV-and-film people, whether they’re immersed in a fandom or not, whether they’re cosplaying or dressed as civilians. (I cosplay as a middle-aged English professor. This is my third Comic-Con, and my, er, costume is getting more convincing every year, if I do say so myself.)

So, read on for G. Willow Wilson, Jeff Smith, Kate Beaton, tips on teaching with comics, random observations from yours truly, and more!


WEDNESDAY

Temperatures Rising

Walking Dead: ID for ComicCon 2016Situated on the coast of southern California, San Diego’s weather is predictably pleasant. Usually. After landing midday on Wednesday, I took the bus to several blocks from my hotel, and walked… getting hotter and hotter. Daily, temperatures edged into the upper 80s Fº (above 30º C), a trend that will become normal as the climate changes. In response to more imminent existential threats, this is the first year that Comic-Con no longer uses paper badges in a plastic sleeve. Each person’s badge has a unique ID card that must be scanned every time she or he enters or leaves the convention center. Conference sponsor The Walking Dead was on this year’s badge. Enjoy that metaphor because it will return.

Teaching with Comics

Teaching With Comics panel

I started my Comic-Con by drawing pictures. From 4 to 6 pm, at the San Diego Central Library, Peter Carlson (Green Dot Public Schools), Antero Garcia (Colorado State University), and Susan Kirtley (Portland State University) led a workshop featuring classroom educators Samantha Diego, James Kelley, and Jenn Anya Prosser.

Susan Kirtley (a 2013 Eisner-winner for her book on Lynda Barry) asked us what comics are, which is always great because there are so many different definitions. After people offered some answers, she highlighted the answers of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Dylan Horrocks, though of course we could bring in others (as I expect she would have, had she more time) such as Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, or Hillary Chute.

Her comments reminded me, also, that some people face resistance to teaching classes on comics.  She told us that if people are skeptical of why you’re teaching comics, to tell them you’re “teaching graphic narratives as a way to promote multimodal literacy.” Resistance to studying comics interests me because it’s one of the most complex narrative media ever invented. There is so much to say about it.

She also took us through a few exercises.  One was this, which is inspired by Ivan Brunetti’s single-panel comic exercise in Cartooning Philosophy and Practice.

Kirtley (inspired by Brunetti) slide

We had 1-2 minutes to do this.  Here’s what I came up with for Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything.

Nel, The Book of Everything, in 4 panels (created in 1-2 mins.)

She then had us all do a one-panel version.  In Cartooning Philosophy and Practice, Brunetti does a single-panel Catcher in the Rye.  It’s brilliant.

Ivan Brunetti, Catcher in the Rye

Mine — done in 1 minute — for The Book of Everything is not brilliant. Obviously.

Nel, The Book of Everything, in 1 panel (created in 1-2 mins.)

But this brings me to another key part of her pedagogy. She does these exercises with her students. “I do it when they do it,” she says, because that levels the critical plain.  She also encourages us teachers to reward students’ risk-taking at moment of assessment: “Make it OK for students to fail — and don’t penalize them for that.” Susan builds in rubrics that take into account the entire process. I like this.

Peter Carlson and Samantha Diego spoke on “Engaging Readers, Empowering Writers, Creating Communities: Civic Superheroes,” via the idea of the superhero.  They asked us:

What superpowers do you want?

Why?

Those questions elicit an array of profound responses. One grade-school student had told them invisibility to prevent the other kids from making fun of her appearance.  In our older crowd, answers included persuasion, and healing.  I and at least one other audience member chose healing as our superpower.  When I talked with Susan afterwards, she said that this superpower — healing — really appealed to her, too.  This makes sense. As we age, mortality looms larger. In the Dallas airport, en route Comic-Con, I read a 43-year-old friend’s (likely) final column for her local paper. Aided by an unrelenting brain tumor, death will likely claim her before the year is out. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, we all must face the inevitability of our own deaths. I don’t conceive of the healing superpower as an end-run around death, but a way to alleviate suffering on that journey towards the moment when our time finally runs out. For her, perhaps the superpower could buy her more time or at least enable her to retain her cognitive abilities. Even superpowers have limits, I know.

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: No NormalReturning to the exercise, some follow-up questions from Carlson and Diego:

What would you do with those powers?

Where would you go?

Who would you become?

They also suggested that the first issue of a comic — say, Ms. Marvel or Storm — can be a good way into these discussions.

Jenn Anya Prosser had us close-read some panels, but I failed to take notes on that (since it’s something I already do). Antero Garcia and James Kelly addressed why we should teach science and English together, and suggested that comics can be a great way to have these conversations.  Comics ask big questions:

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be mutant?

What does it mean to be other?

What does it mean to be?

Science addresses these questions, too. They can also help students think about genetics, viz:

Garcia & Kelly's slide

Preview Night

Afterwards, it was Preview Night!  Though we could have gone to watch previews of not-yet-released shows, Susan Kirtley and I instead zeroed in on the comics sections of the exhibit hall, where I squandered aimlessly — well, not entirely aimlessly. As usual, I bought more than I should — both that night and on subsequent days. But accumulating books is an occupational affliction.  And, hey, it’s good to give your spine a workout, right?

ComicCon 2016: Phil's books and swag

Also, on Preview Night, the crowds are not as thick as they become on subsequent days.  But the hall is always something of a sensory overload.  I sometimes think that Comic-Con should have strategically placed sensory deprivation chambers where Con-goers could sit and decompress for five-to-ten minutes at a time.  There’s a lot to take in.

SDCC exhibit hall floor 21 July 2016

Wonder Woman at 75

From the MAD magazine booth:

MAD: Make America Dumb Again

I chatted with some of my Fantagraphics pals, as well as folks I didn’t know at other booths. Susan and I also met Snoopy — who, to my delight and surprise, did not attempt to sell us any insurance. Then we went off to dinner & had a great chat! (By “we,” I mean Susan and me. Snoopy declined our invitation. Presumably, that round-headed kid had already fed him.)

Kirtley, Snoopy, & Nel


THURSDAY

The Jogging Dead

Balboa Park is a few blocks east of the Holiday Inn Express I stayed in. So, first thing Thursday morning, I thought: great, I’ll just jog east, find my way into the park, and have a good run! A helpful person at the hotel’s front desk assured me that there were many ways into the park, and pointed me in the right direction.

However, and unlike New York City, San Diego’s streets and signs offer guidance to cars, not pedestrians or runners.  Though Park Boulevard runs along the edge of the park, it offers few points of access to the park itself, and then (when you finally get in) the park has signs promising trails that turn out to dissipate suddenly. As a result, for part of my journey back, I ended up running in the bike lane along Route 5. Like all places in downtown San Diego, I was never far from the city’s robust homeless population — encamped at the edges of city sidewalks, against a fence in the shade of trees on Park Boulevard, and just off the edge of the highway. Luckily for me, they (and other walkers) had beaten a path from Route 5 back to the city streets I sought.

Part of the Comic-Con experience is always the contrast between the shiny abundance promised within the event and the privation of those who live on the streets outside. Whether silently holding a sign asking for help or sound asleep on the ground, San Diego’s homeless are both politely invisible and a vivid reminder of how America actively neglects its most vulnerable.

At first, I thought our Walking Dead ID cards an apt metaphor for the homeless among us, but now I think them a better metaphor for the conference-goer — walking past suffering, declining to admit that we are seeing what we know we’re seeing. I gave one sign-bearing man $5. I think, in future, I should carry small denominations and just give them to each person begging. I honestly don’t know. But I do know that we do need investment in mental health facilities, affordable housing, and job retraining for those down on their luck.  OK, getting off my soapbox and back to the con….

G. Willow Wilson; or, Ms. Marvel Fans Embiggen

G. Willow Wilson panel

To a full room that included at least nine people dressed as Ms. Marvel, Ms. Wilson introduced herself: “I’m Willow Wilson. I tell people: ‘the G is silent.’” Interviewed by her friend Josh (I didn’t get his last name), she told us about herself — which was great because, though I know her Ms. Marvel comics, I did not otherwise know much about her.

Wilson was born in New Jersey, but grew up in Colorado. As for religion, she said, “I was raised an atheist, but I was never very good at it. When I was a teenager, I realized that I was a particular kind of monotheist, but I was embarrassed about it.”  Indeed, when she did convert to Islam, she did so in secret — not telling anyone until later.

She studied Arabic for two years at university, and then at the age of 19 left for Cairo, where she would live for the next five years. Upon arriving, she realized that the Arabic she had learned was classical Arabic, which, she says, “would be like learning how Shakespeare speaks.” So, she had to learn modern Arabic. Which she did. While working there as a journalist, she met her future husband Omar.  They and their two children now live in Seattle.

G. Willow Wilson, Air #1She and Sherman Alexie share a publisher, and live about 12 blocks from each other. When she was starting out (having published, I think, Air, and Cairo), she was headed to a conference. Her publicist advised her: when you get on the plane, look for Sherman Alexie and share a cab after you get there. So, she’s walking through First Class on her way to coach, and Alexie spots her.

Alexie: Are you G. Willow Wilson?

Wilson: Yes.

Alexie: I loved Air!

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: Generation WhyOf all that she said during her conversation, this struck me as the most profound: “You are sometimes able to get to people through fiction what you cannot get through to them through the nightly news.”  Her Ms. Marvel is, I think, the embodiment of this very idea.

When Marvel asked her to do Ms. Marvel, Wilson says her “first thought was ‘no’ because there’ll be all kinds of blowback.” She figured she would get lots of hate mail, just as she had gotten for previous work. But, she said, “when Marvel comes to you and says they’ll put their weight behind a project like this, you have to say ‘yes.’ I said ‘yes.’”  Writing the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel comics were “a cool opportunity to shed positive light on a community that does not get a lot of positive attention.”  When the first one was published, she thought: “Brace for impact!” But the impact she expected never really materialized. Sure, there was a little hate mail, but response was mostly positive. She concludes, “It was one of the most life-affirming things I have ever done.”

She concluded her session by reading Chapter One of The Bird King a new novel set in 1491. As she said before she began, “You guys will be the very first people to hear it who are not paid to like it”

There was only time for two questions at the end.  Here they are.

First question was: Advice for women creators who want to get into the industry? Wilson: “The good news is this is now a discussion we can have without people losing their jobs. People are now taking subjects like harassment, equal access to corridors of power more seriously. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Second questioner referenced the fact that there are no black women comics writers (at Marvel or DC), and asked “How does that make you feel when you’re writing one of the most nuanced and awesome [characters of color]”?  Wilson replied, “We need to be in the business of recruiting more people.  I love Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Sitting in the Marvel writers’ room, with him across from me, was one of the highlights of my career. But you shouldn’t need to have a MacArthur Genius grant to get hired to write comics.”

Note: The very next day, Roxane Gay tweeted that she has been hired by Marvel to co-write a comic with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But the greatest thing about this panel were all the people who dressed as the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. After the panel was over, they all gathered with Wilson to embiggen!

Ms. Marvels Embiggen!

Cushlamochree! Or, The Kindness of Strangers

GhirardelliAfter lunch, I stopped into the Ghirardelli shop because, well, chocolate.  I had a chocolate ice cream, and reviewed the notes I’d made that morning. In a few hours, I would be appearing on a panel devoted to Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (1942-1952), which I’m co-editing and Fantagraphics is publishing. (The third volume just came out.)  Typically, I tend to perform a script, or to at least consider the possible questions in advance. But this panel was mostly unscripted, and so I was a little anxious.

A young couple walked past my table, and then walked back, and the young man asked if he could use the plug next to me. I said of course! And I moved over so that he could sit where I had been sitting, and his girlfriend could sit opposite him. He asked what I was doing. I told him. He said: OK, pitch it to me. And… I did. This person who I have never met before listened, offered a little feedback, and helped me talk through the presentation.

I learned a little about him, too. He said, “Not to brag, but I’m the nerdier of us two.” I love that “nerd” is now a term of approbation. When I was his age (a phrase I never used while talking with him), one would not brag about being a nerd! He and his girlfriend are both seniors at San Diego State University: he’s a music major (jazz drummer, in particular). She’s a graphic design major. They were both working for Comic-Con because it grants them a free pass to the conference, and it’s fun to go to Comic-Con. I think her name is Morgan; his name has, unfortunately wandered away from me. If you two happen upon this blog post, thank you!

Encounters like this are what make Comic-Con a welcome respite from the news. There is kindness and generosity in the world. Not enough, but it is out there. It’s our job to make more of it. To quote Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

After that, it was back to the exhibit hall, a quick coffee and a chat with Eric Reynolds, and then…

Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby: What Makes a Great Comic Strip.

Barnaby panel: Tom Spurgeon, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel, Jeff Smith

This was why I came to Comic Con — to be on this panel!  In the photo, from left to right, that’s The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon, Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds (my pal, and co-editor on the Barnaby books), yours truly, and… Jeff Smith!

Whatever anxiety I’d had vanished instantly. The panel was a delight. As you may already know, Smith is as nice a guy as you would expect the creator of Bone to be. I’m also grateful to him for lending his celebrity to our quixotic endeavor. I’m sure that half of the small audience appeared simply to see him. (There were only about 25 people in a room that seats more like 300.) I hope our conversation — led by Tom Spurgeon — helped move a few copies of Barnaby.

Johnson, Barnaby Vol. 1: Chris Ware blurbYou see, Barnaby is the last great comic strip that has never been collected in full. Its admirers include Charles Schulz, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Jules Feiffer, Seth, and Daniel Clowes (who designed the books, and would have been on the panel if he’d been on an earlier flight). Told in Johnson’s elegant clear line, Barnaby tells the adventures of its five-year-old title character and Mr. O’Malley, his loquacious, bumbling, endearing con-artist of a fairy godfather. O’Malley is a great character of possibility, allowing Johnson many opportunities to satirize politics, business, or (coming in volume 4) the emerging medium of television. The strip is both topical and a Calvin-and-Hobbes-esque fantasy. Just as only Calvin sees the reality of Hobbes, the children of Barnaby all see the fairy-world characters, but — also like Calvin and HobbesBarnaby’s adults fail to perceive the reality of fantasy. We readers, however, know that O’Malley and friends are real. Barnaby is a beautiful and influential strip, but — like Krazy Kat — it was never a popular strip. At its height, Barnaby was syndicated in a mere 52 papers. By contrast, at the same time, Chic Young’s Blondie was running in 850 newspapers.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016)

Fantagraphics is committed to bringing out all five volumes of Barnaby, and I love them for that. I also wish we could help find a larger audience. So, if you’re reading this, why not pick up a copy? Encourage your local or college library to pick up these, too, along with Fantagraphics’ many beautiful editions of classic comics (notably Krazy Kat and Peanuts).


FRIDAY

Breakfast with Ebony

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas & Philip Nel at the Broken Yolk, in San Diego, 22 July 2016Friday began at the Broken Yolk, where I had breakfast with Ebony Thomas — whose book The Dark Fantastic should see print in (I am hoping) the next year or two. It’s a really smart way of thinking about how the dark other functions in fantasy. (Make a note of it now, and pick it up when it comes out!)

I actually met Ebony at my very first fan conference — Nimbus 2003, in Florida, thirteen years ago.  I’d written a small book on the Harry Potter series, and they invited me to give a keynote. In this respect, I think our aca-fan (Henry Jenkins’ term for “academic fan”) trajectories are opposite. I went to academic conferences before ever appearing at a fan one, whereas my sense is that she had more fan conference experience prior to becoming an academic.

Part of the fun of conferences — whether academic or fan — is seeing friends, and making new ones.  So, good to see you, Ebony!  Hope you enjoyed the rest of the con!

Keeping It Short

Keeping It Short panel: Abraham Riesman, Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, Emily Carroll

Moderated by Abraham Riesman, this panel featured Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, and Emily Carroll.  Though the panel was on short comics, my notes are actually, um, a bit longer than expected.

Abraham Riesman: What short form comics did you read growing up?

Kate Beaton: Sherman’s Lagoon

Lisa Hanawalt: Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, adult cartoonist B. Kliban

ArchieEmily Carroll: All newspaper strips. I read every one every morning, even if I didn’t like it — I read Rex Morgan every morning. I read a lot of Archie comics, which at the time had no continuity.

AR: What spoke to you about Archie?

Emily: The only comic that had really pretty girls in it.

Lisa: Me, too.  Did you like Betty or Veronica?

A discussion ensued on who preferred Betty, and who Veronica, but I didn’t note it all down.

AR: What does an average workday look like?

Kate: Some cartoonists work 9-5 with lunch breaks, but…

Lisa: I fuck around until 3 every day at least. But usually until 7.

Kate: It might take all day to get into that, until something is actually working.  [Kate then recalled 2 aunts coming to visit at around lunchtime, thinking she’d have a lunch break. That led her to imagine herself saying the following sentence to her aunts.] I just stare at the wall all day until something comes and you ruin my flow?

Emily [adding to Kate’s imagined comment]: Now I have to start wasting time all over again?  I try to start before the afternoon or else I feel bad. But early afternoon is when I start.

AR: How much planning before you draw the finished product?

Emily: I start drawing right away.  Whether it’s the beginning or end — just because I need to see it materializing.

Lisa: For me, it depends. If there’s a narrative, then I have to plan that out. But I also do improv comics. I did some corporate slogans, and the first draft is what got published because it was funniest. Because if I try to make it neater, it’ll be less so.

AR: I love “just fucking do it”

Kate: I write a lot in my head. So, especially, if it’s a three or four panel gag, I have it all in my head.  So, you get a nugget — that’s the angle I’m going to use. And you sort of tumble it around, until you get the right combination of things. If you work too hard on the drawing, it ruins it. I try to go for the energy that comes in the first few lines.

AR: How do you keep the emotion in the artwork?

Emily: My first thought is I only have a few emotions anyway. I either feel angry or guilty or I’m Ok.  …But my general thought is what [I failed to note the rest of her answer]

Kate: You’re not telling people how to feel. You’re showing them how you feel.

AR, to Kate: Any jokes you had to abandon?

Kate: Sure. Not all history is hilarious. You try to bring in a topic that isn’t funny, but should be shared.

AR, to Lisa: what’s funny about birds?

Lisa: What isn’t funny about birds? I just like looking at them — they’re hilarious.

AR: What’s the funniest thing about birds?

Lisa: When a toucan eats a bunch of fruit it [Lisa mimes action of toucan eating fruit, throwing it up into the air, gulping it down. Everyone laughs. She then adds an additional funny bird behavior:] When they sit on their nests.

Lisa Hanawalt, from Hot Dog Taste Test

Kate then offered a short discourse on fecal sacks. The young birds, who cannot yet leave the nest, poop in sacks. This allows the adults to throw their young’s waste out of the nest.  She recalled a grackle who lived near her, and used to decorate her car with these fecal sacks. Her car was blue, the grackles assumed that since it was blue, it must also be water.  Lisa found this story fascinating.  (I did, too.)

AR to Emily [re: earlier question on emotions]: You didn’t mention fear?

Emily: Oh yeah, that’s true.

AR: ‘Cause you write horror. How often are you afraid?

Emily: All the time. Every day.

AR: How much of Anne Herron is true?

Frontier #6: Anne by the Bed

Emily: Anne by the bed?

AR: Yes.

Emily: None of it.  I made it all up.  But it turns out there is an unsolved mystery of an Anne Heron (with one r).

AR: When I interviewed you a few months ago, Kate, you said that cartoonists are horrible to be significant others with at a party because they’re always there drawing.  Is that true for the two of you?

Lisa: I hardly do it anymore. But I used to because I was shy, and I thought it would be an ice breaker.

Emily: I don’t really go to social gatherings. [Laughter from audience.] So, that’s not an issue. I draw less now than I did before.

AR: How much does doodling influence your work?

Kate: Less and less.  Now, you’re like: I really need a different hobby.

All panelists agree that they now do less drawing for fun.

AR: How do you know how to represent time?

Led by Emily’s response, all panelists agree that they go by instinct, and then go back and edit — if it reads too fast, they’ll go back and put in something else to slow it down (says Emily).

All panelists addressed unpublished or unfinished work. All have work that they’ve decided not to publish, nor to continue.

AR: How often to you look at your finished old work?

Lisa: I look at it every couple of years. I go back, and think oh, hey, this is actually pretty funny.

At this point, Kate mentioned she wasn’t feeling well.  She apologized, and left for the washroom.

AR: Is your work ever misunderstood?

The answer to this question (which I failed to record) led to the next one.

AR: How often do you check Twitter, look at comments, or avoid them?

Lisa: I look at everything.  I really should stop.  I even read the Goodreads reviews.

AR: Oh, you shouldn’t do that.

Emily: Oh, I can’t look at those. I do, sometimes.

Did you ever read that Guardian essay about the person who gave bad reviews?

Lisa: Totally obsessed with that. Totally understand. Once I was at a convention, and a lady picked up one of my books, and threw it back down on the desk and ran away. I think about that all the time.

Emily: A few months ago, I just deleted all of my follows except for my wife and the library. So, that way, I couldn’t go and check all my follows. I’m becoming increasingly reclusive, I guess.

Lisa: That [not being on Twitter] sounds nice.

Emily: I realize that even the nice comments didn’t make me feel good!

At this point, Kate returns!

Kate: I’m doing much better.  I had my hair tied back, all ready to rumble.  But it was just poop. Apologizes.

AR: You’re sitting next to Lisa.

Lisa: I’m like in love with you right now.

Kate [explaining]: I’ve moved to the country, recently, and I don’t drink much any more….

Kate Beaton, Wuthering Heights 1

Kate Beaton, Wuthering Heights 2

AR: How often do you think about Wuthering Heights?

Branwell Brontë's painting of his three sisters, after he painted himself outKate: A lot. I never finished that comic.  I need to.  Anyone ever been to the Bronte parsonage?  I feel like haunted by Branwell [brother of Charlotte, Emily, Anne].  In a family portrait, there’s a weird person-shaped hole because he painted himself out.

AR: Don’t we all feel like a person-shaped hole?

Kate: I did just a few minutes ago.  [Kate then comments on Branwell, who was alcoholic…]  In these [Bronte] books, characters like these brooding frustrated men — like Heathcliff — make me think of Branwell.

In the Q+A, I asked Kate how her process of her picture book The Princess and Pony was different than comics.

Kate said that working closely with an editor was a big difference.  The book is much more polished than her cartoons.  Also, she said, it’s not just a gag. It has a story, and that had to make sense.

In response to a question about (I think) favorite horror narratives, Emily responded, “I like horror that’s really long and boring and nothing happens, and then something maybe happens and then it’s done.”

Questioner asked if they had a reader they trusted who they could turn to for feedback.

Lisa: For me, it’s my partner Adam. But also guys like these — I have a lot. Of cartoonist friends.

Emily: My wife will read over my work. She’ll say it’s too fast or too slow, and I’ll say you don’t understand my process and vision! And then I fix it.

Kate: Don’t read Amazon or Goodreads. [Quoting reviews] “I think there are secret gay people in the book.”  Or “I don’t want to expose my children to farts.”

30 Minutes to Go; brief conversations with Beaton & Sousanis

Kate Beaton's inscribed & illustrated title page for my copy of Step Aside, PopsAfter the panel, I had only 30 minutes before I had to leave. So, I dashed down stairs to the convention hall, where I hoped to meet up with Eisner nominee Nick Sousanis — who’d just arrived earlier that morning — and to say goodbye to the Fantagraphics gang.  Said my farewells to all but Eric (who was moderating a panel), texted back-and-forth with Nick, and decided, well, yes, I could buy just one more book. So, over at the Drawn & Quarterly I bought Kate Beaton’s latest, Step Aside, Pops, which she inscribed and decorated.

I also thanked her for The Princess and the Pony because it’s great to be able to give my princess-obsessed niece a book about a warrior princess. Kate recommended Cherie Priest’s I Am Princess X (2015) and Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless (2012-). I said “Emily’s 5. Would these…?” She said that they’d be for when she’s a bit older. Looking at them on-line, now, I see that I Am Princess X is a YA hybrid comics/text, and that Princeless is marketed to kids from ages nine to 12, which (I think) means that Princeless could be something she’s interested in sooner than that.

Nick arrived when only had about 5 minutes left. I stayed for 10, we chatted, parted, and — along the way back — I realized that, yeah, I really did need the full half hour to walk back to my hotel. Jogging a bit of the way, I narrowly made noon check-out and the shuttle to the airport.  (I had to leave because I’m scheduled to give a keynote at a picture books conference at Kent State on Monday. I’m leaving for that first thing tomorrow morning. Update: American Airlines cancelled my flight. So, I’m now scheduled to leave first thing tomorrow afternoon. Fingers crossed!)

The End?

So, I still worry that America is slouching towards fascism, that state-sanctioned murder threatens people of color every day, that extremism festers and erupts here (Make America White Again!) and abroad (most recently: Nice, Turkey, Munich, Kabul).  But, for a few days in San Diego, glimpses of a different possible future emerged — a future where people do not fear each other, but care for each other. A future where our interests bring us together. Yes, despair lingered at the edges of the Comic-Con experience, as it always does. However, the con was mostly a respite from the violence and hopelessness that afflicts us. And I’m grateful for that.

My previous years’ reports from Comic-Con:

Leave a Comment

Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature: Call for Papers (1 Nov. 2017)

Drowned City, The Island, Number the Stars, War — What If?, How I Learned Geography

A Special Issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly

Edited by Philip Nel

Deadline: 1 November 2017

In September 2015, photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi — his corpse washed ashore on a Turkish beach — came to symbolize the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. World leaders promised to do more, people debated whether printing the pictures was appropriate, and charities experienced a surge in donations. In children’s literature, the figure of the child as refugee, migrant, or displaced citizen has long been a powerful trope, disrupting the assumed connection between personal identity and national identity, exposing virulent xenophobia, but also awakening compassion and kindness.  As Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II (and demagogues stoke nativist/racist anger in Europe and North America), this special issue will examine children’s literature’s response — both contemporary and historical — to refugees, migrants, and members of diasporic communities.

Subjects papers might consider include (but are not limited to) how texts for children represent: the ways in which the term “migrant” can dehumanize people, whether persecuted minorities qualify for refugee status in their own countries, the many reasons for displacement (such as race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, war, economics), questions concerning human rights, and how the vulnerable figure of the child brings these questions into sharper focus.

Papers should conform to the usual style of ChLAQ and be between 6000 and 9000 words in length.  Please send queries and completed essays to Philip Nel (philnel@ksu.edu, with “ChLAQ Essay” in the subject line) by 1 November 2017.  The essays chosen will appear in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 43.4 (Winter 2018).

The Arrival, Day of Tears, I Am David, Bamboo People, Inside Out & Back Again

Leave a Comment

Again. And Again. And… ENOUGH!

I can’t watch the latest videos of police murdering black men. I feel that I should watch them, to bear witness. But… the depressing regularity of these videos threatens to engulf me in despair. So, I am not watching the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Instead, I will write a few words — expressing sentiments I’ve shared before and that others have expressed more eloquently.

#BlackLivesMatterLet’s start with three words: black lives matter. If you are tempted to respond “all lives matter,” please don’t. Of course all lives matter. But all lives are not equally at risk. Black lives are much more susceptible to being cut short — by police, by stand-your-ground enthusiasts, by others. And that’s why we need to say black lives matter, but we don’t need to say all lives matter. If I see red flashing lights in my rear view mirror, and a member of the police signaling me to pull over, I do not fear for my life. I am calm because I am white. When a person of color sees those red flashing lights, his or her experience tends to be quite different. Hundreds of years of brutalization at the hands of the law can make a non-white person view representatives of that law more warily.

To say the least.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American LyricAs Jesse Williams observed a couple of weeks ago, “we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.”

Or, as Claudia Rankine writes,

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

If you haven’t read her Citizen or watched Williams’ speech, please take the time to do so.

I don’t for a minute believe that adding my words to their (far more eloquent) words will end police brutality, or transform America’s profoundly racist system of justice. Did the oxymoronic coupling of those last four words pass you by? Let’s revisit them: racist system of justice. In other words, it’s a system of justice which is not just. Until it is not racist, it is also not justice. This is why Williams also said, “we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on people routinely targeted by police

While I do not believe that my individual words will make a difference, I do believe that if enough people speak up, we can change the system, move it closer to justice.

I also believe that, as the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy, it is white people’s responsibility to end white supremacy. Stay with me here, fellow white people, and I’ll explain what I mean.

As a white person, I am a direct beneficiary of American racism. Every day. Let’s start with the fact that I have never been the target of racism. I’ve never been asked why I speak so “white.” Nor have I ever been asked to speak for all white people. While shopping, I’ve never been tailed by a store detective. My job application has never been passed over because my name looked “ethnic.” And red flashing lights in my rear view mirror do not make me mortally afraid. I could write a much longer list, but my point is that the unearned privileges of whiteness accrue over time. For non-white people, the penalties and their attendant psychic stresses also accrue over time. In other words, white supremacy not only grants me advantages; it actively penalizes non-whites. Every day.

I say this because a lot of white people fail to realize that you don’t have to actively support white supremacy in order to be a beneficiary of white supremacy. All white Americans are beneficiaries of white supremacy, whether they want to be or not. Our privilege conveniently conceals itself from us, and so we don’t notice our unearned advantages. As a result, we also don’t notice that those privileges are built on the oppression of others.

In other words, recognizing white privilege is not an occasion for hand-wringing or white guilt. It is instead an occasion for recognizing that whiteness makes all white people complicit in a system that disenfranchises, terrorizes, and murders people of color. Yes, we whites can and should mourn the loss of yet another black person. But we also need to ask ourselves what it feels like to be beneficiaries of the system that murdered Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others.  As Naomi Murakawa puts it, rather than trying to imagine that you can feel black pain, you should instead ask yourself what it feels like to live in “a country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people… What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name?”

Start there.  Start with recognizing your complicity.  And then act.

Further reading

  • James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (originally published in The Saturday Review, 21 Dec. 1963). “any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”
  • Britt Bennett, “White Terrorism Is as Old as America” (New York Times, 19 June 2015). “This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. … A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Reparations for Ferguson.” (The Atlantic. 18 Aug. 2014). “The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, 21 May 2014). Long and well worth your while.
  • Michael Eric Dyson, “What White America Fails to See” (New York Times, 7 July 2016). “The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know…. Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.”
  • David Graham, “The Second Amendment’s Second-Class Citizens” (The Atlantic, 7 July 2016). “The two shootings give a strong sense that the Second Amendment does not apply to black Americans in the same way it does to white Americans.”
  • Sally Kohn, “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter” (Washington Post, 6 Aug. 2015).
  • Chuck Wendig, “I Am a Racist and a Sexist and Probably Some Other –Ists, Too.” (Terrible Minds, 23 Nov. 2014)
  • Dan Zanes, “Be Less Racist: 12 Tips for White Dudes, by a White Dude” (The Mashup Americans, n.d.)

Related posts (on this blog)

Comments (2)

On Being in the Room Where It Happens: Observations from an Aca-Fanboy on Hamilton The Musical, Shortly After Viewing a Performance of Same, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, in New York City, on the Afternoon of July 2nd, 2016

Hamilton, Richard Rodgers Theatre: marquee, as you approach from the left side, queuing to get in.We saw Hamilton at the Saturday matinee, and several people have asked for a review. So,… here are a few thoughts on being in the room where it happens.

I Can’t Believe We’re Here with Him

I don’t remember when I’ve ever been so excited to see a show — any show, of any kind. Sitting in the audience before it started, I felt like a teenage girl, waiting to see her favorite band. I say that not as a slight against teenage girls, but rather as a testament to the sincerity and enthusiasm of their fandom. Since it was a matinee, I had not expected Lin-Mañuel Miranda to be performing the role of Hamilton. When I noticed that not only would he be performing, but so would Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson), Chris Jackson (Washington), and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica),… my eyes went wide.  I would be seeing almost the entire original cast. Live. In a few minutes’ time! (“Almost” because Jonathan Groff is no longer King George, and Andrew Chappelle played John Laurens/Philip Hamilton.)

Hamilton: bare stage, before show begins

Just before the show starts, King George (now played by Rory O’Malley) announces — unseen, via the theatre’s speakers — that people should turn off their cell phones, not take photos, etc.  Then he invites you to enjoy his show. The audience laughs.

And then,… the opening chords, as Leslie Odom Jr. walks on stage, we applaud, and it begins. “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman….” About halfway through the song, while I was lip-syncing along, he made eye contact with me (as he was singing/rapping the very words I was lip-syncing), and his eyes yielded a hint of a smile. That’s part of the thrill of live theatre. You’re all in the room where it happens, together. The audience and the performers share the experience. Being very close to the stage (center orchestra, just six rows back) made us feel even closer.

Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr

Having listened to the cast recording and seen photographs and video clips, I arrived with an imaginary performance in my head.  In that version, the stage was much larger. Sitting in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I realized the stage is actually more compact and intimate. An enormous amount happens in a relatively small space — and quickly. The show itself compresses so much — history, love, betrayal, time, loss, death — into just 2 hours and 45 minutes. Proximity makes what is already an intense show even more so.

You’ll Be Back

After lip-syncing to the opening number, I mostly resisted the temptation to continue doing so. Mostly. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that, as I became absorbed in the performance, I lost interest in lip-synching and wanted to experience the show. To be in the moment (“this is not a moment; it’s the movement”). My focus gravitated to the center of the action, but I would love to see Hamilton multiple times so that I could focus on different areas each time. It would be great to watch just the company, dancing. And then attend another show, during which you focus only on one actor’s performance. Or see it once attending primarily to the costumes and choreography. Or view it while considering the ways in which the set of wooden beams, bricks and rope frames the action of each scene. It’s beautifully staged, costumed, performed, orchestrated. There’s so much to take in.

Hamilton: Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), John Laurens (Anthony Ramos)The staging brought out nuances and jokes I didn’t get when listening to the cast recording. As “My Shot” begins, Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan regard Hamilton doubtfully. As his skills as an MC win them over, their facial expressions change from uncertain to impressed. During the opening of Act II, the expressions on Madison’s and Washington’s faces convey skepticism towards the flamboyant Jefferson. Near the end of that number, Washington and Hamilton exchange a look that seems to say, “Who is this guy?”  Oh, and of course, actually seeing “Stay Alive (Reprise)” as Eliza and Hamilton share their son Philip’s last moments, and the moment of “forgiveness (can you imagine?)” in “It’s Quiet Uptown” are emotionally wrenching. I thought I would cry during “It’s Quiet Uptown,” but didn’t realize that I’d also be crying during “Stay Alive (Reprise)” and “The World Was Wide Enough.”

I also didn’t remember how funny the show is. While we’re wiping our eyes with our handkerchiefs following “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Jefferson says, “Can we get back to politics?” Madison — dabbing his eyes with his own handkerchief — says, his voice cracking, “Please?” In performance, the handkerchief gesture made this moment a hilarious meta-comment on what we had all just experienced. We laughed! After having been brought so low in the previous song, laughter was such a relief. Earlier, during “The Schuyler Sisters,” I hadn’t realized how playful Burr and Angelica were. On the recording, I took “Burr, you disgust me” as a slam — which it is. But, on stage, they’re dancing, and Burr smiles as he gives his retort, and then keeps smiling she responds. It’s a more joyous moment than I’d imagined.

Hamilton: Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the Schuyler Sisters (Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Renée Elise Goldsberry)

Hamilton: Daveed Diggs as Thomas JeffersonI knew the Tony Award-winning actors Leslie Odom Jr. and Renée Elise Goldsberry would be amazing, but I did not realize how fantastic their fellow Tony Award-winning cast-mate Daveed Diggs would be. His serious but playful Lafayette, rapid-fire rapping with a French accent, seems the de facto leader of the revolutionaries until Washington’s arrival.  His flamboyant, narcissistic, but politically savvy Jefferson is brilliant.  Diggs’ Jefferson is also non-stop, high-stepping across the stage in his purple velvet coattails.

Look Around, Look Around

New York Public Library: Alexander HamiltonThere’s something about seeing Hamilton right now, in New York, with (most of) the original cast. Beyond the sheer thrill of seeing it, most of the musical takes place in the city where it’s being performed. As you look around (“look around, how lucky we are…”), you encounter frequent reminders of the history dramatized by Miranda’s play. Walking towards Washington Square Park, we crossed both Lafayette Street (“Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!”) and Mercer Street (“The Mercer legacy is secure”). We happened upon the New York Public Library’s small, free exhibit on Alexander Hamilton, displaying the Reynolds Pamphlet (1797),“Phocion” no. 26 (1796 essay critical of Jefferson, notably his hypocrisy on slavery), The Farmer Refuted (1775), Federalist essays 12 and 13 as they originally appeared in the Daily Advertiser (1787), and letters by Hamilton. As befits a man who trained as a clerk, his handwriting is precise and legible.

Trinity Church: Alexander Hamilton & Eliza Hamilton

The graves of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Hamilton are unaccountably moving. On the day after the show, we visited the graveyard of Trinity Church.1 I did not expect to be tearing up. But I was. Somehow, confronting these slabs of stone felt like experiencing their deaths again. Note left on Eliza Hamilton's grave, 3 July 2016Hamilton died 212 years ago this month. He was only 47 — the same age as I am. Sure enough, next to the Alexander Hamilton monument is a large, flat stone for Eliza. She died 162 years ago this November. Well-wishers have scattered coins on his monument and her stone. One woman — I imagine a young woman, though I don’t know — left a note for Eliza. “Thank you for telling your story and for guarding your husband’s legacy. Its flowers are growing beautifully.” She signed herself “with love from a fellow Albany girl.”

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Hamilton Broadway Opening Night: Curtain Call

NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 06: Cast of Hamilton perform at “Hamilton” Broadway Opening Night at Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Back at the show, the moment the final number concluded, the audience rose as one, applauding and cheering as tears rolled down our cheeks. The entire cast lined up to do a curtain call together in a single line. They did not (as often happens) have the supporting cast take a bow first, followed by those with increasingly larger parts. Underscoring the collective nature of this endeavor, they took their bows as one — after which, as casts typically do, they gestured to the pit and invited us to applaud the orchestra. We did. The house lights came up. I wanted to linger, but reluctantly exited with the departing crowd.

Ron Chernow, HamiltonOthers have had far more intelligent things to say about the show’s cross-racial casting, use of history, elision of historical people of color,2 gender politics, cross-pollination of Broadway and hip-hop traditions. Hamilton will continue to inspire criticism to match the phenomenon. I expect books are already being written, essay collections being edited, special issues of journals assembled. I love musicals and have read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography, but I’m no scholar of musical theatre, nor of early American history and culture. I of course enjoy the allusions to 1776 and Grandmaster Flash, to Les Mis and Mobb Deep. The tunes are catchy, the lyrics are clever, the story is engrossing.

Unsurprisingly to those who know me, I also identify with Hamilton. I write like I’m running out of time because I’m acutely aware that I am running out of time. I will die before I have learned, written, seen, understood, done all I would like to. Unlike Hamilton, I have no heirs. If I “build something that’s gonna outlive me,” that something will be words and ideas. Have I written these yet? I can’t and will never know. I do know, however, that in my pursuit of that elusive something, I can be “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain.” Thankfully, my friends and colleagues manage to put up with me anyway. Thankfully, also, I’ve been fortunate to publish some of my ideas, collaborate with smart people, and continue on my impossible quest.

On that note, and to quote a line not on the cast recording, “I have so much work to do.”3

Notes

  1. Located at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, Trinity Church is the appropriate resting place for a founder of America’s financial system who is currently being celebrated on New York’s stage.
  2. When, during “What’d I Miss?” Jefferson says, “Sally, be a lamb, darling” to a member of the company, she becomes — for that moment — Sally Hemmings. I think she is thus the only historical person of color we see on stage. But more astute viewers of Hamilton should correct me if I am wrong.
  3. The show includes one scene not on the cast recording. The Hamiltons receive a letter from John Laurens’ father, reporting the death of his son — Hamilton’s friend. Eliza reads it to her husband. He’s silent. She asks if he’s OK. His voice choked with emotion, Hamilton says the line “I have so much work to do.”

Photos

I took the ones of the Hamilton marquee, empty stage, NYPL banner, gravesite and note. All other photos found elsewhere on the web.  For example, you’re not allowed to take photos during the performance; these were done specially, with the cooperation of the cast.

Comments (8)

Children’s Lit vs. Brexit

According to my unscientific survey, most creators of children’s literature and YA literature thought that Britain should remain in the European Union. They did not see the EU as without problems, but rather understood that remaining a member was far more advantageous than leaving. Here, then, are a few responses to the Brexit vote. I’ve gathered some from Oliver Jeffers, Malorie Blackman, Lucy Coats, Neil Gaiman, John Green, Guus Kuijer, Andrew Prahin, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Savage, Bob Shea, and G. Willow Wilson. UPDATE: Added Patrick Ness and Michael Rosen.

Did I miss any of your favorites?  Let me know, and I’ll add them.

Oilver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers, Brexit

Source: Jeffers’ Instagram.

Malorie Blackman

Lucy Coats

Neil Gaiman

John Green

Guus Kuijer

According to Google Translate, this is: “I believe that Britain is falling apart. So sad!”

Translation, courtesy of Vanessa Joosen: “I finally understand that being a patriot means you don’t want to belong to anything.”

Google Translate: “The North Sea remains as narrow though. Though ..”

Google Translate: “The gray establishment outstrips the young people”

Google Translate: “Go out of Twitter: ‘Twixit’? Worth considering.”

Patrick Ness

This last one is a response to Mr. Trump’s characteristically idiotic statements, made just after he landed in Scotland:

There are more Brexit-related Tweets in Ness’s feed.

Andrew Prahin

Philip Pullman

The following day, Pullman published an editorial, “on the 1000 causes of Brexit,” which includes two paragraphs that I’m excerpting primarily because they offer the strongest parallels to the U.S. media’s complicity in facilitating the rise of America’s fascist orange dumpster fire:

Then there is the tendency of our broadcast media to be seduced by strong personalities. The oafish saloon-bar loudmouth Nigel Farage was indulged with far too many appearances on Any Questions and Question Time. Producers seem to have felt his dog-whistle racism to be amusingly transgressive.

Similarly, Boris Johnson, a liar, a cheat, a man said to have betrayed a journalist to someone who wanted to beat him up, a shameless opportunist, an idle buffoon, to name but a few of his disqualifications for high office, was flattered over and over again by programmes such as Have I Got News For You. Without the completely needless exposure these two gained from the generosity of TV and radio, they would have found it harder to spread their lies and not-even-quite-covert racism during the referendum. They’d have been starting from a different place.

In the next paragraph, he identifies David Cameron’s “flippant, careless, irresponsible” decisions as the “immediate cause of the disaster.”  Read the entire piece at The Guardian.

Michael Rosen

You can read Michael Rosen’s modest proposal, “Time to cull old people,” on his website.  It begins like this:

Good evening

on what is a historic moment in history,

a truly momentous moment

and I want to take this opportunity to discuss something

which up until now has been swept under the carpet:

old people.

Quite frankly there are too many of them.

I’m going to say it simply

and you can quote me on this:

there are too many old people in Britain today;

we can’t cope

they’re putting pressure on our public services,

they’re forcing wages down through doing low-paid jobs
and volunteering all over the place;they’re hanging about on street corners
talking to each other in their own odd ways
they go to their own special places
segregating themselves off from the rest of us

failing to integrate.

As I say, read the rest of it on his website, and remember that it’s satire — specifically, a commentary on the fact that those in favor of Brexit were older, and that a lot of the pro-Brexit rhetoric was anti-immigrant.

J. K. Rowling

Stephen Savage

Bob Shea

G. Willow Wilson


Credits: Thanks to Vanessa Joosen for translating one of Guus Kuijer’s Tweets, to Lara Saguisag for pointing me to the responses from Michael Rosen and Patrick Ness, and to Poushali Bhadury for pointing me to Philip Pullman’s Guardian piece.

Leave a Comment

The Colors of Madeleine

Jaclyn Moriarty, Colors of Madeline (Scholastic editions, 2012-2016)If you have yet to read Jaclyn Moriarty‘s The Colors of Madeleine trilogy, then many pleasures await you. The third volume — A Tangle of Gold — was just published last month. It is fantasy that remains fully grounded in everyday experience. It has characters that I enjoy spending time with. It is about growing up, it asks big questions, and its themes resonate with our own uncertain times.

It is about many things.

(1) There’s an epistolary friendship between Madeleine and Elliot. She lives in Oxford, the World. He lives in the Bonfire, the Farms, in the Kingdom of Cello. They communicate via a crack between their worlds. In her world, this crack appears at a parking meter; in his, it is at a sculpture in his schoolyard. Initially, their relationship sustained my interest more than the fantasy.

(2) But that’s because the world-building is done with sufficient subtlety that you’re not fully aware it’s happening. Volume three — the book I’ve just finished — thus had a number of fully earned “a-ha!” moments. Themes and allusions that seemed to be telling us more about a particular character, or developing another subplot, turned out to be gestures towards a larger picture that — until that moment — was not fully visible. Information that appeared incidental was in fact central.

(3) As the previous sentences indicate, there are many mysteries. Where have the missing people gone? Is Elliot’s father dead… or just missing? Where is Madeleine’s father? Why are the color storms growing increasingly volatile and frequent? There are also deeper, more philosophical questions, such as: Where is the line between sane and crazy?  Where does art come from?  There are many other questions, but mentioning them might give away some surprises, and I’m trying not to do that.

Jaclyn Moriarty, A Tangle of Gold (2016)(4) Different elements of the series pull you in at different times. For the first book (A Corner of White), the relationship between our two protagonists kept me coming back. The second (The Cracks in the Kingdom) had more narrative drive. If I claimed that the first book were more devoted to character and the second more to plot, then I’d say that the third combines those in equal measure. But I say “If” both to invoke and to reject an admittedly facile plot-character dichotomy. The plot unspools at a slower pace in A Corner of White, but the book is never dull. So, perhaps I might instead say that the first book invites us to become its friend — just as Madeleine and Elliot become each others’ friends in that same volume. The Cracks in the Kingdom complicates and deepens that friendship, as Elliot and Madeleine get pulled in different directions, take on new responsibilities, and (Elliot in particular) make new friends — notably Kiera, who will become even more important in the third novel. A Tangle of Gold entangles and disentangles, weaves and unwinds, binds the strands of the narrative together while revealing a much broader canvas.

The books merit deeper consideration than this dashed-off review, but that’s all I have time for right now. In any case, that’s one use of the blog — a place to jot down ideas that may or may not get developed fully later on. And I do want to recommend the series!


Update, 14 May 2016: Ms. Moriarty kindly responded to this review. A brief Twitter conversation followed. Here it is.

Comments (1)

For Mom

My mother was my first best friend. My mother is the reason I have succeeded in life. My mother is the reason I managed to live through adolescence.

There have been many other important influences. Let’s not forget my sister, stepfather, friends, teachers, neighbors, and the many patient people who have managed to put up with me over the years. It takes a village, as they say. Growing up, I needed several villages, plus the occasional hamlet, borough, and suburb. My path to adulthood (such as it is) hasn’t exactly been smooth.

When I was in first grade, the teacher asked us, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” I answered, “Special Time.” A few times a week, my mother would set aside time — maybe 15 minutes, maybe a half hour — when she would play with just one of her two children. For that period of time, you had her undivided attention. She called it “Special Time.” It was.

Gloria and Phil read Richard Scarry, 16 May1971

This is why I say that she was my first best friend. True, despite my shyness, I did make friends with kids from the neighborhood and from school: there were several best friends during my grade-school years. But mom was the first.

I did not, at the time, think of her as my first best friend. I’ve only come to realize this in retrospect. About a year ago, while listening to the Dear Sugar podcast on “When Friendships End,” Emily Chenoweth spoke of her mother being her first best friend. And I thought: Exactly! My mother was my first best friend, too.

Unlike most friends (best or otherwise), my mother loved — and loves — me unconditionally.

I took this for granted at the time. Now, however, I realize how truly miraculous such a relationship is. I know people who had a mother addled by addiction, or who left the family, or whose own childhood left her too damaged to love well, or who died young, or who failed to protect her children from an abusive spouse. I know plenty of folks who have had wonderful mothers, too. But the unconditional love of a parent is not a given.

Her love kept me from killing myself. As a depressed teen-ager, I thought about suicide more often than I’d like to admit, and considered many different ways of doing it (slit wrists & lie in bathtub? use sleeping pills? asphyxiate in garage with car on? Etc.). To quote Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” a poem I memorized when I was a teen:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The reason I lived, however, was not the inconvenience of the methods. I could never kill myself because I knew it would break my mother’s heart. Her love penetrated the fog of my depression.

From the relative emotional serenity of adulthood, I look back at my teenage self and think: What an idiot I was! Or, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a ma-roon!” (For those who neglected to squander their youth watching cartoons, that’s Bugs’ mispronunciation of “moron.”) However, when I was so depressed, I just wanted to end the pain. In hindsight, this “solution” seems daft. At the time, it seemed to offer a way out.

The better way, provided by my mother, was a first-class education. Most (though not all) of my public school education deadened my curiosity, sapped my motivation, nurtured my indifference. Having arrived at school already able to read, I began my formal education bored and then quickly tuned out. I could get A’s without paying attention …until about fifth or sixth grade, when I couldn’t. At that point, my grades began to slip, aided — no doubt — by the public-school ethos of just getting by. (Effort was frowned upon, coasting encouraged. Seeking my peers’ approval, I coasted.)

Gloria and Phil (dressed for Last Hurrah) at Choate, 1988

Then, mom got a job teaching at a private school, which allowed children of faculty to attend tuition-free. Suddenly, my sister and I were getting a first-class education where effort — not coasting — was the norm. After two years at the one school, she got a second job at an even better private school where, again, my sister and I attended at no additional cost. It took a few years for me to embrace this new emphasis on actually paying attention: I tended to work hard in classes that interested me, and to neglect those that did not. But, eventually, I got with the program. After repeating my senior year to get my grades up, I managed to get into a good college, and then into a good grad school, and ultimately became an English professor.

I owe this career to mom. She gave me a second chance. Had she not become a private-school teacher, it’s unlikely that I would have attended college, much less become a college professor. Indeed, when I think of my younger self’s half-assed approach to education, I blink and pinch myself: How could such an indifferent pupil become a teacher? Unlike most people in the world, past failures did not sabotage my future.

In addition to the incredible luck of having such a caring, intelligent, devoted mother, I of course reap many other unearned privileges. As a white person, I’ve never struggled under the daily (hourly!) burden of racism. As a man, I’ve never felt the sharp lacerations of sexism. As a heterosexual, I’ve never had my love used as a pretext for others’ hatred. I would never deny these or any other unmerited benefits (class, ability, etc.) that have helped me along my way.

Yet of all the advantages I did not earn, my mother’s care is the one I feel most deeply. Her devotion is a debt that I can never repay. When asked to express my gratitude, language falters, looks shyly at its feet, and stumbles off the stage. What else can it do? Its words are inadequate, clumsy.

I can only say: Thank you. And: I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Gloria and Phil, Oct. 2014


Photos: 1. Mom and me (age 2) reading Richard Scarry. 2. Mom and me (age 19), just before I went to the “Last Hurrah,” a.k.a. senior prom. 3. Mom and me a couple of years ago.


Notes:

  1. For Mother’s Day in 2015, I sent mom a version of the above. I had told her these things several times, but never chronicled them in such detail. She told me that she was “very moved” by what I had written. I mention this because we should tell the important people in our lives how important they are to us!  Incidentally, I didn’t post it then because I was contemplating trying to publish the essay beyond this blog. Doubting that it would find a wider audience, I’ve since decided to publish it here.
  2. To address what may seem an omission in the second paragraph, I’m keeping my promise never to mention on this blog the person whom I’ve omitted.

Selected autobiographical writing (on this blog, unless otherwise indicated):

Comments (5)

Gosh! Barnaby Volume Three (1946-1947) is here!

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016)

74 years ago this month, five-year-old Barnaby Baxter wished for a fairy godmother.  Instead, Mr. O’Malley — a loquacious, endearing, pink-winged con-artist — flew through Barnaby’s (open) bedroom window, and announced himself as the lad’s fairy godfather.  For the next ten years, devoted readers of Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby saw O’Malley elected to congress, running a business, and — in this volume — becoming a diplomat trying to avert war between the U.S. and Sylvania.  Barnaby Volume Three brings our cast of characters from the relative clarity of the Second World War homefront into the anxieties of the Cold War era.

For those who may be new to the series, other characters include Atlas (the mental giant, shown above holding a slide rule), Gus the Ghost (too timid to be effective at haunting), Gorgon (Barnaby’s talking dog), McSnoyd (the invisible leprechaun who, in this volume, does briefly become visible), Jane (a no-nonsense little girl and Barnaby’s next-door neighbor), and Barnaby’s parents.  The strip is both fantasy and topical satire.  The children can see the fairy characters but the adults (usually) do not see them; we readers know, however, that the fantasy characters are real and not just a projection of Barnaby’s and Jane’s imaginations. Because O’Malley is a character of possibility, Johnson can put him into any situation he’d like to satirize, be it politics, filmmaking, diplomacy, or high finance. Barnaby never had a mass following, but — like Krazy Kat — did have many readers who either were or became influential.  The strip’s fans include Chris Ware, Art Spiegleman, Daniel Clowes, Charles Schulz, Dorothy Parker, and Duke Ellington.  As Ware says in his foreword to the first volume, Barnaby is “the last great comic strip” that has yet to be collected — which, of course, our five-volume series in the process of realizing.

Barnaby Volume Three‘s official release date is June 1st, but — I am told — copies of the book may well start shipping in May.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016): back cover

After you enjoy Daniel Clowes‘ book design and open the cover, you’ll find….

  • two years of Barnaby comics (1946-1947)

Barnaby, 20-21 Oct. 1947

Jeff Smith, foreword to Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

Nathalie op de Beeck, "Notes on a Haunted Childhood," from Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

  • an essay by yours truly

Philip Nel, Afterword: Escape Artist?, Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

  • and, for those who may be curious about the strip’s many allusions, notes (also written by me).

I hope you enjoy the book!  You can buy it via Fantagraphics, the usual online retailers, and your local brick-and-mortar bookstores and comic shops (should you be fortunate enough to have either of these in your area). Our — that is, my and my co-editor Eric Reynolds’ — plan is to bring out Barnaby Volume Four: 1948-1949 in 2017, and Barnaby Volume Five: 1950-1952 in 2018.

To learn more about Crockett Johnson or Barnaby, see:

  • my Comic Art essay from 2004 (pdf)
  • my biographyCrockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012, featuring cover art by the great Chris Ware!)
  • my Crockett Johnson Homepage (established 1998, and still proudly Web 1.0!)
  • the relevant tags on this blog: Crockett Johnson, Barnaby

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

Leave a Comment

Commonplace Book, Also

Welcome to the sixth aggregation of quotations that interest me — that is, the sixth blog installment of my “commonplace book,” a sixteenth-century tradition (that continued for several centuries), in which “one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement” (OED).  I’ve thus far done two other “general” collections of quotations, and three devoted to children’s literature. You’ll find links to the other such posts at the bottom of this one.

This collection of thoughts seems to fall in the category of “with arrangement.” That is, the ten quotations below do have a sort of logic to them. They all seem to address a search for meaning, and for hope — or at least for the will to keep struggling.

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.

Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene (1987)—Arthur Schopenhauer, Counsels and Maxims, Vol. 2 (1851), Ch. 23

It’s tough to be somebody. It’s hard not to fall apart.
— Warren Zevon, “Detox Mansion,” Sentimental Hygiene (1987)
 
 
I’m reminded also of the three rules we came up with, rules to live by. And I’m just going to tell you what they are because they come in really handy. Because things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on.

And the first one is: One. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one? Two. Get a really good bullshit detector. And three. Three is be really, really tender. And with those three things, you don’t need anything else.

— Laurie Anderson, describing her and Lou Reed’s rules to live by, in induction speech for Lou Reed, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 18 April 2015.

I’m just this meat sack with a conscience trying to make sense out of all this bright noise.

— Traci Brimhall, in Todd Gleason, “Building Impossible Houses: A Conversation With Traci Brimhall,” Drunk in a Midnight Choir, 8 June 2015.

Charles Simic, A Wedding in Hell (1994)Every worm is a martyr,
Every sparrow is subject to injustice,
I said to my cat,
Since there was no one else around.

It’s raining. In spite of their huge armies
What can the ants do?
And the roach on the wall
Like a waiter in an empty restaurant?

I’m going to the cellar
To stroke the rat caught in a trap.
You watch the sky.
If it clears, scratch on the door.

—Charles Simic, “Explaining a Few Things,” from A Wedding in Hell (1994)

There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.

—Toni Morrison, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” The Nation, 23 Mar. 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015), p. 71

Buck up — never say die. We’ll get along!

—Charlie Chaplin, final words of Modern Times (1936)

We’re all just walking each other home.

—Ram Dass

Chaplin, Modern Times (1936): final scene

Related links:

Leave a Comment

Just a Shot Away (in Inside Higher Ed)

When the state legislature decides to weaponize our classrooms, how do we respond? What should we do when the phrase “killing higher education” ceases being a metaphor and becomes state policy?

Inside Higher Ed logoI tackle these questions in “Just a Shot Away,” published today in Inside Higher Ed.  Here’s the opening:

        Shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, a mentally disturbed former student of mine contacted Kansas State University (where I teach), saying it would be too bad if something like Virginia Tech happened at Kansas State — and if I, in particular, were the target of the shooting. The university recognized the email for the threat it was, and contacted me. Fortunately, I was then out of town. Before I returned, the university determined that the ex-student, who had been expelled for several reasons, sent the email from his home abroad.

Students, faculty members, and administrators at American colleges and universities all know that, at any time, we could be shot dead. Mostly, we try not to think about it — until another mass shooting, such as at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (nine killed, nine wounded, October 2015), or the University of California at Santa Barbara (six killed, fifteen wounded, May 2014). Then, we are forced again to face the possibility that, one day, we too may join the next sad, inevitable list of the murdered.

As I say, the rest is over at Inside Higher Ed. No subscription required.


Further resources that may be of interest:

In Higher Education

Gun Control

Activism Against Campus Carry in Kansas

Leave a Comment