More Expeditioners! A Chat with S. S. Taylor

S.S. Taylor, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's LairGreat news for fans of S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners! The second book is out! OK, officially, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair will be published on September 23, but Barnes & Noble says that it’s already shipping. So, I would guess that you can order it now — from there or (preferably!) your local bookseller. If you have not read the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon (2012), well, you’ll want to start there, of course. And then — lucky for you — you can dive right into book two!

S.S. TaylorS.S. Taylor kindly took the time to chat with me about The Expeditioners, via Gmail chat, earlier today. At only one point did I mention a spoiler, but I’ve blotted out that sentence so that you’ll need to select the text in order to see what it says. In addition to discussing her influences, her thoughts on dystopias, and other matters, I also learned that the Expeditioners will be more than a trilogy. So, that’s even better news for fans of the first book!

Enough prologue.  Here’s our conversation.

Philip Nel:  Thanks for taking the time to chat about The Expeditioners!

S.S. Taylor:  Thank YOU!

S. S. Taylor and Ben Towle, Amelia EarhartNel:  My pleasure!  First question.  Prior to The Expeditioners, you wrote mysteries, and a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart. Were there any ways in which those writing experiences prepared you for this one (if, indeed, they did)?

Taylor:  Absolutely. I think I’ve always liked writing about ordinary people who have extraordinary things happen to them. That’s pretty much the definition of an amateur detective novel and Amelia Earhart sort of fits that bill too. She was a social worker before she became a famous pilot.

Nel:  Ah. Good point. Even real-world extraordinary people (often) start as ordinary people. We just forget that fact because we only know them — or, really, know of them — because of their extraordinary achievements.

Taylor:  Exactly. That was what drew me to the early part of Amelia’s career, which I focus on in the graphic novel. She (and we) didn’t know who she was going to be yet. And obviously adventure novels for kids are about extraordinary things happening to kids, which is every kid’s fantasy. Even though Kit’s father was an Explorer, he is surprised at being drawn into this crazy adventure.

Nel:  Right, right. And you really get the sense in The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair that — hmmm, I want to phrase this in a way that isn’t a spoiler — as in a classic fantasy narrative, there are people who are “chosen” to follow certain paths.

(Incidentally, if we do get into any “spoiler” territory, I can just reproduce that part of the interview so that people have to select the text in order to read it.)

Taylor:  Yeah. It’s a trope, but for good reason. I think every kid — I know I did — feels like she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to DO, what her purpose it. Do I matter? Why am I here? All that great existential stuff that comes up around age 10 or 11 or 12. And characters who discover that they are meant for great and important things let kids try on a huge and important destiny, if that makes sense, while they figure out what their real one is.

Nel:  Heck, I think many adults feel like they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. “Do I matter? Why am I here?” I ask those questions all of the time.

Taylor:  Me too!

Nel:  Well, perhaps one day we’ll grow up and find our destiny, eh?

Taylor:  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone just said, “You? Oh you’re supposed to save the world from evil”?

Nel:  Would it?  That sounds terrifying.

Taylor:  But clear!

Nel:  True. Clear and terrifying!  A winning combination!  Well, if you survive….

S. S. Taylor, The Expeditioners, illustrated by Katherine Roy (2012)So, speaking of combinations, I wonder if you think in terms of genre at all.  Do you?  I ask because, if I had to classify these novels, I’d say they’re steampunk adventure fantasy mysteries, with a bit of science fiction, too.  (I love the attention given to the alternate world’s technology.)  They don’t neatly fit into one genre, and I like that. But, as a writer, do you worry about these labels?

Taylor:  I started out thinking of them as straight-up adventure novels. But I discovered that a lot of the things I wanted to say about the world put it firmly in SF and steampunk territory. It’s funny because I think a lot of the inspiration came out of my interest in colonialism and imperialism and sort of trying to reimagine the age of exploration with a more contemporary view of colonialism and imperialism but in order to do that, I needed to create this futuristic, SF world.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything that doesn’t have a mystery in it.

Nel:  Ah! I was picking up on that anti-colonialist / anti-imperialist bent.  I love it when Coleman says, “I don’t say ‘discovered’ because as far as the Arawak people who were living here were concerned, they didn’t need to be discovered. They’d been here for a long time. They hadn’t wanted to be found.”

Taylor:  A long way of saying that I don’t worry much about labels. I still describe them as adventure novels. I love Katherine Roy‘s illustrations for the book and I think she’s done such a great job of capturing that mix of genres, of old-fashioned adventure stories, but also the steampunk and SF elements.

Nel:  I’m glad you mention Roy’s art — love her work, too. Perfectly compliments your text. And, returning to what you said a moment before, having the mystery gene (if that’s what it is) is a great gift, I would think — because that sense of mystery keeps people turning the pages.

Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of ThikaTaylor:  Yeah, I loved novels like The Flame Trees of Thika and Agatha Christie as a kid and I think this is my attempt to retain some of the romance of that literature, but to hopefully ask the questions that will make readers think about what it is to be the colonized person.

Nel:  Nicely put. I was thinking of these as like classic adventure narratives from the early twentieth-century, but with a critique of colonialism instead of a passive (or active) endorsement. The first Expeditioners novel, too. They “find” this “lost” civilization, but have the good sense to let it stay lost.  OK, that’s a spoiler to anyone who’s not read the first book.  I’ll blot that out.

Taylor:  Yup. I was just reading about uncontacted people in the Amazon and how the Brazilian government is grappling with how to protect them. It’s so complicated.

Nel:  Indeed. That also brings me to another question I have. What sort of research do you do in creating the world of The Expeditioners? The world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was heavily influenced by the research he did into Victorian England for the Sally Lockhart books. I would guess that research on Amelia Earhart may have helped with Sukey (especially in the first book). But I’m going to guess there was a fair bit of research involved for the rest, yes?

Taylor:  Yeah. I did some research on Victorian technology, steam, clockwork mechanisms, etc., but also on the early days of petroleum exploration. I think it was more casting my imagination into this alternate world though, and saying, “Okay, if petroleum hadn’t been discovered in great quantities yet, what would have been available to people?” I also did a lot of research into fascist/totalitarian governments and how they did things, how they created bureaucracy. That was fun

And I read a lot about the golden age of exploration, trying to imagine if it had happened later than it did.

Nel:  Fun with fascism! (Well, in a fictional sense.) Indeed, if I had to add another genre to my “genre” mix, above, I notice a dystopic strain running through the Expeditioners books — food shortages, oligarchical / totalitarian government. If you’re doing research into fascist/totalitarian governments, I assume you’re conscious of that strain(?). If so, were there any particular dystopian works that inspired you?

Cormac McCarthy, The RoadTaylor:  Yeah. Like everybody else, I loved the Hunger Games, though I read it after I’d mostly written the first book. I loved The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and I’m sure that was an influence. I’ve now read some more YA dystopia, and I find it really interesting that kids are so drawn to it. Lots of people have written about this, but I think it’s both a reflection of their anxiety and maybe also some sort of desire for a fresh start or to be able to remake the world.

I think there’s something attractive to kids about a world where the usual rules don’t apply and you get to make your own, form a society.

Nel:  Yes, I’m also interested by the current popularity of dystopian fiction. As you say, it’s likely a reflection of contemporary anxieties about the world. I also wonder what dystopian fiction’s popularity (especially YA dystopian fiction) tells us about how we imagine our collective futures.

Taylor:  Yeah, when I talk to kids, I actually see that they find these stories exciting because they make adventure and freedom possible. After a nuclear holocaust, nobody cares whether you make your curfew or not! I think so much of children’s lit is about vicariously experiencing freedom and independence.

Nel:  I like your optimistic reading — dystopia can also provide the impetus to challenge the rules, to create a new and better world.  So, you know, the West kids & others are completely justified in defying authority because the authorities are corrupt.

Taylor:  Yes!

Nel:  So, I don’t have a natural transition to this question, but one thing I really enjoy about the novels is that they avoid gender stereotypes. M.K. (the youngest West child) is an inventor & engineer. Kit, our narrator and the middle West child, is introspective.  Sukey is brave.  So is Joyce.  Indeed, they all have a combination of strengths and weaknesses that aren’t especially gendered. Even the pirates – Monty Brioux has both men and women on his crew. How conscious are you of avoiding stereotypes?

Taylor:  Very conscious, though I think you have to be conscious of not being too conscious, if you know what I mean. They have to be themselves first. Part of creating an alternate world for me was about creating a world where there is less rigidity about gender roles. One of the things about having kids of my own that has been such an eye opener is how gender roles are transferred so early. I especially wanted to show girls who are capable and brave and mechanically minded, but I realized I also wanted the boys to have flexibility. That may be part of why Kit is the first person narrator.

So yeah, I’m very conscious of it and I’m happy to see that many other writers seem to be. There are a lot of brave, capable heroines on the shelves right now.

Nel:  Even the names give you flexibility.  M.K. is a girl, but the initials don’t tell you that.  And, when I started reading The Expeditiioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair, I’d forgotten whether Kit was a boy or a girl.  It took me a few pages, before a pronoun tipped me off!

Taylor:  Yeah, I’m inside his head and I really want to show his emotions and insecurities as well as his developing competence and bravery.

Free to Be . . . You and Me (LP, 1972)Nel:  Excellent! Those are helpful to see, and (since I was an insecure kid, myself), I know I’d have liked that when I was a younger reader, too.  Oh, I like your point, also, about being “conscious of not being too conscious.”  You don’t want it to seem forced (and it doesn’t!).  But, you know, since you grew up with a consciousness of gender roles — or conscious of their existence — perhaps that sort of non-stereotypical writing comes more easy to you than it may have come to writers of earlier generations?  Out of curiosity, were you a Free to Be … You and Me kid?  Did you grow up on that record or book?

Taylor:  Yes. Free to Be … You and Me, marching at ERA rallies, the whole deal. I think those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s had a better situation than kids do today, to some extent. Certainly the merchandizing has changed.

Nel:  A couple of final questions because I’ve just realized we’ve been chatting for nearly an hour.  For how long had you been planning The Expeditioners, and was it always a trilogy?  How much of the story did you know when you began, and how much do you discover as you write?

Taylor:  It’s actually a six-book series! It says trilogy somewhere but that’s not right. I had been thinking about it for maybe a year before I started writing, not terribly long. The first book really was a process of discovery. The second book was hard to write because I was actively figuring out the whole rest of the series in order to write it. I now know most of it, but I didn’t until I was about halfway through the second one.

Nel:  Oh boy!  Six books!  Well, that’s the best news I’ve had all week.  I thought there were going to be just three.  Hooray!

Taylor:  I’m glad that’s your reaction!

Nel:  Well, of course it is!  You see, Sarah, it is your destiny to write these novels.  YOU are the one chosen to do it.

Taylor:  Thank you. I feel very relieved now!

Nel:  Glad I could help you sort that out. :-)  One final question and then I’ll let you go (promise!). Can you tell your avid readers when we might expect to see The Expeditioners, Volume 3?

Taylor:  I’m working on it right now. I’m so excited about it. There’s espionage and a trek across a desert and  . . . I can’t say anything more. But, we think it will be out in spring of 2016, if all goes according to plan.

Nel:  Hoo boy!  Looking forward to it!  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat!

Taylor:  Thank you so much. I really appreciate it!

Nel:  My pleasure!


Author portrait & cover art: Katherine Roy.

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Ferguson: Response & Resources

This post has two parts: my response and some resources for teaching about Ferguson. Feel free to skip ahead to the resources section.


My Response

Watts 1965 & Ferguson 2014For two weeks now, I have been wanting to write something about the state-sponsored terrorism in Ferguson — and all that it represents (structural racism, police brutality, militarized cops, etc.). But it makes me so angry. And depressed. And fills me with despair. (Indeed, Ferguson is one reason I’ve kept a lower profile on social media lately. The horrors of the world have been too overwhelming.)

Also, where does one begin? Can’t exactly open with a joke. Q: What’s the Ferguson police’s motto? A: To protect and to serve… white supremacy.  And NO, this isn’t funny. It’s simultaneously sad and infuriating. I mean, surely I am not the only person wondering why the entire Ferguson police force has not been disarmed and dismissed? Yes, after the establishment of a competent police chief and responsible hiring practices, ex-officers would be welcome to reapply for their former jobs. But, at present, the police force there inspires no confidence whatsoever, and represents an ongoing threat to public safety. Indeed, in my fantasy solution, the United Nations sends in peacekeepers to Ferguson. I picture Canadian soldiers wearing those baby-blue UN helmets. They could protect the citizens from the local cops, until Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri get their act together — which, frankly, means that the UN troops would be in Missouri for a long time.

Michael Brown (1996-2014)You see? I start to write, and then that turns, first, into a rant against the corrupt cops who delayed naming the officer who murdered Michael Brown for jaywalking, in order to grant themselves time to construct an implausible alibi — an alibi that quickly unraveled (because Darren Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery at the time he killed Brown). Second, it turns into an anguish I cannot articulate. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. John Crawford. Trayvon Martin. But also…. James Byrd Jr. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Medgar Evers. Emmett Till.  And less well-known people like Recy Taylor. And the many, many other victims of American racism — an institution as old as the republic itself.

Emmett Till & Trayvon Martin

The myth of America is that it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave. The truth is that, for most of its history, America has been a white supremacist police state. Most people have bought into the American myth so thoroughly that when you confront them with this fact, they refuse to acknowledge it. So, let me rephrase this: for most of American history, people of color have had no rights that white Americans were bound to respect. For the sake of argument, let us make the provisional (and demonstrably false) claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 “ended” racism. Were that true (and it is not true), then we would have 50 years in which African Americans had rights — well, sort of. Or more rights than before 1964 — um, usually. The common date for the United States’ founding is either 1789 (adoption of US Constitution) or 1776 (Declaration of Independence), but we could also use 1619 (first enslaved Africans brought to Jamestown) or 1492 (when Columbus “discovered” a continent where people already lived, and so helped kill them via smallpox-infected blankets). So, let’s do some math for each date. The percentage at the end represents the amount of American history during which people of color have had some (although certainly not full) civil rights in the U.S.

  • 1789: 50 years out of 225. 22%
  • 1776: 50 years out of 238. 21%
  • 1619: 50 years out of 395. 13%
  • 1492: 50 years out of 522. 10%

50 years of partial civil rights — or what we might call “racism lite” — is a piss-poor record for a nation that promotes itself as the world’s greatest exemplar of democracy.

What’s more, President Obama’s election seems to have inspired a renaissance in American racism. He gets elected, and then all the racists come out in full force. There’s the structural kind of racism, such as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, or the fake “Voter Fraud” laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, or Stand Your Ground laws (applied unequally to white gun-owners and black gun-owners). And then there’s the more personal kind, like the many racial caricatures of Obama or, yeah, whites who murder blacks and get off scot-free.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary AmericaI don’t mean to suggest that Obama’s election and re-election indicate no progress whatsoever since the founding of the republic or even since 1964-1965. Even when he won the presidency in 2008, the notion of a president of color was literally unimaginable to many people — and that’s people of all backgrounds and political persuasions. I know liberals who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries because Americans would never elect a black president. Instead, I mean to suggest that the success of Obama has helped usher in a new era of “racism without racists” (to use Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term), in which the successes of a few people of color get used to deflect attention away from the persistence of structural racism — a racism personified by the police force in Ferguson, Missouri.

All of what I’ve said above has been better-articulated by others, I know.  So, now, here is what will I hope be a more useful contribution to the conversation — an aggregation of resources for teaching about Ferguson.


The Resources

I’m sure this is incomplete. Please add your own in the comments, below, and I will do my best to add them to these links.

Teaching Ferguson

Steve Sack, "The Talk," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 16 July 2013

Literature

Clay Bennett, "Community Relations." Chattanooga Times Free Press, 15 Aug. 2014

Children’s & YA Literature

Art

Kevin Siers, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Editorial cartoon. Charlotte Observer, 14 Aug. 2014

Analysis & Context

  • Charles P. Pierce, “They Left the Body in the Street.” Esquire. 22 Aug. 2014. “Dictators leave bodies in the street. Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street. Warlords leave bodies in the street…. A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society.”
  • Matt Zoller Seitz, “Different Rules Apply.”  MZS.  19 Aug. 2014.  “I went home. The other guy didn’t. That’s white privilege.”
  • Adam Serwer, “Eighty Years of Fergusons.” Buzzfeed. 25 Aug. 2014. “We have had 80 years of Fergusons. We may have more. Violence — as harmful and self-destructive as it is — sometimes works.”
  • Michael Denzel Smith, “Strange Fruit in Ferguson.” The Nation. 20 Aug. 2014. “The police didn’t hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…’”
  • St. Louis American‘s Editors. “For the sake of Michael Brown.”  St Louis American. 14 Aug. 2014. “We can’t bring Michael Brown back. But we can insist on a prompt, credible, transparent investigation – under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice, we urge – and that his killer be brought to justice. The officer should receive the constitutionally guaranteed due process he did not give to his victim.”
  • Jesse Washington, “Trayvon Martin, My Son, and the Black Male Code.” Huffington Post. 24 March 2012. Not on Ferguson in particular but on the separate-but-unequal treatment of young black men: “Across the country this week, parents were talking to their children, especially their black sons, about the Code. It’s a talk the black community has passed down for generations, an evolving oral tradition from the days when an errant remark could easily cost black people their job, their freedom, or sometimes their life.” Thanks to Sarah Park Dahlen.
  • Janee Woods, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People.” The Root 19 Aug. 2014. “White people who hate racism should work hard to become white allies. Here are some ways for a white person to become engaged, thoughtfully and critically, in examining the crisis in Ferguson and systemic racism in America.”

Primary Resources

Jim Morin, "911? I'm being followed by a stranger, and I'm scared...." Editorial cartoon. Miami Herald, 1

Activism

As I said above, I’m sure I’ve omitted useful resources.  Please let me know, and I’ll add them. (I’ve not followed this as closely as some of you have, I know. As noted at the very beginning of this blog post, the news lately has been rather overwhelming & so I’ve had to retreat a bit from social media. Ferguson. Gaza. Ukraine. Robin Williams’ suicide. Too much to take.)

Thanks to everyone who has shared links via Facebook and Twitter. I’d not have found half of these links without you all.


Update, 3:10 pm, 31 Aug: Added a short, smart response by Robin Bernstein (@RobinMBernstein), and a cartoon by Ben Sargent.

Update, 1:35pm, 29 Aug: With thanks to Kate Slater (@slaterka), added Ezekiel Kweku’s “The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a N*****r Nation” (under “Analysis & Context”); thanks to Julie Danielson (@SevenImp), added a coupe of pieces, including one on a foolish school superintendent who has banned classroom discussion of Ferguson; thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), added the MichaelBrownsCrime tumblr. And a few others…

Update, 9:00 pm, 27 Aug: With thanks to Libby Gruner, added Kia Makarechi’s Vanity Fair piece. Also added a few other pieces, many of which are thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), who — as I note above — is someone you really ought to follow on Twitter (though I think I actually found these pieces [Adam Serwer's "Eighty Years of Fergusons" & Shaun R. Harper's "Race Lessons from Ferguson: Back to School, Not Back to Normal."] via her Facebook feed).

Update, 8:00 pm, 26 Aug: Added the Mary Engelbreit artwork (in “Children’s & YA” section), and a link to related news stories (under “Art”).

Update, 2:40 pm, 26 Aug: Added resources from Sarah Park Dahlen (SarahPark.com), Sophylou (True Stories Backward), Sandy Brehl (@PBWorkshop), & one or two others.

Update, 10:30 am, 25 Aug: I’ve added resources culled from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post.

Update, 10:45 pm, 24 Aug: I will add, tomorrow, some great links from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post. I’ve added a few other links.

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Kansas State University’s NEW Academic Freedom Statement

Uncensor KansasIn response to the Kansas Board of Regents’ draconian, unconstitutional social media policy, a group of concerned faculty and students from Kansas State University drafted an Academic Freedom statement, during this past summer. I was not a member of this group, but I fully endorse their statement, which can be found as no. 3 on Kansas State University’s Optional Syllabi Statements (scroll down).  For your reference, I’ll also reproduce it here:

Academic Freedom Statement

Kansas State University is a community of students, faculty, and staff who work together to discover new knowledge, create new ideas, and share the results of their scholarly inquiry with the wider public. Although new ideas or research results may be controversial or challenge established views, the health and growth of any society requires frank intellectual exchange. Academic freedom protects this type of free exchange and is thus essential to any university’s mission.

Moreover, academic freedom supports collaborative work in the pursuit of truth and the dissemination of knowledge in an environment of inquiry, respectful debate, and professionalism. Academic freedom is not limited to the classroom or to scientific and scholarly research, but extends to the life of the university as well as to larger social and political questions. It is the right and responsibility of the university community to engage with such issues.

I encourage faculty and staff at Kansas State University to adopt this statement, and faculty and staff at other Kansas universities to adopt a similar statement.

Remain Vigilant (small version)I would also encourage all Regents who voted for the Social Media Policy to be swiftly removed from the Kansas Board of Regents, since none of them have any business serving on such a body. But, that, of course, is a subject for another blog post — and has already been covered in great detail on this blog, as well as in the local and national media.

On this blog, see:

Finally, thanks to the group who drafted this statement! (I’m deliberately not naming them in this post because I don’t know if they want to be publicly identified. It’s conceivable that their work might be seen as disloyal, unharmonious, etc.)

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At the Drop of a Hat: A Dozen Essential Songs by Flanders and Swann

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann

We’ve had a lot of luck with records. Some of the songs that have made our names a household word — like “slop-bucket” — are the little series of animal songs that we’ve been writing.

— Michael Flanders, introduction to “The Gnu,” At the Drop of a Hat (1960)

The Bestiary of Flanders and SwannAs Michael Flanders says, the animal songs made him and his partner Donald Swann famous. The duo’s best-known such number may be “The Hippopotamus,” with its cheerful, waltzing chorus of

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow,

And there let us wallow

In glorious mud!

Indeed, I suspect that even a few Americans know this one. I say that because, if you are English, you’re very likely to at least have heard of Flanders and Swann. If you are American, well, that’s much less likely. (In terms of Flanders-and-Swann awareness, Canadians seem somewhere in between — more than Americans, but less than Britons.) So, to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with Flanders and Swann, let’s listen to “The Hippopotamus.”

There’s even a children’s-book version of this, The Hippopotamus Song: A Muddy Love Story (1991), illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. (I haven’t seen the book, and so can’t vouch for how well or poorly the song has been adapted.)

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, At the Drop of Another HatIf you’re unfamiliar with this duo, you might think of Flanders (1922-1975) and Swann (1923-1994) as something of a British Tom Lehrer (b. 1928), but without the cynicism. As Flanders himself observes in At the Drop of Another Hat (1964), “The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth — and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.” They are satirists, but (usually) lack the aggression of Lehrer, favoring instead satire’s sense of play and a kind of wry, bemused judgment — or, in the case of songs like “The Hippopotamus,” more whimsy than judgment.

Though Lehrer famously set his “The Elements” to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song,” the librettist and composer of The Pirates of Penzance had a much stronger influence on Flanders and Swann. Flanders was the Gilbert, writing nearly all of the lyrics, and Swann the Sullivan, writing all of the music (and the occasional lyric). With wit, wordplay, and complex rhyme schemes, the duo wrote over a hundred songs, and between 1956 and 1967 gave hundreds of performances in the UK, Canada, and the US — plus, in 1964, a few in Australia and New Zealand. George Martin (yes, the Beatles’ producer) produced their best-known albums. David Hyde-Pierce and John Lithgow are probably the duo’s best-known contemporary fans.

Never heard of Flanders and Swann? Or care to be reacquainted? Well, here’s my (admittedly subjective) list of essential songs, complete with audio, commentary, and (when available) video. The first was “The Hippopotamus Song” (above); so, moving to the second….

2) “A Transport of Delight”

"Wanted; a crew for this bus," by Jack Maxwell. Agency: Clement Dane Studio, 1955  Published by London Transport, 1955. (From London Transport Museum)A paean to the “monarch of the road,” that “Scarlet-painted London Transport, Diesel-engined, Ninety-seven horsepower Omnibus!” Swann takes on the role of driver, Flanders the conductor, and they sing heartily, with a mix of affection and mockery.

A few allusions of note. “Earth has not anything to show more fair” is from Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” “Army lorry” puns on the Scots song “Annie Laurie,” which includes the line “And for bonnie Annie Laurie, / I’d lay me down and dee” (“dee” being a Scots pronunciation of “die”).

3) “The Gas-Man Cometh”

The GALMI method has its flaws, as this song points out. (No, the song doesn’t use the expression “GALMI,” but that’s an acronym for “Get A Little Man In.” I’ve heard it on British sitcoms.)

4) “First and Second Law”

Showing their range, Swann and Flanders explain thermodynamics via a jazzy scat number. This is still the reason I know anything about thermodynamics. You see, Flanders and Swann are the music of my childhood. Though I grew up north of Boston Massachusetts, my parents lived in London during the latter half of the 1960s. They even saw Flanders and Swann perform there. In the U.S., borrowing the records from friends, my dad taped, on a reel-to-reel (the bulkier predecessor of the cassette recorder), At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat — though I later learned that he only taped the pieces that he liked. Fortunately, that was the majority of each record.

5) “The Gnu”

In the introduction (which I’ve omitted), Michael Flanders talks about the song’s inspiration, which involves being unable to park (or get out of his car) on the street where he lives:

The road itself is a bit of a snag. That road has got the steepest camber on it — you know, the old slope — of any road in London. It’s about one in three. If you try to park your car by the pavement, as people do from time to time, the car’s tilted, like that. Well now, that means you can only get this near-side door open a little bit, then the pavement stops it. If you want to use this door you can make a jump for it. Bad enough all up and down the road, but just outside where I happen to live, 1a (of course it would be), it’s just like the great North face of Everest. The thing’s right over on its side. You can’t get this door open at all, you’ve got to keep it full of petrol or it shows empty. I can’t use this door, I’ve got to get into this thing [Flanders’ wheelchair], you see, on the pavement.

He asks his local council about it, and they send a man round to take a chunk out of the road so that it’s level in front of Flanders’ house, thus allowing him to navigate from his car to his wheelchair and vice versa. However, ever time he arrives at his space, someone else is parked there — always the same car. “The number of this car,” he says, “I’ll never forget this number as long as I live. I’ve sat gazing at it for hours on end sometimes, thinking of nothing else. The number is 346-GNU.”

Gnu, a.k.a. Blue Wildebeest

In case you are doubtful, a gnu is a real animal. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a “South African quadruped (Catoblepas gnu), belonging to the antelope family, but resembling an ox or buffalo in shape; also known by its Dutch name wildebeest.”

6) “Misalliance”

In which two plants become star-crossed lovers, a silly premise with a plaintive melody that makes it curiously affecting.

7) “Madeira M’Dear”

A bit more risqué than the other songs here, “Madeira M’Dear” contains excellent zeugma, when one word gets used to refer to more than one word in the same sentence.  These particular lyrics often use the first word (the multi-referential one) in more than one sense. So, for example, “She lowered her standards by raising her glass, / Her courage, her eyes — and his hopes.”

Here are Flanders and Swann performing the song for American television in 1967. Flanders glosses “flat” as “apartment” for American viewers and — presumably to appease censors — changes “prowess” to “finesse.” Incidentally, if he looks a little breathless, that may be because he has only one working lung. The polio that put him in the wheelchair also took away one of his lungs.

UPDATE, 7 Aug. 2014, 1:30 pm: In retrospect, this song might better be classified among those that have not aged well (described in my caveat below). I direct readers to my conversation with Jonathan Dresner (in the comments) for precisely why.

8) “A Happy Song”

Flanders and Swann, At the Drop of a Hat (1957 version).This represents the absurdist side of the duo — also on display in such numbers as “Kokoraki.” If you enjoy Spike Jones or Mel Blanc, then “A Happy Song” is for you.  It’s one of three “Songs for Our Time” on At the Drop of a Hat, each of which, Flanders explains, is his and Swann’s attempt to write a pop hit. Of this particular one, Flanders tells the audience, “We felt that really, on the whole, in this time of crisis and political conflict, what the world needed most was another simple happy chorus song, something which expressed the feelings of all the ordinary people all over the world, and in which everyone could join.” He then pronounces the song’s nearly unpronounceable refrain, and invites people to “join in, if you wish.”

9) “The Rhinoceros”

Another reason that Flanders and Swann’s songs are great for children and adults: they expand your vocabulary, as in this song’s refrain, “the bodger on the bonce.” As a noun, “bodger” is “one who bodges; a botcher”; as an adjective, “bodger” is (in Australian slang) a term for “Inferior, worthless.” “Bonce” is a slang term for “head.” So, then, according to the lyric, the rhino has something botched on its head. (All definitions courtesy of the OED.)

10) “The Armadillo”

Who knew that Armadillos had love songs? And with such plaintive melodies, too!  (The track begins, however, with an elephant joke — the previous song on the record is “The Elephant.”)

11) “Slow Train”

An elegy for closed railway stations, this one is surprisingly poignant. As Flanders says in his introduction,

Unusual song this for us, perhaps, because it’s really quite a serious song, and it was suggested by all those marvelous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names, all due to be, you know, axed and done away with one by one, and these are stations that we shall no longer be seeing when we aren’t able to travel anymore on the slow train.

Blandford Forum railway station in April 1963

TheGawain provides more detail in this great post on Flanders and Swann. As he tells us, in 1963 Dr. Richard Beeching

wrote a lengthy report on the profitability of British Railways (or lack thereof) and concluded that most of the rail network made no net contribution towards any profits that could potentially be made. He duly recommended removing about half of the route mileage and rather more than half the stations. The Tories implemented the report with unusual haste for any Government; Labour largely opposed it up until the moment when they saw the overall profit/ loss account of the nation and duly decided to continue.

This cross-party enthusiasm for Beeching left very little opportunity for the pro-rail remnants of the population to express any form of opposition except by attempting to prove “undue hardship” at closure inquiries. An examination of the railways which survived on this basis (prime examples include Middlesborough to Whitby, Inverness to Wick & Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh, Glasgow to Mallaig and Plymouth to Gunnislake) show that in order to demonstrate that closing the local railway would cause undue hardship it was necessary to show that the area was devoid of alternative roads. As a result the minor rural dead loss railways going nowhere which deserved to be axed all survived, while the middling routes serving notable market towns found that the market towns were also served by roads, enabling easy closure of the railways.

The Government then proceeded to spend vast amounts of public money building roads to replace these railways which needed closing down because the Government didn’t have any public money available to spend on keeping them running.

That’s the context for this song. For more, see TheGawain’s piece or this very thorough Wikipedia essay on the song.

12) “The Sloth”

A comic ode to laziness.

A sloth

Yes, there are many other songs I could have included. Fans of Flanders and Swann will no doubt be asking: What about “Design for Living”? Where’s “A Song of the Weather”? And what about “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”?  Fair questions.  I decided to limit myself to a dozen, but I concede that there may be a better twelve songs to introduce people to Flanders and Swann.

A few songs have not aged as well — either because they’re topical, or because casual sexism or imperialism is (happily) no longer culturally acceptable. Remarkably, there are very few such songs. So, on the one hand, “The Reluctant Cannibal” suggests that people everywhere face the same problems, such rebellious children (who, in this case, “won’t eat people”) and parents baffled by their offspring. To their credit, Flanders and Swann also avoid pseudo-primitive dialect, singing in their usual accents. On the other hand, the humor of this piece depends upon the difference between “civilized” society and the more primitive “Tropics” (they don’t provide a specific location where these cannibals reside). The song is not in the realm of, say, the first line of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” (“Chinks do it, / Japs do it. / Up in Lapland, / Even little Laps do it”), but the piece hasn’t endured quite as well as their animal songs.

The Complete Flanders and SwannInterested in learning more? I don’t think there’s an ideal Flanders and Swann “hits” collection. In any case, the live records include amusing spoken-word performances (mostly from Flanders), which would need to be either included or excised — in assembling this, I’ve mostly done the latter. You could use iTunes to create your own “hits” collection, and then (depending on your fondness for Flanders’ monologues) either retain or cut the spoken-word parts. In iTunes, you can do that under the “Options” setting of a song, by changing the start time and/or stop time.

Hat Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector's EditionOr, if you seek the full experience, then I recommend The Complete Flanders and Swann, which includes At the Drop of a Hat, At the Drop of Another Hat, The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann plus some bonus tracks, and a great booklet featuring illuminating notes and commentary by Charles Fox.  I’ve just discovered there’s another collection with more music I’ve never heard — including many performances not in The Complete Flanders and Swann. Sadly, Hat-Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector’s Edition is out of print.

Fortunately, Flanders and Swann’s many admirers have gathered lots more information for you to peruse:

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Making Mischief of One Kind and Another: Wild Things!

Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta's Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children's LiteratureIf you follow The Niblings (via Twitter or Facebook), you’ll know that two of us — Betsy Bird (Fuse #8) and Julie Walker Danielson (Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) — have co-written a new book, Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. It’s out today! It’s great! Go get it!

Oh, I should probably tell you what it’s about first. Right. It has been described as follows:

With tales of banned bunnies, drunken ducks, and gay penguins, Wild Things! leads the battle against the ignorance, half-truths, and just plain foolishness that afflict so much writing about children’s literature. Punchy, lively, and carefully researched, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in books for the young. So. Stop reading this blurb, and buy the book.

Yes, that’s me, in my blurb. There are other even more notable blurbs, from the likes of Lane Smith, Jack Gantos, Jon Scieszka, Jules Feiffer, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.

But you don’t have to believe the blurbs. (I mean, I don’t know why you’d doubt any of us, but you could doubt us, of course….)  For the past month, they’ve been posting the deleted scenes — the many great stories that did not fit in their entertaining book — on the Wild Things! Tumblr.  You can learn of famous feuds in children’s literature, and great children’s books that were almost never published, and many other things. The stuff in the book is even better.

They also have a piece in today’s Huffington Post (in which Trina Schart Hyman gets up to mischief). And there’s an interview over at the Let’s Get Busy! podcast (where you’ll learn, among other things, where Fuse #8 got its name!).

Since I haven’t yet figured out a way to include the book’s third co-author, Peter D. Sieruta, let me do that here. He passed away a couple of years ago, while the book was in its editing phase. But you can still read his blog.

So. To conclude, the book — which I read an ARC of, last October — is out. Let’s de-romanticize children’s literature! Unleash Wild Things! in your libraries, classrooms, and homes!

[Please insert comically maniacal laughter here. Thank you.]

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Let Them Eat Pie; or, And Now We Are Four

Nerdista's Pi Pineapple PieThis blog made its debut four years ago this month — on July 23, 2010 — and it’s still here. Looking back over the past year’s worth of blog posts, I notice a few trends. The blog has retained its focus on children’s literature and comics but has also devoted more time to academia and activism.

Moving on into year 5, I’ll strive to continue to keep the blog both interesting and useful. Thanks for reading!

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Superman Was a Refugee, Too

… Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

— Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (the poem on the Statue of Liberty)

As alleged patriots devise ways to deny the humanity of young Central American refugees seeking asylum in the United States, it’s worth remembering not only Emma Lazarus‘ famous poem, but this PSA from Superman — that all-American refugee from the planet Krypton.

Superman says... "Lend a friendly hand!"

We should judge a country according to how it treats the most vulnerable of its residents — be they citizens or refugees. Though some Americans have reached out to these latest immigrants, others have shouted racist slurs, demanded their deportation, or threatened to kill them.

The United States prides itself on being “a nation of immigrants,” a claim that is (at best) dubious, given that (a) Native Americans have lived here before Europeans arrived and (b) many African “immigrants” were in fact kidnapped and enslaved. However, the noble idea of embracing people from different cultural and national backgrounds is supposed to be part of what defines America. It’s supposed to be a core American value. I’m posting this comic page as a reminder of that (sometimes) shared ethos.


Hat tip to Jonathan Beecher Field for the Superman PSA. The slightly lower-res version he shared (on Facebook) includes, at the bottom: “Published as a public service in cooperation with the National Social Welfare Assembly, coordinating organization for National Health, Welfare, and Recreation Agencies of the U.S.” My source for the above image is Dial B for Blog.

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Comic-Con 2014: San Diego, July 27

And now, my final daily report from the 2014 Comic-Con!  (Earlier reports: Sat.Fri.Thurs., & Weds.)  Today, Trina Robbins, Paul Pope, Dav Pilkey, Rachel Renée Russell, and some Outlander photos (by special request)!


Chatting with Trina Robbins

Trina Robbins and Philip Nel, at the Fantagraphics table, on Sunday morning

Trina Robbins, Pretty in InkFor this morning’s signing, I was with Trina Robbins, who — I am pleased to report — sold all copies of her latest book, Pretty in Ink.  (I bought a copy myself, on Thursday.)  Had a good chat with her about the memoir she’s writing: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Comics. We mostly talked about the rock ‘n’ roll part.  In the ’60s in San Francisco, she and her (now ex-) husband knew lots of musicians: Donovan, Mama Cass, David Crosby, & others.  I don’t want to spoil the book by divulging details here, but she’s led an interesting life.  (I knew about some of the comics part, but none of the rock ‘n’ roll part.)  So, look for that book in… I’m guessing… a couple of years or so?


Middle-Grade Readers

Moderator David Mariotte, Rachel Renee Russell, E. J. Altbacker, Brandon Mull, Paul Pope,P. Craig Russell, Pseudonymous Bosch, and Dav Pilkey.

Left to right: Moderator David Mariotte, Rachel Renee Russell (The Dork Diaries), E. J. Altbacker (Shark Wars), Brandon Mull (Sky Raiders), Paul Pope (Battling BoyThe Rise of Aurora West), P. Craig Russell (The Graveyard Book graphic novel), Pseudonymous Bosch (The Secret Series, Bad Magic), and Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants).

I arrived at this session late because, well, it’s impossible to conclude your signing in the exhibit hall at 11 and then suddenly materialize in a panel session also at 11. I walk briskly, but I cannot levitate over the crowds of people. (Maybe if I’d dressed as a costumed superhero,…?)

The moderator asked about using other media in conjunction with the print books. Rachel Renee Russell noted that her main character has a blog. E. J. Altbacker’s series has an app where player would need to know first few books in order to play it successfully.  P. Craig Russell (who adapted The Graveyard Book as a graphic novel) said that “a graphic novel also brings in more readers, and is sometimes as long as the novel itself.”  The two-volume Graveyard Book is one such work. Pseudonymous Bosch said that he wrote his first novel via the postal service — though I didn’t quite understand what he meant. I assume he mailed the manuscript in that way? Or maybe I misheard? (I’ve not read his Secret Series). But, he said “kids now expect a much more interactive experience with their reading material.” When he was a kid, “it would not have occurred to him to write to the author.”

Dav Pilkey, The Adventures of Captain UnderpantsThe moderator ended his questions early, and moved to audience questions.

First questioner (to Dav Pilkey): Captain Underpants Cosplay: wonderful or kinda scary?

Dav Pilkey: Definitely scary.  There’s a motion picture that’s going to be made of Captain Underpants.  I was afriad it would be live action, but it’s going to be animated by DreamWorks Animation.

Most of the rest of the questions were from young readers.

Comic-Con 2014: Middle-grade readers at Middle-Grade Readers panel

Young reader (to Dav Pilkey): Did you have a mean principal?  Did it inspire you?

Dav Pilkey: Mr. Krupps was inspired by a mean principal.  I had a mean principal. He was verbally abusive, and physically abusive. I told my mom about him — though not the physically abusive part.  She used to say “everything happens for a reason.  Maybe something good will come out of it.”  She had no idea….

Paul Pope, Battling BoyAnother young reader: Is it hard to write books for young readers?

Paul Pope: You have to maintain a connection to your innocence. You have to write for yourself as a 12-year-old.

Pseudonymous Bosch: It helps if you stopped maturing at age 12.

Rachel Renée Russell: I’m always worried whether people will like it.

Paul Pope: When I was writing violent scenes, I thought “I’m going to write this for the 12-year-old editor in my head.” No blood, no gore. But I worked it out in my head. There were no rules.

Young reader #3 (to Paul Pope): how did you get the idea for Battling Boy?

Paul: Most of my books were for adults. But my nephews wanted to see my work. I realized that most of the comics I was reading — those comics weren’t written with young people in mind.  I just felt like there weren’t good books for kids of your age group, so they don’t keep having going back to Batman, who is 75 years old, or Spiderman.

Rachel Renée Russell, Dork Diaries 5: Tales from a Not-so-Smart Miss Know-itYoung reader #4 (to Rachel Renee Russell): What inspired you to write the Dork Diaries?

Rachel Renee Russell: My two daughters were so dorky. I felt sorry for them. Kids picked on them. They were bullied. They didn’t get invited to birthday parties. They had a really hard time. But they grew up to be really smart, intelligent young ladies. So, dorks rule!

As the conversation turns to bullying, Brandon Mull says that the bullied are often “good nice people. Good nice people in middle school have a hard time.”

Paul Pope says, “I don’t want to give advice to young people. But you do not want to look back on your teenage years as your best years. You want to look back on those as your worst years.”

Young reader #5: Is Pseudonymous Bosch your real name?

Pseudonymous Bosch: Pseudonymous is an old family name. Bosch, however, I named after my toaster.

Young reader #6: What do you do for fun?

Rachel Renee Russell: I read other middle-grade readers.

Brandon Mull: Narnia turned me into a reader…. Harry Potter taught me that you could write a young protagonist and make it fun for young and old readers.

Paul Pope: I like to read artists’ journals. There’s a very different way you processed your life, then. You weren’t expected to interact via social media…. I like to talk to people.

Adult question #2: When you see fan art or kid art of your characters, I wonder if you could have a conversation about that….

Paul Pope: It’s cool…. There is kind of a rite of passage where you see people dressed as your characters because it means they really love the characters. It’s very humbling…. It’s fun to branch out and maybe not make any money, but reach an audience who has been under-served by comics.

Young reader #7 (to Brandon Mull): When you’re writing books with magic, do you have to worry about maybe magic solving it all?

Brandon Mull: [Laughs] That’s such a good question! You should become a writer! … If the magic can solve everything, then nothing matters…. So, we try to put limits on what the magic can do. Think about the consequences. Sort of like, 100 years ago, a good science fiction writer might think that we’ll have cars.  But a great science fiction writer might think that we’ll have traffic jams.

And… that’s the only panel I attended on Sunday.  Had to catch flights home!


Outlander: Photos

Outlander at Comic-Con

Starz is making a TV show of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

To promote the new television program, its sponsors had a great big castle with video clips mounted on the sides. One could walk through the edifice, too. (I didn’t.) However, I was asked to post photos; so, I am.

Outlander at Comic-Con

There was even an entire panel devoted to (promoting) the new series. It’s already on YouTube.

Here is another photo showing a front view of the ersatz castle-thingy.

Outlander at Comic-Con

There were also people (employed by the promoters of Outlander) parading through the streets, hollering. Karin took this photo:

Outlander in the streets beyond Comic-Con


Comics!

March: Book One, The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, Moomin and the Golden Tail, Moomin's Desert Island, The Timid Cabbage, Pretty in Ink, Lumberjanes, Rainy Day Recess, Tuki, Smoke Signal


Three final thoughts…

  1. Of the conferences I attend, Comic-Con is the one where I am the most anonymous. The down side, of course, is that my “signings” are, er, rather sparsely attended. The up side (or sides?) is that it’s great to wander about anonymously.  You can easily disappear into the crowd (and the crowds here are huge!). I like being able to disappear.
  2. Should I attend a future Comic-Con, I’d like to chair or participate in a panel, probably on one of the “Comic Arts Conference” sessions (this is the academic wing of Comic-Con), though would be glad to appear in other ways. (This is my second Comic-Con, and both times I was attending as an Eisner nominee.)
  3. I remain open to the idea of cosplay. If I’d had the time, I would have gotten together a Mr. O’Malley costume for this year. Two reasons. First, I think it would be a fun way to promote the Barnaby books. Second, I think it would be hilarious to dress up as a character (O’Malley) whom virtually no one at Comic-Con would recognize. When I spoke of donning the costume of Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather, Eric Reynolds joked, “People would think you were dressed as Seth!” To which I replied: “Yeah, and they’d be asking: Why does Seth now have wings?” (For those unfamiliar with Barnaby or the artist, both wear a 1940s hat and overcoat. O’Malley even wears spats.)
Crockett Johnson's Mr. O'Malley Seth

 


Comic-Con 2014:

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Comic-Con 2014: San Diego, July 26

Hello, and welcome to today’s tiny sliver of what Comic-Con is like. In each of my day’s reports, I’m giving you but one person’s glimpse into this vast enterprise, the attendance of which tends to be around 50,000 people. If you were here, your focus might be different than mine. Or if you did attend this year’s Comic-Con, I’m sure I saw things that you didn’t — and vice-versa.

I missed the earliest panels I’d planned to attend today because I was still writing up yesterday’s experience. Fortunately, today’s will be more brief….


Berkeley Breathed: The Last Comic-Con Panel!

Berkeley Breathed

To a packed room, Breathed offered a satirical presentation, addressing his correspondence with Bill Watterson, marketing, and his (possibly imagined) film projects. Breathed’s deadpan delivery kept the line between satire and truth deliberately vague, but subtle tonal shifts usually let you know when he was kidding. Usually. It was great, quick, and impossible to summarize.

The Breathed / Watterson Feud

Breathed began by saying (tongue in cheek), “My heart is heavy for my close personal friend Bill Watterson.” And so, he added, “I thought I’d take the opportunity to shoot down the rumors.” He then proceeded to invent the rumors he was going to shoot down, as well as spread some mock-scurrilous rumors about Mr. Watterson himself.

Dear Mr. Watterson

Of the documentary, Looking for Mr. Watterson, Breathed said “They never found him.  They had celebrities, Cathy Guisewite,…” and then he put up this slide which (in case it’s too blurry) is Mother Theresa wearing a Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt.

Mother Theresa (wearing Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt)

Dear Mr. Breathed,...But of course they never found Mr. Watterson himself. Berke Breathed himself was interviewed, and “was stupid enough to mention a few critical letters” that Watterson had written to him. This, Breathed suspects, may be a source of the friction between himself and Watterson. But, he assures us, “I take my business just as seriously as bill does.” And so, he said, he’d like to announce his new Kickstarter project, Dear Mr. Breathed You’re So Fucking Easy to Find! In that film, Breathed promised “to set the record straight,” and added, “I can compete with Bill’s film on every level.”

Bill the Cat, Opus, & Gainsborough's Blue Boy

Breathed showed us glimpses of his film projects, though it wasn’t entirely clear which of these were actual film projects and which were invented for the purpose of Breathed’s talk.  The films included

  • Flawed Dogs.
  • Something About C-Mo, in which a dog learns to read and spell — with Cheetos.

The big difference between Breathed and Watterson (says Breathed) is that Breathed agreed to do some merchandising, but Watterson refused.  Letters sent from Watterson to Breathed included satirical cartoons at the bottom, playfully mocking Breathed.  But, Breathed explains, “I was forced into merchandise with a gun to my head. I gave it all to… — no, I didn’t give it all to charity.”

Because he’s sure Bill Watterson wouldn’t mind, he wanted to share with us “a few selections from his new life.” Breathed stressed, “this isn’t payback.  I just have a few photos, and I don’t think he’d mind me sharing.” One photo is Watterson standing between sexy young women — though it’s clear that Watterson’s face has just been digitally added (it’s from that same black-and-white photo from Watterson’s days as an editorial cartoonist).

Breathed concludes by saying that he will be signing at the IDW booth.

Questions from audience…

Will there be reprints of Academia Waltz?

Berkeley Breathed, The Academia WaltzBreathed replies, “Yes, actually. The contract is on my desk right now.” He doesn’t really think they should be, but IDW really wants to do it.

Another audience member calls out “They [Academia Waltz strips] got me through law school at UT!”

Breathed asks, “Do you think they should be reprinted and sold?”

The same audience member responds, “Well, maybe I’m remembering them better than they were.”

Will there ever be an Opus movie?

The Opus movie, Breathed says, has been held up by Weinstein brothers. “The last note I got from Bob Weinstein said ‘Does the penguin have to talk?’” There was a collective groan from the audience.  So, Breathed said, “Will there ever be a movie? It’s a huge roll of the dice. And I’d need to have more control than I have now.”

Is there anybody right now who you’re reading?

Breathed responded, “I’m not reading the comic pages anymore.” He said, “I got into comics in a backdoor way. I didn’t come at like Bill did.” And in the Q+A Breathed spoke seriously of his admiration for Watterson, who was so dedicated to the craft of making cartoons. Unlike Watterson, “I wanted to make films,” Breathed said. Again underscoring the purity of Watterson’s dedication to his art, Breathed claimed, “Charles Schulz was the richest entertainer — bigger than Spielberg, bigger than George Lucas. Bill Watterson walked away from that kind of money. He’s a hero.  He’s doing it right.”

Questions about other publications, other forthcoming work…

Berkeley Breathed, Bloom County Volume 5Breathed says, “Everything I’ve ever drawn will be published by IDW.”  The Bloom County books did not include all of the Bloom County strips. IDW’s complete collection will include everything, which, Breathed says, is a good thing because those old strips have started to disintegrate. That’s due in part to the way he stored them — under his python’s cage. One thing pythons do a lot, he says, is pee. So, turning to the IDW representative there, he said, “that’s what those stains are. I did tell you that, right?”

He says he would not do Bloom County in the current media landscape. At the time he did it, “Bloom County was fun because I had no competition. You had Johnny Carson, you had Saturday Night Live.  And yes, you had Doonesbury, which was great. But his tone was so lofty, that it [comics] was just waiting for a smart-ass like me.”

So, we won’t see more comics from Breathed, but “I still love movies. Those are my passion. And so that’s where you’ll see me.”

Calvin says, "Come back"

Breathed concludes by saying, “I’d love some more drawings from Bill, with his drawings on the bottom, cutting me to death.”


CBLDF: Banned Comics!

Charles Brownstein, Carol Tilley,  Jeff Smith, Gene Luen Yang

Moderator Charles Brownstein led a discussion on banned books, featuring panelists Carol Tilley, Jeff Smith, and Gene Luen Yang. And, while I don’t know that there was “new” information (to people who follow these discussion), hearing the panelists on this subject was worthwhile, and these sorts of panels are vital for helping to create awareness. Indeed, if such panels aren’t held at every Comic-Con, they should be.

My sense is that the rising number of challenges to Bone may have motivated the timing of this session. As Jeff Smith said of this past year’s Banned Book list, “Fifty Shades of Gray was number 5, and I was number 10.” Smith explained, “Bone has been challenged for a number of years now, but this was just the first time it made the top 10.”

Jeff Smith, Bone Vol. 2 (Scholastic)Why? Smith said, “Bone has been challenged for sexual situations, political viewpoint, racism and violence.” Carol Tilley added, “And smoking.” To which Smith responded, “And smoking. And drinking and gambling. And racism.” Gene Luen Yang asked, “Racism? How do they get racism?” Smith responded, “I don’t know. I don’t get to talk to these people. These comics are almost like Rorschach Tests that say more about the people making the challenge than about reading the books.  I think they see their kid reading the books, and they don’t see what came before or what came after.”

Brownstein noted that “The challenges that occur in comics are along the same lines of those that occur in [non-comic] books.” So, he asked, “Why, when we have freedom of speech?” (Since I live in Kansas, where university employees do not have freedom of speech, I thought, “How nice that Mr. Brownstein lives in a place where there’s freedom of speech. I guess he must not work for a corporation that prohibits freedom of speech either.”) Tilley answered Bronstein’s question: “One of the most frequent reasons for a challenge is this vague reason called ‘inappropriate for age.’” She then paraphrased Dorothy Broderick: “It’s not just conservatives who want to censor materials. The only difference between liberals and conservatives and censorship is what they want to keep their children away from.” This is something I often tell my students when I teach about censorship — as one must do when teaching children’s literature, young adult literature, graphic novels….

Yang weighed in: “I am a parent. I have four kids. I’m really stunned that Bone is on the top 10 list. Because I’m fairly prudish. And I can’t imagine parents who are more prudish than me.” He then explained why freedom of speech is important. “First, there’s an individualism that’s at the root of America, but … reading should happen within the community, within the family.  So there should be material in there that makes people want to have a discussion.  Second, America is a collection of subcultures. And what makes that exist is freedom. So, you have to have a basic respect for freedom. So, those are the things that guide my work as a teacher, as a parent, as a creator.”

Addressing the question of audience, Smith explained, “Bone was not originally intended as a children’s book.” He just wrote it for other comics fans, really. At that time, “there were no kids reading comic books back then, pretty much.” So, “I was writing Bone as a pastiche of funny animal books and Lord of the Rings books.” For this reason, he said, “I certainly didn’t censor myself because I was writing for 30-year-olds.” The audience of Bone transformed it into a book for young people: “Readers turned Bone into a children’s book.  It was not me.” In any case, he says, he still finds it surprising that it would be a target of censors: “We used to joke that Bone could be banned some day because it’s the most squeaky-clean comic.”

Gene Luen Yang, American Born ChineseSpeaking about challenges to his work, Yang began “On the internet, I think people are just mean. When American Born Chinese came out, MySpace — remember MySpace? — chose it as the book of the month. And there was this long discussion of how American Born Chinese was racist and a manifestation of my self-hatred.”  However, these readers missed the point. “The whole point of Cousin Chin-kee was so that I could cut his head off at the end.” Yang also admitted that he abridges his own work when he reads it to his children (he has four): “When I read American Born Chinese to my kids, I only read the Monkey King parts. But my eldest, my son, snuck off and read the whole thing. But that’s OK. Because he can talk about it with me, his dad. You have to be realistic. You can’t police everything that they watch. They’re going to encounter things that are out of their comfort zone.” I found it interesting that he limits his own children’s reading (including self-editing his own work), but also seems OK when they push back against these limits and read things he’s asked them not to. Broadly speaking, it’s a metaphor for parents’ efforts to protect their children from the various danger they will surely face — well-intentioned, even necessary, but also impossible to sustain.

Charles Brownstein: I wasn’t allowed to read comic books when I was growing up, which of course is why I work in them.

Gene Luen Yang: Me too. I wasn’t either!

Underscoring the humility with which he applies rules in his own household, Yang said, “The thing with parenting is from the moment they’re born until the moment they leave your house, there’s just a constant breakdown of authority in your house.  That’s just the way it works.  That’s what they sign up for.”

Back on the subject of freedom of speech, Tilley said, “Even though it may sound a little silly, a 3-year-old and a 93-year-old have the same intellectual rights.” And that’s an excellent point, as is Dorothy Broderick’s point (quoted by Tilley) that “Libraries have something to offend everyone.” Amplifying that idea, Tilley added, “Libraries should have something to offend everyone”


Comic-Con Personified!

Chatting with Scott McCloud & Ivy Ratafia (Scott’s wife) after the “Banned Comics” panel, Ivy noticed a young woman who had made herself an entire dress out of the giant Comic-Con bags you get when you register. (Last year’s — and perhaps other years’ — also had a cape that unfurled down the back. You can see her using some of that fabric, too.) Very creative!

The front:

Comic-Con personified! (front)

 

The back:

Comic-Con personified! (back)


Spotlight on Willie Ito

In case Willie Ito’s name is unfamiliar to you, the conference program offers a useful professional biography:

With nearly 60 years as an animation artist, Comic-Con special guest Willie Ito has done it all. He worked at Disney on Lady and the Tramp‘s spaghetti scene with mentor Iwao Takamoto and on One Froggy Evening and What’s Opera Doc at Warner Bros’ famed Termite Terrace under Chuck Jones’ direction. He went on to The Beany and Cecil Show with Bob Clampett and then Hanna Barbera for the beginnings of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and many other cartoons. Ito has great stories and experiences to share. After HB he went to Disney Consumer Products and spearheaded implementation of collectibles and licensed products worldwide. He has also designed comic books, comic strips, coloring books, and more. Join animation expert Leslie Combemale of ArtInsights for a spotlight on Willie’s life, including the part of his childhood spent in a Japanese internment camp that inspired his most recent venture, a series of children’s picture books based on the experience.

Leslie Combemale and Willie Ito, a bit choked up over receiving his Inkpot Award

At the very beginning of the panel, a representative from Comic-Con presented Willie Ito with an Inkpot Award, and he was touched by the recognition.

Being at this panel was like listening to a memoir in progress. As I sat there, I kept thinking: Is someone recording this? Willie Ito needs to write his autobiography. And if he doesn’t write it, then someone else should!

Beyond the fact that he worked at pretty much every major animation studio, Ito — who is an American of Japanese descent — also lived in California during World War II.  I did not manage to transcribe everything he said, but it’s a heck of a story.

Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937 poster)Leslie Combemale began the conversation: “When you were really little, you wanted to work for Disney.” Willie Ito answered, “I grew up in San Francisco in an enclave called Japantown. … On the outskirs of Japantown was a neighborhood theatre.  This was 1939.  We made a habit of going to the movies once, maybe twice, a week.  This was before television.  I used to listen to the radio a lot — Buck Rogers, Lone Ranger, and all those classic shows.”

Ito then recalled seeing the Seven Dwarfs, singing, in color (in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs): “And I said that’s what I want to be!  Not one of the Seven Dwarves, but an animator.”

He also enjoyed comics: “I was a big fan of the Walt Disney Comics & Stories, Looney Tunes [comic books].  I was basically into funny animals.  And along with the comic books, I would get coloring books.  They used to have for a time these books called the Big Little Books, and they were reprints from the newspaper.” He said, “Every Sunday, I would go downstairs, and there was this big, thick, San Francisco Examiner.  I would go straight to the comics.”

Combemale asked, “What was the first thing you remember drawing?” Ito replied, “I remember there was a coloring book, and I remember tracing it, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s even better than Walt Disney!’ Of course, back then, I thought Walt Disney drew it all.”

Ito recalled one morning, going off to the beach, accompanied by his uncle and the woman would become his aunt. They were very focused on each other, and quite happy to let him play on the beach on his own. Later that afternoon, the fog rolled in, and they decided to call it a day. As they approached the city limits, they saw that a checkpoint had been set up. They didn’t know why. Officers were asking for proof that people entering the city of San Francisco actually lived in San Francisco. Finally, Ito recalled, “we got into the city, and then we saw the headlines: WAR! I never knew what war meant.  So, I asked my Uncle ‘What does “war” mean?’ Pearl Harbor had been attacked.”

Executive Order 9066At that point, “rumors immediately started swirling around about what our fate would be.  Finally, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Order 9066.  We were going to be evacuated into internment camps, in 6 months. You couldn’t take everything with you — only what you need.”

Combemale, alluding to Nazi Germany said, “That sounds like somewhere else, at the same time.”

Ito replied, “Mmm-hmm.  My first thought was ‘I can’t take my comic book collection!’” He realized, too, that he would have to leave behind his Dopey bank — that is, a piggy-bank featuring the likeness of Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Another memory from that time: “I remember coming home one day and there were FBI agents there, looking for anything that might be considered contraband.  They were tall, 6-footers.” Ito explains, “One of the crazy things they did was confiscate the lawn-mowers because the Japanese gardeners are going to mow arrows” that would point Japanese pilots towards key targets. He chuckled as he said this — indeed, describing the bigotry he faced, he often chuckled. I was struck by his ability to speak of these events without any apparent malice. I expect that, had this happened to me, I would have been bitter. Perhaps he was bitter at one point, and learned to let go of bitterness?

Describing the internment camps themselves, Ito said, “They put us up in stables.  They didn’t really have time to build barracks.  For the first, early arrivals, we were literally in horse stables.  So, the internees would come, and this was where they stayed.” When they arrived, the internees asked, “Where are the mattresses?”  The guards said, “You see those white bags?” Ito explained that there were “stacks of white bags.” So, the guards said, “Fill them up with hay.” (They were, literally living in stables.)  So, Ito says, “if you had allergies….”

Combemale asked, “How long were you there?” Ito said that they were in the stables for six months before they moved into the barracks. He added, again with wryness (rather than bitterness), “We were considered a security risk to the government, because we could signal to the Japanese ships or something.”

The story was riveting, and would, as I say, make for a great memoir or film. On the experience of being in the camps themselves, Ito said, “The rumor in our communities was ‘What’s going to happen if Japan wins the war or the U.S. wins the war?  We’re just going to be lined up and executed.’” Again, he was able to speak of this calmly, without bitterness towards his captors.

Combemale asked, “Did it keep you sane to be doing drawings while you were there?” Ito didn’t have paper, but they did have Sears catalogues from which they would order what they needed. So, Ito told us, “I would take the expired catalogues, and draw on the margins.” Ever the aspiring animator, Ito made flipbooks in the margins of the Sears catalogue.

To conclude the internment narrative, Ito reports that when he got back to his house after the war, his Dopey bank was still there!

What was really wonderful about this conversation is that Combemale had the judgment to simply let Ito talk, recount his experience. She’s an excellent listener — an ideal quality for an interviewer to have.

What's Opera, Doc?Combemale: You were also in Chuck Jones’s unit on What’s Opera, Doc? You said he was an interesting person to work with.

Willie Ito: I admired him from afar. One time, we were watching a pencil test, and, at the end, I sort of blurted out, “Charles M. Jones, Super-Genius.” And Chuck sort of looked at me like “… hmmmm….”

Ito recalls another moment when he was watching a cartoon with Jones: “I would be watching a Friz Freling cartoon, laughing with tears rolling down my face.  And Chuck Jones would be looking at me, glaring.”

Ito was hired by Walt Disney Productions for the “Lady” unit (i.e., the unit working on Lady and the Tramp).  He “reported to Milt Kahl — one of the 9 Old Men! And Iwao Takamoto was there!” And I didn’t manage to capture the full history of Ito’s working career — at a certain point, I was just listening and not taking notes. (Sorry!)

Ito worked a year at Bob Clampett. He said, “I want you to design all my characters– and they were all puppets.” This was a great opportunity for Ito because “I got to work in design, layout, etc.  So, after that, going to Hanna Barbera, I felt like a veteran. I could do it all!”

A Boy of Heart MountainIto would go on to spend 14 years at Hanna Barbera. At the time he went, he told Chuck Jones that he was going to take that job. Jones advised him against it because it was television, and those studios wouldn’t last. He said that staying at Warner Brothers would provide steady work because they would always be making these cartoon shorts. Yet, Ito recalled, “while I was there [at Hanna Barbera], Warner Bros. closed down!”

The panel did not get to cover as much of Ito’s career, but the focus on his earlier life was riveting. If you’re interested in learning more about it, Ito has a book called A Boy of Heart Mountain, which “educates children about sending an entire group of people to camps, for a while.”


Spotlight on Jeff Smith

Tom Spurgeon & Jeff Smith

As the program says, “Comic-Con special guest Jeff Smith discusses his foray into the world of online comics with his new title TUKI: Save the Humans, as well as the 10th anniversary of Scholastic’s color version of Bone. Moderated by Tom Spurgeon (The Comics Reporter).”

Jeff Smith, Bone Vol. 1 (Scholastic)Tom Spurgeon did a great job of moderating this discussion with Jeff Smith, which began with the announcement of a new edition of Bone Vol. 1, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Scholastic Graphix. It’s a new special edition with, as Smith says, “eight new pages, including the rat creatures’ ode to quiche.  And other drawings from scholastic artists.  It comes out in Spring of 2015.  That’s just the first step of the rollout of things we’re doing next year.”

Tom Spurgeon: Doing the whole series over again?

Jeff Smith: No, just the first volume.

Tom Spurgeon: Do you think in terms of legacy formats at this point?

Jeff Smith: Yes. IDW now wants to do a legacy edition of all nine books. I’m like really? At 100 bucks a pop? Oh, all right. [Laughs.] No, I’m not going to do that.  At first, I thought they wanted me to add a new section to it.  And I thought maybe I could add a scene during winter?  I realized that I couldn’t get my mind back into that space.  And the book was done.  I shouldn’t do any more to it.

(A note on my reporting. I’m capturing the contours of the conversation, but not every last word. So, what you see is as close to a direct quotation as I was able to transcribe, but it’s not the same as, say, reading the transcription of a recorded event.)

Jeff Smith, RASLI liked Smith’s practical approach to what he’s known for. Rather than (as some artists might) chafe under being known primarily for Bone, he said, “Bone is going to be — I’m never going to get out from under that shadow. So, I think I need to enjoy that.  Whereever I go, I’m the Bone guy.  I’m Jeff ‘Bone’ Smith.” And you could see that he does enjoy it. After the panel, for example, he kindly consented to a photo with a fan and her Fone Bone plush doll.  The Cartoon Books booth had plush dolls of all three Bones — as well as his copies of Bone, and newer works, such as RASL, and the first issue of TUKI.

Acknowledging the difference between these three projects, Smith said, “I wanted to get TUKI going while RASL was underway, so that people could see that all three had the same strand of DNA running through them.”  Smith spoke of enjoying drawing TUKI after RASL.

Jeff Smith: I don’t have draw buildings and cars, as in RASL. I can draw streams and mountains, which is much more natural to me.  With Bone, I had an Encylopedia Britannica, a leather-bound set. I did all of Bone with Encyclopedia Britannica.  When I was doing Shazam, I would go to the public library and get books out on New York City. That was the last time I went to the library.

Tom Spurgeon: There’s a moral there, but it’s an uncomfortable one.

He’s also enjoying TUKI because, as he says, “I did want to do humor again.  There was not much humor in my noir [RASL].”

Jeff Smith, page from TUKI

Indulging us comics nerds in the audience, Spurgeon and Smith had a conversation about how Smith designs a page.  How does he know to put those three inset boxes, of varying sizes, at those specific places on the page?  How does he do his layouts?  Smith responded, “I experimented with it, did several versions.”  Presumably, people read the top left panel first (because we read from left to right), but, Smith explained, “I put the flower and the bird up there to keep your eye up there.” The idea is that Tuki is hunting, and he sees the one animal that has strayed from the herd (in the middle panel).

Looking at Tuki, Spurgeon said, “You’re one of our great character designers,” and noted Smith’s many distinct characters — Fone Bone, Thorn, the rat creatures, Gran’ma Ben, Rasl, and now Tuki — who, in Smith’s new graphic novel, is the first human. “What is it you look for in a character?”  Describing Tuki, Smith said, “I worked with him for a while. He’s African, so he’s going to be black. He’s also not human. He’s Homo Erectus,” which (as I understand it) is the phase in evolution just before Homo Sapiens.

Tom Spurgeon: Are you drawing sketches?

Jeff Smith: There are a few pages in my files: What does Tuki look like? They didn’t have clothes, then. So, what do you do? They didn’t wear loincloths. I realized that our ancestors did carry things with them…. So, that allowed me to create something to cover up his junk. [Laughs]

Tom Spurgeon: How precious are you with your tools?

Jeff Smith: [Joking] Excuse me?

Tom Spurgeon: ToolS.

Jeff Smith, Tuki (comic #1)Smith also talked about his research for the character, noting, “Some people think Homo Erectus couldn’t talk, but until Homo Erectus there was no voice box. So… it’s debatable.”  On his artistic style for this work, he noted that “RASL had some kind of Jack Kirby faces,” whereas TUKI “is going to be more Sergio Aragones.”

Tom Spurgeon: How is it to be an influential cartoonist?

Jeff Smith: Well, it’s very flattering. I like it.

Tom Spurgeon: As I recall, you didn’t expect it.

Jeff Smith: No, no one expects it…  I guess, in a way, I feel like it’s kind of a stage you reach.

Smith also talked about, in Bone‘s early issues, hiding the fact that Bone was a fantasy, because he figured that if he was clear that it was, then that would be the end. No one would read it. So, instead, he spent the first third of the book inviting readers to get to know the characters, and like the characters, so that when he revealed that it was fantasy, they’d stick with it. But he eventually had to admit that it was fantasy: “There was a certain point where I couldn’t hide it any more. I had to come out. I had to come out of the closet!” [Laughs]


The Highlight of My Day — and my Comic-Con

After the panel, I introduced myself to Jeff Smith, and we walked down to his booth. I explained that I was the guy who co-wrote that article on Bone and Moby-Dick (for which he kindly supplied images), and that I’m working on Barnaby for Fantagraphics with Eric. He said, “Oh! You’re Phil!” And he said that he really loved the article — that it was great, that we really got it (Bone). This made my day. He went on to say that this article was one reason he agreed to write a foreword for the third Barnaby book — and that he’d just been talking to Eric about this.  This made my day again. And my Comic-Con.

Jeff Smith, from Bone Volume 3

It’s also an example of the unpredictability of what you write. My friend Jennifer Hughes and I wrote this article because we thought it would be fun to co-write an article, and I thought it’d be fun to re-read Moby-Dick, fun to re-read Bone, and I’d always wanted to write something on Bone.  It’s not part of a larger project for either of us.  It was just fun to do.  So.  Thanks, Jennifer!  And thanks, Jeff!

Note: nearly all photos from the Berkeley Breathed event are courtesy of Karin Westman.

Comic-Con 2014:

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Comic-Con 2014: San Diego, July 25

And… my third report from Comic-Con!  (A little later than I’d planned because I didn’t get back from the Eisners until around 11 that night… and I’ve gotta sleep, too, ya know!)

Strange Currencies

Barnaby Volumes One and Two, at Comic-Con!

While doing my morning “signing” at the Fantagraphics display, I had an interesting conversation with a woman passing by the booth (her name escapes me, though I believe that I have met her before).  We were talking about the crazy-long lines of fans, queueing up to get free goodies or cheap(er) limited-edition items.  I expressed my bafflement at the long line of folks waiting for a free Lego figurine (I assume) on Wednesday evening. She said, yes, they’ll have a limited-edition Lego figurine, and people will then sell that on eBay for $80.  Some people even take pre-orders.  She told me that last year, her son bought a special-edition something (I forget what) for $300, turned around and sold it for $600.

As the half-dozen homeless people I pass on my way to and from Comic-Con remind me, it’s hard to get by in America.  I’m not sure how much these Comic-Con entrepreneurs depend upon this income, and it certainly doesn’t appeal to me as a vocation / avocation. But, well, these folks have found a way to shave off a little from the entertainment industrial complex.  And that’s something, isn’t it?


Program Line Crossing

From the “signing,” it was off to the Eisner panel! Almost. Got held up during a program line crossing. For the panels with masses of people lining up to get in, the lines snake up and down, around the building, and on and on.  So,… when they finally get to enter, that’s a long line of traffic. Comic-Con volunteers act as traffic cops, and ask us to wait while the maddening crowds pass us by.

Program Line Crossing


Will Eisner, Teacher and Mentor

Paul Levitz, Joe Quesada, Batton Lash, Drew Friedman, Mike Carlin

Missed the first ten minutes of this, but what I heard of it was great — lots of anecdotes and insights, expertly moderated by Paul Levitz.  The program’s panel description gives you a good idea of what to expect and (in this case) what the panelists delivered:

For a magic moment, New York City’s School of Visual Arts had Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Art Spiegelman all teaching classes on comics. Hear stories about those classes from students Joe Quesada (Marvel Entertainment), Drew Friedman (Heroes of the Comics), Batton Lash (Supernatural Law), Mike Carlin (DC Entertainment), and a surprise guest. Plus a not-to-be missed discussion about Will Eisner’s other educational efforts. Moderated by Paul Levitz, who is writing Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel for release next year by Abrams ComicArts.

Drew Friedman observed that there should be a book about teaching in that period — when Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Art Spiegelman were teaching. (I agree!)

Paul Levitz said, “Jack Kirby could start a drawing anywhere. You could say ‘Draw Captain America, but begin with his elbow.’”  Either he or one of the other panelists said it was as if Kirby had the whole thing in his head and could just start anywhere.

Joe Quesada told us “Watching a professional work can be a mind-altering experience.” He also confided, “I did not go to SVA to be a cartoonist.  I went to be an illustrator.  I wanted to be Norman Rockwell.”

The panelists had a lot to say about how what they learned from these great teachers.

Mike Carlin, for example, learned what not to do: “The way Harvey [Kurtzman] did it was 16 drawings of the same thing over and over again. That taught me never to work that way, or to encourage anyone else to work that way.”

Paul Levitz: Let’s talk about Will, and about the business of being an artist.

Drew Friedman: He was very particular about the artist being in charge of his own fate.  … All three of those guys — — were very particular about the artist being in charge…. Will used to say “Always draw the balloons first.”  I never do that.  I always draw them last.

Batton Lash: Will didn’t like bridges between word balloons.  And then, in Harvey’s class, “You know, you could connect these balloons.”

Mike Carlin: Did Will and Harvey ever hang out?

Batton: Once we invited them out, and they came and that was the only time I saw them together — and [they were] bombed.

Mike Carlin recalled these teachers bringing in guest stars, like R. Crumb. And Terry Gilliam.

Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential ArtBatton Lash remembered an incident, when one of the guest-speakers in Will Eisner’s class said that the comics industry was dying. It was 1973, there was an energy crisis, a paper shortage — if you look at comics from that era, they’re printed on cheap tissue paper, etc.  After the guest speaker left, Eisner said, “I’ve seen the comics industry die 3 times already.” And then he launched into a pep talk.  In fact, Lash says, “the last time I saw Will, he was on one of these industry panels, and he said, ‘I’ve seen the industry die 5 times already.’”

Joe Quesada said that he isn’t nostalgic for Comic-Cons of yore. Says it’s a good time to be in comics. Mike Carlin adds, “20 years ago, this is what we wanted. We wanted our work to be taken seriously. And now it is.”

Paul Levitz asks Drew Friedman about his work, his focus on the past — new book is on old cartoonists. Friedman answers: “I just like drawing old Jews.” (Befitting the man who wrote Old Jewish Comedians, Friedman is great with the one-liners.)

Will Eisner, A Contract with God (1978)Paul Levitz observed: “He [Will Eisner] was one of a few artists who had a philosophy about what he was doing.” And “His art was about storytelling. And whatever the media was to do it, he would do it.” In other words, Eisner wouldn’t be intimidated by different technologies.

And, here’s one final exchange between Mike Carlin and Drew Friedman…

Mike Carlin: Contract with God came out when we were in school there. I remember because he brought them in and sold them to us.

Drew Friedman: He gave me mine.


Moving Forward by Looking Back: This Is the Golden Age of Comics Collections

Moving_Forward_title_slide_web

President of IDW Publishing Greg Goldstein organized this panel, featuring Dean Mullaney (representing the IDW imprint Library of American Comics), Scott Dunbier (IDW’s senior editor of special projects), and other publishers who are not part of IDW: Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, my co-editor on the Barnaby series), Peter Maresca (Sunday Press), Michael Martens (VP of book trade sales at Dark Horse Comics), and Craig Yoe (Yoe Books).  Here is everyone, in the order mentioned above.

Greg Goldstein, Dean Mullaney, Scott Dunbier, Eric Reynolds, Peter Maresca, Michael Martens, and Craig Yoe

After spending 10 minutes introducing people, Greg Goldstein asked the panelists how they got into the reprint business.  People addressed that question, including the benefits of modern technology.  As Dean Mullaney said of using Photoshop (versus how they used to do reprints), “We can do so much more and better work.” Comics were poorly printed, the colors were off-register — and now you can fix this.

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952Goldstein noted that Fantagraphics’ decision to publish the Complete Peanuts is a lifetime commitment. Eric Reynolds said that “The idea for the Complete Peanuts had been floating around for a while….. We’d done other reprints — Pogo, Prince Valiant…. And Peanuts was always the holy grail.”  This is what got the ball rolling: “Gary Groth got to interview Schulz for The Comics Journal.  So Gary got to go down to Santa Rosa, to interview him.  After that, they maintained a friendly correspondence.  And Gary asked him.”

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts 1953-1954According to Eric, Schulz’s sincere reaction was: “Who would want to read that?” And after that, “he was resistant — because he was a very humble guy.  Anyway, Gary could be persuasive and persistent, and after a short time, Schulz gave his blesssing. He said you have to cut through the red tape, but you can do it. Then, however, Schulz died.  Jeannie Schulz stepped in, said “I’ll help you.  I’ll make this happen.” She said “I’ll push this through,” and the rest is history.

Greg Goldstein asked Michael Martens about “volume fatigue.”  Martens said that you do see the sales dropping off as you get into higher numbers of a volume. But he has seen more acceptance of these projects. In terms of the decision to publish a series, he said, “Internally, a lot of our conversations were: ‘How do we make people want the book? How do we make them want the object?’ Essentially, the book as a fetish object.”

Craig Yoe actually doesn’t want to clean up the old strips. As he said, “I heard some talk this morning about the old comics were poorly printed and off-register. And… you say that like it’s a bad thing? … I like that look.”

Geo. Herriman, Baron Bean

As the discussion unfolded, some of the reprints scrolled by on the PowerPoint, including:

  • Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume One (hurrah!)
  • Walt Kelly’s PogoGustave Verbeek's Upside-Down World
  • Gustave Verbeek’s Upside-Down World
  • George Herriman’s Baron Bean
  • Mad Archives Vol. 1
  • E.C. Segar’s Popeye
  • Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo: So Many Splendid Sundays!

Eric Reynolds noted that “Reprints are very expensive, and the profit margins are often very small — even more so than the first one… It’s all about managing your list.”

Michael Martens spoke of wanting to do a reprint of Lassie strips, and proposal getting shut down. Craig Yoe noted, “We all have our Lassies.”

Goldstein summed it up nicely when he said, “With these reprints, the goal is not to make a lot of money. The goal is not to lose money.”

Great question from audience for Peter Maresca, whose Sunday Press has reprinted Little Nemo in the exact size it was originally printed. Audience member asked: “Where are you supposed to put your books? They don’t fit on any bookshelf.”

Maresca’s answer: “Slide them under the sofa. Bring them out every Sunday, and read them.”


CBLDF: Dr. Wertham’s War on Comics

In a dynamic, well-illustrated presentation, Carol Tilley showed us the most absurd and most damning facts about Fredric Wertham’s anti-comics crusade. Specifically, Wertham faked his facts. He falsified his “evidence,” and twisted the stories of his subjects. In so doing, he not only made flawed arguments but lacked the professional ethics required of a researcher.

She began with a letter to Dr. Wertham from a child — Lynn Crawford of Atlanta, Georgia. Ms. Crawford wrote, “Those children you spoke of were delinquent before they ever read a comic book. I have 25 friends and we all read the same kinds of comic books, and they won’t make us delinquent.”

Wertham Seduction! (slide from Carol Tilley's presentation)

Another slide from Carol Tilley's presentation

Here are some of the comics Wertham didn’t like:

Some comics Wertham didn't like.

Wertham, Tilley told us, made up and misconstrued some of his evidence against comics.  He altered kids’ words or knitted together their words in different ways.  He altered key details about the children, too.

Vivian was 13, not 12. She was African-American. Her report card was excellent. We learn that her mother was actually her stepmother, and had revoked Vivian’s allowance. In fact, her mother confirmed that Vivian was more enthralled by television. In the slide below, Tilley shows some of the bits that Wertham invented — those parts are in red and struck through.

Another slide from Carol Tilley's talk.

A few more interesting facts:

  • Published April 1954, Seduction of the Innocent sold more than 16,000 copies within a few months of its publication.
  • During the period of Wertham, sales of comic books outstripped slaes of children’s books from 5 to 1.
  • In the 1950s there were more people reading comics than people playing video games today.
  • The code, however, led to fewer kids reading comics, fewer comics readers.  It also, of course, made underground comics possible — though, Tilley cautioned, “that’s me, trying to find the silver lining.”
  • Speaking of silver linings, Tilley quoted Carl Barks alleging this: “I believe that the infamous book by Dr. Wertham is what saved comics from senseless horror.” Tilley doesn’t concur, exactly. Nor do I. But it is an interesting (if not entirely persuasive) counter-argument, I suppose.

Anyway, ’twas a panel well-worth attending. If you’re looking for a speaker on this subject, invite Professor Tilley!


LGBT Comics for Young Readers

“We want to break down that line that says ‘gay equals adult.’”

— J.P. [Jade Prince]

P. Kristen Enos (Active Voice, Creatures of Grace), J.P. [Jade Prince] & Dusty Jack (Mahou Shounen Fight!), Grace Ellis (Lumberjanes), Brian Andersen (So Super Duper), Elizabeth Watasin (Charm School), Robert Paul (Little Rainbow Comics), Charles "Zan" Christensen (Northwest Press, The Power Within), Dan Parent (Kevin Keller, Archie Comics)

The panelists (L to R): P. Kristen Enos (Active Voice, Creatures of Grace), J.P. [Jade Prince] & Dusty Jack (Mahou Shounen Fight!), Grace Ellis (Lumberjanes), Brian Andersen (So Super Duper), Elizabeth Watasin (Charm School), Robert Paul (Little Rainbow Comics), Charles “Zan” Christensen (Northwest Press, The Power Within), Dan Parent (Kevin Keller, Archie Comics).

I attended this panel because as an educator, I want to be able to introduce my Children’s Literature students to good LGBT fiction. This panel offered a fantastic resource because, well, to quote from the panel description, “Comics today present an amazing range of stories and characters, including more LGBT stories and characters than ever before. Since comics appeal to young and old alike, how do creators use the medium to present LGBT content and characters for younger audiences? What comics are out there for teens and younger readers? How can parents, librarians, and educators introduce such books to young people?”

J.P. summed up the point of this panel when, addressing the shared subject of writing LGBTQ-friendly comics for young readers she said: “We want to break down that line that says ‘gay equals adult.’”  That’s exactly it.

Mahou Shounen Fight!, Chapter OneJ.P. & Dusty’s Mahou Shounen Fight!  Dusty describes this as “doing a version of the magical girl genre (Sailor Moon) but with boys.” J.P. adds, that they “Started the comic to play with expectations. As it evolved, so did the characters, and none are 100% percent heteroseuxal.” Dusty again: “We wanted to create a story that had a rainbow in terms of representation, in every sense of the word — gender, gender expression, sexuality, race, ethnicity. So young people can see themselves in it, no matter who they are.”

Series is on the web, but issues are also available for purchase.

The LumberjanesGrace Ellis’ Lumberjanes (Boom Comics) is about 5 best-friend female characters, 2 of whom are in a relationship. As she puts it, “It’s a story about friends. It’s a story about bad-ass girls.” In one of the issues, the girls visit the boys camp, the head counselor of which is “a physical manifestation of the patriarchy” — but his point of view is presented as unappealing. The boys at this camp are more into baking cookies and hanging out indoors, and the girls (the Lumberjanes) go out and fight monsters. As Ellis says, “If the Lumberjanes are super bad-ass in a traditionally masculine way, the guys are bad-ass in a traditionally feminine way.”  You can buy it from Boom Comics.

Brian Andersen’s So Super Duper and Rainbow & Diva.  The premise of Andersen’s work is that his protagonists are gay, readers know this, but protagonists do not. Discussing Rainbow & Diva (about a spy duo), he said that instead of super-hetero guy who beats people up, “I wanted a super-flamey gay guy who also beats people up.”

Elizabeth Watasin’s Charm School is one of the only titles at this panel that I actually knew.  I have the first issue of this.  I wondered if it continued, but was busy & never had a chance to follow up on it. What’s it about? Watasin compares Charm School to an Archie comic, explaining that it’s “a very fun love triangle set in Little Salem, with vampires and hot rods and malt shops.”

Robert Paul’s Little Rainbow Comics is about 1st-graders who are more articulate than 1st-graders, but are still children. He invokes Stewie on Family Guy as a point of comparison. Since I’m not much of a Seth McFarland fan, I would invoke Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes. The comic is on the web and available as a book.

David Kelly, Rainy Day RecessDavid Kelly’s Rainy Day Recess. Kelly himself wasn’t on the panel, but Northwest Press publisher Zan Christensen was. I picked up a copy at the Prism Booth. Here’s a blurb (on the back cover) from Alison Bechdel: “David Kelly captures the solitude and magic of queer childhood with an eerie realness. The detritus of seventies pop culture that generously litters his panels adds deliciously to the bittersweet mood.”  The book collects Kelly’s strips from 1995 to 1998.

Zan Christiansen’s The Power Within started as a 24-hour comic-book-day comic, back in the fall of 2010 with all the gay suicide attempts, and suicides. As Christensen says, “All we could think about is how do we make kids feel better? How do we help them?” You can get the book here.

Dan Parent’s Kevin Keller stories.  Parent, who has has been with Archie comics for 27 years, created Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in Archie.  Parent talked about George Takei’s celebrity cameo — or, really, storyline in one Kevin Keller narrative.  Takei grew up reading Archie comics when he was in an internment camp.


Pogo: A Celebration of Walt Kelly’s 101st Birthday

Mark Evanier, Carolyn Kelly, Leonard Maltin, Maggie Thompson, Jeff Smith's empty chair, David Silverman, Willie Ito

Moderator Mark Evanier (Groo the Wanderer) said that they had such a good time celebrating Walt Kelly’s 100th birthday last year that they wanted do it again. Indeed, “If they keep letting us do this, we’ll do Walt Kelly’s 102nd birthday, 103rd birthday, 104th birthday… until he comes back.”

Spotting Willie Ito in the audience, Evanier invited him up to join the panel — Ito drew Pogo in Walt’s later years when his health was failing. So, above, you see (left to right): Mark Evanier, Carolyn Kelly (co-editor of the Complete Pogo series and Walt’s daughter), Leonard Maltin (the film critic), Maggie Thompson (Comics Buyer’s Guide), Jeff Smith’s empty chair, David Silverman (The Simpsons), and Ito.

Discussing Pogo‘s influence on him David Silverman said, “I was drawing since I was 4. My father read us Pogo. So, at 5 years old, he’s reading me Pogo. And I’m not really understanding a lot of it.  But I really took to the style of it, and the drawing. It made me want to become a cartoonist.” If his parents had hoped he wouldn’t become a cartoonist, they shouldn’t have read him Pogo.

Jeff Smith arrives!

Mark Evanier, Carolyn Kelly, Leonard Maltin, Maggie Thompson, Jeff Smith, David Silverman, Willie Ito

Willie Ito spoke of working on Pogo:

Walt took ill and was unable to complete his commitment. So, Walt figured that Don Morgan is the only one capable of following through. But then Don came to me, and said I just promised my son Ethan we’re going to go off to the woods for a vacation, and I can’t break his heart. So, can you help me out? So, can you help me out with two weeks of days?

Ito thought he’d have to use a brush, as Walt did — but he didn’t have time to practice with a brush.  So, he used his Pentel pen, instead.  So, Ito continues, “And I thought I did a passable job. And I guess Don was able to pass it off. But a few years later, I learned that Shelby was really annoyed, and said ‘It looks like it was done by some Japanese artist in Japan.’ And I said, ‘Well, she’s half-right.’”

Silverman says he “Learned how to create subtlety of expressions from Kelly.”  At one point, Jeff Smith said he loved “the brushwork when Kelly flubs it” — and he mimed a hasty scribble with his hand here — “and still makes it look good.”

Smith also recalled the first time he saw Kelly’s work: “I encountered Walt Kelly on a playground because some little girl gave me a copy of of [Pogo in] Pandemonium. It was very fantasy-based. When I look back on it, I realize that’s why Bone veers off in that direction. Every time I think I’m getting this comic book game down, and then I look at Pogo and start banging my head….’

Silverman said that “Thanks to Walt Kelly, I always thought ‘Weehawken’ was an exclamation of joy, and not a city in New Jersey… I keep trying to edit the Wikipedia page, and they won’t let me….”

Maggie Thompson told the story of Kelly’s plans for a sci-fi strip that would be satirical.  But the Korean War broke out, and the syndicate said just keep it funny — no other commentary.  So, as a result, this political commentary comes into the Pogo strips instead.

Near the end of the panel, they invited Eric Reynolds up to join them because he had a dummy of the next Pogo volume.

 Eric Reynolds, Carolyn Kelly, Leonard Maltin


Lou Ferrigno

And, just because, here is Lou Ferrigno, who played the Incredible Hulk on the TV series (1978-1982).

Lou Ferrigno


Eisner Awards

Attended my second Eisner Awards because I was again a nominee this year.

And, yes, I also tweeted a little while I was there.

Matthew Inman won “Best Digital Comic” for The Oatmeal.

Faith Erin Hicks won “Best Publication for Kids” for The Adventures of Superhero Girl. She was so moved by having won the award that she teared up a bit as she was thanking people. It was very sweet. I love this book. And, for the record, the other books in this category (well, the ones I know, anyway) are great: Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Bird Parade, and Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane the Fox and Me.

“Best Scholarly/Academic Work” (the category in which I was nominated and lost last year) went to Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II’s Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, which — incidentally — is the only one of the nominated books that I actually have a copy of. (Yes, I need to get some of the others, I know….)

And… the category we’ve all been waiting for… “Best Archival Collection/Project — Comic Strips”… goes to…

Ah, well.  To be honest, I had no idea how to even weigh the odds (I mean, apart from the fact that Eric Reynolds and I had a 1 in 6 chance for Barnaby — since there were five other nominees). But, as Charlie Brown says (after yet another catastrophically bad season in little league), “Just wait until next year!” No, no — I’m kidding. Truly, it’s nice just to be nominated. Also, I think “two-time Eisner loser” is a funnier accolade. Unless you’re Jaime Hernandez, who after I-have-no-idea-how-many-times of being nominated and losing finally won!!! Which is awesome.

Jaime Hernandez wins Eisner

Gilbert Hernandez won tonight, too.  This is great news!

Gilbert Hernandez wins Eisner for "Untitled" (in Love and Rockets New Stories #6)

Jeff Smith won his 12th Eisner.  OK, it might not be 12th.  It might be more.  (I’m not sure how many Eisners he’s won, but it’s an impressive number!)  This year, he won for RASL.  Also, and I don’t think this can be said often enough: Jeff Smith is such a nice guy. (His success has not gone to his head!)

Jeff Smith wins Eisner Award for RASL


Goodnight, fans everywhere.

Fans camp out at Comic-Con. No, I don't know what special event they're hoping to get in to.

Goodnight, lines. Goodnight, crowds.  Goodnight, fans sleeping on the sidewalk.


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