Archive for November, 2012

A Brief Inquiry Into the Paradoxes of Academic Achievement

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)When I started writing what was then a biography of Crockett Johnson (back in the late 1990s), I thought: When I finish this, I really will have achieved something. Even as I wrote other books, I continued to think of the biography — which became a double biography of Johnson and Krauss — as The Big Achievement. Sure, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (my third book, published 2004) was OK, and, yes, the media attention it received was certainly flattering. But the biography would be the Truly Important Work.

So, you might (or might not) be asking: (1) Why make this distinction between the biography and my other work? (2) Do I still make this distinction? (3) And, now that the biography is published, does it feel as “Truly Important” as I thought it would?

1. Why make this distinction?

The degree of original research required far surpassed that needed for my other books. I interviewed over 80 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books. I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, and Johnson’s FBI file. If I hadn’t gathered (some of) this information, it would be lost forever. Coping with the mortality of one’s sources is a big challenge for the biographer. Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), Mary Elting Folsom (author who knew Johnson in the 1930s), Gene Searchinger (filmmaker who knew them both), and so many others taught me much about Johnson and Krauss. They have since passed away. If I hadn’t recorded their stories, that information would be gone.

The biography has been more challenging than any other project I’ve tackled, bar none. As I’ve observed before (probably on this blog, and certainly in the talk I gave last month at the New York Public Library), a biography is a jigsaw puzzle, but this puzzle has no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you’ll need. There are also the challenges of creating character, knowing which details to omit, and finding a narrative structure. Life has no narrative, but biography has to have a narrative. I have no training in creative writing, but — for this book — I had to try to think like a creative writer.

In sum, there are reasons that a biography takes so long to write….

2. Do I still make this distinction?

Dr. Seuss: American IconSort of. The distinction reflects a tendency to devalue the discipline in which I was trained — the sense that Dr. Seuss: American Icon, though it does draw on considerable original research, is ultimately “just interpreting texts.” In contrast, rigorous historical research, actually uncovering new information, is much more important work. But I say “sort of” because of course there are truly insightful ways of interpreting texts, illuminating formal strategies, transformative critical approaches — Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is one such book. It’s a paradigm-shifter. As I’ve noted before, I don’t have the kind of mind that writes a paradigm-shifting book.

My strength is that I work hard. A biography plays to that particular strength — and perhaps this is one reason that it interests me. It interests me for other reasons, too (the “detective work” part, for example). But it is one intellectual arena where I can do something well: work really hard. Superior intelligence may elude me, but I can put in the hours! So, in some ways I still make the distinction (the amount of research, the box-less puzzle, etc.), but in other ways I do not.

3. Now that it’s published, does it feel like such a Big Achievement?

The response (mostly positive) has been a good feeling. In addition to nice reviews from Anita Silvey, Roger Sutton, Maria Tatar, Kirkus, and the Wall Street Journal, other Notable People Whose Work I Admire have been very complimentary. With apologies for the name-dropping, those people include Chris Ware (who also created the beautiful cover), Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, Lane Smith, Susan Hirschman, George Nicholson, and Michael Patrick Hearn. Given that Maurice Sendak even responded positively to an early, detail-clogged, incomplete draft, it is of course possible that these folks are simply being kind, and forgiving the book’s many infelicities (as I expect Maurice was). But I’m accepting their kind assessments as genuine because, well, it makes me happy to do so!

That said, as I’ve documented on this blog, the editing process was not entirely harmonious. Some cuts were good ones; others were not. My copy-editor was an historian by training; I needed a writer of fiction. My changes to her edits resulted in some errors, including (as one audience member pointed out at the NYPL last month) a typo in the first sentence. The press refused to change some errors I found in the page proofs (though it did change others). The paperback is priced not at $27, as I had originally been told it would be, but at $40 — this makes it harder to schedule signings because who buys a $40 paperback? These problems make me not want to think about the book at all.

I realize that I should let this go. Publishers introduce errors into manuscripts. Bureaucracies do not always function smoothly. Humans are prone to error, fatigue, and failures of judgment.

Fortunately, despite my irritations, the book does feel like an achievement. Given how long it took to write (I started in 1999), it is thus far my life’s work. It is a big deal.

But there is little time to dwell upon one’s achievements. There are new projects (such as The Complete Barnaby, volume 1 of which is due out early next year), tenure-and-promotion letters to write, letters of recommendation to write, (other people’s) book proposals to review and manuscript to edit, (my) conference abstracts to create and talks to write, planes to catch, meetings to attend, syllabi to revise, syllabi to invent, papers to grade, classes to teach, students to meet. Being an academic is a great job, the work is rewarding, and I feel privileged to do it — even though I rarely have the time to notice those rewards or recognize that privilege. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a professor.

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Teaching Building Stories

Chris Ware's Building Stories (2012). Photo by Alan Trotter.As one of the first people to teach Chris Ware’s Building Stories (which just came out last month), I thought I would share what I’m planning. Given the loud and enthusiastic acclaim that has greeted Building Stories, I expect that others will also teach the work.  (To the best of my knowledge, the only other person teaching Building Stories this term is Dave Ball.)  As serious readers of comics and graphic novels already know, Building Stories is a box containing fourteen textual objects — book, booklets, magazines, newspapers, Little-Golden-Book-designed book, small folded strips, board game, and the box itself (which resembles the box to a board game).

This poses some challenges.  Since these items can be read in any order, where do you begin?  Should you impose an order at all?  For practical reasons, I have imposed an order.  I’ve told students that they can read this work in any order they like, but we have a specific order in which we’ll be discussing it, in class.  The order in which the items emerge from the box determined my order.  That, I figured, was both arbitrary and consistent.  I say “consistent” because I expect that all boxes were packed similarly: so, each reader would encounter this “order” first.  As we get deeper into the work, I will also ask about how order shapes our sense of chronology and meaning.  However, to start, I’ve dived the class into groups of two or three, assigned each a section on which they’ll become an “expert,” and provided some “generic” questions.  Here’s what I told the students when I announced this plan a month ago, followed by a collection of readings (on Building Stories) that I’ve been collecting since then.  (My name for each section derives either from the first lines of text or from something more descriptive.)

Chris Ware, Building Stories (unpacked)

As mentioned in class today (16 Oct.), I’ve divided up the readings for Chris Ware’s Building Stories — this is on the page I handed out in class, and the syllabus’s Schedule of Readings (scroll down).  As I also mentioned, the book is the graphic novel event of the season.  It made its debut about 2 weeks ago, and was the best-selling book on the New York Times‘ Graphic Books list this past Sunday (14 Oct.).  In this post, I’m listing: (1) the questions (same as those handed out in class), (2) the list of readings, and (3) links to some of the many reviews, essays, and stories that have been published in the past few months.


  1. What stories does this part (or these parts) build?  Provide at least three examples.
  2. What do we learn about our unnamed protagonist (the amputee)?  In some cases, the connection will be more challenging to make. Pick three moments.
  3. Why tell this story in this form (book, newspaper, magazine, booklet, etc.)?
  4. What questions do you have?  These can be discussion questions or simply subjects that perplex you.

Each group (or pair) should address these questions, and bring them with you on your day.  Bring an extra copy for me, so that I can follow along during discussion.


13 November

Group 1

1) [wordless / 7.5 x 25 cm / nights and days]

2) “God… I can’t bear it… I can’t… I can’t” / “I don’t care… I just don’t care…” [2-sided folded strip]

3) “Her laugh is like a flight of tiny birds, taking off…” / “Momma, I don’t know how I feel right now. I mean, I don’t know how to say it. I’m just not happy or sad. I’m in between.” [2-sided folded strip]

4) Branford, the Best Bee in the World

Group 2

5) September 23rd, 2000 [Golden Book]

15 November

Group 3

6) “Shit” [magazine]


8) DISCONNECT [larger magazine]

27 November

Group 4


29 November

Group 5

10) The Daily Bee [newspaper]

11) “Recently, my high school boyfriend friended me on Facebook…” / “As a kid, I could sit in front of a mirror and stare at myself for hours, trying to imagine what I’d look like when I grew up…” [newspaper]

12) “Before winter starts” [architecture / blueprint / board]

Group 6

13) “god…” [newspaper]

14) “It all happened so fast… When I think back now I almost can’t believe it” [newspaper]

15) Building Stories [the box]



  • Kevin Larimer, “The Color and the Shape of Memory: An Interview With Chris Ware,” Poets & Writers Nov.-Dec. 2012.
  • Casey Burchby, “The Life Cycle of a Cartoonist: An Interview with Chris Ware,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 Oct. 2012.  Wherein Mr. Ware observes, “books offer a sort of reassuring physical certainty for the ineffable uncertainties of life, but then again I’m 44 and don’t tweet or have a Facebook page or participate in most of the things that blunt the textures of experience in favor of delivering them up more quickly to your friends, so maybe that’s just me.”
  • Debbie Millman, “Chris Ware,” Design Matters, 19 Oct. 2012.  45-minute audio interview.
  • Stephen Carlick, “Building stories with graphic novelist Chris Ware,” MacLean’s, 19 Oct. 2012.
  • John Williams, “Book Review Podcast: Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,’” New York Times Book Review podcast, 19 Oct. 2012.
  • Rosanna Greenstreet, “Q+A: Chris Ware,” The Guardian, 12 Oct. 2012.  In which Mr. Ware reports, “My head looks like an uncooked ham with glasses.”
  • Françoise Mouly, “The Quotable Chris Ware,” The New Yorker, 12 Oct. 2012.  Click through each picture (at bottom) to find such quotations as: “I don’t think of myself as an illustrator. I think of myself as a cartoonist. I write the story with pictures—I don’t illustrate the story with the pictures.”
  • Chris Mautner, “‘I Hoped That the Book Would Just Be Fun’: A Brief Interview with Chris Ware,” The Comics Journal, 10 Oct. 2012.  Wherein Mr. F.C. Ware provides a helpful definition: “memory is more like a gem or a flower or a three-dimensional something that we can turn and turn inside out and get into and out of.”
  • Kat Ward, “Inside Chris Ware’s Graphic-Novel-in-a-Box,” Vulture, 7 Oct. 2012. Repr. from New York Magazine, 15 Oct. 2012.
  • “Good Minds Suggest—Chris Ware’s Favorite Concept Books,” Good Reads, Oct. 2012.
  • Calvin Reid, “Life in a Box: Invention, Clarity and Meaning in Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,'” Publishers Weekly, 28 Sept. 2012.  In which Chris Ware offers some insight into his creative process: “I try to write in a way that hopefully reflects something of how I experience life happening…. What it’s like to be inside a body experiencing the world with all the myriad multi-layers of thoughts and memories that happen at the same time. And then the way that those things contradict each other and then the way that we think of ourselves as people, somehow all layered together.” And explains why he prefers books to e-books: “There’s something about the ideas and thoughts and feelings and uncertainties that go into books that demand a certain opposite and opposing structure to contain them. It’s almost like an aesthetic necessity that the books have, they have to confine and protect these ineffable things in a way.”
  • Christopher Irving, “Chris Ware on Building a Better Comic Book, “ Graphic NYC, 6 Mar. 2012.  A long interview, in which Ware observes, “I do believe that cartooning, a very memory-based art, has something fundamental to do with a constant sort of revision of ourselves and our lives, the same sort of resorting and refiling that goes on when we’re dreaming.”  When the interviewer observes, “Your comics, especially, are about memory,” Mr. Ware responds: “Because that’s what life is. It’s all we have.”




That (the above) is what they have to get us started.  At times, I wonder if I’m a little ambitious in assigning this dense, layered, beautiful, complex, experimental work to an undergraduate class on graphic novels.  But, based on my experience with the class so far, I think they’ll rise to the challenge.  In any case, teaching Ware is like teaching James Joyce or (in a children’s literature class) Lewis Carroll.  The bright, thoughtful students tend to be intrigued, and embrace the experiment.  Other students require more help in making sense of it.

Teaching Ware is also like teaching Joyce or Carroll because Ware changes our understanding of what the medium can do.  He writes strips that can (and must) be read in more than one direction, pages that need to be read multiple times, and books that make other cartoonists feel that they need to rethink their approach to comics.  If you’re teaching a class in graphic novels or comics, you have to teach Ware.  He pushes the medium further, and (I expect) will be pushing my students in the coming weeks.  So.  Here’s to the grand experiment!

Image sources: Alan Trotter’s 5∞, Mark Hayes’ Passing Notes.

Giving credit where it’s due: I found most of those links via Dave Ball’s Facebook page or his The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking Facebook page.

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Barnaby on stage, version 2.

Mr. O'MalleyAfter a failed stage adaptation and one failed radio version, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby headed for the stage a second time.  Adapted for children’s theatre by Robert and Lilian Masters, this Barnaby made its debut in Terre Haute, Indiana, in May 1948.  Looking ahead to the publication (in February 2013, I am told) of The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 1: 1942-1943, here is the story of that play, featuring a few images from the script (published by Samuel French, 1950) and a program from a production at the Wall Central School in the 1950s.

Also directed by Robert and Lillian Masters, this Barnaby’s main narrative focused on Barnaby’s father running for mayor against the corrupt Boss Snagg.  Subplots included O’Malley appointing himself Mr. Baxter’s campaign manager, a birthday party for Barnaby, and Snagg’s attempt to kidnap Barnaby to blackmail his father into ending his campaign.  It borrows some dialogue from Johnson’s comic, and focuses on characters rather than special effects or scenery — a wise move, given that the earlier stage adaptation got bogged down with special effects that didn’t work.  All action takes place in the Baxters’ living room, and Mr. O’Malley’s flying is described but not shown.  Though primarily a comedy, the show at times veers towards melodrama: Snagg is not just a crooked politician; he’s a criminal who at one point threatens the Baxters with a gun.  Usually, though, it maintains a light tone. A review in the Terre Haute Tribune predicted this two-act adaptation “bids fair to be a favorite with Children’s Theatre producers all over the country.”

Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby: program from Wall Central School, New Jersey, c. 1950sCourtesy of Mark Newgarden, here’s a program from the Wall Central P.T.A.’s production, presumably presented at the Wall Central Elementary School, in New Jersey.  (The program offers no info. about the state in which the school is located, but there is a Wall Central School in NJ, and mark bought the program in NJ.)  The cover image seems to be a sort of “stock” image.  Presumably, a guy reading from an unabridged dictionary conveyed “drama” to the person assembling the program.  Or maybe this was all they had on hand.

Below, the inside of the program, where we can see the cast of this show.  Anyone from New Jersey recognize any names?  Any sense of a year?  Mark Newgarden thinks that it’s from the 1950s, and that sounds about right to me.

Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby: program from Wall Central School, New Jersey, c. 1950s

Perhaps wary of working on another adaptation of his comic (he felt he was insufficiently consulted on the earlier stage version), Johnson left this one entirely to Robert and Lillian Masters.  He sold them the rights for $1.00, plus the promise of fifty per cent of any profit they might make from sales or performances of the play.  All too aware of the complications of trying to shape a stage Barnaby, Johnson otherwise remained uninvolved.

Thanks to Daniel Clowes, here are some… unusual drawings of the Barnaby characters, included in Robert and Lillian Masters’ script.  And no, these are not by Crockett Johnson.  The script does not identify the artist.

sketches of Crockett Johnson's McSnoyd (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

sketches of Crockett Johnson's Mr. O'Malley (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

sketches of Crockett Johnson's Gorgon (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

The stark difference between this artist’s style and Johnson’s highlights the clean beauty of Johnson’s.  Or, at least, when I look at these, I am struck by how “un-Johnson” they are.

Incidentally, I have in the past week seen some of Dan Clowes’ layout and design for The Complete Barnaby Volume 1.   I can’t share it with you on the blog (yet!), but trust me: this is going to be a beautiful book.

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