Comic-Con 2014: San Diego, July 23

San Diego Comic-Con 2014

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
— William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us” (1802)
SHARKNADO
GO SHARK YOURSELF!
— promotional material for Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)
Sharknado 2 (promotional materials, handed out on the streets near Comic-Con)

Greetings! I’m here at Comic-Con in San Diego, delivering a glimpse of the goings-on for you, my loyal readers. It is the very first evening of Comic-Con (though there are some sneak previews this evening, the programming proper begins tomorrow). So, I thought I would begin by assuring you that, despite what you may have heard from Fox News and other pessimists, capitalism is thriving here. Advertising covers all available surfaces:

buildings,…

Ascension advertisement, side of building, San Diego: the dummies of people are wearing clothes that rustle in the wind.

the train,…

Gotham, advertised on side of train.

and, of course, the body.

Vampire Diaries: advertisement on back of Comic-Con backpack worn by attendee

All those who register for Comic-Con get one of these great big canvas bags/backpacks, designed to carry lots of merchandise (and to go a bit easier on the back than a tote bag would!). Beyond making it easier for you to carry what you buy, each bag also turns the user into a walking billboard, advertising whatever is on the back.  Mine has Adam West and Burt Ward, in the original Batman TV series (1966-1968), which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.

Speaking of advertising,…


Barnaby 1 and 2 at Fantagraphics booth, Comic-Con, 2014I’ll be at the Fantagraphics booth (#1718), signing Barnaby books (which I co-edited with Eric Reynolds). Currently available: Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (2013) and Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (2014).

Schedule of my signings (and the far more illustrious people who will be signing at the same time):

Stop on by, even if it’s just to say hi! And click here for full schedule of Fantagraphics authors & editors.


For those who have a four-day pass or “Professional” badge (as I do), the exhibit hall was open tonight for three hours.  It’s nice to get in before the hall gets too crowded.

Comic-Con 2014, exhibit hall: Star Wars

I’m only being partially ironic in saying it’s not yet too crowded. I was in this section of the exhibit hall on the first full day of the conference last year, and it was shoulder-to-shoulder. You couldn’t move at all. Tonight, movement was still possible.

Comic-Con 2014, exhibit hall: Walking Dead

Comic-Con 2014, exhibit hall: Simpsons, Tomb Raider, Dark Horse

So many people to meet! In the photo below, I greet fellow educator Principal Skinner, and we grin maniacally at each other. As we always do.

Principal Skinner and me.

Last year, I got to meet Snoopy. I didn’t see him this evening. I hear he’s been spotted atop his doghouse, with his typewriter, working on his novel. Maybe that round-headed kid can convince him to come by and meet his fans. Here’s hoping!

Why, hello, Kitty!  And Black Rose Alice!

Hello Kitty

Hello, Monster High merchandise!

Monster High dolls

Hello, Spawn!  And Rocket Girl!  And Rat Queens!  And, oh, who am I kidding?  I’m out of my depth here.

Spawn and others

I don’t follow the entertainment industry that closely anymore. There are good television programs and films out there. But I rarely get around to watching them. I recognize the older characters — though I’m amused to see Alfred E. Newman peeking out from between superheroes….

The Flash, Alfred E. Newman, Batman

I’m here for the comics — or “graphic novels,” to use the preferred industry term. I like to see what’s being published: new stuff, classic comics, kids’ comics, all of it. And I like to learn from the creators and the scholars on the comics panels.

Some of what I got this evening (omitted by accident: Seth's The G.N.B. Double C)

This year (as last year), I’m also here because a book I worked on was nominated for an Eisner — this year, it’s Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (co-edited with Eric Reynolds, for Fantagraphics; designed by Daniel Clowes, foreword by Chris Ware, intro by Jeet Heer, Afterword & Notes by me). Will I become a two-time Eisner Loser? We’ll find out Friday evening….


Comic-Con 2014:

Comic-Con 2013:

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“There Are Loads of Rules”: The Art of the Mixtape

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again […] A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention […], and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, […] and . . . oh, there are loads of rules.

— Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (1995), pp. 88-89

I make a lot of mixes, and occasionally I post them on this blog. I’d originally planned to post many more of them, but . . . it’s fairly labor-intensive, and so I don’t. Recipients of these mixes have asked me how I make them. (Specifically, my friends Speed and Ted both asked me this question last month.)  So, here is my answer.

Westward, Oh: a mix made in July 2000 (the month I moved from Charleston, South Carolina to Manhattan, Kansas)

Above: a mix from July 2000, when I moved from So. Carolina to Kansas

1. No repeats. Since I began making these on CD (2003), I’ve not repeated any song across the three main mix series: uptempo (which I make the most frequently), midtempo, and quiet.  You could listen to all three series and not hear a single song repeated.  Indeed, within any given series — the kids mixes, birthday mixes, mixes on a theme (Summer, Halloween, Christmas/Holidays, Back-to-School, the end of the world), etc. — no song can repeat.

2. Only one song per artist per CD. But that’s artist, and not composer. You can have two Cure songs, as long as one is a cover. Technically, you should not have a Matt Berninger solo track if you already have a song from the National (the band for which he is lead singer), though this is a little more flexible — I bend this “should,” from time to time, including on the mix that I’m about to offer as an example.

3. There needs to be some connection between adjacent tracks.  So, on my most recent midtempo mix, “Everyone Says ‘Hi,’” here are the connections between the first seven songs. (If this is more detail than you really need, feel free to skip ahead to point no. 4.)


Everyone Says “Hi”

1)    Pennies From Heaven  RON SEXSMITH (2013)

Sweet Relief III: Pennies from HeavenThis beautiful song seamlessly mingles optimism and melancholy, cheer and sadness. Written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston and first recorded in the mid-1930s, “Pennies from Heaven” has an introductory verse that often gets omitted (Bing Crosby’s 1936 recording includes it; Billie Holiday’s 1936 recording does not). Ron Sexsmith’s version — done for Sweet Relief III: Pennies from Heaven — includes that opening verse, which is one reason I chose it. The other reason is that it sets the tone for the rest of the mix, and that tone is … mixed. It’s neither joyous nor sad, but somewhere in between. (Perhaps, too, it’s why Dennis Potter chose the title for his teleplay/screenplay?)

2)    Heaven  SIMPLY RED (1985)

Simply Red, Picture Book“Pennies from Heaven” to this cover of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” is quite an obvious link: the title, and the fact that both are covers. It also continues the theme of emotional complexity. Though sung with sincerity (by David Byrne on the original, and by Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall here), the description of Heaven is ambiguous. “Heaven is a place, / A place where nothing ever happens”: does that imply pleasant solitude or endless boredom? “The band in heaven / They play my favorite song. / Play it one more time. / Play it all night long”: does this reflect the joy of getting to hear your favorite music or the annoyance of a popular song getting overplayed? I don’t know, and the song never resolves this tension. I chose the Simply Red cover because it’s a bit smoother, more soulful than Talking Heads’ original, and thus offers a more seamless transition from Sexsmith’s track to the next one.

3)    Little Vacation  VIC CHESNUTT (1996)

Vic Chesnutt, About to ChokeFor those who believe in an afterlife, Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009) is already there. With a sharper sense of irony than the Talking Heads tune, this one also describes a desired location in terms that make you wonder how desirable it is, really. Perhaps it would be better if I stayed home. Vacation is a metaphor for what he wants, and so is “scenic vista,” “a long awaited chemical buzz,” “a far off twister,” and “an unexpected run-in with the fuzz.” The first item in this list has more appeal than the last one, and the ones in between are more mixed (hey, at least the twister is far off…). Using the language of bureaucracy to describe a holiday is also brilliant: “Why don’t we have a little council meeting / And hash out something real?” He promises “Robert’s rules of order will be observed. / I’ll be the parliamentarian / with an unswerving dedication.” The ambivalent longing here is brilliant, plus (on a less important point) I like the fact that “a little old song that I want to hear” echoes “my favorite song” in “Heaven.”

4)    Everyone Says ‘Hi’  DAVID BOWIE (2002)

David Bowie, HeathenThis song and the next one both include the line that gives the mix its title. Both songs find a twinge of melancholy in the clichéd, well-meaning phrase — conveying the good wishes of those who are not here, bringing their absence into the present moment. So, the link to “Little Vacation” is the likelihood of using this very phrase while on vacation, and the sense, when traveling, of enjoying where you are but missing those who are not with you. The Bowie song addresses someone who has not just taken “a big trip,” but “moved away.” It’s not clear if the addressee is even among the living (another link to the previous two songs). The final line of the first verse is “Happened oh, so quietly, / they say” which could also be used to describe someone’s death. That said, the person could simply have moved away, left no forwarding address. She or he could be someone Bowie’s narrator will never see again. Philip Nel and Shahid Hoda, c. Sept 1987I have a friend like that. I last saw him in May 1989. He disappeared later that year, or perhaps it was early the following year. After making some inquiries, I learned why. So, Shahid, if you happen upon this blog post, I hope you are well. Please know that your old friends still think of you. Everyone says “Hi.”

5)    To All My Friends  JOSH JOPLIN (2005)

Josh Joplin, JaywalkerBeyond including the title line, this track also evokes this vocal lineage that begins with David Bowie, and continues through his spiritual offspring, the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler (who sounds a bit like Bowie), and then Josh Joplin (whose voice resembles Butler’s — even though Joplin’s song “Happy at Last” alleges “I sound like Michael Stipe”). As the “s” in the title indicates, this song addresses many friends who have passed out of Joplin’s life. The line “winter of our unpaid rent” (nice Richard III allusion, Joplin!) might refer to a former lover, or at least a roommate; “summer of unrequited love” suggests a hoped-for relationship; “the best minds of my troubled youth” (Allen Ginsberg allusion!) evokes the many musicians that Joplin may know. One could make a full mix just focusing on songs for missed friends — Neil Young’s “One of These Days” would of course be included, though isn’t on this mix because I’ve used it before.  So, instead,…

6)    Friend of Mine  STEVE MARTIN & EDIE BRICKELL (2013)

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come for YouAnother song about friendship, but this time to someone who is still here. Like Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” (another great song for a friendship mix!), this collaboration between Steve Martin & Edie Brickell talks about friends who help you survive: “When everybody lets me down / You lift me up again.” I also concur with the lyric’s thesis about life more generally: “The world is such a crazy place, / Full of joy and pain.” Yes. Life is beautiful and sad. This past week’s news has delivered much more of the sad, the painful, the heartbreaking….

7)    All Our Endless Love  THE BIRD AND THE BEE feat. MATT BERNINGER (2014)

Endless Love: Original Motion Picture SoundtrackAddressing not only friendship but love, this song continues the emotional resonance of the previous one, but moves directly into the intensity and fragility of intimate relationships. Amidst a deep bond, this one may also be coming apart. “I am falling to the rhythm of all your endless love” points both to falling-in-love expressed in the first verse (“I couldn’t breathe without you there”) but also to a falling-out-of-love, expressed in such lines as “Is this really ending?”


That’s the first third of the mix, and more than enough to convey the links between songs.

4. Variety.  Ideally (and especially on an uptempo mix), two adjacent songs won’t be too similar in style, though this isn’t an ironclad rule.  A link between songs (see no. 3) can be purely sonic.  In general, I think of the range as “from punk to show tunes,” by which I mean you can include swing, heavy metal, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, dance, folk, funk, reggae, R&B, trip-hop, novelty records, garage rock, new wave, blues, a cappella, jazz, J-pop, 1960s Italian film soundtrack music, gospel, and, yeah, punk and show tunes.  For an uptempo mix, all of these would need to be uptempo. For the quiet mixes, you’ll likely have more a cappella, classical, jazz (and no metal). Similarly, the midtempo mixes (such as the example given in no. 3) tend to have a narrower range (no metal there either…).

5. The mixes tend to be present-centered, but are not only present-centered. So, most songs are relatively current — from the current year or the past decade.  But it would be very rare to focus only on recent music. Generally, the timespan is the 1930s to the present, though occasionally there’ll be something from the 1920s or earlier. The mix above includes several more recent recordings of songs from earlier periods (“Pennies from Heaven,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Pure Imagination”), though I often use earlier versions.

6. Since mixes get played more than once, I try to pick songs that bear repeated listens.  I realize that this one depends on taste. Playing your favorite song once again (as in song no. 2 on the above mix) can be heaven… or can be hell.

7. I favor shorter songs over longer ones. If there is a long song, it’s likely to go last. This is something of a corollary to point nos. 6 (I don’t want to wear down the listener with a song that goes on and on) and 4 (shorter songs allow for more variety).

8. Beginnings: I try to start a mix with a good kick-off song — “a corker,” as Nick Hornby says. Sometimes, I will use a short spoken-word piece (dialogue from an old film or a musical, say).

Fiona Apple, Pure Imagination - Single9. Endings: I might slow it down a little at the end or I might not.  This can also be a place for spoken-word pieces, or perhaps the concluding music to a film. For the mix excerpted in no. 3, I conclude with Fiona Apple’s cover of “Pure Imagination” because both Gene Wilder’s original recording and especially her version bring to the fore some dissonance that undercuts the ostensibly optimistic lyric. Also, if you’re playing a CD in a car, it’s likely to repeat. Moving from “Pure Imagination” back to “Pennies from Heaven” works well. Both songs dream of something better, but they are just that — dreams.

10. Use all of the space. A CD holds one hour, 19 minutes, and 45 seconds. I try to come as close as I can to filling the whole thing. This became part of my criteria back in the days of cassette tapes: blank space at the end of a side (especially side A) was annoying because then you’d have to fast-forward to the end. Ideally, you’d pick a song that would conclude roughly as the cassette tape did. Sometimes, I would fade out a song slightly early or (to fill space) add a very short song just so that there’d be no (or very little) silence at the end.

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)11. Good taste, which is nearly impossible to define. My mix-making guidelines ultimately rest upon my own taste, for which I direct you to this blog post on Carl Wilson’s excellent Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (and no, this isn’t Beach Boy Carl Wilson; it’s Canadian music journalist Carl Wilson).  That post is the most fully articulated expression of whatever the heck my taste is.

If I were to try to further clarify that, I’d note that I’m a big fan of cover tunes in general.  So, it’s unusual to have a mix that lacks a cover.  My favorite cover artists are Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox (if you’ve yet to discover them, stop reading this blog post now, go to YouTube, and start listening) and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (superlative punk covers).

In addition to punk, I love ’60s soul and R&B (Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, the Supremes), & the great American songbook (Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Harburg, Arlen, Fields and Kern, Warren and Dubin, etc.).

Musically, I came of age in the 1980s; so, the styles of that era have a strong hold on my musical imagination. This is likely one reason why the Wombats are one of my favorite contemporary pop groups: tight hooks, surprising lyrics (“Please allow me to be your anti-depressant. / I am prescribed as freely as any decongestant”).  I recommend their first two albums, and (I expect) the third, once it comes out, later this year!

As the quoted lyric indicates, I like words: I appreciate a sense of humor, an unusual turn of phrase, etc. Hence, my affection for novelty records. I also like a cappella. I’m a sucker for a good hook. I like pop, but I like it best when it’s a little off-kilter — an uptempo song on a melancholy subject, a downbeat cover of a happy song, an unusual or incisive lyric, a haunting melody.

My favorite band is They Might Be Giants.  Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of the National.  Other favorite artists: Fats Waller, the Clash, Ella Fitzgerald, Hem, Chet Baker, Leonard Cohen, Moxy Früvous, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Warren Zevon, Billie Holiday, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Dessa (A Badly Broken Code is one of my desert island discs), Richard Goode (love his recording of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas).

Though I could ramble on and on about taste (indeed, I already have…), this post has run its course. Yes, it’s a highly subjective set of criteria for assembling a mix, but there is an internal logic to it, a sensibility (however idiosyncratic) that makes it all work. If you have strong opinions (and music fans tend to), please do feel free to express them, below.

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Where Is My Mind?: The National’s Influences

The National. Photo by Diedre O'Callaghan.

This mix goes out to fans of the National. Influences cited are mostly sourced, but partly speculative. That is, most of the selections here come from bands identified by National members (usually Matt Berninger) as an influence, but some simply sound to me like influences. So, of course, feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments, below.

Also, since this is a mix (as opposed to just a playlist), I’ve chosen selections from each band that work together, in sequence, as a mix. For any who may be curious, I will post my rules for mix-making in a couple of days. Anyway. Here are… some of the National’s influences.

1)     Love Will Tear Us Apart  JOY DIVISION (1980)                              3:26

The documentary Mistaken for Strangers briefly shows Matt Berninger singing along to this song. Of comparisons to Joy Division, Berninger has said, “I think a lot of that is the range that I sing in is similar to Ian Curtis. And I get a lot of Nick Cave. I think it’s mostly because of the vocal range that we get that. Definitely Joy Division, I know Bryan our drummer, from a drumming perspective, that’s been a big influence on him.”  (Incidentally, I debated putting “Transmission” on, but this song seemed a better way to launch the mix….)

2)     How Soon Is Now?  THE SMITHS (1985)                                       6:46

Asked by Cheryl Cheng in 2007, “Who are some of your early inspirations?” Berninger responded, “The bands that I first really started falling in love with were The Smiths, Violent Femmes, Tom Waits, Nick Cave…”

3)     Where Is My Mind?  PIXIES (1988)                                                  3:53

On YouTube, there’s footage of Berninger singing the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” at a karaoke bar:

4)     New Drink for the Old Drunk  CROOKED FINGERS (2000)          3:53

In his Rolling Stone “Top Tearjerkers” playlist, Berninger includes Crooked Fingers’ “Sad Love.”

5)     Jockey Full of Bourbon  TOM WAITS (1985)                                 2:47

In that same playlist, he includes Waits’ “Jersey Girl.” There are many Waits songs I could have included on this mix, but “Jockey Full of Bourbon” is my favorite and it fit well at this point in the mix.

6)     A Shot In The Arm  WILCO (1999)                                                    4:20

I’ve never heard any member of the National cite Wilco as an influence, but I hear echoes of Wilco circa Summer Teeth (1999) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) — the records just before the band’s critically lauded pretentious mess, A Ghost Is Born (or, as I call it, Wilco Lays an Egg).

7)     Whisper  MORPHINE (1995)                                                              3:29

I’ve never heard members of the National mention Morphine, but they’re the most sonically similar group I know. In my iTunes, one playlist is “National & Morphine.”

8)     Sweet Jane  THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (1970)                    4:09

It’s more likely that the Velvets influenced the bands that influenced the National — i.e., we’re hearing their influence at one remove. Not incidentally, Lou Reed and Berninger both appear on Booker T. Jones’ The Road from Memphis (2011).

9)     Just Like Honey  THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN (1985)                 3:03

The Jesus and Mary Chain’s thick wall of distorted guitars is obviously a much bigger influence on the Raveonettes, but I’d be surprised if this band wasn’t somewhere among the National’s influences.

10)   Pretty in Pink  THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS (1981)                          4:00

The National cover “Pretty in Pink” on The Daytrotter Sessions (2007). Also: listen to the lyrics. It’s a much darker and more interesting song than its association with the Molly Ringwald film would lead you to believe. The National’s cover brings out the song’s sad narrative quite well — “All of her lovers all talk of her notes, / and the flowers that they never sent. / Wasn’t she easy? And isn’t she pretty in pink.”

11)   Flavor of the Month  THE POSIES (1993)                                      2:36

I have a vague notion that members of the National have cited the Posies as an influence, but I can’t find my source.

12)   Last Nite  THE STROKES (2001)                                                      3:20

Matt Berninger: “The Strokes have influenced more bands in the last ten years than even the artists I mentioned [Waits, Cave, Nirvana, Smiths] in all 25 years.”

13)   Uptown Again  THE AFGHAN WHIGS (1998)                                  3:11

Afghan Whigs, 1965Berninger is an avowed Afghan Whigs fan. Of Greg Dulli (the Whigs’ lead singer & main songwriter), Berninger says “Dulli just had a way of being so dark and almost brutal in some of his observations of himself and his dark side of romance, but he was able to articulate it in unbelievably powerful ways. There are people like that, who happily dig into the very uncomfortable personal exposure in a way. It’s not wallowing. It’s some sort of cathartic recognition of the sad and dark sides of our minds and hearts. I think it’s a healthy way to deal with that stuff.”

14)   First We Take Manhattan  R.E.M. (1991)                                        6:05

Although this is R.E.M. covering a Leonard Cohen song, I see an affinity between R.E.M.’s original work and the National’s. They’re both rock bands with a vocalist & lyricist who writes suggestive but elliptical lyrics. They’re also willing to develop more sophisticated arrangements, bringing in strings & piano.

15)   False Alarm  SLOAN (2003)                                                             3:48

Sloan’s songs are typically more power pop than the National’s (and I’ve not seen the National cite Sloan as an influence), but the elements of longing (“Always looking for reasons to walk on your street”) secure it a place on the mix. In sum, this is Sloan at their most National-esque, and (arguably) not as strong a choice as the other songs on this mix.

16)   Game of Pricks  GUIDED BY VOICES (1995)                                2:15

Berninger listens to Guided by Voices, and put “Learning to Hunt” on the aforementioned Rolling Stone playlist.

17)   I Can’t Forget  LEONARD COHEN (1988)                                      4:32

In September 2011, Berninger told The Phoenix’s Michael Christopher, “when I was in high school I became obsessed with Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.”

18)   Traveling Light  TINDERSTICKS & CARLA TORGERSON (1995)       4:50

I’m not sure whether the National considers Tindersticks an influence, but many reviews make the comparison between the two bands. With their baritone vocals and fondness for orchestral arrangements, it’s easy to see why.

19)   Love Letter  NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS (2001)                       4:09

Asked about his influences, the first two that Matt Berninger mentions tend to be Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

20)   Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten  DENNIS RUSSELL DAVIES: STUTTGART CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (1984)                        5:08

Dennis Russell Davies: Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Arvo Pärt: Tabula RasaThis mix has placed too much emphasis on Berninger. This last song highlights the band’s guitarist, Bryce Dessner, who is also a classical composer. I’m convinced that he and his brother Arron Dessner’s work in non-rock music are key to the National’s sound, bringing in atypical rhythms and arrangements. Bryce Dessner has worked with and performed the works of minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich. I don’t know what he thinks of fellow minimalist Arvo Pärt, but this track seemed an apt way to conclude.

There are many other bands who might (and perhaps should) have been included on this speculative compilation, including Nirvana, Radiohead, and Depeche Mode. (Some songs cut from earlier versions of this mix: “Lithium,” “Come As You Are,” “No Apologies,” “No Surprises,” “High and Dry,” “Policy of Truth,” “Enjoy the Silence.”) But to make this collection work as a mix (and one that would fit on a single CD), I had to cut some things.

Credits: Photo of the National by Diedre O’Callaghan, taken from “The National on World Cafe” (WXPN).

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Imagination & Survival: 2 Picture Books from Australia

Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer (2013) is only one of the great Australian children’s books of the past couple of years. Here are two more. Neither appears to have found a publishing home in the U.S., U.K., or Canada. So, attention publishers of North America and Great Britain! Bring out these two books in your countries:

  • Elise Hurst’s Imagine a City (Scholastic Australia, 2014)
  • Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood’s The Treasure Box (Penguin Group Australia, 2013)
Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014) Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Elise Hurst’s Imagine a City invites readers to a “world without edges,” where anthropomorphic animals and people coexist, the subjects of paintings reach beyond their frames, buses are giant flying fish, and bears ride bicycles. The art makes the book feel that is both very contemporary and classic. Her pen-and-ink drawings feel like they’ve time-traveled from another era — Edward Ardizzone, E. H. Shepard, or maybe Winsor McCay. The visual motifs (especially the flying fish) recall Shaun Tan and David Wiesner. It’s as if she’s brought her sketchbook into a parallel, surreal world, and this book collects sketches of what she saw during her travels.

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Hurst’s book suggests that books allow us to imagine worlds, and Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood’s The Treasure Box also finds hope in books. In watercolors, ink, and collage, Blackwood illuminates Wild’s tale of a boy, displaced by war and sustained by the memory of a red book. The story begins, “When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned.” Next page: “Charred paper, frail as butterflies, fluttered in the wind. People caught the words and cupped them in their hands.” The only surviving book is one that Peter’s father had checked out of the library — his favorite book because it’s “about our people, about us.” He puts it in a box, and they take it with them as they flee the advancing armies. To say more risks spoiling the experience of those who’ve not read it. So, instead, I’ll simply note that it’s an eloquent defense of why, in the dangerous times in which we live, people need books.

Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King's The Duck and the Darklings (2014)There are many other beautiful books I saw in Geelong and Melbourne,* including one that Erica Hateley showed me: Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King’s The Duck and the Darklings (2014). Unfortunately, I neglected to pick up a copy of this book. But I did at least want to give it a mention here — both to remind myself to get it, and to call it to your attention.

UPDATE, 11 July, 10:20 am: Since several non-Australians have asked, you can buy Australian books via Fishpond.com.  I bought a copy of Shaun Tan’s The Rules of Summer from Fishpond in November 2013, months before its US release.

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* I was there last week for two conferences: ACLAR and Literature and Affect.

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Crockett Johnson’s Elusive Allusions: Errata for Barnaby Volume Two

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945, ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds

You don’t need to get all of Crockett Johnson’s allusions to enjoy his classic strip, Barnaby. But I’m the sort of person who wants to know these things. So, at the back of each Barnaby book (5 volumes, Fantagraphics, 2013-2017), I’m providing notes for other readers like me. You know who you are.

But Crockett Johnson was smarter and more widely read than I am. So, even though I’m his biographer, I occasionally miss things. For Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (just out this month), two readers have already written in with corrections. (Two! Already!) Here are the strips in question, my original note, and the correction.


Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, 26 Sept. 1945

SWAMI ESYAYOUISIJA (26 Sept.). The Swami’s surname spells “YES” in four languages: Pig Latin (ESYAY), French (OUI), Spanish (SÍ), and German (JA).

That’s correct. But as Mr. Russell (@belmontlibrary on Twitter) pointed out, Johnson has also embedded the word OUIJA here.

I expect that Johnson first noticed that “oujia” included the words for “yes” in both French and German, and then decided to create the swami’s name by adding “yes” in two additional languages. Very clever!


Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, 27 Oct. 1945

Sigahstaw (27 Oct.). Purely imaginary tribe. It is, however, an anagram for A Sightsaw (which itself is the past tense of Sightsee). Perhaps a reference to Indian reservations as tourist sites?

This note, however, definitely misses the mark. As Paolo Polesello wrote in an email to my co-editor, Eric Reynolds,

In my opinion, “Sigahstaw” should be the pronunciation of “Cigar Store”, so that a “Sigahstaw Indian” is actually a “Cigar Store Indian”, like the ones in wood staying in front of cigar stores (well, I have seen them only in comics, I do not live in US). In fact, in the same strip, Howard the Sigahstaw Indian has cigars in his hands, like a cigar store Indian (see second and third panel)!

Mr. Polesello is quite right. As Eric noted, “This is one of those moments where you just tap palm to forehead and think, ‘Of course! How could I not see that?!?’ Ha!” Exactly. Can’t believe I missed that! And yet I did.


Should we get to do a second printing of Barnaby Volume Two, we’ll fix the notes. Meanwhile, I will just repeat that Johnson was cleverer than I am. I’ll strive to do better on the notes for Barnaby Volume Three: 1946-1947 (due out in 2015). Finally, thanks to those who are buying the book, and even (gasp!) reading my extensive notes!

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Children's Literature 42 (2014)Like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat owes a debt to blackface minstrelsy.

In my “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination” (in the new issue of Children’s Literature), I explore the implications of this fact.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

In 1955, Dr. Seuss and William Spaulding—director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division—stepped into the publisher’s elevator at 2 Park Street in Boston. As Seuss’s biographers tell us, the elevator operator was an elegant, petite woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile (Morgan and Morgan 154). They don’t mention that she was Annie Williams, nor do they say that she was African American (Silvey). Seuss was on that elevator because Spaulding thought he could solve the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis by writing a better reading primer. When Seuss sketched this book’s feline protagonist, he gave him Mrs. Williams’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color. However, she is but one African American influence on Seuss’s most famous character. One source for that red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the black, ambiguously gendered creation of biracial cartoonist George Herriman (Cohen 325). Seuss, who admired what he called “the beautifully insane sanities” of Krazy Kat (qtd. in Nel, Dr. Seuss 70), also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy—an influence that emerges first in a minstrel show he wrote for his high school. The Cat in the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. The Cat’s influences help us to track the evolution of the African American cultural imaginary in Seuss’s work, but also, more importantly, to exemplify how children’s literature conceals its own racialized origins. Considering the Cat’s racial complexity both serves as an act of desegregation, acknowledging the “mixed bloodlines” (to borrow Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s phrase) of canonical children’s literature, and highlights how during the 1950s—a turning point for African Americans in children’s literature—picture books were a site where race, representation, and power were actively being contested.

If you want to read the full article, you can access it via ProjectMuse — unless, of course, you can’t.  So, if you work for (or have access to) a library or university that subscribes to ProjectMuse, then please do get the article that way.  Doing so generates revenue for the Children’s Literature Association.  If you can’t get the article that way, then please contact me, and I’ll send you a pdf. (You can find my email address at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)

Thanks to generous individuals (such as Charles Cohen, who provided the photo of the Cat in the Hat toys that you see on the issue’s cover), the article also includes some illustrations. Here are two, both of which are racialized interpretations of the Cat in the Hat — one from 1996 (in which the Cat represents O.J. Simpson) and one from 2012 (in which the Cat represents President Obama).

Alan Katz & Chris Wrinn, The Cat NOT in the Hat! (1996) Loren Spivack, The Cat and the Mitt (2012)

The Cat NOT in the Hat! can be found only in the Library of Congress. Dr. Seuss Enterprises successfully sued its publisher and prevented its distribution on the grounds that it was not a parody: It merely mimicked Seuss’s style to comment on the O.J. Simpson case (Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books, 1996). Distribution of the book was suppressed. To the best of my knowledge, all copies — save for the one in the Library of Congress — were destroyed.  The Cat and the Mitt is a special election-year version of Loren Spivack’s The New Democrat, which can be purchased from Mr. Spivack’s website.

There would be more than eight pictures in my article, but Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss) would not grant permission to reprint any images to which it controls the rights. As I’ve always had good relations with the Seuss people in the past, I asked why. I received no response, but my guess is that the “no” has something to do with the fact that the article addresses Seuss and race. When I wrote the Seuss bio. for the Seussville.com website, my original version included commentary on Seuss’s racist wartime cartoons — I framed the issue in what I thought was a sympathetic way, noting that his earlier stereotypes ultimately yielded to greater understanding (as in the anti-racist Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches). Such an approach offered a redemptive reading of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s work on race. But I was asked to cut that. Since I was writing for a corporate website, I did as I was asked to do.

Published in an academic journal (instead of on a corporate website), this new article has the freedom to offer a more complicated, more nuanced reading of Seuss and race. I realize that it still needs work, and I will rewrite and revise further for the book-chapter version. But it’s the best work I’ve done on Seuss and race so far. So, I thought I’d share a snippet here — with, as I say, more available for any who wish to pursue the topic further.

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The Genius of Cul de Sac

Richard Thompson, The Complete Cul de Sac

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac is one of two comic-strip masterpieces of this century.1 Fortunately for the busy comics-reader, you can now read the entire work in The Complete Cul de Sac (2 volumes, just out from Andrews McMeel). Unfortunately for the medium (of comics! of Art!), the complete run of the Thompson’s daily strip is a mere five years (2007-2012).2 Parkinson’s Disease forced him to end the strip a couple of years ago.

Cul de Sac, 14 Mar. 2010

But what a marvelous five years! Thompson’s ability to convey the emotional lives of children is a delight to see. Facing a bewildering and unpredictable world, Thompson’s child characters display a mixture of fierce independence (embodied in his preschooler protagonist, Alice) and insecurity (embodied in her neurotic older brother, Petey). They seek guidance from the fanciful logic of older siblings’ stories, half-remembered truths passed down from their elders, and their own inventive interpretations of reality. As fellow Cul de Sac fan Jeanne Birdsall (author of the delightful and keenly observed tales of the Penderwicks family) puts it, Thompson portrays “children living parallel lives from ours, seeing and hearing all the same things, but experiencing them in a completely different way.”3 Exactly.

Cul de Sac, 6 Jan. 2008

I especially love the way that the characters — especially the young children — talk past each other. Each is her or his own planet, and sometimes orbital paths bring them closer to each other, but other times they zoom in opposite directions.

Richard Thompson, Cul de Sac

And then there’s Thompson’s Art — yes, Art with a capital “A.”  As Bill Watterson wrote in the introduction to the first Cul de Sac collection, “With a mix of rambling looseness, blotchy crudeness, and sheer cartoony grace, Thompson’s expressive pen line is the equal of any of cartooning’s Old Masters.” And, as Art Spiegelman writes in his intro to the Complete Cul de Sac,

It’s that ferbile quill pen line — Thompson’s “cartoony grace” — that totally wins me over. It’s hard to master a quill pen! They tend to dribble ink and spatter if you push ’em too hard. They spit up blobs of wet ink or dry up in the middle of a line. Thompson’s mastery seems to be achieved by letting the instrument have its way. They line starts like it’s gonna behave — Mmp — then fattens up where you might not expect it to — MMNG — and then backs up on itself in a breathless skritch of scribbled hatch marks — HEENK!

Cul de Sac, 1 Feb. 2008

Above: the strip to which Spiegleman is referring.

More than that, it’s Thompson’s ability to make inkiness into art. As Spiegelman puts it, “How can a style be distinctively sophisticated while also humbly down-to-earth?”

Comics fans will also love the comics jokes! Petey’s favorite strip is Little Neuro, a parody of Winsor McCay’s classic Little Nemo. His Comics Camp teacher is Dan Spinnerack, because — as Thompson points out in his notes — “Comic books are commonly displayed on a spinner rack.”  And I swear that Alice’s friend Dill is the great grand-nephew of Happy Hooligan, the protagonist of Frederick Opper’s early-twentieth-century comic strip.

Cul de Sac, 8 Sept. 2008

My enthusiasm for Cul de Sac is such that I feel a bit like Dorothy Parker trying to write a review of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby: “I cannot write a review …. I have tried and tried, but it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine.”  So, not that you need more to read, but if you’ve any interest in the narrative art of the comic strip, do yourself a favor and check out Thompson’s Cul de Sac. And then give copies to your friends.

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  1. Since you asked, I’ll tell you: the other is Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts. And, yes, you may argue with me in the comments, below.
  2. It ran for five years as a daily, but there are some Sunday strips that go back for a few years — to February 2004.
  3. Jeanne Birdsall, email to author, 28 May 2014.

More Cul de Sac on this blog:

  • Cul de Sac = Classic (28 July 2010). One of the very first posts on Nine Kinds of Pie was on Cul de Sac!  Here’s an excerpt I should’ve incorporated into this post: “Cul de Sac is funny, but is character-driven rather than gag-driven.  The humor develops from Petey, the anxiety-ridden comic-book obsessed older brother; Alice, the force of nature that is his younger sister; Ernesto, who may or may not be imaginary (Petey isn’t sure); Dil, who has thus far survived his older brothers’ many experiments; and many others.”
  • My report for Comic-Con, July 20, 2013.  Scroll down to “Team Cul de Sac” to read Lincoln Pierce (Big Nate), Mark Tatulli (Lio), Jenni Holm (Babymouse) and others sing Thompson’s praises.

More Cul de Sac:

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Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume Two (1944-1945) is here!

Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 will be shipping soon!  I know this because my copies arrived in today’s mail. (I co-edited this book with Eric Reynolds)

Box, with Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945

It looks great! (You can get Barnaby Volume Two from Fantagraphics or at your local comics retailer. Ask for it by name!)

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (front endpapers)

As we did in Barnaby Volume One and will do in the remaining three volumes, we’ve reprinted a different original strip for the front and back endpapers.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (title page)

I say “we” as if I designed it. I didn’t. Daniel Clowes designed the book — he’s designing the whole five-volume series. One of the things I really enjoy about working with Fantagraphics, is that their production team (Tony Ong and Paul Baresh, for the Barnaby books), Eric, and Dan all keep me in the loop. So, I get to see the interiors as they take shape, hunt for additional images to keep the layout interesting, and so forth.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (Foreword by Jules Feiffer)

Jules Feiffer wrote the foreword to Volume Two. And Chris Ware wrote the foreword to Volume One. How cool is that?  Each book also features a scholarly introduction: Jeet Heer (for Volume One), R.C. Harvey (for Volume Two).

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (four strips)

Johnson hits new creative peaks during 1944-1945. It’s one of the strip’s most inventive periods. If you enjoyed Volume One, you’re in for a treat in Volume Two.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (Afterword by Philip Nel)

I wrote an Afterword and Notes for each volume.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (Notes by Philip Nel)

Do you need to read the notes? No. Barnaby is a topical strip, but the art, narrative, and fantasy sustain it. You can read it without knowing all of the allusions. However, I’m the sort of reader who, when reading Fantagraphics’ Krazy & Ignatz series, always checked the “Ignatz Debaffler Page” at the back of the book. I wrote the notes for people like me — people who like endnotes. If you don’t like endnotes, then skip ‘em!

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (back cover)

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volumes 1 and 2 (spines)In addition to the photo of Johnson and blurbs from Art Spiegelman and Greil Marcus, the back cover also offers a glance ahead to Volume 3, in which we’ll reprint a few color Sunday Barnabys. We only have a contract for the black-and-white dailies, but we thought readers might like to glimpse just a few of the color Sundays. In Volume 4, we’ll also have a few Sundays — they ran from 1946 to 1948.  The three concluding Sunday strips offer a different way of ending Barnaby.  So… stay tuned!

More about Barnaby Volume 2, courtesy of Fantagraphics:

You can learn more about Crockett Johnson or Barnaby via

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

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Posters for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

Remain Vigilant (small version)Under the Kansas Board of Regents‘ brave new social media policy, the faculty and staff of Kansas universities must make sure that their speech is harmonious, loyal, and conducive to discipline.  So, the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty and Discipline is here to help you monitor speech. Our staff artist, Comrade Warner, has created these four handy visual aids — all designed to be printed as 24″ x 36″ posters. These come to you under Creative Commons: so, please print, make posters, put on t-shirts, remix, distribute.

Remember: Report speech that may promote disloyalty. Report suspect faculty immediately. Surveillance is freedom!

Stamp Out Fires: Report Suspect Faculty Immediately


Report Speech That Could Promote Disharmony


Report Speech That Could Promote Disloyalty


Remain Vigilant for Speech That Could Impair Discipline by Superiors


For more information, here’s

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Freedom of Speech in Kansas: What Next?

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineIn light of the Kansas Board of Regents’ decision to double down on its repressive social media policy, people keep asking me: What next?

First, we may have lost this battle, but that doesn’t mean we’ll lose the war. In any case, opposing injustice does not mean that you’re going to win every time. The Kansas Board of Regents have established themselves as enemies of freedom of speech, and of higher education. They don’t feel compelled to listen to the faculty and staff they ostensibly govern, but governance without consent of the governed doesn’t work well in the long term. Stable governance requires credibility. The Board has abdicated its credibility and its responsibility.

Second, the policy remains so absurdly broad that we can either muzzle ourselves or keep speaking up. I’m not particularly good at muzzling myself. (Have you noticed?) And I’m not going to waste my time policing my speech for its loyalty, its harmonious content, its ability to impede discipline, or whether it furthers the “best interests of the university.”

hourglassThird, time is our most precious resource. The Regents have wasted thousands of hours of our time. It’s now clear that they convened the workgroup merely to offer themselves cover for their assault on academic freedom. They can say: See? We followed procedure. We listened to the workgroup. Look! Here’s their language in our policy!  What they don’t say, of course, is that they’re merely stapling language affirming academic freedom onto a policy that revokes academic freedom. To waste so much time simply to create a rhetorical cover story is unforgivable. It’s also very clever — they’ve played us well. We assumed they’d act in good faith, when they have never had any interest in acting in good faith. In acting in bad faith and wasting our time, they’ve revealed their true colors. And they’ve persuaded thousands of faculty and staff members that they should never trust the Regents again.

Fourth, back when the Regents announced this policy, I began de-affiliating myself from Kansas State University in all of my social media profiles. It would be too labor-intensive to remove all references to Kansas State University from my blog, but I altered this blog’s “About Philip Nel” page so that it redacts the university’s name. I removed the @KState tag from my Twitter account, deleted Kansas State University from my Facebook page, from my GooglePlus account, and from my Amazon.com author page. I will ask my publishers to remove references to Kansas State University from my future published work, and have stopped providing it for the “About the author” section of any articles I publish. I’ll never be able to fully dissociate my public self from my employer: a quick Google search will reveal where I work, and, when I give a talk, promotional materials invariably name my employer. However, I’ll do my best to minimize my public connection to Kansas State University.

Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2013In the past, Kansas State University’s Division of Communications and Marketing have appreciated it when my work was cited in the media, or when I’ve appeared in the media, or when something I’d written received media attention. Indeed, because I’ve known this, I’ve always asked that my affiliation with Kansas State University be mentioned. And I’ve let them know about any such media attention. But I’ve stopped letting them know about my accomplishments. A book of mine recently won some awards; another has been nominated for a different award. I’ve added those accolades to my CV (which, yes, also identifies my university affiliation), but have otherwise kept that information to myself. And, when interviewed by the media, I will ask that I be identified as the author of whatever the most relevant of my books might be (Dr. Seuss: American Icon for a story on Seuss, say). If universities in Kansas want to benefit from social media, then they’ll need a social media policy that affirms academic freedom.

In any case, if I work for a place where everything I say in public can be used as grounds for my dismissal, then why would I want to be known as a Kansas State University Professor? People will pity me because I work at a place where freedom of speech is no longer allowed. I don’t want to be pitied. I have a reputation to protect, too.

Fifth, there is much that Kansas universities can do to protect faculty and staff against the tyranny of the Regents. We can adopt our own social media policies, modeled on the workgroup’s excellent revision — policies that affirm academic freedom rather than police the content of speech. And we can find creative ways to resist. For example, what the heck would loyal, harmonious, disciplined speech look like? The Regents have declined to offer examples of either appropriate speech or inappropriate speech. Why not have a contest, calling for creative responses (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama) to this puzzling question?  We could make it a statewide event, and publish the winners. It could even be an annual contest.  Another example: we could have one day each semester on which everyone sends out via social media a provocative idea. We can use Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, or whatever the current social media platform is. We could send out provocative ideas from any discipline. It would be fun and educational. Yet another example: what about a conference in which we invite people from other places where academic freedom has been under attack (South Carolina, Colorado, Saskatchewan, etc.)?  That’d be a great way to educate people about freedom of speech.

There are many possibilities!

In light of Wednesday’s decision, we — the faculty, staff, students of Kansas universities — are demoralized. We are down. But we are not out. This fight is not over. It is just beginning.

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