22 December 2015

Slice of Life

At the Hungry Tiger Talk blog, David Maxine has written about the one-of-a-kind Oz-related item that was part of our first meeting, when we were teenagers. This is my side of the story.

Back in 1979, at the age of thirteen, I attended my first International Wizard of Oz Club convention. This was the Munchkin Convention, meaning it drew Oz fans from the eastern part of the United States. In the books, you see, the Munchkins live in the eastern part of Oz. (In most of the books. It’s a long story, which David summarized here.)

That year the Munchkin Convention was in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a reasonably short car ride from my grandparents’ home in suburban Philadelphia. I’d already done some air travel by myself, so I felt confident flying down to visit Grandpa and Grandma.

I wasn’t so confident about meeting the Munchkin conventioneers. I was a shy kid, and I’d never been at that sort of gathering before, much less on my own. It turned out to be a milestone event because it was the first time adult strangers treated me as a peer. For that, I’ll always be grateful to the Oz Club.

There were other teenagers there as well, or at least one: Judy Bieber. But she intimidated me. I was thirteen, and she was (and remains) a couple of years older, which felt like an incredibly significant gap. She was also smart, pretty, and seemingly very much at home in Munchkinland. She created the quiz about the Oz books for that year. She and her father Herm were selling older Oz editions. She appeared to have everything.

To the surprise of the room, and the astonishment of myself, I won Judy’s quiz. The Oz books were the first field of knowledge I really tried to master, and my brain is good at retaining trivial information. And, though I didn’t know it at the time, previous winners were probably sitting out that event. The prize that Judy supplied was an abridged “Junior” edition of Rinkitink in Oz with some John R. Neill color plates. I’m sure that was the first time I’d ever seen one of those abridgments. It may have been the first time I ever knew about them.

By the end of that day, while I was waiting for my grandmother to pick me up, I was already worrying about my responsibilities for the following year. The winner of each year’s quiz had to write the next year’s quiz and supply the prize. I remember another attendee congratulating me on winning and asking if I was already thinking about new questions, and me replying that I was already thinking about the prize.

Making the quiz was fun. I decided to base it on Neill’s pictures and books, and I had fun laying it out. But for a prize? I didn’t have much money to spend, I didn’t know the range of possibilities, and I wasn’t linked into collectors’ networks. I also wasn’t good at asking for help (I’m still not). I wanted to solve this problem on my own—since I was acting as an adult, and all that.

So I decided to use my time in woodworking class to make a prize. A pair of O and Z bookends didn’t work out, but I grabbed a piece of mahogany and figured out a design for a cheese board that incorporated Neill’s OZ symbol in its handle. I didn’t do a great job with the carving, but it was a one-of-a-kind Oz-related trophy. And its real value was symbolic, right?

As David guessed, during the 1980 Munchkin Convention I decided to augment that cheese board with an edition of The Wizard of Oz autographed by Margaret Hamilton, who was there. So now I can also say that I had a brief conversation with her. Very brief.

The person who won my quiz was David Maxine, who had come from out west all the way to Cherry Hill. He was also a teenager. But, like Judy, he was (and is) a couple of years older than me. The difference is minuscule now—we’re all part of what I called the “white cover generation” of Oz fans. But back then David was also daunting.

Looking back, I realize that my thinking at thirteen was skewed by the universal adolescent assumption that every other teen is having more fun than you. To me David seemed like an old hand at Oz conventions and collecting and life. I should have perceived that this was his first time at the Munchkins, and he had no idea I was at just my second gathering. We had more in common than I realized.

If I’d known the winner of my quiz was going to be another teen, I probably wouldn’t have made a kitchen implement. If I’d had the boldness to befriend Judy the year before, I could probably have asked her and Herm to snatch up one of those abridged editions for the 1980 prize. But I couldn’t see any of those possibilities at the time.

I also couldn’t see that David and I would reconnect in something called “online” almost twenty years later. During some Ozzy conversation he mentioned that he still had the cheese board, which was both astonishing and gratifying. (As he’s pointed out, it’s compact and almost impossible to break.) And now that we’re both adults and have had online exchanges about such things as Swiss chard, a kitchen implement turns out to have been more appropriate than we knew. It’s come to symbolize a real-world friendship rooted in Oz.

20 December 2015

“References of actual Robin fight scenes”

Matt Santori-Griffith’s interview with Grayson artist Mikel Janin at Comicosity in January was mostly the upbeat puffery we should expect from comics creators while they’re still marketing their current magazines. Nevertheless, it contains some insights about how that magazine has been put together.

Janin was expecting to take over Nightwing, costume and all, before plans and editors changed:
Former editor Mike Marts asked me to join Nightwing and, after more than two years in Justice League Dark, I was thrilled to be part of such an important and loved character.

But when things started to roll, I realized this was a totally new direction for Dick Grayson. There were a lot of changes, with editor Mark Doyle taking the project, and everything went full speed very quickly!
I sense the plan to launch Grayson came from the top of DC, so the change in editors was probably coincidental rather than causal.

Another sign of the writers’ fondness for the long history of the Dick Grayson character shows up in the fight scenes:
Tim Seeley gave me some references of actual Robin fight scenes in the Golden Age, and I tried to bring the energy and the happiness of this young boy we all know and love to Dick’s moves, less elaborated than Nightwing’s graceful moves, just direct action to the face. It was really fun to do!
And the different strengths of the two Grayson writers, Tim Seeley and Tom King:
Tim brings some crazy ideas and sense of wonder, going to places you only can go in comic-books. He has an incredible ability to bring rhythm and fun to the book. Tom digs deep to character’s heart, and has a sense of pace that makes you feel like you’re into a movie.

19 December 2015

Off His Meds?

The New York Times article on the arrest of pharmaceutical investor Martin Shkreli begins:
It has been a busy week for Martin Shkreli, the flamboyant businessman at the center of the drug industry’s price-gouging scandals.

He said he would sharply increase the cost of a drug used to treat a potentially deadly parasitic infection. He called himself “the world’s most eligible bachelor” on Twitter and railed against critics in a live-streaming YouTube video. After reportedly paying $2 million for a rare Wu-Tang Clan album, he goaded a member of the hip-hop group to “show me some respect.”
All in one week? That makes me wonder if something biochemical is going on, and Shkreli’s famous obnoxiousness is fueled by mania. Like his alleged decision to do fraudulent things with people’s money.

15 December 2015

Marvelous Land in Minneapolis

Back in 1981, the Children’s Theatre Company and School of Minneapolis staged a production of L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz. On its blog the company has posted some photographs and videos of the show, along with these production notes:
Originally, the production was to be mounted by a guest writer/director but, ultimately, his concepts were felt not to be a good aesthetic match with the Company and so, fairly last-minute, the production team changed. Artistic Director John Clark Donahue assumed the role of stage director and Thomas W. Olson, resident playwright who previously that season had created the scripts for "The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant" and "The Clown of God," quickly began working on a new adaptation, while Gary Briggle was engaged to write lyrics with Richard A. Dworsky's music. . . .

At the time, ticket prices were $6.95 for adults and $4.95 for children, general seating. . . .

With "The Marvelous Land of OZ," the Company embarked on a three-year relationship with professional video producers The Television Theatre Company, shutting down the theatre for two weeks at the end of the season and transforming the auditorium into a video soundstage. The following winter, "The Marvelous Land of OZ" was distributed by MCA/Universal for cablecast on Showtime/HBO (winning a cable ACE award for outstanding family entertainment) and was also made available for home purchase on videocassette.
I saw the show when it was on cable TV and was impressed by how closely it followed the book. It was obviously a filmed stage production, not a movie, but it was a good one.

At the bottom of this posting about the CTC’s 1980-81 season are more photos from The Marvelous Land of Oz, what looks like a complete scan of the program, and the Minneapolis Tribune review. Plus some shots of Edward Albee looking grumpy and (connected to a previous show) Tomie De Paola looking svelte.

14 December 2015

Studying Southern Weirdness to Death

Travis Rozier and Bob Hodges have put out a call for papers on “The Weird & the Southern Imaginary,” with a deadline of January 18, 2016.

They state:
The Weird & the Southern Imaginary will introduce the aesthetics and generic conventions of the Weird to cultural studies of the U.S. South and the region’s local, hemispheric, and (inter)national connections. Contributions from literary critics, film and popular culture scholars, philosophers, and critical theorists will consider forms of the Weird in a range of texts (literature, art, film & television, comics, music) from, about, or resonant with conceptions of different South(s).
And in more detail:
S. T. Joshi periodizes Haute Weird Fiction from 1880 to 1940, and China Miéville describes how the paradigm of Haute Weird Fiction, especially in its foremost practitioner H. P. Lovecraft, invokes horror, alterity, and/or awe on a cosmic scale, which seeps into the mundane experiences of cognitively ill-equipped scientific or academic protagonists. The Weird aesthetic, especially pre-World War II, is often inextricable from revanchist horrors of democracy, political revolution, miscegenation, and female or other non-normative sexualities, although Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s recent Weird compendium stresses the “darkly democratic” aspect of a C20 and C21 Weird tradition that spans nations, genders, genres, and levels of literary status.

Representations of the U.S. South as an irrational or reactionary space draw on what Deborah Barker and Kathryn McKee describe as the southern imaginary, a fluid reservoir of topoi referencing an enduring material history of land appropriation, coercive labor practices, carceral landscapes, racial and commercial mixing, extralegal violence, and insular patriarchies. The Weird & the Southern Imaginary will explore Weird South(s) of national aberrance and cosmic otherness. For example, the first television season of True Detective melds the conservative politics and religious fervor often equated with the South to vaster hints of conspiratorial and cosmic horror in a postindustrial Louisiana swampscape.

The dark fantasy of the Weird diverges sharply from the usual monstrosities of horror and speculative fictions as well as many modes of southern representation: the gothic, the grotesque, the uncanny, the ghostly or hauntological, or the folkloric, modes with longstanding southern associations and almost as longstanding critical fatigue for Southernisits. The Weird can also bridge Southern Studies and its old associations with recent work in object-oriented ontology, ecotheory, other new materialisms, and nihilist philosophy as well as apocalyptic popular cultural fixations.
Possible topics include:
  • Weird South(s) in U.S. literature
  • International Weird Fiction & southern imaginary, subtly connected or not
  • Race & the southern imaginary in Weird Fiction
  • Political or cultural reaction & Weird South(s)
  • Weird carceral practices & the southern imaginary (Franz Kafka “In the Penal Colony”)
  • Environmental transformation or degradation & Weird South(s)
  • The nonhuman or posthuman in southern literature (Matthew Taylor)
  • Dark ecology (Timothy Morton) & southern landscapes, swampscapes, etc.
  • Nihilism, extinction, or the recalcitrance of the world (Eugene Thacker) & the South(s)
  • C19 South & proto-Weird Fiction (Ambrose Bierce, Charles Chesnutt, Edgar Allan Poe)
  • The Weird associations of the South & the Antarctic (Poe, Herman Melville, Lovecraft)
  • R. H. Barlow in Florida, his Weird Fiction, or his correspondence with Lovecraft
  • Robert E. Howard in Texas, his Weird Fiction, or his correspondence with Lovecraft
  • Weird Appalachia (Lovecraft, Manly Wade Hopkins’s Silver John stories, Fred Chappell)
  • Henry S. Whitehead’s Weird West Indian tales
  • Eudora Welty & Weird Fiction (Mitch Frye)
  • Weird Fiction, modernist literary strategies, & the South (William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston “Uncle Monday”, Flannery O’Connor)
  • The Weird in Latin American Boom fiction (Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Augusto Monterroso), its forbearers (Jorge Luis Borges), or its successors (Junot Díaz, Jamaica Kincaid)
  • Contemporary or New (South) Weird (Poppy Z. Brite, Moira Crone, Stephen Graham Jones, Caitlín Kiernan, Joe Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates, Jeff VanderMeer)
  • Weird southern comics (Alan Moore et al. Saga of the Swamp Thing, Garth Ennis et al. Preacher)
The editors want essays in English, 5,000-8,000 words long. But the first step is to send them a 300-500 word abstract at the emails linked to their names above.

12 December 2015

Underestimating an Audience

Earlier this week I attended an unusual book event at the Public Library of Brookline.

Author M. T. Anderson read the introduction of his new nonfiction book, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. He spoke about Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, composed well after the war but perhaps looking back on it. Then the Arneis Quartet performed that work. nd finally Anderson took questions.

The audience was big enough that the librarians had to bring in more chairs, which is always gratifying for event organizers. Always better to underestimate turnout by a little than to overestimate. As at most cultural offerings, the audience leaned toward the senior side rather than Anderson’s usual readership of teens and middle-graders.

There were some kids there with their parents. I assumed they were fans of Anderson’s Pals in Peril! series. I wondered what they were thinking about this much more serious presentation, with historical/musical analysis of a composition that even some classical music fans find puzzling.

During the question session, one of those kids eagerly raised his hand. He was sitting with a friend the same age and one of their fathers. He had a bowl haircut and a big hole in one of the knees of his trousers. I wondered, how far off the topic of this event was his question going to be?

“I read your book,” he told Anderson. “How long did it take to you find out all this stuff?”

Five years of research, Anderson explained. And we all learned something.

11 December 2015

OIP Derangement Syndrome Trumping Facts

Recently a reporter from the Washington Post sat in on a focus group organized by Frank Luntz, the GOP pollster and message-shaper. Luntz was trying to find out, on behalf of the Republican Party establishment, what could shake Donald Trump’s followers.

It turned out the big problem is OIP Derangement Syndrome, spread by the American right over the past seven years. For example, here’s a man who pictures burning the President alive:
Frank Lanzillo, a 59-year-old retired marine, took that as a cue to explain just how anti-American the president really was.

“When you bend down to the Saudis, take your shoes off, put your hand on a Koran and then the Bible when you’re sworn in?” Lanzillo said. “He took his flag pin off. I’m a Marine and former deputy sheriff. He took that off, he was in the toilet to me. I would not only not piss on him if he was on fire — I’d throw gas on him.”

(The president briefly chose not to wear a flag pin during the 2008 campaign; he was not sworn in on a Koran.)

Asked if the president was a Christian, only three of the 29 participants raised their hands. Asked if he was born in the United States, eight said no. When Luntz returned to policy, mistrust of the president informed the exclamations of trust in Trump.
As a result of OIP Derangement Syndrome, these voters were unable to process factual information from Luntz. No evidence of Trump’s policy extremes, boorish manners, or distance from reality could shake their loyalties. They’re sticking with Trump, and the GOP is stuck with them.

10 December 2015

An Unknown Comics Adventure in Oz

Last week as The Wiz was about to air on television, Mark Evanier unspooled his story about being hired to script an adaptation of the 1978 movie version for DC Comics.

It’s most interesting, like a lot of the stories on Evanier’s website, for the backstage look at how comics companies work. (Which is to say, barely.) There are also some nicely crafted lines:
  • “Not far enough before the film's scheduled premiere, someone at or around DC Comics got the idea to publish a slick magazine which would be part comic book, part souvenir book for lovers of the movie. This was some time before anyone knew there wouldn't be a lot of lovers of that movie.”
  • “I had to sign all sorts of non-disclosure agreements that I would not divulge what I saw to anyone and as I recall, they didn't specify any time limit. I mean, I was supposed to write all these authorized articles about what was in the movie and here I was signing vows that I would never in a million years divulge to anyone what was in the movie. So I may be violating those agreements right now.”
  • “I forget what they were going to charge for it but it struck me as a bit too pricey. It also struck me as not my problem.”
  • “By far, most of my time went into going up to Universal to see a more-complete version of the movie and then to see an even-more-complete version. I saw it three times but I never saw the final release cut. I felt that the film got better as the holes were filled in…which is not to say I thought it ever got to be really good. The merits it did have were (a) a few of the actors’ performances and (b) some truly dazzling dance numbers. And of course, it did dawn on me that our adaptation would contain neither.”
For the stories of which artist should work on this project, how the 1976 Copyright Act affected things, why no one has ever heard of this comic, and how its obscurity might have helped Evanier and artist Dan Spiegle’s careers, check out Evanier’s recollection.

09 December 2015

The Feelings We Once Had

Of all the famous dramatic adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wiz in its original form is the most faithful. But of course the 1939 MGM movie is now more famous than either version.

As I observed yesterday, that movie clearly dominated Harvey Fierstein’s thinking about how to adapt the book of The Wiz for Broadway and TV today.

I spotted some other debts/homages to the MGM film that don’t come from the original Wiz:
  • Dorothy wears shiny red sneakers at the start, though public-domain silver shoes later.
  • Aunt Em’s farm employs three farmhands played by the men who (lots of makeup later) play the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion.
  • Dorothy is magically faced with the image of a maternal figure (Aunt Em/her late mother) calling for her.
  • We get a view of the distant green spires of the Emerald City across a red-poppy landscape.
  • The Wiz has a “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” moment.
  • Glinda comes to the Emerald City for the penultimate scene instead of Dorothy and her friends going to Quadlingland.
Other elements of Baum’s original story that made it into The Wiz were dropped from this live-broadcast version, such as the Kalidahs as tiger-bear hybrids, the Lion falling asleep among the Poppies instead of outwitting them, and the need to wear green glasses in the Emerald City.

I saw the original Broadway production decades ago, and some elements of its stagecraft have stuck with me. Most memorable was the tornado depicted by a dancer with fabric billowing from her head, an image that inspired the play’s trademark art. The TV production simulated the tornado instead with projected images and wire-flying—much less magical.

The TV version of the Yellow Brick Road consisted of illuminated parts of the stage, like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video. The stage original was four men in yellow costumes with poles—another image that stuck with me strongly since I first saw it, probably because it was such a bold staging choice for my young mind.

Curiously, Baum’s Winged Monkeys, which became Flying Monkeys in the 1939 movie and Funky Monkeys in The Wiz, were referred to only as “Winged Warriors” here.

08 December 2015

Fierstein Adding “a Little More Sense” to Oz

Last week NBC broadcast a restaging of The Wiz that’s also slated for Broadway next year. It has a new book by Harvey Fierstein, who boasted about his improvements in an interview with BroadwayWorld:
I've loved Wizard of Oz my whole life but have had questions. I was always a questioning kind of kid. I got to answer all the questions that I had. Where did Dorothy's parents go? There's this girl living with her aunt and uncle... well I killed off the uncle; he doesn't do anything anyway. Do we care about him just sitting on the porch rocking away? You have a girl living with her aunt, and it's never mentioned what happened to her parents. Dorothy's such a victim. She didn't create that storm; she gets taken away. She doesn't kill the witch; the house falls on her. She doesn't kill the other witch; she throws water to save her friend. She's just a victim. I said, "Why should she be just a victim? It's her dream! It's her fantasy!"

So I gave her a story, and we open with her running away from home trying to get home to Omaha where she was actually born. Her parents are dead. She hates her school; she hates Kansas. "I hate this place; I hate being out in the cornfield. I want to go home." Her answer is this is your home but your too old for me to tell you what to do. I could keep you here and force you, but at some point in your life you have to figure out where you really belong. She's sent off on this very different journey of going home to Omaha. She ends up in this place that's not Omaha and becomes much more of an active participant in it. In the end, when the Wiz turns out to be from Omaha when they get in the balloon. Instead of missing the balloon, I have her walk away from the balloon an say you're going to your home, I'm headed somewhere else. She finally figures out home is not where your feet are; it's where your heart is.
Clearly Fierstein’s playing off the 1939 MGM adaptation rather than L. Frank Baum’s novel. In the original, Dorothy doesn’t throw water on the Wicked Witch of the West to save the Scarecrow; she does so because she’s ticked off (a situation Fierstein rediscovered). Uncle Henry does more than sit on a rocker.

Fierstein’s characterization of Dorothy makes sense only if she’s a teenager, like nineteen-year-old Shanice Williams. Judy Garland was a teen, of course, but she played a younger girl. The Dorothy of the books is younger still.

In Baum’s books, the Wicked Witch of the East enchants the Tin Woodman because she (or another old woman) doesn’t want to lose the services of his beloved. Fierstein instead put those three characters into a love triangle:
I gave each of those characters a backstory that makes a little more sense. The Tin Man got turned into the Tin Man by the Wicked Witch because she had a thing for him. She caught him with this girl, and she blasted his ass and stole his heart. She said, "If I can't have your heart, no one can."
That “makes a little more sense” for an older audience, perhaps. But children haven’t had trouble understanding Baum’s original motivation for the witch.

Evidently the choice to cast Queen Latifah as the Wiz prompted Fierstein’s thinking about that character:
Queen Latifah's backstory [as the Wiz] is that she was a magician's assistant at a carnival so they gave balloon rides and all of that but you ever meet the person that is not bad enough they're unhappy, they have to make everyone unhappy and that was this guy. She jumps in the balloon to piss him off and this balloon landed me in Oz. Everyone came running so I put on the magic hat and did the magic act. They put me in here and I've been hiding ever since so nobody finds out that I'm not anything. I was the assistant. She is a woman escaping the world of men, which I thought would give a different color to Dorothy as well. It all has to come out of a little girl's imagination. If you don't believe it came out of her imagination it doesn't work.
Because then Oz would just be real, and who wants that?