[52 Books] ‘Ivanhoe’ by Sir Walter Scott

So it probably wasn’t the best idea for me to start my “Let’s read a bunch of books in quick succession” project with a historical romance from the 1800s, but here we are. I’ve still got faith in my ability to burn through 52 book in this calendar year, but things have lagged due to a big writing deadline on my part (since crushed) and the vagaries of working through this one. That’s not to say Ivanhoe is a challenging read. I thought it was pretty breezy, all told. But working through a book so far removed from my own time and experience takes a little bit of close attention to really get something out of it as opposed to pure fictional entertainment. And this book certainly takes some work to get past problems at its core.

To start, I don’t know if there’s any way to discuss Ivanhoe honestly without first pointing out its virulent anti-Semitism. In fact, this is the most anti-Semetic book I’ve ever read. And while I don’t feel qualified to place it on any kind of scale as these things go (I never had a “Let’s read about the Nazis” phase, for instance), I think it’s important to note this up front in two ways.

For one, I’ve no doubt that there are many admirers of this work who would jump to defend its portrayal of Jewish Brits. Scott himself seemed to think he was defending that historically oppressed population with this work, and in a broad sense the novel’s conclusion argues for a more inclusive British society especially where the Children of Israel were concerned. But don’t let anyone tell you that this take lets Scott or the novel off the hook. Throughout the novel’s narrative, it’s primary Jewish figure is a moneylender who is constantly, even physically wracked with anguish any time he’s asked to give up the most minor of shekels. Even when the life and safety of his own daughter becomes the major plot driver of the book’s back half, there is no mention of Isaac of York that doesn’t twist itself around the idea of his addiction to money, constantly laying the greed at the feet of his people’s “blood.” The only deviation from this path comes late in the game when Isaac’s daughter Rebecca offers an impassioned plea on behalf of all the Jewish people that more explains their inherent greed and conniving away as the inevitable sum of their treatment than rejects it as a bigoted fantasy. In essence, Scott’s argument to the majority of British citizens is, “Yes, the Jews are greedy, inhuman monsters…but it’s not really their fault. So please give them a break.”

The second reason to articulate this despicable point of view right away is to be honest with any readers who may find this review through the web about the merits of reading Ivanhoe today (or ever, really). Because I can’t lie: there are many pleasurable aspects to reading this book. Its general narrative is kind of uselessly but amusingly obtuse. Its action scenes are frequently tense and crisply paced. And its romantic view of the Saxon/Norman conflict is fascinating history (more so for what it says about the history of the 1800s when it was written than of the 1100s where its set – the latter of which is wildly inaccurate by any measure). I mean, there are frequently fun passages in the book, but the repeated treatment of the Jewish people in Scott’s hands overwhelms all other aspects of its narrative. Again, there are defenders out there who would tell you that you have to put the book in a historical context and set aside its bigoted elements as “a product of their time.” Bullshit. This book is not one that contains some anti-Semetic ideas. It’s an anti-Semetic text at its core. And the upsetting nature of subjecting yourself to that narrative can’t be set aside. The best you can say of Ivanhoe is that it’s an interesting novel to read, but it will never be an enjoyable one.

But I want to focus on those enjoyable aspects as best I’m able because they’re what piqued my interest to begin with. And having worked my way through the novel, I can say that what best recommends it to a modern reader are the ways which its particulars have influenced two stories still vital in popular culture. As I expected, understanding the modern shape of the Robin Hood legend becomes much easier after reading this book. But I was shocked at how deeply Ivanhoe also stylistically and practically inspires major aspects of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire novels.

In the history of the archer of Sherwood, the book looms large for good reason. It’s debatable whether Ivanhoe was the first major work to place Robin Hood’s career during the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, but it definitely solidified that time period as the preferred milieu for the Merry Men. And there are a few other tropes that the novel either solidifies or creates whole cloth that have been repeated ad nauseum in Robin Hood books, plays and films ever since. This is the novel that created the “Robin wins the archery contest by splitting his competitor’s arrow,” for instance. It also crystalizes the famed scene where King Richard reveals his true identity to Robin and company in their deep woods hideout after being taken prisoner anonymously (though similar scenes where a King of England reveal themselves to the outlaw date back much further in the pre-literary Robin Hood ballads – ballads which were first set to print by Scott’s contemporary and friend Joseph Ritson before this novel was written).

However, the real manner in which Ivanhoe influenced popular versions of the Robin Hood story stretch beyond this, and 90% of the reason I read the book was to figure out exactly the extent of that influence after coming up short of a satisfactory explanation online. What I discovered is this novel irreversibly grafted a number of ideological traits onto Robin Hood that the character simply wasn’t built to bear. Ironically, the book itself works in its own narrative to avoid some of those pitfalls. But ultimately, the influence took the legend on a different course by tying together Robin and King Richard in ways intended and accidental.

Like I said above, explicitly the novel places Robin as a character and all the trappings that go with it in the reign of Richard – not just in general but specifically in the brief period near the end of the Third Crusade where Richard’s brother Prince John sat on the throne. Anyone passingly familiar with the Robin Hood movies know what this leads to. Wicked Prince John is played as equal parts cunning and cowardly as he works to overthrow his brother via proxy. Richard’s return leads not only to a massive battle involving Robin’s Merry Men but also wraps up the narrative nicely with a marriage at the very end and the supposed return of order enabled by the arrival of the “true King.”

Least of all the problems with this approach is that these narrative beats are completely illogical. For one, anyone with a cursory knowledge of English history will know that despite Richard’s arrival back home, he eventually did die and was replaced by his brother John on the throne, who proceeded to reign in England much longer than the Lionheart ever did. In the even more romanticized or adventurous Robin Hood stories we’re familiar with, this inevitable undercutting of the happy ending is ignored wholesale. Scott’s novel avoids these traps by focusing its political struggles less on the “Richard Vs. John” dynamic (which gets dropped about halfway through with the unsatisfying if ultimately honest explanation that Richard would always forgive his blood for the treason that would earn other Lords a noose) and more on the “Saxon Vs. Norman” struggle.

One of the things that struck me most while reading Ivanhoe is the fact that this conflict between the pseudo-indigenous people of England and their French conquerers is essentially the main character. Because there really is no one main character in the book. The title “hero” – Wilfred of Ivanhoe – is a disinherited Saxon who barely appears on the page. He’s never the point of view character, and he spends the majority of the story either lurking in disguise (a running theme in the book that stretches all suspension of disbelief in a way I can only assume was accepted as part of the Romantic History genre the same way we ignore Clark Kent’s glasses) or being bedridden due to wounds he receives about a third of the way through the novel. No one character truly replaces Ivanhoe as our lead. His father Cedric is the most passionate defender of the Saxon cause, though is often played as a man out of touch with political reality despite his pride. Cedric’s preferred Saxon usurper Athelstane fares little better. The rest of the Saxon-related characters we actually follow as full participants are all tertiary characters like servants or the aforementioned Jewish caricatures. And on the Norman side, Prince John disappears as his defeat becomes certain, his supporting Lords burn out in quick succession, and Richard himself spends the majority of the novel similarly “disguised” as a wandering knight (which any reader figures out easily 100 pages before it is officially revealed). The closest character that we can say both has a major impact on the plot and relatively solid number of pages is the villain – Templar knight Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert – whose story reaches a surprising if ignoble end.

What this leaves us with is a strange ensemble novel where the battle over England’s shattered soul is won practically because it needs to be. Scott makes the point frequently that eventually the Saxon and Norman languages merge over time to the modern English we speak, and so by the novel’s end, the two sides must make peace for this to happen. That peace falls mostly in the reconciliation of Richard and Cedric – the latter of whom begrudgingly acknowledges that at least his warrior King has some Saxon blood but mostly gives up the cause because he knows making Athelstane a true Saxon monarch is a lost cause. In that sense, Ivanhoe gives a more logical ending than any other Robin Hood story in that it acknowledges a workable resolution for the war between the “dastardly” Normans and the “honorable” Saxons, but it’s hardly an ending for the ages.

But its the real-world political implications of this unsatisfying conflict that fascinate me and truly have a long-term impact on Robin Hood as a character. If you can’t tell by the shreds of plot mentioned above, Robin is neither necessarily a main player in Ivanhoe (though he is featured much more than most write-ups of the book would have you believe) nor does he occupy his now traditional role of rebel Saxon noble. Here, Robin Hood is a yeoman – the working class forester identity that defined the people’s hero for hundreds of years before this book came along. When Ritson set the Hood ballads down as a book, he too played up this angle, creating the “robs from the rich and gives to the poor” ethos in the process. In short, Ritson’s Robin Hood is a leftist hero, a surprising anti-monarchist reflecting the views of the post-French Revolution intellectuals that these writers were doubtlessly a part of. Where Ivanhoe screws things up is that it takes this revolutionary Leftist people’s hero and immediately sees him bend a knee to Richard because…reasons.

In almost all subsequent versions of the Robin Hood story, authors have essentially merged Scott’s version of the outlaw and Wilfred of Ivanhoe into one persona. Modern literary Robin Hoods are frequently returning crusaders like Ivanhoe, which naturally allies them with the so-called military genius that was the Lionheart. But even when that angle is dropped, Robin has been forevermore cast as a deposed Saxon noble rather than a yeoman archer. This image of the hero may not have been Scott’s intent, but his work ultimately redefined Robin Hood as totally contradictory character – ever rebelling against Norman rule but always bending a knee to the “true” Norman King in the end.

Rather than sink all subsequent versions of the story, this split personality has actually opened up Robin Hood to a variety of interpretations over the years. In the immediate wake of Ivanhoe, some English author’s used the fight against Prince John as a coded attack on the corruptibility of the monarchy in general – always keeping the absent but “honorable” Richard as a smokescreen from accusations of disrespecting the crown. Others leaned heavily on Robin’s final commitment to Richard as proof of the need for young readers to be “Good English Boys” and follow the example the conservative class structure set out before them. As the hero moved into the medium of film, we see a similar tracks of interpretation from the aggressively apolitical Errol Flynn adventure classic through to the anti-Thatcher British TV series “Robin of Sherwood” and its oddly Gulf War-influenced Hollywood successor starring Kevin Costner.

It’s an odd legacy for Ivanhoe to have – simultaneously shattering any chance at creative unity for Robin Hood and codifying its particulars for the better part of a century – especially considering the fact that Scott more meant to capitalize on the popularity of the outlaw in the novel than revive it. But intent and interpretation often make strange bedfellows.

But while the legend of the English outlaw was what led me to Ivanhoe, the most revelatory part of my reading was the huge influence the novel’s had on the A Song of Ice & Fire series I’ve spend the past six years devouring. Like its influence on Robin Hood and the Richard I milieu, it’s hard to say with 100% certainty that Ivanhoe is the very first popular novel to play up the ideas of Middle Ages chivalry in a romantic/action adventure context. But it’s certainly the book that made rose-colored stories of knights, jousting and all the rest “a thing.” In fact, despite the fact that it contains no fantastical elements, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a novel as influential on what we know call the high fantasy genre until Tolkien came along.

But the impact Ivanhoe has on George RR Martin’s still in-progress masterpiece goes far beyond its general place in the canon of medieval literature. Martin himself has given cursory public acknowledgement to the influence of the book – or more so given it general praise as a volume worth looking into if you love his series. But he’s hardly pointed to it in the glowing terms he’s bestowed on more modern medieval novels like Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings. And honestly, I can’t say with any certainty that Ivanhoe directly inspired elements of his book since it’s equally likely that the novel so firmly established tropes that have become section nature to the genres he’s deconstructing. But still. It’s hard to read Scott’s novel today without feeling it reach into the future and set down two incredibly concrete aspect of Martin’s epic.

For one, the earlier book is built around three massive set pieces whose particulars don’t just echo how Martin plays the action of his novel, but they establish the standard rules of medieval action that permeate nearly every aspect of ASOIAF. Early in Ivanhoe, the major setting for both fighting and revelations of the main characters true identities is a tournament of skill held by Prince John deep in the Saxon regions of England. The tournament stretches over multiple days with its primary competitions being in archery (the aforementioned scene where Robin splits the arrow), jousting and a “melee” battle. Anyone who’s read even the first of Martin’s novels will recognize the setup. The idea of a tournament being called by a would-be king is a repeated theme of ASOIAF, and the champion in either jousting or (more frequently) the melee always play a major role in disrupting the accepted monarchical or noble order. But beyond the general setup (which I’m sure is employed in a thousand novels about courtly love), reading Ivanhoe’s tournament chapters evoked Martin’s work in a number of ways more specific and subtle. For one, the language used in describing the action and placing the characters physically in the setting lined up to a degree that I can’t recall seeing two books divided by so much time share ever (example: tournaments in both fictional settings are capped off by the winner naming a, usually controversial, “Queen of Love & Beauty”). And more importantly, the pace and rhythm of how the action plays out – establishing various defenders at a slow clip before ramping up the action as primary rivals come to the fore – were virtually identical. More than anything, reading these pages reminded me of how gobsmacked I was by the plotting of Martin’s work in “The Hedge Knight” novella that centers exclusively on a multi-day tournament.

Later sections of the book synch up with Martin’s language and style in similar fashion. In Ivanhoe’ middle third, the action shifts to the siege of a castle where politically important lords (the Saxons Cedric and Athelstane) are held hostage by powerful allies of the king whose grip on power is slowly slipping from them. Again, if you’ve read Martin’s work, the general setup is one repeated over and over both in the main action of the series and in innumerable bits of Westeros history. The resulting siege-breaking battle in Ivanhoe doesn’t synch quite as strongly with Martin as the tournament material did (mostly because Martin is enamored with the idea of months-long sieges and the long-form plotting such stalemates provide while Scott completes the battle in two days), but the two works still share an absurd number of similarities in how they define, build and release the tension of medieval warfare. And this set of circumstances echoes one last time in the finale of Ivanhoe where a player falsely accused of a crime is spared execution when they demand trial by combat. I almost did a spit-take when I read that portion, but much more so than a third ASOIAF trope rearing its head in the book, the thing that sticks with me after reading the whole story (which I’ll spare the details on because the finale has to be experienced to be believed) is how closely the use of the device is in each work. Ivanhoe doesn’t simply call in trial by combat as a method of saving an innocent. It does so to complicate the emotional and social status of those called to battle who all inwardly acknowledge the innocence of the accused even as they press the trial forward for political gain – a Martin hallmark.

Yet the second major connection between Scott and Martin is less flashy and somehow deeper than these three pieces of plot mechanics. As I said above, Ivanhoe’s narrative is decentralized – relying on no individual lead character and instead focusing its conflict on an overarching battle between two historical bloodlines with multiple fractures of motivations within each camp. That description almost exactly describes what has made Martin’s saga such an addictive best-seller, with the central point of divergence being how Martin uses the ensemble setup to his advantage. Because in the end, Ivanhoe is an incredibly traditional story despite its somewhat nontraditional point of view. By the book’s finish, the authority of the true king is reinstated, the returned hero is forgiven by his father and married to his lady in waiting, and the war between the ethnicities is solved in a largely bloodless, peaceful manner. In short, the good guys win and order is restored. Martin leans hard on the style of Ivanhoe but pulls hard away from its conclusions in killing off characters, shattering romantic ties and generally letting order spiral out of control. I’m sure I’m not breaking any news here by saying this.

But it’s in realizing those shared qualities that really brought me to a stronger appreciate of Martin’s work, if not Scott’s. Because in the older novel, the frayed nature of the narrative hardly does anything except confuse the reader. Like I said, if Ivanhoe holds true to any idea it’s that main characters can “disguise” themselves by changing their shirt – ultimately confusing their foes who have no idea what’s happening and the book’s reader who has every idea and just can’t believe this shit was even printed. My strong suspicion is that these lapses in logic are the result of the serialized nature of 19th century novels (plenty of dropped balls in Great Expectations if you’re looking for them). But whatever the cause, Scott shows that despite his book’s many small charms, he’s simply lacking in skill with prose enough to elevate this book to a real literary triumph outside its reputation as a popular entertainment.

Martin on the other hand has his hand firmly on the till all the way through. The go-to knock on ASOIAF is that for all its pulpy pleasures, the series lacks prose style that elevates its ideas outside mechanical plotting. This is the same complaint that’s been levied against popular masters from Stephen King on down, and occasionally it’s an argument that holds merit. But I’m done hearing about how the lean, focused nature of Martin’s prose is somehow a hinderance to its greatness. Again, looking at his first Dunk and Egg novella “The Hedge Knight,” the author spends pages describing every banner, ever bit of mud, every subtle detail surrounding the tournament not just because of some kind of medieval action fetish but because those details eventually combine to build character bonds and an ultimately tragic finish. Sure, the prose doesn’t skip along with a flowing poetical flourish, but it’s not fucking supposed to. Martin uses prose as a weapon. It’s blunt not to deliver a cheap thrill but to land an emotional punch. It’s not a question of a writer doing something the right or wrong way. It’s one of the writer doing something their way. And reading a book like Ivanhoe where so many of the same plot and style features are used in a more meandering, uneconomical manner shows just how strong a writer Martin is on a sentence-to-sentence level. No wonder Winds of Winter isn’t done yet.

Anyway, that’s Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe – fascinating but irrevocably flawed. I’ll say that in my trips through Google to investigate some of the novel’s historic references, I came upon more Spark Notes-esque features on the book than I’d have imagined. With the novel’s rep, I’m sure that it was once a go-to book for mid-century high school AP classes and the like. But in the here and now, if a teacher is assigning this text for students anywhere under the 400 level at university, they deserve to be slapped in the face hard.

52 Books in 2017

Like most people who I assume would read my blog, I buy way more books than I end up reading. Some I get a few chapters into and bail. Some are just interesting things I never get around to. Some I have no memory of buying and seem incredibly uninteresting in retrospect.

This year as part of an ongoing project to push myself to focus more on my writing life, I’m making an attempt to read a book every week, largely from these stacks piled up around my basement. Some of these are children’s novels, but many aren’t. I’ll be doing some classic novels, modern literary faire, pop culture non-fiction volumes and anything else that catches my interest. And since the best way to make sure I stick with something like this is the semi-public shame of watching another blog series die on the vine, I’ll be writing about things here on Sunday nights.

Above is a selection of what I’ll be tackling early on, though in order to cheat as much as possible my first entry is a book not pictured that I’m already about 30% through from the tail end of 2016. If you see this, feel free to make suggestions of things I should pick up as the year goes on. Please recommend short volumes. No self-help.

I’ve Mastered The Art of What They Call “Gumball Science”

So 2016 has been the kind of year that we as humanity will want to tell our kids didn’t exist like the 13th floor of a hotel. But I will always look back on the year fondly in one dimension: it saw the publication of my first kids book.The grand high month of October brought with it Gumball’s Guide To Science, a graphic novel/chapter book hybrid chock full of jokes and experiments based on Cartoon Network’s hit “The Amazing World of Gumball.” While things like “Adventure Time” and “Stephen Universe” are the fan favorite franchises from the network, “Gumball” won me over completely from the first episode I saw, and I can’t think of any show I’d rather begin my time doing licensed books with. I hope that my work on this little guy is one-tenth as funny as Ben Bocquelet and company’s show is, and I am eternally grateful to my editors Sarah Fabiny and Hannah Campbell at Penguin’s Price Stern Sloan! imprint for giving me the chance.

I’ll be beating the drum for the book more in 2017 both here (on a spiffy redesigned blog), elsewhere online and at schools, bookstores and comic conventions across the region. But for now, you can purchase the book on Amazon or find links to a billion other online retailers at Penguin’s official site. Oh, and here are some preview pages from inside to entice you!

Here’s looking up, 2017.

The Adventures of Kiel And Jami

So I got married on Saturday to my longtime lady love Jami. We said our vows at the Michigan State University Alumni Memorial Chapel, only blocks from where we met 14 years ago, and then proceeded to party down at the Student Union to the tune of 7,000 Michael Jackson deep cuts.

I wish all of you could have made it there, but since you couldn’t, I thought I’d share a short comic that Jami and I wrote and was drawn by the incredibly radical Joe Hunter and given to our guests. A billion thanks to Joe for doing an amazing job on this on something of a short deadline.

Alan Moore Is A Very Smart Man

If you haven’t, you should really read as many of his comics as you can right away. And then you should read as much about his career as you can, because even the heartbreaking stuff will make you better. But failing all else, watch him talk about the writing life in this interview for the local college in his beloved home of Northampton.

[Interview] Getting Down With JG Quintel – “Yay-uhhhhhhhh!”

If you guys are as of yet unfamiliar with Cartoon Network’s madcap series “Regular Show” by this point, you really need to start setting your DVRs. It’s one of the few things on TV (or anywhere really) that truly fits that “great for kids and adults” category that almost everything aimed at children that’s contingent on advertising dollars claims to accomplish these days. It’s also probably the most quotable cartoon ever. As proof of its radness, I offer the following exchange from my interview with series creator JG Quintel:

Me: The show has a very specific style where it feels like this could be taking place 15 or 20 years ago. There are a lot of ’80s technology and old video games that work their way in, and it reminds of when I was a kid and would see old “rubber hose” black and white cartoons where a character would turn a crank on the front of their car to start it up, and I’d go, “What is THAT?” Do you feel like you’ve got fourth graders across America going, “What the heck is a cassette tape?”

JG: I have one even better than that! One of the guys that works on our show, his kid is really young, and he saw an episode where a character had a telephone – like a land line telephone – and he didn’t know what it was! [Laughter] That was CRAZY. And it’s really fun to see these things that these little kids are not going to know. Cassette tapes, VHS tapes…none of them probably know what this stuff is. I’d be surprised if most of them even knew what a boombox was.

Me: Is there a specific reason you keep to that aesthetic? Is it just what you like to draw?

JG: I think it’s because I grew up in the ’80s, and I remember all that stuff – old 8-bit video games and cassette tapes and all the different formats. I don’t know why, but I wanted to have that feel on the show. I didn’t want to keep it too contemporary where the characters were all, “We have smart phones!” and all this new stuff. I wanted it to be things that everybody would remember even if they were outdated. We did an episode about those huge ’80s brick cell phones, and we just made it because I thought those were hilarious. [Laughs] “They’re so huge! We’ve got to get this into an episode.”

For more, check out the full interview on Spinoff Online.

Silly Editor, “Hunger Games” Are For Kids

I’ll admit to not being super familiar with the work of Suzanne Collins outside her deserved juggernaut The Hunger Games and its sequels. I’d been meaning to read the novels for a while at the behest of my Middle School teaching cousins when my fianceé one-upped me by tearing through all three novels in the series in a week last Christmas.

Still, it struck me reading up on Collins in the wake of being impressed by Games that unlike so many of the hot “phenom” YA and kidlit writers that have struck a pop culture nerve over the past decade, she was an established kids author (and TV writer) before breaking through to millions of readers. While Stephanie Meyers – to chose the most obvious example – carries a rap for being a fluke whose prose connected with tweens, teens and housewives thanks to its thinly veiled connection to her own sexual interests/politics, Collins success is as much a result of earned craft chops with character, theme and action as it is one of zeitgeist. She can really WRITE is what I’m saying.

With all that in mind, it was really interesting to watch the rollout announcement for Collins’ next project: a picture book called Year Of The Jungle with longtime collaborator artist James Proimos. The news should have been pretty easy to engage with. “Renowned kids book author does different kind of kids book” is an easy news hook, after all. But looking through the mainstream press coverage of the announcement, I saw again and again a tone taken that was practically one of surprise.

“The lady who wrote the violent action movie ‘The Hunger Games’ has now written a CHILDREN’S book!” so many of the stories seemed to say. A lot of this fell at the feet of editors desperate for a more Google-able headline like this one at the Examiner where it seems the writer of the article is more comfortable labeling the project a picture book, but there are also stories that play up the supposed surprise more directly like this story in the Atlantic Wire.

Of course, I don’t think we should be surprised that editors at publications whose front page has a special tab for “Bars & Clubs” aren’t experts on the specifics of kids book publishing and its terminology (NOTE: ALL books published by Scholastic are children’s books. Collins’ novels are YOUNG ADULT. Her new one is a PICTURE BOOK), but that they write their copy based solely on the PR for the new book and do virtually zero research on Collins’ history as a writer is a sobering reminder of how the outside world views our business. As far as many of these journalists are concerned, all hit kids books spring from the skulls of daydreaming housewives like Athena from the skull of Zeus. Why put any more thought – or better yet any thought at all – into the fact that a woman who’s written one kind of anti-war book for kids would then write a different anti-war book for kids? Boggles the mind.

In better news, Year Of The Jungle sounds like a great idea for a picture book. I hadn’t been aware of this history of Collins father in Vietnam before now, but makes perfect sense for her interests as a writer. I reminded me of this great, brief Hunger Games comic by cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks and the accompanying reflection on the series she drew for Tor.com:

(You should really click through and read both)

Regardless of how dumb some adults in the media can be about Collins work, I’m betting its themes will read through just fine to a generation of kids who have grown up in a United States perpetually at war with the Arab world.

And if nothing else, the books will keep inspiring crazy fan tributes from comic artists like this one from Dan Hipp:

(Hat tip to my pals at Robot 6 for the comic links)

All I Really Need To Know I Learned On “The Simpsons”

I can’t remember when I stopped watching new episodes of “The Simpsons” every Sunday night, but it had to be at least 12 years ago. There was a time when I was a true follower of Matt Groening and company’s show, repeating lines to my friends as often as these guys (READ IT). But even after the majority of my young life kneeling at the “Don’t Have A Cow, Man” altar, I fell out of the habit.

Part of that is that I agree with a lot of the common criticisms of where the show is now. It’s less character-focused. The plots have grown more “ADHD” (though it hasn’t slid quite into “Family Guy” levels of non-sequitur gags). They lost their best writer in John Swartzwelder and their best producers in Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. And generally, after 24 seasons and a decent movie, there just isn’t as much life to be drawn out of the series anymore.

Still. Unlike some folks who abandoned the show entirely, I kept half and eye on “The Simpsons” over the years. I watch it while making dinner since it’s always on around 6:00 whatever city you’re in. And after a really fallow period, I started to catch the occasional episode that was actually, genuinely funny from the most recent years.

And then tonight while eating a hamburger, I watched a rerun of the episode “The Book Job” which originally aired almost exactly a year ago.

Hoooooollllllleeeee. That was GREAT.

Of course, I’m biased on this one. The episode featured Neil Gaiman, a writer whose work I greatly enjoy – particularly when I discovered him through comics before he became know across the country as “Award-Winning Children’s Author Neil Gaiman.” And as such, the story involved a ton of winking joke references to his specific work (Sez Moe: “I don’t care if he wrote ‘Sandman Volume One, Preludes and Nocturnes!’”). I expected as much when I missed the episode last year, but I never really picked up on the story of “The Book Job.”

And it was the whole story that really hit home for me. The episode revolves around Lisa’s learning that her favorite tween fantasy series wasn’t penned by the author who’s personal story so touched her. Instead, the series was cranked out by a corporation who write YA novels by committee. The authors on the back covers are all actors, the text written by teams of recent college graduates desperate to pay off their student loans:

I’m sure just by looking at this blog, you can see why this plot hit home for me. And while the rapid-fire jokes ratcheted up wonderfully as Bart and Homer build a team to crank out their own YA series about a pair of lost prince troll brothers who go to a private school located under the Brooklyn Bridge and Lisa committed herself to writing a novel the right way (i.e. procrastinating at every available opportunity and getting nothing done), the total effect of the episode was a satire of writers who stupidly give up their rights to corporate interests.


For years, one of my biggest drums to beat in the children’s/YA lit world is a call to arms on the issue of real ownership vs. work for hire. As a fan involved in and then a freelance journalist for the comics industry, the story of creators being screwed over their rights by publishers is one I’ve heard over and over again. The sale of Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to DC Comics is rightly viewed as comics original sin. And aside from making for lawsuits that are still entrenched and personally painful to read about today, the history associated with that event serves as an object lesson to creative people working in idioms ripe for media adaptation.

Comics was an industry run by greedy, exploitative publishers from day one thanks to its connection to the now dead pulp industries. But now in an age where corporate owned comic characters make billions in movie and licensing, the world of book publishing – and kids books in particular – has picked up on the Work For Hire contract practices pioneered by shifty, untrustworthy comics companies to feed books stands, TV stations and movie theaters with profit-maximizing “Intellectual Properties.” (ugh…that term chills the spine)

The kingpins of this practice are “Alloy Entertainment” – a company formerly known by the more accurate name “Alloy Media + Marketing” (yes, they really used the plus). Best known for “Gossip Girl” and their similar scads of teen novel series turned basic cable dramas, Alloy is probably the most untrustworthy, exploitative publisher in any book market today (no surprise then that they were recently bought out by DC Comics owners Warner Bros!).

If you haven’t already, you should read New York Magazine’s exposé on Alloy’s partnership with cretinous author/known literary fraud/Oprah buffoon James Frey. It’s a real horror story. And even deals at Alloy that aren’t necessarily built on predatory practices like the Gossip Girl franchise (whose TV show I’ll cop to watching for many years) created by former Alloy Editor Cecily von Ziegesar have a tendency to screw over the writer in one way or another.

But more often than not, signing with a firm like Alloy just means that they’ll screw you as hard as they can when the opportunity to do both that and make a ton of money for themselves comes along. Take the case of writer L.J. Smith who created the best-selling Vampire Diaries franchise for Alloy ahead of the current vampire craze and THEN came back to give them more volumes so they could capitalize on the mass of Twilight fans who cropped up in the past five years.

As Smith explained in a recent interview:

When they sent the contract, it said it was a work for hire. What it meant was I was giving up basically all the rights I’d have as a normal writer, including the right to continue writing my books. And Alloy Entertainment decided they wanted shorter books that were promoting the television series, and they simply informed me, even though I had already written a book called Phantom for them and given them all the information for that book and the next book, Moonsong, that my services were no longer required.

Shocker, right? I try not to mock writers who work for this company because, like the Devil did with Daniel Webster, I’m sure the people they first met from Alloy were all smiles when they were signing the contracts. But stories like this – stories of disenfranchisement and summary dismissals and an unwarranted loss of creative control after making them millions with your talent – should be told again and again in our industry until Alloy is shamed into collapsing.

No, that may not happen any time soon if ever, but as a writer, it’s up to you to know your rights and avoid people who would exploit you unfairly. Even if you make the big bucks at first from an ABC Family TV series, the pain of having your work ripped from your hands will be much worse than a modest paycheck up front. And in real life, you don’t get to team up with Neil Gaiman in an “Ocean’s Eleven” style scheme to ensure the book your company publishes meets your original vision. You’re simply shown the door.

Meanwhile, people who safeguard their rights and do wonderful, even commercial work for their own edification are doing just fine in the bank. People like Matt Groening who’s controlled merchandising for “The Simpsons” since its inception as well as full creative control over the franchise. It doesn’t just empower him to make the money. It enables him to speak the truth.

Beginnings Are The Hardest Part

I’d have friends argue that sticking the landing on a story, especially a long form one, is the toughest part of the job. But as I’m currently staring down maybe my 17th version (no lie) of my mystery’s first chapter, I’ve got to call it for beginnings.

That’s one of the reasons I dug this crazy fun interactive gallery of the “100 Best Opening Lines From Children’s Book” up over at something called The Stylist in the UK. The best first sentences of books encapsulate the whole of the story’s meaning and movement, so they say (you know who they are). I’m not sure that holds true for every one of these, but one thing I was struck by reading over the various lines was how many kids narratives start with some kind of travel or location. Stories for kids are always about moving from one place to another, after all.

Take the opening to E. Nesbit’s Five Children And It – a Brit kids book I’ve been meaning to read for a while because of supremely weird covers like the ones above, though it’s harder to find over here:

“The house was three miles from the station, but before the dusty hired fly had rattled along for five minutes the children began to put their heads out of the carriage window and to say, ‘Aren’t we nearly there?’”

A different riff on this theme shows up in a book I devoured as a kid, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Here, we start with the location being traveled too – and with a particularly repugnant adult – because there’s no way we can meet a character line Anne through her own eyes. She needs to be experienced.

“Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place.”

Of course starting with travel proves nothing of a story actually being about anything, as is the case with one of the top five worst kids books I’ve read in the past ten years: The Secret of The Old Clock by “Carolyn Keene”:

“Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.”


But simplicity can certainly get the job done too. Take Laura Ingalls Wilder with Little House On The Prairie:

“Once upon a time, a little girl named Laura traveled in a covered wagon across the giant prairie.”

Bing Bang Boom.

Just for the sake of a wider ranger, here’s one last one. The opening to one of my favorite books of all time, Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

As a boy, it was Dahl’s storytelling voice that made me love him more than any other writer, and here he doesn’t start with his own character but with the idea that defines that character’s world: that some children and some adults even can be horrifically repugnant people. That’s a thing any kid who’s ever lived on planet earth knows from experience, and the way Dahl lets them know that he gets it without spelling it out is indicative of his enviable chops.

Anyway, check the whole list out. It’s fun. It’s also funny if for no other reason than that they included Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. Really, The Stylist? Year One?!?! Hell, I read that when I was 11, and I still wouldn’t call it that.