Monday, September 29, 2014

So, who's this Captain Marvel character...?

Captain Marvel was a Golden Age caped strongman-style superhero created in 1939 by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker and published by Fawcett Comics. One of—and at times the—best-selling comic book heroes of the 1940s, he seemed at first blush to be a pretty straightforward Superman rip-off—especially if one only looked at the covers of comic books featuring the two heroes rather than reading the stories about them under those covers—but they were actually quite different, and even engaged in a sort of creative cross-pollination, with Marvel Family characters like Mary Marvel inspiring Superman Family characters like Supergirl.

Fawcett published various Captain Marvel and Marvel Family comics until 1953, when they folded as a comics publishing concern (in part because DC was suing them for copyright infringement).
Captain Marvel was also the name of a short-lived Silver Age character who appeared in a short-lived series from short-lived publisher M.F. Enterprises, appearing in four issues in 1966-1967. This one was an alien android with the power to separate his body parts to act independently.

Captain Marvel was also the name of a superhero created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan for Marvel Comics in late 1967; an alien military officer from the Kree Empire, his real name was Mar-Vell.

A few years later, DC Comics starting licensing the original Captain Marvel character and his supporting cast from Fawcett, so both DC Comics and Marvel Comics both had Captain Marvels, neither of which attained the popularity the original enjoyed in the 1940s, given that comics in general weren't as popular in the 1970s and 1980s as they were in the 1940s.

Then Marvel's Captain Marvel died of cancer, and the name Captain Marvel was adopted by Monica Rambeau, who had different powers and was unrelated to her predecessor in anyway.

She later gives the name to Marvel's Captain Marvel's son Genis-Vell, who becomes Captain Marvel III, while Rambeau takes the name Photon, which Genesis-Vell also later takes, and then she takes the name Pulsar. And then goes by Monica Rambeau. And now I think she's called Spectrum.

Marvel's fourth Captain Marvel is kinda sorta Captain Marvel III's younger sister, although she later renames herself Martyr and dies, I think....?

The name then goes on to Captain Marvel V, actually a Skrull sleeper agent who thinks he's the original Marvel Captain Marvel. He dies.

Next up is Marvel Boy II Noh-Varr, who briefly took the name Captain Marvel and a modified version of the original's original costume, before changing his name to The Protector, leaving the name Captain Marvel up for grabs again, until it was claimed by Carol "Ms. Marvel" Danvers, a one-time (original) Captain Marvel supporting character who gained Cpatain Marvel-like powers through an energy fusion of Kree DNA back in 1969.
In 2012, dropped the "Ms" and became Marvel's seventh character named Captain Marvel.

While Marvel's Captain Marvel's were engaged in a decades' long game of hot potato with the name, DC Comics assumed ownership of the original Fawcett Captain Marvel in the early '90s, and published a variety of books featuring that particular family of characters, none of which ever had the name "Captain Marvel" in the title, although he kept the name within the comics themselves.

Since DC has renamed their Captain Marvel, the original Captain Marvel, Shazam (in most instances; an upcoming issue of Grant Morrison's The Mutliversity project refers to the character as "Captain Marvel"), Carol Danvers is currently the only Captain Marvel with her own comic book series. That said, she's only one of ten superheroes that have gone by the name "Captain Marvel," and she's only had the name for about two years now.

And that's why Marvel Studios will never make a Captain Marvel movie. Because when anyone hears the name, they think of at least two or three different characters.

But then, I assumed Fin Fang Foom would have been the first Lee/Kirby monster to appear in a major motion picture, but Groot was part of the Guardians of The Galaxy ensemble and is now a fucking household name, so hey, what do I know...?

**********************

Discussing female superhero movies with a friend the other day, the Carol Danvers problem came up. In addition to how nebulous and polluted the name "Captain Marvel" is, I think it unlikely that Marvel Studios would make a movie featuring a character with the name of the Studio in her name. It just sounds weird: Marvel's Captain Marvel.

She noted that a more interesting movie would be one to starring the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, and while I think "Ms. Marvel" sounds just as off as "Captain Marvel" for the title of a Marvel Studios movie and assume there's still that Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel problem (as Kamala takes that codename because Danvers was her hero, and Danvers abandoned "Ms. Marvel" for "Captain Marvel), she rightly noted they could just de-couple Danvers and Kamala Khan for the purpose of the movie, and then the only name problem is the fact that "Marvel's Ms. Marvel" sounds goofy to me.

Of course, Marvel Studios seems to have some difficulty making a superhero movie that doesn't star a buff, white, blonde guy named "Chris," so I suppose the chances of them making a movie about a character who is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenage girl are pretty slim, no matter what her name is.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

With her own Astro City analog, Orca, The Whale Woman has finally arrived

I'm not sure how much writer Kurt Busiek, artist Brent Anderson and character designer and cover artist Alex Ross would agree with me, given how reductionist it likely sounds, but the trio's on-again, off-again superhero series Astro City is more-or-less powered by its inspiration from other, older superhero comics, particularly those of DC and Marvel Comics.

As Busiek and Ross did with their seminal Marvel series, the stories quite often focus on superhero characters from the civilian sidelines, teasing out problems and solutions to real-world considerations of genre elements, and comments on aspects of comic book superheroes—and heroic fiction in general. It does so, in large part, by first building a world that is much like the one that likely existed in the creators' imaginations when they were children and young men, a sort of amalgated universe where DC, Marvel, Charlton and Hollywood heroes all share the same space.

Since they don't own the rights to any of these characters, however, they fill Astro City with analogs, some much more direct than others: The Samaritan is Superman, The Confessor and Altar Boy are Batman and Robin, The Gentleman is Captain Marvel, The First Family is The Fantastic Four and so on (Often with key, imaginative differences, sure, but, for the point of this post, I just want to focus on the fact that Astro City is populated with analog versions of some the most popular superhero characters of all time).

The latest iteration of Astro City is being published under DC's Vertigo imprint, and its latest collection was Astro City: Winged Victory, starring the Wonder Woman analog named in the sub-title. It also features a new villain in a minor role: Maneater!
She is one of several female supervillains, including Warmaiden and Jagged Jill, who tell the media that Winged Victory paid them to fight her and take dives, which is all part of a very elaborate, collection-long conspiracy to discredit and destroy Winged Victory.

In the back of the book, we're shown a sketch of Maneater:
And we also get to see some of the design notes:
Maneater is a black woman with a shark-like fin, gray shark-type skin and pointy teeth; she wears something that looks like a surfer's wetsuit, patterned like an orca.
Like an orca, huh...? Aha! Now I know why Maneater looked so familiar!
She looks so much like Orca, The Whale Woman, a minor (very minor) Batman villain introduced by Larry Hama and Scott McDaniel in 2000's Batman #579-#581, during a particularly fruitful and well-organized period for the Batman line of books (At the time, each of the several Batman books had a very distinct tone and style, and dealt with a highlighted, isolated aspect of the character: Hama and McDaniels' Batman book dealt with Batman as superhero).

If you missed that story arc, or her subsequent cameos, here's the deal with Orca: Dr. Grace Balin (Balin! Like baleen! Get it?!) was a marine biologist and social activist whose spine was paralyzed in an accident that cost her the use of her legs. Just as Dr. Kirk Langstrom looked to bats in his development a serum to combat deafness and Dr. Kurt Connors looked to lizards in his development of a serum to help people re-grow lost limbs, Balin develops a serum that can restore her spine, but with the expected side effect of turning her into a half-human, half-animal monster.
Her orca-like strength and endurance make her more than a match for Batman in a fair fight, on land or especially in water, but by the third act, and with the help of a custom-made, action figure-ready SCUBA suit (SCUBA, of course, standing for Self-Contained Underwater Batman Apparatus), he is able to save the day.
And that's pretty much the end of Orca, save for a brief appearance in Last Laugh and a briefer still one getting killed off in "One Year Later" Batman/Detective Comics story arc "Face The Face."

I always kinda liked the character, for a couple of reasons. First, she did not have the typical build and figure of, let's see, every single female supervillain ever. Second, like Killer Croc and Man-Bat (and sometimes Solomon Grundy or Clayface), she fit into the "big, tough, monster" category of Batman villain, of the sort that could give a more powerful superhero someone to fight when they team up with Batman. Third, I kinda like underwater villains, especially in the DC Universe, as poor Aquaman, a long-time favorite character of mine, never seemed to have enough cool villains of his own to fight. Fourth, she was a minor, slightly silly, oft-ridiculed Batman villain, of the sort Batman history is lousy with, and whom attain a sort of underdog status I always enjoy rooting for. Fifth, I just like typing the phrase "Orca, The Whale Woman."

Which, oddly enough, when I Google, I only find used on comics blogs making fun of Orca, like this 20008 one with the inspired title from Mr. Chris Sims (from which I stole one of those scans), or this older-still post on The Absorbascon.

Well, say what you will about Orca, and you will say more about Orca, at the very least, she now has an Astro City analog character based on her, and that's something you can't say about every Batman villain.

Incidentally, unless I missed some appearances—I don't remember her appearing as a Black Lantern during Blackest Night, which, if true, is kinda weird, as they were pretty desperate for dead Batman villains to put into the tie-ins—then Orca analog Maneater has already had one-third as many appearances as her inspiration.

Assuming she was inspired by Orca, and it wasn't just a pure coincidence that Busiek and company produced a villain that looked so much like one who appeared in like five comics. As an Orca advocate, I'm going to continue assuming that Maneater was created in knowing, loving tribute to Orca.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Orange you glad he's here to save the day...?

Marvel might have canceled their title Avengers Assemble, the Avengers book starring the same line-up of characters that starred in the movie, last spring after some 25 issue. But they will still publish you a "custom copy," provided you've got as much money and access to a big enough audience as, say, The Florida Department of Citrus.

As you may have read or heard in this past week's business news, Florida's citrus industry hired Marvel to revitalize their Captain Citrus mascot—an anthropomorphic orange with a leafy green cape and a big "C" emblem on his chest into something more, well, Marvel-ous.

The new Captain Citrus is a young man from Florida, who lives with his family in an orange grove and has solar rather than citrus-based powers. One might thing he'd go with something like Captain Solar then, but, well, maybe he just really loves oranges. Or he's bursting at the spandex seams with state pride. Or he found the original Captain Citrus, dying from citrus greening, and promised to carry on the dying fruit-man's legacy (While not human, I could easily see the original Captain Citrus existing in the Marvel Universe; he could have been a mutant, for example. He doesn't really look any weirder than Doop, does he?)

It's easy to see why the citrus industry would like to try and rub a little of that movie-infused Marvel magic onto their character, but what was in it for Marvel, other than whatever they got paid? Well, they apparently produced one million of the damn comics—about ten times as many issues of Batman sell in the direct market each month—for free distribution to the captive audience of Florida school children. The comics story-portion is 12 pages long, and there are eight pages of ads, seven of which are devoted to how awesome orange juice is and how important it is to nutrition, and one page for the season premiere of an Avengers cartoon. Oh, and this is an Avengers comics, in which Captain Citrus is billed as a special guest-star, so it advertises the Marvel IP as much as it does the awesomeness of orange juice.

Our story, written by long-time Marvel editor Ralph Macchio, penciled by Kev Sharpe and inked by too many inkers to name, begins in Orlando, where big, pink, muscular androids are tearing the joint up: THROOM! SKRASSHH!

Citizens run and cry for help, but the police seem completely oblivious, as if they can't even see what's going on. A quinjet lands and out jump a quartet of Avengers, each introduced via caption with a few-word description, like "IRON MAN, Hi-Tech Knight!" an d"BLACK WIDOW, Espionage Expert!" Rounding out the team are Thor and Captain America.

The heroes, written as a mix of their comics and movie personalities—Iron Man in particular seems much more Robert Downey, Jr. than Marvel Universe Iron Man; so quippy he's practically Iron Man.

The battle rages long enough for it to make the news and be seen by a family of four in an orange grove, where a young man wearing an orange-colored shirt is discussing the virtues of orange juice with his younger sister.
The young man discusses his not-secret-from-his-family origin, in which he found a pair of solar pods in their orange grove. He powers-up to go help the Avengers with is several solar powers: Flight, energy blasts, the ability to create orange "hard light weapons" (like that orange energy shield he's shown with on the John Tyler Christopher-drawn-cover) and even the ability to project his power into other objects, when he essentially acts like a shot of orange juice to Thor's Mjlonir to help them put down all the androids.

The Avengers accept the new hero into their fold almost immediately, foregoing the grand Marvel tradition of first fighting and then teaming up upon first meeting a new hero for the first time.

Captain America doesn't even laugh when Captain Citrus introduces himself, or question who awarded him the rank of "Captain."
With the Sunkist Sentinel in tow, the Avengers track the androids—and the apparent mental manipulation of the local police—to the source, a high-tech headquarters, where they find "THE LEADER, Gamma-Enhanced Evil Genius!"

In the comic's longest stretch of expository dialogue, delivered while the Avengers Plus One are telepathically immobilized, The Leader explains he's built a Mental Manipulator that he was able to use on the police officers, and will soon be able to use on large swathes of the population. The only side-effect of his machinery? Extreme cold and frost, which is hurting the local citrus crops.

Whew! Good to know it's just an imaginary, green mad scientist using an imaginary invention that's hurting agriculture in Florida, and not, like, climate change or anything we might have to do anything at all about!
Hearing that innocent oranges are in danger, Captain Citrus is able to break free, and use his ill-defined super-solar powers to absorb a bunch of the lightning that powers the machine and, uh, somehow free The Avengers.

But at what cost?!

For there, lying prone on the ground, is Captain Citrus—dead!

Or is he?!

For his solar pods start to glow, and vines start to grow from the ground and, somehow, the pods or the grove or some combination of the two brought him back to life.
I'm kinda surprised they didn't say the orange juice made him immortal. I think that would really help move bottles of orange juice, but the comic is actually rather restrained in it's hard sell of orange juice. If you removed the ads and that one breakfast exchange, this isn't really that far removed from a competent if generic Marvel comic.

Is this the last we'll see of Captain Citrus? Well, if Florida's citrus industry decides to commission more comics featuring him, hopefully they'll have him team-up with Groot, who should bring an interesting perspective to problems facing an industry that survives on the production of fruit from trees, or Man-Thing, who is probably Florida's most prominent Marvel. Or was, until Captain Citrus debuted.

And, if Marvel is allowed to use this Cap in their comics universe, well, the Flordia squadron of the Avengers' Fifty-State Initiative has a new recruit and, if nothing else, they have a character they can kill off in a big event series to let readers know the story is important.

In the mean time, if you are not a child attending school in the state of Florida and would like to read about Captain Citrus—and perhaps learn about how fucking awesome citrus-products are—the digital comic and citrus propaganda are available here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Comic shop comics: September 24th

It's Thursday night, which is usually when I just link to the various pieces I wrote for other places throughout the past week, and then call it a night, but it just so happens that I only wrote one piece for anywhere other than EDILW this week, and that was about four comic books that were released yesterday, so I figured I would just fold a link to my reviews of those last few DC Futures End specials here, before commencing with reviews of the comic book-comics I bought at the shop this week.

Of those four, Superman: Futures End #1 may be the all-around best, but Booster Gold: Futures End #1 has a lot to recommend it, and will likely be the most talked-about DC super-book of the week (tied with Superman: Doomed #2, which ends with a page teasing some of the very same stuff Booster Gold teased). For more on what's going on with DC's multiverse now, I'd recommend Tom Bondurant's column on the latest exciting/annoying developments. Personally, I'm a little unsettled that DC seems to be expanding its Multiverse at the very same time that Grant Morrison's The Multiversity is finally seeing release, complete with a map of the Multiverse. Are there now multiple Multiverses? Multi-multiverses? Are we heading towards a Crisis On Multiple Multiverses?!

Anyway...

Adventures of Superman #17 (DC Comics) Noooooooooooooo! It's the very last issue of one of the small handful of DC Comics still left on my pull-list! (Luckily, Sensation Comics and Gotham Academy have/are come/coming along when they did/will...and I'm looking forward to trying out Batgirl once its new creative team takes over next month).

Well, at least its going out with a bang, featuring three short stories, the worst of which is well-drawn, interesting and decent enough, the other two of which are excellent. Pretty A-list talent, involved.

The first story is written by Jerry Ordway, who I would normally wish also drew it, given how much I like his artwork (which you can see in the last five issues of SpongeBob Comics), but in this case, I'm perfectly okay with someone else doing the drawing, as that artist is Steve Rude. Rude, who draws in a slightly rougher style than usual, likely in order to better reflect the artist whose creation the story deals with. No, not Joe Shuster, although naturally, his Superman is the star. Rather, it's an unlikely team-up between Shuster aJekkend Siegel's Superman and Jack Kirby's O.M.A.C., in the character's original form (For the last, oh, eight years or so DC has been using OMAC and Brother Eye as villains more than heroes, so it was rather refreshing to see a version of the original so undiluted).

In that story, Superman encounters a powerful, deadly and cool-looking robot—"Why is it that every robot I meet wants to kill me?" Superman thinks to himself in the greatest Superman panel I can remember seeing at the moment, one in which his cape is draped awkwardly over his head after he's been knocked a few dozen yards away by a robot. Just when Supes seems to be on the ropes, OMAC arrives to save the day.

That's followed by the weakest of the three pieces, a sci-fi ghost story of sorts written by Steve Niles and drawn by Matthe Dow Smith. The art is great, and there are some pretty neat ideas at play in the script, but they never quite come together as well as they should, perhaps a result of the short length of the story (The Ordway/Rude story could have used at least another page too, based on how crowded with panels the last page was).

Finally, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's "Mystery Box" is pretty much a pitch perfect Lois Lane/Superman comic, a fast-moving, jam-packed ten-pager that perfectly defines the pairs relationship (or at least its modern, idealized version, rather than the weird-ass version that dominated the comics for the first few decades of the characters' existence).

Lois Lane, who we meet in mid-adventure, has just given Superman a lead-lined gift for Valentine's Day, and he seeks advice from his super friends—Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman—as to what it might be, and what he should get Lois in return. The last three panels were so great that I hoped DeConnick's editor high-fived her upon receiving the script.


Did Fabok start drawing a belt reading "HUSH" and then decide against it...?
Batman Eternal #25 (DC) The big reveal, teased out over the course of the last few issues and explored at some length in this issue, that the villain Hush has been the secret villain behind the other villains likely would have carried more weight if I—or anyone—knew anything at all about the character of Hush, but given that this is his first appearance since DC rebooted their own history, the only reaction really possible has been, "Oh, it's that guy."

He may have been the antagonist in the extremely popular Batman story arc "Hush" by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee, but since that story quite clearly never happened in this "new" DC Universe, he's really nothing more than a name and a not-terribly-interesting character design at this point. The reveal that he's the maestro of all the madness of the past 25 issues doesn't really bear any more weight than if it was revealed that it was Anarky, or Nyssa al Ghul, or Orca, The Whale Woman pulling the strings.

Well, aside from the fact that many readers will think, "Well, they did something interesting with Hush once; maybe they'll do something interesting with him here." (They didn't really, though; "Hush" was interesting as a greatest hits, "Let's let Jim Lee draw all the Batman characters!" story, but the villain at the center of it was...less-than-compelling. Hush was an evil plastic surgeon, who turned out to have multiple identities; like, he was technically Dr. Tommy Elliot, but he was also kinda sorta The Riddler, Two-Face and Harold in that story, too. And Clayface pretending to be a resurrected Jason Todd for a little bit too, I guess).

Luckily, the book does end with a tag reading "NEXT: THE HISTORY OF HUSH!", so I guess it's good Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV and the rest of the writing team at least anticipated my reaction (and I would imagine the reaction of many readers) after hearing Batman and Hush talk at each other for a few pages, but it would have been nice to get some of that history a little earlier. Right after Hush was introduced into the story a few issues ago, for example (Or, better still, if there never was a New 52-boot, we'd already know/care about the character and his history).

This issue is drawn by R.M. Guera, who is proud enough of his work to sign several pages, and is scripted by Tynion. The out-of-town sub-plots involving Batman's extended family seem to have been occurring off-page for a while now, as Batgirl, Red Hood, Red Robin and Harper are all back in town now, and seem to have progressed in their various relationships.

Jason Bard pushes Vicki Vale to help him push the city towards martial law, Hush uses hologram technology to taunt Batman, Alfred's daughter makes fun of the dinosaur and Batgirl and the two former Robins who aren't currently faking their own deaths team-up to help Batman.

It's fine, even if the pacing of the series can be a bit uneven in terms of juggling plotlines and the art has been better (it's also been worse, so I can't complain) and the villain is a complete cypher with no gravitas as of yet.


Batman '66 #15 (DC) A so-so issue in which a villain I had never heard of/don't remember—Black Widow—teams up with Burgess Meredith. Wilfredo Torres provides the art, while Jeff Parker scripts as usual. I don't have anything else to say about it, which is of course a review in and of itself.


Lumberjanes #6 (Boom Studios) This issue seemed like a disappointment after the previous issue, which was so awesome I guess it would have been nigh impossible to follow up. In this issue, the girls spend the, um, entire issue playing capture the flag, while there are a few hints about the conflict behind the strange goings-on.


The New 52: Futures End #21 (DC) While I can understand the storytelling virtues of a slow, slow reveal, this issue more than any other since the Free Comic Book Day #0 issue really made me question the structure of this entire series. From the first issue, there has been talk about some vague war in the past involving Apokolips and Earth 2, one that apparently destroyed the parallel Earth (which the title Earth 2 is set on), filled Earth 1 with refugees, killed off and/or terribly altered many of Earth 1's heroes, and lead to a secretive, sinister group on Cadmus Island keeping a prison camp/laboratory full of Earth 2 superheroes.

Here, the full story of that war is told, in one big info-dump conversation involving characters who already know most of the story, and are simply recounting it for the sake of the readers.

It made me question if maybe this would have been a better conflict with which to launch the series, rather than the extremely derivative of, like, all time-travel stories in all pop culture media of a robot-ruled dystopia that someone must go back in time to prevent from ever happening. That has only really occupied one of maybe a half-dozen occasionally criss-crossing storylines so far, and it seems to disappear for issues at a time. Batman "Beyond" Terry McGinnis travelling from 2049 to 2019 is but one character in the story, and a rather minor one at that. (Additionally, after a few of this week's releases, including Superman: Doomed #2 and Booster Gold: Futures End #1, it sure seems like the next weekly, Earth 2: Worlds End, is going to dramatize the war that is in the past of this Five Years From Now series).

Anyway, it's nice to finally get some of the story here behind the story, as inelegantly communicated as it might have been and even if it had me continually questioning to what extent this could have—or should have—been teased out over the course of the previous 21 weeks or so (Also, readers of this title may want to check out Superman: Futures End #1, which hints at Superman's role in the war, in which he did something so awful he decided to stop being Superman—my guess is he killed Darkseid, but it's just a guess).

So, long story short, here, finally, is the Reader's Digest account of the Apokoliptian war that destroyed Earth 2 and followed its refugees to Earth 1, and what followed. It's told as Team Arrow and The Outsiders prepare Big Barda to join them in an all-out assault on Cadmus Island, which I can't imagine is going to all that well for them, since Brainiac/Brother Eye is now in complete control of the powerful Earth 2 heroes that were once being kept on the island, like Power Girl, for example. Oh, and all those OMACS too, I guess.

Cully Hamner draws the living hell out of this issue, which is the best looking one in memory. Regular cover artist Ryan Sook gets to draw something heroic and action-packed for a change, and really fills it with superheroes.


Saga #23 (Image Comics) Wow, trippy cover, Fiona Staples! I love the way that Staples designs and draws Ginny, by which I mean I hate it, because it makes me feel things about a blue space-lady with bat ears and a bat nose. Also, the second panel of Marko on her doorstep is just as awesome as the first panel of Ginny opening her door in the middle of the night.

A lady friend of mine and I have been fighting—well, arguing—about the Marko/Alanna fight since it happened, regarding who was more wrong, Marko for thinking of a pretty bat-lady who is totally in to him while dreaming (You can't control your unconscious mind, or I would have far more dreams about being Robin or going on dates with that girl from high school, and far less about being abducted by aliens or finding ghosts messing with my lights in my apartment!), or Alanna for getting high on space-drugs around their toddler daughter.

The sticking point seems to be Marko's reaction to the news; throwing a bag of groceries at Alanna. (For the record, the nanny seems to agree with me). Obviously I can see both sides—throwing things at your spouse in anger is terrible, and doing space-drugs around your toddler daughter is also terrible. I mention this only because Brian K. Vaughan and Staples have done such an incredible job of developing these characters and making their conflicts so complex and realistic (despite the fact that they are all, you know, space aliens) that it's possible for real people to argue about who is right and who is wrong, and who is more right and who is more wrong, in the way you might discuss a couple you know in real life.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Some picture books of note:

Baboushka and the Three Kings (Parnassus Press; 1960): Writer Ruth Robbins adapts a Russian folk tale about one of Europe's many Santa Claus-like gift-giving Christmas Eve visitors, with gorgeous illustrations by Nicolas Sidjakov that look like they were created through a woodblock technique and painted in a simple palette of yellows, blues and reds on mostly black and white pages (with a few exceptions). Their book won the Caldecott Medal in 1961.
Baboushka is a little old peasant woman who lives in a little old hut. One night, a procession lead by the Three Kings of the Christmas story tradition arrives at her hut and asks her to join them as they pursue a star to find a Babe (All references to the one they seek, be it Babe or Child or just plain Him, are capitalized, the only indication that they're looking for Jesus or the Christ child, neither of which name is ever used).
Baboushka, who hasn't yet finished her daily chores, asks them to stay the night with her, and she will leave with them in the morning. They refuse, and leave her alone in her hut. Before the night is out, she becomes consumed with a desire to see the Child and give him a gift ("The wamrth of the fire reached into her heart," Robbins' text says, "And she felt a sudden tenderness and joy for the new born Child").

Baboushka then sets out with a few "poor but precious gifts," in the hopes of finding the three kings, whose trail has been covered up by the snow. She travels from house to house and village to village, but never finds the kings of the child they sought; instead leaving her little gift on the doorstep of every child she does find.
It's a nice-looking package, and at 7 X 6 3/4-inches, it's perfect for child hands. I'm not sure if kids will appreciate the artwork as much as grown-ups, although if the book won a Caldecott a few decades ago and is still in-print, I'm imagining kids have embraced it just fine. If you're looking for a nice, tight, religious but not overbearingly evangelical telling of the Baboushka story, and would rather get it in a book than from Wikipedia, this certainly serves the purpose. It ends with the same story in verse form, set to music, which I can't read, because I am dumb.


Catch Me If You Can! (Green Light Readers; 1999): Not to be confused with Frank Abagnale's biography that was the source of the Steven Spielberg movie, nor this book with a shirtless, smooth and hairless muscle man on the cover, Bernard Most's Catch Me If You Can is a very simple story about some dinosaurs, with a clever little twist that's just clever enough to power an 18-page narrative.

A large, rather scary-looking carnivorous theropod—"The biggest dinosaur of them all"—looks as if he has a couple of young, little herbivores cornered behind a rock. The cartoon-simple background of identical white boulders and little prehistoric trees each hide groups of tiny dinosaurs, all seemingly shaking with little motion lines.
Most's dinosaurs are certainly classic in their design, with scaly, slightly mottled-looking, reptillian skin. They also have the upright posture of old-school dinosaur conceptions, and he gives them very simple, almost inscrutable, comma-shaped eyes.

Most's brief narration informs us that,
The other dinosaurs were afraid of him. When the biggest dinosaur went by, the other dinosaurs quickly hid.
Most then recounts the various scary things about the biggest dinosaur—tails, claws, teeth, etc—until we meet one tiny little dinosaur that is not the least big afraid of him. This little dinosaur defiantly lists the supposedly scary things about the biggest dinoaur—tails, claws, teeth, etc—dismissing each as something she is not afraid of, while calling after each dismissal, "Catch me if you can!"
Eventually, the big dinosaur does catch the little one, and we learn why the little one isn't afraid of the big one, which should be apparent to most readers, given the two dinosaurs'—shall we say—familial resemblance.


Cowy Cow (Abrams; 2014): This is a barely-there new book from Chris Raschka's "Thingy Thing" series, which includes Whaley Whale, Lamby Lamb and the like. These are tiny, square hardcovers featuring a super-cute and rather rough, almost sketch-like paintings; here, it's star is a cow, with a twisted-up tail and splotches of color that don't always stay within the lines of her body.

There are relatively few words in the 15-page book, with each page consisting either of a large image of Cowy Cow over a blank, green background, or a sentence or so of prose over a blank, green background, from a narrator addressing the reader (or listener) and Cowy Cow.

Cowy Cow has 100 ideas, we're told, and the book shares two of them, the second of which, #34, is this: "If you chew grass long enough, it might taste like a gluten-free oatmeal raisin cookie."

I don't know if that's true, and Cowy Cow turns out to be ill-qualified to offer such a theory herself, but, having consulted with a gluten-free friend, she assures me that Cowy Cow may be on to something there.

The book is lightweight to the point of being flimsy, but what little art there is in it is really cute, and what few words are there proved funny enough.


Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs (Harper Collins; 1989): Byron Barton's Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs is something of a modern classic—at least, I think it's safe to apply the word "classic" to the book, since it is now 25-years-old, even though I'd rather not refer to books published when I was a teenager as classics, because it makes me feel like a dinosaur.

It's a great "first" dinosaur book for kids, its just-under 100 words telling the most basic story of dinosaurs. That is, that they lived a long time ago ("A long time ago, there were dinosaurs") and that they came in many, many different varieties ("There were dinosaurs with horns and dinosaurs with spikes. There were dinosaurs with clubs on their tails and dinosaurs with armored plates").

That is pretty much all there is to the story, if one can call this simple picture book a story at all, but Barton does get into their emotional or behavioral states a bit, my favorite of these laster sections being when he mentions "fierce" dinosaurs and "scared" dinosaurs, and the Tyrannosaurus rex (mentioned by name only on the end-pages, which give the dinosaurs' names and their correct pronunciations) figures in both.


I like his "fierce" face, with his child-like, diagonal-line eyebrows representing anger, and the way it transforms into a curve on the very next page, with even his sharp, scary teeth and claws apparently retracting when the lightning bolt flashes from a storm cloud.

All of Barton's dinosaurs, and their environments, are depicted with these stencil-simple shapes, their expressions indicated by the shapes of their eyes mouths and eyebrows in black upon their solid-colored bodies.

The best, though are his baby triceratops, which combine the basic cuteness of his average dinosaur drawing, with tininess:


I love those.


Death, Duck and the Tulip (Gecko Press; 2011): This short, simple, striking fable by German writer and illustrator Wolf Erlbruch, originally entitled Ente, Tod und Tulpe, chronicles the highly unlikely relationship between Duck, a duck, and Death, Death.

Duck is a particularly slim and upright duck, just barely anthropomorphized at all—just a little around the face for the sake of expressions, really. And Death, though called by male pronouns, resembles the skeleton of a little girl in some sort of red gingham dress with a blue checkered smock over it, and dainty little shoes. His head is that of an elongated skull, only with a toothless line of a mouth, and he's the same size as Duck. He always carries a black-ish tulip with him.

The story begins:
For a while now, Duck had had a feeling.

"Who are you? What are you up to, creeping along behind me?"

"Good, said Death, "you finally noticed me. I am Death
."
Understandably uncomfortable at first, Duck shies away from Death, but the two eventually strike up a tense but ultimately sweet friendship, as Duck learns that all the negative things we associate with death aren't really parts of death, but parts of life.

"Life takes care of that," Death says, when Duck asks him if he's there to make something happen that could lead to her death.

The story ends as every story ends, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a more elegant, matter-of-fact, life-affirming, death-is-just-a-part-of-life story. Tonally, much of what Erlbruch's Death said and how he behaved reminded me a bit of what Neil Gaiman's Death from Sandman said and did and was like—the point-of-view of the creators on Death's personification share a great deal in common—but here, of course, Erlbruch gets it down much more quickly and to the point, and it is the focus of the story he is telling, not one element of a grander narrative.

His artwork is particularly interesting. The two main characters seems somewhat roughly drawn and colored with colored pencils, and then cut out of the pages they were drawn in, to be inserted on other pages, where scant, collage-details form the settings; a wall and some black and white pictures of flowers on the first page, a picture of a bush and a tree later on, and so on.

I imagine the content would make the book one that an adult would likely need to be careful which child they shared it with, but I can't think of an adult who wouldn't enjoy and even benefit from reading it.


Francis The Little Fox (Kids Can Press; 2013): This rather substantial (88 pages!) picture book is the work of two creators, although I'm unsure how the division of labor worked. One is Veronique Boisjoly, who works at "a digital publishing and design firm specializing in apps and ebooks," and who created a French-language app that this book is based on. The other is Kathy Maurey, an illustrator and graphic designer from Montreal.

I am sure that the art in this book is lovely, cute and accomplished, and the matter-of-fact, somewhat meandering story is relentlessly engaging.

The world of Francis is one in which animal and human live side by side in the big city—you'll find all sorts in big cities, after all—and, oddly enough, some of the humans keep pets, which always feels weird to me, settings where there are both anthropomorphic animals and animal-animals.

In this case, we follow the Fox family, who visit a laundromat run by the human Li family, and the Li family has a cat named "Mouse." (Oh, and Mr. Li's laundromat, Small Socks Laundromat, has an enormous pair of caribou antlers hanging in front of its window. Later in the story, we see a deer or caribou of some sort with a pair of antlers still attached to his head riding on a city bus...wonder what he thinks of Mr. Li's decor when he rides past it...?)

Francis, we are told, is "A handsome and mild-mannered fellow...always well dressed. Even on laundry days." And indeed, he does wear a little suit coat and bowtie. But no pants. So more like half-dressed, if you ask me.

This is a laundry day story, and, for the Foxes, laundry day is Saturday.

Boisjoly and Maurey tell us a little about Francis and his father and their typical laundry days, in which they go to the laundromat and do their laundry, with Francis drawing and father reading the paper. While they get along great with the Lis, Francis doesn't get along so well with Mr. Li's little granddaughter, Lily Rain Boots, who gets up to all kinds of mischief when trying to play tricks on Francis and others.

In this story, she inadvertently scares Mouse away, causing all of the characters to spend a great deal of time running around downtown looking for the lost cat. It all works out okay, and Mouse is eventually found, and the Foxes return home, only to find one last, pretty funny trick that Lily played on them.

The art feels very airy to me, something I think is attributable to the lack of solid black outlines around the characters and objects, the edges of which tend to just stop when they hit the white or off-white of the background pages. There's also a lot of space, with the occasional blank page or page with nothing but a few words on it.


Go! Go! Go! Stop! (Alfred A. Knopf; 2014): This has got to be a fun book to ask for by name in a book store or library.

A new picture book by author, illustrator and occasional comics-maker Charise Mericle Harper (the Fashion Kitty and Just Grace series, Cupcake, The Power of Cute, etc), it involves lot of cute little cars, trucks and construction vehicles, plus a couple of cuter-still little solid-color circles.

It begins with one such circle, who bears a simple little Harper face on his all-green body/head, and is emanating green lights. This is Little Green and "One day," the narration tells us on the first page, "Little Green said a word."

His word is "go," and it's his only word, which he says over and over and in a variety of volumes. Little Green, who is about the size of a stoplight, bounces into town, shouting his new word, and coming to rest at a construction site, where all the various vehicles were just awaking from their naps.

Hearing his encouraging repetition of "Go!" they all get up and go to work, highly motivated. But eventually, they've heard "Go!" too many times, and are going too much and too fast. And Little Green is powerless to stop them or slow them down; the best he can do is say "go" quitely.

Good thing then that Little Red rolls into town and shouts "Stop!" just then.

The two "were exact opposites," but they try to work together, and after a great deal of trial and error to find the perfect amount of go and the perfect amount of stop, they strike a balance that keeps everyone working together just right. And, well, if something seems to be missing from the stoplight, as if there was space for another Little Someone-Or-Other, don't worry—Harper's last page introduces a third character.

The vehicles and construction equipment are all super-simply drawn, and appear only in profile. They have faces, generally just eyes and smiles, that appear on their windows, and that works perfectly well, as we don't ever see them from different angles. Between all the cars and trucks and cranes and such, and all the shouting of some of the first words kids learn, this has got to be a pretty fun book to share with little ones, to read to them, or have them read to you, or just watch them look at. My nephew seemed to like it okay, and the only books I've seen him enjoy before are Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site and that one book about dinosaurs.


Godzilla Likes to Roar! (Random House; 1998): This is the other kids picture book published by Random House when they were producing Godzilla books, right around the time that the so-called King of the Monsters was set to make his highly-anticipated appearance in a Hollywood film for the first time (The other one, Who's Afraid of Godzilla?, I discussed in this previous installment of this column).

This one is also illustrated in a highly realistic, faithful-to-the-original-films style by Bob Eggleton, and has a credited writer with a less suspect name in Kerry Milliron (A "Di Kaiju" was credited for writing Who's Afraid...).

This one has a bit less pathos, and no conflict or dramatic arc comparable to that of Who's Afraid...

"Godzilla likes to roar, to shake the sky and wake the sun," reads the first of the two-page spreads, as a rather scary-looking Godzilla rises out of the sea, approaching an island, "Godzilla likes to roar, then greet his friends and have some fun."

These friends are Rodan and Anguirus, and an unnamed Manda and Varan appear later. The text describes Godzilla's day, which, like a little kid's, mostly involves playing with his friends or siblings, eating, napping, playing some more, and then going to bed for the night. He and the other four monsters spend their day on an island, perhaps Monsterland or Monster Island, doing things of dubious fun and/or monstrousness.

"It's fun to join a monster crew, there's always something new to do," starts one pair of rhyming couplets, "To go exploring in a cave, or see what's washed up on a wave." Eggleton's painted picture on this two-page spread shows Manda crawling into a cave, with Godzilla hauling a shipwreck out of the water, and Varan looking on.

The book does answer one question that's been bugging me as I've been watching my way through the Showa series. What do the monsters eat...? So far, I've only seen Rodan eat a dolphin or fish of some kind in a Godzilla film (and Rodan ate cattle, livestock and humans in his own film, prior to becoming enveloped in Godzilla mythology), and I've seen Mililla eat some sort of large island fruit.

Here, Anguirus and Godzilla both prove to be herbivores, or at least omnivores, somewhat surprising, given their sharp teeth:
"Coconuts are tasty treats, and all the tress are in their reach," reads one of the couplets on a spreac in which Anguirus clutches a coconut tree, while we see Godzilla's fist reaching from off-page to grab a tree himself.

Well, that answers that. I think. I'm not entirely sure how authoritative these books are of Toho kaiju behavior. For example, I never expected to see these two cuddling together for a nap like this—
—certainly not after I saw Godzilla bite through Anguirus' throat in Godzilla Raids Again! and then set his corpse ablaze with atomic fire before kicking him into the sea.


If I Had a Raptor (Candlewick Press; 2014): This extremely engaging picture book is the work of cartoonist George O'Connor, who will be better known to many readers of this blog for his work on First Second's often outstanding The Olympians series of graphic novels. The premise is as simple as it is satisfying. The little girl narrator, seen on the cover, speculates what it would be like to have a pet raptor, which, as you can also see by the cover, O'Connor renders covered in blue feathers and/or dino-fuzz.

She lists all of the behaviors of her hypothetical raptor, which, it turns out, are exactly the same as those of a house-cat (which, like a raptor, is a predator by nature). So essentially O'Connor starts with "If I had a raptor, I'd want to get her as a baby, when she's all teensy and tiny and funny and fluffy," and ends with "If I had a raptor...it would be the best thing ever."

Between the two statements, he rattles off various basic cat behavior: Basking on sunny window sills and clean laundry, sleeping all day and creeping around all night, staring at nothing at all and seemingly stalking its owner, and so on.

The humor simply comes from O'Connor calling the "cat" a raptor, and drawing in it's place a large blue dinosaur with a collar with a bell on it:
There are some instances where a raptors peculiar physiology differentiates it from a cat or other house-pets...
...but for the most part, it's a matter of degree more than anything else.

O'Connor uses pencils and watercolors to render the charming book, which should please adult fans of cats, dinosaurs or, most especially, cats and dinosaurs.


My New Friends Is So Fun! (Hyperion Books; 2014): The cover of the latest Elephant & Piggie book prominently features Piggie, her smiling mouth open as if declaring the title, with her arm around a...nother animal (I originally took it to be some kind of aardvark, or an exotic mammal from Australia or Madagascar, but it turns out his name is Brian Bat, so I guess that's a gigantic bat).

The real stars, however, are the two characters in the background; Gerald the Elephant and the snake character from Can I Play Too?, the book that contained my favorite joke in the entire Elephant and Piggie series, whose name is simply Snake.

Gerald and Snake pass by one another, and start to talk about the fact that Piggie, Gerald's best friend, just met Brian Bat, Snake's best friend, and the pair are now playing together.

Gerald and Snake both love their best friends, and are both extraordinarily proud to be able to call their best friends their best friends.

But then a thought creeps into their minds; what if Piggie and Brian have too much fun together, and end up having so much fun with one another that they no longer need Gerald and Snake? What if they become one another's best friends?!

The elephant and snake rush off to investigate, and there's a nice suspenseful section where their worst fears seem to be coming true, before the probably not that surprising (to grown-ups) reversal at the climax.

As always, it's expertly cartooned, wonderfully paced and genuinely funny. And while there's no Snake gag here to rival that of Can I play Too?, there is a snakes-have-no-arms gag, which comes when Piggie and Brian offer to show Gerald and Snake their "Best Friend drawings."


My Rhinoceros (Michael Di Capula Books; 2011): Jon Agee's boy narrator wanders into an exotic pet shop and buys the rhinoceros in the window before the title page of the book, a book that features a very swiftly-moving story.

"When I bought my rhinoceros, I didn't really know what I was getting into," he tells us as he walks it home. At first he is quite disappointed by his new pet, which was "quiet, shy" and "kept to himself." At one point he consults with "a rhinoceros expert" that looks suspiciously like she might just be his mom, and the expert tells him that rhinos only do two things: Pop balloons and poke holes in kites.

The boy is worried about this when he takes his pet for a walk through the park, but the rhino proves very well-behaved.

And then they come across a very unusual bank robbery, of the sort that The Flash or Batman might have had to deal with in the 1960s, and our young protagonist discovers how right his mother and/or hat rhinoceros expert was.

That, and that his pet has a third, even more spectacular trick, which Agee presents as a sort of punchline ending, perfectly timed to answer the question that will have formed in a reader's head by the time it's explained.


Penguin In Love (Walker Books; 2013): We've seen Salina Yoon's penguin character Penguin make friends before in Penguin and Pinecone and Penguin on Vacation, but here the cute little knitter makes a new friend who turns out to be more than just a friend.

One day he finds a beautifully-knitted mitten and goes seeking out its owner among the local penguins. None of them seem to have lost a mitten though. So Penguin starts to knit a match to the mitten, when a pair of puffins alight, and one of them is wearing a "beak cozy" that looks just like a penguin mitten; the "mitten" Penguin thought he found was actually the other puffin's lost beak cozy. They were knitted for the puffins by another penguin. A girl penguin.

The puffins conspire to bring Penguin and Penguin's friend Bootsy (who looks just like Penguin, save she wears purple boots and a little pink bow on her head) together. Or, as Yoon puts it, "The puffins hatched a secret plan to help the penguin find his own perfect match."

They do this by stealing Penguin and Bootsy's yarn, and then laying out two crazy-long, twisted trails of the yarns, trails that are laid out side-by-side. Penguin and Bootsy do seem perfect for one another. They're both penguins, and they both have a passion for knitting ("Bootsy was busy knitting cozies," Yoon's narration tells us at one point, "Knitting warmed her lonely heart").

The penguin pair follow the trail together, knitting it as they go, and gradually fall in love...even, or perhaps particularly when circumstance forces them apart for a while.

Yoon works in broader, more obvious metaphor than usual here, and this particular outting lacks some of the subtlety of the two Penguin books of hers we've previously discussed here, but the artwork is still darling, and the story still quite charming and cute.


The Pigeon Needs a Bath! (Hyperion; 2014): Mo Willems' latest pigeon book is perhaps the best of the several sequels to his original, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive The Bus!, which is probably unbeatable not only because it was the original, but also because of the incredible absurd premise.

This one does follow a pretty identical format, with the bus driver (drawn in a bathrobe and shower cap, with a towel slung over his shoulder) deputizing the reader with a pigeon related task on the opening pages—"I could use your help, because: The Pigeon needs a bath!"—and then leaves it to the reader to argue with The Pigeon for the remainder of the book.

And so we experience The Pigeon's side of the conversation, in which he argues the various reasons why he does not need a bath, or why he doesn't really smell that bad, or that "All of these flies buzzing around me are purely conincidental." It is up to the reader's imagination/and or the yelling children being read the story to conduct the other half of the conversation.

Suffice it to say that the pigeon is eventually prevailed upon to take a bath, and after a 26-panel, two-page spread in which he tinkers with the bath—"Too cold...too luke warm...too hot..."—he eventually dives in and, as it turns out, he loves taking a bath.

Willems' art is, as always, delightful, and, also as always, he wrings an astounding amount of versatile emotions from his super-simple design (on the pigeon, it's basically just a couple of circles, a sometimes there, sometimes not eyebrow, and a simple beak made of two tiny crescent-like shapes). The amount of filth on the pigeon is pretty interesting in its rendering, as the pigeon and his environs look to be drawn of pencil and crayon, but the dirt and stains all look real, as if applied from photos through computers, or perhaps Willems smeared dirt on his original art.


President Taft is Stuck in the Bath (Candlewick Press; 2014): As a history-minded Ohioan, I naturally have an interest in President William Howard Taft, one of several presidents produced by our great state, and the great-grandfather of former Ohio Governor Bob Taft, who governed the state of Ohio (generally poorly) during my entire career as a newspaperman.

And writer Mac Barnett has come up with a pretty great declarative, near-rhyming title for this storybook, which is ably (if maybe a little too realistically, given all the naked, presidential man flesh) illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Taft had a great mustache, was from Ohio and is our fattest president of all time; being long-since dead, he is also a historical figure now, and it is therefore A-OK to comment on his fatness, without worrying about fat-shaming him or being sizest. He bathes with the angels now, and couldn't care less what we have to say about his girth.

I've always found it extremely charming that, for all of his accomplishments, some of which were quite negative, some of which were rather admirable, and one of which is particularly noteworthy (he was the only president to also serve as a chief justice of the Supreme Court), the one that he is best known for is, well, here's how the front flap of the dust-jacket of Barnett and Van Dusen's book puts it:
GEORGE WASHINGTON crossed the Delaware in the dead of night.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN save the Union.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT got stuck in a bathtub and then got unstuck.

This is his story.
Barnett starts off with a fine, catchy, reversal for a hook:
William Howard Taft was the twenty-seventh president of the United States. He busted monopolies, instituted the federal income tax, and became the only president to also sere as chief justice of the Superme Court.

But today President Taft is stuck in his bathtub.
That's accompanied by a turn of the page that similarly offers a dramatic reversal. The first paragraph is in a nice, fancy font beneath what looks like a presidential portrait of the bright, red, shiny skin of the walrus-mustachioed, five-chinned executive, and then you turn the page and find a double-page spread of a quite ornate and colorful bathroom, in the middle of which that same man is shown rather tightly wedged in a too-small bathtub, rolls of belly flesh hanging just over the rim. He wears a look of consternation, while soap bubbles float about his head.

"Blast!" he says. "This could be bad."

And, indeed, it is bad. Taft is, as the title says, stuck in the bath. His wife Nellie Taft* has an idea on how to get him un-stuck, but he interrupts her by calling for the vice president, who immediately offers to succeed him, now that Taft is stuck in the bath.

From there, we get a rapid succession of official people in Washington, all of whom want to try methods of extricating a large president from a too-small bathtub that relate to their fields of expertise.

So, for example, the Secretary of Agriculture wants to churn up enough butter to grease the sides of the tub, the Secretary of War wants to try TNT, the Secretary of The Treasury wants to "throw money at the problem," the Secretary of the interior tells him "The answer is inside you."

Eventually enough experts have been called in that there's a small army of men in the room with the shiny, naked president—whose modesty is concealed by his big belly and plenty of soap bubbles—that they can try Nellie's plan: To just all grab hold and yank on the president, similar to how Rabbit's relatives and relations were all able to get Winnie The Pooh out of Rabbit's hole.

The rather charming story ends with an author's note which explains the various rumors regarding Taft and the bath, and also the fact that he may not ever have actually been stuck in the bath. "What follows is what we know for certain," Barnett writes, before a little timeline labeled "Some Facts Pertaining to President Taft and Bathtubs."

Whether he was ever stuck in a bathtub or not and, if so, how many men it took to extricate him and what, exactly, was the method used, the important thing is that there's a story that he was once stuck in the bath, and that story's existence and persistence is what fascinated the author and, I imagine, will either fascinate or delight readers (and maybe a little of both).

There's a quote on the back of the book from Taft himself: "We are all imperfect."

We know that to be true of all the presidents of the modern era, but it's easy to forget of the presidents in the first century of America, and the further and further back in time we go, the easier it is for history to turn into hagiography. Taft was at an interesting place in history; far enough back that relatively little is known of him by your average Amerian, but not so far back that we think of him as some kind of Founding Father-like demi-god or Lincoln-esque saint.

And that's one charming aspect of Taft as a character; he was a deeply, obviously, visibly flawed man, who never-the-less was able to lead the United States of America, marry a pretty and pretty cool lady and go on to fulfill his actual life's ambition, being a supreme court judge.

He was also a big fat guy with a sweet mustache.


The Tiny King (Candlewick Press; 2013): The tiny king, assembled out of carefully arranged cut-outs, on the cover of this book may at first glance seem to be a rather large king, taking up the entirety of the cover as he does. But do note the parenthetical fine print, in the lower left corner of the cover: "This is the actual size of the Tiny King." Say, that is tiny!

The book, by Japanese artist Taro Miura, features an extremely simple story, offering a repetition of a single series of events, with a change introduced between them that transforms what is at first a sad or negative series of events into a happy series of events. It's as simple as the art, which is likely rather laboriously constructed of cut-outs but results in character designs that look like very simple, old-school video game sprites.

Each image stretches across both open pages, accentuating the bigness of the world the Tiny King occupies. (And, unfortunately for my purposes, makes it difficult to show decent examples of the interiors here).

The Tiny King lived all alone in a big castle. He ate alone at a big table, piled with much more food than a single tiny person could ever eat by himself. He had a huge white horse too big for him to ride. And, ultimately, each day ends with him in "a big, big bed":
But he slept in it all alone every night.

The Tiny King was so sad and so lonely that he never slept very well.

Everything changes when he fell in love with "a big princess." How big? Well, if The Tiny King were to lay on his side, he still wouldn't be as tall as her head was wide. They marry and have ten kids, each with its own little crown and each the size of the Tiny King.

Miura now repeats the same sequence of events, but the pages the art is constructed upon are no longer lonely, dark black, but a series of bright colors: pink, yellow, orange and so on.

With the eleven additions to his household, the big, big castle, table, horse, bath and bed are now all the perfect size. "And the Tiny King slept soundly at last."
This book is so sad, and then so happy, that it just about broke my heart. The moral? The moral seems to be about the importance of family, and the transformative effect of a family on one's life, even one who seems to have it all, in terms of wealth, prestige and power.

That, or maybe something about how short guys shouldn't be so scared to ask out ladies that are much, much taller than them as you never know, maybe it will work out and you'll have ten kids.



*I once read and reviewed a biography of Nellie Taft for the Columbus-based altweekly I used to work for, if you want to read something from old, pre-EDILW Caleb. That review is one of relatively few things I wrote for that altweekly that survived their archive purge when they sold-out to Columbus' own Evil Media Empire that runs the daily paper and...well, everything else, last time I checked.