Friday, December 26, 2008

Who Pooped In The Library?

In 2000, I co-wrote an original YA Wishbone novel with my friend Michael Jan Friedman (Wishbone Mysteries #16: The Sirian Conspiracy). Wishbone was a very clever PBS-TV show that put a very charming little Jack Russell terrier into starring roles in classic books. I had been pitching to write the character with one editor, but the sum total of her direction for my sample chapters was, "No, this isn't right. Try it again." (One of many warning signs of a bad editor; they can't tell you what's wrong, but they want you to fix it anyway.) Mike had been writing for a different editor on the books, so I teamed with him and we sold our original (in the Wishbone Mysteries series) in no time.

My effort for that other editor, an adaptation of Frankenstein with Wishbone as Dr. Victor Von, never made it past two sample chapters. Here's some of that:


THE ADVENTURES OF WISHBONE: FRANKENBONE
© respective copyright holders

Chapter Two

After circling around three times on the chair cushion, Wishbone settled himself down and let his mind wander, imagining himself in the place of Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young dog with a great hunger for knowledge. Victor had grown up in Geneva, Switzerland in the late 18th Century, the oldest son of a wealthy and loving family. All his life, Wishbone knew from Mary Shelley’s classic novel of gothic terror, Victor had been fascinated by the science of chemistry, by the mysteries of nature, especially of the awesome power of electricity, as well as the ancient and all but forgotten craft of alchemy, the fabled art of transforming plain metals into gold...

... And of creating life out of that which was not alive!

Of course, Victor Frankenstein kept the last part of his fascination a secret. Most people believed there were things that mankind was not meant to know, and certainly the secret of creating life was one such thing. If anyone were to learn of his obsession, they would surely think him a madman. Still, he knew that when the day came for him to go off to a great university to study chemistry and medicine, he would take with him his secret interest and seek out its answers there.

And that day was fast approaching. Indeed, as Victor sat out in a pasture not far from his home, his nose buried deep in a chemistry textbook while his family picnicked nearby, he was but a day away from taking his leave. Of course, the thought of leaving his father and brothers and cousin Elizabeth was painful to him, but Victor had always felt he was a dog born to fulfill some great destiny, and the excitement of starting the journey down the road to that destiny was almost enough to take the sting from his impending departure.

Even as he studied the book before him, he heard his beautiful young cousin Elizabeth gently scolding his youngest brother. “You mustn’t pull on your locket, dearest Willie, or it will break, and it contains such a lovely picture of your mother.”

Willie looked down at the gold locket on a chain around his neck, open to the tiny, delicate painting of a beautiful, golden hair woman inside it. “But I like playing with it, Elizabeth. And anyway, aren’t you my mother?” Willie, hardly more than a baby, asked.

Victor’s father reached over and gently patted Willie’s shoulder. The boy was too young to understand that his mother had died years before, right after Willie’s birth, leaving the grieving elder Frankenstein to raise his three sons alone. “I’ve explained this to you before, Willie. Elizabeth is your cousin. She came to live with us after your mother...went away,” he said sadly. “She has been a great help and comfort to us and we are most happy she is with us.”

Willie laughed. “She makes me very happy,” he said. “Elizabeth knows how to play all my favorite games.” The little boy began skipping around the picnic blanket and then took off in a dash to where Victor sat studying his book under a nearby tree. “Not like Victor! All he ever does is read, read, read! Don’t you like to play, Victor?”

Victor looked up at his baby brother and smiled indulgently. “I used to play all the time, Willie,” he said. “But now that I am grown up, I no longer have time for games. There is so much I have to learn... and many, many secrets I have to discover.”

Willie shook his head sadly, his golden curls bouncing, a pout on his lips. “That doesn’t sound like so much fun,” Willie said seriously. “You should always have time to play.”

“Perhaps someday,” Victor said wistfully. “When my work is done.”

“Well, I know what I’m going to do,” Willie said solemnly.

“What’s that, Willie dear?” Elizabeth asked, coming to stand over Victor and taking the younger boy’s hand in her own.

“I’m just never going to grow up!” Willie squealed happily and ran off, pulling Elizabeth with him. But before she turned to go, her eyes locked with Victor’s. He could see the sadness in those eyes and knew that his own were no happier. How he wished he could be like his brother, so happy and carefree, deciding to never grow up and be burdened with responsibilities! But even if that were possible, Victor Frankenstein knew that could never have been his fate. He had a destiny to fulfill and promises to keep.

Victor stared blankly down at the pages of his book and thought of the promises he had made to his mother on that awful day many years ago when she had died. The first was the one he had made out loud to her, holding her hand, looking into her once lovely and shining blue eyes, now grown dull and weak by the ordeal that was slowly draining her of life. The doctors had told Victor and his father that there was nothing they could do to save her, that the end was only hours away. All they could hope to do was make her comfortable and Victor sat by her bedside through the night, trying to do just that. Finally, as the morning sun began to peek over the mountains outside the window, she opened her eyes and, seeing her oldest child, smiled weakly. “Dearest Victor,” she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “Soon... I must leave you...”

“No, mother,” Victor said, squeezing her hand and trying to put on a brave face. “You’ll get better, I know you will!”

But his mother merely shook her head and said, “We both know that’s not to be. You are such a good son, a fine, sensitive boy. Promise me something, Victor!”

“Anything, mother,” he said.

“Your cousin Elizabeth... I love her as though she were my own daughter. It was always my hope that one day, when you were both old enough, that you would marry her. She is such a wonderful girl... and she loves you so very much. You two would be perfect together. Promise me, Victor! Promise me you and Elizabeth will make my dream come true...”

Victor nodded, tears welling up in his eyes. “Yes, mother. I too love Elizabeth. I will do as you ask, gladly.”

His mother smiled and nodded her head. “That is good, Victor. It makes me happy to know you will have someone to love you always.”

And then there was the second vow Victor Frankenstein had made that morning, one he swore to himself. The vow that still drove him, all these years later, to dedicate his life to his books and his studies. As he watched her draw her last breathes, he swore that he would one day be the man to conquer death so that neither he nor anyone else would ever have to feel the pain he and his family were suffering at the loss of his mother. Let all the doctors and all the scientists of all the world say it was impossible; Victor Frankenstein would find the way!

He was now closer than ever to making that vow a reality. Certainly there was much more he needed to know, knowledge both common and forbidden he needed to acquire. But the university would provide him with the opportunity to do that and he was anxious to begin, even if it meant leaving his family and dedicating his every waking hour to study and experimentation.

A drop of water hit the page of his book under his down turned face and for a moment, Victor thought he was crying at the memory of his mother. Then a second drop hit, and a third, and he realized that it was beginning to rain. He looked up to see Elizabeth and the others quickly gathering up the remains of their picnic lunch. “Oh dear,” Elizabeth was saying. “Our lovely outing is ruined. Hurry, everyone. And, oh, those dark clouds... it looks as though this is to be a terrible storm!”

Victor’s father chuckled as he folded the blanket on which they had been sitting. “This doesn’t spoil anything for Victor, does it, son? You love a good storm!”

Victor got to his feet and turned his face to the sky, letting the rain wash over his snout. “Yes, father. The rain is warm this time of year. You all go ahead and don’t worry about me. I’ll join you shortly.”

While the rest of his family rushed away to the safety of home, Victor remained in the pasture, the rain soaking through his fine clothing until he could feel its wet warmth down to his fur. But he hardly noticed this, his eyes fixed on the dark clouds high overhead rolling towards him, bringing with them the distant rumble of thunder. And then the lightning! Brilliant flashes of white light that made the storm gloomy afternoon suddenly and momentarily as bright as the sunniest noon.

Lightning! How well Victor remembered his father explaining to him the elements of electricity when he was still just a child. So powerful, so destructive that a single bolt could destroy the largest, mightiest oak tree or set aflame even the sturdiest structure. He knew a man could be struck by lightning and die instantly... or rise after the striking and walk away, utterly unharmed.

Lightning! There were secrets to it that mankind had yet to uncover, but its greatest secret, Victor believed, was that of life itself! One day, he would learn what that secret was and only then would he be able to keep the unspoken vow made at his mother’s side.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Snowy Capes, Cowls & Costumes Weekend

It's that time again, friends...a new installment of Capes, Cowls & Costumes is up on Bookgasm.com, this time around looking at a bunch of Marvel novels from over the years. Check it out, leave a comment or suggestion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

JSA: The Novel, Part 2

The sad, sad story of my poor never-(yet)-published Justice Society of America novel JSA: Ragnarok is related here. Here's another excerpt, set in the days right after Germany surrendered, a charming little chapter that follows superheroes Ted (Wildcat) Grant and Queen (Wonder Woman) Hippolyta on a night out on the town, JSA-style:


JSA: Ragnarok
© DC Comics

Chapter 11/ May 1945

Hippolyta still wasn’t quite sure how she was supposed to behave.

Back home, on the island of Themyscira with her Amazon sisters, her role was well-defined by both tradition and heritage. She was the queen and that was all there was to it. Forms of address, access to her person, acceptable comportment, all were taken care of for her. The structure was a blessing, considering her tendency towards passions that could be a considerable disadvantage to the fulfillment of her royal duties.

Those passions unchecked were always the cause of misery for her and the Amazons.

Although they had also been responsible for the best thing that had ever happened to her and her people as well: Her daughter, Diana, who grew to become the champion Wonder Woman. She had turned her passion to raising her daughter and so it seemed only natural that when Diana’s life was threatened, Hippolyta did what was necessary to save her, putting another Amazon in Diana’s place to die. Yet shortly thereafter, in spite of her efforts, Diana’s life was lost anyway. In penance for her sins, the gods demanded Hippolyta take up the heroic mantle of her fallen daughter. After traveling back to the days of the conflagration in Man’s World called World War II in pursuit of a foe, Hippolyta chose to serve out her sentence there, alongside the JSA.

And then there was Ted Grant.

Hippolyta could not deny it. Another of her passions was handsome, strong and powerful men. Heracles had been the first, and look what that had wrought! Conquered and bound, the warrior women of Themyscira, who had seen their fair share of slaughter on battlefields across their lands, had been humiliated and accepted banishment from mortality and from the world.

Of course, Ted was no Machiavellian godling on a quest to impress his father Zeus, king of the gods, with his cunning. Ted was a man. A noble and kind man, but underneath it all, just a big, sweet...lug?

“Lug?” she said. “Is that the word?”

“I dunno. You talking about a wrench or me? ‘Cause if it’s me, I ain’t no lug.” Ted Grant sat up straight and proud, pointing at himself with a thumb and beaming a brilliant smile at her. “I’m a palooka.”

“A palooka.” Hippolyta nodded in approval. Heracles hadn’t been a palooka, she decided. If Ted was a palooka, a palooka had to be sweet. Heracles had been...ferocious, a mountain of a man with enormous appetites and small honor.

“We’re here, babe,” he said. With an effortless spin of the wheel, Ted maneuvered the sleek black roadster to a flawless stop at the curb. He had cut his headlights halfway up the block.

Hippolyta took in their surroundings. The street was deserted, storefronts dark and gated for the night. Maybe a third of the streetlights worked. They got broken so regularly, the city finally just stopped repairing them. Abandoned cars were everywhere, great shadowy and menacing heaps, stripped of anything of value and left to rot here, in a piece of Gotham City that seemed to have embraced something dark and entirely unpleasant.

“That’s the little joint I was telling you about,” Ted said. There was no need to point. The only sign of life was the candy store, midway up the block. It splashed a patch of light the color of old snow across the cracked sidewalk. A green Breyers ice cream sign hung at an angle over the glass front, the counter open to the sidewalk. A newsstand rack piled with newspapers stood just outside the door.

“Can’t say much for the ambiance,” Hippolyta said. “Shall I bring any accessories?”

Ted shrugged. “Don’t think you’re really gonna need ‘em,” he said. He reached into the backseat and felt around until his fingers closed around the hilt of Hippolyta’s short sword. “But what the hell. Bring the damned thing anyway. I do love the looks on their faces when you come at them with the sword.”

Wonder Woman opened the car door and took the sword from Wildcat’s hand. “For you, dear Ted,” she said. “Shall I take the front door?”

# # #

Everybody called the place Sid’s but no one could tell you who Sid had been. No one particularly cared, either. Not even the gray men and women who worked at Sid’s, selling cigarettes, racing forms, newspapers, chewing gum, and, for customers particularly in the know, some reefer, some horse, and, if you had the price, a lot of guns.

Hippolyta had pointed out that any one of those items alone would be reason enough to shut down this establishment and volunteered to join Ted in doing just that.

She decided to go in making as much threatening noise as possible. That was often enough to paralyze the average felon, especially one who wasn’t expecting trouble. She imaged what it must be like for them, seeing a woman who looked as she did, dressed as she was in a not immodest red, white and blue costume, sword in hand, deflecting bullets off her silver bracelets, charging at them bellowing Amazon war cries. As Ted said, the looks on their faces were worth the trouble of bringing the sword.

Wonder Woman announced her arrival at Sid’s by heaving the wooden newsstand that stood outside its door through the storefront.

The sound of shattering glass and splintering wood seemed to wake the place up.

Behind the counter that cut down the center of the cramped space, a mug in a fedora with an apron over his shirtsleeves pressed against the wall. His eyes were wide with terror and he had not yet gone for a weapon.

Neither had the pair who had been occupying the last of the three small booths in the rear of the store. What Ted would call “professional muscle.” What she called mercenaries, soldiers who hired themselves out to the highest bidder. The newsstand had landed between the first two booths, but the muscle goons were already going for their guns, trying to scramble around the obstruction for a shot at her.

“You—stay put!” she warned Fedora as she ran past him, the sword up in her hand.

With a savage cry, Wonder Woman’s sword cleaved the weathered wood of the newsstand. That stopped the muscle for a moment, long enough for her to leap over the booth and knock the closest one cold. By the time the other one remembered it would prove useful to have a weapon in hand, the tip of a finely crafted Amazon short sword was pointed at his throat.

“Who’s back there?” she asked the muscle, whose eyes had doubled in size, pointing with her chin at the doorway at the rear of the store.

Slowly and carefully the muscle shrugged.

“Loyalty to your employer?” Wonder Woman said, surprised to find any honor among these thieves. “I’m impressed.” Then she slammed her fist across his chin, sending him slumping across his two companions.

Wonder Woman turned to Fedora. He still hadn’t moved. She pointed at him with the sword. “You!”

“Ye-yes ma’am?” he stammered.

“Who is back there?”

He shrugged and spoke quickly, “A guy, says his name’s Lou, ain’t never seen him other than when he comes in to work the back room there, but I don’t know nothin’, okay? I just work the counter, selling smokes and gum, see? Back room’s none’a my business. I ain’t even packin’.” He pulled off his apron, spreading his arms and pivoting like a ballerina to show her he wasn’t armed.

Wonder Woman nodded sharply, then turned her back on him. He was a non-combatant, no longer worth her attention. “Go,” she said. He went.

The door at the rear of the store opened. Wildcat stepped through it, an unconscious heap in a cheap suit dangling from the end of one of his fists. He glanced around approvingly at the destruction left behind by Wonder Woman’s entrance. “Nice,” he said. “Anyway, backroom’s packed with hot goods, from guns to drugs, plus a nice pile of cash. This one’s named Lou, but he’s just hired help manning the contraband concession.”

“Then we’ve hit a...dead end?”

Wildcat grinned, “We hit the mother lode, doll! Lou wasn’t alone back there. He had a pal visiting him on other business.”

“Which is...?”

Wildcat let his unconscious burden slump to the floor and, still grinning, beckoned his star-spangled partner into the back room. She followed.

The area behind the candy store was easily twice as large, with every spare inch filled with stacks of wooden packing crates. A wobbly card table and two folding chairs sat by the door under a single bulb dangling by a frayed wire from the ceiling.

Also dangling from the ceiling, suspended by one foot attached to a hoist used to move the heavy crates, was a second man. He was in his mid-thirties, with receding hair, and a narrow, stern face.

“Wonder Woman, meet Herr X,” Wildcat said by way of introduction.

Herr?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah. When I popped in through the back door, this one here started spouting off in German. I didn’t catch all of it, but apparently, my mother and father were never married but that doesn’t really matter, I guess, because I’m pretty much just a pig anyway. He also pulled a Luger on me, but that didn’t hurt near as much as the name calling.”

“So this is a front for a Nazi set-up?” She stepped up to the man hanging by his ankle, looking into his upside down eyes. “Is that it?” she asked in flawless German. “The master race is selling drugs and firearms to America’s children?”

“I have nothing to say,” the man answered in heavily accented English through clenched teeth.

Wildcat crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame. “Gosh, he’s got nothing to say. What’re we gonna do?”

Wonder Woman unhooked the glowing golden lasso that hung at her side. “Perhaps I can convince him to talk.”

“I have nothing to say to...” the man said fiercely, then stopped speaking as Wonder Woman looped the golden rope around him.

“Just relax,” she told him. “You can fight my lasso of truth but you won’t win. Its touch compels you to speak the truth.”

Muscles twitched in the German’s face.

“What is your name?” Wonder Woman said.

“St-Steiner,” he stuttered, his voice squeezing through a throat clenched tight.

“Hermann Steiner.”

“Hermann,” Wonder Woman said. “How long have the Germans been running this operation?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head convulsively. “Not ours.”

“Then what is your connection to it?”

“Operation Ragnarok.” The words tumbled from his mouth against his will.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Weekly World News XVI

Here’s a quartet of Weekly World News shorts I wrote for the paper in 2007. The first article is previously unpublished.


Breaking News: CRIME DOES PAY ... FABULOUSLY!
© Paul Kupperberg

CANNES, France – Interpol today announced the first in a series of arrests across Europe that will, according to Inspector Niles ‘Butch’ Bottomswale, “break the back of one of the world’s cruelest crime syndicates.

“After a six-year long investigation by Interpol and the police of eight nations,” the British-born Inspector Bottomswale announced, “we have begun to make arrests and tighten the net around the big fish at the top of the Gay Mafia.”

Arrested at Cannes was alleged le grande dame d’crime Andre ‘Coteur’ LeBustier, his trusted lieutenant and stylist, Toulouse ‘Le Pantalon’ Pantalon, and consigliore Dexter ‘Four-Eyes’ Kugelman, along with a dozen lesser figures.

“These brutes have their fingers in everything,” Inspector Bottomswale told Weekly World News. “Fashion, art, music, dance, haute cuisine, you name it, these deuced-dandies take a hefty share of the pie, driving up prices everywhere.

“Believe me, it’s their corruption that’s behind the $100-plus Broadway theater ticket and $18 compact disc!”

"Monsieur LeBustier is a businessman, nothing more or less,” insists Nigel Snigglesworth, attorney for LeBustier. “He is being persecuted for possessing impeccable taste! This outrage will not stand!”

But Interpol believes it has a solid case against LeBustier and the others. “We have witnesses to all their outrages, including one hundred and seventy-two counts of ‘aggravated fashion critiquing,’ seventeen of ‘felony furniture rearrangement,’ and we’re still coming up daily with new cases of ‘drive-by makeovers.’”

Perhaps the most damning witness for the prosecution is Serge ‘Frosted Tips’ Rinsesocovitch, one-time enforcer for the Gay Mafia. “Cement shoes are so last century,” the self-esteem-killing hit man told authorities. “They clash with practically everything.

“And why kill your rivals when it’s much more painful to ostracize and mercilessly mock them until they wish they were dead.”


“Our Nana is Patient Zero!” Boy Cries: SENIORS STRUCK BY MYSTERY AILMENT!
© Weekly World News

ATLANTA, Ga. – An epidemic in retirement communities and nursing homes around the country had the National Institute for Disease Control concerned.

“We saw the first cases in the residents of La Boca Vista Retirement Village in Florida,” said the NIDC’s Dr. Shiela Purvis. “The outbreak struck during the shuffleboard season, when seniors were constantly moving between communities for tournaments.”

The disease caused a mysterious reaction that made anyone near the sufferer run away screaming. By the end of the first week, cases began popping up in Arizona, New Mexico, Skokie, Illinois, and Long Island, New York.

“It took a month of round the clock effort to finally isolate the infectious agent,” Dr. Purvis told Weekly World News. “What we discovered is it’s a virus that mutated from one that usually affects children only. The first senior to contract the disease, our ‘Patient Zero,’ was an eighty-year-old grandmother who had recently been visited by her family from New York.

“We tested the family and found that just prior to the visit, her eleven-year old grandson, had been suffering from a severe case of cooteonerdomitis -- more commonly known as ‘the cooties.’

“Usually, when adolescents hit puberty the increase in hormones eradicates the cooteovirus from their systems. We believe the mutated cooteovirus, dubbed codgervirus, is able to take advantage of the decreased hormone levels in the elderly to gain hold and cause infection.

“Fortunately, we’ve developed a vaccine to stop the spread of codgervirus,” Dr. Purvis added.

In an unrelated story, the NIDC has identified a chronic problem among post-menopausal seniors.

“Their fuzzy cheeks are actually a form of acne,” she said. “We are presently looking for a way to treat these ‘knitz.’”


BELLYBUTTON RING TONES
© Weekly World News

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The beeping, chirping, and musical notes of ringing cell phones have become a part of the background noise of everyday life. Now, however, a new company is adding electronic sounds to the mix with the introduction of Bellybutton RingTones.

“Everyone’s getting their bellybuttons pierced, but other than another place to hang cheap jewelry, so what?” said seventeen year-old Hedda Audi, inventor of the Bellybutton RingTones.

“I thought, shouldn’t these things do something? Wouldn’t it be cool if they could talk to one another? So I came up with this really tiny infra-red sensor. Actually, my dad did. I told him it was for a school project. Anyway, whenever one Bellybutton RingTone gets close to another, they both beep with any one of thousands of downloadable sounds or songs available at our website, UmbilicalChord.com.”

The RingTones were an instant sales success, much to the distress of her school principal. “I’ve had to ban the things,” said a harried Dr. Horace Bookman. “We had classrooms with dozens of those things going off all the same time. Very disruptive.”

“That ban is the best publicity we could’ve gotten,” Audi said as the theme from Aqua Teen Hunger Force played from her navel. “We’ve tripled sales since the ban and plan to expand our business. People pierce all sorts of places, so there’re millions of holes we can fill!”


JEWELRY FOR JESUS
© Weekly World News

JERUSALEM, Israel – The discovery twenty-seven years ago of six limestone bone boxes, or ossuaries, inscribed with the names ‘Jesus,’ ‘Joseph,’ ‘Mary,’ ‘Matthew,’ ‘Mary Magdalene,’ and ‘Judah Son of Jesus,’ have lead many biblical scholars to believe, after decades of study, that the Jesus family tomb has been discovered.

However, one overlooked artifact was a smaller carved cedar box with a hinged top that was dug up only a few yards from the Jesus family tomb. On its lid was carved the initial ‘J,’ and it held a single item: a wooden bracelet, hand-carved, and inscribed with four Aramaic characters.

“I’m amazed that no one ever bothered having the Aramaic letters translated before,” said Chaim DeBunco, chairman of the University of Lamden’s Biblical Studies department. “It would have solved this mystery years ago. This box belonged to, indeed may have been made, by Jesus himself. The bracelet confirms it: the letters translate to the initials ‘W.W.I.D.?’ which stands for What Would I Do?

“Who else would have owned a little bauble like that?”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Yeah, I'm Talkin' To You!

Back in July and September, I ran a couple of excerpts from Hey, Sophie!, a YA novel I wrote based on someone's intellectual property. Alas and alack, the book has not seen publication and likely never will, which is a shame. I thought it turned out well and it received a good reaction from others who read it (including a focus group of 10-12 year old girls, the target audience). Here's some more...


HEY, SOPHIE!
© Stirred Water Studios

Chapter 7

Sophie waved and ran off up the street, through the crowd of Saturday morning shoppers. As she passed food and grocery shops and clothing stores, a pharmacy, a bookstore and a shoe store, it came to her that Hebert wasn’t really so different from New York, at least not where it counted. Maybe the little Louisiana town lacked the big name chain stores that lined the streets where she and her mother shopped, but other than that, the scene was little different from what she was used to, with grown-ups and kids going in and out of the various shops, juggling their bundles of groceries and whatever. Throw a few tall buildings into the background and drain the air of some of the humidity and she could have been back home.

Except, of course, she wasn’t.

Midway up the bustling street, Sophie came to a small storefront. Painted in fancy gold letters on the spotless window was “Bayou-Gazette, Serving Hebert Since 1921. Delson Esponge, Proprietor.” Sophie put her face to the window and peered inside, where she saw two old wooden rolltop desks, both with large black typewriters on them nestled among precariously balanced mounds of newspapers, books, papers and file folders. Tied up bundles of printed newspapers were stacked everywhere. Behind the desks a waist-high wooden railing divided the space in half, on the far side of which stood a massive and, to Sophie’s eyes, ancient, printing press.

“Well,” Sophie said to herself, “it’s not exactly the New York Times.”

“No, don’t suppose anyone would ever confuse the Gazette for the Times,” said a voice behind her. Sophie jumped and spun around. The man standing there, a newspaper folded under one arm and holding a steaming mug of coffee, was about half a head shorter than Sophie, with a shiny brown and round smiling face topped by thick, black framed glasses that were pushed up on top of the few wispy hairs that covered his bald head. He wore wrinkled dark slacks held up by fraying suspenders, an ink-stained white shirt with rolled up sleeves and a dark and hastily tied necktie speckled with bits of what Sophie imagined were his last dozen or so meals.

“On the other hand,” the man said, “I’ll wager you no one at the Times knows the name of every single one of its subscribers.”

Sophie swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean any disrespect,” she said quickly. “I was just, you know....”

The man chuckled and waved the hand holding the coffee cup, some of the dark liquid sloshing over the side onto his hand. “Not to worry, young ‘un,” he said. “Man publishes a newspaper and sells all of four hundred and sixty-two copies a week’s in no position to be easily insulted.”

“Are you Mr. Esponge?”

“I am indeed he, owner, publisher, editor, writer, advertising manager, typesetter and printer of the Bayou-Gazette, at your service,” Mr. Esponge said, bowing his head in her direction. “And, unless I miss my guess, you would be Miz Sophie Boudreaux.”

“How did you know?” Sophie asked in surprise.

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” he said with another chuckle. “A good newsman makes it his business to know what’s going on. Now, as we have but one newcomer in town, that being the aforementioned Miz Boudreaux, and since you and I have never had the pleasure of meeting before, you would, ipso facto, be she.”

Mr. Esponge shifted the coffee cup to his left hand, extending his right to Sophie after a quick swipe to his trouser leg to wipe away the spilled coffee. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

Sophie shook his hand. “Hi.”

The smiling newspaperman swung open the door to his office and gestured for Sophie to enter. “To what do I owe this honor?” he asked.

Sophie walked into the newspaper office, followed by Mr. Esponge. The air inside was cool and the large space smelled like pulp paper and printer’s ink.

“I guess you could say I’m also a reporter...well, I want to grow up and be a reporter. But I, you know, write for my school newspaper back in New York, and, well...”

“Ah, yes, of course, a professional courtesy call,” Mr. Esponge said happily as he settled on the wooden swivel chair behind the nearest desk and balanced his coffee cup atop a stack of papers. “Splendid. Please, Miz Boudreaux, have a seat.”

Sophie looked around. The only other chair in view was practically invisible under a confusion of paper and books. She chose instead a stack of bundled newspapers.

“First, young lady,” he said, his bright round face growing momentarily serious, “May I say I know of your troubles and wish you a swift and happy resolution to them all. I knew your papa quite well when he was a boy. Indeed, he used to deliver the Bayou-Gazette about town. But as fine a lad as he was, he grew up to be an even finer man. If there is anything in my power that may be of help to you or your grandmere, you have but to ask. In the meantime, I can only pray for the safe return of your dear parents.”

Sophie swallowed back the lump in her throat and blinked back tears, taken aback by Mr. Esponge’s kindness. “Thank you, sir,” she said softly.

The smile returned to his face as quickly as it disappeared. “Now, then, young lady, about you. When I heard a fellow journalistic was coming to town, I naturally checked out your credentials.”

“Really?”

“Certainly! The Lincoln Center Middle School’s Monitor, isn’t it? Quite a nice website. A lovely showcase for your very enjoyable columns.”

Sophie eyed the ancient manual typewriter on the desk in front of Mr. Esponge. “You have internet access?” she asked in a voice that carried a little more surprise than she had intended.

Mr. Esponge, who seemed to chuckle almost as often as he blinked, said, “Pretty surprising for a backwoods rag, huh?”

“Oh, no, sir, I wasn’t...”

“Just joshing with you, Miz Boudreaux. I may still like to write on my trusty ol’ Smith-Corona typewriter, once the property of my illustrious predecessor, my own papa and founder of this fine paper,” he said, fondly patting the side of the black hunk of metal, keys and typewriter ribbon. “And the Gazette is indeed yet printed on a press introduced not long after the turn of the previous century, but I am a man who is not afeared of embracing progress. I am a long-time subscriber to the nation’s wire services which supply me with news of the nation and the world via the internet.”

Sophie sat up straight, eyes going wide. “High-speed?”

“Top of the line DSL,” he said with a wink.

“Mr. Esponge,” Sophie smiled, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Friday, December 5, 2008

BOOK SIGNING TOMORROW!


And tomorrow, Saturday, December 6 from 1:00 - 3:00 P.M., I will be signing Jew-Jitsu: The Hebrew Hands of Fury at Just Books in Old Greenwich, Connecticut (click on the image above for the address or website and phone number for travel information).

Everyone's invited to come on by and say...and buy the book.

Chanukah's coming and it makes a great yarmukle stuffer!

What Day Is It, Kids? It's Capes, Cowls & Costumes Friday!

Yay!

Once again, a new installment of Capes, Cowls & Costumes is up on Bookgasm.com, this installment looking at novels adapting major comic book story lines, including Crisis On Infinite Earths and Kingdom Come. Check it out.

Really, do I ask you for much?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ONE HUNDRED!


Hey, what'd you know...my 100th post (thanks to pal Rob Kelly over at the Aquaman Shrine for the idea of using the above cover to illustrate it...why would I think of such a thing, just 'cause I wrote the comic--well, co-wrote, with Paul Levitz--and a 3-D diorama of the lovely Joe Staton/Dick Giordano cover sits about two and a half feet from my desk) in the form of Part 2 of the Wonder Woman essay:


What Is So Hard About Wonder Woman?! (Part 2)
© respective copyright holder

Not everyone agreed to go along with the idea. Some mocked it with a vehemence that revealed mid-century man’s deep fear of the equal, or, heaven forbid!, dominant woman. In 1954, MAD (then a comic book; it would later evolve into the magazine format more familiar to today’s audience) offered up the parody “Woman Wonder,” by Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder. In it, Woman Wonder is every bit the strong, capable, dominant woman. Her boyfriend Steve Adore is a little weenie of a man, constantly needing rescue by his bigger, stronger Amazon girlfriend. They can’t even make out without his complaining “Ooh, dearest! When you crush me so hard in your strong, sinewy, hairy muscular arms ... I ... I ... I ... I ... break ... something in the side of chest ... something broke, sweetheart!” Diana Banana, this relationship’s obvious top, is oblivious to Steve’s pain as she demands “Give me another kiss!” over and over through his discomfort. Steve fakes his own abduction to drawn Woman Wonder into a trap where he first psychologically berates her for being dumb enough believing her great powers are even possible “both physically and mathematically” (stupid girl!), and then he and his muscle goons beat and torture her for two pages of non-stop hilarity, ending with his stomping on her face “raised so tenderly in tearful supplication” with his hob-nailed boot. “I’ve been planning for years to beat you to a bloody pulp!” he screams as jumps up and down on her, kicking her “back in the kitchen where you belong, sweetheart!” And so we see in the final panel, Steve and Diana in stereotypical comic strip domestic bliss, complete with a houseful of screaming, misbehaving children (including a little girl in a Woman Wonder outfit who is setting fire to her brother), a haggard Diana with baby in one arm, burning dinner with the other, while Steve reclines with a cigar and racing form in the living room. “Diana Banana is now content with the normal female life of working over a hot stove!” the caption reads. “And Steve can even knock her down in boxing!”

Take that, Wonder Bitch!

In all fairness, MAD’s mission statement, as much as one ever existed, was to twist and subvert the conventions and pretensions of their parody subjects. Superman and Batman both received earlier and similar skewerings in MAD, both equally honest in their own ways, but the sheer brutality and misogyny of “Woman Wonder” is, especially in retrospect, disturbing. This is what happens to a dame who thinks she’s better than a man: she gets stomped into submission.

Gloria Steinem worked, coincidentally, for Harvey Kurtzman, writer of “Woman Wonder” in the early-1960s when she was a contributing editor to his humor magazine, Help. There is no indication, anecdotal or otherwise, that Kurtzman, creator of MAD and Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny” was himself in any way a misogynist; indeed, for it’s overt sexuality, the harassed Annie usually came up the winner in the strip’s battle of the sexists. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of chalking it up to the 1950s zeitgeist, when domestic violence was looked at as understandable and sometimes necessary disciplinary action, or the punch line of every episode of Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners: “Pow, zoom, to the moon, Alice!” Ralph bellowed, his clenched fist in her nonplussed face. Yes, viewers knew – the apologists now contend – Ralph was all bluster, that, in fact, Alice could and would kick his ass if he ever dared strike her, but did the viewers of the 1950s, inured by decades of implied violence against women in the media, know this? How many simply heard the stated message without bothering to dig out its comedic nuance? It was the mass media’s selling of the socially acceptable belief that conflicts in the home could be settled at the end of a fist.

Television was rife with this subliminal message (as were comic books and movies), from the 1950s and continuing through ... well, what year is it? Sometimes, when Ricky lost his temper and loomed menacingly over Lucy, berating her in machinegun Spanish, she would cower, literally in a corner, under his verbal assault. His eyes bulged, veins throbbed in his forehead, he flailed about with clenched fists and the thought is sometimes unavoidable: Oh, my God! Ricky beats Lucy! Why else would she be so fearful of his fiery Cuban temper?

Edith Bunker was another victim, verbally “stifled” by Archie’s bigotry, hatred, and stupidity. Yes, Edith was smarter than Archie ... but Woman Wonder will tell you what happens to girls who don’t hide their superiority from the boys. Even Charlie’s Angels answered to Charlie.

Wonder Woman was a symbol waiting to be discovered, both on TV and as a political icon. Steinem, like most kids during the 1940s, read comic books, but was bothered that the women in them were relegated to the role of getting into trouble so the superhero could then rescue them. “I’m happy to say that I was rescued from this dependent fate at the age of seven or so; rescued (Great Hera!) by a woman,” Steinem recalled in the 1995 introduction to Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was the woman girls who followed the muscular world of comic book heroes wanted to be when they grew up, someone worthy of being, unlike “a Technicolor clotheshorse, getting into jams with villains, and saying things like, ‘Oh, Superman! I’ll always be grateful to you!’”

Steinem found Lynda Carter to be “a little blue of eye and large of breast” for the role, “but she still retained her Amazon powers, her ability to convert instead of kill, and her appeal for many young female viewers.”

“Wonder Woman is this enigma within the world of superhero comics. No one seems to ever ‘get her.’ One moment, she is this completely powerful and independent character that stands just as strong (and often stronger) than her male counterpart. Then, she diverts to this out of touch ditz who doesn't even know how to pump her own gas, then sway into a ball-busting man-hater who thinks us dudes are nothing but disgusting sperm banks. Suddenly, she is the leader of an entire race of warrior woman, (and) finally she becomes Superman with ovaries. So, what gives? Which Wonder Woman is the correct Wonder Woman?”
Aaron Duran, 2007 (“What Is So Hard About Wonder Woman?”)

When I assumed editorship of the Wonder Woman comic book in early 1994, the character was in what could only be described as a slump. The character was fifty-plus years old and showing, not her age, but the inability of the boy’s club that is the comic book industry to fully comprehend the needs of a complex, older woman. Girls stopped reading just about anything other than Archie comics sometime in the 1960s; that left the next few generations of comic book creators an almost exclusively male domain.

Writing any character of subtlety and nuance is difficult to do in the often limited scope of mainstream comic books. For a male writer who grew up on the testosterone soaked comics of the last three decades, it was probably asking a lot of him to convincingly write a character of the opposite sex who is supposed to embody everything that is good and virtuous and above all, peaceful in womanhood ... yet stands for the personification of the invincible warrior class. How is a man who probably doesn’t even understand his girlfriend or wife supposed to decode the exemplar of womanhood? It was by no means an impossibility, nor was it for any lack of effort; George Perez managed to come close in a popular and critically successful run of Wonder Woman starting in 1987. Dennis O’Neil, the writer who kicked off a controversial 1968 story line in which she was “de-powered” and played as an Emma Peel karate expert in a white jumpsuit, partnered with a wise little blind Asian martial arts master, I Ching, readily admits to the weakness, saying in a 2006 online interview, “You have to understand, writers like me, we have the best of intentions. We simply don't always know how to do things well.”

O’Neil, one of the most respected writers in the medium, would seem to have shown us the error of those particular 1968-ways. He recalled in a 2007 online interview, “Gloria Steinem, bless her, without mentioning my name, wrote an article about that and after the fact I saw her point, absolutely. At the time I thought I was serving the cause of feminism by making this woman self-made and then I immediately undercut that by having her have a male martial arts teacher. My heart was pure, but I now see Steinem's point. To take the one really powerful [female] character in the comics pantheon, and take away her powers was really not serving the cause of feminism.”

And yet, almost three decades after that fact, Wonder Woman, under the auspices of a talented editor and inventive writer, was reduced to working in a fast food taco franchise in stories published under covers depicting her in various poses of humiliation and defeat. Several years later, down the line of my editorial tenure, a storyline by writer/artist John Byrne elevated Wonder Woman to the level of a god in the Greek pantheon. A large segment of fans were outraged; how dare anyone suggest Wonder Woman could be the equal, or (that troubling concept again) superior, to Superman? He was the male, naturally superior. Wonder Woman would, in the estimation of some, be allowed second place on the superpowers scale. Others busied themselves compiling lists of all the male heroes who are stronger and why; role playing games have given the hardcore accepted standards for the quantification of magical and super-powers to bolster their arguments, which generated considerable heat on the internet before subsequent editors and writers returned her to the comfortable, familiar status quo.

# # #

What is so hard about Wonder Woman?

Is she, in the end, just a fungible fictional character responding to the personalities of whoever happens to be creating her adventures? Or is she the sum total of the reader’s interpretation as they filter the writer’s experiences through their own? After all, every argument for William Moulton Marston being a proto-feminist can be rebutted with quotes from his writings that blatantly and specifically espouse the psychological benefits of bondage and domination, the proof of which can be found in its almost comically obvious presence in all of his Wonder Woman stories; spankings – boy on girl and girl on girl alike – were routine, covers depicting her astride, or bound to, missiles hurtling through the air were plentiful, and lots of characters spent many, many panels trussed up by ropes and chains in a variety of bondage poses. As a dramatic device, Marston said, “binding and chaining are the one harmless, painless way of subjecting the heroine to menace and making drama of it.” Besides, he said, “women enjoy submission.”

Which carries more creative weight: the original intent of the creator, the judgment of the individual reader, or the interpretations of later creators? Comic book characters, like all serialized characterizations everywhere, are kept fresh through the illusion of change; readers and fans want their favorites to go through six different kinds of hell on a monthly basis ... just as long as they emerge exactly as they’ve always been (since the particular reader have been reading it, that is) but different on the other end.

More people know Wonder Woman from the television show than have or ever will read the comic books, but the influence of the creator’s original intent were hard to ignore, even in the event of cross-medium translation in which the receiving medium usually has little or no trouble ignoring exactly what it was that attracted them to the character in the first place. Network television standards and practices kept it clean – there would be no straddling of phallic symbols on the Peacock Network! – but every review, every reminiscence couldn’t help but reference the true star of the show: Lynda Carter’s breasts.

So: Feminist icon. B&D poster girl. Propaganda tool for enlightening the malleable minds of impressionable little boys. Smartass broad who needs a smacking around. Role model for girls. Goddess. Harmless TV entertainment. Jiggle-TV.

Because, in the end, everyone reads into Wonder Woman the qualities they need to satisfy themselves. She is, in the final, clich├ęd analysis, a fictionalized earth mother. We come to her as viewers and readers and she, in her nurturing way, shows us exactly what we need. Lynda Carter needed a higher meaning to a role as a comic strip character. Gloria Steinem needed a symbol for women’s equality. Harvey Kurtzman needed a strong woman victimize in order to comment on the decade’s misogyny. Dennis O’Neil needed a reminder of how art intersects politics.

William Moulton Marston needed a spanking.

And the writers find what they need to make Wonder Woman work for them: Robert Kanigher, who took over scripting Wonder Woman after Marston’s death in 1947, took the character off into light, romantic comedy mixed with fantasy and high adventure by way of romance comics. Fantasy novelist and Wonder Woman writer Jodi Picoult told Newsarama.com in a 2006 interview, “My thoughts are to sort of give her some mother-daughter issues – because I think all women have those, and to beef up the relationships that she now has in the world of man, as she's assuming an identity given to her.”

Assuming an identity given to her.

That’s something Wonder Woman should be used to by now.