Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Windy City, Here I Come!

I'm up far too late, considering I meant to leave early in the morning for parts northward. Whatever time I do manage to get on the road, though, I don't expect I'll be posting much of anything else on here for the next couple of weeks.

Be sure to check back after 10 August for further writing on a persistently unfocused and eclectic range of topics. In the meantime, if you'd like to read more I've written, consider perusing, if you haven't yet, these posts on Iceland (and Bobby Fischer), Anne Bancroft's obituary, the number of civilian deaths in Iraq, a Moebius Strip of fictional and real universes, why I gave my blog this title, sentence-ending prepostions, etymology, carelessness, and gullibility, Charles Schulz on Garry Trudeau, Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, Bill Finger and Batman's beginning, the crazy dialogue in The Manchurian Candidate, the fun of Fables, Shrimp vs. Prawns, Plates vs. Scales, and my overacheiving doppelgangers. Plus, obviously, the one from an hour ago.

If it's a postcard from the trip you're looking for, you'd better drop me your postal address in a message to the Gmail address to the right.

Web Site from Another Universe

It's what Cliff Pickover at Reality Carnival calls a "mysterious web site enthrall[ing] visitors from around the world."

It actually grows somewhat less mysterious as you explore it further, but it's definitely weird and cool and, frankly, enthralling. I like it.

Diane Roberts, John Ellis, and Election Night 2000

I checked out of the library the book Dream State by Diane Roberts, intrigued by its colorful topic, which is described in the subtitle as "eight generations of swamp lawyers, conquistadors, Confederate daughters, Banana Republicans, and other Florida wildlife." The front inside of the dust cover description begins this way: "Part family memoir, part political commentary, part apologia, Dream State is all Floridian, telling the grand and sometimes crazy story of the twenty-seventh state through the eyes of one of its native daughters." It mentions a few of the zany and historically meaningful anecodtes involving Roberts' relatives and says "with a storyteller's talent for setting great scenes," she "lays out the sweeping history of eight generations of" her family and "Forrest Gumps them into situations with more historically familiar names."

Roberts is not just a journalist and an NPR commentator, but one whose family is tightly woven into the Democratic Party throughout Florida history and even now. She says they were "pretty much all" Democrats until 1976 when one wing of the family, noting that Jimmy Carter wasn't the racist they wanted, voted for George Wallace and "later turned to Ronald Reagan." (p.11). So it's not surprising that when, as the jacket blurb tells us, the book "start[s] in the recent past with the botched presidential election of 2000," she has an approach that's biased against the Republicans in the matter.

Her bias clouds her judgment of that episode. On pages 15 and 16, she recounts election night this way:
At 7:52 PM on November 7, John Ellis of the Fox Network Decision 2000 team called Florida for Al Gore. ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN had already projected a win for Gore. At 7:58 PM, John Ellis phoned his first cousin John Ellis Bush, better known as Jeb, to say he was awfully sorry, old man, but Junior was about to crash and burn in Florida. Shortly before 2:15 AM on November 8, John Ellis dialed the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas. Good news: Republican numbers have shot up. At 2:17 AM, John Ellis declared Florida a win for Cousin George W. The other channels followed like sheep.


George W. thinks he won. The Bush logic goes like this: 1. Jeb said he would win Florida; 2. Cousin John Ellis said he did win Florida; 3. On national TV, damn it.

This is insulting, frankly, in its unfairness to the reader. With her "storyteller's talent for setting great scenes," she deftly dismisses the possibility that George W. Bush may have thought he won for reasons more legitimate than his family connections and effectively excludes it from consideration.

Her assertion of a Bush victory claim resting prinicipally on Ellis's Fox call relies on two spurious ideas. The first is that Ellis (who, I acknowledge, shouldn't have been involved at all) himself invented the conclusion that Bush had come out ahead after all. The second is that the other channels, following like sheep, must have had no valid basis to call it for Bush themselves.

Each of those premises are flawed. I was going to draw on Dave Kope'sl Fifty-Nine Deceipts in Fahrenheit 9/11 article to discuss the role of Voter News Service (VNS) in providing data to the networks and the chronology of various networks making and rescinding calls for either candidate. But after stumbling upon this anti-Moore site that also quotes Kopel, I discovered on it an even stronger refutation of this theory by--disappointingly, to me--Ann Coulter.

Now, I pretty much never read or pay attention to Ann Coulter. Whenever I've run across articles or appearances by or quotes from her, I've found her so shrill and abrasive, so apt to pour vitriol and animosity into an argument that it makes me cringe. I think such invective tends to drive its targets to entrench themselves further into their positions. Some who disagree with her on a given issue may be reasonable people suitable for persuasion until she alienates them. Given that I've then avoided her, I may be wrong in my impression, but I mention it in case anyone shares it and so would be apt to disregard her argument on this issue.

The passage, though, from her book Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right excerpted at the bowlingfortruth.com page, I actually found really rather temperate. It's full of facts (or at least plausible purported facts--I don't know who the three Democrats working in concert with Ellis were who she mentions) and cogent reasoning.

I'm not going to quote her. It's a pretty long passage, and it would be insufficiently effective for me to clip a small bit of it and silly of me to copy the whole stretch. It's worth clicking over there and reading. If you agree with Diane Roberts about the role of John Ellis and Fox News in causing the other networks to call Florida for Bush and Dubya to believe he'd won it, please read that excerpt and, if it doesn't change your mind, explain to me why Coulter doesn't refute Roberts.

(And feel free to disregard Coulter's paragraph that begins "It was a 'suggestion' made all the more insidious by virtue of being true." I happen to agree with her point in that paragraph, but it's not at all essential to the argument at hand.)

Diane Roberts is a good writer with an interesting subject in that book. I just wish I felt I could trust her a bit more.

Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel

Via Andrea Harris, this is the fascinating Edward Gorey book The Unstrung Harp.

Edward Gorey art, Edward Gorey perspective, and witty insights into writing, specifically writing a novel. Excellent stuff. I've got to dig up more of his work.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Blogspot Trickery

Why is it that about half the time when I change something on this blog--add a new post, add a link to the list on the right, or change the description lines under the blog title--the change doesn't immediately seem to take effect even though Blogger tells me that my blog published successfully?

That's frustrating. This is baffling: The URL http://elyclarifies.blogspot.com doesn't reflect the changes, but the URL http://www.elyclarifies.blogspot.com does. What's behind that? I obviously am no web genius or I'd have a much more sophisticated site. So there could be some relatively simple explanation that still I wouldn't get. But relatively simple or ridiculously obscure, I have no idea what the explanation is.

Now I'm gonna hit post and see how long it takes for this to show up in the first URL.

Bill Finger and Batman

John at Trawlerman's Song put up this post linking to an NPR interview with the late Bob Kane, the officially credited creator of Batman and, alluding to the title of the recent Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale movie, advised listening to it to hear how Batman really began.

I'm glad he did and thank him for it. It's an interesting listen. Unfortunately for NPR listeners, though, it's not so much how Batman was really created as how Bob Kane really wanted everyone to think Batman was created.

It's a testament to Kane's ego and selfishness that he made it through that ten-minute interview without once mentioning the name of writer Bill Finger. That's only a small example, though, of Kane's lifelong pattern of behavior since the moment Batman first appeared in 1939, with a few weak exceptions briefly in the time around when he was on NPR, though he returned to form for the interview itself .

For 66 years and counting, every appearance of Batman has carried the words "Batman created by Bob Kane." It certainly should read "Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger," but never will, thanks to the "iron-clad guarantee" in the contract that Wizard magazine says was produced by the lawyers employed by Kane's "well-to-do New York family with enough money...to nail down Kane's interest in the character." [For the excellent and informative Wizard article, see this page and scroll down.]

That description of Kane's family's affluence conflicts with Kane's repeated description of himself in the NPR interview as "a poor kid from the Bronx." Who to believe? Well, Kane in that interview also says at the time he submitted Batman to DC (then National) Comics, he was 18. He was born, according to some conflicting accounts, on October 24 of either 1915 or 1916. If he wasn't born until 1916 and was 18 at the time of meeting he describes with editor Vincent Sullivan, that meeting couldn't have been later than 1935. But Kane tells interviewer Terry Gross that "the period when I spoke to Vincent Sullivan was 1939. It was about a year later [than the creation of Superman]." So Kane's account is at best unreliable.

Of course, the point ultimately isn't Kane's age or economic background but how Batman was created and by whom. Numerous sources describe Bill Finger as having played a crucial role. See, for instance, the Wikipedia article (apparently drawing on the Gerard Jones book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, & the Birth of the Comic Book, which I just ordered used from Amazon for $2 plus shipping), this Philadelphia Daily News article, and the books and articles from which excerpts appear here, including the Wizard article mentioned above. Consider also these press releases announcing and awarding the Bill Finger Excellence in Writing Award.

Bob Kane's own 1989 autobiography, Batman & Me, recognized this, but that was in contrast to his usual behavior. In 1965, in response to a subsequent fanzine article resulting from Finger's participation in a panel discussion at a comics convention, Kane sent an angry letter to the fanzine Batmania, in which he insisted he was the sole creator of Batman, accused Finger of delusions of grandeur, and pretty much called Finger a glorified typist.

24 years later, and 15 after Finger's death, Kane in his book gave Finger credit for several of the key contributions in defining Batman's costume, characteristics, and identity. Without Bill Finger's contributions right from the beginning, the character of Batman would have been something entirely different, probably wouldn't have lasted a couple of years, and certainly wouldn't today be a major character, let alone anything like DC's second highest-profile character and an American icon. Yet because it was Bob Kane whom editor Vincent Sullivan commissioned and Finger who was subcontracted by Kane, Kane maintained even in the 1989 book that Finger "came into the strip after I had created Bat-Man."

Consider: in Kane's original conception, Bat-Man would wear--along with black trunks and black mask-- a union suit costume of not gray but red . He would wear no gloves. He would have no cape as such but instead big fake bat-wings attached to the back of his arms. There would be no cowl, no hood with bat-ears, but instead just a little mask like Robin ended up wearing, through which Kane's hero's eyeballs would be visible, unlike the blank slits for eyes in the Batman costume we came to know. All the changes away from Kane's original conception toward what the world came to know came from Bill Finger--those with the mask, at least, before the character was ever published.

What kind of personality or tactics this superhero might have had is unclear. Kane said, "I made Batman a superhero-vigilante....Bill turned him into a scientific detective."

Kane's dishonesty is strikingly illustrated in that NPR interview when he speaks of the origin of the name Bruce Wayne, as if he came up with it: "Well, it's an alliteration of Bob Kane. Bruce Wayne. Alliteration." Yeah, "Bob" and "Bruce" each begin with the letter B. But do you think maybe another concept he was grasping for was "rhyming"? Never mind, though. He goes on, developing the theme of his naming his hero Bruce Wayne: "I wanted it to sound...I wanted to be Bruce Wayne in my revelry and in my daydreams. Instead of a poor kid, I imagined I'd like to be a rich playboy and fight crime at night because I hate all injustices in the world." The last bit makes me a little ill, but we'll return to his hating all injustices in the world in minute.

Look, did, in fact, Bob Kane name Bruce Wayne? He did not. In Batman & Me, Kane writes, "The alliteration of the names - Bruce Wayne - Bob Kane - was probably one reason Bill came up with the name." Got that? "Bill came up with the name." [Emphasis added, obviously.] And it turns out Kane is just speculating on the alliteration (rhyming?) idea: "probably one reason." What ego!

Now that we've got the acknowledgment from Kane that Finger came up with the name for Batman's alter ego, let's look at how Finger himself described the idea's genesis, according to TheBatSquad.net's quotation from Jim Steranko's History of the Comics, vol. 1. "Bruce Wayne's first name came from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot. Wayne, being a playboy, was a man of gentry. I searched for a name that would suggest colonialism. I tried Adams, Hancock...then I thought of Mad Anthony Wayne." Doesn't mention Kane's name in there. So NPR's Terry Gross asks Kane about the name Bruce Wayne, and he a. neglects again to mention Bill Finger's name and b. gives her a load of BS.

(It now seems pretty much undisputed that Finger himself came up with the Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, the Batmobile, the Batcave, the Batplane, the Batsignal, and the phrases "Dynamic Duo" and "Gotham City." Those are all in addition to his role in creating the actual Batman character.)

Perhaps the most disgustingly hypocritical comment from Bob Kane in his latter days comes from Tales of the Dark Knight by Mark Cotta Vaz. "I regret that I did not give Bill a byline, which he richly deserved, but somehow the policy in those days was to give credit only to the original creator and not to the writers who came in after the fact." Setting aside the question of what precisely Kane could be said to have created without Bill Finger, Kane had a contract guaranteeing him exclusive and perpetual credit. "Somehow the policy was..."? What chutzpah! Kane profited handsomely from Batman and died in 1998. Bill Finger struggled his whole life and died in 1974. Throughout Finger's lifetime, Bob "I-hate-all-injustices-in-the-world" Kane denied him credit, adopting his phony posture of a generous spirit only after Finger was long dead and no threat to his own role as Batman's sole creator.

How did Batman begin? Bob Kane had an opportunity and a starting point. Bill Finger had the creative wherewithal to make from that a character that captured people's imagination.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Jumping the Tracks of Reality. Lovably

A few scenes of deranged, if temperate, incomprehensibility from the original 1962 John Frankenheimer film, The Manchurian Candidate.

Frank Sinatra, as Major Bennett Marco, is asked by his boss about all the bizarre books piled up in his apartment. He responds with this, as he picks them up and reads the titles:
The, uh, truth of the matter is I'm just interested, you know, in the, uh, principles of modern banking and the history of piracy...paintings of Orozco, modern French theater, the jurisprudential factors of mafia administration, diseases of horses, and novels of Joyce Cary, and ethnic choices of the Arabs...things like that.
That was a sequence of words I never could have suspected might come out of Sinatra's mouth. And he delivered it in a sort of nonchalant but confused fashion. As if he didn't really know what the deal was with these books but didn't really care. Crazy talk, though! Jurisprudential factors of mafia administration? Ethnic choices of Arabs? Man. If there are such things as these, I'm interested. And, heck, for that matter, the diseases of horses, history of piracy, and even principles of modern banking. Dammit, Major Marco, you've roused my curiosity.

There's never an explanation given for those books or his comments about them.

Roger Ebert also notes that this is a film that, in his words, "jumps the tracks of reality." I'll let Ebert set the scene for and begin the excerpt of some really insane dialogue:
Consider the peculiar first meeting between the Sinatra character and Rosie (Janet Leigh), who will become his fiancee. He's so shaky on a train that he can't light a cigarette. She follows him to the platform between cars, lights his cigarette, and then says, "Maryland's a beautiful state."
Sinatra: "This is Delaware."

Leigh: "I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter."

Sinatra: "I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town. You in the railroad business?"

Leigh: "Not anymore."

[A moment ensues of some miscellaneous lame topics I ignored and forgot. It includes the phrase "more or less."]

Sinatra: I never could figure out what that phrase meant: "more or less." [Then, a total non-sequitur:] You Arabic? [She's not even remotely.]

[They briefly discuss his name, Bennett Marco.]

Leigh: Major Marco....Are you Arabic? [Of course he's not.] Let me put it another way. Are you married?

Ebert again:
Soon she has broken off an engagement and taken up with Marco, leaving us to wonder what in the hell that dialogue was about. Was it in code? Was Marco hallucinating? It seems strange that the Chinese brainwashed the entire patrol, but needed only Raymond as an assassin. Why, then, spare the others with their nightmares and suspicions? Is Sinatra's Maj. Marco another Manchurian sleeper, and is Rosie his controller? If you look at their scenes carefully, you find that she broke off her engagement immediately after their awkward train meeting and before their first date. Reflect on the scene where she talks about Marco beating up "a very large Korean gentlemen," and ask yourself what she means when she calls this man, who she has never seen, "the general." I don't know. Maybe Rosie just talks funny. It would be a nice touch, though, for this screwball story to have another layer circling beneath.
I don't deny there might be this other layer. I suspect Ebert may be right. The thing is, though, nothing is ever made of it. There's never any explanation in the movie of her-as-contoller or any real development of it in the plot. Which at least allows us to enjoy it as pure zany madness.

This little speech by Raymond Shaw, the central character, to Marco can't be made less ridiculous by his brainwashing, though. It's a whole other deal. He's just pathetic and hilariously so.
Years later I realized, Ben, that I am not very loveable. No, no. Don't contradict me. I am not loveable. Some people are loveable, and other people are not loveable. I am not loveable. Oh, but I was very loveable with Jocie. Ben, you cannot believe how loveable I was. In a way. [He complains about his horrible mother for a minute and then gets into the Jocie anecdotes, which include the following lines.] We were together every minute after that. You just cannot believe, Ben, how loveable the whole damn thing was. All summer long we were together. I was loveable. Jocie was loveable. The senator was loveable. The days were loveable. The nights were loveable. And everybody was loveable. Except, of course, my mother.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Doing for Scientology what Radley Balko does for Morgan Spurlock

Via Sheila O'Malley, here is Proud Suppressives, a new blog focused on exposing and ridiculing Scientology. A whole lot of good material so far. Their links in the place of a blogroll also conveniently collect some of the best resources on Scientology, such as Operation Clambake and Rick Ross.

Spurlock Scrutiny

To all who have enthusiastically recommended to me Morgan Spurlock's movie Super Size Me, I in turn, enthusiastically recommend Radley Balko's new(ish) blog Morgan Spurlock Watch.

Disrespect

From any glance at his blog and any glance at mine, it's obvious Jeff Harrell posts an awful lot (of really good material) and I not so much. I meant to get around to making the following comments a couple of weeks ago.

On July 2, he said,
“Disrespect” is not a verb. It’s a noun. Please make a note of it.
Now, no disrespect toward Jeff's writing prowess, but I think he's swimming aginst the tide here. Both Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary consider it a transitive verb as well as a noun. It probably started out as just a noun and not a verb, and this is just one of those prescriptive vs. descriptive issues with dictionaries, but--if I may fling the clichés about a little casually in this paragraph--it looks as though the horse has left the barn on this one.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Schulz on Trudeau

This is a week late, but I'll post it anyway in case anyone's interested. Last Sunday, this Doonesbury cartoon ran, insulting bloggers and blog readers in ridiculous fashion. That day, Nick Stewart, formerly of The Last Call and now blogging at The Horseback Riders, posted these thoughts, noting that Garry Trudeau is trying to delegitimize blogs and that he has a financial motive for doing so. As Glenn Reynolds points out, Trudeau just makes himself look foolish. While Ed Cone, Ed Driscoll, Patterico, and quite a lot of others also commented on it, my other favorite post on the matter is Power Line's.

I only bring all this up because, in light of this episode, many blog readers may find interesting, as I did upon discovering it this weekend, that the late 20th century innovator and institution of the comics pages Charles M. Schulz had an unflattering opinion of Garry Trudeau and his work.

I very much took Charles Schulz and Peanuts for granted until rather recently. Last year sometime, I read this speech by Bill Watterson, creator of the brilliant Calvin & Hobbes. In it, he cites the three comic strips he most admired and was influenced by as Schulz's Peanuts, Walt Kelly's Pogo, and George Herriman's weird 1920s strip Krazy Kat. I hadn't (and, alas, still haven't) read any of the latter two, but after seeing such lavish praise from someone whose work I admire so much, I immediately added some collections of each to my Amazon wishlist, and this year for my birthday, my parents sent me the two volume boxed set of the Fantagraphics anthology The Complete Peanuts 1950-1954. It really is a beautiful product, let me tell you.

Anyway, in the back of the first volume, there is an interview with Charles Schulz conducted by Rick Marschall and Gary Groth in 1987. It's a decently long and very interesting interview. At one point this exchange occurs:
GROTH: How do you feel about [Garry] Trudeau's demanding more space [for Doonesbury]?
SCHULZ: [Pause.] That he's not a professional. He's never been professional.

GROTH: How do you mean that?
SCHULZ: I don't think he conducts himself in a professional manner in the things that he does.

MARSCHALL: You're not just talking about the artistry of the strip?
SCHULZ: It's his whole attitude toward the business.

GROTH: You don't admire the strip.
SCHULZ: [Shakes head.]
I already appreciated many of his characters, especially Charlie Brown himself, to whom I can relate. Reading through the early strips, the interview, and the biographies in these volumes, I've acquired a greater appreciation for the strip and for Schulz himself. It was striking to discover that on the matter of Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury we are again in sympathy. For all those of who find Trudeau unprofessional and don't admire the strip, we're in good company.

For more on Charles Schulz, have a look here, here, here, and here.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Boffins, Leviathans, and Zombie Dogs

First, I'm fascinated to discover that research scientists are called "boffins." Is that just in the UK and Australia, or is that here in the U.S. too, and I just never noticed it before? (A terrific Metafilter comment on the word "boffin" here.)

Second, holy crap, zombie dogs!! That's a scary photo. That's what you expect a zombie dog to look like, what you (c'mon, admit it) at some level want a zombie dog to look like, even if it does mean he'll probably try to eat your brains, or at least your retriever's. If I had to bet money, I'd say that's a photo that is totally unconnected to the actual research in question. Attention-getting, though, isn't it? Makes you read that story.

And makes you wonder, too, if it's a hoax. Especially after this. (Debunked here.)

But no. Real as Dolly the sheep. Supporting details about our new best undead friends here, here, and here.

Lastly, unrelated except for the "really weird animal" category they both go under, there's this really big fish. It's huge. No, wait. Actually, it's huger than huge. That's how huge it is. It's extra-ginormous. It's a 646-pound catfish, and it's, oh, looks to me, maybe eight feet long. That's a ridiculous catfish. I also like that the science guy commenting to the media on the giant catfish project is named Zeb Hogan (it's like a movie that writes itself!) and that MSNBC refers to him as "project leader Zeb Hogan project leader." (Because my proofreading never fails. No, never.)

This leviathan found by way of Jeff Harrell who offers so much more over at The Shape of Days. Er, no, not more leviathans, sorry--things such as interesting commentary, wacky non sequiturs randomly appearing with each click on the blog title, and intriguing admonitions to doubt EFF and Slashdot.