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January Miscellany

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

This lovely novel is the winner of this year's Caldecott Medal, the annual award given by the American Library Association for the year's best children's picture book.

The funny thing is, people don't quite know what to do with it. Publisher's Weekly described it as a "prose/comics/graphic work," an awkward attempt to cover all possible bases. Why not just call it a story in words and pictures? At times, Selznick tells the story with words, the way most novels do, and at other times, his drawings take over the narrative task. Photographs and movie stills deliver potent narrative revelations. The design of the book is an obvious beauty as well, with each page bordered in black, turning the pages themselves into movie stills, or perhaps pieces of memory captured in an album.

The beauty of the pages more than compensates for the entirely predictable plot, and the story is wonderfully entertaining anyway. It is filled with clocks, automatons, secret passages, lost notebooks, hidden messages, card tricks, magic shows, silent movies, disguised identities, aching loneliness, and the triumph of hope over despair.

This is the first time the Caldecott has been awarded to a novel, and as Publisher's Weekly reported, booksellers expressed some real excitement over this. They also observed that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is "something new," that it "breaks new ground in how a book is made." Those of us on a steady diet of graphic novels might not be completely convinced that it breaks new ground, although it does have a feeling about it of being something quite special and inventive. I think we just don't see enough novels in pictures, and thus lack a framework for comparison.

Perhaps as we regain our memory of Milt Gross, Lynd Ward, and Frans Masreel, we'll be better prepared to judge the merits of novels told in part, or in whole, in pictures.

Beowulf

Reviews were mixed. In a way, it was like a Disney film, making egregious changes to a work of classic fiction, but in the case of Beowulf the changes made less sense, since it didn't need to please the kiddies.  Still, others thought the fundamental plot changes made a dull epic into an interesting story. No matter what, I loved seeing it in 3-D. I can put up with almost any movie, even The Polar Express, if I can see it in 3-D.

Industry analysts are suggesting that 3-D movies are the future of cinema, today's version of CinemaScope as studios look for ways to compete with DVD and Blu-ray. Movies made for 3-D viewing are still rare, as multiplexes are slow to upgrade to the expensive projection equipment. But watching Beowulf, I could see the built-in 3-D animation potential of every current DC and Marvel title. I imagined them thrown up on the screen, and I liked it.

If you saw Beowulf, then Roger Ebert's review is not to be missed.

Very Short Notes on the Industry

The Times Online published a quick look at the recent trend to recruit bestselling novelists to write comics. I was interested to read Ian Rankin's comment that most of the work involves writing instructions to the artist. I wonder why novelists couldn't leave more of the visualization in the artist's hands. Are they instructed by their editors to imitate Alan Moore, or are they just too far away from the artists, or too disinclined to use the internet, to engage in a deeper collaboration?

Time will tell if this trend leaves a mark on comics. Jodi Picoult's run on Wonder Woman is as forgettable as every other writer's to date on the 2007 relaunch, while Michael Chabon has done wonderful things with The Escapist (his own character).

Meanwhile, the growing bond between comics and the Hollywood entertainment complex has left some analysts alarmed, but I'm puzzled by the concern. Isn't the search for new markets on page one of the capitalist's handbook?

Best American Comics 2007

This is the second year that Houghton Mifflin has published a volume devoted to comics in its annual "Best American" series, and no doubt Best American Comics is here to stay. No doubt I'll collect them all, too. The selections are terrific, the styles and moods so insanely varied that just flipping the pages gets your own creative juices flowing.

But I have one item on my wish list. Maybe I'm getting old, and I know I need new glasses, but this book needs larger dimensions. Best American Comics is 7.00 x 9.25, great for Dan Zettwoch's Won't Be Licked!, but all wrong for the excerpt from Gary Panter's Jimbo's Inferno, or Paper Rad's stupefying Kramer's Ergot. I love Ivan Brunetti, but in both volumes of Best American Comics, I had to read his comics like splash pages. I'm not sure what is the intended size of something like The Horror of Simply Being Alive, but for the purposes of a Best Of series, couldn't we really show it off?

There may not be a single ideal size to showcase all the selections to their best advantage, but something slightly bigger is in order. I suggest Houghton Mifflin take a page from Fantagraphics and publish Best American Comics in a 9 x 12 format, the same size as Craig Yoe's Arf series or the Krazy Kat reprints. It may mean fewer comics, as 368 9 x 12 pages would probably be consigned to the coffee table. But what a lovely reading experience it would be!

2008 Scholarship Already Cooking

I want to spend more time next week on this, but didn't want to let January pass without pointing you to the start of the 2008 scholarship season. First on deck is Dreams and Obsessions on Shelf and Screen, an essay by Dutch pictureanalyst and friend of the column, Huib van Opstal. This richly illustrated piece analyzes SILAS/Winsor McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Ulrich Merkl's spectacular 2007 reprint of all 821 strips. Go and read van Opstal's essay, and I'll meet you back here in a week!

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