A Death in the Family

My father died when I was young. My mother died today. She was 89. In May I spent her 89th birthday with her in her room in the nursing home (along with my sister and her husband) and we had meat pies for lunch and a glass of red wine. Over the last few days it’s been clear that this time she would go. She had a bad episode when I was at conferences in Bournemouth and Paris in July but after a bad day she got through that. My sister sat with her through a terrible night then and she sat with her again over the last days. This has not been an easy death and my sister has borne the brunt.

But the minutia of a life’s end is not my purpose here. I want to remember what my mother gave me as a person.

My mother loved to read. Until the last two years of her life, when she could no longer hold a book for a long period or as time went by remember what she had read, my mother always had a book at her side. I remember learning to read by reading  street signs and Disney comic books. The first my mother would patiently explain and the second she would happily get me because she believed reading them or anything would lead to wider reading habits.

My mother was a home economics teacher. She loved to cook, and was an excellent cook, but she hated the other aspects of teaching home economics like needle work. She was a great friend of Molly Breaden author of the Commonsense Cook Book, and who made a much better birthday cake than my mum. She was also friends with a good number of lesbians who (ironically?) worked in the NSW Education Dept teaching young women to be homemakers.
When I was 10 my mum explained my “Aunty” Dene’s love for her partner Phyllis.

My mum also loved music and unlike me  could hold a tune.

My mum singing the blues.

I also remember her on a packaged tour of Europe in 1965 befriending Mr Smith from Jamaica and Lily and Evelyn two African American school teachers from Philadelphia. Sure she was a white liberal, but I don’t remember anyone else happy to sit at dinner with those three, other than Pietro the Italian tour guide who had a thing for Lily or Evelyn.

When she was younger, which is to say sometime before she turned 60, she could talk to all sorts of folks and make friends quickly. As a kid I remember meeting the Australian political cartoonist Les Tanner because my mum had started a conversation with his wife Peg in a Melbourne supermarket and discovered that she too was from Sydney. Many a butcher, green grocer, and liquor licensee in Sydney, London, Melbourne, and Castlemaine, where my mum lived at various times, enjoyed a chat with her. I wish I had her easy rapport but unfortunately I am closer to her older self with a tendency to judge too quickly and perhaps harshly.

At the end she didn’t believe in heaven or an after life.  She faced death squarely having wished it seriously for a year or so. She told my sister on a Friday she was going and by the next Wednesday  she was dead. My sister was with her and told me it was a death eased by morphine and that she looked very peaceful.

Bye  mum and thank you for the many things you gave me.


Superman and Batman in Southeast Asia

Two weeks ago I was in Kuala Lumpur for a short break. I stayed on Jalan Bukit Bintang next to the Pavilion a fairly recently built shopping mall. The Pavilion is full of upscale stores like Louis Vuitton, some bars, restaurants, and also the DC Comics store. Yes the DC store. Indeed the DC Comics store is a prominent occupant of the mall as you can see in this photo taken from my hotel room:

DC Store Pavilion Mall

DC Store Detail

The Superman and Batman logos are highly visible from the street and shine brightly in the evening.

The KL store is not the only DC Comics store in Malaysia or Southeast Asia. There are stores in Melaka and Singapore.

Melaka Store

ION Orchard Mall

All of these stores are in new or centrally located malls. These stores are somewhat reminiscent of the Warner Bros stores (DC’s parent company) that used to be a ubiquitous presence in American shopping malls before mostly shutting down in 2001. I am not sure how well these stores are doing but the one in Melaka has been there two years at least which suggests some degree of success.

There is a story here about the success of American comic book characters in English speaking Southeast Asia. Indeed American comic book movies do well in this part of the world too. It would seem that the Superman and Batman logos are familiar enough signs that they can be used to draw customers to the KL store.

But another experience in KL, about five minutes walk from the Pavilion on the other side of my hotel, opens up this story a little. Here in a small shop in a very large complex of tightly packed shops and where a shopper would be more likely to find fake Louis Vuitton goods than genuine products, I discovered these tee shirts:






To me these suggest a familiarity with the characters and a playful irreverence. Although labeled as official DC product complete with copyright and trademark registered symbols I doubt these are the sort of products DC would license.

Update September 29, 2014:

But how wrong I was these are licensed. And if these seem playful then what about these tee shirts, which are over the line:  http://www.theouthousers.com/index.php/news/129154-licensed-dc-comics-shirts-congratulate-superman-for-banging-wonder-woman-prepare-young-women-to-marry-batman.html

Highways and Byways of History

Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in a black power salute on the dais at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The photo of that moment is apparently one of the most remembered photos of the 1960s in America.

This recent story in The Guardian reminded me of Australian sprinter Peter Norman, the third man on the dais that day. Norman died in 2006. None of the three Smith, Carlos, and Norman went on to the fortune and fame that athletes so often enjoy today. Indeed Norman endured much hardship.

The Age‘s account of his funeral in October 2006 has a poignant photo of Smith and Carlos carrying their mate’s coffin.

As Carlos reminded Australians that day we “need to tell our kids the story of Peter Norman.” Norman’s story has been told a few times but I think it should be told more often. Still waiting too for a big screen version of Smith and Carlos’s stories.

Postscript August 14, 2012: Here is another story about Norman: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/the-hero-too-many-of-us-still-dont-know-20120813-244vg.html

Alma Mater

In the age of Glee I guess it was inevitable that my grad school alma mater would produce a rap recruitment video. It sounds like a horrible idea, but at least it is not truly awful. And Paul Burgett, possibly the nicest university administrator I have ever met anywhere, has a cameo.

Mixed Tapes?

Ty Cullen’s video on YouTube offers a new way to make a mixed tape.  22 tracks seems like a good length.

1 The Bee Gees: More Than A Woman
2 Fenix TX: Abba Zabba
3 Eminem: Not Afraid
4 Keni Burke: Keep Rising to the Top
5 Beyonce: Smash Into You
6 LCD Soundsystem: Dance Yrself Clean
7 The Black Keys: Too Afraid To Love You
8 Kanye West: Blame Game
9 Kinky: Mas
10 Lil Wayne: Lollipop
11 Oasis: What’s the Story Morning Glory
12 Frank Sinatra: The Best Is Yet To Come
13 Korn: Counting on Me1
14 Britney Spears: How I Roll
15 Panic! At the Disco: From A Mountain In The Middle Of The Cabins
16 Kid Cudi: Day ‘n’ Night
17 Bob Marley: Buffalo Solider
18 Wiz Khalifa: Black & Yellow
19 Big Punisher: Still Not A Player
20 NPR2
21 Tub Ring: No One Wants To Play
22 Lady Gaga: Just Dance

Book Sales

Since putting the whole of my book as a pdf for download at academia.edu sales of second hand copies through Amazon have increased! That probably means two or three copies. At the same time sales of two of my other edited books have also increased.  Again only 3  copies or so but a small demonstration of what marketers call a loss leader. An extra $3 in royalties to me, maybe, so I mean really small. Thanks to Mike and Charles for the very generous comments on the previous post.

A Story about a Book

Yesterday I made a pdf of my book Comic Strips and Consumer Culture available for downloading on the academia.edu website. Originally published in 1998 and reissued in paperback in 2002 by the Smithsonian Institution Press the book is now close enough to thirteen years old. Since my university is interested in citation records I have had to track down citations to it and as best I can tell it has been cited about 130 times in published works. A number of academics use or have used Comic Strips and Consumer Culture in courses and it is included on both Oxford and Cambridge’s comprehensive list of books for modern American history. But when the Smithsonian Institution Press shut down in 2005 the book effectively went out of print. And therein lays a tale.

The book like so many began as a dissertation. When I first went shopping for a publisher I took it to a leading academic press in my area. I made this choice partially on the advise of my advisor who knew one of the editors, who had recently been promoted to a more senior position at the press. At the time this press had the manuscript of a graduate school friend of mine and I sent mine to the same editor. The press eventually rejected my friend’s manuscript on one reader’s recommendation. About a year after my submission I received a reader’s report that suggested some areas of the manuscript needed revision and perhaps I needed to recast my ideas somewhat. I sought clarification from the editor, but received no reply. I was a tad annoyed that on one reader’s report they had seemingly rejected the work after being so positive about it. [Some fifteen years later I heard from a colleague that her book too had suffered this fate at that press from that editor. It is hearsay to be sure but she told me that the acquisition editor in question was suffering a good deal of personal trauma at the time from a marriage breakup and perhaps a dose or two too many from the self medication bottle. Both of my friends have tenure and solid academic careers and one of their books won a prize. The press in question has long since parted with this editor and I would love to have a book published with them.]

I took this setback a little hard, but at the same time I had options since the Smithsonian Institution Press was keen for the book particularly given that I had been a pre-doctoral fellow at the Institution. The University Press of Mississippi was also interested, but I went with the Smithsonian because to my mind I owed them. The Press duly sent the manuscript to two readers and in 1994 I received a contract. I had returned to Australia from the USA by this stage and since I wanted to add a chapter I needed to do some extra research. With a full time job teaching three courses a week and a huge administration load running a degree program in a design college this proved rather tough and  I finished the book by getting up at 4am every morning to write before work and of course working at the weekend. I delivered the manuscript in person to the Press in December 1996 and Comic Strips and Consumer Culture appeared in hardback May 1998.

On the evening of Sunday July 26, 1998 I received a phone call from my brother-in-law. He told me he had just read a review of a very interesting book online at the Washington Post. I got online and at speed’s astonishingly slow I discovered that the Post had reviewed Comic Strips and Consumer Culture. Not only that but the review appeared on the front page of the Sunday Book World section.  Given the time differences I saw the review online before most people would have seen the print edition. (Review reproduced here.)

No doubt the review helped sales, but had a paperback edition been available I suspect the Press would have sold more copies. Time passed and I received an email in 2001  from an editor at another Press who inquired about the paperback rights to the book. With his help I prompted the Smithsonian to publish a paperback edition. I should note that the acquisition editor at the Smithsonian was a joy to work with and he constantly championed the book. The paperback edition came out in 2002 and sold about half of its 1000 copy print run by 2004. On October 16 that year I received an innocuous email from the Press stating that they wished to reduce inventory and I could purchase stock of my book at $2 for the hard back and $1 for the paperback. I bought 40 of the paperback. As it turned out this offer was a prelude to the Press shutting its doors and selling part of its catalogue to HarperCollins and after two years striking a distribution deal with Rowman and Littlefield for some other works. My book fell into the latter category. If I had been in the USA I might have seen this coming since the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article July 3, 2003 on the Press’s cutbacks. But at the time I was mostly unaware of all this activity.

As it was I eventually started reading the Chronicle on a regular basis and alarm bells went off went I saw a story about Gregory M. Pfitzer, a fellow Press author, that unpacked the fate of the Press and his book and I realized that my book had entered some sort of publishing limbo.

I then began to track the status of the book on Amazon on a fairly regular basis. For much of 2006 the book remained available at Amazon so I did not worry overly. But in 2007 I noticed that Amazon was unable to provide new copies. In the latter half of 2007 I was in the USA around the time my edited volume Film and Comic Books came out. Looking at Amazon and other sites like Barnes and Noble and Borders I realized that Comic Strips and Consumer Culture was unavailable and listed as out of print. I checked at a Barnes and Noble store and they confirmed they could not order the book. On the Rowman and Littlefield site, however, if you looked carefully you could still get a new copy, but web searches mostly did not locate my book in their online catalogue. I contacted the Smithsonian and eventually received a reply that although the trade publication Books in Print and its online database no longer listed my book the Smithsonian still regarded the book as in print since copies were available to purchase on a web site. I am not sure what was going on between the Smithsonian and Rowman and Littlefield at this stage (I suspect miscommunication and certainly not any ill intention), but to my mind my book was out of print and I reminded the Smithsonian of the clause in my contract that reverted the rights to me if it was out of print for six months and on my request they did not return it to print. It took about a year and some exchanges about what constituted in print at the time I signed the contract (a fine legal point that since the web barely existed when I signed the contract “in print” meant listed in Books in Print to my mind and so that was the contractual obligation). I was so annoying they gave me back the copyright. This seemed a grand victory since other books continued to be unavailable for some time after that except at the Rowman and Littlefield website.

But, and here is the rub, some 500 copies or so of the paperback edition remained when the rights returned to me and I have no idea what happened to those copies. Rowman and Littlefield stopped listing the book naturally enough, but are the copies still around? I suspect they are sitting in a warehouse somewhere and one day someone will realize they have them and offer them as a job lot to a remainder seller like Edward Hamilton or Daedalus Books. Meantime the Smithsonian reconstituted the Press as the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press and the books are distributed by Rowman and Littlefield and once again listed on Amazon. See for instance Gregory M. Pfitzer’s excellent Picturing the Past.

So with a potential 500 copies of the book sitting out there I can not in good conscience take the book to another press and see if they want to republish it. I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I pushed so hard to get my rights back. Have I limited people’s ability to get a copy? I have other projects on the boil and it will be sometime before I can do a second edition of Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, which updates the argument and reproduces more comics, so for the moment my solution is to let people download it with a minimal gateway of signing in to academia.edu; not exactly freely available, but available free with about five minutes of effort. Oh and yes there is a benefit for me: cite it in published works, please. Oh and one more thing: despite the title there is a whole chapter on comic books during WWII.

Comic Strips and Consumer Culture