Book: The Pyramid of Souls

The Pyramid of Souls
Erica Kirov
2010 (Sourcebooks)

Since the events of The Eternal Hourglass, Nick has grown more accustomed to his new family and his new life at the Winter Palace (except for the food). His magic has improved and his friendship with his cousin Isabella has grown stronger. As magicians from around the world arrive at the Winter Palace for the yearly magic conference held there, however, it becomes clear that the Shadowkeepers are preparing to strike again. This time the mysterious Pyramid of Souls, the key to the very souls of the Magickeepers themselves, is at stake. With his growing powers and some newfound friends from Egypt, Nick will have to find a way to retrieve the Pyramid and save the Magickeepers trapped inside.

Much like the first book, this one was a lot of fun. Kirov spent less time illustrating the Winter Palace and Las Vegas for her readers in this book and instead focused on deepening the personalities of the lead characters. Isabella in particular became considerably more fully fleshed out in this volume. I felt like the plot of this book was not quite as strong as the plot of The Eternal Hourglass, but it was still a pretty good plot. The book also managed to help build the world and history of magic more, which is very important in a series like this, and so a plot-weak volume isn’t that bad.

Kirov’s prose is delightful and she writes about the stage performances and rehearsals particularly well. I could really feel the energy and tension in some of her performance scenes. Since those scenes tend to be pivotal to the plot and placed at key points throughout the book, this did a lot to help guide the flow of energy throughout the book as well. I wasn’t sure after the first book how much I would want to continue reading this series, but after reading this volume I’m certain that I’d keep reading more and that I’d recommend this series without qualm to anyone who enjoys novel fantasies.

This book very much depends on the reader having read the first volume, The Eternal Hourglass, but it is still an enjoyable book in it’s own right and hopefully Kirov will continue this series in the future. Nick and Isabella are fun, engaging characters and the Las Vegas setting is different and goes a long way to provide a mood and feel for the series that is quite unique. I’d like to see Isabella get a more active role in the plot itself in future books, but Kirov has so far done a great job of generally keeping her a strong and appealing character despite her needing to be rescued in this volume. I will definitely keep my eye out for more from this series and from this author.

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official Magickeepers Website

- Erica Kirov’s Blog

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School
Candace Fleming
2007 (Schwartz and Wade/Random House)

The fourth graders at Aesop Elementary School are certainly unique and it’s not hard to see why no teacher wanted to take them on. Lucky for them, Mr. Jupiter, the world-traveling teacher with experience doing just about everything in the world came along and volunteered. Each chapter of the book tells one nearly self-contained story, often focusing on a single character or a small group of characters, and ending in a moral. Most of the chapters are clever reworkings of some of Aesop’s classic fables (such as The Tortoise and the Hare or The Boy who Cried Wolf) and they all link together to tell a larger, overarching story about the school year from beginning to end.

This is certainly an ambitious book and I was initially skeptical about how well it would flow and about the fable reworkings themselves, but Fleming does an amazing job. While the kids are over the top, she makes the clear from the outset and each character’s personality remains consistent throughout the entire book – so the kid who is a know-it-all and always does his homework in the story where that’s the point is like that in every other story as well. There are characters that are appealing (like the kid who always loses things, but is honest about what belongs to her and what doesn’t) and characters who aren’t (like the kid who pretends to lose things and then lies about what belongs to her to get cool new stuff), but all are reasonably believable, which is a pretty remarkable achievement for fable characters.

The writing is pitch perfect for this book. It has the storytelling cadence of fairy tales or fables, but sticks firmly to the language and style of ordinary middle-grade novels, reflecting the interesting blend that the story itself happens to be. The result is a book that reads aloud amazingly well (this would be a fantastic classroom read-aloud). There was a lot of creativity in the execution of this book, both in the style and the particulars of how the fables were adapted. The author is coming out with a sequel later this year, The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, and I will be interested to see if she can manage to produce another book with this concept that is just as good.

I highly recommend this book. It’s fun and different and the author really managed to create some unique and fresh takes on classic fables. This would be a great addition to a school or classroom library and reads aloud incredibly well. The characters are in fourth grade, so the humor is often at about that level, but it would also be well suited to an audience a little younger or even quite a bit older (I’d say up through middle school could likely appreciate it just fine).

- Publisher’s Description

- Candace Fleming’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

The Problem with Abridged Classics for Children

For some reason the children’s publishing world loves abridged classics. Every major publisher has a series of them. Some publishers even specialize in them. It seems that just about any “classic” work of fiction is eligible for abridgment too, regardless of the length, intended audience’s age, or even the “reading level” of the original. As long as it’s old enough to be considered a classic, it’s probably going to be abridged. The problem that I have with abridgments is that it makes an assumption about fiction that I take issue with. It assumes that the work is most valuable and most appealing because of the story told, not because of the writing, language, format or anything else. But a book is not just a story.

To better understand what I mean by this, try reading the text of a great picture book removed from the book, just written out like this blog post is (Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon work great for this). Is it the same as reading the book with the pictures, the page breaks and the design elements that give the book personality (even the ones you might not consciously think about as you read, like where the text is placed on the page). The story might still be good, even without the rest of the elements that make it a picture book, but it’s not the same experience at all.

Another way to think about it is to consider remakes of films. Both versions of a movie might be really good, but they aren’t at all the same. The original Oceans 11 may have essentially the same plot as the remake, but they are far from the same movie. Not only are the scripts different, but the actors, cinematography, sets, lighting, directing, everything is different. What remains the same is the plot, but that doesn’t make them the same, or even equivalent, movies.

So how does this all relate to abridged classic books? When you consider what makes a classic a classic, it’s actually not usually just the story (although the story certainly matters). Little Women isn’t perennially popular just because it’s a good story about four sisters growing up. Part of what makes it such a great book is the writing and the voice – when you read Alcott’s book, you’re hearing her fictionalization of her own teenage years and those of her real sisters and it shows. Her love for her family, her values, her passion and her struggles, and her real understanding of the nuances of how hard it is to be a teenage girl, a sister, a daughter and a friend. Just pulling out the events and abridging them loses those nuances and that voice, because they aren’t that present in the events themselves, but are present in how she writes those events. It’s not that Meg wanted a silk dress that’s so interesting (just telling us she wanted a silk dress but they couldn’t afford one makes her sound pretty selfish), it’s how Alcott describes her quiet longing for the dress and her worries over her family’s situation that tell us who Meg is, why it matters and why we should care.

And being old enough to read a book (or appreciate it being read to you), often indicates the maturity level needed to really appreciate the story as well. Obviously, this isn’t always true for kids that read very early, but for the average kid, it’s pretty reliable. Books mean more to us when they’re read at the right time. For example, one of my favorite books ever is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. I read it for the first time my freshman year of college and a big part of why it meant so much to me then is that it spoke to a lot of what I was going through at the time. I could have read it in middle school if someone had given it to me then, and I might even have found parts of it interesting, but it wouldn’t have meant that much to me because I wouldn’t have been able to relate to it.

Another example from my life would be Anne of Green Gables. I clearly tried to read it too young and found it massively boring. To this day, I’ve never managed to get all the way through it because my impression of it being boring is still pretty strong. I’m sure it’s a fabulous book, though, because it’s got so much history and so many devoted fans and has inspired so much passionate scholarship for so long. I just have trouble appreciating it because I encountered it at entirely the wrong time. I could read it, but when I attempted it, I just found that I didn’t care enough about what was in it to do so at the time.

Basically, my point is that I think that if you want to give people the best chance of enjoying a book, you should give them both the real book and try not to give it to them too early. First impressions last a long time and if they remember having read The Secret Garden and not really caring about it in third grade, chances are they aren’t going to try it again in fifth when they really might enjoy it. Abridgments come in here because they make it very easy to give books too early and it’s a lot harder to have a passionate positive reaction to one because there just isn’t as much to love and the writing typically isn’t as remarkable.

So what do I think people should do to get kids to read classics? First and foremost, don’t make a big deal about them being classics. They’re just books. Second, try to give them around the right time. This involves some thinking ahead. Why are you giving this book? Did you love it as a kid? How old were you? Try to give it at around that same age. Does the kid in question love the topic and you think they might really like the book (Treasure Island and the works of Jules Verne are often given for this reason)? Flip through the book and think about if it’s something you think the kid could actually read right now, based on what you know they are already reading. If you think it’s going to be too hard (or even if you aren’t quite sure, but think it might be), but you don’t want to wait because the kid is really interested in the topic right now, give it to them in an audio book format. That way the “reading level” can be somewhat above their skill level and they can still enjoy it. Audio books are awesome and most popular classics are available from multiple readers, so you can find one you like if you really want the right audio book.

Make sure to think about why you want them to read the book before you get it. Do you want to share a favorite book with them? Share the book you loved, not an abridgment which might not even have the elements that made you love the book. Do you think it’s a great work of literature and that they should read it? Consider what makes it a great work. Remember, Shakespeare isn’t famous because he wrote great stories (he didn’t – nearly all of his plays are retellings of stories from somewhere else), he’s famous because of how he told the stories. Do you think reading classics would be “good for them”? Just don’t. This is never a good basis for buying a kid a fictional book. Think about how you felt about things you were given because they were “good for you” when you were a kid. They usually aren’t popular with the kid in question, and you’ll probably remember feeling that way if you spend some time to think about it. Classics are awesome, but give them because you think the kid would like them, not because they’re some kind of literary vitamin. And if they were some kind of literary vitamin, it seems unlikely that an abridged version would have the same benefits as the actual, orgininal book, doesn’t it?

Book: Marwe: Into the Land of the Dead

Marwe: Into the Land of the Dead
Marie P. Croall
illustrated by Ray Lago and Craig Hamilton
2009 (Graphic Universe/Lerner)

This is a story from eastern Africa about a girl who visits the land of the dead. It has many of the hallmarks of tales about lands of the dead from other parts of the world as well as some fairy tale elements, but it’s also distinctly different in flavor. I don’t know much about the area or culture that the story originates from, but the story was beautiful and intriguing.

This story sort of had three distinct sections. The first was the part of the story in Marwe’s village before she travels to the land of the dead, the second part focuses on her journey and what happens during her stay in the magical other world, and the third part tells about what happens after she returns to her family and village in the real world. Of the three, I found the third part the most fascinating. It focused on Marwe’s search for her true love and rejection of numerous other suitors. Most fascinating to me was that she didn’t simply wait for her destined husband, asking each suitor his name and refusing those that didn’t match, as many fairy tale maidens do. Her search was an active one, even though she had more than enough men coming to her so that it didn’t actually have to be.

The illustrations in this book were colorful, but not always as expressive as I would have liked. Despite the visual storytelling format, I found myself having to rely almost entirely on the text for clues to personality and emotion because of the lack of facial expressions and other visual clues throughout the story. There were lots of details concerning the setting, but the people themselves (and even what they wore, much of the time) seemed to have been less carefully illustrated. It was somewhat disappointing.

Despite the shortcomings of the art, the text is well done and it’s so nice to find such an interesting story from Africa that I haven’t seen retold in book form before. This was a fun book to read and introduced me to a great story that I had been previously unfamiliar with. I would definitely recommend it. I wish that I found more African stories being rewritten for new audiences like this one has been, but they are nowhere near as common as I would wish.

- Publisher’s Description

- Ray Lago’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle

If you watch a movie or cartoon or pick up a comic that involves a group of main characters you’re likely to find a mix of people in that group. Some white guys, maybe a black guy or an Asian guy, a girl or two and possibly a pet or sidekick of some kind. The stories involving groups like this vary. They could be solving mysteries or saving their planet or just kicking bad-guy butt. Regardless, one thing is virtually for certain – the girls will all have romance somehow worked into their description or plot.

I call this the Reverse Jane Austen Principle. The name was the result of an attempt to explain this issue to someone asking me questions about comic books. In trying to explain it, I found that the simplest way to phrase what I was saying was this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the entertainment industry that a female character in possession of a name and a ringless left hand must be in want of a boyfriend (and the name is really optional).

The characters aren’t always (or even often) exclusively there to be someone’s romantic interest or to moon over boys, often they have very interesting characters beyond this and frequently they’re interesting, powerful characters in their own right. But that romance thing does seem to always be there, which is not always true for male characters who have equally interesting, powerful character descriptions.

This means that you get things like the Justice League cartoon from a few years back, which had seven main characters, each a powerful hero. Of the seven, there were two who were women. Hawkgirl fell in love with Green Lantern during the course of the show and had a very complicated relationship with him and Wonder Woman got pretty squarely paired up with Batman, although they never did anything about this romance and all indications showed more affection on her side than his anyway. Of the three men remaining, everyone already knows that Superman is already taken by the mostly off-screen Lois Lane, J’on J’onzz is still busy mourning his dead wife (and probably considered too alien for a romance anyway) and Flash is something of a chronic flirt who never has a date. Even when they opened up the League and had more than enough female characters they could have paired those guys up with, they clearly never felt the need to do so. But Hawkgirl had to pine for GL even after he started seeing someone else and Wonder Woman was paired with Batman even though it made no sense for either of their characters.

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle means that Hollywood can’t seem to tell stories about women characters at all without injecting that bit of romance. It’s like they can’t imagine romance not being a fundamental part of any woman’s life, even if it doesn’t have to be so to men. For example, there is a movie coming out soon about a very influential Hawaiian princess who lived near the end of the nineteenth century and fought the annexing of her kingdom by the United States government. It’s called Princess Kaiulani (her name should have an apostrophe in it, but apparently they decided to drop it for some reason). The movie creates a romance for her that never existed and sets it as a major focus of the piece. In fact, the tagline is “her heart was torn between love and the future of Hawaii”. Except that it wasn’t.

I can’t think of a good biopic about a man to compare this to, actually. There are tons of movies about politicians with no injected romance (off the top of my head are All the President’s Men, Nixon and Thirteen Days, but there are tons of them). So why does the girl need romance? Every movie about Queen Elizabeth I that I’ve ever seen focuses more on her supposed romances with her courtiers than it does on her as a political leader (granted her father has the same problem, but he sort of made that bed for himself and now he’s stuck with it). Queen Victoria is the same way. She had a very long reign and a lot happened while she was queen, but the movies about her all seem to focus on her romances (real or imagined).

Comics seem to be just as bad. Unless a girl has green or purple skin (and even then it’s not a guarantee), she’s bound to be wrapped up in some relationship plot within just a couple of issues of her introduction! There was a really entertaining short run comic a few years back called Teen Titans Year One. It told some stories about the original Titans getting together and doing missions, but it sort of set them now instead of when they actually were a newly formed team (Robin IMed Kid Flash about a mission, for example). The original Teen Titans consisted of four boys and a girl – Wonder Girl. The boys all had plots involving their mentors being possessed and struggling with their roles within the group and things like that. What was Wonder Girl’s plot? She had a crush on Speedy and they went on a date at one point. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved this comic. It told a great story in a funny, fresh way. But it totally adhered to the Reverse Jane Austen Principle, too.

There are occasionally exceptions to this principle, but they are extremely rare. Nerd girls can slip through relationship-free every once in a great while, but it’s very, very difficult. Usually they have to at least be pining for someone or aimlessly feeling worthless because they don’t have a guy. One notable nerd girl exception would be Velma from Scooby Doo (she is, however, only an exception if you ignore the movies or consider the characters in them different from the ones in the cartoons). Children can sometimes manage to evade this rule as well, but even they usually get trapped by it. River from Firefly got out of it because of the kid rule (even though she wasn’t actually that young, everyone but the bounty hunter treated her that way). It’s also possible to escape if you’re either the only character or if there are so many girls and so few guys that some girls have to not be paired up. Dora the Explorer, some of the minor characters from She-Ra and Flora from The Winx Club all sneak by this way.

But, sadly, exceptions are rare. For the most part, if a female character is included, she’s going to somehow be tangled in this principle. She might be in a relationship, like Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She might start out single but end up in a relationship, like Leia from Star Wars. She might be done with him, but can’t get disentangled, like Rachel from the recent Batman movies. She might be pining for someone specific, like Elisa from Gargoyles. She might be trying to avoid the whole thing and end up caught in a relationship anyway, like Megara in Hercules. She might be just pining for romance without anyone in particular in mind, like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. And she might be minding her own business and have it thrown at her anyway, like Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet! Regardless, it’s everywhere. Few female characters can escape it.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have amazing characters and fantastic stories that follow the Reverse Jane Austen Principle because you can. Many of the movies, shows and comics I’ve mentioned are great and totally worth watching or reading. That said, I’d really like to see this stop being such a rule. I’d like to see more movies that don’t feel the need to make sure every female character is somehow either connected to a guy or wants to be. Just because she’s not married, doesn’t mean she necessarily has to want to be (or even spend much time thinking about it, because seriously, if my planet was blowing up or something, I wouldn’t stop to bemoan my lack of boyfriend). If Legolas, Buzz Lightyear and Obi-Wan Kenobi don’t need love interests, why do most female characters created by the entertainment industry need one?

Update: Gen Con Wants Designs for SPA Icon!

Gen Con sent out a newsletter today that announced a contest asking for new icon designs for the SPA program! From the newsletter:

Gen Con is looking for an icon to represent its “SPA-Activities for the Better Half” program for 2011 and beyond. SPA stands for SPousal Activities and is dedicated to the “gamer widow” or “widower”. It is open to all gamers and non-gamers alike.

Submissions will be accepted starting May 24th with voting taking place onsite at Gen Con Indy. The winner will be announced after the show! Details and information about the contest can be found on our community site in the download section.

It doesn’t sound like we’ll have a new icon for this year’s convention, but they clearly heard the complaints and decided to do something about it for the future. Now hopefully some of the fantastic graphic designers and creative members of our community can come up with some good submissions! The “details and information” is in the form of a downloadable zip file and can be found in the SPA section of the Gen Con website.

Book: The Last Dragon

The Last Dragon
C. A. Rainfield
illustrated by Charlie Hnatiuk
2009 (High Interest Publishing)

This is the first book in the Dragon Speaker series, a trilogy about a boy who can telepathically talk to birds and dragons. When this book starts, there is only one remaining dragon after an evil lord and his pet wizard have systematically destroyed all of the rest of the dragons and brought the kingdom under their tyrannical thumbs. Jacob, a farm boy living in a small town at the edge of the forest, can talk to birds. He is told by a crow that he must find the last dragon and save her and that the evil wizard had a stone with which he could control her. Jacob and his friend Orson set out to find this dragon, running into a girl, Lia, who wants to help them along the way.

I really wanted to like this book. The need for books written at a low reading level but with an older audience in mind is very much there, and this publisher specializes in this particular niche. I think that the books that have the best chance of working well for the readers who need these types of books, however, are going to have to be of excellent quality, particularly in story. These books are designed for readers who, for the most part, have struggled with reading and many have all but given up by the time they become teenagers. To get them to go that extra mile and read something it needs to really appeal to them, really be something special that grabs their attention. And I just didn’t feel like this lived up to that. In fact, I felt like it fell far short of it.

The story is eerily similar to that of Eragon (which, I realize, is already drawn from any number of other sources). The writing itself isn’t bad – it’s actually simple and flows the way I would expect an early chapter book to flow. The problem is really with the story. The characters are incredibly one-dimensional, the events largely unbelievable (even for a fantasy story) and while there are bloody battles, it’s hard to take the threats very seriously. The lord and his wizard are defeated with a flock of birds and a loaf of bread! It’s hard to take a wizard who can be defeated by a loaf of bread very seriously!

The artwork is odd. The faces are expressive (and generally the focus of the picture), but also strangely lumpy. In fact, everything is strangely lumpy. And while they do feel generically fantasy or medieval in style, none of the fantasy elements are shown in any of the pictures! Despite the large amount of the text focusing on the dragon and her egg, neither appears in any of the illustrations. The dragon herself does appear on the cover, which is done by a different artist. At several points in the story we see spells or magic happening, but none of those scenes are illustrated. It’s rather disappointing, actually. I’m not sure this book needed art at all, but I would have wished for better since they did feel the need to include it.

I was extremely disappointed in the poor quality of this book. I think that it’s so important that there be books written at this level with an older audience in mind, but I think that this one in particular either shows too little respect for its audience or its story (and I’m honestly not sure which). I applaud this publisher for focusing on this much-needed niche, but I would hope that they would have higher standards for their books. Teens deserve unique books written and illustrated well regardless of their reading level. I have not read any of their non-fantasy books, so those might be of better quality, but I have little interest in reading the rest of this series. I found it to be poor in quality and I would never recommend it.

- Publisher’s Description

- C. A. Rainfield’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

WOTC Comes Out with D&D for Kids!

I have trouble with the idea that gaming is “growing up”, but it does seem like it was easier to get into it as a kid in years past than it is now. Whether that’s because rules have gotten more complicated (arguably they’ve generally gotten less complicated, if you ask me) or because companies are a lot less shy now than they used to be about including adult themes or something altogether different, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, every year I seem to encounter more and more parents at gaming conventions asking how to introduce their kids to gaming and the kids who I meet who do play seem to have trouble finding others to play with.

A few years back Wizards of the Coast hosted a session at GenCon that basically centered around asking a group of people what they thought would be good products to facilitate kid gamers – both new ones and players who already liked the activity and just needed more to work with. They got a variety of answers ranging from requests for games aimed at younger players to more modules that could be run easily for younger kids to products that took stories and worlds kids already knew and liked and brought them to the gaming table. It was a fantastic session full of great ideas. My favorite was actually the request for games and products that kids who can’t read could use (even if they require some help or a GM who can read) – which could be either younger kids or kids with disabilities or even just kids who are slow to learn to read and need a way to play that isn’t adding that extra stressor.

Wizards of the Coast didn’t do much with those ideas for a while, but they clearly didn’t forget the idea of making games for kids. They’ve had a publishing imprint that focuses on fiction for kids and teenagers for a few years now and it’s chock full of great material that could be used for gaming hooks. They even have a set of guide-like books that draw from the monster manuals and draconomicon to provide what are essentially kid-friendly field guides to the various monsters from Dungeons and Dragons. It should be obvious how this is an easy way to draw kids into the world and potentially into gaming – if they find those monsters and stories about the heroes that fight them so fascinating, maybe they’d like to try it themselves!

They finally came out with an actual honest-to-goodness gaming product for kids based on Dungeons and Dragons and on one of the fiction books from the Mirrorstone imprint. It’s a full-fledged adventure with a simplified version of fourth edition rules that’s designed for kids six and up. And best of all? It’s free. You can go to their website and download the whole thing as a PDF and be playing within minutes if you want.

So now what? Well, one adventure is awesome, but hopefully they’ll make more than that! Now that they have their simplified rules system figured out, hopefully they’ll continue to come out with adventures using it aimed at kid players. It would make a fantastic monthly feature on the website. I wouldn’t even object if they decided to actually physically publish some (perhaps a book of short adventures or a “create your own adventure” kit) and actually charged money for it, as long as the cost was reasonable. Kid players want more content just as much as adult players do and not all GMs are good at creating their own. What’s the good of getting a group of kids excited and hooked after one great adventure and then having to tell them there isn’t any more? So here’s hoping WOTC realizes this is a great opportunity to grow new and future customers and that they put some manpower and effort into producing products to service those customers now!

DC Characters and Branding in “Young Justice”

DC is coming out with a new cartoon this fall. Since their cartoons are generally really good, I was pretty excited about this (Justice League Unlimited is one of my favorite cartoons ever and I really think Batman: the Animated Series is one of best cartoons ever made). This cartoon will be called Young Justice and is going to focus on teenage superheroes and the challenges they face to prove that they are good enough to join the adult heroes who protect the world on a daily basis (not to mention the challenges involved in just being teenage superheroes).

The cast of characters is largely drawn from the pages of Teen Titans, so we have Robin (because it wouldn’t be a kid/teen supergroup without Robin or Nightwing), Kid Flash, Superboy (because somebody has to be wearing a big red “S”), Miss Martian, Aqualad (who’s gotten an African-American make-over, presumably so the cast is more racially diverse – which still makes him token, which kinda sucks), and “Artemis”.

Seriously? Artemis? Ok, there are two MAJOR problems here. First of all, that means this is a made-up character instead of one of the many, many, many awesome female characters they already have that they could have used for this show. Second of all, what’s with the name? Not only is “Artemis” kind of a lame superhero name, but it’s already been used at least eight times in the DCU! Once by a pretty major character and a couple of times by various incarnations of the actual goddess, who exists and is a real entity in the continuity of both the DCU and the Animated DCU (or at least, one would assume she exists in the Animated DCU, since Ares, Hades and Hephaestus all do).

I really hate when companies decide to make up a new character like this, despite having lots of great existing options. It wouldn’t bother me if she wasn’t being thrown in with a group of characters who are not being invented for the show, but in fact, have years of history and personality in the comics. It also probably wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t feel like this was another indication that DC doesn’t remember or care about their female characters, especially the younger ones and especially when it comes to animated shows.

The perfect example of them stating this can be found if you check out some of the behind the scenes materials on the Justice League cartoon. They made a test short to help sell that concept and at that point planned to use teenage sidekicks. In the test short they use Robin, Impulse (one of the young “Flash” characters from the comics) and a girl they made up who is basically Cyborg as a girl. They made her up because they felt they needed a girl “for the sake of diversity” but “there aren’t really many young girl characters in the DC Universe”. Right. Every incarnation of Teen Titans has had a couple of girls, but “there aren’t many young girls”. There are just about as many girls, some of them young, in the Batman family as there are boys, but “there aren’t many young girls”.

Can you tell that I don’t think much of this excuse? And I can only assume the choice to make someone up instead of using one of their many great female characters stemmed from the same way of thinking. I read the blurb about the show and saw Artemis and my first thought was “why didn’t they use someone they already have?” Like, for example, Arrowette (who clearly inspired Artemis’s look)? Or Speedy (another archer, who has been a boy and a girl)? Or Wonder Girl? Or Troia? Or Batgirl? Or Spoiler? Or Supergirl? Or Raven? Or Starfire? Or Terra? Or Ravager (who could be awesome to use in a show like this)? Or Bumblebee (who’s already African-American, by the way)? Or Aquagirl? Or Jesse Quick? Or Misfit? Or the new versions of Hawk and Dove? I could go on. And I can see ways many of these characters would be particularly fantastic in a show like this.

But no. We get a made up character. And I’m not saying that I don’t like new characters being introduced. I even like some of the brilliant characters who have been created in the animated shows and made the jump to other mediums (Harley Quinn, who managed to cross into comics, a live action television show and numerous video games, is awesome and Renee Montoya, who has actually grown out of the role she was created in and inherited the mantle of The Question, are two amazing creations from Batman: The Animated Series). What I’m saying is that it feels like they remember and celebrate the great history and long line of stories they have behind some of their characters when they pull these groups together and forget others.

And then they complain that their female characters don’t have the same sort of following. The repeated refrain of “we just can’t seem to make Wonder Woman as popular as Batman and Superman and the only reason we can figure out is because she’s a girl” comes from the higher ups at DC pretty regularly. Well, perhaps that’s at least partially because you don’t give her the same backing and visibility! Notice how even in this group of superheroes that notably does not contain any of the “big three” there are clear representatives of both the Bat-Family and the Super-Family (Robin and Superboy), but no such representative from Wonder Woman’s “family”? No Wonder Girl or Troia or anything? And even if they tell us “oh, but Artemis is an Amazon!”, she has no visible way of showing us that and since we don’t know her, we wouldn’t connect her to Wonder Woman without knowing that. It just doesn’t work.

Basically, it all comes down to branding. They could be creating a show about teenage superheroes trying to prove to their mentors that they’re reading for the big-time with all new characters, but they didn’t because part of the draw of this show will be the recognizable characters – the brand. There are people who will watch it primarily to see characters they know and love – to watch Robin and Superboy, to see cartoon versions of Kid Flash and Miss Martian, to find out who this new Aquaboy is (and if there’s any explanation for what happened to the old one). People are already asking if this show is part of the official Animated DCU or, like Teen Titans and the two recent Batman shows, a separate “universe” by itself.

But Artemis, as a new character, isn’t part of that branding. I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want her to be, either. It’s a totally wasted opportunity. Pretty much any character who has been around for any real length of time has some kind of following, so why not draw on an already existing following as well as whatever new fans this show will bring in? Why not bring in the not-inconsequential number of Wonder Girl fans? Or the startlingly large number of Spoiler fans? Or how about the devoted and regularly disappointed Arrowette fans who always seem to be forgotten when the character isn’t included?

It seems to me like not only a bit of a slap in the face to all the fans of the many amazing female characters they could have picked from for this show, but also a startlingly poor marketing decision. When something so simple could mean more fans and more money with so little effort, why would you not do it (and isn’t it easier to use an existing character than to create a new one, especially when you can tweak details as needed since this is a new medium and you’ve already done it with everyone else and not lost hordes of fans over it)?

SPA Should Not Mean Prisoners

I’m a gamer and I’m a woman. I’m married to a gamer, too, but I’ve been gaming since long before I met my husband and got into pen and paper games playing D&D with other girls in elementary school. I’ve been going to Gen Con since, I believe, my junior or senior year in high school (1999/2000). I know a lot of other gamers. Some of their significant others game and some of them don’t. Some of those significant others are women and some are men, but there’s not actually much pattern to their gamer-ness or not. It’s a varied bunch. I enjoy Gen Con and a lot of my friends attend and enjoy it too. It’s a fun convention full of all kinds of gaming and entertainment.

But it isn’t always very friendly to women. It’s gotten dramatically better over the years. I felt out of place as a woman going ten years ago, so I can only imagine what it felt like when my friend’s mom was going thirty years ago. But every year there are more women and as more women come, the feeling of being out of place is reduced.

I was beyond thrilled a few years ago when Gen Con introduced “Activities for the Better Half” – non-gaming events aimed specifically at non-gaming significant others who came along with gamers and wanted something more amusing than walking the dealer hall for four days. The events offered vary widely and are generally a great addition to the convention. I’d love to see more of those events that are a little less specifically geared to women, since there are non-gamer guys too, but it is somewhat limited by what people want to run.

The major problem with this program is the icon used to represent it. This logo appears in the convention booklet and on the website both with the description of the program in general and with the description for each and every single event that is part of the program. It’s been the same logo since the program’s inception in 2006. You can see it portrayed above – it’s a green square (all of the icons are square) with a prison ball and chain image. I’ve hated this image from the beginning. Like a friend of mine, I complained to convention staff early on, but I was told that no one at the convention could do anything about it or even address the issue – that it was handled somewhere else by a staff that didn’t even attend the convention. I have no idea if that’s true or not and, honestly, it doesn’t matter. What prompted me to write about it now was this open letter to Gen Con about the issue and their response.

There are several problems here, but before we get to the image itself, I want to look a little at what Gen Con said in response to concern about it being raised.

Thank you all for your comments. Let’s go over some facts to set the record straight as some incorrect assumptions are being made here. Hopefully these facts will shed some light on this topic.
• Gen Con’s majority shareholders are women.
• Gen Con’s CEO is a woman and the staff is primarily made up of women.
• I picked the icon. I consider myself an independent, liberal minded woman. I picked it not because I thought it represented who or what I was or as a reflection on women, but because I thought it funny and I liked the irony. Yes it might be base, I’ll give you that, but I’m getting off point.
• The SPA icon has been around since the program began four years ago – it is not a new icon.
• Now in its fifth year, the SPA program has grown exponentially and boasts over 90 events in its offerings for 2010. Not all events are knitting or scrapbooking. The program also includes such events as wine and beer tasting, walking tours, chainmaile classes, Pilates, Irish Dancing, yoga, etc.
• SPA events are very popular with all types of people, gamers, gamer widows and widowers. A lot of the events sell-out.
• Events at Gen Con are submitted by fans for fans. While Gen Con hosts and sponsors some events, the majority are run by you. If you don’t like the offerings don’t go to that event, if you want to see something specific, host an event yourself! Simple as that.
I respect that we all have opinions, believe me I know I do … I find it ironic that the author of the open letter has his website sponsored by cougarlife.com. But I digress. I wonder if such passionate responses on such a non-starter issue might be better served on issues that really matter to women such as domestic violence, health, slavery, prostitution, the list goes on sadly.
Vanir you mentioned you were a karate instructor; it would be wonderful to have a beginning/intro to Karate class to include as part of the programming at this year’s show, SPA or otherwise. Since I’m the director of events at Gen Con you’ve come to the right spot, let me know!
Thank you all for your opinions and for calling attention to a wonderful program that Gen Con is proud to support. The process for picking the icon was not an arbitrary one; thought was put into it. It’s hard to pick one “icon” for such a diverse group of people and event types and to find one that wouldn’t be misconstrued as something else. The icon was chosen for its tongue and cheek aspect, nothing more and will remain as is for the time being.
If you want to talk to me directly about SPA or anything Event related please feel free to do so. My email address is jeannette.legault@gencon.com.
Best,
Jeannette LeGault
Director of Event Programming for Gen Con LLC

I appreciate that Ms. LeGault personally responded to the original open letter. That’s totally awesome. Unfortunately, I’m not so impressed with her response. She starts out by saying that Gen Con is run by women, which is not actually germane. Women can do sexist things just as easily as men can. We live in the same culture and internalize all sorts of messed up messages, many of which are horribly sexist. Being a woman is not a free pass. Then she says that she picked out the icon herself, which I totally give her credit for owning when the icon is coming under attack, and gives her reasons for picking it, but she also dismisses concerns about it in the same point. Then she changes the subject by giving a lot of information about the program itself and how popular it is, none of which was either in dispute or under attack.

After that, she really makes a mistake by picking on the author of the letter for the ad on the website where it was posted, which (like most online ads these days) wasn’t chosen by him but rather by whatever magic formula Google uses to determine what ads appear on what pages. And then she picks on him further stating that the issue is too small to be worth his time and that he should be worried about the big problems in the world (this is an arguement that all groups working to improve how disadvantaged portions of society are portrayed in culture hear all the time and it’s worthless – you can’t stop the big stuff if the small stuff is reinforcing it). Then she thanks him and basically states that the discussion is closed. This is very bad PR and probably should have been reconsidered before it was posted.

But what about the icon itself? Why do I think it matters? I think that it sends the absolute wrong message. I think that it’s a dated, misogynistic image and that Gen Con hasn’t really considered the message that their icon actually sends. The phrase “ball and chain” has been around for a long time. The internet isn’t sure how long (a Google search will reveal a wide range of answers for the earliest date of the phrase appearing from sometime in the 1600s to the mid 1800s and sources vary as to where it originated as well), but it’s a phrase that has been used for quite some time. The image the phrase evokes – the image in the icon – of an actual iron ball attached to a chain and manacle refers to a device used to inhibit the movement of prisoners.

At some point, the phrase began to be used to refer to wives as well (wives, it is not a phrase that was used to refer to men of any kind until very, very recently and that is still very rare – most dictionaries still say “wives” and not “husbands or wives”). Specifically, to nagging, annoying wives who deny or inhibit their husbands’ freedom.

This is not a pleasant image. It means that the icon is either suggesting that the significant others of gamers are somehow inhibiting their freedom and fun, which is insulting and downright mean (especially when you consider that these non-gamer partners are not only “letting” their SOs geek out for a weekend, but are also along for the ride at a con not really full of things they enjoy), or it’s suggesting that the people who attend SPA events are like prisoners, which is an unpleasant image at best and an upsetting image at worst.

Ms. LeGault suggests that coming up with an icon for this group of events was challenging because of the diverse group of people and event types involved. This may very well be true – the program does have an extremely wide variety of events. Still, they all fall under the same banner. Every program or section of events has an abbreviation as well. The abbreviation for this program of non-gaming activities is SPA. I think that’s great – it suggests that these are supposed to be fun, relaxing vacation events for people to just enjoy. Why not pick an icon that suggests “vacation”? A beach umbrella, a little person in a yoga pose, a palm tree, maybe even a sun or something. There’s got to be a better way to indicate that the events are there than to use an incredibly old-fashioned slur for a woman who makes her husband feel like a prisoner!

Because the slur is insulting both the non-gamer significant others who were nice enough to let their gamers spend a weekend pretending to be great heroes (and to come along with them) as well as to the other women at the convention who are going to be affected by it being one more example of misogyny in a place that already has some problems with sexism sometimes. So even if it’s too late to fix it this year (although I have trouble believing that the programs are already printed), it is something that is well worth fixing for next year.

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