Captive of the Cattle Baron, a Classic Done Right

Captive of the Cattle Baron is my twist on an old school romance cliché—the romantic abduction.

It’sCOTCB WEB PROMO medium not a popular plot today and I’m glad. Times have changed, and our basic understanding of what constitutes unacceptable force—not to say abuse—has matured. I’ve read some very negative comments from readers when stories with that plot device that were published years ago are reissued. Our society no longer thinks it’s romantic for a man to hold a woman against her will. Neither do I, by the way, and I never have.

So why have I written just that kind of story? Think of it as an “answer song,” the response to that old situation. I wanted to tell it better, to turn the awful power dynamics inside out and examine what pushes a decent man into behaving like a cave man. I also wanted to right the wrong implicit in those old stories, in which the woman’s will was broken and she gave in to her captor’s power over her. It’s not love to destroy someone. It’s definitely not love to submit to the Stockholm Syndrome. Yet when men and women are attracted to each other, they do not always behave rationally or logically. Attraction can bloom under the oddest circumstances, and so can true love.

The plot of Captive of the Cattle Baron was prompted by a reaction I once had to an over-the-counter allergy medicine. It knocked me for a loop, just wiped me out, and I couldn’t do anything the entire day. I’ve always been shocked that such a powerful drug was freely available without a prescription. Then one day I thought, “What if a romance heroine took a prescription allergy medication that was even more potent? She’d be helpless.”

Captive of the Cattle Baron starts with just that situation. My heroine, Addie Jelleff, has followed doctor’s orders but is showing signs of suffering from a drug overdose. Is it any wonder that my hero, Baron Selkirk, thinks she has a substance abuse problem? Especially when, in trying to help her, he sees that she’s attempting to get into a hotel suite whose occupant will not open the door unless Baron leaves? Sounds suspicious, right?

Additionally, I am a firm believer in coincidence, because it happens in real life all the time. It’s totally a coincidence that my heroine ends up in my hero’s power. What happens from then on is the result of their individual personalities, fueled by their life situations and their fierce physical attraction.

One thing I’m adamantly opposed to: the idea of a clear winner or loser in this abduction story. My hero and heroine have to fight to a standstill. Their battle of wills can’t be one person crushing the other. That’s not love. Addie Jelleff is one of my feistier heroines and she fights back when Baron Selkirk attempts to control her. What Addie sees as a threat is her powerful desire to give in to her attraction to Baron. As for Baron? He’s a good man, a decent man, but being the boss of a vast, isolated cattle ranch can make a man think he’s the boss of everyone, can’t it?

Captive of the Cattle Baron is available at Amazon.


Comics Are for Everyone

If you didn’t see my post on Facebook, here’s what I had to say about an ongoing debate that to me is just crazy, that is, whether the girls and women who like comics are interlopers trying to horn in on an historically all-male pastime (which comics never were, by the way):

When I started reading comics, there weren’t any comic book stores. Drug store employees didn’t go in for gender bias when ringing up comic book sales. The other fans I met at the very first comic book conventions never once suggested to me that females had no place in comics fandom or that comics were a boys’ club. Yes, there were more boys than girls at the cons, but so what? I’m very sorry that the situation changed for the worse–and very happy to see signs that we’re getting back to comics being for everyone.

Let’s remember that none of us reading comics have superpowers, or roam the streets of Gotham City at night in response to the Bat Signal, so we’re all taking a leap of imagination by reading, relating to, or bonding with comics characters of any stripe. It’s not weird for a female to read about male heroes. You entertain yourself with what’s available, even if what’s available has some unpalatable aspects or isn’t a perfect fit. Comics are magical and beautiful and they tell stories in a unique and powerful way. We all have a right to this art form.

Temporary Superheroine–Almost Here!

Temporary Superheroine Newsletter

My very first book, Temporary Superheroine, will be released in the next few days. It’s a light roman à clef superhero adventure with a dash—only a dash, I promise—of romance. Longtime comics fans will recognize some amusingly familiar elements in the storyline, which I included to pay tribute to our most beloved comic book adventures. (I don’t want to give anything away, but look for peril above a vat of boiling chemicals. ‘Nuff said?)

My superheroine’s mission is to save the universe, and she’s up against a powerful opponent. Plus she’s young, she’s untried, and she’s been volunteered. It’s complicated. It’s crazy comic book fun. It’s soon to be available as an ebook and in trade paper.

More About Original Comic Book Artwork

I’m once again copying my part of a conversation I had on a relatively closed Facebook loop so that all others may see it. A discussion about comic book artwork for sale led to people suggesting that all original comic book art for sale might be stolen goods and that there should be provenance for this art just as there is–or as people try to reconstruct provenance–in the larger art world. I had this to say:

“I do not think the provenance of original art is significant if that art was produced prior to 1974 when Marvel started returning art, and whatever date DC started. No one is sure who legally owned those prior produced pages. The provenance of newer art is clearer, but it’s irrelevant unless an individual had art in his possession and it was stolen; that would be a property crime and something could be done about it. It would be up to that person to publicize the theft and to track down the art, though; I doubt the police would assign any detectives to the case until the person found the art. Otherwise, it’s all pointless speculation and people should feel free to buy whatever art they like. The Comics Journal published my Marvel inventory; I no longer have the original inventory. That artwork may or may not be on the market today but since Marvel never has pursued anyone for selling any Marvel art, I would not lose sleep over buying an original Kirby page from a stranger outside a comics shop. I might consider mugging the guy, though.”

My moment of levity was quickly countered by a mention of the infamous theft of classic 1960s original artwork from the Marvel offices that soon after was followed by a flood of classic Marvel art being sold at a local convention. It was suggested that the living artists or their heirs might initiate civil suits to regain the artwork produced prior to 1974. I said the statute of limitations would have run out on that criminal theft, but was reminded that civil suits might have longer terms. A quick check of the net suggests that those terms have long since run out, though the recent lawsuit by the Kirby heirs against Disney (Marvel’s parent owner now) suggests that a substantive enough case might not be dismissed out of hand.

Which leads to my next post,

“Although anyone can sue anyone for anything, with artwork produced prior to 1974, “rightful owners” is not something that has been agreed upon. Possession was determined with my Marvel inventory, not ownership. Ownership was claimed for insurance purposes, of course. It does seem fairly clear that some of that art was later stolen from Marvel but I was not working for Marvel at the time and to my knowledge Marvel did not officially pursue the theft. Maybe someone knows if Marvel ever notified the police that a theft had occurred, or listed what had been taken, or made an insurance claim. I doubt it happened, but I have no way of knowing if Marvel accepted compensation for the stolen artwork since insurance payouts are not matters of public record. If the insurance company paid, then the insurance company now has title to the stolen art, not Marvel. If Marvel ever had ownership rights to begin with! Thus we’re back to an issue of who owns the art. I think you are right to advise people not to buy from people who might themselves be thieves, but determining that is not easy, either.”

I think it is important to reiterate that although Marvel insured the artwork as if Marvel owned it, that ownership was based on Marvel’s physical possession of the artwork implicitly defining the ownership as belonging to Marvel. This is a rich topic for discussion and no one has definitively tested such ownership in the courts. Even if they had, one decision could be reversed by a later decision, and the case for artists’ enduring rights in their work has gained some moral ground over the last few decades, although no legal ground that I know of.

I have no idea if Marvel kept up the insurance policy, but originally the suggested value of the art was $100 per page, which at the time was the production cost of one page of comic book artwork, including pencils, inks, and lettering. That amount was far in excess of the resale value of most original art back then, and remains far in excess of the resale value of some artwork in the secondary market today. Artwork value in the fan market has always been based on the popularity of the specific artist or the subject, so even in 1976, it is possible that one single page of classic Kirby artwork or any Spider-Man page could have sold for $100 or more to a fan. But at the time, that price was not likely for most comic book art for resale. If Marvel had put in an insurance claim, it would have received $100 per page lost to theft, and no more, regardless of who drew it, whether at the time one could buy a page of that artist’s work for $5 or $500.

It could be important to pull out my statement above that if Marvel had made an insurance claim and if the claim had been paid, if and when the artwork had been recovered, it would have belonged to the insurance company unless Marvel refunded the insurance payout, in effect buying it back. Once a claim was made, it would have been the insurance company’s job to determine the validity of the claim and possibly to recover the artwork rather than pay the claim, except that at $100 a page, we aren’t talking about big money here for an insurance company, and this isn’t a movie. The company would probably have paid the claim. If it ever was made. So the provenance for those pages would be an unnamed insurance company. Maybe.

What if you bought a page of Kirby artwork with your entire life savings? Chances are that the company or person you bought the artwork from did not go to the Marvel Comics offices circa 1980 and steal that page. But maybe that page was stolen, and a few buyers later it has come to you. Legally, as of today, you are in the clear. Morally, what is your responsibility? I don’t know. We each have our own thoughts about who owns comic book original artwork that was produced as a collaborative effort at a time when no one, not the artists, nor the letterer, nor the writer, nor the publisher valued that piece of Bristol board once it had been used to create a printed comic book page.



About Marvel Comics Original Artwork in the 1960s

As many people know, I was in charge of the Marvel art warehouse (actually, a moderately large locked room in an industrial building) in the mid-1970s. I did an exhaustive inventory of all Marvel Comics original art. The details of that inventory were published in The Comics Journal years ago. I no longer have any records of my inventory. I don’t recall asking anyone at Marvel such as Stan Lee or Sol Brodsky (then vice president of production) why any particular issues were missing.

Below is the text of what I recently posted on Facebook about my knowledge of Marvel Comics’ policy regarding giving original artwork to fans in the 1960s or early 1970s–back when original comic book artwork had virtually no retail value:

“As I said many years ago, Stan (or Stan through Sol Brodsky) did from time to time ask me to provide original artwork from the warehouse to give to business contacts. These did not amount to many pages, but the inference was that this was something Stan did now and then to promote business with Marvel. I also found a record of a limited number of pages that had been lent to a comic art show before I got to Marvel in 1974, and there may have been a few other such instances. But I believe most if not all of those lent pages had been returned. I never heard of any non-pro being given Marvel artwork, nor do I recall any rumors of such when I was a fan, or recall seeing any such pages back in the 1960s when we fans would share our collections of comics and related items.”

Why am I posting this? Because comics fans keep asking, and there is a lot of sub rosa gossip about people who might in fact have obtained artwork stolen from Marvel Comics. Or given to them by someone at Marvel Comics who probably did not have official authority to dispense it. But this whole line of thought is pointless, because in the 1960s, Marvel Comics did not value the original art once the comic book had been printed.

Marvel didn’t even value it for reprint use. As Marie Severin recently reminded me, Nancy Murphy, who was the entire subscription department for many years, was told repeatedly that she was wasting her time and valuable office space by archiving the film and black lines that came from the printer. Her file cabinet containing negative photostats of covers was the only cover archive in the office. The only one, and she got flack for having an archive at all. When I did my warehouse art inventory, I found only a handful of original covers and no other media with the cover art. It is totally thanks to Nancy Murphy that Marvel Comics was ever able to reprint anything from earlier than the mid-1970s, when Marvel started to pay attention to what it owned.

That’s why to me, a former Marvel Comics staffer who saw how the company basically disregarded and disrespected its history, the idea that it might also disregard and disrespect the original artwork that created its history is not news. It’s just another sad reality in the history of a wonderful art form.

Copyright © 2014 by Irene Vartanoff






Is the Literary World Elitist?

Of course it is. We who have read comic books and loved them have known forever that the literary world also is full of emperors with no clothes. I as a woman also recognize that far too many novels by male writers about men become or became the toast of the male-oriented literary world even though novels by women about women often are or were just as good or better. Recently, an issue cropped up that was covered in Salon, in which a literary author was chided in online reviews of her book for using pretentious language, specifically the word “crepuscular.”

I find this article and the comments debating it especially entertaining because one of my more well-educated friends taught me the word “crepuscular.” Since learning it,  I have used it frequently and defined it to people who clearly don’t know what it means. Practically, it means I live in a North Atlantic state on the east coast of the U.S., an area overrun with white-tailed deer. Deer are crepuscular; they prefer low-light conditions. Therefore they are likely to run into the road and hit my car at any shady time of day or night. Because they are not nocturnal, 4 PM is just as dangerous an hour as 10 PM. The deer are everywhere, in suburbs and out in the boondocks, in the median strips on big highways, and more. They’re a menace, and talking about them with accuracy is both fun and necessary. Crepuscular indeed.

Pretentious use of language is one of the few joys of people who are highly educated but who do not work or reside in academia or speak exclusively to those who do. Perhaps attorneys and doctors live a similarly vocabulary-privileged life. They use the big words they learned, and expect everybody around them to figure out what is meant. (You go home with a diagnosis of “epicondylitis” and tell your spouse you have tennis elbow.) As for the rest of us, we speak mostly to people who do not understand the big words we know, and we constantly have to dumb down our language to be understood at all. It’s very frustrating. It’s like knowing how to do very intricate tango steps and only finding dance partners who can’t do any steps at all.

I once had a boss who ridiculed me (or attempted to) because I used the word “labyrinthine” to describe some frustrating aspect of our work. Knowing big words and daring to use them seemed pretentious to him; in his world, anything educated was to be mocked. To me the word I used was the most precise description of our job dilemma, and it was used without any intent other than to express my frustration. The irony of the situation was that our work was distributing books and magazines. The limitations of my employment were never more obvious than when he tried to put me down for using a “big word.” He also knocked me for using the word “eke,” as in eking out a small amount of something, and that’s not a big word at all. Oh, well. It was a short interlude in my life.

As a novelist, I see myself falling into the opposite trap. I am so used to dumbing down my language that I use pedestrian words when my novel likely would benefit from more elegant choices. I have taken a few writing courses that strongly suggest I should be using metaphors, similes, and more complex word arrangements. Yet I want to be intelligible to the people reading my stories, so my automatic choice is to write in the vernacular, not in the literary style that would make understanding the meaning of my words something that readers would have to work to get. I’ve had that experience as a reader, and I don’t like it. I had a huge debate with my father over what was not said but he insisted was implicit in an Agatha Christie short story. I disagreed strongly with what literary critics claimed was the implied ending of Villette (by Charlotte Bronte). I hate the idea that the author does not tell me what happened, and I refuse to do that as an author myself.

I adore big words because they are far more precise than small words. But I do not live in the literary world. I don’t read literary fiction unless I trick myself into it by proposing some worthy piece to my library book club. Most of the time, literary fiction leaves me cold. It depends too much on unhappy endings, for one thing. It too often shows a world of mean-spirited, selfish people, for another. I prefer to read stories with a guarantee: a happy marriage, a solution to the murder mystery, etc. If I did routinely read literary novels, I believe I’d be in dire straits. I’d be setting myself up, over and over, to be depressed about life. No thanks. I can do that without reading a book. I want an author to propose a problem and then solve it.

Recently I read a lovely, thoughtful literary novel, but I knew that the uplifting arc of the story was sure to dump me out in the cold merely because it was a literary novel. And so it did. Just at the point of greatest happiness, the heroine gets run over by a truck. Really. A truck. If that isn’t the biggest piece of deus ex machina external plotting ever, I’m Howdy Doody. After all those pages of things getting better, the author felt it was necessary to end the story on a “Life sucks.” note. Literary novelists seem to have sworn an oath never to provide a happy ending. Apparently they fear that if they write happy endings they will be accused of not being quite literary enough, and of pandering to the hoi polloi. The hoi polloi would be me, the person who would rather not see the novel’s central figure get run over merely because the idea of a happy ending is insupportable to the author and to the author’s intended readership.

Back to the original question: Is the literary world elitist? And by strong inference, is anyone who uses a “big word” a literary snob? Yes to the first, and no to the second. Mere use of language to be precise carries no imputation. Using the word crepuscular in speech to an individual who clearly does not know what it means is a form of boasting only mitigated by immediately defining the word, thus adding to that person’s store of knowledge. I’m the kind of person who is glad to learn something new. Others might not be, and thus they would feel snobbery is involved. Using such a word in a book isn’t elitism or snobbery at all, because, as the original article writer points out, it’s dead easy to find definitions for anything via the Internet. You’re reading a book. You can put it down or go to another screen and look up the word. Quit whining. That was a favorite phrase of my long-ago boss, and he was right. Whining couched as an outraged book review is still whining.

Copyright © 2014 by Irene Vartanoff

I Still Love You, Daddy

Today is Father’s Day, a day we never celebrated in our family because my parents both thought it was a commercial construct and not a legitimate holiday. I have to thank them yet again for raising me without creating these unnecessary situations that so many people find filled with angst, with anger, and with a laundry list of unhappy memories.

I loved my father, and I knew my father loved me. He was openly affectionate, although not a big hugger and kisser. On the spectrum of standard American paternal behavior in the 1950s and 1960s, he was considerably more demonstrative than most. He also was a fairly typical heavy European father, and I had plenty of school friends with similar fathers. They were strict, they expected obedience, and they weren’t afraid to enforce it. They wanted us girls to do well in school and learn our manners and above all, be modest, chaste maidens that a likely young man would find suitable for marriage. That’s an old-fashioned standard, but that’s how those fathers, mine included, thought.

Having this kind of father could be frustrating. Daddy believed that girls should have long hair. My hair as a girl was very thick, and quite curly. In those pre-air conditioning times, my hair was a nuisance on hot days when we kids were playing outdoors (which was always, because our mothers threw us outside to play so we wouldn’t mess up their clean houses). My father would not allow me to get my hair cut in a short cut. He only allowed his cousin, among other things a trained barber, to hack off some of the ends once in a while. By third grade, I’d had enough of this, and when my elementary school made some kind of connection with a certain hairdresser, I begged my mother to take me to him and let him cut my hair. We did it. My father was so enraged that he sent me away from the dinner table in the dining room, and I was forced to eat in the cold, uninviting den, far from the family. He also threatened not to let me go to a birthday party that evening–a big deal to a nine-year-old. Rather an extreme reaction, considering the shocking new haircut was still quite conservative. Boy, was it comfortable. My father eventually adjusted.

But Daddy did not back down when it came to wearing makeup. He wouldn’t let me. Why not? Because he’d actually visited Prince Matchabelli’s cosmetics laboratory many years before. And what my father saw was that lipstick contained bleach. He said if I used lipstick it would take away the natural color of my lips. I thought this was Daddy hooey. I did not want to hear it. But I had to obey his dictum. About forty years later, cosmetics companies did finally reveal the chemicals in their products. And lo and behold, lipsticks contained bleach. Daddy was right. I’ve never worn lipstick, nor particularly missed it after those first few rebellious yearnings to be like the other girls. His logic made too much sense to me, so I didn’t even sneak it on while out and about, or while away from home at college. It was not my original choice to go the natural look route, but the times favored it, too.

So, he won some and I won some, and that’s how it went with numerous battles during my childhood. It was humbling as a young adult to discover over and over that he had been right about this or that. But it was too late to tell him, because he died when I was twenty-one and still in college.

I hope my father had the same wisdom I have gained since then, to realize that within our families we often do our best and give our best, but are not honored for doing so at the time. We make decisions our children rebel against. We hand out solid advice that our children laugh at, as we laughed at our parents’ well-meaning efforts. In negotiating adult life, I have experienced many instances of realizing that parents forgive us anyway, and in advance. Which is yet another reason to be thankful that my father did not demand a test of love each year in June on Father’s Day. Our family life was not all roses, and I don’t know how many of those Father’s Days would have been happy events. I’m guessing none. But I still love you, Daddy, and I know you loved me, and that’s what counts.