Thursday, November 19, 2015

What We Become(s)

     I've posted about the art of titling before and also about my own difficulties with it.  If popularity is the standard by which we judge these things, then I guess I did okay with What We Become.  It is also the title of the tenth collection of the Walking Dead comic series and a recent zombie movie.  Apparently the title goes well with zombies.  I wonder if anyone told Charles DuBos about that when he said "the important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."  That, at any rate, is where I got the title from.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Warning: a Dirty Joke

     So here's a dirty joke, but it's for a good cause:

     A guy goes to his doctor and says, "Doctor, I've got this problem with my knee."
     "Well," says the doctor, "you've got to stop masturbating."
     "What?  Why?" asks the guy.
     "So I can examine you," says the doctor.
     As many times as I've heard it and told it, this joke never fails to induce hilarity.  It makes excellent use of humor's secret weapon, the unexpected. But in this case, there seems to be something deeper going on.  There is another level of shock that is integral to this joke's effect and it relies on the same device as, say, the move the Sixth Sense.  At the end, you are given a piece of information that undermines everything you understood before.  It collapses the entire world you thought you were inhabiting and makes you realize that the story you were hearing was actually something completely different than you thought.  It's a powerful device, though one that has admittedly been clumsily employed and overused in the last ten to twenty years of popular storytelling.  But this joke seemed to me a particularly elegant and illustrative example of it.  In just four lines a world is built, collapsed and reconstructed to immediate and extreme emotional effect.  What more could you want from a story?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

If You Steal

      If You Steal, the latest collection of compellingly off-kilter stories from the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, contains two of the finest comics released this year.
     The first is "Lorena Velazquez" a wordless tale of a costumed hero sneaking into a castle to rescue a captured woman from an impossible array of villains culled from the history of literature, comics, pulps and B-movies.  Jason illustrates in a minimalist style, inhabiting his panels with stoic anthropomorphic animals, all of which pays homage to the history of his art form at the same time that it gets under the form's skin and forces us to look clearly at the deep ironies inherent in its tropes and archetypes.  This story brings that dual homage/subversion to its delightful peak at the same time that it gently suggests that everyone needs help sometimes.
      The second is "New Face," which rehashes the classic pulp chestnut of the falsely accused man on the run and the woman willing to help him.  In this instance, though, Jason subverts both genre and form with a virtuoso twist so powerful, it seems impossible that it has never been done before.  Just as the fugitive's situation reaches its climax, the story told by the words diverges from the story told by the art, each branch offering the opposing extremes of how the tale could have ended.  In this divergence, Jason demands that you consider which has primacy, the words or the art; a profound questioning of the essential unity at the heart of comics.
      You can read an awful lot of comics in a year (in a decade, even) and only seldom will you come by an artist who incorporates an examination of the art itself into the entertainment.  That it's done as effectively as Jason does it here is more uncommon still. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Widow's Broom

     After reading to children professionally for more than fifteen years, I can say it is fairly seldom that a story actually renders them speechless and wide-eyed with the sublime tension of suspense.  It's all the more remarkable when the story is so subtly told.
     Such is The Widow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg, which tells the tale of a lonely but kindly country widow named Minna Shaw, who inherits the broom of a witch.  Mr. Van Allsburg pairs his customarily evocative, precise and textured art with a way of conveying emotion and meaning that is sheer elegance, achieving a somber subtly nearly unheard of in picture books.
     Still more appropriate to the approaching holiday, The Widow's Broom balances a sense of the creepy with a deep understanding of what its young audience can handle.  It enthralls with a dreadfulness that turns out to be just dreadful enough to utterly delight.
     A treat of the non-standard variety for your Halloween.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Devices and Conventions

     You write a book or two and your work can end up referenced in the strangest, and sometimes, most interesting places.  I just stumbled onto a website called TV Tropes, a wiki that catalogs "devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations."  Sure enough, there's a page for Those That Wake and What We Become.  A synopsis of both books is followed by a list of terms, each connected to specific points and descriptions from one of the novels.  It makes for a study guide or fascinating little abstract analysis; the result, I might add, of someone's seriously in-depth and insightful reading of those two books.  A fun and thoughtful site, and one I'm flattered to be included on.