Thursday, December 18, 2014

Happy Holidays

    
Beyond Where You Stand is going on winter break.  A new post will appear on Thursday, January 8, 2015.  Have a wonderful holiday celebration and a happy New Year.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Resolutions

     Henry Moore, an English sculptor, said "I think in terms of the day's resolutions, not the year's."  It suggests that, perhaps, small, daily decisions are ultimately more powerful than large, unusual ones.  By some interpretation, though, it is also an interesting comment on how even a vast resolution one might make (say, for New Years, maybe) requires renewed resolve to achieve it every day.  In some sense, every resolution we make is a resolution to have the strength to carry through on our promises to ourselves.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

50%

     A few weeks back, I mentioned the dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette.  As you may already be aware, this dispute has been settled, with the publisher receiving a reasonable portion of the e-book profits it was asking for (at least as far as I understand it).   This is good news, of course.  It's hard to debate a publisher's desire to share equitably in the profit from their own product.  The settlement is being hailed as an important one for publishing in this country.
     What the settlement does not address is this: Amazon is a single corporation currently in control of fifty percent of the book market in America.  Now, Amazon is, among a vast array of things, a smart company providing a useful, highly-valued service.  We are a capitalist country and much of what we are entitled to here is measure by success.  Does Amazon's success entitle them to this kind of control and what, exactly, does this kind of control enable them to do?             

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanks 2014

     Like last year and all the years before it, the world is a complex place, filled with big things to be thankful for and not.  As in posts past, though, here is a list of some small things that are worth feeling good about.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes - A riveting police procedural involving one of the most bizarre homicides in literary memory alternates with the perspective of the lead detective's teenage daughter, whose own life is flying apart at the seams.  Written with both intensity and humor, Beukes creates a tone of deep uncertainty both by setting the story in the teetering city of Detroit and by suggesting a sense of the supernatural pushing in at the edges of reality.  This would be a great choice for fans of HBO's True Detective.

The Hole on DVD and Blu-Ray - An outstanding example of that seldom attempted hybrid: the family horror movie.  Joe Dante directs this story of the new kids in town who discover a hole in their basement that . . . well, the nature of the hole is part of the fun, but let's just say that it isn't where the hole leads that's the key, but rather where the hole leads you.  Hinging on a great, creepy idea and making sparing but effective use of scary images, this works for ages twelve through adult and turns out to be a movie that uses its chills to really explore its characters.

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan - A haunting story told as a list of rules to help two brothers navigate the bizarre dangers of their summer vacation, this is anything but a simple picture book.  Both creepy and sweet, surreal and symbolic, the remarkable Tan creates an intricate link between his minimal words and his lush illustrations to create a narrative of surprising emotional depth and complexity.

     Happy Thanksgiving and don't leave without your free turkey joke.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Problematic Tense

     A few weeks ago, I touched on some ideas about first person perspective (and why I'm not crazy about it).  A far less discussed element of writing is the tense.  Past tense is the natural default and the vast majority seem comfortable both reading it and writing in it, and I'm no exception.  Doing some recent writing, though, I started to explore its implications a little.
     Whether consciously or unconsciously, when we read something in past tense, there is an underlying sense of security.  The story being told is already over, we just haven't finished reading about it yet, thus the world the story is a part of is still around and relatively intact.  If it's being told in first person, then the person telling the story is still alive (usually).  Perhaps the past tense lets us off the hook a little.  Their are certain stories and certain genres which might benefit from the very opposite, however.  Horror and thrillers, for instance, function primarily on a lack of security and using the present tense can be very effective at undercutting this foundation.  There are no shortage of examples in recent literature (The Hunger Games by Collins, 5th Wave by Yancey and Broken Monsters by Beukes to name just a few).  From the very beginning, there is something just a little bit ominous about them.
     As a footnote, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was a master of subverting the security of the past tense story.  His narrators usually began with a dire warning about how their stories must be listened to, lest the world itself come crashing down.
    

Thursday, November 13, 2014

America's National Story

      Poet, critic and professor Joshua Clover makes a fascinating supposition in his monograph on the movie The Matrix, for the British Film Institute's Modern Classics Series.  In a rather heady footnote, he suggests that the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers "is America's National Story, the one it remakes in times of crisis."  The original film, based on Jack Finney's book, was made in 1956 and remade in 1978, 1993 and 2007.  Clover sites the film's central thematic allure as being "the fantasy that one is the last free consciousness, as yet untainted by ideology, called to superhuman vigilance lest one be overtaken."  One might say that the human-duplicating pod people (the "body snatchers" of the title) represent a direct threat to what Americans hold most dear: individuality.
      This is a fascinating theory and one could spend days coming up with alternate stories that might qualify as the prime narrative of America's collective psyche, not to mention stories that do the same for other cultures (Clover's throws out the story of the 47 Ronin as Japan's).  Beneath all this, though, is the compelling point that we use our art not simply as a means of expression but as a repository for our most essential ethos.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Back to Sea

     Among my very earliest posts, I devoted some space to the graphic novel Set to Sea by Drew Weing, which I hailed as the Graphic Novel of the Year (of 2010).  With several years to revisit it and reexamine it, I believe it may actually be the Greatest Graphic Novel of All Time (though Shaun Tan's The Arrival is a tough contender). 
      Publisher Fantagraphics has given it a new print run, and if you haven't seen it yet, don't hesitate (it's available right here).  Even if it doesn't resonate for you quite as deeply as it has for me, it is a compelling work of art and a quintessential piece of cartooning.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Through The Woods

     Having mentioned the work of Emily Carroll in a post long ago, it's a pleasure to note the publication of her first book, Trough the Woods.  Her ability to haunt a story is on full display at her website, and I hold her webcomic Margot's Room up to my graduate students as a prime example of how to reinvent and expand an established medium for a new platform.  The book, however, is a treat unto itself.  Her folktale-like settings sit magically on thick paper, her spare language tempts you down a dark path and her rough linework functions as an ideal counterpoint to the quiet menace of her tone and the brilliant color work all around.
     Each story in the collection is worth pouring over, but the standout is "The Nesting Place," the book's longest piece.  While Ms. Carroll makes an art of giving you exactly the right amount of information and ending at exactly the most lurching moment in most of her stories, this one is a full banquet.  A beautifully slow build fully delivers its central shock and then gives you something more afterwards, something that turns fairy tale standards a little on their heads; a fiendish balancing act that uses subtle suggestion to disturb but also serves up the huge money shot that horror sometimes demands.
      And what sort of treat could be better for Halloween? 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Understand/Enjoy

     When my older daughter was about six-years-old, my wife took her to a performance of a Shakespeare's  Much Ado About Nothing.  Concerned that my daughter was "getting it," my wife leaned over and explained certain plot points as they went by (very quietly, of course).  After a few times, my daughter stopped her and said "mom, I don't need to understand it to enjoy it."
     Does understanding become the foundational metric of enjoyment only as we get older? Is there a way a work of art can appeal more directly to our emotions and leave us delighted without us having to process it intellectually?  And, as we grow older, do we fight that phenomenon as we're experiencing it? 
         

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Perseverance

     Working in education, you often hear about how traits like intelligence, good memory and being a good listener are all secondary to success.  The primary quality to achieve what you need to in life?  Perseverance, the ability to work at something and just keep working at it.
     Samuel Johnson, an 18th Century English poet, essayist critic and moralist, said "great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance."
     Newt Gingrich, 2012 candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination among many other things, said "perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did."
     Sometimes you just gotta shut up and work harder.



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Good, in Fiction and in Life

     We're used to the good guy or gal's prescribed uses in fiction.  He/she's the one who does the right thing, who helps others, who interferes with nefarious plans.  Less frequent, less obvious, but more important, is Good's power to inspire.  We're always looking for characters to grow over the course of a narrative, to have a meaningful arc.  Good, as it happens, can be very effective in this regard, when it inspires.  That's something I tried to do in What We Become, with the character of Laura.  A more recent and widely consumed example would be the character of Chris Evans's Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  His calm, clear-eyed plea of resistance to a room full of government agents charged with carrying out a plan that could lead to the deaths of millions, is -- perhaps -- his most quietly heroic action in the movie.  His effect on the hard-bitten character of the Black Widow is yet more personal and more emotionally satisfying.
      We want Good to accomplish its mission, of course, to stop evil, to save lives.  But ultimately, we need Good to propagate itself, because that's how it changes lives in the long run and, in the aggregate, actually makes the world better.  You hear a lot about the question of how one person can make a difference.  Maybe this is part of the answer, in fiction and in life. 
     

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Authors United

          As most people reading the blog of an author probably know already, the website Amazon and the publisher Hachette are currently in a dispute that on the surface is about e-book pricing, but in fact speaks to the much larger matters of monopolies and censorship.  For a full explanation of this issue, just click the link a few lines above.  To see what a large group of authors have banded together to do, under the name of Authors United, have a look here.
    

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Couples Retreat

   On Wednesday, October 22nd, the librarians and Tech teachers of LREI (myself included) are hosting a workshop focusing on the collaboration between libraries and technology departments.  All details can be found here
     If the program is of interest, please join us.

    

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Problematic Persepctive

     A recent event in my writing life made me confront my feelings about first person perspective.  I'm just not sure I buy it, is the thing.  I mean, what is first person supposed to be in a fictional narrative?  Is the character relating the story to us after the fact?  The detail and descriptiveness of the language are far greater than most people use when they tell us stories.  Is it the character's inner monologue?  If so, then why is it in past tense? 
     As a reader, I will admit that I can be swept up by the story and put my reservations aside.   But as a writer, I need to justify the voice the story is told in so I can make it work.  I'm still a bit dubious, but I think I might have found a way.  Hopefully, I will be able to touch more on this subject in the future.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11


    One likes to think that, after a tragedy or trauma, we eventually become stronger, more capable, wiser because of it.  After all, human experience isn't once long descent into entropy.  That's what we do best, isn't it?  Evolve.  Sometimes, you can't just stand around and hope that you get better, though.  Sometimes you have to do something to help yourself grow.
     Remembering 9/11 three years ago, President Obama said “Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Galaxy, Prepare to Be Guarded

     In a summer filled with blockbusters that bloomed with explosions and were peopled by characters that failed to burst from the second dimension, who would have expected the most enjoyable film of the summer to be . . . a blockbuster?
     Guardians of the Galaxy must be Marvel's most sheerly delightful movie to date and that comes down to something rather unexpected: the prominence of authorial voice.  Few of the previous Marvel outings, no matter how enjoyable they were, were particularly notable for the power of a single filmmaker's vision behind them (maybe Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger would be exceptions).  Even The Avengers, which had one of our great pop storytellers behind it, was still clearly powered by a certain degree of corporate synergy.  But from it's subversive penchant to undercut heroic stereotypes and imagery, to its quick-witted dialog (delivered by some truly charming performers), to its soundtrack, everything about James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy felt like it was spun from a singular vision.  And so, from the most unlikely of places, do we witness the power of the artist.  Kudos must also go to Marvel for putting a very obscure property into the hands of a relatively untested filmmaker.
     A quick honorable mention must also go to Lucy, which is an action movie devoted as wholeheartedly to ideas as to thrills, featuring as unlikely (and lovely) a climax as you are ever likely to see in such a film. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Have a Great Summer

     Posting will resume on Thursday, September 4th.
     Have a great summer!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Your Online Persona

     An article about online personas that I co-authored with my fellow LREI librarians recently went up at the School Library Journal website.  Read "What's Your Online Persona?" here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Consideration for Others

     Superman once noted that in a society this big, "consideration for others is the only thing that keeps life bearable."
     Pretty straightforward, but also surprisingly easy to forget; one of the small things a person can do to help make the country, and the world, great.
     Have a happy 4th of July.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dr. Lollypop Episode 3

     As mentioned last week, here is Dr. Lollypop Episode 3.  Have a look at all three episodes by clicking on the brand new Comics link in the site menu above.
   

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dr. Lollypop Episode 2

    As mentioned last week, here is Dr. Lollypop Episode 2.  Next week: Episode 3.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Dr. Lollypop Is Here

     Dr. Lollypop is a comic strip for young readers that I co-created with my Graphic Novels in Your School Library illustrator Rush Kress for an educational website called Reading A-Z.  Read the first episode here.  Next week: Episode 2.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Best Knock Knock Joke Ever Told to Me by a 4th Grader

     In all fairness, she said she got it from her brother, who's in ninth grade.

Knock Knock.

Who's there?

Doctor.

Doctor Who?
 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Being Creative in the Old Days

     The movie F/X is about a special effects artist who is framed for a crime and uses his own particular genius to turn the tables on his enemies.  It might sound a little campy and there's no doubt that you have to accept its premise with belief well-suspended to fully embrace it, but it has everything you could ever want in a first-rate thriller: it's exciting, suspenseful, exceedingly clever, funny at just the right moments and is loaded with enjoyable characters and situations.  Featuring a number of top New York theater actors of the day in supporting roles, it also boasts unusually good acting (though Brian Dennehy as an acerbic and relentless cop steals the show).
    The movie
      With a (literally) striking homage to Three Days of the Condor and possibly the inspiration for the TV show MacGyver, F/X was made in 1986, before the art of special effects had all gone digital.  As a practitioner of purely practical effects, the protagonist uses nearly anything at hand to create illusions, sew chaos and generally misdirect his opponents.  Consequently, the movie stands as a paean to creativity through improvisation, craftsmanship and D.Y.I. skill-mastering

Thursday, May 22, 2014

No Windows

     The AT&T Long Lines Building in Downtown New York City has no windows; none at all.  It houses a great deal of communications technology, but aren't there any human beings in there?  If not, that's troubling in its own right; a whole building with nothing but machinery working away?  But if there are people in there, what are they doing all day with no natural light, no outside air directly circulating through.  It must be like working in the subway, yet the fact that it's a skyscraper makes it all feel somehow eerier. 
     There's some purely practical reason there are no windows in that place, no doubt, but it begs a story to be told: something we're not supposed to see in there, or something in there that's not supposed to see out.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Frozen Sea Within Us

 Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis (among other things), said "a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." 
     Not known for his sunny disposition, Kafka nevertheless was keenly aware that a book can make us feel and think in equal parts and that a story's greatest potential is its ability to awaken the passions of our hearts as well as of our minds.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Creepy Is

     I was watching a Twilight Zone episode with my daughters and afterward we had our standard debriefing.  The episode we watched leaned toward the scary end of the Twilight Zone spectrum and I've found that discussion and understanding often prevents bedtime anxiety.  My ten-year-old had been squeezing my hand pretty tight during the episode, so I asked if it was a little too scary for her.  "No," she assured me.  "I mean, it was a little creepy during the episode, but once I knew what was going on, it didn't scare me at all.  Things are creepier when you don't know what's going on."
     Now, the final explanation for all the creepy goings on in that episode ("The Hitch-Hiker") is a supernatural one and, in concept at least, no less scary than the rest of the episode.  But, as someone who tries to attain a sense of weirdness and creepiness in his own story-telling, my daughter's comments did highlight a crucial point for me.  Creepiness is all about not knowing, about not being able to explain something.  That, essentially, is what creepiness is.  Yet stories (or perhaps it's really readers of stories . . . or perhaps it's really publishers of stories) seem to demand an ultimate explanation.  As enjoyable as creepiness is for many, it seems intolerable that it should linger beyond the end of a narrative.  It's as if, if that were to happen, it would be to suggest that the world doesn't work properly.
     Many of us seem to read stories for a sense of closure or satisfaction that feels unattainable in our actual lives.  But I often wonder, isn't there something compelling, something enjoyable, maybe even something healthy, about facing our unease over things that are simply beyond our ability to control?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Two Kindergartners Discuss Vomit

     As I was washing my hands in the school bathroom the other day, I overheard this conversation between the two kindergarteners in the nearby stalls.  This was a co-ed bathroom for the kids.  I've changed the names to protect the innocent.

Adam: Sofie, are you there?

Sofie: Yes.

Adam: Do you know that some people drink vomit?

Sofie: Ack!  Really?

Adam: Yes.

Sofie: Do you?

Adam: No.  Well, I have.

Sofie:  Really?  Was it bad?

Adam:  Not as bad as drinking blood.

Sofie: Yeah, my blood doesn't taste very good.

Adam: Yeah.

     So this is a real conversation that trumps just about every fictional conversation I've ever read for a great opening, surprise twists and a universally accessible subject matter.  Can you capture the these qualities in a fictional conversation and not have it sound stilted or artificial?  That, I figure, is one of the great quests of the writer. 


Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Voorman Problem

      Every now and then, I (or any writer, I suppose) come across a story -- a book, a movie, a play, whatever -- that I feel like I should have written.  Not exactly that I wish I'd written it, but more that it reflects a theme and/or style so close to mine that it's like the actual writer just got to it a little bit before I would have.  I felt that way about the movie Unbreakable, for instance.
     I've written a lot of short stories, very few of them published (yet).  One of those short stories that I would have written sooner or later has been made into a short film, one that was nominated for a 2013 Oscar Award.  It's called The Voorman Problem, and in it's twelve minute running time, it strikes all the best chords of weirdness and surrealism, and leaves behind a vast implication of cosmic terror.  Quite impressive all around, especially considering that it's a comedy (or so suggests the theme music).  It's available for download at all the usual places and well worth a twelve minute look.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Thoughts of the Writer

     In a recent interview in The New York Times, the novelist Philip Roth had this to say: "Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction . . . The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters . . . The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is . . . in the moral focus of the novel."
     There are traits of characters I've created that I identify with, that I wish I had, that I wish I didn't have, that I'm glad I do or don't have.  But do my characters speak my thoughts?  Well, in the most basic sense, they do; everything they say did come out of my head.  But do they speak my outlook, my beliefs?
     Mr. Roth, who has been writing and thinking about writing for a lot longer than I have, speaks to the largest and most compelling point on this subject.  Writers often (if not always) write because they feel they have something important to say and want to express that.  It's very tempting for readers to assume the characters themselves are the sole vehicles of this expression since they (the characters) are the things in the books most obviously expressing something.  But, truly, it's the way the world of the book interacts with a treats and leaves the characters that has the greatest meaning.  The characters are one of the tools that allows the entire story to express the writer's thoughts. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Enemy

     On the surface, Enemy is a movie about a history professor who sees an actor in a movie who is him.  He tracks down this actor and their confrontation has consequences.  On a deeper level, Enemy is about something going terribly wrong with the universe.  Based on the novel The Double by Jose Saramago and directed by Denis Villeneuve (director of the very good Prisoners), the film is reminiscent of Lynch and Cronenberg in their prime mind-bending years, but has a look, tone and voice distinctly its own, in no small part thanks to the riveting work of Jake Gyllenhaal.  If you don't like spiders, completely disregard everything I said about the movie, because you must never, never see it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Town That Wasn't

     If you think about it, maps could be pulling a vast hoax on us.  How many of those places we pass by do we ever actually visit?  How many little towns, villages and hamlets whip by us on our way to somewhere else that we never see?  There's story potential here: a map filled with the names of imaginary places meant to convince some poor traveler that the world isn't actually empty.  But it appears that reality beat fiction to it in this case.  This recent article from The New York Times explains how the town of Agloe, New York has appeared for decades on road maps and even inhabited a spot in the digital world of Google Maps, all without ever really existing.  Theoretically included on maps as a protection against copyright infringement (if the name appeared on other maps, the owners would know information had been lifted from the Agloe-inclusive map, since these other map makers would never have come across an Agloe to include it), it certainly manages to pique the imagination.
    An amusing footnote: the print version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2014 edition of The New York Times.  It ends at the bottom of page A16 with the words "Last week, a reporter for the New York" and then explains "Continued on Following Page."  But on page A17, there is no sign of the continued article.  The story has, like the town itself, disappeared.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring Break

     Beyond Where You Stand is going on Spring break.  New posts will return starting Thursday, April 3rd.  Have a lovely beginning of Spring.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Gateway Superhero Comics

 Booklist, which spotlights graphic novels.  A longer version of the article is available at Booklist Online; right here to be precise.
    I wrote an article titled "Core Collection: Gateway Superhero Titles" for the March 1st issue of

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Sameness

    Both as writer and reviewer, I am familiar with the practice of taking an excerpt from a review and putting it on the cover of a book.  Sometimes it's just a word ("spectacular") or a generic thought ("I couldn't put it down," "a real page-turner"), sometimes it's a bit longer and more specific ("fluid writing and thoughtful characterizations help make this a captivating read").  At any rate, the motive behind the cover excerpt is clear and relatively unassailable (from a marketing perspective, at any rate).  But often enough, the chosen excerpt (and not generally chosen by the author, I might add), focuses on how the work in question is just like something else.


     The quote on the cover of the paperback edition of Those That Wake, for example, is "[Karp's] Global Dynamic smacks of Asimov's psychohistory while the entire tone seems like something out of Philip K. Dick."  Now, the review this came from (School Library Journal's) also included phrases like "Karp has created a terrifically gloomy set and peopled it with ... very real characters" and "plenty of action, challenging ideas, and bizarre antagonists" and even "should appeal to a broad section of teens."  Other reviews (like Booklist's), meanwhile, even went so far as to say "intriguing, original and thought-provoking."
     A quote from a review I wrote for Booklist for the book Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk Volume 1 by Ben Costa appears on the cover of Volume 2 and reads "Usagi Yojimbo if illustrated by Art Spiegelman," referring to two other names in the comic book galaxy that potential readers are likely to know.  This was chosen from a review that included such possible excerpts as "a charmingly human character" and "astonishingly animated action sequences."  My book and Mr. Costa's are, of course, just two examples from a much larger pool. 
     While it is surely flattering to be compared to the likes of Asimov, Dick, Sakai (creator of Usagi Yojimbo) and Spiegelman, and while such comparisons are fair enough and might be helpful in a review (I did, after all, make the comparison in the first place), what I'd like to call into question is the idea that the work's similarity to another is the most salient, positive or helpful thing you can say about it.  I mean, if you're going to focus on one thing to support the fact that this is a worthwhile piece of work and to attract new readers, is the very best you can do to say that the work in question is just like something else?  This seems rather cynical to me, highlighting sameness, rather than distinctiveness, or even just general quality.  Is that all we're looking for as readers, something that is comfortably familiar?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The King in Yellow

     Shared mythologies are narrative continuities created by one person and then used by many others, maybe over the course of decades or even centuries.  H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos is a prime example of this, as is the Wold Newton Universe (a family tree that establishes the genealogical connection between centuries' worth of literary heroes).  These mythologies are compelling and powerful because of the great sense of size and history they can evoke; creations that are larger than any single person (even their creators) that go on to have a life of their own.
     The King in Yellow was a book of short stories written by Robert W. Chambers in the late 19th Century that center around a play (that goes by the same title) which, when read, tends to cause insanity in and chaos around the reader.  The king himself is a mysterious figure who never really appears and the snatches of play that Chambers included merely deepen the eeriness.  Since the stories were first published, they've inspired writers from Lovecraft to Thomas Ligotti with, if not direct storylines, then certainly a tone and scale of weirdness, and furnished many others writers with characters, details and ideas to flesh out their own tales.
     HBO's True Detective is the latest and, perhaps, largest-scale entertainment to make use of this mythology and they are using it to excellent, unsettling effect so far.  It also makes for an excellent opportunity to revisit the original.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Damned Coolest

     I have students (from four-year-old to graduate) ask me all the time, as well as friends, seminar attendees and fellow comic appreciators, what my favorite piece of comic art is.  What they seem to mean is, not for craftsmanship or invention or draftsmanship, but for pure superhero-loving impact of image, what is the damned coolest piece of art I've seen in a comic.
     Well, if we're talking about artists overall, I have to go with the great John Romita, Sr., who brought a sense of clean action and clarity of narrative like no one else, mainly through his work on Amazing Spider-Man.  But as a single image, it's got to be this one by George Perez, the cover of JLA/Avengers 4:


     Hopefully, this image speaks for itself.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Humanitechnology

     In the February 4, 2014 issue of the New York Times, David Brooks wrote about technology and people in a particularly illuminating way.  Recognizing that there are things that machines can and can't do and that there are things humans can and can't do and, most importantly, there is no stopping technological progress (even if you wanted to), Mr. Brooks discusses what human traits are becoming increasingly important in a cultural delineated by technology.  Have a look for yourself right here

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Daily Battlefields

http://stevehuston.com/artwork_view/552
A Hard Day's Work by Steve Huston
     Somewhat apropos to the thoughts from last week's post, Robert Louis Stevenson, writer of -- among other things -- Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, had this to say: "And yours is not the less noble because no drum beats before you when you go out to your daily battlefields, and no crowds shout your coming when you return from your daily victory and defeat."
     Everyone needs a little bit of heroism to make it through the day, sometimes, and all the more so to make the world work in little ways.  This sort of heroism is often invisible, something I'm reminded of frequently, as I work with teachers and watch them struggle toward their daily victories (and defeats).
     

Thursday, January 30, 2014

No Moaning

     Re-watching the TV series Quantum Leap recently made me realize how few straight up heroes there are in TV shows anymore.  Modern TV protagonists tend to straddle the line between hero and and villain, if they're not flat out on the far side of it.  Scott Bakula's character Sam Beckett, a scientist caught in a time travel experiment gone wrong and now leaping through time and "striving to put right what once went wrong," tread no such line.  He didn't lack complexity, it's just that his complexity didn't come from his doubts about himself, his mission or the world.  Despite what you hear about how so many writers and actors much prefer to take on villains because they're so much more interesting, heroes don't have to lack complexity. 
     In the February 2014 issue of Empire, the actor Chris Evans comments on playing the role of Captain America, a straight up hero if ever there was one.  When discussing the idea that Captain America doesn't seem to have a standard character arc (he starts out one kind of person and he basically stays that same person), he says, in part "to be a good man is difficult.  To be the best man you can be is even harder.  Even though he doesn't choose to wear his baggage on his sleeve, I think that's his skill set.  He doesn't moan.  There is a depth to him."  Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, Mr. Evans reiterates the point that it's the struggle and how he or she deals with it that can give a character both heroism and an interesting and engaging depth.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Oregon Book Awards

     The finalists for the Oregon Book Awards were recently announced.  Your truly served as judge for the Graphic Literature category.  All submissions were produced by local Oregonians and this was by no means left a shortage of fine material to choose from, as the state (and Portland in particular) has become a veritable center for alternative comic book creation.  Have a look at the finalists here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Fight Scene

      Fight scenes in movies can be exciting for a few reasons, though primarily for the physical aesthetic.  Exciting fight choreography can engage an audience just like, say, exciting dance choreography can.  In books, it's a bit different.  While an author can get a reader to picture a specific fight choreography, the more specific the description gets, the more tedious the written fight can be.  Nevertheless, a fight scene in a book can heighten the drama, particularly if the reader is already invested in the stakes.  Most importantly though, a fight scene can be a way to highlight aspects of the characters in unusual, or unusually intense, ways. 
     The fight scenes in  Those That Wake and What We Become were intended to do this, delineating traits of Mal (perseverance in the first, the fact that his intelligence and wiliness come alive when he's in conflict in the second) and, to a lesser degree, Remak (precision).  A fight scene can also help intensify the tone and create a sense of just how desperate things are getting, especially when the protagonist seems terribly outmatched or, effectively, cannot hope to win (as in Mal's fight with the Old Man in What We Become).
     A book with sharp, exciting fights scenes that illuminates character illumination is William Goldman's Marathon Man, when the secret agent Scylla fights the assassin Chen.  The way the fight ends, particularly, reveals an essential trait of Scylla's character.  Goldman, incidentally, writes great fights scenes in general, including in the novels Brothers, Control and The Princess Bride.  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Secrets in the Chapter Titles

      A little while ago, a reader told me he noticed that the chapter titles in Those That Wake and What We Become aren't numbered.  In the interest of full disclosure, this reader seemed a little annoyed by the fact, but the uneasiness it produced in him was not completely unintentional.  I left the titles unnumbered because, like the characters within, I wanted the readers to always be a bit uncertain of where, exactly, they were in the story.
     Something else I did with the chapter titles, actually, almost no one seems to have caught onto (or at least almost no one's bothered to mention to me).  The titles of each chapter have a number of words in them that correspond to the part of the book they're in, so all the chapters in Part I are a single word, the titles in Part II have two words, and so on.  This was an attempt to carry forward the theme, central to the story,  that there are secret connections between things all around us of which we are not aware.
      The ideas of the stories don't have to end with the narrative itself, but can take a hold in the physical object that comprises them.  Now, at the risk of pushing a little too far into postmodernism, I'll point out that ideas taking over physical forms is something else crucial to the stories, as well.