Sunday, March 1, 2015

What It Is – week ending 1 March [2015]



With apologies to Dave the Thune (as well as Mike Baron & Steve Rude).


WRITING:
Every day.  1000 words.  That’s the goal.

I believe I mentioned this in an earlier post, but I felt very strongly about my writing output last year.  I was on task far more often than not, and far more regularly than any year prior.  But this year, at least two months into it, I am even more productive than I was in 2014.  At this point last year, I believe I’d taken 9 days off from writing.  But 60 days into 2014, I’ve managed to log 59 days of writing, with over 64,000 total words for the year and two straight months of 30,000+ words.  This is good.  I’m also just about on track for story submissions as well.  Nine weeks in, I’ve sent stories off to 26 places, one shy of my goal of three a week.  But that’s easily made up.  And, once I’ve completed the first draft of this novel, I have a number of short stories I need to get to – for revisions, as well as ideas I need to get written – that will allow me to widen the scope of my submissions.  Onward and upward. 



READING:
The Monster of Florence, by Donald Preston & Mario Spezi. 
Oh.  My.  God.  The story of a vicious serial murderer in the hills of Florence, Italy, spanning from the early to mid-1960s up until 1985 (when the final killings occurred), the story is still alive today, as the true Monster has never been caught, though four men were arrested and convicted, at different times, for the crime.  The twists and turns in this story are unreal.  Botched investigations, allegations of planted evidence, insane theories pursued by investigators in order to fit the facts to the man they believe to be the murderer, which, upon the many convictions, lead to the disparate investigators’ promotions, at the expense of the truth and Florentines’ safety.  It’s riveting and chilling.  About two-thirds of the way through the book, where I’m at right now, the authors go to interview the man they believe to be the real killer – and the case they put forth is compelling.  He denies everything, but not without sharing a couple of facts that only bolster their theory.  If you enjoy true crime, you need to read this. 



MISCELLANY:
I’ve been a fan of Matt Wagner’s Grendel for some time, but I’ve never done a proper read-through until now.  I’m about halfway through Wagner’s Grendel cycle, having just begun God and the Devil.  And though I appreciated what I read before, what I have discovered on this re-read is fascinating.  Not only do Wagner and his collaborators expand the narrative focus of Grendel immensely, the farther away from Devil by the Deed they get, but they also approach the storytelling of each arc differently, interweaving the approach with the themes being investigated within each storyling.  It’s impressive and compelling, and it spurred me to write a bit about it.  The introduction and the first part of those thoughts can be found at the links – or just below this post.  Look for more on Grendel soon.


And, if you enjoy the Oscars and the debate that surrounds these awards every year, you should check out the ITMODcast Oscar special.  It’s fantastic.  Not only do they look at this year’s awards, but they delve into past accolades and see where the academy got it right and where they got it wrong.   Entertaining and educational, for any film fans out there. 


SIGN OFF:
As always, check out my friends – Brad& Matt and Don McMillan for their own weekly recaps on things comic-y and geeky, and we'll see what's what in seven.  

-chris


Friday, February 27, 2015

MATT WAGNER’S GRENDEL: interweaving craft & theme [part 1]



Devil by the Deed & Devil’s Legacy

Devil by the Deed is an interesting comic.  As noted by Alan Moore, who wrote the introduction to the initial Comico collection, published as an oversized graphic novel, Wagner’s story is not a traditional comic and feels more like illustrated prose.  With blocks of text placed over wonderfully designed single and double-page illustrations, it certainly had few, if any equivalents – regarding its storytelling approach – on the comic racks of the early 80s.  It not only adds seriousness to the narrative, but also lends distance to the story that affords it a perspective and a weight that might not be possible in a traditional comic narrative.  This distance also imbues the story of Hunter Rose with a legendary quality that elevates the character while also diluting some of his more nasty attributes, allowing readers to better relate to Rose, and to Grendel.  It’s a smart approach that not only made this work stand out when it was published, but also infuses it with a timelessness that makes Devil by the Deed as impactful today, thirty-three years on. 


With Devil’s Legacy, the mantle of Grendel is passed over – or, more to the point, seized – by Christine Spar, Hunter Rose’s granddaughter and biographer.  Confronted with the embodiment of evil, in the form of Tujiro XIV, a Kabuki performer who kidnaps and kills children, including Christine’s adopted son, Spar takes up the mask and forked staff of her biographical subject and hunts down Tujiro, since the police seem unable, or unwilling, to do anything about her son’s disappearance. 


Devil’s Legacy is a tale of revenge, and Wagner, along with the Pander Bros. who provide the art for these twelve chapters, crafts this story as a traditional comic, but not without some inventiveness in the layouts.  In order to get into the head of Spar, Wagner fills the pages with captions – a log kept by Spar as she hunts down Tujiro.  In this way, Wagner can more deftly include exposition readers might need to follow the story, while also affording the audience an opportunity to see into Spar’s mind, taking readers one step closer to the evil on the page (as compared to the distanced, second-hand narrative of Devil by the Deed).  This change in narrative approach allows Wagner, and the Pander Bros., to delve more deeply into the themes of Grendel. 


Christine Spar, an innocent woman becomes consumed with grief and rage, confusion and anger, until she reaches the bottom and becomes a killer.  As with Hunter Rose, there is a method to the madness – or, at least in both cases, a justification in the minds of those asserting the Grendel name – but, despite the good that might come from some of their actions, and Christine’s in particular, the ugliness that lay at the heart of Grendel is not something to be applauded. 


There is a dark soul of evil haunting these works, one that becomes more obvious as Wagner digs more deeply into his narrative, corrupting all it touches.  And, through his creative choices, Wagner allows his audience to slowly get closer to this evil, to understand it more fully, and, eventually, to touch its chilled fingers. 

-chris

NEXT:  The Devil Inside & Devil Tales


Thursday, February 26, 2015

MATT WAGNER’S GRENDEL: interweaving craft & theme [introduction]



In 1982, Matt Wagner created his iconic comic book character, Grendel.  A charismatic but ruthless anti-hero who did not survive that first story, Wagner has smartly and impressively expanded that first spark into a lengthy meditation on evil and the darkness that lies deep within us all.  I had read a number of Wagner’s Grendel tales before, but not until late last year did I finally start a proper read-through. 


The original Grendel, Hunter Rose, is a character much in the mold of Hannibal Lecter, introduced by Thomas Harris only months prior to Grendel.  Wagner and Harris seem to have been playing with an idea in the cultural zeitgeist at the time (a paraphrase from an interview with Wagner).  Expanding beyond Devil by the Deed seems not to have been in the plans. Though I have no concrete information to this point, it would seem that the death of Hunter Rose at the end of that first story might bear that out, but please do not take it as gospel, merely speculation.   


Whether he had any plans past that initial foray with Grendel, Wagner was allowed to continue with more tales of his dark and distorted Robin Hood figure.  In doing so, Wagner made the bold choice to have a new character bear the mantle of Grendel, in the guise of Hunter Rose biographer and granddaughter, Christine Spar.  It was an inspired decision, one that not only helped keep the series grounded, even with its speculative near-future setting, but also afforded Wagner, and his many artistic collaborators, an opportunity to expand on the idea of evil in our society in a way that would not have been possible if constrained to a single character. 


The way Wagner changed the direction of this series with this single decision is an impressive feat.  Just as impressive, though, is how Wagner approached each new tale, utilizing a variety of approaches that makes each narrative stand out, while also (again) expanding ideas set forth in Devil by the Deed.  As I read through this series, I will be exploring some of these approaches, analyzing how they keep the narrative fresh while also building on the themes Wagner is investigating with the character of Grendel.  Look for the first one, soon.  And thanks for reading.

-chris 


Sunday, February 22, 2015

What It Is – week ending 22 February [2015]


  
With apologies to Dave the Thune (as well as Mike Baron & Steve Rude).


WRITING:
Every day.  1000 words.  That’s the goal.

Last year, I felt I started strong with my writing, better than I ever had.  And at this point in 2014, I had only taken 9 days off from my writing.  Not bad, as that would average out to once a week.  This year, though – 52 of 53 days writing, only a single day with no production.  That, that makes me feel good.

The novel (draft 1) continues apace.  Passed 80,000 words and 300 manuscript pages this past week, and now things are starting to get tense and the main protagonist is about to snap.  This is what I’ve been building toward, let’s see how things work out (or don’t) for our guy.  And, as of today, my writing for the year is just above 57,000 total words.  I’ll take that. 

Also, I posted the first of what I plan as a semi-regular series – Comic Artist I Love – this one featuring Scott Morse.  You can check it just below this post, or hit the link.


READING:
My Grendel (re)-read moves on.  I read the Matt Wagner Devil Tales collection this week (issues 16-19 of the original Comico series), the Grendel: Devil Inside collection with stark Bernie Mireault art (issues 13-15 of the Comico series), along with the uncollected issues, #20-22, with art by Hannibal King & Tim Sale, all the stories having been written by Grendel creator, Matt Wagner.  I continue to marvel at how Wagner chooses to approach each storyline in a different fashion – whether as a fully-illustrated prose novella (Devil by the Deed), or utilizing a 25-panel grid (one of his Devil Tale stories), or having the scratchy thoughts of the devil within scored along the bottom of the pages (Devil Inside), it’s always intriguing to see what he will do next with these stories. 


I’m also reading Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, for the first time, with the announcement that the sequel is coming soon, from Dark Horse comics.  It’s good, and, having seen the film adaptation, I am impressed to see how deftly Palahniuk walks that tightrope of not revealing the truth behind Tyler Durden, while always playing fair with the readership – if you know the secret, it’s obvious what is happening when reading.  Smart writing, and a wonderful use of language and the medium of the novel to craft this story.  Don’t know if I’ll follow this up with any more Palahniuk, but I’m enjoying this, as I read it. 


And I finished The Lobster Coast, by Colin Woodard.  This was an incredibly fascinating look at not just the lobster industry but at the colonizing and evolution of the Maine coast, and the state of Maine in general.  The writing was excellent.  I learned a lot (like the fact that the federalists in Massachusetts, who were in charge of much of the government and the banks, sided with Britain in the war of 1812, leaving their holdings in Maine to be taken over by Canadian and British forces, which was the final “straw” that led to statehood for my home state).  And I got the needed research for the novel.  5 stars.


WATCHING:
Finished up True Detective this week.  That was a damn good show, but I’m not entirely sure what I think of it, overall.  I read a piece criticizing the finale as taking the big ideas and big thinking put forth by Rust Cohle, as proxy for series creator Nic Pizzolatto, and distilling it down to something mundane and typical.  I don’t know that I agree with that.  Some of the points made in the piece were well put, but I feel like they may have missed the point of the finale – not to be too arrogant about it.  I still have thoughts swirling around in my head that have yet to fully coalesce.  Maybe I’ll try writing them down to give them weight, and possibly arrive at whatever ultimate revelation I’m aiming for. 


My Quentin Tarantino (re)-watch moves along, as well.  I watched Death Proof this week and … it’s at the bottom of the list.  I can appreciate what Tarantino was trying to do with this (in conjunction with Robert Rodriguez, obviously; need to check out his Grind House offering now), and I applaud him for crafting a film that looks straight out of the 70s while still taking place today.  Seriously, the detail and the way it was shot and the costuming and the settings – that all came together and perfectly fit the aesthetic he reached for.  Bravo, on that front.  But, ultimately, this movie felt incredibly hollow, for a Tarantino film.  Not saying it was bad, per se, but I won’t be giving it a second watch. 


And Mary and I found ourselves with some free time yesterday, so we finally got out to the cinema to see a film we both have wanted to see since its release – The Imitation Game.  This was a really good movie.  I wouldn’t say it was great, as many of the beats of the plot can be found in any number of films, but a number of the performances, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and Alex Lawther as the young Turing, were exceptional. 
The movie has been criticized for focusing on this triumphant aspect of Turing’s life (and, in the process, making us feel good about ourselves vicariously) when it should have given more time to the more interesting and complex issue of Turing being prosecuted for being a homosexual (gross indecency, as the law stated) and losing his humanity and his mental acuity through the forced chemical castration that drove him to suicide at age 41.  This was a war hero, a man who conceived of computers long before technology would allow for such machines, a man who revolutionized the world  and saved millions of lives through his intellect, and he was damned and victimized by his government because he liked men instead of women. 
I don’t know that I agree with these arguments, overall.  Yes, it could have been more interesting, and would have been more daring, to have followed this other thread of Turing’s life.  But that wasn’t the story they wanted to tell.  And, to be fair, they did not leave that out – as I was led to believe in reading some of the criticisms.  It certainly got short shrift, but it was included, and utilized for the framing device leading to the recounting of the cracking of the Germans’ enigma code.  And it did not shy away from showing us how it affected Turing, even though the time afforded this scene is minimal, it was still affecting and emotional, and did not leave us exiting the cinema feeling uplifted.  I’m thinking those who left believing The Imitation Game was a feel-good movie didn’t see the same film.  Yes, it lauded a triumphant point in our history, but it provided a bit more nuance than was related in some of the criticisms. 


SIGN OFF:
As always, check out my friends – Brad& Matt and Don McMillan for their own weekly recaps on things comic-y and geeky, and we'll see what's what in seven.  

-chris


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Comic Artists I Love: Scott Morse



I was introduced to Scott Morse’s work in Oni Double Feature #7, which I picked up because it included the second part of P. Craig Russell & Troy Nixey’s adaptation of a Neil Gaiman short story, “Only the End of the World Again.”  In that issue, Scott Morse’s “Volcanic Revolver” was the second half of the double feature, and it seized my brain with its comic-narrative clutches like little had before.  I can’t remember if that short story indicated that it was part of a larger story, but that short put Morse squarely in my sights as a creator to watch out for. 


Scott Morse is a singular artist whose work stands out among the myriad artists working in comics.  Whereas the influences of most comic artists are self-evident, often a legacy to those artists who came before and easily discovered in the back issue bins, Morse’s are not as easy to find, until you look outside the comic book field.  Morse comes from an animation background, having studied at the California Institute of the Arts while also citing Maurice Noble – long-time associate of Chuck Jones, whose most notable work can be found in many Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons – as an artist who had a profound effect on his work.  And it is this animated style that is Morse’s signature and his strength. 


As a cartoonist, Scott Morse’s work is supremely pleasing and easy to look at, conjuring up memories of one’s childhood in his deceptively simple linework, which delineates almost cherubic characters through the proportionality incorporated into his figure work.  It’s a style that welcomes readers into the story, easing them into Morse’s narratives – as a comic artist who also writes most of the stories he draws.  Once readers move more deeply into any give story, they often find that Morse the writer is interested in more mature themes than may be apparent from a cursory scan of the work of Morse the artist.  It’s subtle, and could possibly be jarring for some, but Morse is masterful in the way he deftly balances the “cuteness” of the art with the serious tone underlying much of his work – a serious tone, I should point out, that is also balanced by the very human, as well as very humorous, scenes he infuses these stories with.  This juxtaposition of readers’ expectations with the gravity of the story not only allows Morse to put forth ideas that might be difficult to broach in a more “realistic” art style, but it also makes those weighty moments become more resonant, lingering in the readers’ minds after the final page is turned. It’s a powerful approach to comic storytelling that I find invigorating and impressive.


Morse is a cartoonist who has also played with format, in his work.  With Spaghetti Western, he worked in the landscape format.  In Southpaw, Morse created a square book that had a single image on each page, which was smaller than the standard comic size.  In Notes Over Yonder, Morse crafted a wordless tale that has more emotional depth than every single superhero comic book of any given year – with rare exceptions.  Much of his recent work, Strange Science Fantasy being a prime example, is drawn in the “widescreen” model popularized by Bryan Hitch.  In his magnum opus, Soulwind, Morse played with a variety of artistic styles – scratchy lines heavy with ink in the King Arthur portions, lush brush strokes reminiscent of Asian paintings in scenes with the monks and the child, and multiple other approaches depending upon the scene – that not only enhanced the narrative, but also showcased Morse’s range as an artist.  And, in The Barefoot Serpent, Morse bookended a sepia tone story of a young girl who lost her brother to suicide with lush watercolor images recounting the life of Akira Kurosawa, himself a survivor of suicide and depression.  Morse is an artist who seems to thrive on inventiveness, which keeps his art vital and timely.


As stated above, Morse is an artist who tackles important subjects. Looking at his body of work, one can find common themes running throughout much of what he has created.  Ghosts drift through much of his work, as seen in his creator-owned work like Visitations and The Barefoot Serpent, as well as work-for-hire assignments, such as “The Delusions of Alfred Pennyworth,” which ran as a black and white backup in Batman: Gotham Knights #34.  Often, these ghosts reveal truths meant to ease the burden of those left behind, to help seal the fissures that can erupt within families when a loved one is lost.  These stories are emotionally engaging and all too human, and I think this, above all else, is what attracts me to Morse’s work.  His work is eminently heartbreaking and relatable and, in the end, uplifting. 


Since that introduction in Oni Double Feature #7, I have gathered a near-complete collection of Scott Morse’s work.  From modern westerns to high fantasy to science fiction to Batman and Spider-Man to human drama, Morse is able to work within these various genres with consummate craft and heart that is enviable and always entertaining.  Very few artists are able to work across genres with such ease and at such a high level of artistry.  Rather than just playing out the plot, Morse always has something “to say” with his work, and I find very few comics – or stories, in general, regardless of medium – as engaging and entertaining and thoughtful as those of Morse’s oeuvre.  It is a feat to be lauded and appreciated. 


But all that aside, what it ultimately comes down to is that I love Scott Morse’s art and his storytelling, and anytime I see a new book with his name on it, I get it, and I read it, and I am enriched.  Check his work out.  You won’t be disappointed.


SELECTED BIOGRAPHY (some of which may be out of print):

The Complete Soulwind – published by Oni Press
The Barefoot Serpent – published by Top Shelf Productions
Magic Pickle – published by Dark Horse Comics
Strange Science Fantasy – published by IDW
Batman: Room Full of Strangers – published by DC Comics

Volcanic Revolver – published by Oni Press

-chris

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What It Is – week ending 15 February [2015]




With apologies to Dave the Thune (as well as Mike Baron & Steve Rude).

HAPPY V-DAY (the day after)!


WRITING:
Every day.  1000 words.  That’s the goal. 

Passed 75,000 words on the novel (draft 1) this week, while continuing to write every day [I’ve only missed a single day of writing in 2015; at this point last year, I’d missed at least five].  Though, as I approached that landmark, I ran into a major snag.  I knew where I needed to get next, in the story, but I had no idea how that was going to work organically.  So I pondered on this for quite a while, and hit upon it.  I would take one of the earlier tangents I followed in the first part of the novel and weave that into the recent shake-up of the status quo to ease along to the next landmark.  This is why I’ve taken the advice of writers who loosely outline their stories, which allows for them to stay on track as they write while affording them the opportunity to follow unexpected tangents that inevitably arrive. 



READING:
Finished re-reading Dune Messiah this week, and I loved it.  I know there are many Dune aficionados who hold up the first novel with due reverence, but then diminish the narratives of the latter novels.  I plan on re-reading all the subsequent Frank Herbert written Dune novels this year (which probably will leak over into next) to see if I agree with this, but as far as the second one goes, I can’t ascribe to this line of thinking.  I really enjoyed the more limited scope of this second outing on Arrakis, with the political intrigue and the enormous weight of Paul’s visions, as the shorter novel hurtled along to its conclusion, wherein the status quo was shaken up drastically.  I applaud Herbert’s confidence and courage in not being unwilling to kill off or dramatically change important characters.  It’s something that makes these novels feel more “real” and, as a result, makes them more engaging, in my opinion. 



I’m also reading Grendel: Black, White, and Red, a collection of short stories featuring the Hunter Rose incarnation of Grendel, all written by Matt Wagner, with art from a variety of notable artists like John Paul Leon, Paul Chadwick, Ho Che Anderson, and Scott Morse.  It’s impressive how many ideas Wagner is able to examine in short, eight-page spurts that not only are entertaining but add to the grander myth of his character, Grendel.  Highly recommended.



WATCHING:
Watched volume 2 of Kill Bill, and it’s official, Brad, this vaulted to the top of my Quentin Tarantino list [with the caveat that I am watching these in order – most of those after Jackie Brown, for the first time – and so I still have Death Proof, Basterds, and Django to watch and rank].  I loved the samurai exploits, the not so subtle links to westerns Tarantino made, particularly with the music, David Carradine (and that Superman speech toward the end), and the variety of approaches Tarantino utilized for this revenge epic.  Loved it.


I’m also halfway through True Detective.  Man, all the accolades and hype is well-damn-founded.  These characters are so well defined and play off one another with such drama and tension, not to mention the investigation and the strange, and surreal, twists and turns it has taken in these first four episodes.  I can’t wait to see how this all plays out, and I’m looking forward to checking out season 2, whenever it hits DVD.  Now I need to read Pizzolatto’s novel.



MISCELLANY:
Dan – the other guy above [insert pointy-finger here] – is starting a podcast to talk all things pop cultural.  It’s going to be called the Potato League Podcast, and you should definitely seek it out, when it hits.  The first one was to be recorded yesterday, so it should be available soon.  Here’s the facebook page.  Look for it!


SIGN OFF:
As always, check out my friends – Brad& Matt and Don McMillan  for their own weekly recaps on things comic-y and geeky, and we'll see what's what in seven.  

-chris