Monday, June 27, 2016

COMIC BOOK ANNIVERSARY ISSUES --- The Incredible Hulk 300




Comic book publishers love their big, round numbers.  100 issues, 200, 300, 800—these are milestones worthy of celebration, most often marked by oversized issues with major story developments for our beloved characters, while sometimes including bonus material, such as extra short stories or pinups from noteworthy creators in the field.  My favorite anniversary issue, as well as one of my favorite comic books, period, is Superman 400, which I wrote about for W27’s 400th post.  But the first anniversary issue I ever picked up was The Incredible Hulk 300.  And it was awesome. 


As far as anniversary issues go, this Hulk comic is a benchmark.  It is the culmination of a multi-part story arc from creators Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema that dynamically changes the status quo for Bruce Banner and his alter-ego, the Hulk, in a super-sized climactic issue that has tons of guest stars.  And this comic is packed with action and drama—if overwrought, at times, in the classic Marvel tradition TM—from cover to cover.  I chose well, when I picked this off the stands, and, in achieving its secondary objective, this story spurred me to start picking up the Incredible Hulk series on a regular basis. 

   

Being the final part of a major storyline, one might assume this would be a difficult issue to read, lacking the context provided in previous chapters.  But in recently re-reading Hulk 300, I never found myself lost, and could easily see how a neophyte-me would also have been able to follow the story with ease.  It’s obvious, from page one, that the Hulk is on a rampage—exposition from bystanders gives a fuller context: that the Hulk had recently come to be seen as a hero, that his beastly nature had been curbed by an ability to retain Banner’s knowledge while in Hulk form, and that, somehow, he’s now reverted to the mindless beast he’d often been—and that the other heroes must stop him, lest the Hulk devastate New York and its citizens. 


Mantlo & Buscema also provide ample introductions for all the heroes who come together to battle the Hulk, with clear visuals and [sometimes overly] detailed descriptions of their powers.  It is a master class in how to write a comic book that is welcoming to both long-time fans and brand new readers—if still in that classic, overwritten manner.  That said, Bill Mantlo is a deft enough wordsmith that—not unlike Larry Hama’s writing for G.I. Joe in this same time period—it does not bog down the momentum of the story.  Mantlo’s hyperbole is purple and lush, but it manages to toe that fine line, rarely falling into what feels like parody.  He’s not quite on a level with Alan Moore, whose purple prose contemporaneously dripped off the ink-soaked pages of Swamp Thing, but his lexicon and turns of phrase are engaging and entertaining, adding to the overall feel of the story.  It’s impressive. 

    

The art in this issue is pretty great too.  Sal Buscema, a legend in the business, known for his work on a myriad of titles, is not a favorite artist of mine.  Certainly, his storytelling is clear and his ability to hit deadlines laudable, but Buscema’s art lacked the dynamism and distinctness that his older brother, John’s, art has in spades—at least, to my eye.  But with this comic, the solid base Sal Buscema provides with his pencils is brought to vivid, dynamic life with the inking of Gerry Talaoc.  Where Buscema’s solo work is epitomized by his utilization of heavy blacks for the shading and definition of his characters, Talaoc feathers the heroes in this comic with hatching that imbues the figures with more three-dimensionality and a better realized musculature.  With few exceptions [Todd McFarlane being one of them; yeah, McFarlane], the Hulk has never looked better, or more menacing, to my eye. 


Getting back to the actual story—the climax, one of the most difficult things to do in storytelling, is completely satisfying.  After S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor and the Avengers and Power Man & Iron Fist have failed to stop the rampaging Hulk, Dr. Strange conjures a spell to send the Hulk off to another dimension, where he can no longer threaten Earth.  New York City is saved, but the guilt of failing to help their old comrade weighs heavily on the heads of these heroes.  In the end, nobody won, except for the readers.  This issue was a celebration of the Hulk’s long publishing history that also marked a new direction for the character, a near-perfect anniversary issue.  And, it was a damn fun comic to read. 


-chris  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

THIS is my Superman --- [art edition]




Years back, Peter Rios (if my memory’s to be believed) started a thread, at the old CGS forums, asking people to share the comic artist who best epitomized any given character, for them.  Neal Adams might be your Batman artist (or possibly Berni Wrightson), Kirby (or John Byrne) your FF artist, Jerry Ordway (or Curt Swan) your Superman artist, Marie Severin (or Herb Trimpe) your Hulk artist.  It was a great thread that really got to the heart of why we, as comic fans, love and collect these stories—sometimes to an obsessive fault.  The conjunction of personal taste in art and affection for a particular character engenders a very specific attachment for us readers, which can lead to interesting and illuminating conversations.  (So, please feel free to share your own in the comments and kickstart this dialogue)

  

I have long held that Superman need not be overly muscled, in his depictions in comics and film, and would argue that it is more “realistic” for him to be lean and agile rather than a Mr. Universe type.  Superman’s power comes not from a hypertrophied physique but from the energy imbued within his cells by Earth’s yellow sun.  Not that he wouldn’t be muscular, but it isn’t necessary for the character as conceived, and it is more interesting, visually, if Superman circumvents the typical body type of male superheroes in comics. 



Certainly, there have been a number of artists to draw this icon of the four-color world, and they all brought their own personal style and sensibilities to the character, resulting in varied body types for the Man of Steel.  But the most iconic visualizations of Superman—by Curt Swan & Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez in the comics and Christopher Reeve in film—have tended toward this leaner body type.  Which may be why I prefer the leaner Superman as a template. 


That being said [written], “my” Superman would definitely have to be Jon Bogdanove’s version.  Feeling like an updating of Wayne Boring’s Superman, Bogdanove’s was BIG, with huge muscles.  And yet, it never felt as if he overwhelmed the panel or the scene, at least not in a bad way.  Bogdanove’s Superman was powerful, epitomized by Bog’s particular delineation of Kal-El, and it made for some dynamic imagery. 

  

During Bogdanove’s lengthy run on Superman: The Man of Steel, which coincided with Bog doing some of the product art for ancillary Superman merchandising—notable for the fact that Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez was pretty much the only artist providing DC Comics merchandising art for decades—he made his home in Maine, on Monhegan Island.  This afforded me a number of opportunities to meet Bogdanove, and his enthusiasm for the character was obvious.  (Bog named his son Kal-El)  And that enthusiasm was infused into the character and the comic, while Bogdanove drew it. 



Bogdanove’s Superman is a statue, cut from marble, come to [printed] life.  Bog’s Superman is solid, an irresistible force and an immovable object, all at once.  Ultimately, it’s his use of shadow and the thick lines for hatching—which help to define his Superman as a three-dimensional hero on a two-dimensional plane—that has always stood out for me (shout out to Dennis Janke, Bog’s longtime inker on Superman) and which still remains burned on my memory as the epitome of the Man of Steel.  

-chris

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

THIS is my Spider-Man --- [art edition]



Years back, Peter Rios (if my memory’s to be believed) started a thread, at the old CGS forums, asking people to share the comic artist who best epitomized any given character, for them.  Neal Adams might be your Batman artist (or possibly Berni Wrightson), Kirby (or John Byrne) your FF artist, Jerry Ordway (or Curt Swan) your Superman artist, Marie Severin (or Herb Trimpe) your Hulk artist.  It was a great thread that really got to the heart of why we, as comic fans, love and collect these stories—sometimes to an obsessive fault.  The conjunction of personal taste in art and affection for a particular character engenders a very specific attachment for us readers, which can lead to interesting and illuminating conversations.  (So, please feel free to share your own in the comments and kickstart this dialogue) 


Spider-Man is an iconic character, some might even say he’s the lynchpin of the Marvel Universe—or, at least, the standard-bearer for decades, leading up to the recent invasion of Hollywood by so many of Marvel’s spandex class.  Spidey was the one most visible in other media—with cartoons, a live-action television series, costumes and party favors and toys, and a musical—as well as, it could be argued, the one most accessible to nascent comic book fans.  And through the years, Spidey’s had a horde of great artists delineate his adventures—John Romita, Sr. & Jr., Todd McFarlane, Mark Bright, Gil Kane—but for me, it’ll always be Ditko! 


Ditko co-created Spider-Man, drew the book for the first few years, bringing to life such classic characters as J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, the Vulture, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, and the Green Goblin.  He’s the artist who defined Spidey, for decades to come.  And he is, hands down, the best artist ever to draw the webslinger. 


Sure, it may seem a copout to go with the creator, but Ditko’s Spidey perfectly epitomizes the character, to my mind.  My introduction to Spidey was through Ditko—not the comics, but the original animated series from 1967.  Spider-Man, along with the other characters, were strongly modeled on Ditko’s style.  Images of him swinging through New York, coming directly at you through the television screen, are right out of those comics.  And, though incredibly amateurish, those cartoons were a ton of fun, at the age I discovered them. 


When I finally got an opportunity to read some of those early Spider-Man tales, my mind did not change.  Ditko’s work in those few dozen issues is stellar.  His fluid, easy line and facility with body language really elevate those comics.  All his characters look real, rather than the idealized HEROES™ we’ve come to expect from the “photo-realism” made popular, in recent years.  Peter Parker looks like a teenager.  Aunt May is an old woman.  J. Jonah Jameson is a loudmouthed buffoon.  Ditko’s work allows readers to better relate to these people, affording them an opportunity to become more invested in the stories and the drama, and become fans for life. 


Ditko is also able to infuse these characters with power and strength, when it suits the story.  Possibly the most famous sequence in all of Spidey’s publishing history can be found in issue #33, the final chapter of the 3-part “If This Be My Destiny” storyline.  Doc Ock has stolen a rare isotope that may be the only thing that can save Aunt May’s life.  Peter, as Spider-Man, is trapped beneath tons of heavy machinery.  Through force of will and thoughts of his family—his Uncle Ben, whom he let down, and his Aunt May, whom he must save—Peter is able to push himself off the floor and throw the pile of iron from his back.  It’s one of the most powerful scenes in Spider-Man history (or comic history, for that matter), achieved through the deft artistry of Ditko. 




Ditko is a master craftsman, still creating new comics today, and one of the giants in the history of the comic book medium.  And his work on Spider-Man illuminates that fact, greatly.  If you’ve never checked out these early stories, you definitely should.  And if you find the writing a bit grating, as I do, then just look at the pictures.  Because Ditko drew the best damn Spider-Man.  


-chris

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Fistful of films translated & expanded in comics



Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, choosing to walk a different path, amended that to “A Fistful…” over at their blog, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  A film-centric blog where they also discuss comics and books and TV, these two regularly share their top 5, ranging from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I hope to regularly pilfer for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

We are in the middle of a deluge of comic books translated to films, with Marvel leading the way, but DC and others working to grab some piece of that same pie.  With that in mind, I thought I’d look at a fistful of films that were translated, and expanded, in comic book form.  If you’re a fan of any of these films and have not had the opportunity to read these comics, I would wholeheartedly recommend you seek them out.  They are all great, and many add a lot to some already rich filmic experiences. 

In reverse order: 

5. Clerks: the Lost Scene, written by Kevin Smith, art by Phil Hester & Ande Parks, published by Oni Press.


If you enjoy the coarse humor found in Smith’s early films, you will love this.  It fits perfectly into the film, at the point where Randal and Dante attended the funereal viewing of Dante’s ex-girlfriend.  And the art team of Hester & Parks, one of my favorites, fits nicely with the nastily quirky nature of this short story. 

4. Star Wars (the original run), written by Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Mary Jo Duffy, et al., art by Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Cynthia Martin, et al., published by Marvel Comics


There are many who pan these late 70s/early 80s comics as bad, and there may be some truth to that (one major hindrance was the fact that Darth Vader could not have much contact with our heroes, and changes in the status quo were not allowed, as there were movies to be made that would do that), but this was still a fun series for a kid (me) growing up with those films.  Personally, I think some of the best issues are those that come after Jedi, when Jo Duffy was able to play with the characters a bit more, while also introducing one of the more interesting villains, Lumiya.  If you haven’t given these a try, or just haven’t read them in a while, and want a serious hit of nostalgia, check them out.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.    

3. The Matrix comics, written by the Wachowskis, Neil Gaiman, Paul Chadwic, et al., art by David Lapham, Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave Gibbons, et al., published by Burlyman Comics.


The Matrix was a touchstone, as far as science fiction films go, and I love it, to this day.  The comics that followed were similarly engaging and exciting.  With a murders’ row of talent—Peter Bagge, Troy Nixey, Ted McKeever, Geof Darrow, as well as those noted above, and others—there was no way this could not be a collection of great comics.  Overseen by Chadwick, whose Concrete is an all-time favorite comic book, these short tales fleshed out the world seen in that initial film, fulfilling the promise that was lost in the sequels.  Great, great stuff.  Check it out. 

2. Ghost Dog, written & drawn by Scott Morse, published by Oni Press. 


It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, from Jim Jarmusch, with Forest Whittaker in the lead role, and it’s been a fair amount of time since I’ve read this comic.  But I cannot recommend either of these highly enough.  I love that movie—maybe my favorite Jarmusch film, though Broken Flowers is high up there—and I love this comic.  Morse is one of my all-time favorite cartoonists, and he tells a simple, elegant, and engaging tale within the 20-some pages here.  The man can draw anything, and he always hits you with an emotional impact that will resonate long after you finish one of his books. 
What are you waiting for?  Watch the movie, then read the comic!

1. Aliens (book I & II, and Earth War), written by Mark Verheiden, art by Mark A. Nelson, Denis Beauvais, and Sam Kieth, respectively, published by Dark Horse. 


This trilogy of Alien comics, all written by Mark Verheiden, is the best sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic film, Alien.  I re-read these three stories every few years, and they always manage to entertain.  The first book, with black and white art from Mark Nelson, is appropriately moody, while the second one goes for a brasher approach with fully-painted art from Beauvais, and it’s all wrapped up with the stylized art of Sam Kieth, as the aliens come to Earth to be rid of these pesky humans.  I love these comics, and they prove that a strong film franchise can find life in a comic series, exploring more deeply the world set up on film. 



-chris

Monday, March 28, 2016

SUPERMAN EPITOMIZED, for me



This is not a response or review of Batman v. Superman, which opened this weekend.  I haven’t seen it and, with my schedule, probably won’t until it’s available to stream.  With these two iconic superheroes currently flooding the internet, and, to a lesser extent, my iPod (shout-out to @ITMODcast  and to @sidewalksiren, who brought this scene up on the recent Fistful of Superman episode!), it got me thinking about what it is that perfectly encapsulates Superman, for me.  Took me all of three seconds to land on it.

1978. 
The first Superman film. 
Christopher Reeve. 
That scene where he turns back time by flying superfast around the Earth. 


Why I Love It

First: 

It fully embraces comic book physics.  With the rise of the internet, there have been people who’ve either tried to explain how this tactic could actually work to reverse time (Superman was moving at faster-than-light speed, and that’s theoretically possible) or worked to discredit this scene (time travel’s impossible; that’s stupid).  My response…who cares?  This is a great, comic-booky moment that reveals characters, evinces emotion, and exhilarates an audience fully invested in this story.  Sure, I know rotating the Earth backward won’t turn back time.  But this is a superhero movie, and superheroes do the impossible, especially Superman.  You don’t need explanations, you just need a sense of wonder.

Second: 

This scene perfectly encapsulates what it means, to my mind, to be Superman.  Superman is Kal-El, an alien from Krypton, orphaned and adopted here on Earth.  But he isn’t human.  Kal-El has amazing abilities—super-strength, X-ray and heat vision, flight, super-breath, et al.—abilities that alienate him further, from everyone around him, abilities that isolate him.  Kal-El can never be like us, and he is told, by Jor-El, his biological father, through teachings encoded on Kryptonian crystals, that “It is forbidden for [him] to interfere with human history.”  But, in this moment of anguish—and you feel that anguish in Christopher Reeve’s performance, as well as his relief at the end, when he returns to Lois; this is some bravura acting, seriously—Superman chooses humanity over his Kryptonian heritage.  This is the epitome of Superman, as a character—the immigrant, come to America (which can be read as a stand-in for all Earth) to find a new, and better life.  Kal-El is not an emotionless automaton, but a passionate human, thanks to his upbringing by the Kents, and, in the end, it is that nurturing that wins out over his inherent, Kryptonian nature, and we get all of that in this short, but powerful scene.  

-chris

Saturday, February 20, 2016

ON WRITING: short stories & how they develop (for me)



Harlan Ellison is my favorite author, and he has famously stated, on myriad occasions, that there is no magic to writing, no muse one must seek out in order to get the words down on the paper.  It is a job—like a plumber or a teacher or a banker—requiring a knowledge of, and dedication to, the craft, coupled with an imagination and a keen observation of humanity, in order to succeed.  (Of course, this does not guarantee success, but it builds a solid foundation)  To that end, Ellison has created roughly two dozen stories extemporaneously, sitting in the windows of bookshops across the globe, allowing patrons and passersby the opportunity to watch him work.  When people suspected he may have plotted these stories out beforehand, Ellison solicited ideas from friends, like Chris Carter and Robin Williams, having them offer the starting point at the beginning of his performances.  Start to finish, a new story written in one or a handful of days, with no forethought.  Impressive. 

That’s now how I work.

At heart, I am a planner.  I like to know where I’m going, the exact route to get me there, and the itinerary for once I arrive.   I like that safety net, whether it’s a physical trip or one across the pages of a new story.  As regards writing, I have needed to learn to back off the outlining—or, more to the point, to become more trusting of myself and allow for some gaps in my story’s plan.  A strict outline can stifle creativity, and if you already know what’s going to happen, the writing can be boring, and you may not reach the end. 


For me, when an idea hits, it’s like being flooded with information from varying aspects of the story—scenes, bits of dialogue, characters, all fight for dominance in my brain (and this often happens while I’m driving somewhere or laying in bed, away from a computer or pen & paper).  This is how I know I’ve got something I should pursue, as a story.  But, even with all these ideas sparking in my brain, many of the details, including details of character or setting, can be missing. 

This is why I tend to write my short stories over the course of days, or even a few weeks.  I slowly discover what the story is about and where it should go next.  Currently, I’m almost 4000 words into my latest story, which involves a man in the present, using his cell phone to speak with the past, to a boy trapped in the cellar of the home he now owns.  It’s been slow going, each scene teased out of me over the course of the past two weeks, and I’ve found myself questioning where the story was going on many occasions, and considered just scrapping it a few days ago, the writing was going so poorly—like pulling teeth without any anesthetic would be an apt metaphor.  The biggest problem, I felt, was that I didn’t know my characters well enough and, more importantly, didn’t understand why this old man, in the past, was keeping this young boy locked up in his basement.  The old man was evil, sure, but to what end? 


Then it hit me.  The old man wanted the boy for a sacrifice.  He was scared of the future he perceived in 1920s America, a world where other races were gaining power, meaning he, as an old white man, would be losing power, in his warped mind.  Once I understood this, all the rest fell into place, and the next scene I had to write flowed more quickly and smoothly than any other part of the story had, to date. 

It’s not a conscious effort, on my part, to allow these stories to unfurl over the course of weeks, in order to discover what they are about.  It is more a result of me not knowing, fully, what is to come next.  I have to work hard to figure out how a scene should be written, with many false starts.  It is a subconscious manifestation of my own ignorance of the narrative, pushing back at that day’s writing, slowing me down, saturating me with doubt, causing me to rework scenes or just scrap them.  It’s frustrating.  But, eventually, by working at the story and writing scenes that may get cut and fleshing out these characters without fully knowing how they work and think, that allows me to push through that murkiness to find the nugget buried in that initial idea and get to the heart of the story. 



Was it there, when I first envisioned the story?  No.  But I never would have discovered the reason behind the initial concept if I’d merely jotted down some notes and then pondered it for a couple of weeks.  There would have been no spine, however frail, to work from.  As the story slowly grew, it morphed into something else, for me, something more concrete and better realized.  Until I reached the tipping point, and my subconscious finally broke through to tell me why something, within this specific story-world, was initiated.  From there, it’s a matter of finishing up the first draft, at which point, I can let it rest, knowing that I can make it eminently better upon revising. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Fistful of Comic Books Cancelled (or Announced) Too Soon



Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, choosing to walk a different path, amended that to “A Fistful…” over at their blog, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  A film-centric blog where they also discuss comics and books and TV, these two regularly share their top 5, ranging from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I hope to regularly pilfer for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

Recent years have been a boon to comic book readers.  Classic series that were out of their price range, in back issues, are now available in affordable collections or digitally, while ones that incurred publication delays—or were thought to have been abandoned—due to publishers going bankrupt (in the case of Moore & Gebbie’s Lost Girls) or the rights of publication expiring (which seems to have been a contributor to Mumy & Dutkiewicz’s Lost in Space: Voyage to the Bottom of the Soul being unfinished for many years) have risen again, like the Phoenix ß check out that sweet cliché.  This has afforded me, and others, the opportunities to read the conclusions to stories we may have thought forever lost to us.  This, as much as anything, is why many fans see this as a golden age for comic books.  

Despite that, there are still a number of series that were cancelled well before they should have been—in my opinion—and there is little that would lead me to believe they will ever see the light of day, at this point, for a variety of reasons.  Here are five comic series that ended far too soon, if they even ever got onto the comic racks. 

5. Everest: Facing the Goddess, written by Greg Rucka, art by Scott Morse (Oni Press)


Greg Rucka has written some of my all-time favorite comics and novels.  Scott Morse is an artist and writer who is on my personal Mt. Rushmore of comic creators.  To have these two working on an adventure series set on Mt. Everest—that just sounds awesome.  Set to be published in late 2004 by Oni Press, all we ever got was the FCBD preview that year.  It was as good as you would hope.  Too bad we never saw anything else.  *sigh*

4. Semper Fi, written by Michael Palladino, art by John Severin, Sam Glanzman, et al. (Marvel Comics)


Following the surprise popularity of their hit series, The ‘Nam, Marvel launched a second military comic book.  Semper Fi followed various generations of a single family, all of which had members who served in the United States Marine Corps.  The stories were engaging and fit nicely next to Marvel’s ‘Nam, but the real draw of this book was the art by John Severin.  This was my introduction to Severin, who was a seasoned veteran when he got this assignment, and he killed it—sometimes penciling and inking, sometimes providing inks over Andy Kubert’s work.  Severin was a revelation to my young eyes.  His figure work and the detail within the backgrounds was astounding and beautiful, some of the best work coming out of Marvel at that time.  It’s curious this series didn’t last past issue #9, but sales were so poor there was nothing to be done about it.  But at least I still have those issues to re-read, whenever I want.

3. BWS Storyteller, by Barry Windsor-Smith, with help from Alex Bialy-additional inks and Joon Kostar-lettering (Dark Horse Comics; Fantagraphics Books)


One of the most beautiful, and most fun and engaging comics I ever read.  Barry Windsor-Smith created a one-man anthology, with three stories all created by Windsor-Smith—The Young Gods, a Fourth World homage, The Freebooters, a Conan homage, and The Paradoxman, his science fiction epic.  The art was lush, gorgeous, and the stories captivated my imagination like very few comics have.  You could tell BWS was having fun, and it translated directly onto the page.  Sadly, the oversized dimensions of the book, which added much to its, and a lack of marketing and advertising on the part of Dark Horse (according to Windsor-Smith) led to its quick demise.  BWS did return to the stories for two Fantagraphics collections that included extra essays and comic pages (Paradoxman never did get this treatment, for reasons unknown) from Windsor-Smith, but, though these were beautiful and illuminating, they were merely a tease of what was to come.  An unfinished masterpiece. 

2. Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor, comic adaptations of Harlan Ellison’s short stories by a collection of writers and artists (Dark Horse Comics & Edgeworks Abbey)


Harlan Ellison is my favorite author.  Period.  And when he was afforded the chance to marry two of his loves—comic books and short stories—it was amazing.  With the likes of Paul Chadwick, Jan Strnad, David Lapham, Steve Rude, Peter David, Diana Schutz, Teddy Krisiansen, and myriad others working from Ellison’s own words, this was my favorite comic, at the time.  And every issue included a new short story by Ellison, based on the cover image for that issue.  It was great!  But, notorious for being demanding, something happened between Dark Horse and Ellison that led to the early cancellation of the series, after attempting two different formats.  A second collection, years later, published many of the then-completed stories that had not made it into print, but the promise of however many more could have been published is still a great loss for Ellison fans, and comic fans, in general. 

1. Big Numbers, written by Alan Moore, art by Bill Sienkiewicz (Mad Love Publishing)


Set to be Moore’s magnum opus, after he was coming off the star-making publications of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Killing Joke, collaborating with one of the most experimental and dynamic artists in comics, Bill Sienkiewicz, this was going to be amazing.  A comic that revolved around real life, around the building of a large shopping mall by an American corporation, in a small English town, it was to be a twelve-issue examination of number theory, the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher, and the consequences such socioeconomic upheaval has on real people.  Only two issues were ever published, with a third available online, if you know where to look.  After Ellison, Moore is my favorite author, and the fact that this will remain unfinished is just sad. 


Honorable Mentions: 

--- Lost in Space: Voyage to the Bottom of the Soul, written by Bill Mumy, art by Michael Dutkiewicz. (Innovation Publishing)
A serious take on the classic sci-fi series.  This book delved deeply into the characters and created an engaging and thoughtful look at these characters and the turmoil they endured in space.  It was completed a number of years back, by a small publisher, but was so under-ordered, I missed out on getting a copy, and now they go for hundreds of dollars online—too rich for my blood.

--- Borrowed Time, written by Neal Shaffer, art by Joe Infurnari (Oni Press)
A wonderfully eerie alternate-dimension tale revolving around the Bermuda Triangle.  The art is lovely and the story had me hooked from the outset.  Sadly, only two volumes were ever published. 

--- Vox, written by Angela Harris, art by Aaron McClellan (Apple Comics)
A science fiction tale, slated to run seven issues, the first six were only ever published, leaving me waiting for over a quarter century for that final, climactic issue.  I guess I won’t be finding out how it ends, now.


Friday, January 29, 2016

ON WRITING: What is a novel?



I’ve been writing seriously for a few years now—was writing in a semi-serious fashion (or, at least, in a manner I felt to be serious)—for a number of years prior to that.  My focus, for most of that time, has been on short stories, prose and comic, in order to learn how to write.  Looking back over these past handful of years, I can definitely see an improvement in, coupled with a new way of looking at, my writing.  I’ve met with some success with these short stories.  Now, I want to level up.  That, to me, means writing a novel.

While I’ve been focused on short stories, I have also been working toward writing novels.  They’re a totally different beast and require a new approach and a new set of tools.  Over the years, I’ve started five novels.  Three of these died around the 100-page mark of the manuscript, for multiple reasons.  At the end of March, 2014, I finally finished an initial draft of a YA novel, roughly 82,000 words.  In retrospect, I realize the premise relies a bit too heavily on the visual aspect of the characters and would work better in a format more attuned to that, i.e. television or film, so it remains unrevised on the hard drive, but a testament to the fact that I can do this.  This allowed me to start a second novel, an expansion of a short story I wrote a few years back, “The Call of the Sea.”  I really enjoyed expanding that, adding new characters and plot twists, and fleshing out the idea I had, initially.  Almost a year after completing “Masques,” (the YA novel mentioned earlier), I finished the first draft of Call of the Sea.  The manuscript came in at around 115,000 words, and I look forward to revising it and sending it off to publishers sometime in the near future. 

But first, I find myself debating about what a novel should be and whether I can find my voice before I hack Call of the Sea into kindling, to put it back together in an engaging narrative.

Each narrative form has certain strengths and weaknesses.  Short stories can delineate a specific idea with a hard punch to the gut that is a singular collaboration between reader and author, while films can expand on those ideas utilizing all of our senses to elicit an emotional response in the audience, and novels are able to delve deeply into ideas and characters, revealing truths and horrors, among other things, that we may never have considered before, or never considered in just that way.  (these are obviously reductive and simplistic characterizations meant only to demonstrate that there are differences between narrative media/formats) 


Novels, by dint of their length and the readership’s ability to translate the words on the page into images in their minds, are able to dig more deeply into characters than other narrative forms (though television is now moving toward that, with much of its more acclaimed fare, in recent years).  The strength of novels, for most people, is this excavation of the interiority of character.  It is what makes a novel a novel, in the minds of many readers and authors.  I have seen myriad arguments against novels that do not explore this aspect deeply enough, questioning why something so plot heavy is not, instead, created as a film or television show (two media looked down upon by snobbish readers).  And this is an area where I feel I struggle, with my writing. 

This raises a question:  is this the only way to write a novel?  The idea that one must adhere to this unwritten rule feels wrong to me.  Could that be a result of my feeling inadequate in properly fleshing out my characters, in this way?  That is certainly legitimate argument.  But it doesn’t end the discussion. 

I started seriously thinking about this interiority of character—a phrase I’d read, and heard mentioned, many times before—this past winter, as I read Rick Moody’s wonderful novel, The Ice Storm.  He manages to reveal this interiority of character through his evocative prose, and it was really a joy to read and experience.  It also, for the first time, really got me thinking about how I should approach the revising of Call of the Sea, as well as the writing of the next novel. 

Then I read William Gibson’s The Peripheral.  This is the first Gibson novel I’ve read, and it was great.  Something I noticed, though, was how short and quick his chapters were—only a few pages each, some of which were less than a page—and how dominated by dialogue they are.  It was an entirely different approach to the novel that not only did not flatten his characters, but also did not lessen my enjoyment of the narrative.  (yes, I know I have read many of these two—and it’s not a binary matter, except for my own argument—but I’ve never really thought deeply about it before) 


Reading these two novel so closely together, raises the question of what—to my mind—a novel is, or even has to be.  Must I dig deeply into the interiority of my characters through colorful, and insightful, metaphors and anecdotes?  Or, can I seek out my writing voice, in novels, without burdening myself with these unwritten rules? 

It’s funny.  I wrote this as an exercise, a way to get my thoughts (unformed, at best) out, in order to reach a definite conclusion about how to attack the next novel, and the revision of Call of the Sea.  When I started, I had an idea where I would land—leaning toward the William Gibson model briefly stated above.  Now, roughly an hour later, I find myself tipping back, ever so slightly, toward the former.  Both approaches, along with myriad others I haven’t fully considered here, are valid.  Obviously. 

The problem for me, as I see it, is that if I go with the easier path, I am allowing myself to become stagnant, even as I want to be moving forward.  I understand I have so much more to learn about writing—lots of known unknowns, or known unknowns, or is that unknown unknowns?—and I know that if I do not keep working to elevate my game, it will all be an exercise in futility.  So, where do I go from here? 

I’ve got a science fiction idea I want to pursue.  I think that’s the next big project.  Write the first draft of that novel, paying attention to how I’m writing, as I go along.  Focus on the interiority of my characters, to the best of my ability (knowing that a first draft is a s&*t draft and can be fixed in subsequent revisions), and complete that.  Then, with the experience—and, hopefully, the insights gleaned from that—go back to novel #2, Call of the Sea, and apply what I learn to the revision of that novel.  From there, who knows? 

Thanks for letting me ramble. 

-chris

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

WHAT IT IS: (writing) Year In Review


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

I planned on writing a three-part series of posts for this retrospective, actually got 2,000 words into it, at which point I realized it felt bloated and pretentious.  So, I did what I do with my stories, I took a hard look at what was written and decided to cut the chaff and get right to the damn point.  Here we go

I:  the raw numbers
Three years ago I began keeping track of my daily writing (1000 words a day was the goal).  It helped to have a quick, visual reminder of whether I was slacking or keeping pace.  I totaled 235,910 words that year (including first drafts, first revisions, and written critiques of other writers’ work).  Last year:  316,675 total words.  I planned to build on this, and the first four months of the year were great, as I averaged 30,000 words a month with only five days of no writing progress. 

Then, I hit the wall. 


But I continued writing, reaching 238,370 total words for the year.  Not what I aspired to, but still on pace with my first year of tracking.  Most of my “lost” writing days are clusters of one or two days, with a handful of three-day stretches, and only one four-day fallow period.  More importantly, or equally as important, I did send off more submissions this year—61 versus 53 in 2014.  Last year I had 53.  This year I sent off 61 submissions, and despite hitting that wall in May, still sent off submissions every month of the year.  With a handful of new stories to throw into the “submission rotation” in 2016, I should be able to build on this going forward. 

II:  the stories
This year I had one story published, “Ouroboros,” a science fiction tale part Neil Gaiman’s “Babycakes” and part Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Available in the anthology, Broken Worlds, from A Murder of Storytellers, you can purchase it here or get the chapbook, which also includes a short comic story written by me, at the Warrior27 store


I was also recognized for one of my stories this year.  My short crime story, “Silence,” which was published in last year’s issue of Needle Magazine was recognized as one of the 50 best North American crime stories for 2014 in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015.  That was huge for me, and has given me more confidence in my writing.  Maybe I am doing something right. 

III:  what I’ve learned
It’s been amazing to realize how much I did not know when I began writing seriously five years ago.  But elaborating on the lessons is a bit of a challenge, since each is so distinct to the story at hand, at that time.  But I am conscious of thinking about story differently than I used to.  My initial stories were like maps, moving from point A to point B to point C until I reached the end.  Now, I find myself not only thinking more about how to incorporate theme and metaphor into my narratives, but I am also unafraid of moving scenes around to evoke some feeling or reaction in the reader.  These are things I never considered just a few years back, or even last year.  Certainly, some of these insights have come from reading interviews with writers I appreciate, but, for the most part, they have come from sitting down and doing the writing.  It may be cliché to invoke the traditional author’s advice of “the only way to become a writer is to write,” but it is one hundred percent true.


IV:  looking ahead
The latter part of this year has been used to revise a lot of first drafts I’ve had sitting on my hard drive.  Come January, I plan on giving them all a strong polish and throwing them into the submission rotation, in order to try and capitalize on my “Best Mystery Stories” honorable mention.  I’ve also found myself working on my third novel (the first doesn’t work and needs to be adapted to a more visual medium, while the second will be revised later in 2016 for submission to publishers soon after), an idea that sprang from my subconscious and demanded to be written.  I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m enjoying the process thus far. 

I will also continue to track my writing in 2016, but I’m eschewing the word-total for merely noting whether I wrote or not.  I know I can hit my daily goal, but I’m dubious if that is the best way for me to proceed, at this point.  This is born of two things.  First, I found that many of my scenes would come in at 1,000 words, or multiples thereof, when I used that as a daily word goal.  Second, Joe Hill shared that he does not work toward a daily word goal, but instead works to complete a scene each day—if that scene is forty words long, then he is done after those forty words are typed, but if it is 5,000 words long, he is not done until those 5K are down.  Considering I still work full-time and have a family I enjoy spending time with, this seems the best way to go for me.  We’ll see how it works out. 


2015 has been a good year.  Writing continues apace, to the point where it is not just a habit but something I truly look forward to.  If I keep at this, maybe I’ll make something of it.  If not, I’ve also reached the point where I am fine with that too.  I have to write, there’s no way around that.  So, I’ll keep at it and see where it takes me. 

Here’s to 2016!


-chris