Friday, August 12, 2016

On Writing --- Making Narrative Connections (or, do I have any idea what I’m doing?)



I write.  I’ve had a few short stories published.  One of these was chosen for the “Best American Mystery Stories 2015,” meaning it was deemed one of the 50 best mystery/crime stories published in 2014.  Not bad; I’m very happy with that.  But, when it comes to writing, do I really know what the hell I’m doing?  Or at least think I know what I’m doing?  Quick answer:  no. 

Certainly, I’ve learned a lot these past few years, since taking my writing seriously, and I know I’m a better writer, but does that mean I know what I’m doing?  Does that mean I can sit down and craft a story that will elicit the emotion and demand the engagement of readers, in the way that Hemingway could?  Hell, no.  When I sit down to write, I don’t have a clue how to achieve the ends I’m seeking.  I still feel like I’m rowing upstream without a paddle (and that, maybe, I’m like Wile E. Coyote and going up this stream even without a boat). 

That said, I suppose it would be disingenuous to state that I’m wholly lacking in ability.  It’s just that I’m winging it, laying down bricks without knowing if the cement I’m using is the right consistency.  Which I don’t think is a bad thing.  There are no rules—though there are plenty of people willing to share their writing rules with you—and that’s where the dynamism and excitement in a piece of prose can come from.  It’s also what brings about this trepidation and uncertainty I feel.  But, I’d guess many writers—even successful, working authors—would relate to this.  So, let’s run with it. 

I recently started draft one of a new novel, which is probably where all this unease comes from.  At this point, I still don’t know how to write a novel and don’t even have a good approach for the writing of one.  There are novelists who do a detailed outline, and though they allow for some leeway within the parameters of this framework, they adhere pretty strictly to it, so that they can be certain all the pieces of this puzzle fit.  (I am a planner, and this use of an outline is something that appeals to me, but I’ve yet to make it work for something as long as a novel)  There are other novelists who prefer to make it up as they go along.  They may have a general sense of where they are heading, with a few guideposts set out in the wilderness they must reach, but all the interstitial stuff is unplanned.  This approach affords these writers the opportunity to be surprised by their characters and to remain enthused about the work, which can be important when you give over months, or years, to a single endeavor.  There is also the added expectation that, if the author is able to be surprised in the writing of the novel, then readers will also be surprised.  (Though I’d prefer to have my map laid out before me, this is, generally, what I’ve found myself doing, when writing longer works)

So, damn wordy preamble aside, let’s get to the meat of this piece…

This new novel is a crime story about friends, with rough childhoods, who grew up together, and all that history, along with some of their poor choices in the present, come around to bite them in a major way.  I know a handful of highlights within this narrative, and I have a fairly strong sense of the main characters, but as far as a chapter by chapter basis—or even a  scene by scene basis—I don’t know what’s coming next.  And working without a net scares me.  Will I be able to write something worthwhile and engaging if I don’t even know what’s coming next and how I’m supposed to get to the “big scene?”  Who knows? 

But…

I do feel like I’m getting better with this.  My progress as a writer has been a series of incremental steps, little things I’ve come to understand, come to realize about the craft and about how I approach writing, that have proven, to me, that maybe I am cut out for this.  It’s a long game, and I need to be in it for that long haul or I’ll never make anything of it.  One of the major things I’ve become comfortable with is knowing my first draft will be crap.  I just spit it out onto the page, knowing that I can fix all the bad stuff with revising.  That, as Greg Rucka has said, is where the real writing, the real work, happens.  This is good; it’s freed me up to just let the first draft roll across my keyboard and be what it is, the framework I was seeking from an outline, that can be tweaked and refined and improved. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, concomitant my comfort with a horrific first draft has come my increasing comfort with the idea of having no net.  Which does not mean I just dive into a new story without any type of a plan.  For this new novel, I had a general idea of where the story was going and what I wanted to do with it.  I also wrote a lot about the main characters, long backstories that, for me, have been invaluable, because the childhood experiences of these characters dictate the choices they’ve made as adults, and the paths they will end up going down through this narrative.  Without these backstories in place, I wouldn’t have been able to start writing this book. 

Even with that, though, there is still a discovery process with the characters—not just finding their voices, but also, still, finding out who they are.  Not until I actually started writing the first chapters did I realize there was still more to learn about these people.  It sounds odd, almost foolish, but I’ve heard this from many writers, and the characters do take on a life of their own, once the writing commences.  It’s kind of magical, but it can also stop the writing dead, because you end up with characters you don’t know or scenarios you don’t believe you can write yourself out of.  One of the things I did, when I found myself stuck only a few thousand words into the novel, was to write a short story with two of the main characters, set in the past.  This seems to have unlocked everything, and has allowed me to forge ahead with the book. 

Finally (sorry, jumping around here, but it’s how my mind works, and this post—though ostensibly for public consumption—is really about me working through ideas and practices and approaches to writing, for my own self), one of the best bits of advice I’ve found, in recent years, comes from Joe Hill.  He wrote on his blog, I believe, that he only writes one scene a day.  That scene could take up only six lines or it could take six pages (or ten, or more).  No matter what the length, he focuses on completing that one scene.  I’ve taken that to heart, moving away from a word-count goal, and it has been helpful. 

Even when I’m working on a short story (hundreds of which Harlan Ellison wrote overnight, or during the few hours he sat in a bookstore window), this is an approach I take.  It extends the time needed for me to complete a short story, but I think it also makes the final product better.  With only a scene to write each day, I can allow myself time for other aspects of my life—like work, spending time with my family, reading—but it also means I have all the rest of that time for my subconscious to work on the next scene (or even to rework older scenes).  It affords me the opportunity to make connections that, I hope, will be enriching to those reading it. 

The most recent example of this comes with this crime novel I’m writing:

First, there were decisions made prior to writing ---
      -       One character, KERRY, grew up rich, and, at the point we start the novel, she has recently launched a campaign for State Senator. 
      -       Another character, DETECTIVE DESJARDINS, will have a story arc dealing with her crumbling marriage.

Next, we had the introduction of the Detective.  In order to give it some movement, some drama, some verisimilitude, I had Detective Desjardins’s superior, Lt. Glass, call her in to his office to talk about her recent trouble clearing cases and the change in her demeanor (all brought on by her knowledge—unknown to anyone else—of her husband’s infidelity ßone of the first connections made in the writing). 

Now, Detective Desjardins will become important later when she investigates the murder of a couple of the main characters—one of whom is the aforementioned Kerry—but I wanted to intertwine these characters even before that.  So, I had the Detective following up on a robbery report from Kerry and her husband, from a few weeks prior.  Detective Desjardins does not believe some of what is in that report, and, being upset by her marriage issues, decides to confront Kerry’s husband, who made the report, about these problems.  This gets two of my main characters together earlier than they might have and also lays groundwork for the main plot of the novel (this robbery report came up as I was writing, but the link to the main plot came to me after finish writing for the day ßsecond connection made). 

Finally, while finishing up the current chapter, I was thinking ahead to subsequent ones.  I knew what the next chapter would include, but wanted to consider the one after that.  And, while listening to a podcast or reading or something other than focusing on the novel, it came to me.  With the silver spoon mentality of Kerry, and the quid pro quo that can exist between civic entities and state legislators, it only made sense she would go to the police Lieutenant and complain about Detective Desjardins harassing her husband ßthird connection made in the writing.  It’s a natural, and it provides the antagonism (between the detective and the Lt.) that helps infuse a scene with its dramatic tension and engage the readership.

I don’t think I would have been able to make those narrative connections a few years back.  I’m certain I would not have made those connections without having the time between scenes to ponder what comes next.  And, if I’d had a set outline in place that did not include these series of events, I don’t know that I would have been able to find these connections and have them in the final narrative.  It’s strange.  I’ve always been a planner.  But maybe I need to embrace writing without a net—which it appears, from setting this down, I am working toward—and accept that it’s the best way for me to write. 

Sounds good. 

-chris


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What Comic Runs Can You Read Again and Again?




With the rise of digital comics and the ubiquity of comic collections, today really is a golden age for comic readers.  There is very little we cannot find—online, at a store, or through our library—to read and enjoy, from the early works of Jack Kirby and Will Eisner to the most recent collections from Kate Beaton or Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips or Colleen Doran.  There’s a plethora of comic stories out there, and more are coming out every week.

But with this wealth of comics, it can be tough to keep up with the newest books, even if one tries to narrow it down to just a handful of titles from specific.  Even with all the new books coming out, there are still those standout series in your longboxes, or on your shelves, that will call you back for a re-read and a reassessment.  These are the comics that touched you somehow—maybe it was your introduction to a particular artist or character, or just a great concept that was extremely well executed.  Often tinged with a strong dose of nostalgia, they’re the books that still give you that tingle in the pit of your stomach that takes you back to a time that feels more vibrant.  Like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time, these series make you feel warm and comfortable, and bring a smile to your face every time.  Here are three of mine…

G.I. Joe (Larry Hama, et al., published by Marvel Comics)—

This was the first comic book I collected and will always be an important title because of that.  I started with issue 23 of the series—“Cobra Commander Captured at last!”—and it was all engines ahead, after that one.  I collected up through #140 (featuring the Transformers, by that time) and backtracked to gather all the previous issues, either through reprints or the digests available at my local bookstore, and these comics rarely disappointed. 


The battle of good vs. evil and the cool costumes—and ninjas! Natch—were what initially drew me in, but it was the writing that kept me hooked.  Hama crafted some great characters, and their interpersonal relationships, along with the political intrigue inherent in the concept of Cobra and its battle against this covert and “superheroic” military unit, was exciting and engaging.  Though soap operatic, to a great degree, there was something more complex and more adult at work in Hama’s storytelling.  Sure, scenarios may have been outlandish and overblown, but it never felt like he was writing down to his audience.  There was a definite line between good and evil, in the comic, but many of the characters’ personal morality skewed toward a hazier shade of gray, which infused the stories with something missing in most of my other comics.  And, most important for me, though each issue contains the requisite exposition to bring newer readers up to speed, Hama was able to deftly weave this into the dialogue in a manner that rarely felt forced and, at the very least, was lyrical, which kept the exposition from stifling one’s appreciation of the reading experience. 


Finally, it should be noted that there were a stellar number of artists who worked on this series.  There was the legendary Herb Trimpe, Ron Wagner and Rod Whigham (two of my favorites on the title), Marshall Rogers, Tony Salmons, Mark Bright, Geof Isherwood, and even art from Hama himself, along with memorable covers by the likes of Michael Golden and Mike Zeck.  G.I. Joe has a great pedigree, and it’s a comic that, today, still holds up and excites the kid in me, when I sit down to read it.   

Sandman (Neil Gaiman, et al., published by DC/Vertigo comics)—

This was the series for me, when it was originally published, and it is what helped make Neil Gaiman one of my favorite writers.  The Sandman was unlike almost any other series I was reading, at the time (I had yet to compile a full collection of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing), and it hit me at just the right age.  I was in high school when the first issue was published, and was entering my senior year when I discovered the series, with issue #8, “The Sound of Her Wings.”  Gaiman’s concoction of horror and magic, ancient myth and a literary sensibility, spoke right to me.  And as the series progressed, the realization that he was overlaying all of these various stories with a single narrative that would see the main protagonist evolve, in as extreme a way as possible for the embodiment of Dream, only added to my appreciation of this series.  It’s a masterpiece, in my opinion, and one that rewards subsequent readings with new insights. 


Sandman hit at a time when the comic book publishers were just beginning to look at collected editions as a viable publishing avenue.  When this became the expectation—that the single issues would be collected into a lasting volume—something occurred with the serialization of many comic books—writers (or the editors), would plan storylines to be six issues long, allowing for a standard length collection that could be priced appropriately and sit alongside all the other six-issue collections on the shelves.  Thankfully, Sandman came before this—and I might argue that Gaiman would not have fallen into that trap, but who can say?—and the storylines within the comic spread across however many issues were needed to tell the story properly, whether it be five issues or seven or thirteen.  These were often interspersed with a series of single-issue stories, vignettes that felt like a nice respite between arcs but, in many cases, were later revealed as integral pieces of the overall narrative.  Yeah, I love this comic.


And, again, like Hama above, Gaiman was afforded the opportunity to work with a wonderful complement of amazing artists, including Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Mike Dringenberg, Sam Kieth, Kelley Jones, Jill Thompson, Marc Hempel, and many others.  These comics are not just wonderful stories, but they are also a feast for the eyes.  Some of the most beautiful comic art can be found in these volumes, especially the final one, “The Wake,” which includes art from Michael Zulli, Jon J. Muth, and the aforementioned Vess.  And don’t forget the covers by the inimitable Dave McKean.  Just, seriously, beautiful, wonderful, amazing stuff.  Seek it out if you haven’t already. 

Suicide Squad (John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Luke McDonnell, et al., published by DC Comics)—


The mid-80s is my “Golden Age” of comics.  It’s the point when I was still relatively new to comics and collecting, and all the series I read, at the time, just had an immense impact on me.  Primarily, I was a DC guy, with titles like the Flash, Justice League, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and such occupying much of my interest, though I did have occasional forays across the way, to Marvel, with the likes of Avengers and Captain American and Silver Surfer (ah, Ron Lim, you did the Surfer right).  But the book at the top of the pile, every month, was Suicide Squad


This was a comic that was unlike all the other superhero books I was reading.  A collection of villains, and psychologically suspect heroes, tasked by the government with the dirty jobs that the pristine heroes could not be expected to do (assassinations, prisoner escapes, covert ops in foreign lands).  If they were successful, and survived, their sentences would be commuted.  But…there was always the chance they could die on the mission, and that threat was very real.  With the likes of Captain Boomerang, Bronze Tiger, Rick Flagg, Enchantress, Gypsy, Vixen, Deadshot, and Amanda Waller, “The Wall,” along with a fantastic supporting cast, this was a book that surprised and engaged month in and month out.  There was real pathos and melodrama, thanks to Ostrander and Yale, and it was wonderfully illustrated by the likes of McDonnell, Karl Kesel, Geof Isherwood, John K. Snyder III, and others.  And, like Hama with G.I. Joe, Ostrander & Yale managed to layer in the exposition without weighing down the narrative with it, a task far harder than it looks.  I love this book, and if you were disappointed with the movie (or even if you enjoyed it) you should seek out these original stories, because they are some great, exciting, and fun comics. 

Now, what are yours?

-chris



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Love & Rockets, by Los Bros Hernandez

Spurred by the recent Previews episode from CGS, here are some thoughts on one of my all-time favorite comic series:  Love & Rockets.



Los Bros Hernandez--Jaime, Gilbert, along with Mario, at times--have crafted some of the most poignant, affecting, brilliant, and beautiful comics over their thirty-plus year careers. I didn't finally read L&R until the first giant omnibus came out, roughly ten years ago, collecting (to that point) Gilbert's Palomar stories. They. Are. Awesome. And, I would argue, the best way to introduce yourself to L&R. More soap operatic, telling the stories of myriad characters in the small, Mexican town of Palomar, Gilbert's early work in this series is more assured than his brother, Jaime's, whose earliest issues suffer a bit from strange anachronisms and a tendency to be wordy with his dialogue.

Which isn't to say the early Locas stories from Jaime are not enjoyable. He quickly finds his footing and launches into one of the most real friendships in all of comics, and, it could be argued, one of the best in all of literature. Hopey and Maggie fall in and out of love, struggle through hardships together, and apart, while continually moving forward, seeking answers about life and what it all means. (and if that sounds like hyperbole, there certainly is a pinch of that included, but, for the most part, I'd argue my description stands up)

The real strength of this series comes from its longevity. Jaime and Gilbert have taken each of their collections of characters and allowed them to grow old, to have families, to lose friends and loved ones, discover new friends, have adventures, feel pain and sorrow, and love and joy, and experience lives that feel genuine, feel real, feel lived in. And their age has not diluted their storytelling abilities on bit. One of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking moments came a few years ago, in Jaime's "Browntown," which was built on the stories that had come before. It was an amazing piece of comic storytelling and comic art, that could not have been done without the accumulation of stories, over the prior decades, that came before. It was an exclamation point, driven into readers' (or, at least, my own) heart(s), and it's one of those handful of comics stories that has stuck with me, since I read it.

But it's not just their storytelling. Jaime & Gilbert are two of the best cartoonists working today, and two of the best ever, in my opinion. Their ability to evoke emotion and replicate body language utilizing an economy of line is beyond impressive. This, to me, is some of the most beautiful artwork I've seen in comics. Really incredible.

Now, I know it can be daunting to start a book that has this much history (see: Cerebus). But Fantagraphics has a page that can help you find where to start reading, here.
And the collections they've done for Gilbert & Jaime's work are great--a good size, with a healthy collection of stories, at a good price. Well worth picking up, here. Or on Amazon or at In Stock Trades. Or, if you want, see if your local library can request them for you through their Interlibrary Loan department, which allows libraries to borrow items from other libraries, across the country.

These are, seriously, some of the best comics ever made. Do yourself the favor of seeking them out and reading them. Now.

-chris

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 Chadwick, 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 murderers’ 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.