Saturday, July 30, 2016

'S Prose, Not Superheroes: Recently Read Real Books

I'm going through my second childhood--only this time, I'm reading prose fiction instead of wasting my time with dumbed-down ol' comic books!

Here's a snooty selection of what I've read over the past year or so, in no apparent order:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling--I read all seven books and watched all eight DVDs in eight weeks in the summer of 2015. I'm a late adopter--having worked at Border's in the early 2000s and probably handled (conservatively) some 10,000 individual copies of the various HP editions through the end of 2005 as a part-time bookseller--I never read a single sentence at the time, being exclusively interested in non-fiction (which lead to me returning to college for a decade-long stint). I've read pp. 317-421 of The Prisoner of Azkaban a total of four times--it's the most brilliantly orchestrated piece of storytelling I am aware of in any media.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins--starts out very strong, but she's too committed to her three-act structure to see that it's going off the rails (and becoming mind-numbingly repetitious) by the middle of Catching Fire. Should have followed her instincts into the political satire of 1984 and Brave New World, and fattened up each book as she went, like Rowling. Hope she will do a grown-up dystopian exploration of this world someday.

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos--a somewhat coldly modernist experiment, would have been better if he had followed the actress who is the de facto main character more thoroughly. Just the coolest title of all time, and no wonder Tim Hauser named his vocalese quartet after this book--even though the actual Manhattan Transfer was a completely unglamorous railroad stop in the middle of New Jersey swampland (as the book briefly depicts)--not the long-lost romantic transit hub a la Pennsylvania Station Hauser must have imagined.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Bloom--mid-century secular suburban assimilationist propaganda hearkening back a lost Golden Age when we all watched three networks and ate Campbell's Soup. Margaret's obsession with "developing" is a literary theme I completely missed as a boy Marvel Comics reader.

An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve--a literary memoir (full book review forthcoming, so I don't want to spoil it), but also about a girl's life, and its aftereffects in adulthood. Moving and brilliantly constructed.

City of Ashes and City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare--the faux-glamorous pseudonym should tell you all you need to know. I read books one and four in the Mortal Instruments series after seeing a young reader buying a stack of them at B&N. The Shadowhunters series (pleonasm, anyone?) tries to conjure the feeling of the later Harry Potter books--kind of a junior Order of the Phoenix--with steamier teens. Too many build-ups to clever ideas that go nowhere, like the Institute and the restaurant where you can order werewolf cuisine--Rowling would dramatize these ideas memorably, not just have them pedantically explained to Clary by unlikely character she meets. The fourth book shows some improvement, at least insofar as generating more compelling cliff-hangers.

The Barsoom Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs--I read the first three John Carter books on my Nook (they are in the public domain on Project Gutenberg), and really was astonished. This guy is one hell of a writer, albeit politically and socially regressive. A nineteenth century American sensibility that could have only been formed between the Civil War and WWI. Reading The Cave Girl now, a much choppier work (but it seems to be getting better as it goes along) that I suspect was an earlier manuscript rejected before the success of Tarzan of the Ape and A Princess of Mars allowed ERB to unload it on a pulp magazine. All his main themes are present, albeit in primitive form--particularly the effeminizing effects of civilization, which apparently can always be reversed by a quick trip to the jungle.

End of Days by Susan Ee--unfair to start with the third book of a trilogy, I know. Aside from the complete trivialization of the incredibly compelling Watcher Angels material from the books of Enoch, I agree with the critics that it seems rushed and first-drafty, particularly in the second half. I couldn't tell if characters were in cars, flying, or water-skiing, but at least it was kinetic. Like Clare, suffers from rather wan humor.

About Harry Towns by Bruce Jay Friedman--the entire second-half of a lifetime takes place in the span of about ten years in this cocaine-saturated, Playboy-era satire of Hollywood and New York. Why isn't this guy more widely read today?

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern--not as good as the critics would have it, but well-written and compelling. Not much of a contest ever really materializes between the two magical protagonists, but that doesn't matter because it's such a thoroughly realized world. Would like to read more.

Time and Narrative (three volumes) by Paul Ricoeur--okay, not prose fiction, but a work of literary theory that, along with Harry Potter, forms the most important educational experience I've had since grad school. I wonder if Rowling has read it--not that she has to, she already seems to have internalized its lessons of Aristotelian muthos or "emplotment."

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Recently I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here is a running list of the links:

Forthcoming, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology)
An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve (memoir/psychology)

July 10, 2016
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult)

March 6, 2016
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism/memoir)

September 20, 2015
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture)

December 27, 2014
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel)

December 14, 2014
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel)

September 7, 2014
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Whirled Building: The Working Out of Megaton Man's Megaverse

This is an unpublished page from 1984. Megaton Man #1 had already been accepted for publication by Kitchen Sink Press in April of that year, but a series of hang-ups with printers and promotion would delay the release until December. Over the spring and summer, asked if I could turn the one-shot into an ongoing series, I struggled to envision a series for the satire, producing dozens of stream-of-consciousness pages, none of which added up to a coherent whole. Later that summer, on a nice sunny day, I went for a long walk around Midtown Detroit (from my off-campus apartment near Wayne State University around the General Motors and Fisher Building in the so-called New Center area, rumored to be Ground Zero in case of Soviet missile attack), and got the idea for the second issue, which I drew from scratch in about five weeks. Of the 64 aborted pages, several made it into subsequent issues as set pieces and dream sequences. Other pages, like the one here, penciled in a manic emulation of Neal Adams, was never inked, but many of the narrative ideas were later redrawn, and still resonate in the new Megaton Man material I have been dreaming up!

Fans familiar with the original series will recognize the landing scene from issue #9, when the Partyers from Mars finally land in Megatropolis Central Park, albeit in a more primitive form. Uncle Farley, the Golden Age Megaton Man appears, along with Stella Starlight, Megaton Man's estranged girlfriend, now emphatically pregnant. While Stella appeared in civilian clothes in the published comic, here she appears as The Earth Mother, a persona she will not take in the Megaton Man narrative until Bizarre Heroes, the series I self-published in 1994 through 1996. The Devengers also appear (they appear for the first time in Megaton Man #8), except that the Angel of Death (not penciled in yet) is referred to as the Corpse Lady. In fact, Bad Guy hadn't even appeared in the series yet (he would not appear until #3), and yet here he is already a long-time nemesis of Megaton Man, and turning into Good Guy! Captain Androgynous has never appeared in any of my comics.

What is remarkable is how consistent my ideas have proven to be over the years. This piece of art would have been buried in storage when I was drawing Bizarre Heroes ten years later, and essentially forgotten, and yet the Earth Mother persona still resided in my imagination, her basic costume design (a kind of maillot unitard with gloves and boots) remaining intact, although the logo I would later give her looked more like the symbol for ecology. Colonel Turtle looks like an actual in this first draft; later he would be decidedly a middle-aged guy in a cumbersome costume.

There have been numerous other instances over the years of making notes, sketches, and misfired pages, and either misplacing them or simply never referring to them again, and yet when I finally get to putting an idea in a comic book story, I somehow manage to realize the original idea in most of its main its essentials, Later, when I unearth the original conception, I am surprised at how consistent my imagination is. I have also found this to be true for particular characterizations of such characters as Rex Rigid and Pamela Jointly. When I've written them into new storylines, I think I'm having them behaving in new, selfish, or malevolent ways, but then I go back and reread earlier comics, and realize that that has always been a part of their conception. It is reassuring to know that when I imagine something and establish it as "real" in my mind, it seldom gets lost just because I can no longer locate the original note or sketch.

As for this page, the new graphic novel I am working on, Megaton Man: Return to Megatropolis, still draws upon themes established in my mind practically when I came up with the name Megaton Man. Nuclear terror, psychotic machismo, extended non-traditional family arrangements, and in fact Simon Phloog, the son of Megaton Man and the Earth Mother, are all intrinsic elements in the ongoing storyline. Rest assured that as I have been elaborating new storylines (and endeavoring to retroactively World-Build), I have reread all the old comics so as to preserve established character history, which is how I've realized how consistent my notions are. (Or maybe I just don't have as many new, original ideas as I thought I had!) Previews of this new material can be seen in abundance almost as it is coming off the ol' drawing  board on the Megaton Man blog, with further publication details to be announced soon!