Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Super Important Return

The resurrection used to be a staple of the super-hero world, to the point that it was even given a label; the Jesus syndrome. In recent years death has replaced that-- we've seen the untimely demise of everyone from the notable like Captain America and Batman to the not-so-notable but well established Wasp but apparently the super-hero resurrection hasn't been entirely done away with. In the pages of Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds #4, Superboy made a return from the dark lands of death, back to the pages of comics. If this bit of under-the-radar news already caught you try this on for size: In August Superboy will once again star in his own comic series-- Adventure Comics-- which will be relaunched with Geoff Johns at the helm. 

First, I should mention that it's impossible for me to express how excited I am about this bit of news. I had up until now been considering picking up Dini's Streets of Gotham or Yost's Red Robin when they launched in June in addition to my new pull of Detective Comics but those plans have been thoroughly scrapped. Johns is undoubtedly the best super-hero comics writer out there today. I don't mean to say he brings more thought or intelligence to the table than the likes of Moore or Gaiman but the man knows how to tell some of the most absorbing, fun and all around entertaining super-hero stories. I followed his run on Teen Titans in trade, where in addition to being exposed to his wonderful writing, I was also introduced to Superboy. I never read so far as Superboy's death (though I do own it, and intend to get to it sometime) but I did really like the character. He was an realistic, adolescent Clark Kent-- Mostly good natured but entirely a teenager. It also helped that Johns knows how to write teenage characters; with complete respect for the personal issues they're facing. 

I couldn't be more pleased about Superboy getting his own title (although it seems like it may deal with the Legion of Super-heroes as well). He hasn't had one since the 90s, I believe, when he was wearing that awful leather jacket and red tights. The guy looks a lot better in jeans and a T, yeah? I wouldn't doubt the ill chosen costume from the 90s wasn't one of the contributing factors to the series decline. 

So let me break this down: Superboy is coming back to the spotlight, Geoff Johns is writing a new title, and the art is gorgeous. If you're not reading any Super-hero comics and you want to-- I'd suggest you pick this up when it rolls around in August. If I were a tad more bold I'd say I insist. While you're at it, you might want to look at Rucka's Detective Comics in June, too. Superboy is back, and goddamn if I'm not going to be reading that comic. 

Edit: So apparently I can't read. That's not too surprising because I barely manage to write coherent sentences. I initially thought Action would be relaunching for this project, but it turns out Superboy will be appearing in Adventure comics-- thanks to the commenter for setting me straight on that-- so there's that. I edited this sucker up to avoid confusion because apparently there are people actually stumbling onto my blog (Creepy). 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Comic Review Wednesdays - Ms. Marvel #38

Ms. Marvel #38
Written by Brian Reed
Art by Rebekah Isaacs

There's been a new Ms. Marvel in the Marvel Universe since the beginning of Dark Reign, and with the death of Carol Danvers she has usurped her title in addition to her mantle. Because Osborn's Avengers are more in the public eye then ever before, it's been decided that they need to have additional physical and psychological examinations-- the latter being a dangerous thing to put to ruthless killers and psychopaths. Norman forces Karla to be examined first believing her background as a psychologist will help size this examiner up. The secession proves to more than all parties bargained for. 

First, I should say that I haven't been a fan of the idea of a protagonist switch since it was announced a few months ago. Super-hero comics are different from other media in that they don't typically end until cancellation, and the result is that people get angry when their favorite characters die/go away because that's just not how that super-hero comics work. For many, the character is the reason for reading rather than the events (and sometimes even quality) of the book. Whenever a comic announces a changing of the guard it's most often not the best thing for sales, and God knows Ms. Marvel doesn't have the readership to lose. It's unfortunate then that after resigning to come into this issue with an open mind regarding the new protagonist that character should be one of the biggest problems with the issue. 

What I had expected from this issue was a simple exploration into the mind of the new Ms. Marvel-- that would have certainly justified the action-packed but ultimately irrelevant opening scene-- but Reed seemed to have different intentions. Once the psychologist has entered the picture, he's almost an instantly dislikable guy which on the surface seems fine given that he is essentially the antagonistic force of the issue, although it's jarring and (for myself, perhaps others) unwelcome turn of events, but once his motives are revealed in the issue things begin to get complicated. Because the examining psychologist is a ruthless, and malicious character the reader has an instant dislike of him, but his motivations flip the tables-- a move that would be technically brilliant if Reed had intended it. 

Reed's failure on this front comes from the thing that concerned me from the onset: The character we've followed for thirty-seven issues is dead! Carol Danvers, a character we grew to like, or at least remained interested in, bit the dust last issue, and Karla, this new Ms. Marvel, should be considered new to the readership. Yes, Marvel has a broad, interconnected universe in which Karla has been a player in for a long time but whenever you have a new protagonist and a readership that isn't necessarily familiar with them, you need to make that readership care about the new character to keep them on board

Here the facts: Karla is a murderous, manipulative, and downright mean bitch. That doesn't mean she can't be a successful protagonist, but it means that certain elements of her personality need to redeem her; she needs to be funny, captivatingly vicious, or something so that when a character I've disliked since the beginning of the issue reveals why he's doing what he's doing I'm not rooting for him! The fact that I wanted the antagonist force of the issue to topple Karla despite that I disliked him from the beginning says volumes about Reed's ability to make this character remotely interesting. 

Nothing in this issue made me want to continue with the new protagonist, and the events themselves were hopelessly dull. The most interesting aspects of the issue were at the very end when it began to get horribly violent. Why should I care about any of this? Is there anything captivating about a bank heist by generic villains, or hulk shaped manifestations? No. 

RATING: 3 out of 10 
This is the point to start reading Ms. Marvel if you're at all interested, but with an issue that's best aspects were some violent panels and interesting notes on the legacy of Ms. Marvel, I wouldn't recommend it. 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ruminating and Rambling on Kindle

We live in a time where digital conversion is the future, and with the publishing industry wobbling on the fence half the time there are a great number of eyes on Amazon's kindle. Kindle, now on in it's second iteration, is an electronic reader that's best described as an Ipod for books. On Friday, the New York Times posted an interesting bit on the kindle 2, and the quiet kind of effects, as opposed to earth-shaking ones, that kindle might have. 

Primarily, the article (amusingly and appropriately in the fashion and style section) reflects on what they call "literary snobbism", that is judging people based on what it is they're reading. As a shameless pursuer of this activity, it's something of interest to me. Generally speaking, people rarely surprise you. If you see someone in the book store, the section they're in and the book they're holding generally says a lot about them. The same can be said when you see someone reading in public; Perhaps if they were reading a favorite author or book you've been meaning to get to you might approach them to strike up a conversation but otherwise you likely wouldn't bother. To see someone reading in public is to know something about them without ever having to talk with them. It's as if their favorite movie or TV show was branded on their face. Kindle, with it's uniform white tableture appearance, threatens to make quick literary snob judgments obsolete. Would you approach someone if you didn't know if they were reading Nora Roberts or Clive Barker, or Charles Dickens? It's doubtful. It would be similar to walking up and asking someone what was on their Ipod. Sure, you can do it, but like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.

When I happen to see someone reading in public, I'm immediately happy, but also I'm not two seconds away from trying to find out exactly what they're reading and judging them accordingly. I don't necessarily feel that these judgements are important, except perhaps as the article notes, if you plan on using them as a conversation in with someone you find intellectually attractive but I do feel that they play a necessary part in how we build our relationships with others on a more subconscious level. For instance, you might come to know someone well enough that you talk occasionally, or even regularly-- If they go around wearing a shirt promoting the new Michael Bay movie while you've been a connoisseur of European art films for the last twelve years, you're probably going to avoid discussing movies unless proof of a more common interest arises. This is how people end up knowing each other for years without guessing they both have a passionate love for something: If all indications say there isn't a common interest there, the topic won't come up. If I see someone reading Nora Roberts, I'm not likely to mention what I'm reading because it almost certainly isn't their cup of tea which means that the conversation isn't likely to extend much farther beyond an exchange of  "Oh, Is it good?"

The bookshelf is another subject the article manages to touch on. I feel comfortable saying that my pitiful bookshelf, something I only started getting interested in developing about a year ago, is a source of pride for me. I may only have thirty novels on my "read" shelf-- not even quite enough to fill it-- but each one of those books is a badge of honor. They're each a small accomplishment, that when assembled together make up something more. What can Kindle do to match that? To my knowledge, not much. 

My landlord has been showing the apartment off to prospective new tenants in the past few weeks, and every so often when I'm gearing up to leave so that I won't be in their way, I wonder if any of them have walked up to my bookshelf and perused my choice of literature. It's an act that's not at all dissimilar to checking to see what a person is reading in public. Kindle has the power to take that away too. How does one look at an electronic library? After all, Kindle has the capacity to hold up to 1, 500 books. That's as if you read a book and a half each month for the duration of your adolescent and adult life, about seventy years. Even some of the very most avid readers would have difficulty filling that up in less then five years. You would never need a bookshelf again with that kind of space. 

Frankly, I liked being judged on what's on my bookshelf and what I read-- and I like being able to hold everyone else to that too. Books say so much more about a person then a movie or a TV does because a book requires that much more time and effort to get through. There is a kinship in finding someone who has read and enjoyed the same authors as you that isn't necessarily there with movies and TV because they're so much shorter, and easier to experience more of. 

The article concludes with writers talking about if they like the idea of their work being read on Kindle-- and those asked seemed fine with it. Why should they be anything but fine with it? All that's really important to a writer is if they're being read (and hopefully well-received). It wouldn't bother me if I was being read on a kindle, I'd be happy about that, but it doesn't mean I'm happy about all the other stuff that might come of them. I love books-- not just fiction-- but books. I love the physicalness of books, and the work it takes to build a collection of read books. I love hardcovers, and dust jackets and first editions, and paper backs so long that it isn't an awkward mass market. 

Some people ridicule those on myspace or facebook for identifying themselves by things that other people have created-- but the fact is, that's what we do as people. It's important that we know what each other are interested in because that's how we build our relationships. Judging people by what they read isn't just a literary snobs way of finding out about the person reading at the nearby table-- because sure as hell if that person is a Nora Roberts fan, and the person reading is too, a blossoming conversation is likely inevitable so long as said party isn't too shy. And why should Kindle want to mess with a beautiful thing like that? 

How do you feel about Kindle? Are you worried about the more serious effects it might have, such as turning printed fiction into a collectors market? Do you like the idea of people not knowing what you're reading unless they ask? Does digital conversation bother you at all? 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Comic Review Wednesdays - Detective Comics #853

Detective Comics #853
Written by Neil Gaiman
Pencils by Andy Kubert

In a surreal pastiche of the life and times of Batman's past, Bruce Wayne watches over his own funeral as both friends and enemies come forward and detail the death of Batman as they know it. Gaiman brings closure to the death of Batman in a work that draws parallels to Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? 

The comic begins in much of the similar fashion the entire first issue played out, that is recitations on Batman's death, but unlike in the first issue they lack flair and depth. Part of the reason for this is because unlike the first issue, that isn't this book's intent. The problem, of course, is that the stories of Batman's death were wonderfully entertaining and clever. As a reader I was disappointed that (at the very least) a third story of Batman's death wasn't included in the final issue. The glimpses of rather uninteresting stories are a poor substitution. Particularly once the guiding figure from the first issue is revealed, I wish that she had been given the opportunity to relate a version of Batman's death. The possibility for strong emotional connection for the reader at that moment, should Gaiman chosen to pursue it, would have been immense. That said, I have a sour feeling knowing that this is only a two-issue story, and that readers aren't privileged to some of the other possibilities of the caped crusader's death. After all, when will we get a chance to read a story like this again? 

From the start, Gaiman has been playing with the different iterations of the Batman characters of the past 70 years, and that seems to come to a head in this issue. With so many writers and artists touching the world of Batman in that time, it's unsurprising that Batman been pulled back and forth in a million directions in all that time. The happy-go-lucky Batman of the forties is different than Frank Miller's Batman, and his is different than the modern Batman. It seemed to me that Gaiman was using these different iterations of the characters, and their individual deaths to express that we as individuals die many times in our lifetimes as we change with age-- but at our cores there is something solid, and unchangeable to us. I think that Gaiman was wisely painting Batman as an Everyman figure, who like the reader will and has, changed many times in his life but was always fundamentally about perseverance, protectorship, and a testament of the human will. 

The scenes of Batman's death in this issue are lackluster, and Gaiman struggles at several points in the story to convey the ideas he wants to convey without seeming stilted or expositional. There are a small handful of pages like the latter and in the midst of an otherwise good issue they feel awkward and difficult to read. However, the end of the issue is still an emotional moment, and wraps up the legacy of the dark knight rather well. The issue may not be as captivating or interesting at the first part, but it is certainly worth finishing for it's sincerity of subject alone. 

Rating: 6 out of 10. 
It's worth finishing if you picked up the first issue, and does the caped crusader justice. However, it tends to fail to meet expectations. These will probably get difficult to find very quickly so get them now.  

Monday, April 20, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners Announced

A few hours ago, the 2009 Pulitzer prizes were announced at Columbia University. The Pulitzer prize, as if any one didn't know, is an annual award given as a token of accomplishment in three major categories: Journalism, Letters and Drama and Musical Composition. Each category also has numerous sub-divisions. The Pulitzer is an American award, and tends to favor subjects that deal specifically with American life. The winners also receive the lovely added bonus of $10,000.

The 2009 winner for Fiction was Elizabeth Strout's novel Olive Kitteridge. Kitteriage is Strout's third novel, and is about a woman unhappy with the changes that have happened in her small Maine town, and the world at large. At same time, Olive is unaware of the rather dire turns in the lives of those she knows. Through the novel Kitteridge "is brought to a deeper understanding of herself" and the novel "offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires." The two finalists that were chosen were Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich and All Souls by Christine Schutt. The former is about the struggle over land between Whites and Native Americans in North Dakota, and the latter about a harrowing work about a senior at an all girls private school struggling with a rare cancer.

Here is what makes me happy about this year's winners for best fiction: I know nothing about any of them! I had been looking up different projections about which novels might take the prize this year, and with new releases from Toni Morrison, John Updike, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates it seemed like it should have been a competitive year by all appearances. Yet, I've seen criticism that Morrison's A Mercy was retreading familiar territory for Morrison as an author. Updike's The Widows of Eastwick I've seen blasted a hundred different places. Anyone who's been reading my blog knows how I felt about Roth's Indignation. As for Oates' new book I haven't heard anything at all, but at the rate she puts work out, who can keep up?

Even if those four pillars of modern fiction had each put out stunning works, it's better to see less prominent writers win. After all, the Pulitzer is one of the means by which the greats of our time are chosen. The fact that the award was wasn't given to one of literature's favored sons or daughters also demonstrates how much harder it is to earn your metal when the playing field is level. It's rewarding to see that pieces aren't simply chosen by the committee because said authors did stunning work in the past.

The prize for Drama went to a play entitled Ruined by Lynn Nottage that vividly and horrifically detailed the Congo as a warzone proliferated by such terrible acts as "rape and brutality". The finalists were Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw, a comedy about familial and romantic relationships and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes' 2008 Tony winning musical In The Heights that "celebrates the virtues of sacrifice, family solidarity and gritty optimism." You can listen to a sampling of In The Heights on Youtube here. As for the others, I haven't ever heard of them, but that's bound to change now that movie producers are sure to have their eyes on them. I probably should know them considering that's pretty much my field.

If you're interested some of the winners that were annouced today you can look them up here.

Still, I'm curious. In taking a look at the previous winners of the Pulitzer, I noticed that there were a stunning few I have actually read. In fact, the extent of the list is this: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1961), The Killer Angels by Michael Sharra (1975), and The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006). How many Pulitzer prize winners have you read? Do you believe the Pulitzer is a good indicator of merrit? Do you feel compelled/want to read any of this year's winners? Have you read them?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Shelf Space: Struggling to Read what you Bought

On Friday, I finished reading a short story collection by Joyce Carol Oates and as soon as I was done, I eagerly approached my bookshelf to take a look at what unread books were sitting there waiting for attention. After about fifteen minutes of internal debate, and another five of discussion with my roommate, I came to choose Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys which has been on my shelf for about two years. Gaiman's novel won out over a stack of another eighteen novels and short story collections. Despite the large number of books I had to choose from, Gaiman was simply a best available choice-- the books I really want to read at the moment are no where near by bookshelf. 

The reasons for that are varied, mostly because I have too many books on my shelf already to hedonisticly go about buying more. The books came from a variety of places: collections and novels I didn't read for the classes they were assigned, bargain bin and closing sales, books I thought I'd enjoy but whose prose style turned me off very early on, and simply books that I haven't gotten to yet. In short, despite the rather large number of unread books on my shelf there's a stunning few I'm biting at the bit to read. 

I've attempted to adopt methods to cure this, such as reading two books on my shelf for every one I buy, or even alternating between shelf book and new book but ultimately it's a loosing battle. The lure of what I don't own usually ends up winning, and something else is bought and read or the shelf is added to. Just as I said last week, there is simply not enough time to read all of the books you need to, and even there were were who has the patience to read them all? 

I read nineteen books in 2008, and including Gaiman's Anansi Boys that's exactly how many books are on my shelf. Can I really be expected to read through my shelf without buying anything new? If not, When can I buy something new? What about that damn copy of Admission that is supposed to be coming in the mail?!

The whole situation is incredibly frustrating, and it's got me to write up a list of books I'm desperate to read, but don't have my hands on. Here's what I wish I had to choose from and why (Alphabetical by Author): 

1) The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster - Interestingly, this book trilogy can't be found in single versions any more-- which isn't so much a loss as they're all novellas anyway. I was turned on to Paul Auster when I was given the comic book adaptation of City of Glass (the first in the trilogy) about a month ago. The adaptation was fascinating, and fully aware that these things only tend to get worse in adaptation-- I'm keen on reading the source. 

2) The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker - This is the novella that would inspire the horror franchise Hellraiser (I think you can find Pinhead's resemblance on the cover, yeah?). Clive Barker's passages are near legendary in their ability to revolt the reader they're so gruesome, and that alone is enough to make me interested, but the fact that it also inspired the Hellraiser franchise, and is incredibly short while being one of Barker's more notable pieces of fiction helps seal the deal. Besides, I love creepy stuff.  

3) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - Growing up a comic reader, anything that's labeled as "Super Hero Deconstruction" is bound to catch my interest. A few weeks ago I was reading Superfolks, the granddaddy of that particular theme. Should a novel also be Pulitzer prize winning as this one is, it's guaranteed to make my pull list. It also doesn't hurt that I can still find it in hardcover, and that its cover is pretty neat. 

4) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick - Aside from having probably one of the best titles for a book ever written, this book is also the basis for the film classic Blade Runner. While, I'm not a Blade Runner fan (in fact, I've never seen more than 10 minutes) the book (and film) interests me. In addition to that Dick is the author of a book called The Man in the High Castle which was the first work to combine the past and the future to creature an alerted timeline-- similar to what I'm working on now. High Castle is on my pull list too, but I'm more interested in reading Dick's claim to fame. 

5) Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow - The first Doctorow book I read was his most notable novel, Ragtime. The second was a much less significant work entitled The Waterworks that I didn't like nearly as much. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction, and Doctorow is one of the most notable literary writers for that particular niche. Welcome to Hard Times is one of Doctorow's more notable works - I believe what made him famous- and hoping it will have the same feel that Ragtime did. Besides, the title is amazing

6) Jesus' Son by Dennis Johnson - I'm a huge fan of the short story, and I would prefer it to the novel if short story collections weren't such a pain for me to read through. One of my favorite writers is Raymond Carver, and amazon seems to think that because I like Carver, I'll like Johnson-- plus his collection comes wildly recommended. Johnson was also the finalist for the Pulitzer for fiction last year. I think that's enough to get me to read a 160-something page collection. 

7) The Stand by Stephen King - As I mentioned, I'm a huge horror fiction fan - I love stuff that's creepy and off-beat even if it doesn't scare me. About 4 or 5 years ago I devoured Stephen King novels; I probably read more than 15 of them within six months. One of the more notable books I never got to was King's magnum opus, The Stand. It's something I've wanted to correct for a long time but because of the novel's incredible length I never managed to.

8) Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell - If The Stand is the horror epic I've never managed to get to, then Gone With the Wind is the historical fiction epic I've never gotten to. Aside from that is spawned one of the most successful, and fantastic movies of all time-- Gone with the Wind is also one of the most significant works of historical fiction ever written, though perhaps a bit inaccurate. Another amazing title that's lost it's umph because it's so much a part of the public consciousness. 

9) Voices from the Fire by Alan Moore - Moore is a legend in the comic world, but only one of his works is a piece of fiction, in the novelistic sense of the word. The subject, and ideas in the novel are absolutely irrelevant to me, and I only have a vague idea of what the work is about. Really, the reason I want to read this is because it's Alan Moore's only work of prose. Also, that's not the whole cover. It's an awkwardly shaped book and wouldn't scale properly. 

10) The Right Hand of Sleep by John Wray - I recently read my first book by John Wray and I was very impressed. In an interview, he admitted that he wrote his most recent work to appeal more to younger readers (20s and 30s) because the fact that his reading demographic was much older bothered him, him being a writer in his mid-thirties and read mostly by people older than forty. Wray's two other novels are historical fiction-- and while I'm sure they're equally good-- this one has a better title and cover. 

Anyway, That's my list of books I'm dying to read. Actually, the list of books I'm dying to read is much, much longer than that but these are the ones I'm jonzing for the most. Is it wrong to want to buy more books even though I have so many still on my shelf? Do you have this problem? Are there any books you're jonzing to read? 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Comic Review Wednesdays - Oracle: The Cure #2

Oracle: The Cure #2 (Of 3) 
Written by Kevin Vanhook
Pencils by Julian Lopez and Fernando Pasarin 

The anti-life equation is scattered across the Internet in code, and promises to be able to restore "life" if all of the pieces are assembled. A desperate Noah Kuttler -- The Calculator-- seeks to collect the pieces to bring his daughter back to consciousness but his plans crossed paths with Oracle, Barbara Gordon. Unaware of the Calculator's goal and spurred into action by the death of an associate, Barbara begins to find herself in a whole lot of trouble. A battle for the cowl tie-in. 

The confusing description of the anti-life equation above is nothing compared to the complicated nature of the title's plot. In writing the description, it occurred to me that I don't have any idea as to what the anti-life equation really is despite it being the origin point of this entire story. Part of this is likely because anti-life may not be new to the Oracle mini-series [though it might be], but it's also because comic book writers don't know anything about science or technology. It's difficult to explain complicated ideas that exist, it's even more difficult to expose on ideas and technology that is complicated and doesn't exist. Within the few weeks since the first issue was released I've forgotten much of the details, the first of which was the made up scientific logic. It gets even worse in this issue. The comic spends much of its time talking, rather dully, about aspects of technology. Not only do most readers not care, they're also not likely to try and make sense of what you're written. 

Captions run rampant in this second issue, when I fail to recall them ever being present in the first. They're effective when necessary to the story telling, but generally horribly written; far too over the top and faux writerly. They hamper the pace of the story, and are never very interesting. I found myself wanting to skip over them entirely. 

It seems uncertain as to what Vanhook is building towards with Oracle, but it seemed that she was excessively violent and temperamental then she had ever been before. If I were asked to compose a list of comic characters who I believed to be quick to anger, Barbara Gordon certainly wouldn't be any where on it. These scenes felt uncomfortable, and far too much out of place even for a highly stressed Oracle. The captions seemed to mirror this mental state as well which further added to the oddness of the entire characterization. 

Most concerning is Vanhook's insistence that the wheel-chair bound Barbara Gordon flaunt her sex appeal. In the first issue the reader watches her take a shower-- in this issue she is hit on and nearly gang raped. Even the cover of the issue emphasises this idea by prominently displaying her cleavage, bra and mid-drift. It's almost as Vanhook is making a fetishistic appeal to the reader with a "Disabled don't mean undesirable" theme. A handy-capped person being sexual is fine, but Oracle's seductiveness has become a very prominent aspect of the work-- and the situation is far too uncomfortable. Hopefully this aspect of the story will have some profound impact on its conclusion, but generally it doesn't seem so. 

Rating: 3 out of 10. 
First issue seemed promissing, but it feels like all the bad aspects of it carried over while the good ones didn't. If you want to read Oracle, the first two issues are available on comic shelves. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hollywood seeks Spring Awakening

Earlier today I was making my daily website run, checking to make sure that no earth shattering news had hit the web in the middle of the night, when I came across this. It seems that Terminator Salvation director McG (Yes, that's really what he goes by) is interested in directing a film adaptation of the 2007 tony winner for best musical, Spring Awakening. 

Spring Awaking is a musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik based on the 1891 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. The story details the lives of a group of 19th century German teens as they struggle to deal with their budding sexuality in a society that refuses to discuss the topic. It makes the modern equivalent of sexual confusion look like a cake-walk. The characters each struggle with their own adolescent problems, most of which sexual, and generally one of the character's plights is likely to hit close to home. It's a fantastic, and tragic piece of drama which I expected to be adapted to film almost as soon I first heard of it about two years ago. 

Spring Awakening garnered a lot of attention for shaking up the theater world-- on a Broadway in which most musicals are high-budget and showy, Spring Awaking was a sober production that managed to capture both the highs and lows of youth.  I had the pleasure of seeing Spring Awakening shortly after its Tony win, while most of the original cast, including the leads, were still with the production. There are a number of reasons why Spring Awakening works so well, but one of them was that the songs weren't treated as busty numbers but rather as interior monologues. They reinforced this idea by putting the show on in a comparatively small space, and decorating the walls with pictures, mirrors, and other objects. The show didn't even have a traditional set-- the items were literally put to the walls of the theater space. Consciously or not for the viewer, this helped to establish that the production was largely taking place within the character's heads. 

This is going to be one the greatest challenges for the adaptation. The fact is that what works exceptionally well on stage, won't work "at all" on film, at least that's likely how it will be approached. A naturalistic set is going to be a given of the production, that's just how films are-- which already sets the piece miles apart from the stage production. The next issue is how you address the songs if you don't have the benefit of a surreal-like black space? Realistically, many of these songs take place in dark bedrooms and deserted hillsides, which has problems of its own. Now, what helped to bridge the gap between audience and production was that the show examined what everyone has to deal with in growing up-- a fact that I think was bolstered by the soft-gloved uncomfortably the stage production has. Seeing a man fake masturbation, or two teenagers faking sex on stage (People on the left see boobie, people on the right see man-butt. People in the middle are disappointed?) puts the audience on edge because the act is happening in front of them-- that uncomfortably helps to mirror that which the characters are dealing with. The gay kiss and the teaching masturbation scenes likely don't help put people at ease either. That immediacy, and connection is lost in a film translation. Filmed or photographed sex is everywhere-- but how often are other people doing it in front of you? 

My point is simply that a successful adaptation is going to be a tough sell. If done right, it's the kind of film that could pull for an Oscar. Those keyed in on the theater scene know that many best picture nominees start out as plays a few years earlier, like this past year's Doubt and Frost/Nixon.  I don't know very much about McG-- and the fact that his name is McG doesn't put me too much at ease. It seems that his career is built on three things: music videos, prime time teen soap operas, and action movies. IGN seemed to think that his experience working on OC might help him with this adaptation, but I'd have to say that it's a pretty big leap. A teenager may be a teenager, but Spring Awakening is a wonderful work of theater; the O.C. is a show no one will remember in twenty years. There is also a hell of difference between 19th century Germany and contemporary Orange County. I hope that his music video experience will help to shape the inner monologue aspect of the songs. 

The biggest problem I have with Spring Awakening hitting the inattentive mainstream is it's likely going to become fodder for stores like Hot Topic. The musical deals with heavy subject matter, particularly sex, death, and suicide-- it's also very much geared towards teens. Unlike Sondhiem's Sweeney Todd, which somehow managed to capture a youthful audience in 2007, the songs are already built for a younger audience, thanks to Duncan Sheik. They're a little bit pop, a little bit rock, and little bit folk. Let me cut to the chase, I can see the legions of idiotic masses lining up already, and happily singing the songs in their car a week later.  Spring Awakening shouldn't be the next emo musical, which it's likely to be pigeon-holed as, because it is anything but. The teens in the musical struggle with real problems, and unlike many of those who will latch on to it afterwards-- they fight instead of cry about it. 

In short- I'm worried. It's tough adaptation with a director I have little faith in, and all set to be loosed as a wrist-cutters wet dream. I suggest you check out Spring Awakening before the movie inevitably comes out if you haven't already- you can take a look at the musical website, and listen to one of the songs above. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

Free Books! I'm a Winner!

About a week ago, I came across a nifty little website called Goodreads. Goodreads is a social networking site that is built around reading and literature. You can keep track of and post reviews of the books you've read, as well as those you're reading and want to read. It's similar to facebook's weRead application. In addition to that, you can also answer trivia questions submitted by other readers, and unlike the facebook application, these questions are organized much more appropriately (and aren't all about Harry Potter and Twilight!). As with other social networking sites you can find your friends and keep them informed of what you're doing by updating your status-- which also incorporates how far along you are in the book you're reading. Generally, it's a really nifty site. 

I was keen on Goodreads anyway, but over the weekend I stumbled across another feature of the website (a little harder to find than the others). It was Goodread's giveaway page. On this page, publishers [and presumably individuals] are allowed to set up book giveaways, open to the goodreads community. A member simply clicks "Enter to Win" and fills out their information (name and address) for the chance to win a copy of whatever book listed they're interested in winning. The number of copies available varies depending on who is listing the giveaway, but seems to very from 1 to 50 with about 10 being the average. Readers have the opportunity to get some free books, and publishers get some word of mouth going on their new titles-- the fact that up to 1500 people enter to win your book doesn't hurt publicity either. 

I wasn't very optimistic about winning anything, and therefore not too hot on entering to win any books but to my surprise, I recognized one of the titles up for grabs. It was Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz-- a book I had seen a positive review for in Entertainment Weekly the week before. So with some trepidation, I joined the other 804 hopefuls for a free copy of the novel. I woke up at 7AM this morning, and had the pleasure of stating my day with an e-mail from Goodreads telling me I was one of the lucky 25 winners! 

Now, I still have some concerns about the entire giveaway set up. After all, what's to stop a person from just listing some random book to get a bunch of personal information? This isn't to say I understand what they'd have to gain, but I'm a cynical person. Maybe they plan to send me countless sears ads and Martha Stuart catalogs. I did some googling and found a handful of publishers talking about these listings on their blogs, so at least a number of them are genuine.  I feel pretty confident about the person who listed Admission, and I expect that I'll get my copy with no trouble at all but I still have that bit of doubt in me for safety's sake. You'll know if I got it if I post a review of Admission within the next two months or not. 

Anyway, I just wanted to pass on some information on Goodreads. If you have no shame and don't mind collecting clutter then you might as well make yourself an account and enter to win all the listings. After all, they save your information. If you enter one, all you need to do from then on out is click "enter to win" two times, and agree to the terms and conditions. Pretty nice, right? 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Required Reading & Great Expectations

Somewhere in the midst of its many seasons, an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was made in which Ray challenges the school board because he feels his daughter has too much homework. In actuality, he didn't want to go through all work required to help her it. As with sitcoms, a lesson was learned and things turned out just fine. However, in the course of the episode Ray is forced to admit to his mother that he never read Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Doris Roberts' long-island accented response has stuck with me ever since: You never read Tom Sawyer?!

There are novels, both literary and not, that the greater society simply expects everyone to be familiar with. For the most part, these are novels that are taught in high school when the playing field is generally pretty level. Those that don't fall into this camp are usually those that became popular in a zeitgeisty wild fire. These books don't necessarily have to be well written. Valley of the Dolls, The Di Vinci Code, and newest of the bunch, Twilight, come to mind. Oprah certainly must play a part in this in our society as well. For a long time I believed Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to a recent release. It turns out Oprah just threw it on her book club stacks and made it a best seller. It's actually from the 1985. 

To be thrown into a conversation about a book you haven't read is one of the more embarrassing situations you can find yourself in-- but it's bound to happen at some point. Even the most prolific readers can't manage to knock out all the books that society expects them to have tackled (and in my experience they often avoid literary fiction for crappy genre fiction). The simple fact is, that society-- that broad general term-- dictates that a person read more than they can unless they're actively pursuing those particular novels, or perhaps have had the very ideal conditions. For some people this is a complete non-issue-- the results of that approach are here.

As a writer, particularly a writer interested in fiction, the feeling is compounded in me. The number of books I'm expected to have read is more than that of the average person-- and justifiably so--  but what this does is further aggravate and pester. There is, after all, only so much time in the day, in the month, and in the year. Between staying current, reading what you want, and reading what you should a person is bound to only manage a minimum in each category. Perhaps faster readers have an easier time, but I only managed to read a pathetic 19 novels in 2008-- only one of which was released that year. To make matters worse, all of this is to say nothing of Non-fiction, Graphic Novels, Poetry, and Drama. 

Thinking on all of this made me decide to put a small list together of all the books society expects me to have read, and share my ten most embarrassing over sights. Not to delay the inevitable, here is the sum of my ignorance: 

  1. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling 
  2. The Lord of the Rings Series by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 
  4. Moby Dick by Herman Melville 
  5. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne 
  6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 
  9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 
  10. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 
Damn you, Doris Roberts! There is it. Maybe it's not the most embarrassing line-up I could put together-- there were certainly notable omissions -- but it's a pretty bad none the less. What are the books you're most embarrassed to admit you haven't read? 

Friday, April 10, 2009

Feeling Low [A Book Review]

A novel by John Wray
Published March 2009

Everyone knows that the world is getting hotter; global warming is a problem for the ages but William Heller, a sixteen-year old schizophrenic from New York, sees things a bit differently. To stop global warming and save the world, Will believes he must cool down his own body. To cool down his body, Will needs the help of a girl, someone to help him release his overheating insides, and loose his virginity. Despite the seemingly light-hearted or comic nature of the plot's synopsis, John Wray's newest novel proves to be a sad, dark and perhaps even frightening experience. 

As one begins to read through the pages of Wray's novel, there is an initial feeling of hesitancy in accepting the material as literary. The novel alternates its protagonists by chapter, an approach commonly found within work of genre fiction. It's a method used to spur the reader into reading faster, to compel them to read more chapters in a single reading period for the purpose of finding out what happens next sooner. Wray uses this method to his advantage. Chapters end at climactic moments only to switch to another character for the next ten to twenty pages before switching back. The added suspense this brings to the novel is a plus, but it's certainly not the only reason for this particular format. The novel deals with four main characters, William Heller, his mother Yda "Violet" Heller, his love interest Emily, and the detective responsible for finding him, Ali Lateef. Because of the nature of the characters, and the way in which their histories unfold, the novel absolutely must take this approach in order to succeed. As may be expected, not every answer can be found within the mind of a schizophrenic, and though some readers may find it nagging, using Violet and Lateef as narrators is absolutely essential to the completion of the picture. 

At times this air of simple genre fiction persists given the mysterious circumstances which begin to unravel within the novel. In the briefest of moments, the novel can often stink of these undertones but they serve to meet the nature of the characters. Additionally, Wray is an underselling novelist that perhaps needed to infuse these elements in his novel to ensure printing of whatever he might want to do next. It is a book that in this regard is a mostly happy marriage between high and low brow fiction. 

The novel is suspenseful, and easily keeps a readers attention, but at the time it slowly develops into a complex examination of the human consciousness, particularly an examination of the human consciousness burdened with the weight of mental disease. Wray writes William's thoughts as if they were his own. It is a consciousness that is flowing, logical in the way information is processed, and yet the thoughts are often incomplete to a reader but are accompanied by an understanding that they are complete to William Heller. The reader is never lost within the protagonists thoughts, they are never the muddy labyrinth one might expect them to be, even at William's lowest point in the novel. As impossible of a task as it seems, Wray has written a believable and navigable channel into a schizophrenic mind. 

Almost as impressive is Wray's ability to turn William's seemingly cute quirks and shape them into frightening aspects of his mental illness. The most effective of these he manages to do within a single line. 

Wray manipulates the reader in the same way a few of the protagonists are manipulated within the novel, and so when the narrative twists, and turns the reader finds themselves on unstable ground. The novel in itself is a checklist of positive features. It's protagonist's are captivating-- in William's case, often irresistibly likable. The plot is swift, and ever moving like the trains that make up much of the novel's setting. The thematic concerns are evasive but directly tied to William Heller-- and those which every person must consider. The novel is a force and the swift,  jaw-dropping final paragraph will leave readers speechless. If the novel is truly a coming of age story, as many of the back cover accolades suggest-- then it is one of the most disturbed and captivating to have ever been written. 


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Comic Review Wednesdays - Batman: Battle for the Cowl #2

Batman: Battle of the Cowl #2 (of 3)
Written by Tony Daniel
Pencils by Tony Daniel

The appearance of a new gun-toting Batman, the resurgence of the Black Mask and rampant gang violence between Two-Face and Penguin's organizations has thrown Gotham into a violent maelstrom. Tim Drake and Dick Grayson, along with the rest of the network, struggle for footing in an ever-worsening situation. 

Almost a year ago, with the release of the Dark Knight, there was a lot of discussion about what new Batman readers could pick up on the shelves to fulfill any jonesing they might develop because of the movie. This discussion was to some extent brought about because there were few accessible reader-friendly Batman comics at the time but also because Nolan's film was so unlike that which could be found in the comics. It depicted Batman's world as something that was not only dark, but viciously brutal. While Daniel's comic may have some of the familiar elements from events like No Man's Land, it also pulls inspiration from Nolan's most recent Batman film. 

By pulling in Nolan as a source of inspiration, Daniel is crafting a comic that is exponentially more thrilling than many of the others that come to the shelf. This particular issue is filled with an immense amount of plot developments and twists that are nothing short of astounding. The problem being that the developments in comics are temporal, particularly those which happen to fall between issues. Nolan's Batman universe has an air of finality to it, while comics do not. This isn't to say that what Daniel has written can't be final, it simply feels improbable. Additional hope (or fear, if that's how the events take you) can be gleaned from DC editor Dan Didio, who said before the event began that it would fundamentally shake up the Batman universe. Though, the man is trying to sell a comic and his word should be taken lightly.  The other, less significant downside to Daniel's source of inspiration is a lack of overarching (provocative, thoughtful) theme-- which is in no way essential to a comic but would have been further evidence of his influence from Nolan and greatly helped the whole.  Regardless of the permanence of the events, the issue is a violent thrill-ride in a Nolan-eqsue vain-- which is certain to resonate with Batman newcomers. 

Daniel still uses a large amount of captions, but the switch of narrator provides a greater interest to the whole, and they generally work more effectively. Also, Two-Face and Penguin finally make an appearance in Daniel's comic in this issue-- within the first two pages-- and are then dropped quickly without return. Between all that is going on in Gotham, it almost seems that Daniel has written himself into a situation as tight as the one he puts his characters into. Battle for the Cowl seems to be guaranteed to have some lasting effects simply because there is no way Daniel could write the conclusion to all of these events within a single issue-- whether he does or not will prove to be the metal of the finale. 

RATING: 9 out of 10. 
Quick, and brutal-- it has exactly the appeal that a layman might expect a comic to have. Daniel's comic seems as though it will have some interesting repercussions on Batman universe and has generally shaken off all of my previous misgivings. Issue 1 shouldn't be too difficult to find if you're interested in reading the whole. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Google Seeks to Adopt Seven Million Orphans

Google, the massive Internet search engine corporation, offers a wide variety of tools for Internet users to utilize. In 2004, google introduced Google books, a handy tool that allowed readers to examine full, and partial texts online. For some time, Google has been trying to expand what it is doing with Google books, and a few days ago the New York Times did some additional reporting on Google's plans. 

At its own expense, Google as been scanning in books from various libraries with the ultimate goal of creating a massive online library. The books Google is particularly interested in are those which are being called "Orphans"-- those which have been neglected by author or publisher and haven't seen a new printing in a very long time. This isn't to say that Google is interested in publishing books outside of the copy write hold-- quite the opposite. Google is interested in books that still have retaining copy write. Their plan is to endow themselves with 37% of the profit and advertising revenue, while the authors and publishers receive the rest. However, as Google moves ever closer to the court settlement to do this, voices of opposition begin to grow. They believe that Google will have a stranglehold monopoly, and the process will be as harmful as it is good. That is at least my understanding of their complaint. 

Within the past few months, I have often been thinking about the mark of success as it is defined by legacy. I believe it is the belief of society that if a person has contributed to society significantly than their legacy is assured. However, the more I see of the literary world, the less convinced I am of the truth of this. For instance, in the nineteen eighties, author Rachel Ingalls published a novella entitled Mrs. Caliban which a few years later would be called the greatest novel since WWII. Ingalls' would-be classic is currently out of print like much of her work, and the poor woman doesn't even have a wikipedia for her troubles. Another example would be John Collier, a novelist who came highly recommended to me by an older professor. When I began to look into Collier, I noticed that only two of his works (His Monkey Wife, and Francies and Goodnights) were still in print. One of them printed by the New York Review of Books which is doing an admirable job at bringing vanishing classics back into print.*

For art's sake, as well as for my own as a writer, I certainly hope that Google's initiative includes works of fiction and creative non-fiction. They are, more than medical, theoretical, or historical texts which become dated, the most important texts to be preserved. This isn't because the history contained in these other texts isn't significant, or won't be helpful in research but because today's society moves at break-neck pace. With the time frame for copy-write laws ever expanding, these lesser known authors will slip into oblivion before they're able to be included in Google's standard application or the likes of Project Gutenberg. It could well be argued that this removal from public consciousness is a kind of artistic Darwinism but what is important to consider is that even less than exceptional artists contribute something to the world through their influence on others. For instance, Robert Mayer's 1977 novel Superfolks is said to have been a source of inspiration for the super-hero deconstructions that followed it. Regardless of the novel's own merit, it is a link in development and to let it fall from history is to encourage gaps in evolutionary history, to go back to Darwin. 

Of the opponents of this initiative, who's position is never made clear by the NYT, I have to wonder what in their minds is so destructive about this. In essence, what is being described isn't dissimilar to programs like JSTOR or other archival resources. The sources included in the archive are paid for the material, and JSTOR is paid by the institutions that use the program. The argument that Google will monopolize the market seems foolish-- the article even mentions Microsoft's interest in similar set-ups. Writers' seem to have every opportunity to withdraw their books from the program if they wish to. So where exactly is the problem? Publishers and authors will be paid for a book they have neglected to draw money from for some time. A writers' work will endure, at least longer than it would if it were to simply fall out of print. Institutions will have access to an infinitely large collection of books, as will readers through them. I am normally very skeptical of any company spokesman who describes their activities as a win for all involved, but I truly cannot find the downside to this. 

This is not to say that I'm for digitization. I believe that books are meant to be held, to be contemplated, and to be cherished (besides, a book erasing doesn't sound nearly as horrific as a book burning). I do believe however, that tapable resources and legacies are very important. Otherwise, I don't suppose I'd see much use in this. Preserving information, and preserving art is instrumental for a society to move into the future. Google is providing an avenue for society to move father ahead, and until the opposition can present some stronger evidence against the plan--Amen to them. Perhaps those who are complaining can read something on presenting a case through Google books. 

*I cannot recommend any of these books myself save for Mrs. Caliban as it's the only one I've mentioned that I've had the opportunity to read. On that note, Caliban is a wonderful book and should be read by everyone. 

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Comic Review Wednesdays - Man-Bat #1

Man-Bat #1 (of 1)
Written by Joe Harris
Art by Jim Calafiore

Gotham is in chaos, and Oracle has requested the help of every member of the Batman family (The Network). Jekyll-and-Hyde scientist Kirk Langstrom wakes to find his wife Francine gone, summoned by Oracle's call for help. The self-conscious Langstrom ventures in the Gotham night to find his wife, and help in whatever way his bestial counter-part can. He manages to find more than he bargained for. A battle for the cowl tie-in. 

Stories are often made or broken based on the desires of the protagonist, and how those desires are portrayed to the audience. A character's want is how a reader, or viewer can relate to them. Most often, a character's desire is the vehicle which drives the story. Astonishingly, this is one of the aspects of storytelling in which Battle for the Cowl: Man-Bat fails horribly. It is not because Harris has failed to give Kirk Langstrom motivation, but because his motivation is scattered and contradictory. Langstrom is dealing with a failing marriage, presumably because of the effects and use of his Man-Bat serum. This would be understandable, but it seems that even Langstom himself doesn't believe in using the serum. At the very least he fears it. His motivations become even more convoluted when he seems hurt that he wasn't asked to aid Gotham. Langstrom obviously understands that he is an untamed force when transformed, and one that could quickly turn into an additional problem. Yet his hurt feelings prod him to drink the serum in order to play hero and "save" his wife (A member of the network explicitly asked to help) when he has no evidence that she is even in danger. Nothing in this issue logically calls for Langstrom to turn into Man-Bat, and therefore this issue is flawed at its core. Certainly, there is something wonderful about characters who make bad decisions because of flawed logic, but that isn't the case here. The motivations are simply contradictory, with great gaps of logic-- certainly not how a scientist of any variety should be portrayed. If Langstrom's marriage was suffering because of the Man-bat serum, why would he charge after his wife after ingesting it? 

Perhaps even worse is the string of extraordinary coincidences that occur in the issue. Characters go places with no reason or explanation, a batman villain just appears out of no-where, and even worse, the major shift in the nature of Man-bat also occurs without any reason whatsoever. The "plot" of this issue is essentially a series of coincidental events, the probability of which would be astronomical. 

Dialog balloons are oddly placed and confuse the reader. There are still several pages within which it is almost impossible to discern who is saying what. There are pages that wasted and could have been used to help connect the plot such as the first four pages. As mentioned above, Langstom's motivations are confusing and while the reader is told that his marriage is in trouble, the possibility of showing his marriage in trouble was a real one and omitted by the writer. It's impossible to care about Langstrom in this issue because of how clumsy the writing is (this also weakens the fight scenes) and the worst part of this issue is that if it had been written with some strength, it really could have been something worth reading. If we had seen Langstrom's marriage trouble, if we had a clear idea of what he really wants, if the villain hadn't been put in for no reason, and if the end had been as cerebral as I had mistakenly thought it was my first read through. It could have been good, and sometimes that's the biggest insult of all. 

RATING: 2 out of 10
The concept had potential, but the issue is trash. Don't bother reading this unless you're really interested in getting the whole scope of Battle for the Cowl. 

I apologise that this is day late, and that the review is a bit sloppy to boot. It'll be better next week! Don't forget to check the docket and let me know what you'd like to see reviewed!