Saturday, December 15, 2007

Graphic Novels that I Dug

Wow! I need to post more often! Grad school really sucks up any writing time that I ever had. The next few weeks should see a few more posts as I'm between semesters.

This is part of my final project for a class on Young Adult Literature that I just completed. Links are for wimps, look these up on your own!

Top 10 Graphic Novels for Adolescents
(and for us old folks, as well)

10) Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan
This is the story of a pride of lions who escape from the Baghdad zoo after it is bombed by the American military. The lions encounter a number of other escaped animals as they try to get out of the city and recreate their society. The tale parallels the lives of many people living in Baghdad, dealing with the destruction of their cities and trying to make the best of the new society that began to spring up around them. Strong themes of responsibility to others (including members of other social groups, personified by different species of animals) versus the need for self preservation permeate this graphic novel.
Contains some violence and some minor adult language.

9) Hellboy: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
Hellboy has been a recognizable superhero detective for over a decade. Especially after the release of the popular movie a few years ago, Mignola’s character has made his way into youth culture. This is the collected first few issues of the original Hellboy series. The character is a demon turned supernatural detective. He fights Nazis, witches, fairy tale monsters, and Rasputin himself. Relatively light on violence, the stories pull from a number of different resources, especially Irish folk tales and science/fiction from the early 1950s. The book contains many sympathetic characters, including some of its major villains and deals with Hellboy’s struggle to use the legacy of evil that he has inherited to serve and protect.
Contains references to the occult and some minor adult language.

8) Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman
These two graphic novels did wonders to get the genre recognized within literary circles. The two books tell the story of a man hearing the tale of his father’s experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust. All characters are portrayed as different animals depending on their nationality. Spiegelman does not shy away from brutal depictions of the attempted extermination of the Jews by the Nazis or the extreme (and sometimes troubling) lengths that the victims could go to in order to survive.
Contains some disturbing scenes of violence and some racist/anti-semitic language.

7) WE3 by Grant Morrison
This is a collection of a three issue mini-series from a few years ago. Three animals (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) are outfitted with cybernetic exo-skeletons and advanced weapon systems by the U. S. military. They are trained as assassins by a doctor who lets them free when she is unable to reconcile the needs of the military with cruelty to other living things. The three animals make their way across the country, trying to escape their human captors. The military begins pursuing them to save an investment in money, but eventually realizes that they must also protect the innocent humans that the animals encounter. This story explores the moral grey area of animal testing and the dangers that weapons can be to innocent bystanders.
Contains numerous scenes of violence.

6) Blankets by Craig Thompson
Thompson tells a semi-autobiographical story of growing up in a conservative Christian community. Two middle-school aged boys learn to negotiate the desires of their parents with their own needs for self-expression and their budding interest in girls. We follow them from their hometown to a Christian Youth summer camp. Thompson deals with issues of family expectations, accepting the faith of others, and determining one’s own faith.
Contains some adult language and frank (though well-balanced) discussions of the validity of conservative religious upbringings.

5) Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Web comics are very quickly becoming a major fad within a number of age groups. This is a collection of the first series of publications by Jeff Kinney about a middle school boy making his oblivious way through life. The dialogue and stories are amazingly realistic. Kinney writes like my 10-year-old brother, and his character is completely clueless. The light humor is used to portray the awkward middle school years and children’s places in the family and the community. Students who enjoy this book can read weekly web-published material containing the same characters and stories.
Contains some comical mischief.

4) Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loab and Tim Sale
Everyone knows Batman. Here we have a reprint of an early 1990s story arc that retells the origin of Two-Face, one of his better known villains. This is a much more direct detective story than the typical Batman fare. Loab and Sale spend much of the story exploring the various villains of Gotham City, often portraying them in a much more humanized light than in the past. We see Batman reach out to a few of them out of charity and a desire for companionship. We also see him kick some serious butt and drive around in his flashy car with his flashy weapons. The plot is very intricate for a typical superhero mag and actually expects the reader to pay attention to details and think.
Contains some violence.

3) Violent Cases by Neal Gaiman
This beautifully (and I mean BEAUTIFULLY!) illustrated graphic novel is set up as Gaiman explaining a strangely fractured memory from his early childhood. Through a serious of flashbacks, Gaiman pieces together memories of a doctor who strangely resembles Albert Einstein (and tells great stories about Al Capone), his father (always depicted from the shoulders down), and an amusing group of children (who occasionally pay some attention to the protagonist). The story delves in the unreliability of memory and the way that adults sometimes overly romanticizes their younger years as children roll their eyes at yet another story of “the good old days.”
Contains some mild adult language.

2) Zero Girl by Sam Keith
Playing around with the idea of the teenaged superhero, Keith tells a story about an outcast girl who suddenly realizes that she has some strange super powers when she is in contact with round objects. Using power derived from the proximity of abandoned tires and drink coasters, she battles the bullies at her school and nurses a secret crush on one of her teachers. The story eventually becomes a mystery to determine the source of her odd powers and the context of memory of blood on a circular tea doily. Keith’s story deals with the trials of growing up, the pain of unrequited (and immature) love, and the simultaneous desires to belong and to stand out.
Contains some violence and some adult language.

1) Bone: One Volume Edition by Jeff Smith
Bone is the story of three cartoon cousins who get run out of their hometown and find themselves in a Lord of the Rings inspired fantasy land filled with dragons, knights, and old women who race (as in see who can run faster) against cows. The quirky story has a huge cast of characters and a very unique art style that blends cartoon-y Sunday comic strips with more detailed graphic novel styles. This epic and imaginative story deals with friendship and responsibility, and the consequences that secrets can have on families. The story gradually blooms from the zany exploits of a group of cute, fuzzy animals and humorous characters to a pretty serious tale of adventure and children growing into their (initially) unwanted responsibilities.
Contains some scary scenes.

Friday, August 17, 2007

That Cyberspace Dude (and a whole lotta parentheses)

So I have this gigantic chip on my shoulder about having the coolest wife in the world. For real. She just started skateboarding to work. We play Dungeons and Dragons every weekend with our friends. She reads comic books. I am the winner of the geeks!!!

Yesterday Anna (yeah, coolest wife in the world) and Erik and I went to see William Gibson (you know, that writer guy who coined the term Cyberspace) talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He started out by reading most of a chapter from his new book, Spook Country. While I generally hate hearing writers reading their own work, this wasn't the worst thing in the world. It was nice to get a sense of the cadence of Gibson's voice before the Q and A started. For a man who writes such fast paced fiction, he talks very slowly in ridiculously long sentences. Hearing him read first was a good primer.

The half-hour question session was only enough time for three questions (HA!). Gibson used the questions to segue into a bit of a lecture on the role of science/fiction in describing the present. He talked for a bit about how fiction set in the future is limited by the culture and technology of the present. He went on to discuss the actual length of the present - He claims that Wells had three years of "present," he had three months when he started writing in the late seventies, and we are now at three hours - and how this makes writing sci/fi a bit more challenging now. He doesn't have as much time to take everything in and digest it as he used to. Now the world changes drastically in the few months that it takes him to actually write a book. Pretty neat idea.

I also liked that he and the woman who introduced him both mentioned his actual lack of knowledge about the technology that is so central to his books. He claims to get by on learning contemporary language and slang and then letting the reader fill in the blanks on their own. I like the way that "decks" and the devices that connect people to cyberspace (in Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive) are never actually described and yet, as a person somewhat (very somewhat) versed in computer usage, I have an idea of what they must look like. I imagine that, had I read the books when they were first published in the early to mid eighties, I would have a very different view of the look of the technology. This makes the books continue to feel feasible while Arthur C. Clarke's supposedly impressively painstakingly (adverbs, deploy) researched 2001: A Space Odyssey seems pretty dated these days. Believable language over believable science. Also don't ever unambiguously (yeah, more adverbs!) date your stories. Lessons learned with a vengeance (and, BOOM, a cliched adverbial phrase, fools!).

William Gibson has a blog.

William Gibson also has an incomplete bibliography.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Collective Guilt is Scary

Here is an interesting article about Dr. Pou, who lived and worked in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. You probably heard about this case already.

I am not going to pass any moral judgement on her handling of her patients in a time of extreme crisis (or maybe I am but I'm just going to couch it in sarcasm). I'm sure they were in horrible pain and probably would have died miserable deaths. I'm also sure that the patients and their families are grateful for Pou's treatment and the medical decisions that she made. I'm sure that I would want her to do the same for me if I were elderly, terminally sick, and stuck in a powered down hospital during a natural disaster while the government sat around patting each other on the backs. I'm sure that I am completely OK with the decision to not prosecute her or the handful of nurses who worked under her.

That said, I'm also sure that she, according to medical law, is guilty of four counts of homicide.

As a country we feel incredibly guilty about Hurricane Katrina. We are angry at the government (particularly FEMA) for not doing more to help the people of Louisiana both before and after the disaster. We are saddened by the destruction of a large and romanticized city. We are horrified at the continued conditions of New Orleans and the surrounding areas.
The disaster highlights disparities in our treatment of people based on race and class. We north-easterners get to face our ugly regional prejudices. You know this already.

You also know about our good buddy Dr. Kevorkian who has become a medical pariah for doing what Dr. Pou did (though under much less duress) and the case of Terri Schiavo who had all sorts of people who never even met her alternatively crying and breathing fire over her assisted suicide (or pick your favorite term). Why do we hate the doctors of these two cases and want to love and protect a "Katrina Doctor"? The law isn't supposed to take situation into nearly that much consideration. All three are cases of doctors killing patients (or helping patients die with dignity, or pick your favorite phrase).

We can't have it both ways because we feel guilty as a country. If the medical community wants to say that Pou was acting responsibly in the best interest of her patients and the American public wants to look on her as a martyr for the cause of human compassion, maybe we should rethink our medical laws. Maybe many of us think that doctor assisted suicide isn't a crime. Maybe the law should reflect public opinion. If the law is supposed to be consistently applied to all cases it should be a law that can be consistently applied to all cases, even when we feel guilty (Pou) or the doctor is creepy and funny looking (Kevorkian), or we saw our favorite talk show host get all blubbery and emotional (Schiavo).

We either need to look past our guilty consciences or change the law. Just pick one.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Not Quite Mecca

Anna and I just got back from our vacation on the west coast. We did plenty of camping, sightseeing, eating, etc on our way from San Fransisco to Vancouver. One of our stops was in Seattle at the Science-Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The three-or-so year old museum shares a building with some kind of music experience project something-or-other that seemed to be a giant Hendrix memorabilia clearinghouse. It's pretty obvious that the Sci-Fi museum is young and still in the early stages of developing and diversifying its collection, but we were able to see some pretty neat displays.

The museum starts you off in a cluttered room hosting a number of displays that give various overviews of the media genre. The Hall of Fame contained all of the satisfying names of writers, directors, and artists, but was, again obviously a very young display. They were still inducting the Gene Roddenberries and the Ridley Scotts. The sci-fi and history display was equally predictable and young feeling. The display had parallel timelines showing historical/scientific/cultural events and events specific to science fiction. While the display tried to draw connections between, say, the Cold War and Orson Wells' War of the Worlds radio fiasco, the timelines were not mapped on to each other well and both lacked satisfying explanations. Still a work in progress.

What I really dug about the museum were the constant nods to fandom. Many of the costumes on display were created for and worn at conventions by fans. The museum also had video loops of various sci-fi celebrities describing their experiences at conventions, both as fans and as personalities. The underlying message of these displays tended to be that the genre exists only because of its rampant fans. Certainly its us fans who pay to visit the museum, and who declare our favorite books and movies to be somehow fundamentally different from the rest of speculative fiction. We also love to hear about how wonderful we are and how much our idols think we rule. Nice marketing work.

I was also into a display that presented science fiction as a number of different "what if . . ." to be explored. It listed some relatively popular stories and boiled them down to a simple question. Wells' "The Time Machine" became "What if a man went to the future and got stranded?" Pretty neat, and it seems to work well enough and it's fun to figure out the questions for various other stories.

My school is letting me teach a sci-fi class spring semester of this year and I am trying to figure out a way of using this idea of boiling down to "What if . . ."s as the introductory ideas to the course. I haven't completely worked it out yet, but I was thinking I could also have the students think of what concessions the audience must allow the writer to make for the story to work. In Star Wars, we have to believe that the events happen long ago and far away, even though most of the characters are human. We also have to believe in some sort of Force that works like magic, but can be explained using science. This might be a nice way of getting students to start picking apart some of the stories and try to get to the meat of what they are actually saying to the audience. Something to think about over the next few months.

Check out the links on the Wikipedia page that I posted under Electronic Reading List. Most are pretty neat.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Because some people asked . . .

I'd like to explain the name of the blog (partially because i got a bit of concern and partially because i think that I just finally figured it out, myself). The name works for me for two reasons.

Firstly, think about the way that people imagine butterflies. The little bugs don't act. They have gone through some sort of change and have arrived at and end point. Now all they have to do is look pretty. People see them and they are observed and acted upon, but they don't do a whole heck of a lot. Even when they flap their wings and somehow cause typhoons in the Western Pacific (admit it, you saw that movie!), they didn't mean for that to happen. It's a random outcome from a random action, none of it planned, none of it intended. I think we can do better.

Further (I feel like i'm writing a five paragraph essay), I have encountered many people who are convinced that they, because of their individuality, deserve to be the warm center of attention at all times. Worse, i have met even more people (and I often fall into this category) who lavish their attention on flitting ideas and celebrities. Not because the celebrities have any meat behind them, just because they are what's out there.
Both of these situations are counterproductive. All ideas should be tested and constantly critiqued and revised. No idea (or person with an idea) should be the constant center of attention for too long. And when they are it should be because they present something that actually pushes us forward or changes our direction.
Certainly we are all individuals and that should be a source of pride. However, this individuality should not come with undue recognition or responsibility. We may be beautiful and unique butterflies in our own minds (and among our friends and family) but we shouldn't expect to be to the rest of the world unless we get there with real thought and action. We also shouldn't put that label on others. Let people's actions and the affects of those actions dictate our perception of them, not the perceptions of others.

This is starting to be the real backbone of the way that i look at the world. It's how i try approach my students, and it keeps popping up in my writing and music. This blog is partially a way for me to see common threads in all the disparate ideas that I like, and the title is the first one that I noticed.

Whew, okay, no more stupid philosophising, i swear.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

People ask me what it's like to teach high school

This answer works pretty well. I recently turned this in as an assignment for a grad school class. We were supposed to find a creative way of expressing what it felt like in our classroom. I heard each of the sentences here during a single period on the day the assignment was given (names have been changed).

Monday, 1st Period

Just passing through, don't mind me. Mister, I don't know how to start! Hey, just wanted to let you know the coffee machine broke again. I've had my hand up for like five hours! You drawlin'! Have you checked your mailbox yet? I hate metaphors! I don’t know, something important. What do I owe you again? You lost my paper! You know how it is. Mister, the phone's ringing! Could you stop by my office during your prep? I know I turned that in! Oh, wait, here it is. What period is your prep again? Mister, write up Lauri! Can you cover Stevenson's seventh period? Lauri just stabbed me with a pen, yo! Attention staff and students. Drew started it! I only stabbed him because he started it! Please excuse the interruption. I forgot my homework! Would students signed up for the public speaking workshop please report to the cafeteria. These teachers! Not you, Mister, but these other teachers be drawlin’! You teach the Freshmen Seminar second period, right? I never curse! I'm not interrupting anything, am I? Mister, I'm Christian! Could you bring your freshmen group up to the library next period? Christians don't curse! We need to see them for course selection. Mister, I know you have candy. Running to the copier soon? You were ignoring me, Mister! Would you take this over for me? Mister, I saw you come in with candy this morning. Could you sign this permission slip for Josepe to play in the game tonight? But I didn't eat lunch yesterday, Mister. He asked you during class, I guess you didn’t hear him. I'm hungry! Don't forget about that meeting at three. You teachers should feed us more! Have a good one. What were we supposed to be doin' again?

Monday, July 2, 2007

What I Thought Dune Was Going to Be Before I Read It

I've been working on this idea for a sci-fi novel for the past year or so. As I write bits and pieces of it I will put some of them here. Comment or not, your call. The main character is going to write these paragraphs right at the beginning.

The thing that makes writing on a computer screen harder than writing on paper is the forced linear nature of the computer. Since I can only interact with the virtual paper via the mediation of a keyboard and a monitor, the interaction must happen in terms defined by the media. However, with a piece of paper, the mediation happens only between my hand and a pencil. The media allows me much more freedom. I can easily orient the paper however I want, write in any direction that makes sense at the time, and fill the margins with whatever notes I need to put down at the time. Any idea that I may come up with while writing, whether or not it is on topic, I can jot it down in the margins without interrupting the flow of my writing. However, on a computer screen, if I have any tangential ideas that I would like to write down, I need to shift to a new file, or somehow change the formatting of the information on the page to achieve the same affect. My tangential ideas either end up in a different document, or they interrupt the flow of the main writing that I am doing. My pages are not littered with extraneous concepts, but neither are they annotated with enrichment material. With a virtual page I can write only in one direction, and it is very difficult for me to productively get off topic.

I think of this as a problem only because of the disconnect between my way of thinking and the method of idea transformation preferred by the current media. I could very easily save my file, put down my computer, pick up a notebook and a pen, and continue writing in a more comfortable media. I would be able to feel the page in my hands, fold it as I would like, write my notes on the back, and doodle aimlessly at the top of the page. My extra information would be saved exactly as I created it. This is analogue. My virtual page takes my information, breaks it down and organizes it for me. It is saved in a much smaller format, can be transmitted and copied with startling ease and can be accessed by other virtual media. This is digital. Neither my digital nor my analogue page is perfect. While I am more comfortable with one, this is mostly a function of the generation in which I was born, the education that I received as a child and an early adult, and the discipline (or lack thereof) in my thinking.

In this way media, effects the way that I save my information. As far as I know there is no way of saving information where some of that information is not lost or somehow altered in the saving process. I cannot save the order of the information as I write it down on a page without jotting done numbers next to my sentences. Doing that would insert information into my ideas that does not always need to be there. I could save it with the numbers and then be able to tell when I wrote some sentences out of order and when I took breaks to write in the margins, but then I would have writings on the page that would have to be ignored to be read properly aloud. Alternately, I could write without the numbers allowing me to read the writing as it is on the page without skipping any characters, though this would mean that I may later forget which sentences were written out of order, and when chronologically I wrote certain notes in the margins. Information is restricted by the media in which it is saved.

I think of this phenomenon as a problem. Sometimes I get distracted by a desire to fix this problem.