Monday, 30 September 2013

Figuring Out FF #12

Or I have a new answer when people ask me what being a geek is
By Matt Fraction, Lee Allred, Mike Allred, Laura Allred; Marvel Comics

This short post will have *SPOILERS* for a single page of FF #12. I think it's one of the best moments and you should read it in context. That said, I doubt seeing it here will ruin the entire issue. 

The defining characteristics of what makes a Geek a Geek is something I find kind of interesting. I mean, if you want to be cynical about it, Geekery, with all its various sub domains, is just a specialized kind of consumerism where Geeks' most tribalistic feelings get hijacked by the products they are buying. Or if you are feeling more charitable we could define Geekyness as an unusual enthusiasm for a particular kind of media. Or if you are a fantastic jerk you might believe that being a Geek requires perfect knowledge of an elaborate canon and a ceremonial penis. Or maybe you think something else.

There is however one really great, really positive way of defining Geekdom and this page in FF #12 is the perfect embodiment of it.

Because the perfect ideal of being a Geek doesn't stop with enjoying or buying or knowing about a thing, it requires sharing these things we love with friends and finding new friends based on our common love of a particular media. It is a definition of Geekiness that is inclusive and social and improving each others Geeky lives by providing something beloved and new. It's about friends as much as it is about consumption.

So when people ask what I think a Geek is, I'm probably just going to send them a jpg of this page, because it makes this point perfectly.

(And in doing so, this page and this issue of FF have managed to ease my worries about The Fraction Departure and the ongoing viability of FF. Phew.)

Friday, 27 September 2013

Marvelling at Captain Marvel #15 and #16

Or the my complicated feelings about the Infinity Captain Marvel tie-ins.
By Kelly Sue DeConnick, Jen Van Meter, Pat Olliffe, Drew Geraci, Andy Troy; Marvel Comics. 

I'd like to start off by pointing out that I LIKED these comics and found them enjoyable to read. The stories fit into the larger context of the Infinity event, focusing on the individual path of Captain Marvel as she pilots and fights and struggles her way through a space battle, all the while delivering some great character moments (and repeating some pretty nifty ones from Avengers). Basically, I got my monthly CM fix, saw some of the shape of Infinity (I am not reading the event itself),  and, most importantly, had some fun while doing it. These are good comics.

(The fact that Captain Marvel #15 and Avengers Assemble #18 told very nearly the same story while each still feeling unique and great is, I think, a pretty solid testament to Kelly Sue DeConnick's skills as a storyteller. Also, her take on Spider-woman is the best: kind of charmingly insecure, loathsomely selfish, and delightfully glib.)

Beyond this point there will be *SPOILERS* for CM #13-16. Read on at your own risk.

But, as good as CM #15-16 are, I feel like they don't really pay service to the ongoing story of the Captain Marvel books. Immediately before these Infinity-tie-in comics we were concluding the Enemy Within event which ended with Captain Marvel essentially sacrificing herself to defeat Yon-Rogg, The Psyche Magnetron made incarnate. To really quickly sum up, Yon-Rogg was using the power of the Psyche-Magnetron to transform Earth into a replica of his homeworld Hala, and Captain Marvel was functioning as the power source for his plot via a link in her brain. Said link manifested itself as a tumour-like growth that spread whenever Captain Marvels used her powers, and threatened to, if pushed too far, burst and damage the tissues of Carol's brain. To save the world and defeat Yon-Rogg, Carol deliberately overused her powers to burst the lesion in her brain to rob Yon-Rogg of his power source. The price of this maneuver was potentially destroying her memories and very identity. And when we left Carol she was floating in space, obviously badly injured, maybe even dead. It was a tremendous cliffhanger.

Was she catonic? Paralyzed? Does she retain her memory? Is she vegetative, or functional? What is her new status quo? And perhaps most importantly, how does all of this affect her relationships with her friends which the series has spent months building?

As a reader I feel like the ongoing storyline of Captain Marvel demands a moment to establish its new status quo. Maybe even a full issue to tell us what the brain-injured Carol is capable of, what exactly she remembers, and most importantly, since its the emotional heart of the series, what Carol understands of her relationships to her friends and mentors and mentees. (Like, cliched as it is, I picture a hospital scene where we see Tracy trying to be too tough, Jessica being hurt and angry (she doesn't strike me as someone who takes rejection well), and the special disappointment instore for Wendy and Kit...) My point is that, for me at least, I care about these things so much more than space-battles in the context of this series and having to wait for all of this information because CM is obligated to have an Infinity tie-in (which was still an enjoyable comic!) feels like a let down.

But! But, but, but, but, but...

I also feel like it's a really good thing that Captain Marvel is obligated to have an Infinity tie-in and is playing such an integral part of the event (I think, I'm not actually reading Infinity itself).  Because being an important component of an event, and being woven more and more into the fabric of the Marvel Universe, is evidence of Carol being important to Marvel on a whole. That this kind of attention reflects the fact that Carol Danvers profile is on the rise and that she is becoming, or has become, a key chunk of the Avengers equation. And I think that is wonderful.

Part of this is simpley that I'm a fan: I think Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is an interesting character, with an interesting personality, neat powers, some cool history (if we ignore some dumb parts), and a pretty memorable, iconic look. Basically she has the sheer comics machinery to stand with Marvel's biggest characters. Which is important because Marvel needs to acquire, or acknowledge that it already has, marquee women characters. Unless superpowers are some sort of X-chromsome recessive genetic trait (like baldness or colour blindness), really ~50% of heroes ought to be women to at all reflect reality. But also because people, men as well as women, are interested in reading about female characters. Also also it's the right thing to do because everyone deserves to see themselves reflected heroically in comics. And I think Captain Marvel is poised to be as natural a part of the Avengers as Ironman, Captain America, and Thor.

Which, if you want to be mercenary, is also important to Marvel as a division of Disney as a profit making company. Geeky women will spend money on Marvel products, and if my chunk of the internet is any indication, they would buy into a Captain Marvel movie. And into that movies merchandise. (The sales in CM costumes alone!) One of the persistent ideas I hear about Disney's acquisition of Marvel and Star Wars was Disney trying to find properties to market to boys. But, I would make the argument that there are at least as many girls who fantasize about being superheroes as there are girls who dream about being fairytale princesses, and that if they could leverage some of Marvel's more interesting female characters (Carol Danvers) they might have a whole other angle to market intellectual property to girls (which again ~50% of humans/consumers are female). And I think Captain Marvel is currently the most marketable female Avenger to a wider audience.

(Well, Black Widow is too, but I would argue that she isn't a superhero necessarily and would work better in an espionage style movie than a more traditional style superhero like Captain Marvel. Although, I would watch the bejesus out of a Bourne Identity style Scarlet Johansson starring Black Widow film... maybe spun out of Captain America: Winter Soldier...)

So I guess as much as I think Captain Marvel deserves to be treated like Hawkeye or Daredevil (books with A+ creators given the freedom and light continuity duties to experiment), I'm glad that it's a book that has such a mandate to integrate into the broader Marvel Universe.

(This entire essay assumes that the tie-ins were mandated and not a deliberate choice to show that Carol is cut off from her support network by taking her away from her friends and dumping her in space.)

Marvelling At Captain Marvel #13-15: On The Enemy WithinMarvelling At Captain Marvel #12: Demarcating reality and fantasy
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #10: A dramatic contract
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #9: How your brain tells time
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #7: Saving a reporter in distress... AND ITS A MAN!
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #1: An alternate reading order that I liked more

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

So I Read The Underwater Welder

A 250 word (or less) review of The Underwater Welder graphic novel
By Jeff Lemire; Top Shelf Productions

There is something deeply fascinating about the comics of Jeff Lemire. I don't really know how to articulate it better than that, but... there is just a haunted, askance simplicity to his creator ownederish comics that I could just look at and read endlessly. The Underwater Welder is a pretty great example of what I mean. The comic tells the story of Jack Joseph, an underwater welder working on an oil rig in small town Nova Scotia who is also an expectant father. The Underwater Welder also tells the story of Jack as a boy and his relationship with his own father, a salvage diver by trade. Really though, The Underwater Welder is about isolation, doubt, and depression and, well, the obligations of fatherhood. All of which is delivered in this really spacious, expressionist depiction of the ocean as a visual metaphor: The Underwater Welder is really a visually striking and fascinating comic. This description probably makes The Underwater Welder sound like a heartbreaking, sad-inducing stereotypical art comic, which is pretty misleading because while you will experience some feelings, this comic really doesn’t wallow in misery and definitely contains some remarkable moments of triumph and humanity. It’s haunting in both the tragic and wondrous sense. At the end of the day I’d say that The Underwater Welder is an emotionally challenging and rewarding comic built around an accessible and profound story delivered by downright expansive artwork. And like much of Jeff Lemire’s comics work, I am endlessly fascinated by it.

Word count: 250

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Yiddish Policemen's Union Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is a novel constructed with many discrete components, pilfered and lovingly repurposed from many different genres to create this remarkable new whole.

The underpinnings of the story are pure speculative fiction. The Yiddish Policemen's Union changes a single moment in time, killing Anthony Dimond, an Alaskan delegate to the US Congress. As a result of this man's death, the novel presents an alternate history where the United States took up the Slattery Report of 1940 and created a temporary settlement for European Jewish refugees in Alaska. As a result the Holocaust kills two million jews (instead of the six million murdered in reality) with millions of jewish refugees resettling in Sitka, Alaska. In addition to this, and perhaps indirectly as a result, the establishment of Israel in 1948 is followed almost immediately by its complete destruction in an alternate version of the Israeli-Arab war. The Yiddish Policemen's Union, then, portrays a modern world where the majority of Jewish people live in Sitka Alaska, a defacto Israel of exiles whose ownership of the land is only temporary and tentative. 

Plotwise, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is constructed out of the pulpiest bits of detective fiction. In the book, down-on-his-luck detective Meyer Landsman is drawn into solving the murder of a junkie in the flop hotel in which they both live. Landsman and his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner and cousin Berko Shemets try to decipher the apparently professional assassination of a man with only a partially solved chess game as a clue to go on. Along the way Landsman must contend with his alcoholism, his self-destructive depression, his grief over his sister's death in an airplane accident, his hatred of chess, the internecine and elaborate relationship between subdivisions of the Jewish community, and his feelings for his superior officer and ex-wife Bina Gelbfish. And Landsman must solve all of this with the looming deadline of Revision because the outcome of this case will have ramifications for the very future of the Jews of Sitka.

The novel thematically, is almost a treatise on the Jewish diaspora experience told in that great, rich, Jewish storytelling tradition. The Yiddish Policeman's Union begins just before Revision, the end of the sixty year land grant given to the Sitka Jews. As a result the characters of the novel are living on borrowed time, in a nation that does not want them surrounded by a displaced Tlingit nation that would see them gone. As a result, Landsman and his fellow Sitka Jews don't really have a home, no Israel with its Right of Return, no continuation or normalization of their temporary homeland. They are unwanted and adrift in a way that seems to resonate with Jewish history in this fundamental way. (And of course, Landsman himself is homeless in this whole other way, adrift within his community and cutoff from his relationships.) So really, as much as the Yiddish Policeman's Union is a work of Science Fiction and a detective tale, it is more than anything a parable about the search for a home. 

The way in which The Yiddish Policemen's Union combines these radically different elements makes for a startlingly detailed, uncanny new thing.  It's a novel with the richness of language and embellished complexity of a Jewish grandfather's story paired with the broad swashbuckling action and eyebrow shrugging smarm of the best detective serials. It's at once new with the frontiers of Alaska and ageless as the Torah.  It has the well researched air of the meticulous speculation but also the effortless sense of a story being told, casually, in the moment. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is weird and heartfelt and tense and a glorious mulatto of ideas and genres.

I would recommend the Yiddish Policemen's Union to a pretty wide swath of readers. It's an excellent detective story that should appeal to any fan of the genre. It has an inherent pulpiness that, I think, has a common genetic element with Superhero comics, which should make this a novel that comic fans will enjoy. It's Science Fiction elements are quietly brilliant and worth a look by anyone who enjoys a good alternate history book (your Man in The High Tower, for instance). The sheer story-ness, the way the tale is woven, I think would also appeal to fans of oral storytelling and the most NPR of radioshows. The Yiddish Policemen's Union also a very literary novel, with an elegance and profoundness to its prose that should appeal to even the most picky of critical readers. Basically, the very hybrid nature of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, should make it accessible to pretty much anyone. I highly recommend it.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Deep Sequencing: A Sense Of Scale in Godzilla: The Half-Century War

Or how narrative caption layout generates a sense of scale in Godzilla: Half Century War
By James Stokoe; IDW Publishing

James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half-Century War is a fun comic with some distinct, gorgeous artwork. It tells the progression of the Godzilla mythos and the ever escalating and evolving nature of the giant monster-lizard through the lens of of the humans tasked with controlling the beast. It's good comics. 

As far as I'm concerned, there are two key elements to a convincing Godzilla comic (which can probably be extended to Kaiju stories in any media): the giant monsters have to feel massive, and intricate environments need to be smashed to pieces. Stokoe is pretty much a goddamn master at drawing interesting, and intricate environments and he uses this skill to satisfy this second element in spades. As for the issue of scale in Godzilla: The Half-Century War, Stokoe comes up with a really simple, elegant solution:

Stokoe places the narration captions in the lower half of the page. It's that simple. Instead of the normal convention of placing the boxes along the top of the page, the narration sits in the middle. And this in turn makes the page feel extra tall, as if additional page height had to be added just to capture the full height of Godzilla. Which, when coupled with an upshot, and a small human in the forground makes for a Kaiju that feels absolutely huge. Like he towers over the comic. It's really smart comics.

It also, I think, emphasizes how important and effective lettering placement can be as a storytelling tool. Lettering, like colouring, is an under appreciated comics artform that, while often invisible-seeming, is integral to comics.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

So I Read Godzilla: The Half-Century War

A 250 word (or less) review of the Godzilla: The Half-Century War collection
By James Stokoe; IDW Publishing

Godzilla is a cultural icon. From what little I understand, this rubbersuit Lizard is the towering mascot of the entire Kaiju genre of giant monster films. Godzilla and his genre of films have been around for... a half-century (and a bit) and Godzilla: Half-Century War is very much a celebration of this fact. In the comic Ota Murakami, a Japanese soldier caught in Godzilla's first rampage circa 1954, gets drafted into the Anti-Megalosaurus Force to fight this giant monster. What follows is a half-century of globe trotting conflict as Ota and his comrades fight a war against Godzilla and the ever-growing roster of Kaiju monsters, from Mothra to Gigan, in an effort to save humanity from these beasts. And in that way, Godzilla: The Half-Century war functions as an homage to Kaiju films, and acts as a kind of primer to the overall shape of Godzilla's history, lovingly presented, costume seams and all. If you are a comics person but not a passionate Godzilla fan, The Half-Century War is still worth picking up for the art. James Stokoe is a fantastic artist, with a mad aesthetic unlike anything else in comics. A mad aesthetic that features brilliantly detailed environments and a real zeal for portraying scaly, bestial things. Basically, what I am saying is James Stokoe was pretty much born to draw a series of comics about Godzilla levelling cityscapes.  It’s an absolutely beautiful, confounding, art central comic that is also a loving tribute to Godzilla.

Word count: 247

So I Read Orc Stain Vol. 1

Monday, 16 September 2013

Things I Worry About: The First Issue Effect

Or why isn't consumer budgeting considered when first issue sales are discussed?

There is a phenomenon in comics where the first issue of a new title greatly outsells subsequent issues. Generally speaking the #1 issue sells a certain, fairly large number of issues but then over the course of subsequent issues the number slowly declines. Often the decline between first and second issue is the largest, dropping many units between the first and second issue. And this attrition in comics sales for any particular series is something I worry about.

It seems that this is also something that the big comic companies worry about too: they are often engineering new ways to sell #1 issues or buzzy one-shots, and constantly launching and relaunching new series. In part, I think, to generate high sales from first issues. From my casual-industry-following vantage it looks like comic publishers think they can grow their sales by launching lots of new series as a way to increase the numbers of titles readers will follow. However, I think something else might be going on, something, it seems, that isn't being discussed much.

I am a huge contributor to the first issue effect. Not because I am a collector, or because I slowly lose interest in comics I am reading but because I am strictly budgeting my comics intake. I read ten and only ten ongoing mainstream published comics at a time. As a result if I want to pick up a new title, I have to drop one of the ones I am currently reading: and this looks a lot like comics sales attrition. But, I do not drop old titles out of a lack of interest in them, I drop old titles because something new comes along and I cannot afford to read both. I also frequently try first issues, sometimes even two or three, when new comics series are released. I like to try new titles, see if I like them more than what I am already reading, and then decide if I will adopt this new title in place of a current one. Often I will read a first issue, decide it isn't better than what I am already reading and never pick up a subsequent issue (first issues, they are important). I will sometimes pick up a couple more issues to help me make up my mind, but often in this instance I will still end up dropping the new title after only these first couple issues. Both of these things will contribute to the remarkably high sales of comics for the first few issues. (Conversely, if I pick up a new title, I drop another title which contributes to the sales attrition of longer running titles.) What I am trying to say is that the first issue phenomenon could be explained by people trying new titles within the context of a maxed out comics budget.

My point is that the high sales of #1's and the gradual attrition of sales on other titles might be evidence of an over saturated comics market. If this hypothesis is true the audience is already buying, basically, all it can afford to buy. Adding new titles just dislodges the audience from established books so that a new title doesn't really generate any new, sustainable sales. The spike in sales with a new number one beyond people simply switching titles might only be curious readers giving the new title a try before deciding to stick with their current, budgeted collection. If so, then releasing tons of #1's generates an artificial bump in sales that comes on the expense of existing readers and might just be a mechanism of wringing just a little bit more cash out of the audience. And this is something I worry about.

Previous Things I Worry About:
Geek Fashion

Sharing Media
Problematic Themes
Problematic Creators

Friday, 13 September 2013

Describing Daredevil #30

Or turning on and off the flow taps in Daredevil #30
By Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Javier Rodriguez, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

Daredevil #30 is this great, kind of a Silver-agey story about Daredevil teaming up with The Silver Surfer to fight a menace. It's a bit goofy, but filled with a lot of unexpected, fun moments and a kernel of despair that sets up what looks like an important plot thread. It's another great comic in a series known for being great comics.

It's also a comic that has some great examples of different approaches to panel progression that I think maybe bear a closer look.

This post will contain *SPOILERS* for Daredevil #30. So read the comic first.

So, I'm pretty interested (obsessed?) with comic pages that exhibit especially fluid or directed storytelling. I'm interested in this because one of the problems sequential storytelling has to contend with is how to make a reader look at things in, well, the right sequence. If character A is reacting to event or character or speech B than the audience ought to see B before A for the best effect. And so the kinds of pages that lead the reader through the artwork in a way that correct queues events can add extra value and impact to the storytelling. Even in quiet talking scenes. And I think this page is a great example of a kind of holistic, natural approach to guiding the reader through events in the perfect order. It's all kinds of subtle, but damn if it isn't effective.

This page works its magic mostly by just framing events, and maybe subtly adjusting, the normal reading path of comics to create the perfect sequence for each storybeat. The view-path starts in the top left (the natural starting point) with the Daredevil-sense-silhouette of Kirsten McDuffie (love-interest/new lawyer partner) and then travels through the two conveniently placed word balloons to the edge of the first panel. You scan right, pick up the perfectly placed word balloon, and track across to Matt Murdock's confused face. You carriage return across the page and crash right into Matt's confused fez before carrying on the same view path to see Kirsten's reaction to his behaviour. You (or at least I) then dealt with this panel's word balloons before moving to the next panel taking in Kirsten standing and the first speech bubble before carrying on to Matt running out of the office and the second word balloon. Which is great because it basically splits this panel into two separate moments adding a sense of time and, as an added bonus, imparts the motion of Matt moving into the hallway. This neat movement effect is continued into the next panel where our eyes sweep around the corner, the actual motion of Murdoch, before crossing the page to the next row which is a continuation of Matts trajectory in this panel.  (Also, notice the split narration caption box adds to this sweeping motion.) The carriage return transition here also has the added bonus of being like a semi-page turn, making the shocked Matt in the bottom left panel suddenly appear adding a great extra weight to the panel. We then carry on across the page in the level of Matt's gaze straight (catching Matt in the next panel to add a nice sense of place) to the unexpected alien visitor. It's just a great page that uses really great layout, figure placement, and brilliant lettering to ensure everyone is seen and everything is read in just the right order while also adding extra drama to key events. It's great comics.

(I also love the use of green, which contrasts sharply with the red of Matt's glasses and hair to punch up the emotions of surprise in the top right and bottom left panels. Colour theory!)

This layout here is also pretty cool. Not because it flows effectively from panel to panel... but because it deliberately doesn't. I mean, if you look closely at each panel there is a clear sequence of events portrayed: Daredevil drives the Silver surfboard up, turns it around, swoops down and around and carries on. But this series of events broken up in a way that adds a lot of chaos to the scene, a haphazardness that really sells that Daredevil is just screwing around and plays on the gag of a blind fellow driving (and maybe also a little bit on New York cabbies who used to take the long way for a higher fare...). It's a really interesting choice. 

How this double page spread works, at least for me, is that the surf board becomes the key guiding shape: the board being a straight guide, and the long swooping contrail acting to impart a directionality to the guide. Basically, I feel like the Silver Surfboard acts as a vector that directs the reader. However it directs the reader not to the next logical location in a smooth series, but instead points in random, even opposing, directions to create the haphazard feelings of the scene.

So starting in the top left panel we have a vector that points not to the next panel, but instead sharply up and off the page as if Daredevil and Surfer are flying off the grid. We then move to the left panel which has a board vector almost perpendicular to the previous one and then move to the third panel where the vector opposes the one in the previous panel. There is no smooth transition from each of these positions and makes it feel fast (too fast to tie together) and random. We then carriage return from the top right panel to the bottom left along the vector of the board in the top right panel, swooping rapidly down along the path of the characters flight (which is pretty great). We then jog right, across a panel split designed only to further dilate time and add a sense of velocity, and see an unexpected downward pointed Silver Surfboard before moving to the final panel with yet another unconnected vector. Basically, to my eyes at least, the layout is a series of directional snapshots that don't entirely sync up but in a way that better sells the dramatic nature of the sequence. It's cool stuff.

So there you have it, two very different pages with opposite approaches to panel flow, one very guided and one deliberately disjointed, that both add a lot of drama to their individual scenes. 

Describing Daredevil 29: A great page

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

So I Read The Other Side

A 250 word (or less) review of The Other Side
By Jason Aaron, Cameron Stewart, and Dave McCaig; Vertigo Comics

As a Canadian born in the late '80s, the Vietnam War seems crazy and weird. I grew up with the narrative that it was a misguided thing, and that the American soldiers involved were victims and poorly equipped for the nightmare they were thrust into. I grew up with media littered with tales of these broken soldiers, in awful places, doing awful things, and then ignobly returning home. What was lacking, though, was any discussion from the side of the Northern Vietnamese, the people who had very legitimate reasons for resisting and fighting the American invaders. The Other Side is a comic that strives to tell the stories of both sides of the Vietnam War. The comic contrasts the now familiar story of Bill Everette, a draftee from Alabama who goes through a full-metal-jacket-esque trajectory, with Vo Binh Dai, an impoverished, but patriotic youth from Northern Vietnam who volunteers to protect his homeland. And the contrast here is stark, between the valiant patriotic Dai sacrificing and sacrificing and sacrificing for his family, and Bill forced to fight in a war he doesn’t give two fucks about in an army that doesn’t care about him and for a nation that isn’t really invested in the conflict. The Other Side unflinchingly portrays the excesses and horrors and courage of both sides’ soldiers, but overall paints a picture where all of the soldiers are tragic victims of American Imperialism. It's a sad, and horrific, and very effective comic.

Word count: 245

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean At The End of The Lane is the first novel for adult readers by master of magic and mystery, Neil Gaiman. And it is of course, delightful.

The novel is about a middle-aged man visiting his childhood country home and remembering a magical, horrific experience from his childhood. He recalls a terrible event that lead to a supernatural something bestowing gifts with a price on unsuspecting people. The man, as a boy, turns to the aid of Lettie Hempstock, an eleven year old girl neighbour whose family is tied to an ancient magic themselves to help exorcise the local haunting. But instead something goes wrong, and the man-as-boy brings something supernatural back with him from beyond The Ocean, something that invades the boys home and life and threatens to destroy it all.

The Ocean At The End of The Lane is absolutely full of imagination and whimsy and magic. The supernatural is portrayed with the conviction of childhood, and the mundane with this kind of exquisite hindsight filled with profound little moments. Which is actually one of the coolest aspects of the book: its a childrens tale, filled with imagination and wonder, but married to this mature, measured tone of an adult. It's like The Ocean At The End of The Lane is a book not so much written for adults as a novel written for the half-remembered child that lives in every gown up. It begs us to remember exploring, creating games with elaborate internal logic, and our strange childhood neighbours. It is a wonderful place to visit.

I also kind of love how the whole story exists in this tension between the magical elements as real and the magical elements as an elaborate childhood game/fantasy constructed to deal with some pretty troubling real life issues. It's pretty nifty.

The Ocean At The End of The Lane is a pretty light read: it's short and open. It's the kind of book you can read in one long sitting, or over a weekend in little snippets. (Which, is probably appropriate for its storybook for adults contents.) As a result I would recommend this book as an excellent weekend at the cabin or camping book: it's easy to read, fun, and will stoke your inner child.

American Gods and The Anansi Boys

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy Are Good Books

Or why you should read Hominid, Human, and Hybrid by Robert J Sawyer

Okay. This series has a hokey name and a premise that at first blush sounds pretty goofy (Neanderthal Parallax sounds like a bad Stoneage Green Lantern villain). But! This is one of the smartest, best, heartfelt, high concept group of Science Fiction novels I've ever read. Really, it is a fantastically empathetic and intelligent read. These books are among my very favourite. So hear me out!

The premise of the Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy (stay with me) is that a man suddenly appears inside the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory heavy water sphere, which is located kilometres underground in an especially well-shielded, and radioactively inert nickel mine in northern Ontario, Canada. Which is impossible: one moment the tank is empty and the next this sealed, nigh unreachable chamber has a man inside it. Even more impossibly, this man is a Neanderthal, a living example of a prehistoric hominid that cohabited the Earth with humanity for tens of thousands of years. It is quickly discovered that the Neanderthal, Ponter Boddit, is from a technologically advanced civilization from a parallel reality where Neanderthal's became the dominant species of human while Homo Sapiens died off and has ended up on our Earth as the result of an experimental accident. Ponter, together with prehistoric genetics professor Mary Vaughn, doctor Rueben Montego, and astrophysicist Louise Benoit, must find a place for Ponter in this brave new world. Meanwhile Adikor, Ponter's scientific colleague and partner back in his home reality, must discover what happened to Ponter before he is convicted of murder. What follows is the ultimate story of cultural collision as humanity, both Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens are confronted by a whole different society and way of life. Can they see past their many differences and find a way to coexist? Can they learn from one another? Can they even love one another?

The brilliance of this novel is the way it attacks and discusses our preconceived notions of what it means to be human. With the Neanderthals, Sawyer creates a society and, as a result, world that is wildly different than ours. Neanderthals are a society of communist, atheist, polyamorous, bisexual, hunter-gatherer environmentalists. They live in gender segregated communities, uniting the sexes only during the period of the female's synched-up menstrual cycle where they are infertile as a means of rigorous population control. They practice eugenics, sterilizing criminals and the least intelligent to better their genetic legacy. The Neanderthals live under constant surveillance from implanted computers and have a democratic government where only elderly members of society have a voice. And it is the contrast between this Neanderthal society and our own that creates the magic of Hominid, Human, and Hybrid.

Because, here's the thing, there are a lot of interesting social ideas that are taboo. We all agree that eugenics or a total surveillance society are bad. Many of us believe that the notion of monogamy and sexual preference are natural. We think that true communism cannot possibly work. What these novels do is remove human-nature (or at least homo sapiens nature) from the equation, removing any contamination from our socialization and history, and genuinely plays with the idea of what is better. Does eugenics divorced from all the racist garbage have merit? Should we castrate rapists both as a punishment and treatment for their conditions? Is population control a sound solution to our environmental problems? Is perfect, universal surveillance a good thing if we could guarantee that no one would abuse it? Are our sexual habits and shame pig-headed? Is religion just so much superstitious and damaging malarky? The brilliance of these novels is that they provide a safe space for a discourse about some really loaded, really interested ideas. It's really cool.

(Full disclosure, I think eugenics is fascinating. Not in a we-should-actually-do-it way, since it is immoral as anything and just begging to be abused in horrific ways, but in a Scientific curiosity way. Like, how much of who we are is genetic (or epigenetic or encoded in the various other physical ways our bodies store information)? I think it is an interesting question, but one much too hot to really touch given our terrible history with the idea. So I found the discussion of eugenics in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy pretty engaging.)

But, these books are more than just a scholarly debate. These elements, and a bunch of other really well researched ideas about consciousness and evolution, are built into really engaging narratives. For instance, Hominids functions very much as a mystery novel, dealing with how Pontor reached our Earth and the legal proceedings in the Neanderthal reality, Humans is very much a mystery-suspense novel solving a bunch of questions set up in the initial book, and Hybrids is a good old fashioned techno-thriller with global stakes playing out. But the entire Neanderthal Parallax trilogy is, more than anything, a love story between Mary Vaughn and Ponter Boddit, about whether two people from different worlds, different societies, and even different species can find love and maintain a relationship. It's a pretty touching central narrative that emphasizes Sawyers way of coupling high concept Sci-fi with exciting plots and deeply empathetic human tales. These are eminently readable novels that are also properly smart.

They are also set in Canada. Which I am a sucker for.

I do however have one complaint about the trilogy. Now, these days I am a Science Gradstudent embedded in the academic system of Canadian Science. I have a pretty good idea of how it all works. Unfortunately the Neanderthal Parallax novels doesn't so much... The novels have this weirdly mistaken view of how University Science Faculties work, and if you are affectively living in one it is pretty frustrating! It seems that Sawyer thinks that Science Professors make their living and interact with gradstudents like... I presume Humanities Professors do? He doesn't seem to understand that Science Faculties are all about publishing and grants and an Academic research lab is like a small research business. Teaching isn't how my supervisor makes his living, and is mostly a pleasant chore that comes along with being a Science Professor. And my boss hasn't touched an actual experiment during my time in his lab. The idea that the place you earned your PhD has an impact on your hiring as a prof (as opposed to your publication record) is nuts, as is the idea that young straight white men can't get positions in Science faculties (they can). I mean, this shouldn't be too big a deal, it's a small part of the novel and you probably aren't a Science Academic, but it's a shame that something so simple is wrong in such well researched novels. It just bugs me a bit.

Really though, I heartily recommend these books to anyone. They are so, so smart and so, so heartfelt and very entertaining. The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy are some of my favourite novels, and if you give them a chance they might end up being some of yours too.

Red Planet Blues 
The WWW Trilogy

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

So I Read The Massive: Black Pacific

Or a 250 word (or less) review of The Massive Volume 1
By Brian Wood, Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown, and Dave Stewart; Dark Horse Books

One of the problems with trying to make informed decisions is that they require, well, information. So when confronted with something really important but utterly outside our experience, we lack the context to really understand consequences and make the best decisions. And this is just compounded when the choice in question is beyond all of humanity's experience, something never seen before. Which is the value of The Massive: a comic designed to illustrate the consequences of uncontrolled Climate Change and Global Warming. Specifically, The Massive: Black Pacific tells the story of the Ninth Wave activist crew of the Kapital as they search a world decimated by ecological disaster for their sister ship The Massive. Lead by mercenary turned pacifist Callum Isreal, ex-Tamil Tiger Mag Nagendra, and the mysterious Mary, the group must negotiate their way to water, food, and fuel in a globe rapidly running out to fuel their search. The Massive: Black Pacific is an eco-thriller of worst-case scenario proportions that emphasizes just how fucked humanity is if we ruin our habitat. The comic is, fortunately, quite cerebral, laying out ghastly scenarios, but in a smart reasonable way: less “the sky is falling” hysteria and more logical, but inconvenient truths illustrated with haunting beauty and human drama. Black Pacific also does an effective job introducing us to a pretty compelling mystery likely important to the ongoing comic. The Massive: Black Pacific is a solid first chapter in what looks to be a thoughtful, exciting, and engrossing new comic.

Word count: 249

Monday, 2 September 2013

Things I Worry About: Fashion and Corporate Identity

Or why I might just have to give up on nerd pop culture T-shirts.

These are two of my favourite T-shirts. They are both shirts I have bought twice, replacing the original when it disintegrated from use. And one of them, I fear might have been ruined for me.

For the last decade I have pretty much lived in geeky t-shirts. I have t-shirts with references to Star Wars and Star Trek and Firefly and Soylent Green. I have shirts with the Bat-symbol, Superman's crest, and the costume of 1920s Iron Fist Orson Randall. Some of my shirts have chemical structure diagrams of common and elaborate molecules while others are amusing joke-shirts made by webcartoonists like the creators of A Softer World and Doctor McNinja and Dresden Codak. Some are just ridiculous and obtuse and I don't really understand where they come from. Basically, what I'm trying to say, is that I have a lot of nerdy Tee's that show a rainbow of my favourite things.

And I have been at this so long that these geeky T-shirts have become part of my identity, as much as the sideburns I have stubbornly kept clinging to my face since before I could really grow sideburns. People know it's my thing. Hell, my supervisor brings this up when he introduces me to lab visitors where I work. "Here's Mike, he's the lab's heart guy, and he wears a lot of geeky shirts... check that one out." Actually.

 The thing is, I think I might be falling out of love with them.

Some of it is that I seem to be in the midst of a sartorial awakening where the basics of men's fashion is starting to interest me. Stylish button downs and smart sweaters and blazers just look sharp. Or maybe it is just part of me growing up; part of this weird late-twenties crisis of oldifying I'm going through where I suddenly find economics fascinating, and televised golf tournaments relaxing, and slowly sipping a good single malt a million times more rewarding than getting shitfaced at a club. Or maybe I'm just getting bored with wearing the same 30 or so t-shirts in rotation 7 days a week. I don't know.

But a part of it is that I realized that I don't own the references on these shirts and that I am visually defining myself by the property of corporations.

I really like this T-shirt. I'm a sucker for navy blue garments and love the simple, centralized graphic design of the KHAAAAAAN!!. The reference on this shirt is awesome, because Wrath of Khan is a goddamn masterpiece, Old Bill Shatner is a Canadian treasure, and because shouting peoples names in rage is inherently dramatic and hilarious. I even love how the shirt manages to be Star Trek reference shirt without being obvious. I mean, I'm not hiding it, but historically it has been this litmus test that separated out the Trekkers, those people who would see the shirt and then SEE the shirt and then smile and nod a little. It was like being in a private nerd club. This has probably been my favourite shirt for years.

The trouble is that KHAAAAAAN!! isn't just a reference to Wrath of Khan anymore. With the advent of the fanfictiony shitstorm of Star Trek: Into Darkness, a movie that was at once very pretty, well acted, and absolutely infuriating, the very nature of this T-shirt has changed. Now not only is it a reference to a buried alive Captain Kirk cursing his ruthless nemesis, but also nuSpock in a scene-that-is-so-clever-oh-my-god-it's-reversed-JJ-Abrams-you-are-too-smart-by-half shouting Khan because Into Darkness is so much shmaltzy-fan fiction and JJ Abrams is a fucking hack. And not only is this shirt now a reference to something that frustrates the crap out of me, but this Into Darkness reference is much more current and much more recognizable. To the general public the KHAAAAAAN!! shirt might as well be an Into Darkness tee. And this bothers me.

What it also does is hammer home the fact that we don't own the references we garb ourselves in. Star Wars belongs to Disney, Marvel comics belongs to Disney and DC comics to Time Warner. Firefly belongs to Fox and Doctor Who to the BBC. Videogames all belong to their publishers. As much as we like and even define ourselves by these properties, they are ultimately commodities that belong to huge, lumbering corporations driven by the single imperative to make money. These beloved references are going to get leveraged again and again and again and changed in ways that run contrary to why we love them and there isn't a thing we can do to stop them. And the question is, do I really want to define myself visually with something I don't really own? Do I really want to be a free walking billboard advertisement for some corporation in this emerging attention economy?

I don't know. But I worry about it.

Just like I worry that whoever owns Soylent Green is about to release a remake starring Taylor Kitsch and ruin this Tshirt too.

"Soylent Green is people," he sternly murmurs, "it's people."

Previous Things I Worry About:
Sharing Media
Problematic Themes
Problematic Creators