The 13-Year-Old Tourist (Vámonos Vol. 14)

I remember feeling trapped at grandma’s house, 13-year-old Casey, trying to figure out how to play Uno by myself. Columbus Nebraska has never been a playground for the rich and famous, but when I was 6 it was great fun. I remember my pre-puberty self digging through dusty crates of old toys, finding my fathers discarded army men or walking around in a “little backyard” that could have fit my house twice over.  But all of the sudden, at 14, this little town wasn’t exciting anymore.

It’s an awkward age. At middle school in the interval between being a kid and a full on teenager, it’s hard to know which childhood things will still be fun and which will feel remedial. Being stuck in the middle can be particularly confusing when traveling.

When you’re a tween, a lot of culture is pointed above or below you. Children’s museums are generally for children a little younger than you, more adult museums can be hard to access, or boring. Historical sites are as interesting as you are interested in them, concerts are often 18 or 21 and over and (in this country) they won’t let you into a bar.

For adults traveling with a kid (or a tween) can have unexpected perks. A kid with a good attitude can lead you to do things you wouldn’t think to do otherwise. Going to a zoo, a carnival or a toy store, but these stops can be the most fun part of a trip.

Adults often forget the things that liked so much as children. And it is during those years between 12-15 that they do that forgetting. As adults, we don’t deal with bullies or peers who would make fun of us.

This week I have the pleasure of hosting my girlfriends little brother who’s in Chicago for Thanksgiving.  He’s staying in an apartment with his mother for most of the trip, but she has a couple of things to do in Chicago and I am the closest thing to a responsible adult that they can find. Trying to think of what to do with him I remembered all the things I loved to do when I was in eighth grade: hanging out at the zoo, the beach, the comic shop, or the conservatory. I was so excited. There are some things I grew out of. I don’t think I will want to sit in the massage chairs at the Sharper Image for an hour like I once did, but for the most part the thought of doing the things I did when I was 14 excited me.

I suppose the trick to traveling as a tween is not getting to caught up with trying to be an adult, the trick to traveling with a tween is to get as caught up as possible with trying to be a tween.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website. 

Finding a Guide (Vámonos Vol. 13)

Experience cuts both ways. People often say they travel to “try something new” or “break out of a routine.” Novel and different things excite us.  Dr. David Eagleman said in an article in Current Opinion in NeuroBiology  “perceived durations can be distorted by… an oddball in a sequence,” put simply, doing something different can change the way we experience time.

On other hand, familiarity can make things easier to understand and enjoy. I once tried to watch cricket on TV, but the complexity of the game befuddled me.  I ended up getting bored trying to figure it out, and turning the TV off in frustration.  This is not because cricket is impossible to understand.  It seems like a lot of people play cricket, someone must understand it. But, without familiarity it is impossible to get a lot of cricket, much less see the nuance of the game (I am sure a European would have the same experience with baseball).

A guide can help short circuit this problem. A good guide is like a teacher with infectious enthusiasm. Their love for and understanding of what is fun about a subject, place, or sport bleeds over into you, the visitor.

A guide doesn’t have to be someone who wears a uniform, or a person that stands at a historic site all day waiting for tour groups. They certainly shouldn’t be a pair of headphones you can rent at a museum. It can be a friend or relative who lives in the place your visiting or even someone who doesn’t currently live there. They don’t have to know when the Louvre was built or how many stones are in the pyramids at Teotihuacan, a guide can be somebody who knows where to eat cheap sushi or what movie theaters let you drink.

When looking for a guide, use social media. Ask friends for tips for your trip. You might think you don’t know anyone who traveled to Korea, but how much do you really know about your 317 Facebook friends?

It’s true that life is short. There is not enough time to read every book, learn every language or play every game. There’s always more prep you could do. There is always someone who knows a little more than you do about whatever it is you hope to learn about.  But that is also the good news. Somebody knows about the place you’re going to and the things you might see. So take the opportunity to find that person and get a couple hints. That way when you get your break from the routine and are experiencing something new you can really enjoy it.


This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website. 

“The Bigger and More Obvious the Flaw the Better” – Interview with Jason Aaron (Week 11 – Book a Week)

Born in Alabama but currently living in Kansas City, Jason Aaron is the comic book writer, co-creator behind the gritty crime thriller Scalped.  Earlier this year, he announced that Scalped (which has already run four years) would end its story and its run at issue #60.  During its run of over four years, this story of reservations, casinos and meth has been nominated for the Eisner and Harvey the two most prestigious awards in comics.

Aaron also writes Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine and the X-men, and Punisher Max for Marvel.  Both Hulk and the new title, Wolverine and the X-Men, launched number one issues November 2 the week Newcity got to talk to him.  We started the conversation by asking how he felt about those two comics and the response they had gotten that week.

How’s the response been to the books that came out this week?

I am really happy.  Both books seem to be getting a great response, especially X-Men.

Yeah, I enjoyed that book myself. It’s a new direction for Wolverine. He’s wearing a suit and running a school, instead of just carving people up with those claws.  Is it fun to do something new with Wolverine?

Sure, that’s one of the problems with Wolverine.  He’s been around for a long time, he appears in a lot of books, he’s been in a lot of different kinds of situations, it’s hard to find something brand new to do with him.  I love the chance to put him in a situation we’ve never seen before, especially one he’s not comfortable in.

It’s cool to see how you have this rebellious character that has to deal with bureaucrats and such.  How do you keep Wolverine in this interesting new world and keep him kicking ass?

Well, I am not changing who Wolverine is.  I’ve been writing Wolverine for about as long as I’ve been in comics and I just came out with one of the darkest Wolverine stories anybody’s ever done.

It’s not that I’m trying to neuter Wolverine or change who he is or what people have always enjoyed about him.   It’s just putting him in a different environment.

In some sense, it’s an evolution of the character and we’re watching him embrace the new responsibility that he’s never had before but he still going to be the guy he’s always been.  If anything, he feels like it’s only more important that he’s going out and doing what he does.  Keeping problems from ever making it to the doorstep.

Bringing up that story with the dark ending,  (Wolverine’s Revenge, a story that involves Wolverine unknowingly killing his illegitimate children) do you purposely try to tell very different stories and stretch the character?

With a character like Wolverine, sure.  He’s one of those characters that you can put in lots of different kinds of stories.  Just in the Wolverine stuff I’ve done in the last few years, you can see that I try to do a lot of different genres and tones–very different sort of situations.

You can’t do that with every character, he’s one of those that you can and I am always going to try and take advantage of that.

With the #1 issues, how do you make sure they’re accessible? 

I am always trying to do that with anything I’ve done.  Going back to my first big Marvel gig with Ghost Rider.  Ghost Rider’s got as convoluted and complicated a back-story as any character in comics.   It was a struggle to make it fresh and accessible without throwing out everything that had come before.   And I always try to do that with everything.

There’s no secret recipe, there ‘s no special formula.  I’ve been reading comics for years but. even I, don’t remember the back-stories and all the history of most characters.

You don’t just completely rewrite history you got to understand that other people have written these characters before you and other people will write them again after you’re gone.  And you’re just kind of a caretaker of these characters. You’re not the be-all-end-all.

There’s no trick to an issue #1? It doesn’t have to have X,Y and Z components?

No, I don’t think so.  I’ve written a lot of issue #1’s that are all pretty different from one another.  It just depends on what kind of story your trying to tell

In your other #1 this week, the Hulk story, you have the Hulk separated from Bruce Banner (the hulk’s human identity).  How did this idea, get percolating?

It was just me wanting to do a new take on the Hulk-Banner dynamic.  I wanted to do something that was fresh and accessible to people who hadn’t been reading Hulk the last several years but still honor that core dynamic that has driven Hulk stories for decades.

Let’s shift gears and talk about Scalped, is it true that you’ve been writing Scalped for as long as you’ve been in comics?

Yeah, pretty much.  It wasn’t the very first thing.  I won a Marvel Talent Search contest and the first thing I wrote was a short little Wolverine story and the first 22-page comic I wrote was The Other Side for Vertigo, but Scalped started coming out alongside The Other Side or it may have been two issues afterword.

Now, 53 issues in, do you feel excited to be putting this thing to bed and moving on to other characters and projects or is it hard to be putting aside this opus you have been working on for several years now?

I am certainly not bored, it’s not that I’m bored.  I still like writing these characters.  But it is exciting to be wrapping things up and bringing these arcs to their end point.  Telling stories I have had in my head for year now, I am excited for that.

Once I get to the end and realize I don’t get to write these characters anymore, it may be a little sad or surreal.  But for now I am still excited.

How many issues ahead of us are you?

Just a couple.

Are you loyal to an original outline or, as you’re writing these issues, do you find yourself saying, “Well, now that I am writing it, the story should take this turn or contain this detail?”

Sure, that always happens and I don’t think you can be beholden to an outline that you came up with years ago just because you did come up with it years ago.  For the most part, I stuck pretty close to the way I had the ending planned out.  I’ve had the ending for most characters mapped out pretty early on in the process, and I’ve stayed pretty close to that, but I always try to leave myself room to go with things as they come to me as I’m writing.

After Scalped wraps up at issue 60, do you have anything in the works that would be creator-owned or away from the whole capes and cowls world?

Yeah, you’ll certainly see me do more creator-owned stuff.  Probably not until Scalped wraps up.  But as long as I’m in comics, I want to be doing creator-owned work in some capacity or another.

I love what I do at Marvel.  I’m very happy at Marvel but I will always have my hand in creator-owned work as well.

In terms of writing a crime comic in this gritty world where horrible things are done to people,  how do you get your head into these characters?  How do you write these folks?

Those are the kind of characters I’ve always been interested in as a writer and as a reader, the bigger and more obvious the flaw the better.  That’s the stuff I’ve always been attracted to.

Those kind of tortured characters are the ones I gravitate toward.  Those are the kind of characters that are at the heart of noir.  Characters who are flawed and oftentimes realize what their flaws are but still can’t help but succumb to them.  Often, you know how things are going wrap up and you know they’re going to be bad but you want to stick around to watch the train-wreck that’s going to happen.

In some ways that’s what Scalped is.  There are twists and turns but it’s not a book that’s going to dazzle people with plot mechanics.  It’s very much a character-driven book and I think that’s what people have latched onto and it’s why we’ve been able to do 54 issues.  People love these characters as much as Guerra (penciler for Scalped) and I do.


This interview was originally published by NewCity and is also available on their website.

“Soon I Will be Invincible” by Austin Grossman (Week 10 – Book a Week)

The chapter titles and dialogue in “Soon I Will be Invincible” hit all the oldest and most beloved superhero clichés: “I will get you next time” or “We meet again.” Austin Grossman knows and loves the comic book world. He runs through its tropes, plot contrivances and double-crosses with all the majesty of a caped hero flying through the night sky. But what makes the story transcend, isn’t its note-for-note re-creation of comic book worlds with their Batman-type vigilantes and Thor’s Hammer power objects, it’s the world that goes on within the characters.

Much of “Soon I Will be Invincible” takes place in the heads of two characters, The Super Villain/Mad Genius who inspires the title, and an up-and-coming second tier superhero/vigilante cyborg. The villain, Dr. Impossible, has all the ambition, wacky weapons, and dastardly plans of a Dr. Doom or a Lex Luthor.  He also has an inferiority complex. To him the hero/villain clashes echo old popular kids vs. nerds feuds from school days.  People brave or weird enough to try unconventional acts are always cast out by society. In Impossible’s world, evil and genius just go together. Heroes are more likely to be good at gym than at science.

By putting the reader under the helmet of a super villain, Grossman exposes us to specific details of the interior life of an archetypal character. He gets laughs out of the character, not just because Dr. Impossible says, plans and does ridiculous things, (because, of course, he does them), but because we know why he’s doing it. We don’t want Impossible to take over the world, but we don’t want him to get hurt either. Sure he’s a deranged criminal mastermind but he’s also ambitious, and funny – it’s hard not to like him.

Our window into the hero’s world comes when an insecure cyborg with a shady past joins the preeminent super hero team. She is a half-woman half-robot struggling to make her way in a group of more established heroes with their own interests and goals, some of which involve saving the world, some of which involve getting even with stepmoms or showing up more super-powered beings.

The book is full of unexpected guffaws: “In later years we drifted apart, you can’t just take the same hostage every time.” But its most impressive feat is how much it makes us care about these ridiculous characters. Sure, they are endeavoring to save or destroy the world  but really we care about these people. We care about the slights, love triangles and Hammers of Ra because we care about the people involved.

The heroes resemble a clique. Sure, they smash super villains with mighty blows and go on patrol but they spend just as much time bickering and hooking up. The superheroes get to be popular. Sponsors, governments and corporations want use their images and influence.

The story speeds along toward the inevitable conflict between these two main characters,with the cyborg trying to fit in and to figure out Dr. Impossible’s evil plan. Dr. Impossible, meanwhile, gathers the necessary objects for his super machine.  Mysteries and fights keep the story crackling along. The story flashes back and tells character origins galore. The jumps in time can confuse but the background serves to enrich each of the characters.

Every superhero needs a good origin story.

“The Sigh” by Marjane Satrapi (Week 9 – Book a Week)

Marjane Satrapi is best known for her autobiographical graphic novel work, “Persepolis,” which was later made into a film. Her latest project, “The Sigh,”  goes in a new direction: Rather than stories from Satrapi’s life, “The Sigh” is a fairy tale about a woman in a fantastical world who’s trying to save her lost love. It’s told as an illustrated story rather than a work of sequential art.

The eponymous sigh, which begins the story, summons a magical creature, Ah the Sigh, from the Kingdom of Sighs. Rose, a merchant’s daughter, follows this creature back to its realm where she meets and soon loses a prince.

The story builds in traditional fairytale style with one important difference. Instead of allowing herself to be held hostage by her strange world, Rose becomes an adventurer who moves the story forward. Unlike Rapunzel or Cinderella, she’s not a damsel in distress waiting for a man to save her. Instead, Rose sets out to rescue her prince and ends up helping a number of families by saving their sons and husbands from various magical predicaments along the way.

The story reads quickly, with frequent pictures keeping the magical world present. The simple evocative backgrounds from Satrapi’s previous works are largely gone here. Because the book has prose passages, the illustrations no longer do as much of the storytelling. Instead, they show the emotions and reactions of the characters.

Though the art style will be familiar to people who have read “Persepolis,” rough coloring helps to highlight the fantastical material and whimsical subjects and to emphasize the contrast between Rose’s home world and the magical one she is brought to by the sigh.

“The Sigh” is an all-ages book but it would be perfect for an intelligent nine-year-old. Adult comic readers and fans of Satrapi’s other work may find the story too light. It’s a charming adventure, enjoyable as long as you go in knowing you’re getting a snack, not a meal.


This review was originally published by NewCity and is also available on their website.