The Art of Fiona Staples

saga-artComics aren’t storyboards for movies. An artist alone with her/his imagination can create impossible-to-build cityscapes and monsters. They can cast their characters in whatever way they like, not limited to which people will act them in the film, who L.A. thinks is cool or, even, what humans look like. Fiona Staples is one of the artists that shows what’s possible in comics. Her work on books like Saga, and Archie is truly remarkable.

Sameness dogs the comic arts. The body types, the colors, and the heroes crouched on roofs or next to gargoyles repeat unendingly. Even within a single book, there are often multiple characters with indistinguishable faces. Nostalgia in comics, which, when harnessed can lead to great things, can also result in laziness and repetition. Read more

Every Frame a Painting (YouTube Channel) Review

I know the danger recommending a YouTube channel. It can create an instant time-suck for your reader. It’s one of those “I’m sorry/you’re welcome” situations. But I can recommend Every Frame a Painting with no reservations. This channel’s host is a film editor and, as you might expect, the videos are beautifully edited. Film criticism on YouTube is a growing genre and I would recommend all of the following:  Movies with Mikey, Nerd Writer, The Dissolve (once upon a time), and Belated Media. Even Tested on Occasion has some excellent commentary.

The Every Frame a Painting channel looks so much better than any other channel on YouTube, even among the premium channels, because it exclusively uses images from the movies it comments on. And it does what all writers/storytellers are taught to do: show rather than tell.

A commentary distinguishes Jackie Chan from other action stars by demonstrating something that, as a kung fu fan, I’ve always enjoyed but never understood.  If you skip ahead to minute — you can see how holding a shot for a long time creates a great showcase for an athlete who’s a real fighter.  The length of the shot allows you to see the danger and the drama of the action being performed. In contrast, frantically cut action sequences that cover over the actions of less talented actors rob the story of its tension.

Read more

The Will to Whatevs by Eugene Mirman, Book Review

Will to WhatevsI laughed so much reading this book my wife wouldn’t allow me to read it in bed. I laughed so much reading this book on the train that people looked at me as if I were a crazy person. I laughed so much that when I found that the leaf containing page 205 and 206 had been torn out of my library copy,  I wanted to punch a hole in the sun.

When I was reading this book alone, I was always looking around for someone to read the jokes to.

The Will to Whatevs is structured kind of like a self-help book and the humor is absurd. It’s full of little asides and jokes inside of parentheses. The style is the odd meandering style of Mirman’s stand up comedy and the ads he keeps buying in newspapers. I found when I read the book to myself I could hear Mirman talking and that only made the book better. Read more

SuperMutant Magic Academy – Review

I don’t know that I remember when newspaper comics were important or good. I read Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and The Boondocks (published in the last gasps of the medium) but I think they were already in reprints or collections. Most of my memories of newspaper comics come from my parents explaining how important they used to be.

But, if there were an alternate timeline in which Sunday comics hadn’t sunk with the newspapers, in that world, everyone would be reading SuperMutant Magic Academy.SuperMutant Magic Academy

This book is sweet, subtle, and smart. If you miss a joke, it’s not because the humor’s not in there, it’s because the jokes are delicately constructed and reward close attention. SMMA’s characters are careful refinements of the classic archetypes. They have a unique vision of superherodom laid over top of them. A more real version of super powers, that’s not about fighting evil but instead concerned about how to be an artist or what it’s like to have a gay crush on your straight best friend.

Jillian Tamaki’s story doesn’t capture the entire high school experience, it tackles a very specific high school experience and that makes it so much more compelling.

Reading List (of things that aren’t books and mostly can’t be read)

I wish I could write an excellent reading list every week but recently I haven’t been reading the best stuff. So here are other bits of cultural content to be gobbled up in between healthy doses of booky goodness.

George Strait Strait Country – The songs on this album are too reasonable and come from too rational a position to be written by any musician I know. Much less a young country mega-star in the making. It’s not just unpretentious it’s a better reflection of how relationships really are. Most of us aren’t trapped in the closet of another man’s bedroom.  A much more common situation is one of the two partners wants to go out on a Friday night while the other one wants to stay home. He’s not trying to be a wild-eyed rambler, he’s just trying to keep himself and his wife happy.

Idea Channel – This PBS YouTube channel embodies all the best parts of nerdiness. Idea Channel brings a thoughtfulness that only a truly committed fan can employ in a discussion of cartoon dogs. It’s intelligent about things we might usually be stupid about. Best of all it’s funny enough and accessible enough to make those discussions engaging.Fiona Staples

Saga – This is the prettiest, strangest take on Romeo and Juliet I have ever read.  In this comic book, the Capulets have horns and the Montiques have wings, and in the midst of their interstellar war a baby is born with one parent from either side. Brian K Vaughn who writes the story has written a lot of critically acclaimed comic books and some episodes of the show Lost, he’s funny, and he keeps the story humming along. Fiona Staples was a relative newcomer to comics when the series started, she is now a star. Her characters have expressive faces, and her worlds are strange and pretty when they’re not gross.  This book is pretty.  Did I say that already, just the color of the covers make the comic books lovely to have in your hand.

Also, there’s a great talking-cat sidekick.  If you like sidekicks or talking cats, you should pick this up.

Manhattan Projects Volume 1 – This is the first collection of the ambitious and twisted stories of the imagined rivalries and conspiracies of history’s greatest geniuses. It’s scary and well put together and the story is big, big.  The second volume has actually come out already, but I think it may be starting to come off the rails. With luck, the third volume can make me look like an idiot for ever doubting. But for now I say, read the first book, if you like it enough you can try the subsequent chapters (some people even like Children of Dune).

The Economist Videos – If you like to keep up with world events, but hate to read (how did you find this blog?), you may enjoy these free videos from the Economist. They cover a wide swath of material, from current fiction to upcoming elections. Also, you get to see the crazy facial hair that dudes who edit the Economist rock.  I can just see these weird mutton chop dudes grilling the titans of commerce on their plans and policies.

Vi Hart – These are the personal and fascinating musings of a math genius who hates math class.  For instance, a strange and divergent discussion of Fibonacci numbers and what they have to do with the asymmetry of pineapples and the inaccuracies of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Vi makes videos that cover the parts of math I never even got next to in the course of an education that only the privileged classes get a crack at. And that makes it fascinating.  It’s not easy stuff but it’s beguiling enough that it pulls in your attention. Vi Hart exemplifies the best aspects of the medium of YouTube and that is the ability to communicate, unencumbered by collaborators or expense.

Adventure TimeAdventure Time – Sweet, silly and short. This is the kind of show where they periodically change the genders of the principle characters.  What? That’s not a kind of show. Shows don’t do that. Oh, I guess that means Adventure Time is the Bee’s Knees.

Craphound – Cory Doctrow is good at talking and thinking.  The last reading list had one of his books on it. He gives talks a lot and I never get to go to them, but most of them end up as podcasts on his excellent blog craphound.com 

 

Two Videos I Made with a Dude I Know

I made a couple of silly videos, with my buddy who doesn’t want his name on this foolishness.

This one is about milk

This one is about murder, effete gloved murder.

Sprint

This is a short story I wrote for  Ragbag Magazine. Last month’s issue was all audio/visual so I recorded myself reading the story out loud. Here’s that audio and a slightly edited transcription of the story. 

Sprint

St. Pat’s Invitational

There’s no gun anymore. Now the race starts with a loud electric beep. So, hearing the beep, he dives in.

He doesn’t arc over the water or break through a tiny piece of the surface; he falls in and ends up deeper than he should be. He’s still moving diagonally down when he sees other swimmers break the surface of the water. He doesn’t hear anything. The race just started and he’s already behind.

 

 

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He breaks his streamline and starts to kick. He can tell he’s too deep. There’s no time to waste, this is a sprint, so he begins his first stroke. Unfortunately, he’s not really pulling himself forward, he is clawing his way up to the surface, fighting instead of riding the little momentum he got from the dive.

Pressure builds up in his chest. He wants to breathe, but he’s still too far from the surface, so he starts his second stroke.  His head breaks the surface and he takes a kind of straight ahead gasp, exhaling and inhaling before bringing his head back into the water.

His right then left arm comes around, back in front of him. His strokes are coming in a strange rhythm. It’s a frantic lope.

Now at the surface racing, he almost feels like this is what he practiced for. He’s kicking and pulling and looking forward out of his goggles, which have just a moderate amount of water in them.

But that comfort is only going to slow him down, and he thinks kick and pull and does more thrash and flail. But he flails mightily and purposefully and as he comes under the flags almost ready for the first turn, he sees the man in lane five coming back toward him, already off the wall.

He’s two body lengths back, there are still three more laps to swim, and this is a sprint.

David Christian weighed 110 pounds when he started high school. At 5’8’’ David was no shorter than most of the other incoming freshmen, but his voice wasn’t cracking yet and he felt very young.

David didn’t lean on his physicality. He never thought of himself as a physical force.  But in high school, where people seemed to be looking at each other more closely, and where the folks were just bigger, size and strength got to the front of his mind more often.

It took a crappy play and the better part of a semester to make him vulnerable enough to be talked into joining the swim team.

“Come on man, you’re tall.”

It didn’t start out being very much of his life. He was a terrible swimmer. Of course, he didn’t know that going in.  He had never needed to think about being terrible at swimming before. But he was personable, made a couple jokes, and the seniors decided they liked him.

So he swam the whole year and became more of a mascot for the team than an important teammate.  David said the cheer, he swam third in the JV relay, and he tried not to disqualify.

It’s not that bad to be a terrible athlete when you’re a freshman, because usually someone else is terrible too.  But as the season wore on, a lot of those terrible swimmers became ex-swimmers.

Then the season ended and Christian – everyone on the swim team was called by their last name – “Christianwas still pretty bad, and now the seniors were gone.

The rest of freshman year went pretty well. That spring and summer he grew five inches and gained twenty-five pounds.  When he came back as a sophomore he was taller than most of his high school.

He had also spent a season playing water polo (watching, really) and he was a lot more competitive than he had been.  He never liked losing, nobody does, but in water polo when you lose you are shoved under, you’re manhandled and it’s galling.  He was still thin, weak and slow, so he got as much shoving under as he could stand. After the season ended, he set about trying to become less weak and less thin, so that eventually he could be less slow.

His first idea was to do pushups.  Pushups were the most boring, difficult way he could think of to work out, so he pointed himself in that direction. The first week he did them, he gave himself terrible acne.  It took him another week to realize he couldn’t do them before bed and go to sleep in a sweaty heap.

He swam in the summer programs. They were far away. It took more time to get there on the bus than he spent in the pool.

He showed up on time, he stretched, and he worked the practices. He led his lane.  He pushed his intervals, and in every way he could think, he beat his body up.  He was breaking himself down as much as he could, straining his muscles and his breath, wanting, willing himself to move faster.

After practice he would come home and stink like chlorine. His hair got nasty and dry. First it turned blonder, then it frosted with a kind of white tip. His skin dried out and pieces of it flaked off in uneven little white sheets.

Then, when the summer ended and he couldn’t spend all day on the bus, he tried to cross train.  He ran stairs, he ran in the park, he ran home from school with a book bag full of books.

His body didn’t seem to change much.  He got faster at running home.

Then came the actual swim season and the real practices.  Now he wasn’t making things up as he went along.  He was doing the things that were actually supposed to make him a better swimmer with his actual team.  Putting in the laps, the work and the time.

Coach talked about winning the work out, and David ate that shit up. But he didn’t see great times at the first few meets.

He felt better. His starts and turns were better, but he wasn’t swimming varsity times.

He wouldn’t have asked for anybody’s advice. He was embarrassed at what they might say. But they offered advice. “It’s early in the season,” they said. “You’ve been working hard. You’re breaking your body down now for races that come later on in the year.” “You’re in good position.” “It was 1.06, but it was clean.” “Don’t worry, you have nice balanced splits.”  “You want to peak at the right time.”  “Wait ‘til Conference.” “Wait ‘til taper.”

He couldn’t make himself believe that stuff. Swimming’s not subjective.  You’re good or you’re not. He knew what he wanted and he knew he didn’t have it.

He was getting good at practice.

The year before, practices had left him exhausted. Now he could lead practices, he could push as hard as anyone in his lane.  He asked for harder intervals. Yeah, it pissed off his lane, but he did it anyway. David still left practice exhausted, but now it was because he was pushing himself.

He had more meets and more mediocre results. Mercifully, time passed. He got over the hump of the season without noticing.  David pushed through the hardest practices of the season and afterward jogged home.  He broke his body down.  He wrecked the thing in traditional swimming style, hoping that he could come into his taper with more strength, more energy and more speed.

And then he was in taper, and he felt the boost in energy. Suddenly, he was restless in class.

Taper is the part of any training regimen when you practice less so that your body can restore itself and heal. You let your muscles rebuild. Boxers taper before big fights, marathoners run shorter distances in the week before an important race and swimmers swim less and less yards as they approach their final meets.

David wasn’t going to swim in sectionals or state.  He wasn’t fast enough to make that cut.  But he had conference coming up, and that was his Olympics.

On a Tuesday in an afternoon algebra class while everyone else was in the sleepy haze of an after lunch class, David fidgeted in his chair.  He had already asked to go pee once and walked around the halls.  Now he was out of excuses to leave class.

His body wanted work and practice, but during taper he didn’t practice enough to satisfy it.

Then the bell rang and he was free.  He went to his locker.  He already had his books for history, but why not? The locker is high school’s version of the fridge – you always look in whether you want something or not. He opened the locker.  It held a spring jacket and a stack of papers, folders and other things that might have been important.

He closed his locker. He went to class. Class dragged on. Class ended. He went to the locker room. He put his suit on. And for a blink, he swam.  He felt good, he felt fast, then it was done.

Walking back into the locker room, David wasn’t satisfied with his effort, but he did feel strong. After practice, he went through his daily routine: rinse, towel off, dress, run home.  But this was taper, so no running.  With that in mind, David was walking when he opened the door, stepped out of Sacred Heart College Prep onto Clark Street and got very wet.

He wasn’t thinking about the weather; he was in his routine. The water woke him up. Newly wet swimmer skin stinks of chlorine that can never be totally washed off. As he walked down the sidewalk, the light of the street lamps sparkled in his eyes. David reached behind his head for a hood but this jacket didn’t have one. Whatever, six blocks, he thought.

David got home, went into his room, peeled off the clothes he was wearing and fell asleep. Two hours later, he woke up when his mother came home from work.  David put his head out the door of his room and told her he’d make himself something to eat later.  They didn’t usually eat together anyway.

When he woke up again it was morning and he was sick.

His throat felt sticky and full. His eyes had sandmen that started by his nose and worked all the way out to the far side. He rubbed them. The left eye was less gross, less welded shut than the right, so he worked on that one first. Eventually he opened it, but the world wasn’t any prettier with his eyes open so he put his head back on the pillow.

He started to fall asleep again but he remembered about practice.  You couldn’t practice if you didn’t go to class that day, so he sat up again and started working on his right eye.  Eventually, it opened and he got out of bed.

“I checked on you, but I couldn’t wake you up.” His mother told him as he got ready to leave for the day. He didn’t have anything to say back.

Wednesday practice didn’t go as well as Tuesday practice did. But, it was taper so it was short. He gutted it out and went home.

He felt just as bad on Thursday as he felt on Wednesday. He gave his friends a wide berth, particularly teammates – nobody should be sick for conference. Practice felt shitty, but he was good at practice now and he could get through them on bad days.

Friday, he felt better. Maybe he would be healthy again by conference on Saturday. Taper was fucked. But, if he could be healthy by conference…

It wasn’t about taper, it was about conference.

Conference

He hears the beep and he’s off. For a long moment, he’s in the air, holding his body tightly in the streamline. He hits the water, glides, still in streamline, then, feeling himself slow down, he kicks.  He feels the pressure in his chest.  He wants to breathe but instead lets a little air out of his lungs.

His head breaches the surface of the water and he takes his first stroke, feeling the water in his hand. He still wants to breathe but doesn’t. The next stroke starts out as strong as the first but comes out a little short.  He finally turns his head to breathe on his third stroke.

Don’t slow down your kicking, keep the pace. He can see the swimmer in lane four. He’s right next to him, they are stroke for stroke, he must have dived a little to the right of the center of the land because they are very close. Now the other swimmer is a half stroke ahead of him. He shouldn’t have looked.

Ahead, the wall is coming, five strokes away, maybe six.

David tries to turn up his turn over, bring his arms through the air more rapidly.  He takes what will be his last breath before the wall.  He pulls, flips, and as he does the somersault that makes the turn, he can feel that his body is a little too close to the wall.  He unfurls awkwardly but with all the power he can muster.

Still, three laps to go.

He dropped seven seconds off of his best time.

At a higher level this would be a miraculous improvement, something beyond hoping for. But David wasn’t swimming at a very high level. Coming off the low base of JV swimming, it’s more like respectable.

Every swimmer mainly races himself, herself, or the clock. It’s as individual as a sport can be. Sure there’s a team, but you can barely hear them cheering. There are no cheerleaders, no fans at swim meets. When you compete, you mostly look down at the bottom of the pool.  It shouldn’t matter too much what place you come in. Seven seconds is the thing, and it wasn’t bad.

But David came in fifth.