Thursday, July 31, 2008

What the guys at Fantagraphics read when they were teens

Sadly, I didn't discover cool comics until I was well past teen-hood. When I was growing up, my only exposure to comics was Archie's Digest (which--to my eternal shame--I loved until I was 10 or 11) and the occasional DC superhero comic, like Sgt. Rock or Green Lantern.

For the guys working at legendary comics publisher Fantagraphics, it's another story. I asked some of them to share what titles they read when they were younger and why:

Eric Reynolds (self-described "Official Shill" for Fantagraphics)
Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, by Daniel Clowes: This began in the pages of "Eightball" around the same time Lynch's Blue Velvet came out, and it had a similarly powerful effect on my teenaged brain, convincing me of hidden meanings lurking under the surface, encouraging numerous re-readings, inspiring me to give a "closer" reading to it than perhaps anything I'd ever read up to that point.

Buddy Does Seattle, by Pete Bagge: Growing up in suburban Orange County, Peter Bagge's Buddy Bradley stories were so foreign to my own experience that they might as well have been set in Communist China. Which is why they were so alluring; I moved to Seattle within about three or four years of HATE's debut. Everyone else was moving there for grunge, but I moved for the comics.

Frank, by Jim Woodring: Frank is to teens and adults what Yellow Submarine is to the under-10 set. Absolutely magical and transportive.

Skin Deep/El Borbah/Big Baby, by Charles Burns: I've always wanted to draw more like Charles Burns than any other cartoonist. Those thick, black brushstrokes are just about as perfect as perfect gets. He could draw anything and make me want to get a tattoo of it.

Love & Rockets, by The Hernandez Bros.: Still the greatest comic book series of all-time. [Make sure you check out Fantagraphics' helpful "How to Read Love & Rockets" guide. --Paul]

Mike Baehr (Marketing)
Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes: Even though the protagonists are girls, I could still relate to their slanted, ironic and funny reactions to the absurdity of the world around them. The movie's great, too.

Jacob Covey (Art Director)
I read Velvet Glove in high school and totally didn't get it. It freaked me out. It was like talking to someone who was speaking English with all the words rearranged. I didn't get that readers could be expected to work at reading. Or just enjoy the ride.

Jason's Sshhhh! was the book that really changed my reading of comics. I could read that book as a participant. It's all wordless, using symbols as the primary device for communicating the story. It's pure narrative art and can be read, quite literally, by anyone who has eyeballs. Everything Jason does is just good storytelling. [And FYI, Sshhhh! is unfortunately long out of print, but Fantagraphics is going to reprint it in December. --Paul]

Nowadays I finally get the genius of Jim Woodring who does something similar to Jason with the Frank stories. Those stories are wordless, dream-like, and profound. It's easy to see why people think it reads like an LSD trip.

For years the only comic strip I would read was Maakies. It's gallows humor drawn by the hand of God. A stark, florid style with alternately profound and utterly offensive gags. A drunk crow that routinely commits suicide isn't exactly kid friendly but every kid should have it hidden in their dresser. It's honest-to-goodness genius at work. The new Cartoon Network show based on Maakies will be a big hit but it won't do justice to the comic.

Jason Miles (Sales Manager)
Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, by Daniel Clowes: Made me respect the animalistic dark hatred of the human sub-concious.

Frank, by Jim Woodring: Discovering Frank by Jim Woodring as a pre-teen was a smart moment for me. I no longer felt alone and it kept me warm at night with oodles of mystery and purple, ambiguous fear.

New(ish) JK Rowling Book on Dec. 4th!

On the author's website:

"'The Tales of Beedle the Bard' will now be widely available to all Harry Potter fans. Royalties will be donated to the Children's High Level Group, to benefit institutionalised children in desperate need of a voice. The new edition will include the Tales themselves, translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger, and with the illustrations by me, but also notes by ProfessorAlbus Dumbledore, which appear by generous permission if the Hogwarts Headmasters' Archive.'"

According to the email I got from B&N:

"It contains all five wizarding fairy tales left to Hermione Granger by Albus Dumbledore in the seventh and final Harry Potter series. Only one, The Tale of the Three Brothers, is recounted in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. The other four are reveled here for the very first time."

Well, while I knew it HAD to be released EVENTUALLY, I wasn't expecting it. And am curious. You?.

If you're going down below:

Boing Boing mentions Rosalind Williams today, MIT professor of history of science and author of Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination. "The book explores both real and imaginary undergrounds, from the building of sewers and subways to archaeological digs to the writings of Jules Verne and HG Wells. This year, MIT Press has published a revised edition of Notes On The Underground."

Williams was interviewed by Cabinet this summer celebrating the new edition of her book. Here's a bit:

In the nineteenth century, however, another type of story began to be written. Instead of being a place to visit, the underground became a place to live. Instead of being discovered through chance, an underworld could be constructed through deliberate choice. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) is still an imaginary subterranean journey. Far less famous, but at least as intriguing, is another book he published thirteen years later, Les Indes Noires, which depicts a permanently functioning underground society. This second type of underground tale emerges along with modern science and technology. As scientific knowledge advanced, the idea of discovering a hidden inner world became less and less credible. On the other hand, as technological prowess advanced, the idea of building an inner world became more and more credible.

BLDG Blog ran a post last week on "Mysterious Chinese Tunnels", supposedly built in the Pacific Northwest to kidnap people for the purposes of white slavery deportation to China. A bit:

Subterranean space here clearly exists within an interesting overlap of projections: fantasies of race, exoticism, and simply subconscious fear of the underworld. White Europeans had expanded west all the way to the Pacific Ocean – only to find themselves standing in a swamp, on earthquake-prone ground, with a "mysterious" race of Chinese dock workers tunneling toward them through the earth, looking for victims... It's like a geography purpose-built for H.P. Lovecraft, or something straight out of the work of Jeff VanderMeer: down in the foundations of your city is a mysterious network of rooms, excavated by another race, through which unidentified strangers move at night, threatening to abduct you.
It's urban historical anthropology by way of Jean Cocteau – or Sigmund Freud.

One of the best underground books is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, a fantasy novel set below London that I love to recommend to new Gaiman fans, and also look for Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow in which all sorts of folklore is blended in an underworld setting that dazzled me earlier this summer. (More on both of those via Endicott Studio.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book Review- The God Box by Alex Sanchez

The God Box
Paul has lived his entire life being taught that homosexuality is wrong and a sin, and trying to keep his own secret feelings towards guys to himself while attempting to change them. Then one day, Manuel, a new transfer student, comes into his school and turns Paul's world upside down. Manuel is openly gay and Christan, and it leaves Paul wondering how the two can co-exist. Through a series of events, Paul is finally able to reconcile his confused feelings of balancing his spirituality and sexuality.

While I have not gone through a similar experience, and therefore wanted to slap the main character a few times throughout the book, I really enjoyed this novel. I was pretty accepting of my own sexuality, and figured that if my religion didn’t accept it, why should I accept my religion? By the way, there were other thoughts besides that one that led me to becoming atheist, but that’s another story and one that doesn’t need to be discussed here.

So reading about how Paul was so torn between both his feelings toward the same gender and his feelings toward his religion which (supposedly) condemned his homosexual feelings was not a relatable experience and, to me, because of my own feelings toward religion, made me not like him at certain points in the book. During these times, I desperately wanted him to just come to the obvious conclusion of leaving his religion and just being proud of who he is and who he loves. But, as we all know, not everyone is the same, or thinks the same, and reading this book showed me how someone could balance the two in their life and not feel torn between the two. It doesn’t necessarily change my own feelings as to how I view religion in my life, but it helps me to understand people who have both in their lives.

Throughout this fantastic storyline are passages from the Bible and the arguments against the specific lines pointed at when people condemn homosexuality and use the Bible to justify it. This is a very powerful book, one that definitely sticks with you after you're finished, and it's one that tackles several important, pertinent issues very well. Highly recommended!

Other GLBT titles to look for!
Rainbow series (Rainbow Boys, Rainbow High, Rainbow Road), So Hard to Say, and Getting It by Alex Sanchez

Geography Club, Order of the Poison Oak, and SplitScreen (in that order) by Brent Hartinger

Boy Meets Boy and Wide Awake by David Levithan

Straight Road to Kylie by Nico Medina

A Really Nice Prom Mess and A Tale of Two Summers by Brian Sloan

Freak Show by James St. James

Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson

Kissing Kate by Lauren Myracle

And there’s plenty more out there that deal with teen sexuality and being gay, so just look around or check out this link to Alex's site where there's a huge list of GLBT titles with book summaries. To end this post, I went back and found Alex’s answer from an interview I did with him last October about why he wrote The God Box. There’s also a longer essay about his inspiration behind it included in the back of the book as well, which was really interesting to read. Alex also has a Spirituality section on his website with lots of helpful links. Anyway, without further ado, here's the inspiration QnA:

In your new book The God Box, you focus on what it means to be gay and Christian. Was this something that was difficult to do, or was it something you had gone through as well? Did you have to do a lot of research to get things as realistic as possible?

Writing The God Box helped me to sort out a lot of my own thoughts and experiences about being gay and Christian. I did a lot of research on the so-called "clobber" passages in the Bible that are used to denigrate gay people. When you really start to study them, as the characters in The God Box do, you begin to realize that the passages are far from clear, culture-bound, and selectively used to judge and persecute people, exactly what so much of the rest of the Bible tells us not to do.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Nothing by Robin Friedman

Nothing by Robin Friedman
How many boys and men suffer from bulimia? Think about it, really think about it, then guess.

Say the number out loud. Come on, say it.

Now compare your guess to the facts:

At least one million men and boys are currently suffering from some kind of eating disorder. One million.
Approximately ten out of eleven people suffering from eating disorders are female - which means the other one is male.
One out of every four people suffering from anorexia is male.
One out of every eight people suffering from bulimia is male.

Here's another fact: Rarely do books, movies, or TV series depict male characters suffering from eating disorders. Think of all of the stories you've read or shows you've seen in which female characters mention, discuss, or obsess about their weight. Now think of all of the times you've read or seen the same type of stories with guys at the forefront.

Nothing by Robin Friedman, the fictional story of a teenager named Parker, handles the subject of male eating disorders sensitively and realistically.

On the outside, Parker seems to have everything going for him: he's wealthy, he's attractive, he's a track star, he's a journalist, he's active in his community, and he's a good student. However, Parker doesn't like everything that he's doing, and he doesn't like how he looks on the outside. He keeps his emotions locked up inside, where no one can see them. His father wants him to become "a nice Jewish doctor," but that's not Parker's dream. Although his parents have made him see a college consultant regularly since he was a freshman, he's still not sure what he wants to do after high school. When the pressure (from his overbearing father, from his coaches, from his friends, from himself) gets to be too much, he turns to food. After going on shopping sprees at the grocery store, he eats until he's uncomfortably full, then throws up.

Binging and purging takes a toll on both his body and his mind. He feels tired all of the time. He loses weight. He loses muscle. He loses strength. He stops hanging out with his friends. He argues with the girl he likes.

Danielle wishes she got a fraction of the attention Parker gets from their family and classmates. At first, she does not realize that that very attention has pushed Parker to hurt himself. Then, though Parker tries his best to hide what he's doing, Danielle begins to suspect something is wrong. She wonders if she should speak up, then wonders who will listen to her. As other matters at home complicate things, Danielle's narrative offers additional insight into Parker's character as well as their family life.

Nothing is written in first-person narrative, alternating between Parker's point of view and Danielle's point of view. While Parker shares his thoughts in straightforward prose, his younger sister Danielle uses verse. This novel is well-researched and will appeal to both genders, thanks largely to the dual narrative. Hopefully, after reading this book, teenagers who worry that they or someone they know might have an eating disorder will turn to someone for help.

Read the first chapter of Nothing.

In February, I posted about National Eating Disorder Month at my blog and included some notes from the National Eating Disorders Association:
In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Approximately 25 million more are struggling with binge eating disorder (NEDA, 2005). This is a disorder with life and death consequences.

Below are some of the symptoms of Eating Disorders identified by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV-TR):
* A person who refuses to maintain body weight that is at or above the normal weight for the age and height of the individual. This would be measured by weight loss leading to the maintenance of body weight less than 85% of the expected weight gain during the period of growth.
* The person shows an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even if the person is under weight.
* The person has a distorted outlook on their body image.

If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or someone you love, please acknowledge them, confide in someone, and start striving for your best self and your best health. There are many people out there who will help you. If you are a teenager, please tell your parents or other adults that you trust. No matter where you are or how old you are, you may call the NEDA Toll-Free Information and Referral Helpline: (800) 931-2237

Contact The National Eating Disorder Association:
Toll-Free Helpline: (800) 931-2237

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A universal American experience

Elisha Cooper has a new post up at Publisher's Weekly where he pokes a bit of fun at himself. Cooper's recent book, ridiculous, hilarious, terrible, cool: A Year in an American High Schoolwas one of the most interesting books I've read all year and I think the first literary documentary of high school ever written. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) Here's a bit of my review:

It can sometimes be frustrating to read young adult fiction as the adult authors often find it difficult to resist telling us who they think teens are or want them to be. Cooper sidesteps that minefield by going directly to the source in a manner both inspiring and refreshing. These are real teenagers and guess what -- they aren’t stupid or fashion obsessed or determined to conquer the world as part of some mean girls cabal. Mostly they are just trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Some of them have parents who are supportive, others have parents who are distracted and some have parents just as confused as they are. Nobody is perfect, but they aren’t train wrecks either. It’s the real world and Cooper offers it up to readers in a manner that makes you care a great deal about these kids, and about all the others out there just like them.

I also interviewed Elisha a few months ago and was particularly interested in how he accomplished his book - in other words, how he managed to get teens to be so honest. Here's what he said:

The kids were open, and not. I mean, how well do we all know what we feel as we’re living it? Add being seventeen. Add sharing one’s life with a stranger who’s writing down what you say. So our talks were delicate. It took some probing. It’s not that the kids were dishonest. But their feelings really shifted from one week to the next. Not even shifted. Disappeared. I’d ask Anthony to tell me more about the story from last week and get the blankest stare. In other words, I wish the students revealed more.

It was a struggle to piece stories together. Especially when they involved love triangles (love rhombuses!). I often had to ask them to look back on what they had been doing or feeling a month ago, to fill in the gaps. Then, at times, the students floored me by being disarmingly frank about something. So that was surprising. But it probably took time for me to get to this point with them.

American Teen is a new documentary that was just released in studios after doing very well at Sundance. It also follows a small group of teens over the course of a year and if you're familiar at all with the classic film The Breakfast Club (a movie that transcends time) then you will have an idea of how this one plays out. Here's a description of the movie:

But while the camera work and voice-over has the glossy fizz of fiction, it's nonetheless a real school, and while the kids we meet all correlate roughly to the archetypal teens of fiction, they're real too. We meet Hannah, the plucky, artsy outsider; Colin, the star athlete with a heart of gold; Megan, the prom queen whose school-spirit high-fives hide an iron fist; and smart, insecure, dorky Jake, all in quick succession. And while part of your mind reels at the clichés -- we're just one Judd Nelson-type away from a straight flush, for heaven's sake -- as Burstein's film unfolds, we realize that if there ever was a place cliché's were true, it's high school.

And here, by the way, is a general description of ridiculous, hilarious, terrible, cool from a Chicago Sun-Times review:

Daniel, a South Sider who's a smart-dressing go-getter, excels at extracurriculars. The icing on the cake for the student government powerhouse would be admittance to Harvard, but nothing's certain.

Zef is "pale and good-looking in a '70s punk rocker sort of way." He fuels himself daily on a Starbucks six-shot, half-decaf, no-water, iced venti Americano, but still can't seem to pull himself together enough to make it to class.

Emily's a focused soccer star, Maya a budding actress. Aisha's a Muslim with an international background and most recently lived in Cairo (Egypt, not Illinois). Diana, whose sisters chide her for being "book smart, street stupid" and going to a "white" school (Payton's student body is approximately one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic), finds solace in swimming. Anthony's more preoccupied with "the girl" who may or may not be carrying his child than with school. Anais, a dancer who aspires to be a professional, is graceful in every way. "When she stops at the traffic light a block from Payton her feet are turned out perfectly."

If crises seem monumental it's because in high school crises are monumental -- or at least they feel that way.

I can't help but think that this is a case where you read the book, watch the movie and then maybe take a step back and look long and hard at your high school and see how your reality fits into these other two American high school experiences. I haven't see the movie but I can tell you Elisha Cooper's book rang very true to me, but then again so did The Breakfast Club. Some experiences are very nearly universal and perhaps, in America at least, high school is one of them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Will the real Larry please stand up?

Sermon #93

Slip on your Gap jeans, your Nike T-shirt, your Reeboks—or maybe even your Cons if you think that makes you cool and ironic in a Kurt Cobain kind of way. Grab your Adidas backpack, ride to school on your Razor, drink your Poland Spring, eat your PowerBar, write a paper on your iMac, slip on your Ralph Lauren windbreaker. Buy the latest CD from Tower, check the caller ID to see who’s on the phone, eat your Doritos, drink your Coke. Stare at the TV till you’re stupefied.

Is there any time of the day when we’re not being used and abused by the advertising companies?
Josh Swensen has a secret. As secrets go, I suppose there are are worse things to withhold. But then, smart though he may be, Josh could never have predicted how far things would go.

Who knows why some things take off? Pet Rocks, Crazy Bones, Hula-Hoops? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Sometimes the culture just grabs on to something and pulls. And pulls and pulls and pulls. It makes no sense; there's no reason for it. If there had been warning signs, maybe I would have noticed. (p. 83)

It started on a whim, with the creation of a website, The Gospel According to Larry, publishing his rants about consumer culture and photographs of his few possessions (75, to be precise. He's counted). Josh initially kept his identity a secret because, well, he could. And who knew that Larry would turn into a phenomenon, inspiring people like Bono, even spawning events such as Larryfest? Whatever his motivations, Josh ultimately wants to make a difference, and there's a power that comes with being Larry, a platform that Josh can't build on his own as just another smart, unpopular kid at school. Writing as Larry, people are willing to pay attention to him in ways they never would with Josh Swensen, privileged seventeen-year-old high school senior. Josh has kept his identity as Larry a secret for so long that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose if the truth comes out. And if the person using the screen name betagold lives up to his, or her, promises, it won't be a secret any longer.

Janet Tashjian's The Gospel According to Larry was published in 2001, so a few of the references are dated, like the quote above which mentions Tower Records, and perhaps today Larry would have a blog instead of a regular website. But as I re-read the book this week, I was struck by the number of issues Josh/Larry is concerned with that are still relevant today. (I was also reminded of a fellow librarian, who told me her then-teenaged son read the book and was inspired to follow Larry's lead by not owning more than 75 items.) Likewise, the other types of problems Josh faces, including his crush on his best friend Beth, who seems to think him as just a friend, even though she kind of has a thing for Larry and wants to start a Larry-based organization at school
, and his relationship Peter, his advertising executive step-father who has been raising him since Josh's mother died, remain commonplace.

In 2004, just in time for the last presidential election, Tashjian published a sequel, Vote for Larry, in which Josh is persuaded to return to the public sphere by running for president. Now, Josh may be too smart for his own good, self-absorbed, and a bit arrogant, but even he knows that he doesn't have a chance of winning the election. He and Beth, as his running-mate, finagle their way in by pointing out that while the president must be at least 35-years-old, there's nothing that stops anyone younger from running for president and raising issues the established candidates would rather avoid. Once again, however, betagold is out to sabotage Larry and his campaign. (And once again, many of the issues are still important today, particularly if you share Josh's political views.) Who can Josh trust when the stakes are even higher than they were in The Gospel According to Larry?

Josh, it must be said, is not an entirely likable character. His intentions and devotion to his causes may be admirable, but he also does some morally questionable things in the process. However, this does not make The Gospel According to Larry or Vote for Larry any less entertaining. It helps, I think, that Josh is so flawed, because a more admirable character could easily have become too perfect, too hard to root for. And despite all of Josh's dishonorable actions, I did root for him. Plus, there's still betagold. Who is betagold and why is he/she so intent on unmasking Larry? Although I hope this doesn't make me sound like a bad person, another part of the appeal of the books, at least for me, was the rather horrified anticipation of reading about the train wreck that could entangle Josh if betagold is successful.

A third Larry book, Larry and the Meaning of Life, will be published in September. And, yes, betagold is back, too.

Jay Asher chats at readergirlz

Jay Asher will be chatting at the readergirlz forum live TONIGHT, starting at 6 PM PST / 9 PM EST. The chat will last for about an hour. Come on over to and ask Jay a question or two!

Jay's debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, takes an unflinching look at a teenager's suicide. This is the first time that readergirlz has selected a book written by a male author to be a spotlighted title. Readergirlz changes the book pick monthly, publishing a new issue at their website, Though readergirlz is targeted at girls in their upper teens, we encourage readers of all ages and both genders to get involved in the discussions and events, and we'd love to see GuysLitWire posters and readers get in the mix!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Review by Steven Wolk

Walk into a typical middle school or high school social studies classroom and ask the kids what life is like today on Native American reservations and I am as certain as the sky is blue that you will be met by a sea of blank faces. Worse yet, walk into an American shopping mall and pluck a hundred adults at random and ask them the same question and you will get the same response. When it comes to "Indians," Americans' ignorance is monumental. (Many would be surprised to discover there are Native Americans still alive.) But a cure for our shameful willful ignorance is here to open our hearts and our minds to the lives of Native Americans while telling us a grand story: Sherman Alexie's masterful The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The novel is semi-autobiographical. Like Junior, the protagonist, Alexie grew-up on the Spokane Indian reservation. (All of his other books are written for adults, and one of them was the basis for the wonderful movie, "Smoke Signals.") Early on, when Junior opens his reservation high school geometry textbook in class and sees that the very same book belonged to his mom, the injustice and inhumanity and hopelessness of the "rez" confronts him smack in the face. I don’t want to say what happens next – in fact, there is very little in this story I want to give away -- but soon after Junior decides that for him to have any hope of surviving, he must attend the local white high school off the reservation. Labeled a traitor by his tribe and abandoned by his best friend Rowdy, Junior begins a new (and surprising) life at the all-white Reardon High School. Eventually, and I'll give up this morsel of juicy plot, Junior is on the Reardon basketball team and he must play against the reservation team and his former best buddy, Rowdy.

Amidst all of this is the tragedy of life on the rez. Poverty, alcoholism, drugs, unemployment, violence, death, it's all here because it's all there. Alexie writes that reservations were not created for Native Americans to live, but rather, they are "concentration camps" where Indians are meant to go to die. And yet, within all of Junior’s struggles, and the plight of his tribe, there is sweetness and hope and goodness. And Alexie is able to write of all of this and write a laugh-out loud book that will make you want to read it more than once.

A special mention must be made regarding Ellen Forney's remarkable illustrations throughout the book. Done in a doodling and comic book-style (as if Junior had done them) they add an element of child-like simplicity and humor to the story that runs completely counter – in a very good way – to the deeply serious elements in the story. This book would be great without the illustrations, but with them it is a marvel.

Only a special handful of books grab hold of you like a vise grip. They become part of that rarefied pantheon of books that everyone should read. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of those books. It should be required reading in every middle school or high school. It is a work of art and an absolute blast to read.

So do you reread your favorite books?

Charlotte had an interesting post up last week about rereading her mother's books and wondered if her sons will someday be rereaders as well:

I doubt my sons will ever want to read my collection of British Girls Books (although if they do, more power to them). But they will be reading their mother’s books, because I have cunningly put lots of them in their rooms already—all my Rosemary Sutcliffe, E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Jean Craighead George, and many, many, more. I am a bit anxious, however, about the boys seizing my books through eminent domain and disappearing into their own adulthoods with them. But perhaps boys are different, and don’t take their childhood comfort reading off to college with them?

Which in turn leads me to wonder—do boys/men do the comfort re-reading thing in the same way that avid female readers do? My husband, the only male reader whose habits I know, does not. Certainly at this point in their young lives my sons have books that they want over and over again--will that stop?

I've been a rereader all my life but I don't know if my brother is. It's an interesting topic for all you males out there: do you return to favorite titles again and again?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

So you want to rule the world ... Part 2: Amusing your minions

The heart of an inferior is always fascinated by a jest. Men know this in the knavery of elections.
Know it now, my pupils, in the knavery of life!

--Paul Clifford, Lord Litton*

Just slip on a banana peel
The world's at your feet

- “Make 'em laugh,” from Singing in the Rain

If you want to rule the world, you’re going to need minions.

And to get minions you need to be charismatic. Today’s minions don’t care about rugged good looks or fancy speeches. Today’s minions want to follow someone funny -- strangely, dangerously funny.

You don’t need a joke book. I’m sure you’re a genius with lots of very clever thoughts in your own brain. But you may need help getting that funny stuff out in a way that other people think is funny -- and not creepy.

You need to read Tricks of the Trade, edited by Jerry Dunn...

The idea here is that people who have perfected an art give you their secrets. Julia Child, for instance, tells you how to cook an egg.

There’s tons of useful information in the book, but what we’re interested in today are chapters from three very funny men -- Jonathan Winters, Steve Allen and Chevy Chase.

Jonathan Winters, who was strangely, dangerously funny before it was cool, has written “How to Improvise Humor:” have to get over your fear of going downtown and acting funny. You have to be willing to gamble…

His chapter includes a real conversation he had with a taxi driver, which I won’t spoil here because it’s positively hilarious.

Sample tip: “Talk to yourself.”

The same book has a section on “How to be Funny” by Steve Allen. His suggestions are a lot more down to earth and you can put them to use right away.

Sample tip: Develop your own joke formula.

This really works. The formula I personally use is, “Sounds like my prom night.” It’s not funny here in print. But the next time someone mentions some sort of disaster, humiliation or revolting discovery, give it a try.

Lastly, we have Chevy Chase explaining “How to do a Pratfall.” This is an amazing chapter. He really spills the secrets here and reveals himself to be a true scholar of slapstick. Check out this tip for bumping into a coffee table: Always hit the leg of the table … with the toe of your shoe only. Hitting with your toe not only prevents injury to your shin, but also checks your motion, giving you some momentum that prompts the rest of your upper body to whip over the table.

This man is a genius. I’d quote more but you really need to read the chapter for yourself.

Tricks of the Trade also has a section called “Master of the Universe,” which among other things offers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s lesson on the sky-hook. That will come in handy, too, when you’re playing HORSE with Bill Gates and Bono.

The book may be hard to find in stores, so check the library.

* Paul Clifford, by Lord Litton, is not a book I'd recommend, BUT in the appendix is something called: MAXIMS ON THE POPULAR ART OF CHEATING ... BEING AN INTRODUCTION TO THAT NOBLE SCIENCE BY WHICH EVERY MAN MAY BECOME HIS OWN ROGUE.

These cheats are actually more likely to be used by politicians than robbers. Following this list may actually lead to you ruling the world even faster than following my advice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Superman Really Came from Cleveland: A Q & A with Author Marc Tyler Nobleman

Marc Tyler Nobleman has more than seventy books to his name, but lately he's into writing about the superhero underdogs of the world. And I don't mean this guy. I mean---as Marc puts it at his currently "superhero-centric" blog, Noblemania---his current writing interest focuses on those literary figures whose achievements are well-known but whose names and back stories are not.

Take his current title, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, illustrated by Ross MacDonald and published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers this month. Boys of Steel tells the tale of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two misfit teens living in Cleveland circa 1930. Both boys preferred escaping into science fiction worlds and the fellowship of fictional characters in pulp magazines and comic strips---more than socializing in their high school ("Most days, Jerry Siegel slipped into the halls of his high school staring at the floor. He always wished he were going in the other direction---back home"). Shy Jerry wrote his own adventure and science fiction stories (when he wasn't at the cinema), and Joe---also shy, also "mousy around girls," and someone who could have passed for his brother---illustrated them ("No matter the obstacle, Joe found a way to draw. When his family couldn't afford art paper, he made do with wrapping paper from the butcher or the back of discarded wallpaper").

In 1934, Joe and Jerry created a superhero who was everything they were not, crafting a "'science fiction story in cartoons.' It starred a brave, tough man who fought for truth and justice." Approximately four years later, they convinced a publisher to take a chance on their Man of Steel in a new format—the comic book. Superman debuted in 1938: "People wanted a hero they knew would always come home. Jerry and Joe gave them that---the world's first superhero." Nobleman includes an afterword about Siegel's and Shuster's long struggle with DC Comics after they realized they had made a mistake in selling all rights to Superman for only $130. Included in this afterword is the very recent (March 2008) landmark ruling, in which the Siegel family won back half the copyright to all the Superman material introduced in Action Comics #1.

Nobleman's book, to be released this week, has already met with a handful of starred reviews: Wrote Publishers Weekly, "{c}atering to comics junkies, this vibrant and well-researched picture book biography introduces the youthful inventors of Superman...Nobleman details this achievement with a zest amplified by MacDonald's...punchy illustrations, done in a classic litho palette of brassy gold, antique blue and fireplug red."

And in her detailed early-June review, Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production over at School Library Journal wrote, "the next time you have a seven-year-old moaning about needing to read a biography make sure that this book is the ace up your sleeve." But, as I'm wont to do here at Guys Lit Wire, I argue that this is an engaging title for teens as well, especially those interested in comics -- and in those interested in illustration. MacDonald's work has an infectious energy, and---as Publishers Weekly pointed out about his 2002 title, Another Perfect Day (Roaring Book Press)---his design is clean, his pacing spot-on, and his images "ebullient."

I sat down with Nobleman for a short Q & A about Boys of Steel, but I also took the opportunity to ask him about his next project, a book for older readers about the uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman -- or, as Nobleman puts it at this post, " the co-creator of Batman whose name is not on every Batman story."

Jules: For those who don't read your blog, tell us about the research that went into Boys of Steel.

Marc: Wait, you know people who don't read my blog? :)

The research...I started too late to be able to speak with Jerry Siegel (the writer) or Joe Shuster (the artist) personally; both died in the 1990s. I relied as much as possible on interviews they gave or direct quotations from articles.

My goal was not to uncover any revelations. I simply wanted to tell this story in a new format to a new audience. It ended up being that I did uncover a few revelations--but only after I'd sold the manuscript.

Once we locked in an illustrator, I went to Cleveland to do photo research, which is where I made most of the discoveries. One was the truth about what happened to Jerry Siegel's father---he was not shot to death during a robbery at his clothing store as recounted in an otherwise wonderful book on comics history. I also was the first to dig up photos of the unassuming apartment building in which Joe first drew Superman---a building that the city demolished in 1975 without knowing its significance. I blogged about just how I did that---it was not nearly as easy as walking into an archive and saying "Got any photos of Joe Shuster's home circa 1934?"

Jules: Did you see MacDonald's illustrations early on, or was it not until later after you had written every word? What was it like to see him bring your story to life? And did you have any say in some of the wonderful details MacDonald brought to your already detailed text?

Marc: I sold the manuscript in March 2005 and finished revision before we landed Ross (in November 2006). After my Cleveland trip, I sent Ross (via my editor) a CD of dozens of reference images, along with requests and suggestions for each spread, but he and I were not in direct contact until after he was done, as per protocol.

I first saw Ross's sketches in July 2007. It was exhilarating - a feeling similar to what Jerry's when he first saw Joe sketch this character that till that point had existed only in his (Jerry's) head. Ross was very respectful of my most fervent requests (one of many examples: I wanted one spread to include Shabbat candles, though I don't mention them in the text, and Ross obliged) and he added so much more than I could have hoped for.

Jules: How validating is it to be getting so many great reviews (starred, no less) for a book you so obviously poured your heart and soul into? (Booklist writing "this robust treatment does their story justice" must be particularly nice.)

Marc: I'm mostly good things, including flattered and humbled, though I'm also one deadly sin, proud. I was so fortunate to be able to work with my exceptional editor Janet Schulman and Ross. I have been thrilled to see some of the subtle details some reviewers have picked up on.

Jules: Tell us about your Bill Finger project -- and what your next book will be.

Marc: Hopefully my next book is my Bill Finger project! It's a picture book for older readers and has a different tone than Boys of Steel. (I also have several other nonfiction picture book manuscripts in various stages, none related to superheroes, and most on subjects that have never been the focus of a book before.)

Finger is the uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman. For a reason my story explains, cartoonist Bob Kane is currently the only person whose name can legally be on Batman, but Finger (as even Kane admitted before his death) deserves equal billing. Finger created Batman's iconic look (yes, even though he was the writer), wrote the first Batman story and many of the best stories of his first twenty-five years, created most of the major villains and motifs, and crafted what distinguished Batman: an origin story with a believable motive for fighting crime.

Yet Finger has never been the subject of a book for any audience. His peers considered him a creative genius and comic fans are rabid for some kind of treatment on Finger. His fatal flaw was that he did not have the self-esteem to fight for himself. His story is sad, but vital; kids will be surprised---and perhaps emboldened---to learn that someone who created a character that became so famous still had doubts and fears just like they sometimes do. Inspirational people can be complex.

[Ed. Note: Here's Marc's 7/18/08 blog post on Bill Finger and "The Dark Knight," which opened in theaters last week.]

Jules: What's your advice to future pionerds of the world?

Marc: Like Jerry and Joe, be persistent! And be confident about your work. Sometimes people ask me if I am afraid of my work being rejected and I say I am more afraid of not trying and therefore not knowing if it would have been accepted. It takes only one yes to make 100 nos go away...

Jules: I'd say that's excellent advice, indeed. Thanks for your time, Marc!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beat the Pied Ninnies

Warning: The book reviewed here contains Shakespeare: talk of Shakespeare, lines of Shakespeare, performances of Shakespeare. You may think, “UGGHH, man, could there be a more dull thing in a book than old and creaky Shakespeare?” I’ll admit that the old English bard is sometimes confusing. Shakespeare can also be dusty and boring. The plays and their antique language are more often daring, fun, and enlightening. The Wednesday Wars, at its heart, is about learning to love Shakespeare, but it’s also about a lot of other things. This isn’t one of those books that wants to slip you some medicine that’s good for you in something grossly sweet like Tang. Instead, it’s a coming-of-age story with real laughs, compelling conflict, and a good heart.

“Toads, beetles, bats,” Holling Hoodhood grumbles, (yes, quoting old Shakes) facing yet another pickle on the pages of Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars. Holling is constantly jumping from one challenge to another. You’ll jump from page to page, wanting to know how Holling gets himself out of his newest pinch.

The book is set in 1967, a time when wannabe flower children in America’s suburbs were beginning to rebel against their conservative parents. The Vietnam conflict was escalating in Southeast Asia, and everyone in America knew someone personally touched by tragedy. War, the Civil Rights Movement, the dramatic clash of identity and changing American culture was narrated by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, played out in everyone’s living room, and is vividly depicted in The Wednesday Wars.

The first chapter begins by setting up the conflict suggested by the book’s title. Holling is the only Presbyterian in a seventh-grade class full of Jewish and Catholic kids. On Wednesday afternoons half of his class would leave Camillo Junior High to go to Hebrew school and the other half would go to Catechism at Saint Adelbert’s Catholic Church. That left Holling by his lonesome self with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. In the beginning, both loathed these one-on-one afternoons, yet it’s from this time that Holling is forced to discover some hard earned truths. Mrs. Baker introduces Holling to Shakespeare, and it takes time for Holling to run with it. He’s busy trying to not get slammed by bullies or busses, scheming to stay on the good side of a girl he reluctantly digs, and quietly negotiating some family drama. Delving into the plot much more than that would give away this book’s good tricks and treats. A lot of things happen in The Wednesday Wars. In fact, if there’s anything that takes away from the pleasures of this book it’s that so many things happen to Holling and those around him, at such breakneck speed, that it’s hard to absorb the story in its totality.

Gary D. Schmidt, the author, is an English professor at Calvin College in Michigan. The Wednesday Wars and his book, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, both received a Newbery Honor, which is quite a big deal. (You’ve probably seen Newbery Award and Honor books around—they’re the ones in the bookstore embossed with a round silver seal.) The Wednesday Wars is the only book of Schmidt’s that I’ve read, but I just went out and bought Lizzie Bright. All I know is that it has something to do with Maine, which is where this reviewer lives, and that’s all I can write about it at the moment.

Of course you’ll learn something by the end of The Wednesday Wars. You’ll learn that the quality of a life without Shakespeare is measurably less than a life lived by accepting the challenge of attempting to understand one of the greatest writers in the English language. You’ll also learn that the themes woven into the fabric of Shakespearian plays are also the things we struggle with now: family, love, comedy, and tragedy. The Wednesday Wars is about rising to the challenge of living a life in full. Reading about Holling Hoodhood’s courageous attempts and many missteps in growing up is well worth your own rise to a life, hopefully, in full. It’s all about beating the pied ninnies. If you want to know what that means, you’ll just have to read the book.

If Tesla built a robot.... would be the coolest thing ever!

Here's the description:

"In 1923, Nikola Tesla's career is in its twilight until he unveils a robot with automatic intelligence -- Atomic Robo! Granted full American citizenship in return for his participation in a top secret military operation in 1938, Atomic Robo goes on to found Tesladyne -- a think tank dedicated to exploring the fringes of scientific inquiry. After decades of dealing with all manner of weirdness, Atomic Robo and the so-called Action Scientists of Tesladyne have become the go-to defense force against the unexplained."

The creative team behind Atomic Robo describe the series as drawing its inspiration from such sources as Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Buckaroo Banzai, Doc Savage, The Rocketeer, and Dragnet.

I just finally got around to reading the free Comic Book Day issue and it was very cool - snarky, wild, totally SF in a steampunk kind of way. Big fun. I'm ordering the recent tpb: Atomic Robo & the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne and recommend it if you like those old mad scientist movies crossed with some serious steampunkish fun.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Higher Learning #2

Welcome to the July Higher Learning column! In Higher Learning, College Guys talk about what they're reading, what they read in high school, and what books are important to them now. Since it's July, I held a cyber interview with Thomas, a second year student at Grinnell College, about books and reading.

Thomas is an English major at Grinnell and, because his father's a professor, has lived in many places--North Carolina, England, Grinnell, and, finally, Des Moines for his high school years.* Thanks for talking to Guys Lit Wire, Thomas!

Kelly Herold: What are you reading at this very moment?

Thomas: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

Kelly: Is Midnight's Children typical of the books you like to read?

Thomas: Yes, it has the detail and allegory that are really appealing to me now as an English major as well as the excellent storytelling and elements of fantasy that have appealed to me since I was younger.

Kelly: Okay, let's go back to Middle School. What were you reading in, say, sixth or seventh grade?

Thomas: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, etc), Harry Potter, Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern books, Sabriel by Garth Nix. A lot of fantasy lit, essentially.

Kelly: What was the first life-changing book you read? A book that made you think 'Wow' for the first time when reading?

Thomas: That's very hard for me to say. I've been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember and books have always had a huge impact on me. I would say that The Golden Compass probably marked my transition from fun, escapist books to really powerful books. The scope of Lyra's adventure was something else and the social commentary about religion was probably the first time that I really started to understand some of the subtext of a book and didn't just enjoy it for the storyline. It was also sobering for me because of all of the death and sadness. I think that it's a perfect book to transition from children's books to heavier adult literature.

Kelly: What about High School? What did you read for school and what did you think about required reading?

Thomas: My first year in High school I read so many wonderful books! I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Brave New World the most, probably. Later I really enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, Great Expectations and The Awakening. I had a love hate relationship with required reading. Most of the time I enjoyed it, but sometimes I'd get into ruts where I didn't enjoy anything that I was reading. My Junior year I actually almost failed AP English because I felt like I wasn't getting anything out of the reading and just stopped doing the assignments. I think that Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome was the greatest object of my hatred. We spent about 4 weeks on it and I just couldn't stand it. Now of course, I realize that that wasn't productive. I'd encourage anyone to go and talk with their teacher and let them know if you're not enjoying the required reading. I finally had to go to mine and beg for forgiveness. She was a wonderful lady and wanted to know exactly why I wasn't doing the work and didn't feel like I was getting anything out of the class. We talked things over, she let me make up the work for half credit which eventually got me to a B- which wasn't failing, but was my lowest grade in High School. If you need extra help from your teacher to be engaged you definitely shouldn't hesitate to ask for it.

Kelly: Did you do much reading for fun when you were in high school? What did "reading for fun" mean to you?

Thomas: I actually tried to read a short story from The New Yorker every week in High School. I had a hard time reading novels in my free time because when I got busy with my academics I'd go weeks without doing pleasure reading. New Yorker short stories are relatively quick reads and expose you to many different kinds of writing. Sometimes I didn't get into them at all and sometimes they were mind boggling and wonderful. For me fun reading is reading that I would do purely for my own enjoyment and not out of any sense of obligation. I have to confess that I've grown to love a lot of the classics and academic reading though, so my perspective may be a little skewed.

Kelly: Now you're an English major--so that means lots of Shakespeare, Milton, and, you know, the classics. What do you read when you want to escape the "good stuff"?

Thomas: Going back to my answer to the last question I often read other books by authors who I really enjoyed in class. I read Midnight's Children for example, after I read Shame (also by Rushdie) for a class this spring. I also read the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find after reading a Flannery O'Connor short story in high school. Recently I've been reading On the Road, which is exhilarating and really an excellent read. I wanted something different and I certainly got that from Jack Kerouac. Don DeLillo and J.D. Salinger also have books that I think many people would really like outside of what's usually taught in the classroom. I also like to go back and reread books that I enjoyed in Middle and High school when I want lighter reading.

Kelly: Okay, last question: Young Adult literature--ever heard of it? What is Young Adult literature?

Thomas: I think that Young Adult Literature is a term created to make reading seem less scary to teenagers. I think that that's a really good goal, of course, but I'm not sure that all Young Adult literature is a good thing. I'm certainly an advocate of reading books outside of the classics and the canon but I'd say that it's also somewhat patronizing to assume that Young adults can't handle Adult literature. They're not going to understand it all of course, but then again I suspect that the same is true of lots of adults. When I read One flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when I was 14 I certainly didn't understand all of it but it was powerful and working to understand it was one of the most satisfying projects I've ever undertaken, at least in terms of reading. I've looked at lots of things marketed as 'Young Adult Literature' in bookstores and while a lot of it's enjoyable I think that it wouldn't be fulfilling to read all of the time. Sinking your teeth into something that's challenging should be be both enjoyable and rewarding.

* Thomas is an English major for a number of good reasons. He explains, "I chose English because the most satisfying class discussion that I've experienced by and large have been in English class. Because language is the way of communicating about everything else in our lives I find that pretty much every topic imaginable comes up in English classes. If I could, I would major in being a well rounded liberal art student, but I find that the English department is the best place to achieve that. I'd really like to be a professor and I think that teaching English would be the best places to start really enjoyable, intense and productive conversations."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Futuristic Flying Villages Anyone?

I have a thing for stories that happen in the sky. Funny, because I'm a paranoid, nail-biting, "was that the sound of an engine shutting down?" type of flier. Yet flight features prominently in some of my favourite books: Airman, Airborn, Skybreaker, Harry Potter, Larklight. I expected to enjoy Monk and Nigel Ashland's new book, Kaimira: The Sky Village, since a flying village, suspended by a web of connected hot-air balloons, features prominently in the story. I wasn't sure how I would like the strong Sci-fi aspect of the book, but I was surprised how easily I "got into" the Kaimira world.

You'll find a rich and complicated plot in The Sky Village - really two stories in one, in fact. The story takes place in the future, during a time in which humans, beasts and powerful mechanical monsters are in conflict. First there is Mei, a young girl whose mother has been kidnapped by fearsome metallic creatures known as meks. After the attack on her village, Mei is brought by her father to the Sky Village, to live with her mother's people in relative safety above the dangerous earth. As a land walker, Mei finds it difficult to prove herself to her bold celestial relatives. So much about the Sky Village is strange and even frightening to her, and Mei is determined to find her mother and rescue her from the meks. At the same time, far away in the ruined city of Las Vegas, a young man named Rom is trying to eek out a meager existence for himself and his sister Riley. When Riley is taken by demonic creatures deep into the caves under the city, Rom must follow. He becomes involved in gladiator-style fighting called "demonsmithing" in which fighters conjure mechanical-beast demons to battle each other for the entertainment of gamblers. The fates of these two characters are in fact intertwined, since they communicate through a magical text known as the Tree Book. As well, both Mei and Rom carry the kaimira gene, which means that elements of beast and mek are a part of their genetic identity. They struggle to understand what this might mean for their futures, and to control the potentially violent and unpredictable aspects of themselves.

If you love to read novels with complex, unusual and well-realized futuristic societies, you will likely enjoy The Sky Village. It's clear that Monk and Nigel Ashland put real heart into developing a believable and intricate world. The episodes in the Sky Village itself were my favourite parts of the story. I could really imagine this huge floating city drifting above the Chinese landscape. I'm sure that there will be many fans Rom's plotline, as the demonsmithing scenes are dark and thrilling. This is a story for guys and girls, for anyone who loves tales of adventure and other worlds. I interviewed Chris Rettstatt (aka Monk Ashland) on his recent blog tour. Head over here to find out all kinds of stuff about Chris' inspiration and favourite books. There is a cool interactive website at where you can really dig deep into the world of the story. Oh, and don't worry. This is the first in a five-book series, bound to please a whole lot of Sci-fi / Fantasy lovers and lots of other folk besides.

Kaimira: The Sky Village is published by Candlewick.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

After the mission is accomplished, the war begins...

When I was a kid, I loved playing at fighting. I had army men, I played assassin and hunter and capture the flag. But actual violence always terrified me--not in the way it does my mother (she can't stand the thought of it)--but because of what it did to me, how it got my blood boiling, and how, if I thought I was in the right, I would lash out at bullies or whoever. There was a part of me that thought this violence was justified, and something about that false righteousness burned in my gut like glory.

And THAT is the thing that terrifies me the most.

Two recent book deal with that horrible aspect of war: Deogratias by J.P. Stassen (translated by Alexis Siegel) and The Road of Bones by Anne Fine.

I've written about The Road of Bones before, specifically it's cover. What a great book. This account of Yuri, a young man attempting to survive a Stalinist-esque regime, aptly shows the damage to an entire society a fanatical and authoritarian regime can do. Yuri's struggle is not that of a character against other characters, but a character against political and social structures as monumental and inescabable as to make his fight to survive as primal as any man vs. nature tale.

Early in the book, Yuri, a young man of twelve or thirteen, makes a simple mistake. And, though Yuri's offense is slight, he knows the officers will come for him. So he sets off to escape, with some successes and some failures. Along the way, we get a survey of how the oppressive government has transformed the very hearts and souls f the people. And, ultimately, how even though Yuri survives terrible, terrible things, his heart, his soul, remain in jeopardy. Not for what people have done to him, but for what the basic act of surviving has done to his spirit.

In Deogratias, J.P. Stassen uses the graphic novel form to explore recent events in Rwanda. Like Fine, Stassen is interested in getting under the skin of what long term violence can do to the psyche of a people. Deogratias, the Hutu boy at the center of the book, has survived horrendous genocide, but at what cost? He is mocked and derided by everyone, he wrestles with demons of memory and guilt, and has been driven half insane by what he has gone through.

Deogratias is a much more violent, brutal and complex book, but it's core vision is similar to that of Fine's book: How does war--not battles, but long term, socially and culturally devestating war--affect a people. Not soldiers, not captains, not politicians, but the everyday people hoping to simply work and live an ordinary life?

Most especially, how does war like this affect young men with simple hopes and dreams, like going to school, meeting a girl, nothing more than simple things?

Seen through the eyes of these two excellent books, the answer is that it shrinks the spirit and warps the soul.

If only Holden Caulfield had an evil clone: Everything I know about literature I learned from comic books.

I was an apathetic student in high school. Algebra was my regular nap period. Instead of reading The Return of the Native like I should have, I wasted my time pouring over The Amazing Spiderman and Uncanny X-Men until I’d memorized every POW! and SNIKT!

But I wound up winning an English scholarship in college, then publishing two novels of my own.

GLW’s mission is encouraging teenage boys to read. Since I was a teenage boy who became, not only a voracious reader, but such a fancy-pants writer I’m going to use the word “lyceum” in the next paragraph, I’m offering myself as a case study. So how did it happen? It was the comics all along, or more exactly, the constant, hydra-headed chatter of comic fandom.

My personal lyceum wasn’t English class, it was the comic shop--creatively named The Comic Shop--where I hung out after school. If you’ve never been in one, you need to understand that comic book stores are essentially bars for nerds, one of the few businesses that encourages customers to hang out.

Walk in, and people will be slumped on the big stinky couch (there’s a stinky couch in every comic shop I’ve ever gone to) and propped up against the counter. You won’t be sure who actually works there at first. Everybody has a nickname like Possum, Ha-Ha, or Creepy Dave. Regulars wander in with bags of fast food and no intention of buying anything. They’re just there to kick back on the stinky couch, kill an hour or two, and talk.

And talk and talk and talk.

You also need to understand that comic fans aren’t passive consumers. They may love a particular issue or hate it, but they’re going to be vocal about it either way. They’ll dissect plot arcs, character developments, and the internal logic of a comic, changes in costume and changes in tone, all the basic building blocks of a narrative. They will cite back issues as precedent. 

During the 90s, a new writer made Spiderman a more brooding character, often crouching on rooftops in the rain, following the then-current trend of more “grim and gritty” characters. I hated this new Spidermen and might have left it at that if one of my friends hadn’t challenged me. I liked other dark characters like Batman and the Punisher, he pointed out. What made Spiderman different? Why couldn’t he brood every now and then.

It took ten minutes to mumble a half-articulate answer, but it boiled down to, Spiderman can’t brood because Spiderman loves being a superhero. He cracks jokes during fights and introduces himself as “your friendly neighborhood wall-crawler.” Despite being a genius, he’s never built a supped-up car like the Batmobile because swinging through the city on web ropes is way more fun.

Other characters like Batman and The Punisher have been formed by tragedy. Other titles like the X-men focus on being persecuted for being different. But a central theme of Spiderman, as essential to the character as his costume, has always been that having superpowers would rock.

But my friend countered: Spiderman was formed by tragedy. His Uncle Ben was murdered. His shoulders sag heavy under the knowledge that with great power comes great responsibility.

My brain starting to hurt, I conceded this was true, then counter-countered. When Peter Parker first got his powers, all he wanted to do was show off. Because superpowers rock. When he sees the police chasing a thief, he doesn’t help since it’s not his job. Only after that thief murders Uncle Ben does he see that with great power comes great responsibility.

Both themes have been in play since the beginning. Tip the balance too far in one direction, and Spiderman stops being Spiderman. Hence, broody, rooftop-crouchy Spiderman blows.

I had to lay down for awhile after that. But by sixteen, without quite realizing it, I’d learned to break a story down to its component parts, turn them over in my mind, and say what worked and what didn’t, and most importantly, why. Once I could do that with comic books, I could do it with capital-L literature and eventually my own stuff.

Then there’s symbolism. By necessity, comics depend on signifiers to identify their characters, the silhouetted bat on Batman’s chest or the Joker’s white, green, and purple color scheme. The symbols aren’t static, though. They play off one another and pop up in unexpected places. At their best, they become a language of images.

The cover to the left trumpets, AT LONG LAST THE SECRET REVEALED! But even without any words, Superman’s red ‘S’ and Clark Kent’s black glasses are both so iconic, most people could immediately grasp the story promised inside.

In my own writing, I tend to rely heavily on reoccurring symbols. The pack’s combat boots in Unleashed and the phrase “leave everything behind” in Tripping to Somewhere appear over and over, but their exact meaning constantly shifts. This tendency came directly from years of reading comics.

Beyond a few tricks and concepts, though, the best thing I got from hanging out at The Comic Shop was being surrounded by people who loved stories. A comic that took 15 minutes to read could lead to hours or weeks of back-and-forth.

I drifted away from comics after high school, partly because I grew annoyed with how many of them fell back on cheap plot twists, killing a major character to generate buzz, then bringing them miraculously back to life whenever sales started flagging again. Nowadays, I’m finally reading stuff my English teachers would have approved of.

But when I finish a good book, and nobody’s around to praise it to or argue with, only silence, it always feels like something’s missing.

What do awards mean to teen readers?

Okay, here's a question: do teen readers care if a book has won awards or not?

This came up in a comments discussion last week and I'm thinking the answer is no. I can never remember caring the slightest if a book won an award. I know the Caldecott and Newbery award winners are always easier to find in bookstores, but I don't know that I cared about that when I was a kid.(And now the Prinz winners are there too.) I know awards matter in terms of books that are ordered by stores and libraries and as far as placement on reading lists but will they make the average 15 year old pick up a book?


Beyond the big awards, there are tons of smaller ones, regional ones, genre ones, etc. Again, these matter in terms of ordering and assignment by adults (especially the regional ones I bet) but do teens care? I'm not saying that awards are unnecessary - I think it is nice to be recognized by your peers - but I wonder for teens in particular (who might be choosing their books without adult input) if an award that is chosen by adults would ever be the deciding factor in getting a book.

And in terms of sharing out thoughts on books here, should we care about mentioning awards? If our readers aren't looking for them - should we?

Thoughts, please........

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Book You Should Read

I reviewed the first trade paper collection for the comic Dorothy two years ago for Bookslut and I'm still loving this comic. This is no Judy Garland candy-cane colored fantasy (although if we are all honest those flying monkeys were damn scary) but a 21st century rendition of the classic with a whole way of not only reading the story but visualizing it as well. From my review:

This Dorothy has hair streaked a brilliant red, a piercing under her lip and a need for “the best shit” her pal Jason can provide. She’s on the road in her Uncle Henry’s truck because she is bored out of her mind, lost somewhere deep in her head, and desperate for someone or something to save her. The sad thing is, it’s only Jason and his bag of goodies that she thinks will do the job. (Maybe this Dorothy has more in common with Judy Garland than I first realized!)

Basically, Dorothy is a teenager in trouble and the tornado that takes her away is just one more step on the road to hell she’s already walking. Anything, anything at all, is better than where she is, because anyplace else is at least someplace. “My name is Dorothy Gale,” she thinks, “I don’t belong here.” And on the road trying to drive away from a storm, trying to drive to a place that will give her oblivion, Dorothy is only certain of where she should not be, who she will never be. She is only certain it has been five years and she misses them still. “My name is Dorothy Gale, and I swear now that I will never die in Kansas.” And so she jumps out the door of the truck as it flies into the air, she jumps out because at least that is something, that is something she can do. She jumps, and then she flies.

So, of course, Dorothy wakes up in Oz, but not in Munchkinland, not in any part of Oz that readers will recognize. And while she looks up at a very unfamiliar sky and wonders if maybe, hopefully, “it’s Colorado,” the text shifts and leaves her behind and takes the reader into another part of Baum’s world, a far more unfamiliar part. At the end of the first comic we meet the thin gray man who floats on a beam of light and has no legs. A man who remembers all the history of Oz and while he fears not “the kalidah, nor the foursquare ones, nor the nomes”; still, as the thin gray man enters the Great Hall he “knows he is a slave. Every time. He knows he is closer to death. The cold and the gray speak to his bones.” Okay, clearly no green paint and high pitched cackling are going to be needed to ratchet up the tension here.

This is awesomely creative fantasy - you do not want to pass it up.

Monday, July 14, 2008

5 Quick Questions: Gabriel Walker

This is part of a series of short interviews with regular guys about what they like to read and why.

I met Gabriel when I interviewed him for a shelver position at the Denver Public Library. We liked him so much we made him a circulation clerk/security guard. He's since moved on to various interesting things, but I still see him when he subs at the library to help pay the bills (he's mostly a working musician/sound designer). He turned me on to the new Battlestar Galactica, and I introduced him to Y: The Last Man, so I'm pretty sure we're even. Let the questions begin!

1. What do you do for a living and what do you like best about your job?

Gabriel: Until recently, I worked in theatre and music. For the last few years, I've worked for the Denver Public Library, and done some freelance music and sound design work.

2. Besides for simple information, why do you read?

Gabriel: To stimulate my imagination. For me, it's better than watching movies because my own imagination creates the images. I also find that, quite often, authors help me to find language for expressing myself... my thoughts, feelings, observations, etc. Sometimes, the right book, can bring me comfort when the world is just too overwhelming or painful. The right book can help me understand the world a little me to understand myself a little better as well. Finally, reading is for me a quiet, personal world all my own. My place away from the world.

3. What did you read when you were a teen?

Gabriel: Hmm... I loved Tolkien. The Hobbit was amazing and I couldn't stop reading it. The whole Lord of the Rings series was fantastic. To this day, The Razor's Edge is still my favorite book. I read it as a teen and it changed my world forever. I still read it once a year and it's a better book every time I read it. I read Oliver Twist by Dickens and was mesmerized. I guess I read books about the outsider who goes on a journey to discover himself, what his life's purpose is, and, through many adventures and difficulties, becomes both a strong and knowing man, and a hero in one form or another.

4. What book(s) do you wish you had read as a teen
Gabriel: Oh, man, that's a long, long list. Some of the books I wish I'd read weren't published then, like Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass series. I wish I had read Lord of the Flies in my teens. I wish Ender's Game had been around in my teen years. I really wish I'd read Ursula K. LeGuin's The Earthsea Trilogy as a teen.

5. What are you working on now?

Several things actually. I'm working on establishing a non-profit that is centered around books and the arts. I've recently written some music for a computer game and have been working with authors to record their work and put a musical score with their voice.

Thanks, Gabriel!