Saturday, October 25, 2014

Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe

Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book UniverseSuper Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe by Tim Leong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you love graphics, statistics, and comics, this is your book. Ever wonder who all has been, for example, an Avenger? It's here. Want to know the relative strength of Galactus versus Apocalypse? It's there, too. Need to know which comic book heroes are associated with Rodents? Check: from Atomic Mouse to Mighty Mouse to Squirrel Girl.

And it's not just all about the characters. There is an intriguing swirl-graph showing the increase in Comic-Con attendance, The Chris Ware Sadness Scale (from Jimmy Corrigan to Quimby the Mouse), relative height and ride length of 15 different roller-coasters associated with superheroes . . . you get the idea.

As one would expect, the book is Marvel- and DC Comics-heavy, but there is plenty in here from independent and smaller presses referenced, as well. I was glad to see this, as I made mine Marvel as a kid in the '70s (remember Spider Man on The Electric Company?), had a brief love affair with several indies in the mid-'90s (Mostly Grimjack, Albedo Anthropomorphics, and Konny and Czu), and have recently been roped back into the comic fold by such excellent series as Fatale, The Manhattan Projects, and Prophet. There seems to be a bit of a renaissance happening now, with some great titles out there. Give it ten years, and this book may need to be rewritten with an even stronger emphasis on the indies. I'll look forward to that volume, should it appear, as well.

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The Dying Earth

The Dying EarthThe Dying Earth by Jack Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's do some quick math. Jack Vance's The Dying Earth was originally published in 1950. I was born in 1969. I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons, in earnest, in 1979. It is now 2014. On second thought, screw the math. You can plainly see that my reading of The Dying Earth is tardy, given that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson cited Vance's work as influences on the development of the Dungeons and Dragons game.

And how.

More than an influencer, The Dying Earth is a wholesale supplier of D&D wares. In the first story, "Turjan of Mir," we see something akin to alignment, the fact that wizards must memorize their spells from spellbooks, the limitation (which I always thought was a rule to add game balance - I was wrong) that mages can only memorize so many spells a day, and at least one spell that was almost lifted verbatim from Vance to Gygax and Arneson (the Excellent Prismatic Spray, which appears in D&D as "Prismatic Spray," unless it is cast by one of the wizards Bill or Ted, in which case it is the "Most Excellent Prismatic Spray, Dude").

Now, that's not to say that The Dying Earth is one long hack-and-slash D&D adventure. Far from it. Vance is a far more sophisticated writer than Gygax or even Arneson (who, in my humble opinion, is the better of the two - compare Arneson's wrting on his Blackmoor campaign with that of Gygax's Greyhawk campaign setting. Gygax had more stuff, Arneson had better original writing). So don't go in expecting a Choose Your Own Adventure. Vance is choosing the adventure for you, and his characters and their quests are meant to be read, not played. These characters, in these situations, would crumble in the hands of a lesser artist (like the 12 year old me that would have tried to create D&D stats for these characters and sent them on a killing spree through a non-descripts dungeon crawl).

I will admit that the first couple of stories were a bit trite. The thin plot devices and moralistic tales read more like a poorly-copied fairy tale than a good work of fantasy. I'd love to know the order these stories were written in, as they got better as the book progressed. By the end, they were outstanding.

The second-to-last story in the book, "Ulan Dhor," follows the journey of the titular novice sorcerer in his quest for the lost city Ampridatvir, once ruled by Rogol Domedonfors, a wizard of great power. Ulan Dhor is sent there by his mentor, Kandive, to recover the lost magic of Rogol Domedonfors by bringing together two tablets which, when combined, will restore the magical power that once held sway in the city. Along the way, he encounters a strange culture and even stranger magic - the magic of the ancients that once held sway before the sun began its slow death. One can see that this story might have influenced M. John Harrison's Viriconium or Jeffrey Ford's Well-built City.

The final, longest, and most compelling story, "Guyal of Sfere," follows another adventurer on a quest to find the Museum of Man to speak with the Curator, from whom Guyal wishes to gain knowledge. Again, the seeker travels into strange lands, encountering strange customs and cultures, in a story that is, at first, less about the magic (though magic does play a part) and more about the men and women Guyal meets in his journey. Only when Guyal and his new travelling companion, Shierl, make their way into the Museum of Man does magic play a major role. And this is strange, strange magic, of the kind that would fascinate nerds like me for decades to come. There is a hint of absurdism in the tale, which reinforces the bizarre feel of the story. Suffice it to say that we encounter one of the most disconcerting demons I have ever had the dis-pleasure of reading about - which is saying something, given my . . . particular . . . reading tastes. I could see this story influencing Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun and, to some extent, Book of the Long Sun, which could make for some compelling historical analysis (of which I am not capable).

What started out as a not-particularly-spectacular read ended up as something excellent. I will be reading more of Vance's work, not because it's assigned reading for a class in Dungeons and Dragons history (for which I was really tardy), but because the writing in the last half of the book was excellent, the characters less shallow than much of modern fantasy, and the strangeness endearing to this strange reader.



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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Win a Free Audiobook of HERACLIX AND POMP! Express yourself!

Heraclix and Pomp is now available in audiobook format at Audible.com right here. The narrator, Brandon Massey, is a gentleman and a scholar. I had very pleasant interactions with him as we worked together on pronunciations of the many foreign and downright fantastical words in the book. He is an interesting fellow, as his bio indicates:

Brandon Massey comes from a classic theatrical background, having performed in many Shakespeare plays and having studied the classics in Greece. The long hours of meticulous study necessary for such endeavors is similar to the precision required in recording audiobooks. In addition to audiobooks, Brandon has narrated several documentaries and short films, along with performing in regional theatre. Most of the activities he does in his spare time have something to do with Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, and/or Carl Sagan.

In celebration of the release of the Heraclix and Pomp audiobook, I will be giving away a free copy of the audiobook. But "free" doesn't always mean "without effort". So here's the rub: I love art. I studied humanities as an undergraduate, which meant a lot of time getting very up close and personal to paintings, sculptures, and other forms of representation. I almost kissed a painting in a museum once (and had to explain myself to museum security, as a result - *blush*), not because I loved it, but because I got a little too close trying to see the brushstrokes in an effort to understand the artists technique. That's how much I love art. I get in trouble for art because I love it so much.

That said, there's no accounting for taste. And my taste might vary wildly from yours. But someone has to judge this thing, right? So I'll take the fall and be that guy. Here are the rules:

  1. Your artwork can be of any medium except dead humans . . . or dead animals, for that matter, unless they were already dead when you found them. Seriously, use pencil, paintbrush, clay, porcelain, digital, photography, macrame, WHATEVER . . . just be creative.
  2. The artwork must represent something to do directly with the novel. If you want to show your interpretation of Heraclix or Mowler or Von Graeb or whomever, that's fine. Maybe you're a wood carver and would rather do a representation of Pomp's bow and arrow. Perhaps you're a costume designer and want to cosplay a fly-devil. Or you're really into architecture and want to create a scale model of the Shadow Divan. Draw a cartoon of a scene from the book, sew Beelzebub's infernal apron, henna tattoo your hand to match Porchenskivik's own, whatever you like, so long as you can tie it directly to the book. Performance art and cinema is also encouraged, so long as it doesn't get you or me arrested. And if you want to venture into the musical arts or poetics, by all means, let's hear it!
  3. Tell me what it is. There are a lot of potential images in that book. They've already spilled from my brain on to the page, and middle age prevents me from remembering everything.
  4. Keep it PG-13 or cleaner, please. I'd like younger readers to enjoy this, as well.
  5. Submit your artwork to *forrestjaguirre*@*gmail.com* (remove the asterisks) or, if you're feeling particularly brave, paste a link to your art into the comments below.
  6. Remember that you keep all rights to your art. If I want to use it, I might ask to pay for the privilege, but otherwise, it is yours, not mine. Only mine to judge and enjoy. I do reserve the right to send out tweets and make a blog post about the winning art, because I'm certain your art will deserve some wide exposure!
  7. You will need an audible.com account to retrieve your prize. And I will need your email address, as well. I won't sell it, give it to anyone, or use it in any way outside of contacting you to let you know how to get your free audiobook.
  8. I will be taking entries until December 15th. This deadline is so that I can decide and notify the winner by Christmas day.

It's a $21.83 value, so I'm hoping to see that much value worth of art, at least. And, yes, I know how much original art goes for, so I'm not expecting a masterpiece. But if you insist . . .

I think that's it. If any of you legal watchdogs see something missing in the above rules, let me know and I'll fix it forthwith. Other than that, good luck and enjoy creating!

best,

Forrest


Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Gay 90's

Mark Ryden: The Gay 90'sMark Ryden: The Gay 90's by Mark Ryden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am an unabashed fan of Pop Surrealism (aka "Low Brow") art. Ryden is one of the most prolific and high-profile artists of the movement. His self-admitted goal in producing the work represented in The Gay 90's is to "pull the lowest of the low into the highest of the high" by reinterpreting the kitsch representations of the 1890's (most of which were actually realized in the 1920's) as surreal-renaissance-style paintings. There is a sense of the solemn, even the divine, in the paintings themselves, but with such a twisted absurdity as to be transgressive. The painting "The Parlor" is a good representation of Ryden's aesthetic, showing porcelain-skinned Victorian girls in a parlor featuring a curiosity cabinet (carefully-planned in every detail by Ryden, as evinced by a pre-painting sketch), a tuxedoed and top-hatted Death holding a tarot card, and a gigantic eye set atop an antiqued wooden post. The center of attention is an infant (the Christ? Difficult to say, though Ryden has representations of Christ throughout the rest of the book) holding a clock-cum-image-of-eternity - a swirling snail-shell clock surrounded by symbols from the Zodiac, along with a series of Chinese symbols (that, alas, I cannot interpret). Near the eye, a nude goddess figure sits atop an overly cheerful creature somewhere between a lamb, a polar bear, and a poodle. This mixture of a sacred mood overlaying a ridiculously kitsch menagerie of figures, is emblematic of Ryden's work.

Ryden's work can be found all over online, but this book is worth owning because of the many preliminary sketches, which show the evolution of Ryden's thoughts in the very act of creation, and because of the outstanding introductory essay, "Mark Ryden and the Transfiguration of Kitsch" by Amanda Erlanson. These provide an excellent introduction to Ryden, his work, and his place among the contemporary luminaries of Pop Surrealism.

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Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft (Locke & Key, #1)Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This has been on my TBR shelf for a while now (as have many other books), but I hesitated to pick this up, though I've had opportunity before, because I was afraid of being disappointed. Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft may be one of the coolest titles I've heard of in a long time. It's evocative, and I was worried that the evocation might go horribly awry.

My fears were unfounded.

I'll spare you the story - several other reviewer friends of mine have outlined the story more clearly than I can hope to do. Suffice it to say that Lovecraft is a place, not a person, Locke is a family, and Key refers to Keyhouse, a named structure in which much of the story takes place. You won't find any tentacled horrors in this story, however. Yes, there is a strong backbone of supernatural horror, but no creatures from the Lovecraft Mythos, so far. The horrors here are human, albeit *influenced* by seemingly other-world entities.

And it's the humanity of it all that makes this an outstanding graphic novel. The psychotic characters (there are a couple true psychos and quite a few borderline cases) are not just raving serial killers. They are humans with unmet needs. They are fragile. They are broken. And they break others.

The victims and heroes are also portrayed in a more believable way than most graphic novels I've read. They are real. You want to put your arm around them and give them a hug, to tell them that it's alright, that things are going to be okay.

But that would be a lie.

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Machinery of Life

The Machinery of LifeThe Machinery of Life by David S. Goodsell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I passed 10th grade biology . . . barely.

My friend James and I had the two cutest girls in the class as lab partners. I can't remember their names, but they were both pretty gorgeous. I ended up in that lab group mostly because of James' charm and good looks. I was not particularly charming. I can prove it:

James and I hung out a fair amount. We had fun. You know, teenagers. So when it came time in our biology class to dissect pig fetuses, we had a good time with it. James made the incision and we had fun moving the pig into different . . . positions. One thing led to another and after a while we had the sliced-open pig dancing to Hello My Baby.

Problem is, its guts didn't want to stay inside.

And we had very slick formica tabletops.

So all kinds of innards spilled out during the chorus and splayed out across and off the tabletop, right into the laps of the girls in our lab group. They were not impressed.

Our teacher, who, it was rumored, was a cocaine addict (though no one could substantiate the claim), turned toward our table and shouted "James! Forrest! Get the hell out!"

So we did. We left the classroom and wandered the halls. I mean, it was kind of like permission, wasn't it?

The next day, we walked into the classroom and no sooner had we crossed the threshold than the teacher pointed at us and simply said "out"!

After a couple of days of this, he figured out that we were just wandering the halls, so for the rest of the semester, we were sent across the hall to spend time in another teacher's empty classroom. BIG mistake! We learned about science, alright. Like how many bags of gummy bears, stolen from the teacher's desk, did it take to fill up two teenage boys. Or whether the buoyancy of balloons on a windy day was enough to keep a teacher's metal in-basket aloft over the schoolyard (it wasn't). Or how many different topological forms could stacked desk chairs take.

The teacher passed us with a "D" so that he wouldn't have to have us in class again.

The joke was on him. I moved to England as soon as the school year was done. I later ran into James in England - he had moved there (to a different air base) a few months after I had gone. There was no chance that teacher would have ever had us as students again.

Fast forward to today. My middle son is studying microbiology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He wants to go to medical school and become a doctor. And I, because of my mis-spent youth, am playing catch up. I've always loved science, just sort of missed out on the whole formal training aspect of it (until I got to college). Now, I'm diving in. Heck, the only magazine subscription I have is to Discover Magazine.

So I heard and read a bit about this book and I must say that it's outstanding. Yes, it could use a little bit more depth, but it's a primer, really, a layman's introduction to cells and how they work on the molecular level. Very cool stuff. Some very scary stuff. HIV, for instance, is brutal on the molecular level, snipping out strands of a cells RNA and replacing them with its own, making itself virtually undetectable by the body's defense mechanisms. It's nasty stuff. I learned a lot about how cells work, particularly those in the human body. Did you know that the reason rigor mortis sets in is that the body, upon death, releases calcium from each muscle cell, which causes the muscles to contract. Normally, the living cells would almost instantaneously reabsorb the calcium, causing the muscles to relax, but the reabsorbing mechanism is shut off upon death. The calcium eventually reabsorbs and the body does relax, but only after a while. Or did you realize that the reason spicy foods are used as a sort of folk remedy for colds is because rhinovirus (i.e., the common cold) resides most comfortably in the mouth and nose, where there is not much acidity. Many spicy foods are highly acidic, which breaks down the cell walls of the rhinovirus, exposing its guts to the world, much like my experimental pig.

The illustrations are extremely helpful for me, a visual learner. Now, since I've "seen" how cells work, I can get on with some more specific studies and add some scientific rigor to my studies. Someday, I'd like to take a shot at some DIY biology.

And, in case you're wondering, James and I lost contact a long time ago, but I did find this little bio about him a couple of years ago. Seems he was someone very important on the USS New Orleans, a ship capable of delivering a battalion of 700 fully-armed marines into battle in short order.

If that doesn't scare you, nothing will.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pinocchio

PinocchioPinocchio by Winshluss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The other day, at a reading of my novel, Heraclix & Pomp, I was approached by a reader who asked if the book was a children's book. My response was "only if you want to traumatize the child".

I'd like to repeat that same warning about Winshluss's Pinocchio this is not, Not, NOT a children's book! Au contraire, it is very much an adult book. Do not let children crack its pages, as their innocence will flee and never come back. Clear? OK.

This is a corruption clever re-telling of the horrors of the world and mankind's perversities the classic tale of Pinocchio. The artwork is most reminiscent of Robert Crumb's, et al, underground comix of the '60s and '70s. The cynicism is also in the same vein. But there's a lot less reefer and a little more playfulness in these stories within an overall story. Take, for instance, the Jimminy Cockroach subplot, showing the domestic concerns of the insect that inhabits Pinocchio's metal head (oh, did I not mention that Pinocchio is, in reality, a super-killer-robot? My bad.): The style in these subplots and the humor, remind me a great deal of Tony Millionaire's Maakies, but even a touch darker (yes, it's possible). Jimminy is despicable, but somehow Winschluss makes him almost lovable, for a time, anyway. And the blind-beggar turned apocalyptic messiah, while not quite adorable, has his moments of optimism . . . which quickly morph into maniacal plots to destroy large swaths of humanity.

So, if you can handle dark humor, and I mean *very* dark humor, Winschluss's Pinocchio is a . . . "fun" isn't the first word to come to mind, but I'll use it anyway . . . yes, fun read.

But don't say I didn't warn you about this not being a children's book. If you're going to have it in your collection at home, and there is the possibility of a child, any child, spotting the spine of this book through your window, you'd best top-shelf it and get yourself a security system. You do not want to be liable for the damages!

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