Category Archives: reading

Two the hard way

I got paid last week, and as is my wont I went to see the good fellows at All-Star Comics to drop some dinero on a few trades. Most of them are things to discuss another time – once the series is finished I will do a mega-post about how freaking great Locke & Key is – but two of them are tales of men in tights fighting bad guys, as per this month’s theme, and I’d like to quickly talk about them and why you should read them.

Exhibit A is the first collection of Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil (which is just called Daredevil Vol 1, rather confusingly). Waid took home three Eisners this year, two for this series, and it’s easy to see why because this book is awesome. After years – hell, decades – of being a tormented, tortured character, Waid brings Daredevil back to his swashbuckling superhero roots, portraying Daredevil with a smile on his lips as he pits himself against four-colour villains and some of Marvel’s old-school villainous groups. It’s a major swerve, but it works because it’s grounded in the story, with Matt Murdock deliberately pushing away his sad past before it breaks him – a move that foreshadows consequences and problems ahead.

For all that the writing is strong – and it is, it’s some of Waid’s best – the artwork from Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin steals your attention away on every page. But again, this plays into the narrative, putting a major focus on Daredevil’s enhanced senses to communicate how he perceives the world, a world of soundscapes and textures and villains/adventures that draw upon Daredevil’s senses as well as his ninja skills. Both artists work wonders with open, energetic whites, snapshot frames and multiple panel, evoking artists like Mazzuchelli and Ditko while having their own unique take on things. It’s glorious, beautiful stuff with a deliberate lightness that never feels trivial.

Over at DC, we have Batman: The Court of Owls, the first volume of Scott Snyder’s side of the post-reboot Bat-verse. This collection (I got the HC, but the trade is due soonish) puts Bruce Wayne back into the title role as Gotham’s guardian, a role he’s comfortable and confident in, especially as he’s backed up by new gadgets and techniques. But his confidence begins to erode in hints that an old urban legend – the Court of Owls, Gotham’s secret rulers – are real and coming for him. Snyder has a horror writer’s temperament and imagination, which bleeds through in the tense, terrifying second half of this book, as all of Batman’s strength and courage mean nothing in the face of a more mysterious, more ruthless enemy that puts him through mental and physical hell, leading up to a ball-tearer cliffhanger.

Snyder is backed up by artist Greg Capullo, who’s come a long way since mimicking Todd McFarlane on Spawn. There’s a exaggerated cartoonishness to a lot of Capullo’s work, but it’s powerfully juxtaposed against brooding shadows, bloody action and moments of terrifying grotesquerie. There are multiple flashbacks, perceptual shifts and hallucinatory episodes in this story, and Capullo seamlessly shifts his style and storytelling to fit each time. If he has a flaw, it’s that his characters’ faces are a little too similar – it’s sometimes hard to tell Bruce Wayne from Dick Grayson when they’re talking – but his body shapes and language make up for it to provide a strong differentiation. Plus, his work in the second half is scary as hell.

These are two excellent superhero books that kick off ongoing directions and stories for two terrific characters. If I had to pick one over the other… well, damn me for a traitor and take away my Bat-card, but it would have to be Daredevil. The sheer energy and liveliness of this book, along with its intelligence and kinetic artwork, make it an absolute delight. Court of Owls is good, but at times the focus on atmosphere and suspense take away from the forward motion of the narrative; Snyder spends a bit too much time building up Gotham as a character in the first half and not enough on having Batman, well, do stuff. On top of that, Daredevil has something I’m really missing in modern superhero comics – a hero who spends his time actively looking for people in trouble and then helping them. Batman does a lot less of that, instead reacting to threats directed at him rather than protecting innocents. I like heroes who are heroic; the DC Universe is kind of lacking that at the moment.

But that said, I enjoyed the hell out of both books, and if you’re any kind of fan of either character, or of superheroes in general, you should definitely give them a read.

Legacy in blue

Legacy.

It’s a concept that used to be one of the pillars of the DC Universe – that a mantle of heroic action would be passed from one character to another. The Flash and Green Lantern of World War II inspired the Flash and Green Lantern of the silver age, who were then replaced by the Flash and Green Lantern of the modern age, with the promise of future heroes assuming that title as well… it was a thematic mainstay that propelled dozens of characters and hundreds of stories.

Well, like most good things in the DCU, the theme of legacy was abandoned in the DC Reboot, in which superheroes have only been around for five years, there were no heroes in WWII (there’s a wonderful sentence to contemplate) and characters operate without foundations or any kind of respect for what has gone before. Which is a goddamn shame.

But I’m not here tonight to whinge about the DC Reboot – that comes later in the month. Instead, I want to talk about one of the last, best examples of the treatment of that theme from DC, which also happens to be a fantastic, funny, smart and action-packed comic book.

And that comic is Blue Beetle.

So first, some backstory. The original Blue Beetle was a Golden Age character who bounced through a few iterations and publishers. Eventually he was bought and revamped in the 1960s by Charlton Comics as Dan Garrett, an archaeologist who discovered a magical scarab amulet that gave him superpowers (strength, flight, energy blasts, similar generic things). When that version proved unpopular, Charlton didn’t reinvent him, they replaced him – Garret died and passed the scarab on to his former student, inventor Ted Kord. Kord became the new Blue Beetle, but a very different character; he couldn’t make the scarab work, so instead fought crime with gadgets, inventions and intelligence.

Fast forward about 15 years and DC Comics bought the rights to the Charlton stable of characters, where Garrett became a minor WWII superhero and Ted Kord the modern Blue Beetle – keeping the legacy concept going, but stretching out the ages between the characters to fit DC’s timeline. During the late 80s and early 90s Kord was a major DC character and a mainstay of the Justice League, but eventually faded from the limelight to become another perennial C-list character in the background of crossovers.

And then came 2005’s mega-event Infinite Crisis, during which Kord uncovered a conspiracy and was murdered – but not before leaving Garrett’s scarab with the wizard Shazam, who then lost it in an explosion. It fell to Earth in El Paso, Texas, and was found by a teenage called Jaime Reyes, who used it to help Batman defeat… okay, look, this is all a really long story that is often not very fun, so let’s just skip the details and move onto the comic, alright?

So teenage Jaime becomes the new Blue Beetle, as the scarab responds to him by forming into a set of high-tech armour covered in bizarre weapons and manned by an semi-incomprehensible telepathic AI. People start chasing him, he gets into trouble, he tries to find out what’s going on… all of this has the potential to be a decent setup for a decent, unremarkable comic series.

Except that Jaime used Google to find out about Ted Kord.

And except that Blue Beetle was written by John Rogers, scriptwriter, producer and TV showrunner for the show Leverage (which I still haven’t seen but I hear is well worth watching). In his first comics work (he went on to write Dungeons and Dragons, which I’ve raved about before), Rogers stepped up to write like an experienced master of the form, creating a series packed with memorable, likeable characters, punchy stories and exciting revelations (none of which I’ll spoil here).

He was mentored for the first year by comics veteran Keith Giffen and accompanied by artist Cully Hamner, whose blocky, cartoony style I’ve always liked; his lines are blocky and dark but fun and open at the same time, and his design of the Beetle-armour is a terrific departure from the usual metal-and-geegaws style of super-battlesuits. After he left, new artist Rafael Albuquerque also bought a cartoony style, but one with a lighter, scratchier line, less bombastic and more expressive; it took me a little while to warm to it, but now I think Albuquerque is one of the best artists in comics, and Blue Beetle shows him constantly growing in skill.

But I’m not so much here to review Blue Beetle (here’s a review – it’s great) as to talk about the theme of legacy, which Rogers used as the spine of the series. As I said, Jaime read up on the previous Blue Beetle, trying to understand the connection to his scarab, and what he found inspired him – that Ted Kord, a man with no powers, could stand up for what was right and make a difference. Then he made contact with Dan Garrett’s granddaughter, who gave him more data on the scarab – and on Garrett’s time as a superhero, and the difference he made in the world. He realised that there is a legacy attached to the Blue Beetle, not just the scarab but the name itself, and he decided that he wanted to be part of that.

And a key element, I think, is that Jaime never meets either of the two previous Blue Beetles; they’re both dead before he finds the scarab. Nonetheless, he sees the value in what they did and what they strived for, he sees role models in them – he chooses to be part of their legacy, rather than having that legacy thrust upon him or just making his own way. And as Rogers’ overarching storyline continues, Jaime tries to embody the strength of Garrett and the intelligence of Kord, to take guidance from them while making his own way and finding his own place in the superhero community. To become something more than just a costume or a right cross, but a legend that can live on.

Rogers left the series after 24 issues (collected in the first 4 trades), having wrapped up his story. There was an attempt to keep the series going with writer Matthew Sturges, but it didn’t click – his issues weren’t terrible or anything, but they lacked the spark (and the cohesive thematic underpinnings) of Rogers’ – and the series ended after one last storyline. Blue Beetle continued to play a part in the DCU, joining the Teen Titans, hanging out with Booster Gold and appearing on The Brave and the Bold cartoon, and then the Reboot changed everything. There’s a new Blue Beetle series, but it’s heavy on the stereotypes and pointless fight scenes, light on the legacy (or any other kind of theme) and it’s all a bit sad and pointless now.

But there are four great trades (and one adequate one) of the original series, and they are a thing of joy, and they tell a great story with a great ending. And stories that end well are usually the best kind.

One of the powerful, story-generating tensions in the superhero genre is the clash between individualism and collectivism – it’s a genre where a single being can advance above all others and change the world but also seek to serve others and be part of something greater than themselves. The theme of legacy is one of the strongest ways to explore that tension and make a supers story more than just dudes in tights thumping each other. And Blue Beetle was a hell of a lot more than that.

You should read it. You should love it. It’s that good.

Like unto a thing of iron

There’s a lot of buzz around right now about Hawkeye, the new Marvel series about the ordinary-guy member of the Avengers. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m very interested in what I hear and I’m certain to buy it when it’s out in trade paperback form.

One reason I’m so certain about that is that I’ve read the previous series from the team of Matt Fraction (artist) and David Aja (artist) – 2007’s The Immortal Iron Fist, which remains one of my favourite superhero works of the last ten years. It’s a book for anyone who loves pulp adventure, martial arts and superheroics, and if you haven’t read it by now then I’m going to tell you exactly why you should.

Iron Fist is a Marvel superhero created in the 1970s, a time when Marvel were taking more risks with their characters and trying to tie burgeoning genres like science fiction, blacksploitation and martial arts into their superhero titles. Enter Danny Rand, the Iron Fist (named after a technique in a kung-fu movie Roy Thomas watched) – a young American trained in martial arts in the mystical city of K’un-L’un. Becoming the city’s champion after defeating a dragon (and gaining the power of its chi), Rand comes to New York to confront his father’s killer; eventually he inherits his father’s fortune and becomes a billionaire superhero for hire. Or, more accurately, a B-list character that wandered in and out of back-up features and supporting appearances, along with partner and friend Luke Cage/Power Man, for the next 30 years.

But then Brian Michael Bendis became Marvel’s head writing honcho, and he propelled Luke Cage into a major role with the Avengers. And with like in the limelight, the chance to reinvigorate Iron Fist opened up for a new creative team – Fraction, Aja and co-writer Ed Brubaker.

When approaching an established character, a new team has three main duties – keep what works, throw out what doesn’t, bring in something new. And Immortal Iron Fist does all three. Danny Rand feels penned in by his duties running Rand Industries, preferring to play superhero with his buddy Luke, until someone new smashes into his life – grizzled, pistol-packing pulp adventurer Orson Randall, the Iron Fist of the 1920s! Thrown into action against Hydra, Danny learns that he’s only the most recent champion of K’un-L’un, heir to a legacy of heroes from every era (and pulp adventure genre) – and that he must now fight in a cross-dimensional tournament against other martial arts warriors, the other Immortal Weapons of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.

In order to save K’un-L’un – and himself – Danny has to learn entirely new ways to use his chi powers, discover more of the legacy of the Iron Fist, uncover the secret intrigues of the Capital Cities, and beat the crap out of a whole lot of Hydra badguys in an epic storyline that lasts for more than a year of issues. 

One reason why the series is so cool is that Brubaker and Fraction said ‘well, this character comes from a different genre, so let’s explore that genre – and what the hell, a bunch of other genres as well, just because it would rock.’ So Immortal Iron Fist largely eschews superhero fights and gets back into crazy kung-fu action against dozens of mooks and evil martial artists. Then the storyline brings in 1920s two-gun pulp heroes, then steam-powered Victorian superscience, high wuxia fantasy, war action, horror, more, more, more! Pretty much every old-school pulp genre gets a look in at some point, with I guess the exception of Buck Rogers-style sci-fi; hell, one issue has Frankenstein and gun-toting Western saloon gals. It’s a kitchen-sink act that could collapse at any point if not supported by a solid foundation of character, a playfully-intelligent energy and the constant genre strand of balls-out kung-fu fantasy.

Danny Rand emerges as an engaging and likeable character, someone called to do the right thing but who still has fun doing it, trying to find a balance between the traditions of K’un-L’un and his streak of American independence – an everyman who just happens to be a kung-fu billionaire with a blacksploitation cyborg girlfriend. Brubaker and Fraction do virtuoso work here, keeping the energy and tension high, exploring their expanded world with light exposition and knowing when to pull back and let the art do the work.

So let’s talk about the art. David Aja leaves after 9 issues, but creates a style and tone that shapes the artists that follow. Aja’s work is gritty without being grungy, with realistic body shapes and movements captured by a soft pencil line and hard black shadows. It’s a complete break from the more open, over-the-top depictions of Iron Fist in the 1990s, and reminiscent of artists like Dave Mazzucchelli or Michael Lark. His breakthrough technique is to zoom in on elements of the action with pop-out panels and circles, showcasing a specific kick, flip or facial expression, like photographs that capture instants and are then scattered across a table.

After he leaves the series a variety of artists carry the torch, most notably Travel Foreman, whose scratchy, distorted pencils bring a touch of grotesquerie and continue to separate the series from traditional superheroics. Other artists are more traditionally four-colour, which isn’t bad but does dilute the visual identity. On the other hand, there are also guest pencils from legends like Russ Heath and Dan Brereton, which are not exactly bad things, and Aja does come back a few times to contribute here and there.

(But we do lose those striking covers with their wonderful use of whitespace. That’s a shame.)

Brubaker and Fraction leave after 16 issues, which take up the first three trade paperbacks. Their successor is crime writer Duane Swierczynski, backed up by Foreman and a number of other artists. His run over the next year isn’t as distinctive or energetic as what came before but is still worth reading. It largely leaves behind the pulp genre play to focus on martial arts fantasy, as Danny battles a creature that preys upon Iron Fists and descends with the rest of the Immortal Weapons into the terrible Eighth City to fight demons and monsters.

Still, the series ended due to low sales, as do most Marvel comics that aren’t about Avengers or X-Men; there was one last mini-series about the various Immortal Weapons, which was fun but nothing spectacular, and it left Iron Fist and his supporting cast with a slightly bigger presence in the Marvel Universe. Which is a bonus.

Five years after Immortal Iron Fist, Fraction has risen as one of Marvel’s big-name writers, with a reputation for unconventional story ideas and a willingness to look outside superheroes for tone and voice. The seeds of that are here, in the adventures of Danny Rand, Orson Randall and all the other Iron Fists past and future – adventures that brim with ideas, with energy and with a joyous love of the pulp genres.

It’s a really, really fun comic. You should buy the trades (or the omnibus collections) and read the fuck out of them.

Superhero comics – NEXTWAVE

THIS IS NEXTWAVE

THIS IS VILLAINY

 THIS IS NEXTWAVE KICKING VILLAINY IN THE MAN-PARTS

THIS IS THEIR THEME SONG

THESE ARE THE COVERS OF THE COLLECTIONS AND YES THERE ARE ONLY TWO (or a single collection of both)

 It’s a twelve-issue pisstake tour of the Marvel Universe from Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen.

If you don’t like it then we can’t be friends.

NEXTWAVE IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE POWER OF CAPSLOCK

HEALING AMERICA BY BEATING PEOPLE UP

The stars aren’t right

HP Lovecraft told us that when the stars are right, Dread Cthulhu and the other Old Ones will wake from their slumber and make the world their fuckmuffin. It’s a harrowing thought, but we’re safe for a while yet, because the stars, they ain’t right – or, more accurately, they aren’t enough.

The rise of social media and rapid internet access has shown that humanity, as a species, really likes two activities – watching pornography and telling other people whether we did or didn’t like pretty much any person, object, creative endeavour or earthquake that there is. As soon as a thing is done, we as a species will get online to leave an appalling comment, post an image of an adorable kitten or, most of all, rate it out of five. We judge the world around us and yell out that it roxxors or suxxors. It’s the human condition at its most fundamental level.

But folks, I’m here to make a simple request. Dump the star ratings and start writing some reviews.

Now, this isn’t me talking as a writer, although indie writers live and die by the good reviews they get on social media and online stores. That word-of-mouth is vital and at another time I will desperately beg, whore and dance for your kind words. Instead, I’m saying this as a reader, one who is always looking for new books to cram into his Kindle, but keeps running into walls covered in 5-star ratings that tell me nothing about a book other than that its author begged, whores and danced for some love. Without a review, good or bad, to explain the rating it’s all just statistical noise.

Reviews, on the other hand, tell you a great deal, whether you agree with them or not – and sometimes the ones you don’t agree with tell you the most. I don’t suggest looking at my reviews as an example, both because that would be ludicrously egotistical and because it wouldn’t be useful – too small a sample size and too uniformly positive. (Because my books are pretty good, he said modestly.) Instead, let’s look at a better example – erotic juggernaut Fifty Shades of Grey. Because apparently everyone’s reading that.

Fifty Shades has 3415 five-star reviews and 2251 one-star reviews on Amazon, with around 2000 more spread around the 2-4 region. It’s obviously polarizing; the vast majority of readers either love it or hate it. But that star rating in and of itself doesn’t tell you anything; you actually need to read a few reviews to understand why there’s such a difference.

A typical five-star review:

Where to even begin? Fifty Shades of Grey is one heck of a book. It has about everything you’d ever want in a book. Love, suspense, mystery, action. Wow!

You can’t help but fall in love with sweet Anastasia from the beginning. She is a little naive and a lot clumsy. She says what’s on her mind and doesn’t think of the consequences. She has no idea what she’s getting into when she meets Mr. Christian Grey. Gorgeous, uber-rich Christian Grey. You fall for him right away, that’s how charming he is. You wish he were real or you were in the book to be able to just be with him. You want to take care of him, date him, smack him, be with him, admire him, all the above. He’s just that amazing.

A typical one-star review:

First, the awful writing. I am no literature snob. However, this book feels like it us on a 5th grade level made to seem better with a thesaurus. It’s repetitive and just plain bad.

Next, the non-existent plot. Seriously, nothing happens. They meet, they have sex, they email each other, the have more sex, the bite lips, they have more sex, the end. Just plain boring.

Last, bad sex. “Down There?” are you kidding me? It’s called a vagina. Grow up. This book most likely intrigues bored housewives and hormonal teenagers. If the author was aiming to give that demographic the tingles she most likely succeeded. However, a book that it 70% sex should at least be good sex.

I feel stupid for reading this book and wish I had spent that ten bucks on socks.

What these reviews (and those like them) tell us is not just that readers have different tastes, but that they have different purposes for reading, and that a book succeeds or fails for them depending on whether it meets those purposes. The one-star readers can’t get past the bad writing and pillory the book for its lack of craft or strong plot (this review in particular does a wonderful analysis of the writing based on term searches). For the five-star readers, none of that matters; all that’s important is the characters and their ability to connect with emotionally and (vicariously) sexually. Many of those reviews admit in passing that the book isn’t well-written, but they mention this only to dismiss its importance, because that lack of craft doesn’t impinge in any way on their enjoyment and their reading purpose. (If anything, the book’s lack of craft may help many of those readers get past the prose and drill down to the character level, but that’s a separate discussion.)

I don’t bring this up to criticise or judge Fifty Shades of Grey in any way – it’s not something I have any interest in, but it obviously speaks to a hell of a lot of people, and I’m not about to judge those readers for what they find emotionally engaging. But the key thing is to note that the book’s overall mean star rating of 3.2 tells us nothing about reader purpose or response, and nor do the 1- or 5-star ratings in themselves. We need to actually read people’s reasons before we can decide what meaning those ratings have for us and our reading priorities; we need to know why they liked or hated it before we can judge whether we would agree with them.

Similarly, check out the reviews on Chuck Wendig’s various writing guides. 250 Things You Should Know About Writing (which is a damn fine book) has 41 5-star ratings and 4 one-star reviews, all of which are pretty much the same as this:

If this author actually had anything helpful to say, it was impossible to find. The book is a conglomeration of abusive statements, excessive swearing, arrogant side-tracking and blatant lack of any sense of how to communicate ideas. Definitely not worth the 99 cents, and since I cannot get a refund, I am hoping this review will save others their hard earned money.

Chuck has gone on record as loving those one-star reviews – because they signpost the kind of readers who don’t like his stuff, and why. They thus help him sell more books to people who like his voice and his swearing, and who want to separate themselves as readers from those who don’t like those things. If all those folks left was a simple 1-star rating it wouldn’t have anything like the impact, and Chuck would no longer be pulling in so much sweet cheddar from the great books he effortlessly and constantly cranks out while the rest of his peers and contacts congratulate him and secretly wish he’d choke on his fortune and die, die, die, goddamnit I keep putting needles in this voodoo doll that smells of bourbon and wordcount and nothing ever fucking happens.

Not that I would do that, of course. Wendigo is my huckleberry.

So yeah – if you like a book, or hate it, tell people why. Don’t just leave a star rating, but write some kind of review, even if it’s only a few sentences, whether it’s on Amazon or Goodreads or the local supermarket notice board. Explain to us why you love it, why you hate it, what you look for in a book and how this particular work ranked against your internal metric. Qualitative data, not just quantitative numbers.

Not because that’s what the author wants, but because it’s what other readers need.

Do it for your peoples.

Pay it forward.

DROP THE MIC

WE OUT

The Emerging Writer – a review

I’ve mentioned the Emerging Writers Festival a few times lately, and that’s because it’s a great festival that really attempts to help writers and inspire/teach/motivate them to write. I’ve spent most of this weekend there (when I wasn’t making incoherent tweets about Eurovision) and I’ve been to some terrific panels, met and talked with other writers and generally just hung out to learn and share.

One of the tools the EWF uses for learning and sharing is the book it produces, and tonight I’d like to look at this year’s effort, because it really sets a new bar for polish and richness.

The Emerging Writer has essays and articles from a wide variety of contributors, including new and established writers, about whatever they felt like discussing. This isn’t a writer’s guide (except when it is), or a collection of anecdotes (except when it is) or an industry primer (except when it is). If I had to pick a single classification, I’d say that this is a book about the experience of being a writer. Editor Karen Pickering calls it a book of maps, and that’s a good metaphor – it has both maps to show where you can go and maps showing where others have been. Some even have hidden treasure.

The book is split into four chapters with admittedly loose themes:

  • Why? Thoughts not just on ‘why write’ but also ‘why try to write a certain way’, ‘why continue after setbacks’ and ‘why try to live up to your idols’. There’s also a healthy dose of ‘why not’ and ‘why you shouldn’t’ mixed in. Standouts include Christy Dena talking about not listening to fear-based advice, Geoff Lemon on facing rejection and Jacqui Dent on defining your identity.
  • What? Essays on what you write about – how you choose it, how you become involved with it and the approaches required by different subjects. Unsurprisingly, my favourite is Stephanie Honor Convery’s on the joy of writing fiction and actually making stuff up, but Rebecca Harkins-Cross’ piece on choosing to write memoir and Hugh McGuire’s on digital publishing are also very strong.
  • Where? Not as in ‘which room should you write in’ but articles on where you come from, what you consider to be your writing turf and how the local/online writing community informs your work. As an ex-Brisbanite I couldn’t help but enjoy Christopher Currie’s thoughts on the northern writing scene, but another standout was John Weldon’s piece the way online environments change the relationship between writer and audience, as was Alan Baxter’s piece on defining your digital presence.
  • How? How? How do you write? Can you even answer that question in a way that makes sense to anyone else? These essays include both practical advice and metacommentary and there’s a lot of good in both, from Esther Anatolitis’ essay on how to put yourself on your own writing retreat to Liam Peiper’s story on suing a former employer to get payment owed (with details on how to do it yourself) to Kirsten Innes’ great piece on why you should stop wanking on about writing and just goddamn write.

The Emerging Writer is neither advice handed down from a panel of experts or theory delivered as cant by wide-eyed neophytes. It’s honest, personal stuff written by writers to their emergent peers with the intent of sharing knowledge and experience. There’s comedy, there’s drama, there are cartoon and flowcharts and essays and every piece is genuine in a way that you rarely see in a writer’s guide.

It’s also worth noting that the book is really well designed and laid-out, which matters a hell of a lot to anal publishing types like me, and the physical version is very well produced and printed. This is a professional piece of work that can sit proudly on your shelf (or on your PC if you prefer PDF).

I’m really impressed with The Emerging Writer, if you can’t tell. Not every essay will speak to everyone, but every essay will speak to someone, and I think even experienced writers can learn something from it – if only the realisation that every writer takes a different path and overcomes different challenges to reach that all-consuming goal of coming up with words that don’t suck.

The Emerging Writer has its official launch next Friday, and after that should be available from various bookstores and online. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Amundsen or Mawson?

Hey, just a quick mid-week update, as I’ve been busy clearing my study so that housepainters can come by tomorrow and make it the same colour as the rest of the house. Whatever that is. Some sort of cream.

Anyway, on the weekend my wife (!) and I went to Hobart for a friend’s wedding, which was fun. (And occasionally a little weird, but still fun.) I only took the one book with me, Alan Bissett’s Death of a Ladies Man, which I sadly abandoned on Saturday morning. The writing style was very interesting, but the narrative itself wasn’t anything new and it wasn’t going anywhere. I’d like to read more of Bissett’s work, but that book ain’t for me.

Which brings up an interesting question, one inspired in part by the statues and markers around Hobart concerning Antarctic expeditions. When it comes to reading, are you Roald Amundsen, someone who’ll keep going despite disaster and privation and really bad writing to reach the end of a book once you start it, whether or not you’re enjoying it, just because you can’t give up? Or are you a Douglas Mawson who turns back once someone dies and the supplies run out and the clichés just get too much to endure?

CLOSURE OR DEATH

I’m a Mawson, always have been. Life’s too short and there are too many good books out there to keep enduring with bad ones, or even lacklustre ones. If a book doesn’t hook me in the first chapter or two – hell, sometimes in the first half-dozen pages – I’ll chuck it aside and move onto the next one. And I know that that means I’ve missed out on many good books that take a while to build up steam, but such is life; there are other good books that can grip me by the nutsack in minutes, and enough of them that I’m not going to run out of reading material or inappropriate groin-based metaphors any time soon.

But that’s me. What about you? Do you stick with a book until the bloody end, and if so, why? Alternatively, if you’re ready to abandon the expedition once the porters are eaten by wolves and turgid first acts, do you ever regret that?

Come on, leave comments. Comment leavers get all the loving.

(PS: I’m fully aware that I may have it completely wrong on Mawson versus Amundsen. DETAILS!)

Stuff and nonsense

So I had a really, really good plan for a blog post tonight, one where I had facts and figures and could talk with authority about practical matters.

But I left all my notes at work.

So this is not the best blog post in the world. This is just a tribute.

Or, to be more accurate, just me talking quickly about a few good things, much like I keep meaning to do with those Thursday night posts. Which are going to become Wednesday night posts, because people keep asking me to hang out and do stuff on Thursdays.

Music

I saw My Chemical Romance this week. Good gig! Less theatrical than I had expected from the band that gave us Danger Days and Welcome to the Black Parade; no costumes, no pyro, no crazy lighting displays. Just guys playing rock and roll, which is cool. I like gigs like that. And most of the kids in the pit were actually dancing, rather than just standing there filming the show on their iPhones, which made it an improvement over, say, Muse last year.

I’ve also been listening a lot lately to Sleigh Bells and Childish Gambino, both of which (whom?) I should have been listening to long before now.

Comics

My wife got a stack of BPRD trades for Christmas, so I’ve been catching up on those and on Hellboy. BPRD is a really intriguing series in the way it counterbalances high-stakes action-horror, like giant Cthulhuesque monsters rampaging across America, with more street-level material drawing from a variety of real-world sources and then partially gonzofied. It’s really clever stuff, and the art at this point in the series is by Guy Davis, so of course it looks amazing. (One of the high points of my game-writing career was having my words on the same page as Davis’s art. A-MAZE-ING.)

In celebration of the MCR gig, I also reread Gerard Way’s two Umbrella Academy collections, which are surreal and occasionally disturbing superhero comics that drench pop art in Grand Guignol and outright silliness. I hope he eventually does a third series, or alternatively makes good on his promise to write a Danger Days title.

And then there was the news of DC Comics doing a bunch of Watchmen prequels. But we’re only talking about good stuff here.

Games

2012 is shaping up to be a big nerdy year for me, with my D&D game back on schedule as of today (it was cah-razy) and joining another campaign being run by the excellent Mister Kevin Powe. The news that yet another bloody edition of D&D is in the pipeline has made me appreciate the kinetic, cinematic fun of 4th Ed even more, and I’m looking forward to playing the hell out of it and not bothering with the new shinyness.

I also just finished Dragon Age II yesterday, which was a disappointment but not a crushing disappointment. From a weak start it eventually starting raising stakes and exploring themes, and the gameplay was generally fun, but still, riddled with problems. Much like my post on Arkham City, I think I could write an essay on DA2‘s plotting problems, specifically talking about the consequences of actions (or lack thereof) and the need to build a cohesive narrative rather than just a patchwork quilt of events. Maybe another time.

More importantly, I have the videogame monkey off my back again, and can devote more of my time and imagination to writing. Which I’ll do. Scout’s honour.

(Fun fact: I was kicked out of the Scouts.)

Books

One thing I’m excited about right now is the news that Louise Cooper’s Shadow Through Time trilogy, published in the early 2000s, is coming out in ebook form. This was a really solid romantic fantasy series that deserved better exposure than it received, coming at a time when Australian fantasy was experiencing a high point in local publishing and sales but still not making headway into international markets. The ebook format will hopefully change that (although Australian ebooks still have to work hard to find UK/US readers, which is something worth talking about sometime in the future).

Plus, hey, great new covers.

So anyway, if you’d like romantic fantasy that’s a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Excalibur, you should definitely check these out.

Right now I’m reading Alan Bissett’s Death of a Ladies Man, and struggling with it a bit. The writing style is fascinating – fragmented, poetic and playful – but the pace is slow and I’m finding it more difficult than I expected to sympathise with the main character. But damn, the style is really intriguing.

After that, my to-read list includes Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, Duane Swierczynski’s The Blonde and Guy Adams’ The World House on my table. (I don’t know anything about that last one, but I wanted to check out the sort of thing Angry Robot Books is publishing.) If you want to know when I get around to them and what I think of ’em when I finish, you could follow me on Goodreads. Would that be interesting? I’m still not sure what Goodreads is really for, but hey, if you’re on there, you could do worse than follow me.

Graeme Riley, Ace of Cats

He’s doing better, thanks for asking!

Okay, that’s enough chitchat for one night. Back to more focused topics next time.

And now, sleep.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

This week I have been forced to wonder whether I have finally become a grumpy old man that fears change.

That would be a hard pill to swallow for a number of reasons. First up, I’m only 40, and while my joints are a bit creaky and I’m not keen on staying out to dawn every Saturday night like I used to, I prefer not to consider myself ‘old’ just yet. Frankly, given that I have every intention of living well past 100 and ideally forever, possibly as a brain in a jar or a cloud of energised iron particles in a magnetic field, 40 isn’t even middle-aged.

Like this, but a tad less evil

More to the point, I’m always been a neophile. I’ve always loved to discover new things, explore unknown places, try out the radical departure in sound and generally embrace change. Because change is good, bringing with it new opportunities and possibilities. I am four-square for change; I am hip to the new; I’m in yr paradigm changin yr traditional perspectivez. I have dared to eat a motherfuckin’ peach, yo.

So it’s been a bit of a blow to my self-image to consider how I’ve been reacting to recent changes to the pop culture entertainments that I like. Those reactions can be seen over on LiveJournal, which I seem to have reinvented for myself as a platform for Bitching About the New. First there were my two long diatribes about the rebooting of the DC Comics universe – one before the changeone after, both very grumpy – and this week I went into a blessedly-shorter grumble about the news of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons being announced and how I was going to stick with my fun and shiny 4th Edition books, thank you very much.

Oh god, I’m a grognard. I’ve become the one thing I most fear and despise – A CONSERVATIVE. Well, a conservative who likes a particular style of superhero comics and fantasy gaming but is otherwise all about freedom and change. I’m not exactly Bob Katter or anything. My hats are much less irritating. And I don’t hate The Gays.

But let’s be honest about it – it’s oa natural human impulse to resist change. Because if you like something, and someone who is not you decides to change it, you may not like it any more. And now you’ve lost something you like, and there are so few of those, and every morning is now that little bit colder and greyer and you know what fuck it let’s just get this over with and help the Joker put the neurotoxin in the city reservoir so we can derail this rotten train to Disappointment Town one way or another oh noes Batman just kicked me in the spine.

(Ahem. Sorry, I had to work Batman into this post somehow, or I’d be violating the blog’s terms-of-service agreement.)

So it’s understandable that it happens, and it’s a problem when we cut ourselves off from something different just because it’s different, rather than judging it on its intrinsic merits. And because this is a writing blog, I’m specifically thinking about books and readers and the way we sometimes dig in our heels when we fear we won’t get the books we want.

Because that happens a lot. A writer changes gears, puts something out in a new style/genre/direction, and established readers reject it out of hand and grumble that they wanted more of the old stuff. Robert Parker faced a storm of petulance from fans when he sidelined the Spenser series to try writing about new characters; Iain Banks would cop flack every time he switched from SF to mainstream fiction or back, often from readers who didn’t bother reading his latest novel before complaining that they wouldn’t like it because it did/didn’t have spaceships in it. And this isn’t new; Arthur Conan Doyle was dragged kicking and screaming back to Sherlock Holmes after trying his best to leave the character behind for ten years. Even his own mother gave him stick about it.

When an author creates a series, or character, or oeuvre that readers connect with, they want that author to stay in that groove, to keep providing them with the thing that makes them happy. And I am no different, as the scores of Batman TPBs on my bookshelf attest. But it’s a shame when we as readers get so comfortable in that familiar zone that we grumble and rebel against not just the threat of being pulled out of it, but the potential threat of no longer being forcibly kept there – the vague danger that at some point the writer who gives us the dishes we love may change the recipe and then proceed to not actually force us to eat their new main course. Because it’s not the worry of reading something we don’t like that riles us; it’s the worry of not getting the chance to read something we’re already pretty we will like, because we liked the last 2 or 4 or 10 things very much like it. It’s uncertainty that makes us curmudgeonly, not fear of the new but fear of change itself, and like I said, that’s a shame.

It’s especially a shame when readers fixate on genre, or the lack thereof, and reject a work from an author they like because of the inclusion/exclusion of fantasy/SF/horror/whatevs elements. There’s something so frustrating about readers who love Stephen King’s horror novels but don’t want to bother with his Dark Tower fantasies, or who read Banks’ Culture novels but refuse to read The Crow Road or The Wasp Factory because the lack of spaceships makes them sound boring. And, of course, literary stick-in-the-muds who cut Banks off the same way but in the other direction, or who’ll read Arturo Perez Reverte’s The Dumas Club (a magnificent book) but not his boisterous, pulpy Captain Alatriste adventure novels. (Although, to be honest, I find that the number of snobs that won’t lower themselves to the occasional fun genre read is less than the number of genre fans who balk at the idea of reading ‘serious’ fiction every once in a while. But your experience may vary.)

Me, I say that change is something to be embraced, or at the very least taken advantage of. If you can’t get exactly the kind of stories you like right now, that’s not a reason to grumble, it’s a reason to explore, to find something else that scratches that itch, or hits some spot you hadn’t realised existed until rubbing up against something different, and okay this metaphor is getting a little inappropriate now and I’m going to move on.

There’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like. But perhaps there is something wrong in never trying to examine what you know you don’t like, or potentially discovering something new to add to your favourites. For all that I bitch about the New DC, I still read every new first issue, because I wanted to be sure about what I was rejecting – and while I read a bunch of shitty comics, I also read some excellent ones that I will go on to buy in trades, seamed costumes and popped collars be damned. For all that I’m happy with 4E D&D, I’m taking the change as an opportunity to rediscover other games and systems and get myself out of the gaming rut I’ve been in for the last couple of years, rather than dig myself further into it. I don’t need to take that change on board, but if I route my path around it, rather than just parking my butt in one place, I get to explore new territory anyway, but this way under my own terms.

So no, I’m not old yet. Not as long as I can still be delighted and surprised by something new. It’s that (and the regular implants of fresh glands) that keep me young. And all readers should do the same.

Except for the glands. MINE.

Comics should be good

Let me say it straight up – I fucking love comics. Superhero comics, horror comics, crime comics, art comics, autobio comics, indie comics, all of them. I’ve loved them ever since I discovered the racks of black and white The Brave and the Bold reprints cluttering up the local book exchange when I was like 8 years old, and barely a week has gone by since that I haven’t devoted some time to the Ninth Art of words, pictures and the link between.

Which is why it saddens me to read bad comics and to write about reading bad comics, as I did on the weekend with my massive LJ essay on the failure of the DC Comics reboot. It makes me especially sad to say bad things about bad Batman comics. It hurts me.

I would much rather read good comics and write about reading good comics, which I have decided to do tonight. Specifically I want to recommend five non-superhero comics, all available in collected form, that make me very happy and that everyone else should be reading too.

Atomic Robo (Red 5 Comics)

No other comic in Christendom contains as much joy and explosions per square inch as Atomic Robo. It’s the story of the eponymous hero, a wisecracking, two-fisted robot created by Nikolai Tesla in the 1920s who now heads a scientific thinktank and hits problems until they go away. Said problems include bigger robots, Lovecraftian monsters, evil scientists, Nazis, robot Nazis, Stephen Hawking (he’s such a douche) and Doctor Dinosaur, surely the greatest character find of 2009.

Comparisons to Hellboy – another series about a two-fisted weirdo using his two fists on monsters and Nazis – are inevitable, but completely wrong. The tone of Robo is something unique, a heady mix of subtle and obvious humour, absurdity, pulp action and the joy of science, with little of the darkness of Hellboy (a series I dig, don’t get me wrong); ditto the smart-mouthed and remarkably human character of Robo himself. Writer Brian Clevinger fills the series with inventive plots and crisp, hilarious dialogue, and the slightly disjointed animation style of artist Scott Wegener give the characters life and personality. This is the kind of comic for which the medium was invented.

Proof (Image Comics)

Another series that gets inappropriately compared to Hellboy is Proof, once again because it features a big, monstrous protagonist who pits himself against other monsters. In this case the monster is Bigfoot, also known as John ‘Proof’ Prufrock, a special agent of a secret Lodge that finds and protects cryptids – legendary creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, the Mothman and the Dodo. Some key differences is that Proof isn’t all that two-fisted, prefers talking over fighting, wears expensive suits and wants more than anything to find other sasquatches, fearing that he is the last of his kind.

Proof is a clever, well-crafted series that takes the core premise (‘what if Fox Mulder was Bigfoot?’) and runs with it in a direction that you wouldn’t expect. Rather than focusing on action (although there’s plenty of that), it’s very much a character-driven comic that uses the crazy world of the Lodge and cryptids as contrast for the internal lives and needs of Proof and his strong supporting cast. Writer Alex Grecian occasionally lets the story and cast get a bit confused, but not for too long, and the scratchy lines and heavy colours of Riley Rossmo’s art convey both horror and moments of humour. It’s terrific stuff, and the second trade includes paper dress-up-dolls!

Dungeons & Dragons (IDW)

It’s obvious that a comic based on the world’s best-known roleplaying game would be a Bible of nerd esoterica that could appeal only to the lowliest basement-dwelling geeks that sleep with a fistful of d20s under their pillow. But I guess no-one told writer John Rogers (Leverage and Blue Beetle) and artist Andrea de Vito this, and so they went and produced an awesome comic that mixes hilarious character comedy with rousing fantasy action that can appeal to anyone with a pulse.

This isn’t just a series about a group of heroic adventurers that fight evil in a fantasy world. It’s The Lord of the Rings as a a caper movie featuring talking skulls, zombie orphans and fights with orcs. It’s the A-Team, except BA is a dwarf with a hammer and Face is a kleptomaniac halfling that stabs bad people. Mostly bad people. It’s a wonderful comic that blends the truly fantastic with believable character motivations and voices, with both stirring action and laugh-out-loud humour that isn’t just tacked on. Plus zombie orphans. I know I mentioned them already, but they’re worth repeating.

Locke & Key (IDW)

From fantasy with a touch of humour to horror with a touch of fantasy. Locke & Key is the story of the three Locke children who move to the family estate of Keyhouse after their father is brutally murdered. While trying to stitch their lives back together, they stumble upon the ancient mysteries of Keyhouse – the well occupied by a dangerous spirit, the Ghost Doors that pull your soul from your body, the Anywhere Key hidden from a terrible evil and the secrets and needs of the family they love.

Locke & Key is the comics debut of author Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns) who writes like a past master of the medium. It’s a chilling, thrilling, often heart-wrenching series about wounded children thrust into a world of both beauty and horrors and forced to fight for their survival and for each other. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez is a surprising choice for this in some ways, but his exaggerated and slightly-cartoony art proves to be a perfect contrast to the darkness of the story, creating a crazed mix between Narnia and The Shining. Lovely stuff, and if there’s any justice on this bastard planet the recently-produced pilot will be turned into a full TV series.

Hamlet (Allen & Unwin)

Slightly cheating for the last recommendation, as it’s an original graphic novel rather than a series, but it’s breathtaking and brilliant and if you can’t break your own rules for that then what’s the point of having rules in the first place? The story of Hamlet is well-worn ground by now, but creator Nicki Greenberg reinvents it with the same genius she brought to her incredible retelling of The Great Gatsby as a story of monstrous dandelions and sea-horses.

This book depicts Hamlet and all his compatriots as inkblots, changing shape and size against a background of clock parts and torn tapestries, pulling on faces like porcelain masks and ripping themselves into sticky shreds with the force of their emotions. The violence and despair Greenberg pulls from the black blob of Hamlet is matched only by the deranged whimsy of every other character, and she explores every possible corner of the conceit to create a surreal, gripping world where the splatter of darkness creates urgent depth against gaudy backdrops. It’s so good.

I could mention many others, such as Scalped (which I’ve discussed before), Morning Glories, Chew, Umbrella Academy and a pile of interesting Vertigo titles. And maybe I will some other time. But these five are on my mind a lot, and they deserve to be read by everyone. Especially you. Because comics fucking rock.

(PS – if you’re a Melbournian, the only place to buy these is the fantastic All-Star Comics in Lonsdale Street. Tell them I sent you.)