Saturday, September 15, 2012

Book Review: Home is the Sailor by Day Keene

(I had a lot of home stuff and day job stuff get in the way this week, so I present another book review, from 22 May 2008, when I was in a self-education program on pulp fiction.)

Since I am a sucker for cool cover art, Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor (Hard Case Crime) was on my to-read list from the get-go. Not many of their covers simultaneously have a car going over a cliff with a hot babe in a too-tight dress. Then I learned a little about him and how much stuff he actually wrote. Couple that with more recent comments about him (Christa Faust mentions she’s reading Keene in this video from her Money Shot premiere), I was quite excited to crack the book.

I had to chuckle when I read the first two sentences: “It was night. It was hot.” (So, basically it was a dark and not-so-stormy night? Aren’t we writers cautioned not to start a book with the weather?) Nonetheless, I read on.

Pulp fiction is known for its pace. Old movies—film noir and others—are also known for their pace. It’s fast. Nowhere but in pulp fiction and old movies do men and women fall in love on sight. It happens to Swen Nelson, a sailor with $12,000 in hand and dreams of a life on land on a farm in Minnesota. But before he can get there, he meets Corliss Mason, the owner of the Purple Parrot bar-and-hotel establishment. He falls for her, she for him. They are all set to get married and move to the heartland when one thing leads to another and they have to get rid of a body. 

Keene’s Nelson drives the story and faces plenty of questions. One character keeps imploring Nelson to go away while he still can. A man threatens Nelson to stay away from his wife. And, through it all, Nelson puts away an astonishing amount of rum. The book takes place over four days and he’s drunk most of the time, a fact that almost every other character comments on. How does Nelson function with so much booze in him? Must be the sailor DNA.

In my review for The Guns of Heaven, I commented on some of the asides written out and how they really didn’t serve the story like I expected them to do. Well, the opposite is true for Home is the Sailor. There’s an aside, just some conversation between two characters, that comes back around like a boomerang and hits you between the eyes. An astute reader will put two-and-two together before the characters do (I did, at least) but it still makes the story fun.

One sad thing I noticed is the paltry number of Keene books available. Other than this one by Hard Case Crime, there are only two modern reprintings of Keene’s books at Amazon. Guess I’ll have to start the hunt in used bookstores. I found a great site with a good bibliography of Keene’s works and I’ll try to find some more. 

Oh, about the ending: Just like Angel Dare in Money Shot, Swen Nelson gets a chance to really examine himself and ask the question “Who am I?” And we get the answer in a brilliant last line. Don’t flip to the end; it’ll ruin it for you. Just go with it. You’ll enjoy the ride.

What I Learned As A Writer: The aside I mentioned earlier is important. And, I realized, that it’s a great way to throw red herrings at the reader, assuming you have more than one. There was only one but its importance was revealed in layers. Granted, I was ahead of Nelson for most of the book but that didn’t disappoint me. Heck, I could’ve been wrong. In my future books, I’ll try to incorporate some extra asides, some extra little stories the characters learn, and leave it to the reader to decide which one is important.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Who Changed The Superhero?

By Jay Stringer

I wrote a comment for Scott's Saturday post, but blogger said it was too long. I'll apologise up front for the length of today's post; it's really too long for a blog, but the subject demanded it. Back to usual next week. And to celebrate it becoming a blog post, I'll kick it off with an image.

Frank Miller's influence on the comic book industry cannot be overstated or ignored. He's been a vocal figure in the changing of creators contracts and he helped to change the language of comics. It would be fair to call him a revolutionary figure. However, his influence on Batman comics is very often over stated. Today I'll be tracing two interlinked ideas; Who changed superhero comics? Who changed Batman? There's a narrative that comic books were light and innocent, then Miller came along in 1986 and made them dark. It's a nice and simple narrative. There's also the idea that he somehow made them more adult or mature. I've played my part in peddling the latter, as someone who was a long time fan of Miller (and still appreciates a certain era of his work) but neither of these ideas are true. 

Part of the trouble is that we like to forget what comics are. We like to pretend that they're one small simple thing, rather than a large and varied medium of storytelling just like books, films, radio or television. As with any medium, what you find it directly linked to how deeply you look into it. At six years old I thought the only comics that existed were the one's I'd read, at 16 I thought the only ones worth reading were the ones with superheroes and by 26 I'd realised I was only looking at a tiny fraction of a whole art medium. There are two main differences between comics and the other storytelling forms. Firstly, comics are attached to our nostalgia bone, so there is a part of us hard-wired to always want them to be that thing they were when we first fell in love with them, and that is usually as children. Secondly, because comics by their nature were always looked down upon and ignored as children's fare, they have always been the place where subversive politics, crazy art ideas and social messages have been slipped in by artists who knew they would have more freedom to do so.

This freedom was first challenged in the 1950's, with the CCA, but I'll get to that later. As with  films, books or TV you can point to figures who created things (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, etc) but it's not really possible to say one person changed things along the way. And any essay that hopes to sum up the history of superhero comics in one page will miss out far more than it includes, but in the context of today's questions I'll be mentioning three key figures. Also bear in mind that for real answers, as always, you have to look not at one artist or writer, but at the context and the social situation of the time. 

Frank Miller didn't change Batman in the comics. He changed him in mainstream pop-culture. A culture which still had Adam West as it's main image of the Bat, and was crying out for something new. Into that was thrown THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, a marketing behemoth and still one of the best selling trade paperbacks in the industries history. It (alongside WATCHMEN) changed the business model, the media profile, and the way the stories were packaged. But it didn't change the content of the comics, so much as it reflected an ongoing change. It was an out of continuity tale, written by a writer who allowed his own reactionary views and politics to lead him to satirise both modern (1986) culture and the superhero. Alan Moore set out to do the same with WATCHMEN. Comparing the two shows not only the huge difference between the two writers, but also that the changes in comics were inspiring Frank Miller, rather then the other way around.

TDKR had a big influence outside of comics. It attracted new readers to an industry that was in the toilet, and it gave a reference point for Tim Burton who would draw on it heavily in his Batman films. For my own tastes, I've never liked it. Even when I was more of a Miller fan than I am now. It strikes me less as a commentary on the Batman mythos as a direct reaction to the high camp of the TV show, but much like Robocop it takes that camp and turns it dark, rather than replacing it. I don;t know if 'Dark Camp' is a real phrase, but if not it should be, as it accurately describes what Miller produced with TDKR and has done with many of his following works.Don't take that as a dismissal of that approach -many of my friends can and do passionately defend Miller's style, but it's not for my tastes. TDKR is reactionary; it makes points for the the sake of making points, and it puts a gun it Batman's hand. In his earliest stories Batman had been a stone cold killer, but ever since then his hatred of guns has been a defining point, and I don't like it when writers or filmmakers ignore that for the sake of looking cool. I disliked his treatment of Selina Kyle, and there's a political undercurrent running through it that Miller would unleash more and more over the following decades. The Batman depicted in the story is one I've never seen outside of that story (and All Star Batman & Robin a few years ago, also by Miller.) The idea that TDKR changed Batman forever is disproved by the simple fact that I started reading Batman in that era and continued to do so up until this year, and I've been a fan of the character that whole time, but I don't like TDKR. If that version of Batman was the one we'd had for the last 25 years, I wouldn't have been reading.

Miller's lasting contribution to Batman in the actual comics was with BATMAN YEAR ONE, and my criticism of Miller's other work is balanced out in part by the reverence I hold for this story. That was Batman in the modern day. It was a 'modern day' that in 1986 was meant to represent anywhere from the mid seventies to the mid nineties. It retold his origin but it didn't make Batman into the psycho of TDKR, it built on the already existing mood in the comics and added a few extra troubles to Bruce Wayne's thoughts. It was part of a movement at the time that was saying, if we are going to tell stories about people who fight crime, we're also going to show criminals. This meant that prostitution, drugs, guns and knives started to be depicted more often as a part of everyday Gotham life than before. The thing to understand is that the Batman reboot in 1986 wasn't just a Frank Miller thing, it was a DC comics thing. They made sweeping changes across the board and both Batman and Superman were given revamped origin tales, while the Flash of the 50's was killed off and replaced by his sidekick. The effect on Batman wasn't to make him grimmer than he had been before, it was to take the editorial staffs preferred version and put him centre stage.

For all that I praise YEAR ONE, it was filled with a number of 'Millerisms' that felt immediately both out-of-date and at odds with Batman. These elements were ignored by the rest of the writers even then, and I'm talking of things like Selina Kyle's prostitution and Bruce Wayne's younger age. As an aide, my favourite era of Batman is still the Grant/Breyfogle one, and that much better represents the tone of Batman of that era and since. Still a hero, still with a grip on his sanity, but clearly mentally scarred. This run also played up the supporting cast of Gotham, including a group of homeless guys who regularly featured. This was the Batman of the late 80's and early 90's, right up until Bane showed up and we entered yet another new era. 

There are two other figures who need far more attention when it comes to changing comics. 

The man who changed Batman (and the first of the three names I'm going to point to) was Dennis O'Neil, and he shifted Batman back into the shadows from 1968.He was asked to reinvent the character, and he pretty much did just that. He picked up on elements of the mythos that had always been consistently implicit -but often pushed to the side due to sales, politics and censorship- and dragged them centre stage. He showed the editors at DC an essay by Alfred Bester on writing obsessed protagonists, and was given the go ahead to make that the new direction. It's always been talked about as simply going back to Batman's roots, but there is no hiding, reading the era back with the benefit of hindsight, what a radical move it was. This was the true shift in Batman comics, everything that followed has been an extension of that. The 70's gave us great stories like "The Joker's Five Way Revenge" and Steve Englehart's "The Laughing Fish," and it's these that really the stories that give us the modern Mr J, and both were hugely influential on the direction that David Goyer and Chris Nolan took in the first two films. To find Heath Ledger's joker we look not at Frank Miller but at the very first ever Joker story, then at these two 70's tales, and throw in Ledger's own anarchist take. And to read those stories is to pretty much read the Batman of the last 40 years. Other elements we take for granted that are directly attributable to O'Neil are the storyline of Bruce falling into a cave beneath Wayne Manor as child and being scared by bats, the creation of Ras Al Ghul and Bruce living in the penthouse of the Wayne building in Gotham. O'Neil didn't invent the term, "the Dark Knight," which first appeared in 1940, but he was the writer who popularised it in the 1970's as part of his 'new take.' The 70's is one of my favourite era's of Batman, for all the fresh ideas and a sense of youth and modernity in the art. All of these elements were key to Christopher Nolan's cinematic relaunch. (This is also the era that Grant Morrison clearly favours with his work of the last decade.)

It's also worth noting that O'Neil was named editor of the Batman books around the time of the mid-80's relaunch. He was the editor on both TDKR and YEAR ONE. He was the driving force, and would remain that way for over a decade until he ran out of juice and looked for retirement.

This era also saw the last gasps of the Comics Code Authority, and their regulations that O'Neil himself had helped to change in the previous decade. This is the CCA I mentioned earlier on, which was the beginning of artistic expression being controlled in comics. And this is where the second name comes into play; Doctor Fredric Wertham. Wertham was a psychologist who launched an astonishing attack on the comic book industry. Superman, he said, was propaganda to make American boys feel inferior. Batman and Robin, it seemed, was a way for subversive creative types to make all American boys into homosexuals. There were crime comics that, bizarrely, depicted crime. There were horror comics that, gasp, depicted horrors. This was in the same era as McCarthysim, when bizarre rhetoric was used to destroy the lives of writers and creators because establishment types always think these people have way to much power. The CCA was actually a self-imposed measure by the comic book industry, creating guidelines and rules of content, but it set up a huge schism; the more adult, interesting and radical art was pushed further into the fringes and away from the huge distribution network available to those who played the game. It also aided in the companies ripping off writers and artists, because the people most likely to be vocal about it were marginalised. (Sadly a practice that continues.) In the sixties and seventies, and much of the eighties, the comics were censored by the CCA. They were written within a straight jacket of talking down to the audience. The CCA had many rules that hampered storytelling, such as criminals not being allowed to be seen profiting from crime and also the methods of crime not being allowed to be seen. And if you're writing a Batman story, where you can't really show a crime being committed or profited from, you're going to struggle. Not least in reminding people of the trauma that created Batman.  Sadly the impact of the CCA means we need to name Wertham as one of the key figures on the development of the superhero comic, but it's in essentially the same way that we credit Margaret Thatcher with the development of coal mining. 

There is an era of Batman that some people recall, in which he would turn up to foil a vague plot by criminals -without us knowing what the plots were or why the criminals were even considered criminals- and then there would be a chase scene across giant furniture and ridiculous museum props, before the criminals would be caught and arrested. And they could be arrested by Batman, because he was a deputised law official to get around showing kids the actions of a vigilante. This wasn't the character that was created in 1939, and it's not the character we've had since the 70's. The strips are fun and enjoyable, and I like them as I like all eras of Batman, but they were written that way because of censorship, rather than out of any artistic desire. The schism I referred to can be clearly seen in superhero books of these decades, where some were the home of writers and characters who had no interest in rocking the boat or deviating from the acceptable route, and others who, as in every medium, wanted to push on to the next thing. 

Some superhero comics moved with the times and others maintained a state of paralysis, forever holding onto what they were when the then current generation of writers had been children, and therefore had only had access to CCA approved newsstand fare. We don't need a history lesson of the 70's here, as scandal, corruption and financial problems turned old-fashioned square-jawed authority figures into villains and turned marginalised figures into anti-heroes. But it is worth noting that two of the most violent and disturbed 'heroes' in modern comics -The Punisher and Wolverine- both debuted in 1974, and Blade appeared the year before. Iron Man's battle with alcoholism in DEMON IN A BOTTLE was 1979 and back in'71 Green Lantern and Green Arrow had discovered that their sidekick, Speedy, was a heroin addict. Gwen Stacey died in a defining 1973 Spidey story. This is worth mentioning for two reasons; firstly is send a ripple across the whole industry because it had been unthinkable that such a major character would die. Secondly it was drawn in a way that suggested Spidey may have been responsible for her death, because her neck snapped back when he stopped her fall with his web. This story is often credited as the moment when the "silver age" ended and comics started to move to a new era, dubbed the "bronze age," with more adult themes and stories that had consequences. 

In Green Lantern 76 (1970), GL was confronted by a an African American who said; 

"I been readin' about you…how you work for the blue skins…and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins….and you done considerable for the purple skins. Only there's skins you never bothered with…the black skins. I want to know how come?" 

Race played out in other stories as well, as Luke Cage appeared in 1972 -following the Falcon in 1969- as an African American superhero, and one who was grounded in New York crime fighting of the 70's. Many of these stories also bear the fingerprints of Denny O'Neil (he wrote the Speedy storyline, he wrote that Green Lantern issue, he was an editor at Marvel in the late 70's as these more grounded tales began to emerge.) O'Neil played a key part in getting many of the CCA rules relaxed as the 70's wore on, which was another reason why this new breed of story was starting to come through.  

These stories were there, but they were mixed in with lighter fare on the newsstands. And those newsstands were another aspect of the change; as the industry moved to the direct market and into dedicated comic shops, they found it easier to tell long form stories and to tackle darker themes. The move into the direct market would later come back to bite them but that was a long way off. The political, economic and cultural shifts of the 80's bled through into comics as with everything else. Miller was a part of that movement rather than the cause of it. 

And that brings me to the third figure who needs to be mentioned in any history of the changes in comics. Alan Moore

Moore played a much bigger part in the changing of DC, with his work on SWAMP THING and then with WATCHMEN. On SWAMP THING he completely re-wired the protagonist and elevated the level of storytelling from pulp to art , as well as creating a new supporting character by the name of John Constantine. He wrote THE KILLING JOKE which was one of the other main influences on Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT. The success of Moore opened the door to other Brits like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, whose SANDMAN and ANIMAL MAN books respectively helped created a whole new leg of DC's business, the VERTIGO imprint, which saw titles like PREACHER dominate the 90's. Morrison wrote ARKHAM ASYLUM, which is still possibly the darkest and most challenging take on Batman. Moore's influence is still felt; a throwaway GREEN LANTERN story he wrote in the 80's was expanded into THE SINESTRO WAR and BLACKEST NIGHT, two of the biggest "space opera" superhero events of the last few years, both were a lot of fun. He was also fond of pointing out the basic silliness of superheroes. So modern DC is really the house that Alan Moore built.  (It's nice to see them treat him with such respect.)

Another aside here I should mention is that while I'm crediting Alan Moore for creating and influencing everything in the known world ever, It would be criminal not to mention a title that came at around the same time. MAUS by Art Spiegelman wasn't a superhero book, so it's never quite gotten the press of WATCHMEN or TDKR, but it told the story of the Holocaust, drawing on Spiegelman's own family stories, and presented the characters as animals (Jews being mice and Germans being cats.) It was an amazing work that showed what the medium could do, and deserves to be on all of you shelves along with WATCHMEN. Maybe put it in that space that you free up by throwing out TDKR.

Miller's big impact was on DAREDEVIL, a title he started to work on in 1979. That's where he put his stamp on the super hero comics from a content point of view. Many of the things that people  credit him for doing with Batman are actually things he did with Daredevil. He took a C-List Spidey knock off and turned him into a compelling and tortured hero (much of this run on the book was edited by some fella named Dennis O'Neil). He added in elements of Film Noir and Greek tragedy, with a healthy dose of what would later become an unhealthy ninja fixation, before ending his time at Marvel with the truly amazing DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN. He challenged tropes and stereotypes of the super hero genre, but really was challenging them by adding in tropes and stereotypes of other genres. He was essentially creating a mash-up. And he did bring more violence to Daredevil, including one not-so-subtle image of Elektra being run through with a knife by bullseye, that was his 'look at me' way of depicting a rape murder under the watchful eye of the CCA. It was that work that got him noticed by DC, and that calling card that gave him the clout to play around with Batman. His twin great stories of DAREDEVIL; BORN AGAIN and BATMAN; YEAR ONE remain high watermarks in super hero storytelling, and it's worth noticing that in both, the protagonist spends most of the story out of costume. (One of the many problems I had with The Dark Knight Rises is that the film had very effectively argued that people don't need to wear masks to be heroes, before then shoving one of those unmasked heroes into the Bat-Cave at the end.)

The darkest and most violent era of superhero comics came in a spell between around 1994 and 1998. That was the period when many characters were killed off or crippled, to be replacement with new younger and more violent versions, new costumes involving guns and armour and women in fridges. This was a poor period creatively and politically, but can't be laid at the feet of either Frank Miller or Alan Moore. Both of them by this point had left mainstream comics for the smaller companies that gave them more control and freedom. The result from Miller was the (infinitely silly) SIN CITY series. Moore was by this intent on showing that WATCHMEN hadn't been the only thing worth saying, and was bringing the fun and silliness back to comics with work on SUPREME and TOM STRONG. He had also spent some time being more overtly political, with the publication of AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) and began the project LOST GIRLS which was aimed at reclaiming erotica and pornography as healthy art.

So if  Miller was done with superheroes, and Moore was at work embracing the silliness that had always been a hallmark of them, where was the violence and darkness creeping in from? The real agents of change were pop-culture and movies. Batman, essentially, had the same problem as James Bond. In the 80's he'd found himself competing competing with a new breed of both writer and hero. The action films of Arnie, Stallone and Bruce Willis scared the hell out of the Bond producers and set in an identity crisis that it took a generation to solve, and the same cultural shift hit comic books. As films were filled with larger spectacles and more violent heroes, comic books tried to follow the shift to keep readers. The direct market was becoming a large cause of this; when comics had been on the newsstands there had been a new generation of young fans every few years, but with the product becoming confined to specialist shops the audience was growing older and not changing, and so the industry tried to compete with that this ageing audience was watching. 

And for awhile it worked. The industry had a major boom in the mid-90's and issues were selling at a rate that they've never matched. But for every new fan who came in from the mainstream media attention, there were more who were leaving because of the changes. Some characters have managed to come back and find their feet, others have remained stuck in that time, reeling from a change they couldn't cope with. 

But the good news was that the industry found a new generation of young writers who were coming through with a love of all the different eras and could combine them. We had James Robinson's STARMAN, which was a love letter to both silver age and modern age super hero stories, and then following on later writers like Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker and Geoff Johns, who each combined all of the genres past into successful mainstream stories.

These days there is a comic book to suit everybody. Batman is a great example; you can find the grim and moody vigilante, you can find the action hero, you can find the caped crusader. Whatever you want, you cant find it. (Well, unless you're a woman or one of the many ethnic groups still marginalised, but even there, the industry is better than ever, it's just not good ENOUGH) There is a good varieties of tone and pacing, light and dark, but in a critically shrinking marketplace (though this has been a good year for sales so far, with smaller companies gaining ground on the big two). For people wanting a simple romp of a story I can recommend the new ROCKETEER series that has just launched at IDW, for the darker and more coldly logical end of the tights'n'capes thing I would suggest Irredeemable from Boom! Studios. Both of these are written by the same writer, which shows how interesting and open things are now. 

Creators are starting to have to fight to be heard, but are also fighting for ownership of their own characters, which will free them up long term from the kind of editorial and corporate mandates that drive the likes of Batman and Superman. It'll be interesting to see what the costumed heroes are like in ten years time, and how the industry will support them. I'm not sure If I'll still be reading about them at that point, because my tastes have moved further and further away from men in tights and masks who name themselves after animals, but hopefully they'll be in a place where Miller can't keep claiming credit for things he didn't do, while Alan Moore sits in a house in Northampton wishing people would stop trying to talk to him about an industry he revolutionised thirty years ago.

The real answer to the question of the title, who changed the superhero? Is we did. All of us. In our buying habits, our viewing habits, our moral panics and our entertainment needs. I've identified three figures who helped the genre along the way, but each time it was in a response to what 'we' wanted or needed.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sliding Headfirst: Momentum and Writing

Sliding headfirst is the safest way to get to the next base, I think, and the fastest. You don't lose your momentum, and there's one more important reason I slide headfirst, it gets my picture in the paper.
Pete Rose

By Steve Weddle

There's a story we've probably talked about at some point.

A professor asks the students how they define themselves. One says she's a fighter. One says he's a learner. This is a creative writing, by the way. So he gets to this one dude who says, "I'm a writer."
Everyone kinda nods, looks down at their cups of coffee, maybe wishing they'd thought of that. The professor says, "OK. It is now 3:15. What have you written today?" The guy says he hasn't written anything that day. The professor says, "And you think you're a writer? Not today you aren't."

I can't be a writer every single day. I've tried. Doesn't work for me. I'd have to get up at 4 a.m. to write. I've done that before. I'm not going to be able to do that every day.

Then you're not a real writer. 

Yeah, OK.

You don't want it bad enough!

Um, I think you mean "badly" enough, but whatevs.

I can write 5,000 words a day, but it's a one-and-done kind of thing. Or there will be times when I can crank through 1,000 words a day for a week or so at a stretch. But I don't write every single day. My bank account doesn't depend on it. My sanity doesn't. The happiness of my family doesn't.

I've read posts here and elsewhere about the difference between being an Author and just being a writer. An Author has obligations from contracts to conferences, from agents and editors, and on and on. Page proofs. Revisions. Sequels. Cover approval. (Ha. Joking about the last one.)

I don't have a clock in my head for writing, and I generally don't have deadlines.

I write what I want, when I want, like that sad, drunk man at the other end of the bar softly singing to himself.

Recently, and for a brief time, that all changed.

I had five stories due in a matter of a couple weeks from each other. Now, I am, by trade, a newspaper guy. Before that, I taught college. Before that, I was a college student. I know from deadlines. If you tell me that something is due at noon on September 23, I will count back from that time. If I owe you a 2,000 word story, I'll figure how long it will take me to write it and how long after that I will need to work on it further -- beta reads, edits, etc.

If you tell me that you'd like a 10,000 word story from me by March 23, there is absolutely no chance that I will think again about that story until March 1, at the earliest.

Of course, when you have five stories due right next to each other, that changes. And that's where momentum comes in.

See, once I write one story, I kinda fall into another. I get the feeling, you know? Get "In the Zone" or whatever. I'll get the idea down, get the sentences shaped the way I like them, get things layered in there, see how the various images work out, and so forth. Maybe "On a Roll" is better than the zone idea. I dunno.

Writing every single day doesn't work for me. Writing in frantic, flailing spurts does.

I have work in Beat to a Pulp: Superhero, Both Barrels, Feeding Kate, Protectors, and Off The Record 2 -- all either out right now or about to be out. (PS - Many, many talented folks involved in these books)

And having that momentum is great. You're writing. Stuff is falling in to place. You're connecting with it all.

But then you're diving into that base, which is an extremely dumb move. Because now I'm kinda just lying here, spent.

The trick to keeping your momentum, I can tell you, is staying on your feet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What I Want For My Son

A month ago today, my wife and I were blessed with the birth of our son. Happy and healthy, he's changed out lives, for the better. And, as I assume every parent has done at one point or another, I've tried to take stock of what I want for him as he goes through this life.

-I want him to be happy. To smile, joke and enjoy each day. I know there will be good days and bad days, but I don't want him miserable. I want him to find the silver lining. Going along with that, having my sense of humor wouldn't hurt.

-My wife's smarts and organization. Goes without saying, if he has those things, he's got a step up already.

-I want him to witness something historic. It seems particularly appropriate to talk about this today. In my lifetime, I've seen two space shuttle explosions, the Berlin Wall come down-along with the end of the Cold War. One of the worst terrorist attacks in history. The election of the first black President. An impeachment. Some moments I was able to comprehend, some I wasn't. Some I still haven't. But I'd like him to see something, and at that moment take the time to realize what he's seen.

-A world ruled more by logic, intelligence and critical thinking. One where the sound bite falls along the wayside, and people start to debate again. A listen to the whole debate.

-Love. I want him to find love. The love of friends. The love of family. The love of his life. The love of his dreams.

-Choices. I want my son to have options. And I want him to be able to make those decisions as an informed person.

-This post boils down to something very simple. I want him to have more good and bad. And the goods are great and the bads aren't all that bad.

Isn't that what we all want?

Good luck, Ben. I'll be here for you.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Fustercluck Awards

It is said that we are in the golden age of television. We can all name the top tier shows of this era: The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, The Shield, The West Wing, and many others.

What I'm interested in is the shows that maybe slipped through the cracks, that deserve a second look, that no one watched when they aired.  On one hand I can sit back and say that the top tier shows, some of which are named above, represent some of the top artistic achievements of the medium. But on the other hand some of the shows that I'm going to name below are my favorites.

So in honor of the recent Olympics I'm going to hand out the Gold, Silver and Bronze Fustercluck Awards (plus two honorable mentions).

Bronze Medal - Heroes Season 1
I've watched the first season of Heroes three times, when it originally aired, a couple of years ago, and just this past summer with the kids, and I think that the first season is worthy of reconsideration.  The legacy of Heroes will forever be marred by the second and third seasons where the wheels just came off.

The first season is filled with great moments, fleshed out characters, a large and diverse cast, true WTF moments, and a season long story.  In other words, a solid model of serial TV story telling. 

Are there quibbles?  Of course there are. But Heroes' good moments far outweigh its clunky ones and is, in the end, a solid B to B+ show. 

Silver Medal - Brotherhood

Brotherhood was a brilliant and under-viewed, under-appreciated, and quite frankly just plain old unknown TV show from just a couple of years ago that ran on Showtime.

It takes place in Providence Rhode Island and is about two brothers, one a politician and the other a criminal. The characters are complex. You see the effects of actions on a range of characters. There is true moral ambiguity and emotional and motivational complexity. They are both dirty in their own way and both good men in their own way. They are flip sides of the same coin but refuse to admit it.

All of the characters are from The Neighborhood so there are a ton of overlapping relationships.  For example one of the cops grew up with the brothers and practically lived at their house because his own home situation was so bad.

It only lasted three seasons before Showtime canceled it due to low ratings. But the creators knew that the end was coming so they were able to wrap up the series with echoes to the first episode.

Brotherhood is also responsible for one of my favorite TV death scenes; Freddie Cork (the head of the crime organization in Brotherhood) choking to death his dead gay son's lover. What makes this such a great death scene is that it is ultimately an act of emotional impotence and not aggression. Outside of Breaking Bad I've never seen a death scene in a TV show so devastating.

Speaking of Breaking Bad, the first season of Brotherhood ends with one of those patented bat shit crazy Breaking Bad moments where anything is possible.  

Gold Medal - Terriers

(As if you couldn't tell by the name of the award)

Whatever gushing praise that can be written about Terriers is deserving because it is that good. Terriers is like Woodstock, more people say they watched then actually did.

Terriers was and is the dark horse underdog show of the golden age.  It's probably one of the best shows in recent memory but no one watched the damn thing. 

Terriers managed the tricky feat of having great episodic story lines mixed in with long story lines. In this age of either/or effectively managing both was a joy to behold.

The laundry list of goodness is almost too long.  This is a show filled with nuanced grace and explosive violence.  This is a show filled with great characters and great interactions.  This is a show where the chemistry between the actors was palpable.  This is a show that will, over and over again, break your heart.  Not by killing a major character under the guise of a cheap stunt but in  small tragic and human moments.

This, this, this, this is.....a show you need to go watch.

Terriers is destined to become our Firefly

Honorable Mention #1: The first episode of The Black Donnely's

I recently watched the first episode of The Black Donnely's and it was riveting hour of television.  Then the second episode seemed to squander the promise of what came before.  I think that Black Donnely's was an ambitious show that wasn't able to keep itself from wobbling. But that first episode is worth tracking down. Plus, look at that damned cast!

Honorable Mention #2: The Chicago Code

The Chicago Code was an ambitious network cop show that tried to take some of the elements that have been successful on cable TV and port them to a network show.  And here's the thing. It mostly worked.  I've put it here in the honorable mention category simply because I haven't watched it since it aired.  I've got it in my Netflix queue and am looking forward to a re-watch. 

Everyone knows the obvious TV shows that are touted as being great.  Any good shows that more people should know about.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How far we have come….how far still to go

By: Joelle Charbonneau

Today is Sept. 9th.  Tuesday will mark the 11th anniversary of 9/11.  With the political season upon us, I suppose it isn’t strange that I am thinking about that time and what has happened since.

9/11 and the days after were horrible.  Filled with sadness and fear.  Loss of life and security. Strangely, there was something good that came from the horror.  A sense of community that I can’t remember feeling before.  We as a people were bound together by tragedy, yes, but there was something more that connected us.


That no matter the number of attacks we might suffer or the concerns we might have, we were one people.  Our country was no stranger to adversity.  Those that that come before us had emerged from past trials stronger and our community more vibrant and humane than before.  We could hope it would do so again.

In the days after 9/11, the kindnesses that I saw between people who might not otherwise bother to notice each other were astonishing.  Little acts.  Big gestures.  We remembered that no matter what our political, ethnic or religious differences were we were all people.  We deserved respect.  We were one.

This thought was driven home to me the other day by my 4 year old son.  He just started school again.  Last year, he learned the Pledge of Allegiance.  He memorized it, but as long as he got the words right he wasn’t concerned about their meaning.  This year while practicing he stopped to ask me what one word meant.


I explained to him that it meant that though we all liked doing different things and had different personalities, the wonderful thing about our country is that we all are united.  That we stand together.  That unlike his Legos nothing can break us apart.

He thought my explanation was cool, but after he turned away, I realized I was sad.  We have only to look at the political rhetoric being thrown around to realize we are not indivisible.  Angry shouts divide us more and more everyday.  The lack of compromise.  The inability for people to debate without destroying.  It is not enough to disagree with an idea, people are encouraged by many to hate.  To distrust.  To fear that which is not the same. 

Fear and hate.  Two things that are fostered by terrorists that propels then to attack and destroy.  Things we condemned after the twin towers fell but have allowed to grow and fester since.

Eleven years have passed since 9/11.  Since the time people sang God Bless America and meant all the people and laws of America not just those they agreed with.  Eleven years since we truly celebrated the fact we had such a diverse population and a wide range of ideas.  We stood by the freedoms that allow us all to have different ideas.  We turned from fear and hate.  We embraced the hope we would rise again.  Stronger.  Better.  Kinder. 

So for all of you still reading, I ask you to read this aloud:

I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic for which it stands
One Nation under God
With liberty and justice for all.

Whether you believe in God or not, the spirit of unity found in these words is what our country was founded on.  We all deserve to have ideas.  We deserve to discuss those ideas with others without having those who disagree accuse us of being stupid or evil.  The country was founded on discussion.  Just because our forefathers signed the constitution doesn’t mean they agreed with every point.  Some fought hard and long for things that other fought equally as hard against.  But they listened.  They debated and they compromised.  Because they were indivisible, as we should be.

As 9/11 approaches, I ask everyone to remember back to that horrible day when the towers fell, the Pentagon was struck and planes fell from the sky.  Remember the loss of lives.  The heroism of those on United flight number 93.  Remember how you felt about the people who you met on the street and saw at work or in stores in the days and weeks that followed.  Remember that we are one people.  That while we have different ideas, the worst threat to our country is not terrorists, but forgetting that no matter how our beliefs differ we are indivisible.  There is no greater threat to that pledge my son has learned than ourselves.