Monday, August 26, 2013

On Birthdays, Post-Adolescence

As some of you may already be aware, my birthday is tomorrow. And once again this year, I managed to pretty much forget that my birthday was even coming up until just a few days beforehand, and as a result I haven't made any plans for a party, or even a little get-together with friends.

Having birthday parties as an adult feels a little weird. Not that I'm embarrassed about my age (27) or don't want an excuse to celebrate something with my friends, mind you. It's just that after your twenty-first birthday, you stop unlocking new abilities (like voting or drinking). There's a decrease in insurance costs in the upper twenties, but after that there's not much to unlock until you reach level 65 and can multiclass into "Cranky Old Fart".

Plus, we're taught as we grow out of self-centered childhood that we're not supposed to make a big deal of ourselves, or expect others to come over and celebrate our achievements. Going up to a friend and saying Hey, wanna come to a party in honor of how great I am at staying alive? just feels strange, somehow.

It never felt strange when I was a kid, though. All of my friends and relatives just lined up to wish me a happy birthday and give me gifts, and that was the way of the world. I recognize now that much of that wouldn't have happened if my parents hadn't been there to spread the word and make preparations, but now that that duty falls to me alone, I find it a little... Self-aggrandizing? Narcissistic?

...But maybe I'm over-thinking it. Maybe I'm just naturally a little disorganized, and don't like making people rush around at the last minute on my behalf. Or I could just try a little harder to think about it next year, before the day itself is upon me.

Now, I'd say that's quite enough existential navel-gazing for one day. Birthdays are supposed to be fun! So, for everyone out there who has a birthday, here's a celebratory song from a very special musical guest:

Happy birthday, Dear Readers. Whenever that may be.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Great Graphic Novels in My Life

Last week, I compiled a list of books which have had the most significant impact on my life and worldview. Like many bibliophiles, a large portion of how I interact with and understand the world has been shaped by what I've read. But reading is only a part of the whole picture, and if picture is worth a thousand words, than any graphic novel is worth at least a dozen books. The image can convey many things that the written word alone cannot, and when the two modes of expression work in tandem, marvelous things can happen.

I would like to present you, Gentle Dear Reader, a few of the graphic novels (and one comic strip) which have had the greatest influence on my worldview, more-or-less in the order in which I first encountered them.

Which comic books would be on your personal list of the most meaningful graphic novels you've ever read? Leave your list below in the comments!

1) Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
“Hold it. You know what I'd like to see? I'd like to see the three bears eat the three little pigs, and then the bears join up with the big bad wolf and eat Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood! Tell me a story like that, OK?”
― Calvin

These comics are among the first things I remember reading as a child. To my mind, Calvin and Hobbes is without question the single greatest body of sequential art ever assembled. By turns philosophical, hilarious, poignant, and incisively witty, six-year-old Calvin and his tiger-friend Hobbes informed a great deal of how I spent my time as a child. Like Calvin, I was possessed by a great love of nature and exploration, and he inspired me to make many unsupervised trips through forests and go mucking my way along creek-beds, looking for whatever "weird stuff" I might be lucky enough to find.

I also inherited Calvin's disinterest in organized sports (which I carry to this day, though not as fervently as I used to), his love of unstructured learning, and the joy he took in noticing the beautiful details which grown-ups miss.

2) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud

"Space does for comics what time does for film!"
― Scott McCloud

Unfortunately, one of the views that I absorbed from Calvin and Hobbes was Mr. Watterson's disdain for comic books and graphic novels, which he called "incredibly stupid" (which I feel is a little hypocritical of him, since he wrote comics which were eventually collected and sold in book-format, but that's beside the point).Luckily for me, I stumbled upon a copy of Mr. McCloud's excellent book in the bookstore at Eastern Michigan University, and he immediately blew my mind clear out of the water.

Understanding Comics taught me to reconsider art forms that I had previously written-off, like rap and modern art. It taught me not to confuse the medium with the message: just because comic books have historically been the domain of cheap, badly-written, easily-disposable kiddie fare doesn't mean that all of them have to be, all of the time. What if people had persisted in believing, as they did in Shakespeare's day, that  theater could never be anything more than a cheap, frivolous distraction for the lower classes? Imagine how much poorer the world would be today, as a result of their shortsightedness.

3) Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

“Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week…Then you could see what it is, friends!" 
― Vladek Spiegelman, to his son Artie (age 11)

Maus is an oddity, and not just because it's a Holocaust narrative in comic book format, or because it's a Holocaust narrative starring cartoon animals (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats). It's also the most unsentimentally honest portrayals of a father that I've ever read. Despite living through one of the most horrific examples of institutionalized racism in human history, the Vladek Spiegelman is still intensely prejudiced against African-Americans; he's emotionally manipulative of his son, wife, and daughter-in-law; he's a tight-fisted cheapskate; he dismisses the feelings and concerns of those closest to him; and he constantly comparing his second wife unfavorably to his first wife (the author's dead mother). In a weird way, all this behavior this makes Vladek intensely... human, I suppose. Filled with all-too-human shortcomings and weaknesses. We can't all be Anne Frank, believing, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. Suffering does not necessarily make one more compassionate towards one's fellow sufferers.

3) Watchmen, by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

“There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.”
― Dr. Manhattan

Calling Watchmen "mind-blowing" doesn't do the book justice. That's barely scratching the surface of what this novel is, of what it does. Every single time I read this book, I stumble across some new insight, some new interpretation of the characters, their motivations, their inner workings. In eschewing the self-narrating thought bubbles of past comics artists, Alan Moore forces the reader to delve deep into complex and messy psychologies of these "real-world" superheroes, and the mechanisms which drive them to spend their nights dressing up in kinky, colorful skintight costumes and beating the stuffing out of petty criminals (which, if you think about it, is more than a little weird).

Moore also does an excellent job of pointing out that beating up random lawbreakers isn't going to solve anybody's problems in the long run. When Ozymandias (the self-styled"smartest man in the world") proposes taking action against a recurring villain who has just returned from prison, a bitter and cynical hero called The Comedian turns his acidic tongue on his fellow heroes, pointing out how ultimately pointless their nocturnal beatdowns are, in a world living in the looming shadow of the Cold War:

"You people are a joke. You hear Moloch's back in town, you think "Oh, boy! Let's gang up and bust him!" You think that matters? You think that solves anything? ... It don't matter squat because inside thirty years the nukes are gonna be flyin' like maybugs...and then Ozzy here is gonna be the smartest man on the cinder."

4) V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore (illustrated by David Lloyd)

"You're in a prison, Evey. You were born in a prison. You've been in a prison so long, you no longer believe there's a world outside. That's because you're afraid, Evey. You're afraid because you can feel freedom closing in upon you. You're afraid because freedom is terrifying. Don't back away from it, Evey. ... You faced the fear of your own death and you were calm and still. The door of the cage is open, Evey. All that you feel is the wind from outside.” 
― the anarchist known as "V"

I can't say that I agree with Alan Moore's politics, but they certainly make for thought-provoking reading material. I've never really read a coherent, well thought-out argument in favor of anarchy before or since, and some of the points that he brings up are pretty good ones. Governments always involve a loss of freedom on many levels, but these bodies to whom we hand over our liberties frequently do not have our best interests at heart. They're made of humans, who have their own interests at heart, as all humans inherently do. We tell ourselves that it's for our own good, that the alternative to government is chaos, etc., but ultimately, we're all free, all of the time, to do whatever we want. Most of us just choose not to, out of fear, uncertainty, the implicit or explicit threat of violence against our bodies and our families, etc. But the world only works that way because we allow it work that way.

5) The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by various artists)

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people in the whole world. I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
― Barbie (a.k.a. Princess Barbara), "A Game of You"

What can I even say about this series? It might be the best thing I've ever read, in any medium. And that's really saying something, considering how much I've read in my life.

For the first few chapters, The Sandman is a pretty standard horror comic about Morpheus, the King of Dreams, trying to regain his kingdom after seventy years' imprisonment in the mortal realm. It's good; spooky and atmospheric, but not great; not yet. Not until the last chapter of the first volume, when Gaiman introduces the most endearing personification of Death herself that's ever been penned, and then shit starts to get weird (in the best possible way). Jumping between the Dreaming, the "real" world, the skerries of dream, Heaven, Hell, Limbo, Faerie, the Underworld, various historical pantheons (both real and invented, ancient and modern), and an innumerable host of stories, The Sandman is a shifting, shimmering phantasmagoria of images, words, and complete self-contained universes, each one stranger and more sublime than the last. Reading this series will forever alter the reader, because it forces one to question the nature of reality, time, of the primal power of storytelling to (sometimes literally) reshape one's world.

It is damn good stuff. You should go read it. Right now.

6) Scott Pilgrim, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

“I feel like im in this river just getting swept along... And if I hold on to anyone, if I'm holding on for dear life, I'm not getting anywhere. I'm stuck. ...I never wanted to get stuck.” 

―Scott Pilgrim, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

Scott Pilgrim is a coming-of-age novel for the Nintendo Generation, and I really, really wish that someone had shown it to me before I came-of-age. I think that it would have made me a little more at-peace with being single, and maybe a little more willing to ask myself some hard questions about  my approach to the opposite sex.

In musicals, when emotion becomes too high onstage, the cast spontaneously bursts into song. Scott Pilgrim does something similar, only with video games instead of music. But behind the magical realism and plain old silliness, there's a lot of important questions about the baggage that each of us brings to a new relationship, and the ways in which our past romantic failures (whether they were our fault or not) makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to start afresh. But that's actually a good thing, because if you forget your past mistakes, you won't be able to learn from them, and you'll just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

7) Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi
“In life you'll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it's because they're stupid. That will help keep you from reacting to their cruelty. Because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance... Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

― Marjane Satrapi

I'm abashed to admit that I never really gave much thought to Iran before reading this book. I pretty much just swallowed what the news told me without question: Iranians were crazy zealots who fund terrorists and jihadis and other unpleasant men with beards, and all they want is to see America burn. How ignorant I was.

Not only was Iran a pretty nice place to live before the Islamic Revolution, women had more freedom in Iran than just about anywhere else in the region. Which made it all the harder for them to accept the veil, and the chaperone laws, and sending their sons and brothers off to become martyrs of their faith. Persepolis made me wary (or at least aware) of the possibility that even in a prosperous and stable country, a small band of violent extremists can waltz in, play off the public's fears, and really eff things up for everyone else.

Discuss: Which graphic novel(s) do you feel have the potential to change my life? Tell me about them in the comments!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Great Books In My Life

I've been compiling a list of the books and novels that have had the greatest influence on my life. Not just in terms of when I read them or how I came into contact with them, but the novels which have left the most marked impression on my psyche.

These are the books that changed how I view the world. Each one of these books left an indelible mark on me, and in some way changed the way in which I experience one or more of the deep themes in life: growing up, relationships, war, poverty, adversity, triumph, defeat, anger, joy, love, and many, many, many more.

It's sort of like a bibliography of the research paper that is my life. The subject of my thesis? Life itself! The professor? Existence. The deadline? To be announced.

Lacking any better system of organization, I've tried to organize my sources not by title or author's name, but by the order in which they first entered my life.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
An excellent introduction to weighty themes: travel, adventure, growing up, stepping outside your comfort zone, and epic fantasy adventure.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The first time I tackled this monumental series (in the fifth grade, no less!), I set myself firmly on a path of lifelong bibliophilia. To this day, I still have a great weakness for any fantasy novels with appendices in the back.

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
It's hard for me to imagine not knowing Greek mythology. This book is probably the biggest reason for that. I got my copy from my Grandma when I was twelve or so, read it cover-to-cover in a day or two, and probably haven't forgotten a single detail since then. I can still tell you any story in that book with only the illustrations as a prompt.

Animorphs, by K.A. Applegate
Teenagers who use alien technology to shape-shift into animals. Slowly, over the course of many books, the strain of losing loved ones, living double-lives, and always running scared actually begins to warp and damage their personalities. Practically an instruction manual for running a real-life underground resistance against an equally-underground invasion force.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
This blew my mind when I first read about it in Muse Magazine when I was twelve. The author's deep-seated awe at the simultaneous diversity and unity of the human condition is about as close to religious as I get.

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
I'm getting married in about two months, and the ceremony is going to be Harry Potter-themed, so you can probably tell that this one's had a larger impact on my life than almost any other book on this list. Harry taught me so many important lessons: that bullies are even more scared than their victims; that bad people can redeem themselves; that love is truly stronger than hate; and that it is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman
Ever since I was a child, I've never understood why so many authors like to portray children as innocent, or essentially good. This trilogy does a pretty good job of ending that old lie.

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
I'm still grateful to my father for making me read this when I was in middle school, well before I had a chance to start nurturing any adolescent fantasies about fighting wars.

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
This is hands-down the funniest book I've ever read. It has caused me to literally ROFLOL. And it's also one of the wittiest and most insightful commentaries on religion, belief, and faith that you will ever encounter.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Even though this is definitely fantasy, I don't think I've ever encountered a more unsentimentally realistic portrait of the true driving forces behind the march of history: sex, blood, and personal grudges between members of the ruling class (whomever they might be). If you're going to try to rule something, anything, then read these books first.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
I don't think that I have ever read a more frightening book in all my life. Not because a zombie apocalypse is a plausible scenario for how the world will end (it isn't), but because of the horrors that human beings would be willing to inflict on one another in their struggle to escape such an end.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Katniss Everdeen does the impossible: she's an independent, resourceful, eminently badass young woman who's willing to do whatever it takes to survive the Hunger Games, yet despite her incredible feats of endurance and fortitude, the acts of violence she commits to stay alive are never, ever glamorized. Which is the only way a story like this could possibly be told, if the author has a shred of integrity.

Next  Week: Dave's Compendium of the Greatest Graphic Novels

Monday, August 5, 2013


As some of you may already be aware, my brother and I have been working for some time now on a custom Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting called Crossroads: The New World. It's based on mid-1700's North America, with a few "improvements" (like Inuit frost-giants, a still-living Aztec Empire, and Chinese colonies on the west coast).

Naturally, this kind of exercise in world-building has involved a large amount of research into the world of the precolumbian Americas, and the early days of colonization by Europeans. As a byproduct of this research, I learned substantially more about Native Americans in my first two months of casual research in my free time than I did from kindergarten to my senior year of high school.

That's scary. I mean, that's seriously messed up. I realize that I've probably forgotten a lot of what I learned about the paltry handful of tribes we "researched" in fifth grade, but there's no way I used to know most of this stuff, 'cause when I'm reading it now, it's blowing my freaking mind:
  • The road system of Inka Empire was more than twice as long as the fabled Roman road system.
  • Cahokia was the largest city in North American history until the mid-1800s, and most Americans have never even heard of it.
  • The Pacific Northwestern tribes had caste systems and matrilineal nobility, and slavery was common among them.
  • At the time of their conquest by the Spanish, the Triple Alliance (a.k.a. the Aztec Empire) was the only society on Earth (as far as I'm aware) that educated girls equally with boys.
  • The U.S. government has officially acknowledged that the Great Law of Peace (or Gayanashagowa) of the Haudenosaunee ("People of the Longhouse," a.k.a. the Iroquois Confederacy) helped shape the U.S. Constitution, and American ideals of personal liberty and freedom.
I'm not blaming my teachers; I'm not blaming the public school system. I'm not blaming anybody. But there has been a massive oversight in the education of young Americans, and it needs to be corrected.

I pride myself on being a well-rounded, well-read person, with a fairly good grasp of history; not just European history, but all history. But even I was astonished and shamed ay my own ignorance of what had been happening before 1492 in the very continent I've spent my whole life living on.

Not only did I not know what was going on here before white people showed up, I never even thought to ask that question. I assumed, as I'd alwasy been led to believe, that Native Americans just sat around in the dark until white people showed 'em what was what.