Yikes…

October 17, 2010

One of my friends gently asked why he hasn’t seen Burning Leaves updated in so long.  I haven’t lost interest in writing reviews or entirely overanalyzing Avengers Academy at all. My avoidance is quite simple – Graeme and I are working on piecing together our Face the Music proposal. The past few months, my non-work-related creative energies have been burnt endlessly drafting and re-drafting the scripts. I do love writing, but there’s only so much of my free time I can devote to it. And for the time being, ensuring that FtM is as strong a work as possible before submitting to publishers takes precedence.

In addition, I am currently collaborating on a project with the absolutely amazing Houston Great Books Council. Connie and Eric both have provided a much-appreciated onslaught of support, and we aim for a December launch. So look for more information on that!

My apologies to any authors feeling slighted because I have yet to review their books. I fully intend to post my opinions, but for the time being these factors drain most of my attentions.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.

~Riot

 

Avengers Academy #2

July 20, 2010

Avengers Academy #2 actually came out last Wednesday, and real life commitments (also known as work, chores and attempting to eke out a healthy, financially responsible social life between them) have prevented me from settling down with a cup of matcha and giving this issue a thorough little look-see. Fortunately, I managed to somehow get ahead of schedule at work for the first time in I don’t know how long. Instead of plopping down with the last disc of Mad Men‘s 3rd season, I’m following through with my monthly synthesis of overanalyzing literary criticism and unapologetic geekery.

The sophomore issue shifts narration from archetypal (yet still intriguing) teenager Veil to her staggeringly different contemporary Jeanne “Finesse” Foucault (significant name?). As with the previous perspective, writer Christos Gage uses familiar characterizations as a starting point for some potentially revealing deconstructions later on in the story. With Finesse, he slowly starts building upon the broad foundation of an exceptionally brilliant individual who can figure out anything except human emotions. She is essentially the Dr. Manhattan of the Avengers Academy series, albeit with different superpowers and under a different set of circumstances. Unlike her big, blue, bare counterpart in Watchmen, she possesses the ability to absorb knowledge at an accelerated rate – essentially mastering skills both academic and physical in a matter of minutes. A polymath with an eidetic memory, Finesse  picks up everything from advanced robotics to back room billiards through reading, witnessing and even watching videos. The transition between Veil’s wavering self-esteem and the arrogance of this issue’s narrator certainly jarred me.

Gage treads no new territory with this character at first, though small pockets hinting at greater depth and questioning begin to emerge as her story progresses. This technique right here leads me to believe that he means to begin dissecting the familiar further into the series – anything too new right off the bat may compromise the effectiveness of any compelling, impacting changes and growth to come. I am curious to see if my theory proves correct. One of the most obvious hints Gage drops involves an introspective interlude where Finesse gives herself a brief round of psychoanalysis. After inadvertently embarrassing Reptil in front of the other students and watching Hazmat destroying a berserk Arsenal (more on that later), she reflects upon the concept of alexithymia.

Alexithymia manifests itself alongside a surprisingly broad spectrum of mental and developmental conditions. It involves, as Finesse’s character epitomizes, “a deficiency in understanding, processing or describing emotions” (12). Although present in clinical depression, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses, Gage initially narrows down the source of Finesse’s inability to 2 options. She mulls over the autism spectrum and clinical psychopathy, noting how she does not think she fits the diagnostic criteria for the former. The true origins remain unknown – and they probably will for the foreseeable future. Navigating this character will certainly prove a challenge for reader and writer alike now that psychology has explicitly factored into her story – most especially if it comes to pass that she lay on the autism spectrum. I’ve done plenty of research on the subject for work. I’ve met  and talked to many individuals with diagnoses of autism and Asperger’s as well as their families. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came extremely close to genuinely capturing everything I have learned about the subject so far, and just about the only thing Finesse has in common with any of it is the alexithymia.

Her calculated blackmail against veteran Avenger and Academy instructor Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff will prove problematic should Gage decide to take the autism route with Finesse. As is, individuals with developmental and mental health issues already struggle against negative portrayal in the media. Because the polymath’s portrayal involves acts that parallel psychopathic and sociopathic behavior, anything heavier than a delicate hand can lead to some extremely unfortunate implications. That does not, of course, mean that she cannot be written as a well-rounded autistic character with a nice balance of positives and negatives. Gage just needs to approach her with painstaking care if he hopes to play with such concepts. As she currently stands, however, Finesse shares far more in common with individuals I have met who fit the diagnostic criteria of sociopathy. Not only does she mimic human emotion and behavior rather than genuinely feel it, she also brashly bucks common courtesy and generally approaches others as if completely above universal moral constructs.

More specifically, Finesse sees no issue with manipulating her teachers in order to win their favor and receive special training. She takes a cue from Veil and unsuccessfully attempts to flirt with Hank Pym, but manages to find success in blackmailing Quicksilver for the same terrorist training he underwent during his stint with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The scene where she nonchalantly threatens to expose his battery of lies from the later issues of the now-defunct Mighty Avengers comes off as initially chilly. As if she sees other people as little more than stepping stones towards attaining her own wants, caring little about who may get hurt along the way. Reading it reminded me far too much of my own dealings with such individuals in real life.

However, Gage does leave a door open for Finesse to grow into her own as a true hero someday. She ought not be dismissed as truly sociopathic only 2 issues into the series, especially given this one’s overarching theme of free will. Quicksilver and Greer “Tigra” Nelson verbally spar with one another over the direction their lessons have taken. Behind the backs of his fellow instructors, Quicksilver had applied experiences gained under association his mutant separatist father Magneto to the Avengers Academy classroom. He ordered the repair of the indestructible but thankfully nonlethal battle robot Arsenal and launched a surprise assault on the students at breakfast. Although he hoped to teach him the potentially lifesaving skill of preparedness and improvisation, the others took issue with forcing them to unexpectedly undergo such trauma so early in their academic careers.

Pym decides to take a more diplomatic approach and asks the students themselves for their input on whether or not they found such lessons effective, putting them in control of their own educations. He effectively restores their free will after Quicksilver attempted to symbolically snatch it away. A later conversation between Hazmat and Finesse propels plumbs this theme even deeper. The former grows more cynical with her education as the breakfast battle dredged up the anger she still felt over well-intentioned lies exposed in the previous issue. Along with her other classmates, she looks towards Finesse for answers. Her response succinctly sums up the entire concept of free will, one which I’m almost certain will prove indispensable to the series. She instructs her peers to learn everything they can from everyone who is willing to teach them. Once they feel as if they have soaked up enough from the world around them, they can make the contentious decision to pursue a path of either heroism or villainy. She demonizes neither choice, merely acknowledging that such a duality exists.

Therefore, it is entirely possible that she sees the terrorist training she manipulates her way into receiving from Quicksilver through the same neutral lens. After all, as Finesse narrates her life up to this point she makes note of how she embraces knowledge as knowledge – no matter where she finds it. The Avengers fear her because she willingly accepted an education from Norman Osborne…but they never made note of how she approached the opportunities they had to offer with the same enthusiasm. In spite of the blackmail, one can still interpret Finesse as morally neutral – she cares not for good or evil, but rather learning everything about everything. Gage could very easily kick her over to the hero’s side, using her intimate understanding of terrorist tactics to better thwart their activities. As with all her peers, she can easily succumb to the darkness or the lightness that resides in everyone.

Much like founding Avenger and current Academy headmaster Hank Pym, really. In spite of a storied history dating all the way back to January of 1962 (that’s older than my dad!), Pym never really scored too many fans until his recent revival as the Marvel Universe’s resident Dr. Who at the hands of Dan Slott. Part of this has to do with his spotty characterization as an explicitly mentally ill superhero. Possessive of a crippling inferiority complex and prone to nervous breakdowns and panic attacks – he even attempts suicide at one point – Pym could have easily become a wonderful study in resilience and fortitude in spite of crushing internal setbacks.

Instead, he cycles to extremes depending on the writer’s ability to sensitively and realistically portray mental illness…not to mention whether or not he or she even likes him in the first place! Jim Shooter had him suffer from a nervous breakdown and backhand his wife (Wasp, incidentally my favorite superhero), an unfortunate incident that furthered the negative stigmas attached to mental illnesses and resulted in future inconsistent characterizations. Kurt Busiek and Dan Slott both established him as a deeply troubled man who worked hard and yearned to rise above his mistakes and personal demons – extremely sensitive, realistic portrayals of how good people sometimes feel really bad things inside. Gage has thankfully been playing with this particular interpretation, hinting at the cracks without branding Pym as detestable for possessing them. Chuck Austen saw him as an impotent, whiny and ineffectual loser, losing the love of his life to a close friend who suddenly hates him. And almost everything in between.

I could devote a plethora of entries to the psychology of Hank Pym alone, but the similarities between him and Finesse are so undeniable she even brings it up herself. Both of them must grapple with either a mental or a developmental disorder, though the specifics of the latter remain hazy for the time being. This persistent inner struggle to try and make sense of the frequent nonsense that is human nature can lead to either devastating or world-saving consequences. Pym’s history comes with more than his fair share of both, and Finesse carries that very same potential. I hope that Gage uses his series to dispel many of the sadly negative depictions of the mentally and/or developmentally disordered in the media.

Bibliographic Information

Gage, Christos, writer. Avengers Academy. Art by Mike McKone. New York: Marvel, 2010. Print.

~Riot

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

July 12, 2010

Other women always regard me with a strange look when I tell them that the sweetest gift I ever received from any boyfriend consists of 2 generously overstuffed American Splendor anthologies. I suppose it seems strange to most people, as stereotype demands I ask for the most expensive jewelry I can milk – perhaps nagging my way into an expensive night out, overflowing with entitlement and mugging for absolute attention. Perhaps my unwillingness to act the high-maintenance fool is why I’m now single, why I will probably always be single. But that’s neither here nor there.

The reason why I hold such a present in a much higher regard than any of the others lay in the fact that what I truly received was hundreds of pages of the most brutal, naked honesty ever committed to paper. I never had the pleasure of meeting Harvey Pekar, though the minute I first caught glimpses of his comics bobbing about online I felt an undeniable affinity for every letter of every word. Everything the man had to say came laden with hefty reflection – he harbored no trepidations when it came to laying out his anxieties, failures, mistakes, embarrassments…and the occasional victory. The literary field sags considerably under the weight of authors who respect the medium as little more than a conduit towards money and fame. Writing leads to franchises, to glory. Protagonists the wish-fulfilling avatars of an author’s idealized self, weaknesses obscured by overwhelming positives.

Harvey Pekar wrote because Harvey Pekar had things to say. His was an agonizingly beautiful assessment of the frailties and frustrations of existence, and fans irritated by the inauthentic drivel that pollutes the literary landscape praised this painfully rare ability. With nothing less than pure honesty, Pekar found existential lessons in his mundane life as a clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital. “A Ride Home” – one of the more compelling vignettes from American Splendor – details his anger and frustration with a coworker who drove him back to his house after work every night. A highly unflattering glimpse into his all-too-human mindset gradually unfolds, culminating in his walking out of work in a huff when his coworker’s kind heart prevents her from leaving on time. I won’t discuss the story in detail, as I hope you will seek it out yourself.

Even beyond the comics whose title inspired the wonderful biopic starring Paul Giamatti, Harvey Pekar continued to wring out his blue-collar, Rust Belt intellectualism into such evocative works as The Quitter (with Dean Haspiel) and Our Cancer Year (with wife Joyce Brabner and Frank Stack). The former plunges the depths of self-defeatism, while the latter inverts the familiar tale of a heroic cancer patient valiantly grappling against the lumps in his testicles. Both entirely unapologetic, highly emotional displays of human weakness and vulnerability at its most dire. Universal, relatable – corners of ourselves we rarely even acknowledge internally, much less to an audience of anonymous strangers. Perfect examples of why so many loved how he put words to their daily dysfunctions…and why so many hated him for the exact same reason.

Few ever have and ever will strike the precarious balance between ordinary and extraordinary quite like Harvey Pekar, and collaborators, artists, critics and fans have been memorializing his truly amazing memory all day. If I may, I would like to share a few with you, hopefully to underscore just how important a pop culture figure he genuinely was – and the diversity of lives he touched along the way.

The Pekar Project – The site has yet to write of Pekar’s death, but anyone curious about his life and work seriously must check it out.
A.V. Club – Be sure to watch the videos and read Noel Murray’s lovely eulogy as well.
The Daily Cross Hatch – Artists and writers memorialize their beloved friend and colleague.
Pajiba
Topless Robot
Comic Vine
Newsarama
IGN
ComicsAlliance
PublishersWeekly
Self-Publishing Review

C, if you happen to come across this blog looking to see if I’ve been cursing your name about the internet (I haven’t), know that the books remain snug on my shelves. The spines still unbroken just as I like them. Continuously treasured because they boast the words of  a curmudgeonly man courageous enough to reveal to us the uglier facets of humanity without ever denying their tragic beauty. I am still very, very appreciative.

May the frank, simple honesty of your life and words never tarnish, Mr. Pekar.

~Meredith

Review

Though Americans do live in a “secular age” (9), Rice University Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought Niels C. Nielsen points out very quickly that religion still shaped our political leaders – for better or for worse. We as a nation should be striving towards a more all-encompassing perspective, accepting the philosophies of the religious and non-religious alike. But, at the same time, there is no denying that the various faiths to which past presidents adhered (or did not adhere) did come to impact their policies. Not everyone may be terribly enthused about this, but that won’t change the fact that it does, did and still happens. Nielsen sites a plethora of reliable primary and secondary sources to back up this main thesis, which revolves mainly around how presidents past compare with Barack Obama from religious, historical and – of course! – political angles.

In spite of the title, God in the Obama Era actually stretches all the way back to George Washington, stopping at 18 different presidents along the way. Each one receives an in-depth analysis of his connection (or disconnection) with a given spirituality and major political and personal successes and failures. All of their stories tie back into the title as Nielsen discusses how they relate back to Obama’s current challenges today, a nice melding to illustrate how the triumphs and mistakes of the past have come to mold the present. Some very interesting questions start popping up along the way as well. I started wondering what the evangelical, highly conservative Christians affiliated with the George W. Bush campaign would have made of Thomas Jefferson’s “denial of the Trinity” (67) and adherence to deism and Unitarianism. And the question of whether or not the only Catholic president – John F. Kennedy – will ever be joined by a second also comes to mind as well. Will the general public still believe him or her subservient to the Pope’s bidding? What facets of morality are generally universal, and is there or should there be a place for specific religious beliefs to pass policies that cater to their own interests? What are the pros and cons of secularism? Pluralism? Which approach would the American peoples prefer? Given how all presidents up to this point had a religious foundation – almost exclusively Protestant Christians – would Americans ever open their arms to an openly atheistic president? That’s what I really enjoyed about this book. All sorts of questions regarding politics, religion, history and their plentiful intersections started materializing the more I read. Fans of analyzing and discussing these topics have plenty of fodder to fuel civil debates here, and I’d encourage them to give God in the Obama Era a chance.

I doubt, however, that Obama’s detractors will have much interest in this book. Nielsen clearly holds high hopes for his presidency, which I didn’t mind so much. More conservative readers might, though. The content does admittedly dry out from time to time, but the author keeps his chapters on the shorter side and writes in a clear, concise manner that makes the book extremely accessible to an audience without an extensive background in the topics at hand.

It’s worth mentioning that Morgan James Publishing donates 1% of all book sales to Habitat for Humanity, so buying a new copy of God in the Obama Era puts a bit of money in the pocket of a worthwhile charity. They have a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator, for the record!

Bibliographic Information

Nielsen, Niels C. God in the Obama Era: Presidents’ Religion and Ethics from George Washington to Barack Obama. New York: Morgan James, 2009.

Further Reading

Because God in the Obama Era does ultimately tie into the eponymous presidency, anyone curious about how he personally resigns his religious and political beliefs with one another should read Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Niels C. Nielsen does, of course, plumb the depths of Barack Obama’s personal and spiritual background in his own book. But the best way to firmly grasp where he’s coming from is by reading everything in his own words.

~Riot

Avengers Academy #1

June 13, 2010

Because I’m trying something a bit new by (hopefully) digging pretty deeply into the psychoanalytic and thematic devices of Avengers Academy, it stands to reason that these particular entries will contain a good amount of spoilers. I try to avoid them in my book reviews, but this particular project is going to veer more towards the literary criticism end of the spectrum – meaning that opening up plot twists and character nuances is unavoidable.

If possible, please give me some feedback as to whether or not you like this format. I’m hoping to expand my more in-depth analyses of literature on Burning Leaves, making it a place for non-spoiled reviews as well as dissections of different books that specifically peer into what many would consider spoiler territory. I’m starting off with a superhero comic because it seems like a genre where few consider that some – and I freely admit not all – titles actually come packed with excellent material for a formal (or semi-formal in my case) literary criticism session. Avengers Academy promises plenty.

Madeline “Veil” Berry (also known as “Maddy”) serves as this issue’s narrator, so we get a nice glimpse inside her head as she navigates her first day as ostensibly the best of the best metahumans rescued from torture at the hands of Norman Osborne’s Dark Reign. As we’ll see with her classmates, Gage portrays his new characters – all of them former victims of diabolical torment – with broader personality baselines. I’m fine with this in a first issue, since it (hopefully) promises a higher degree of development and analysis – maybe some deconstruction if we’re lucky – later on down the line. Too much too soon drives an audience away and ruins any sort of organic, believable growth.

“Believable” is actually a grand word to expand upon here. Because Avengers Academy #1 revolves less around action and emphasizes character and theme over plot for the time being, it is key for Gage to establish his creations as familiar and comfortable figures who could easily veer off into a multitude of different directions. And, by the end of the book, he does exactly that. Narrator Veil once passed her teenage years as an impoverished, apparently friendless young woman who finds herself cruelly victimized by her classmates. Humberto “Reptil” Lopez sports an upbeat, friendly confidence and outgoing personality. Ken “Mettle” Mack initially comes off as an optimistic sweetie-pie of a gentle giant. Jennifer “Hazmat” Takeda snips, snaps, and snarks her way through her interactions with everyone, be they teacher or student. Polymath Finesse and lightning-themed Striker both boast abrasive, self-centered personalities, with the former preferring isolating herself from what she perceives as dead weight classmates and the latter a depressing commentary on contemporary society’s obsession with fame, glory, and waves of attention.

Narrator Veil recently discovered her power to transform into different types of gases is killing her, resulting in what seems to be a budding emotional clinginess towards instructor Vance “Justice” Astrovik – and her constant obsession with the shape of her body reveals what may very well be an escalating case of body dysmorphia. Reptil’s cheerfulness reads as a disconcerting mask for post-traumatic stress disorder once you realize that Osborne likely tortured him worse than any of the other students. Mettle’s submissiveness, sweetness and self-awareness may very well end up resulting in abuse at the hands of others and conformity to negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Hazmat’s prickly anger is understandable when Justice reveals that her body’s toxicity and radiation unintentionally killed her dog, sent her boyfriend to the hospital, made both her parents very ill and ruined her chances to get into college – not to mention the fact that she now must whittle away the rest of her life in a containment suit. Finesse’s intense (and very, very chilling) self-centeredness and lack of emotional awareness very much reminds me of a sociopath I once knew. And Striker’s persistent braggadocio and lust for attention is pretty self-explanatory.

The final reveal of the book shows that these kids were not recruited because The Avengers thought of them as special little snowflakes to be shaped and molded into the heroes of tomorrow. They were recruited out of fear, because their psychological profiles flagged them as possessing character traits more common to villians. Every single one of these new characters now traipses a tightrope wire between doing great good or descending into outright evil. Players in a fantastic world facing down very real, very universal themes. Likely archetypes we have encountered at various points in our lives – I know I have, at least. In adding this dimension to the story, Gage piques interest in learning more about how these characters come to grips with balancing the lightness and darkness within themselves. Suffice to say, not everyone sports that sort of self-control. Surely one of more will end up descending into madness or villainy, and with all of them possessing the possibility to snap readers are playing a safe literary game of Russian Roulette.

Because Veil narrated this issue, she makes for a lovely example of the binary struggles that all the students must confront at some point during the series. This story bookends with her feeling betrayed and humiliated, first by her peers in high school who frown upon her poverty and awkwardness and again upon realizing that her recruitment into Avengers Academy was a result of her possible vulnerability to the sweet temptations of villainy. Even at the beginning of the story, she – tragically like many teenage girls – considers herself an aesthetic stain upon humanity. Gage hints that much of her poor body image (especially regarding breast size) actually stems from idolizing Ms. Marvel. As someone who has done extensive research on body dysmorphia, I found it a nice, subtle commentary regarding the physical portrayal of women in comic books, if not the media at large. In addition to her sad and relatable relationship with her externals, Veil’s other hurdle involves the recent revelation that Osborne’s torture unnaturally altered her core molecular structure. She possesses more sophisticated powers that allow her to transform into different types of gas, but the artificial jump-start will lead to an inevitable and permanent dissolving. Almost all of Veil’s major issues stem directly from perceptions and realities of her physical being, and the resulting insecurities and fears can very easily lead her down a questionable path. As is, she already emotionally fixates on inaccessible authority figure Justice – a one-sided relationship that will likely result in further hurt and vulnerability. These very real character flaws need only a few nudges to send her veering off into extremely constructive or devestatingly destructive ends, which Justice explicitly references upon witnessing her understandable emotional outburst following news of her deadly condition.

When the list of core instructors at Avengers Academy was revealed – Hank Pym, Quicksilver, Justice, Tigra, and Speedball – many fans expressed outrage that more popular and, frankly, stable characters such as Captain America and Thor weren’t chosen. Personally, I loved it. Even without knowing the final twist, I considered them all excellent choices. All of Gage’s picks harbor the same darkness as their students, making them far more able to relate to the kids in their care and better personalize lessons. All of them (at least) once swam the tempest of wrenching emotional torment as a result of their own actions, and they seek to prevent others from emulating their mistakes. Icons like Thor and Captain America rarely plumb the more twisted, frightening corners of the human psyche the way these seasoned heroes have. It’s why you get former addicts to lead recovery seminars. Even factoring out the “students-as-potential-villians” plot twist, I think the teachers all needed solid redemption stories and possessed the negative (and positive) elements of their hero careers necessary to establish a well-rounded syllabus.

A couple of parallels cropped up between the students and the instructors as well, I noticed. Like Pym, Finesse possesses an astounding intellect and curiousity to learn new skills, yet neither are able to genuinely relate to others on an emotional level. Though where Pym’s isolation leads more to depression, desperation and rash actions, Finesse comes off at first as a truly frightening sociopath. Both Quicksilver and Striker gravitate towards obnoxious arrogance and showboating, the result of extremely unhealthy relationships with one parent. Striker’s circumstances have yet to apparate in the comics, though Marvel makes explicit mention of them in one article. Justice and Hazmat both accidentally lost family members as a result of their powers manifesting, and Speedball and Reptil have had their spunky personalities compromised by nauseating guilt and torture. I’m hoping that Gage will address many of these similarities in due time, as they seem intentionally constructed.

The major overarching theme of the book revolves around the ethics of lying to students with the hopes of encouraging them to live up to their positive attributes rather than giving in to their negative. Pym explicitly states that hiding the potentially villainous profiles from the students will bolster their confidence and prevent them from slipping into dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies. Jennifer and Caroline at Fantastic Fangirls delve into the philosophies and psychologies behind educating children and the role they play in Avengers Academy far better than my minimal teaching experiences ever could. Even then, though, their assessment makes perfect sense even with the pedagogy facet factored out. The more individuals are exposed to negative criticism about themselves, the more likely they are to give in to them and put forth little effort towards self-improvement. When used in an educational setting, it does bring up some muddied ethical questions about whether or not lying to a student will help or hinder his or her performance – not to mention how to handle the situation of compromised trust once it becomes public knowledge. Such a situation occurs at the very end of this issue, with the students finding out exactly what their instructors have been hiding. It will be fascinating to see which of them ultimately use the information to prove the predictions wrong or just give in to evil temptations.

Mettle, I think, seems to be the character to watch out for the most. Gentle and seemingly kindhearted, prior to the big revelation he already makes note of he and his teammate’s destructive potential once the training sessions begin. But after finding out that his mentors have him pegged as a possible future villian, he looks as sad, betrayed and dejected as a young man constructed of solid iridium can. Blending this self-awareness with finally realizing what authority figures actually make of him can very easily lead to some potent events and bits of character development down the line.

This definitely reads as a far darker and morally grey interpretation of both the “older heroes training a new generation” and “teen drama” subgenre and genre, respectively. Gage definitely has the potential to completely deconstruct much of what we know about the tropes and archetypes associated with them, and with the twist at the end of the first issue I’m sincerely hoping that’s his ultimate goal. It’s definitely fertile territory for analysis of the familiar characters, themes and events, and it would be nice to see them filtered through a creative, critical lens that steers them in a new direction.

Bibliographic Information

Gage, Christos, writer. Avengers Academy. Art by Mike McKone. New York: Marvel, 2010. Print.

~Riot

For as big a comic book fan as I am, I do kind of sort of have a confession to make. I’m not really a collector, and for budget and space reasons I usually wait for releases of trade paperbacks before exploring what I want for my collection. Yes, I know this means I’m part of the problem when it comes to the survival of a much-beloved series. But being on a tight budget means I can’t afford to keep multiple subscriptions going for titles that may or may not prove worthwhile in the end. And my apartment isn’t exactly conducive to storing longboxes. My apologies to all the hardworking comic book writers and artists out there. I appreciate the medium as a viable, legitimate and frequently underestimated storytelling conduit, and I support the industry in whatever way I feasibly can.

I do, however, scan previews for any new books that seem promising. $3.99 for one title once a month won’t put too huge of a dent in my nest egg, and when the trade paperbacks come out I can purchase them and donate the monthlies to the library or Texas Children’s Hospital if they’ll take them. And if I end up not wanting to read past the first arc, someone else will still have free reading material to enjoy. I think I have enough money for everyone to win!

Christos Gage and Mike McKone’s Avengers Academy launched its first issue this week, and the preview piqued my interest enough to where I wanted to start reading it as new issues are released rather than waiting for the trades. I’m not normally a fan of teenybopper or high school stories, but with such a well-written introduction to the story and interviews promising a darker take on familiar territory I was actually sold on giving it a shot for reasons other than the presence of Hank Pym and Justice as instructors. Issue #1 showed just how much this series had to offer from a thematic and psychological perspective – a veritable playground for a literary critic! I am definitely wanting to see what Gage and McKone have in store for readers, so once a month I plan on intently dissecting the new pieces of the puzzle that fall into my hands. And considering some of the tactics used to introduce readers to the latest crop of Marvel metahumans, I get the feeling I’m entering in on the ground floor of something (hopefully!) special. It may be the weekend after a release considering work constraints, but updates should be a little more regular than my reviews. 26 pages read a lot faster than full novels, after all. Look for my thoughts on #1 coming soon! Spoilers will, of course, abound.

New series. New characters. New feature for Burning Leaves! Hope you enjoy!

~Riot

One of my assignments at work this month involved sifting through hundreds of writing tips from all over the the web. Obviously, the research portion piqued my interest quite heavily – aside from my coworkers (many of whom are listed in the “Friends” portion of my blogroll) and the lovely men and women at the Zeros 2 Heroes community, I sadly don’t spend as much time conferring with other professional writers as I would like. So it certainly served as an eye-opening experience for me to compare and contrast my experiences and training with theirs.

Probably unsurprisingly, I came across numerous bits of advice that seemingly contradicted one another or pushed subjective stylistic preferences as absolutes. For example, more than a few writers touted that “short, declarative sentences” makes for the best route towards penning a successful work. I actually agree with this statement…while simultaneously disagreeing. As a stylistic element, such a strategy may not necessarily gel with what the author hopes to accomplish. It’s fine to discuss it as a possibility, of course, but the problem with many of the tips and tricks I unearthed was the merging of subjective and technical without indicating the difference. Many novice writers perusing the internet for ideas on getting themselves started may not have the training or experience to separate the two.

Perhaps wrongly, perhaps not, I actually find that a bit disconcerting.

Because so many experts (understandably!) have been working in the field for so long, it probably does not cross their minds to differentiate their technical tips from the subjective. However, I think this common oversight holds the potential to homogenize the craft of writing. Not entirely, obviously. But the more stylistic tips end up lumped together with the technical, the more they will blur together in the minds of newer writers seeking a bit of a boost to their hobbies – even careers. The more entwined they become, the more likely it becomes that their works grow to echo advice more than personal preference.

All this is just my opinion, though. But I figure no harm lay in pointing out the writing tips I personally found most helpful – after all, much of the general advice floating about out there can be narrowed down even further into a few broad kernels that leave plenty of room for interpretation and experimentation. And that right there is exactly what I  want to encourage amongst emerging writers. Experimentation. Adhering too closely to what others have to say prevents boundaries from being challenged and new movements and ideas from bursting into existence.

But few will argue that the most compelling and effective experiments come straight from fully understanding the technicalities. Picasso drew and painted photorealistically prior to revolutionizing the art world with the distorted perspectives and forms (among other elements) of Cubism, after all. In order to subvert the accepted and anticipated, a writer must absolutely know their ins and outs beforehand. Because of this, I am approaching the material from the perspective of encouraging experimentation.

So if I give out advice from time to time here on Burning Leaves, understand that I am trying to do so as objectively as possible in order to accommodate personal stylistic  preferences and quirks. Take it to heart. Ignore it. Tell me I’m a horrible, ignorant woman who doesn’t know what she’s talking about and needs to keep her nose out of the writing business. But hey – maybe someone, somewhere can benefit from what I’ve dug up, so why shouldn’t I share it? I won’t pretend it’s anything new that hasn’t been said before, of course, but maybe joining in the chorus of other writers will drive home the importance.

In any case, I personally think these main 4 points of advice stand as some of the most important for new writers to keep in mind. They’ve all been said before. There’s nothing particularly exciting or insightful or unique about them. But for anyone who wants to share their voice with an audience or desires to push the boundaries of the language of their choice, these snippets of advice deserve repeating. Obviously, anyone who writes solely for their own benefit needn’t pay any attention.

1.) Learn Proper Spelling. There is definitely a time and a place for “creative spelling,” and that time comes after studying the ins and outs of the actual rules that govern the “non-creative” variety. Barring dyslexia or other learning disabilities, there really isn’t any legitimate reason why so many individuals simply can’t spell in their native tongue. I don’t mean misspelling the occasional word – nobody is infallible and mistakes will invariably and understandably be made every once in a while. I mean cascades of incomprehensible thoughts.

And that right there highlights why one needs to study proper spelling. It may be a dry subject, but of the utmost importance to writers. Though this quip can be found almost anywhere else, it warrants repeating – you may have written out the most brilliant insight into the human condition ever penned, but if readers can’t make heads or tails of the poor spelling, they’ll dismiss it entirely. Brilliant though it is, I’d have even put down A Confederacy of Dunces had the opening line read, “A grean huntting capp skweezed the topp of tha fuleshee buhlooon of a hed.”

As always, though, there are exceptions that prove the rule. Intentional misspellings oftentimes add a great deal of emotional impact to a work. Consider the phenomenal, tragic Flowers for Algernon. Or, for a far more lighthearted example, many of Dr. Suess’s poems took liberties with the English language as well. “Stars/Thars” from The Sneeches comes to mind first. Point being, if you want to use this device to achieve a desired reaction then take the time to study up on spelling rules. Study how to spell in English if you write in English. Study how to spell in Spanish if you write in Spanish. Study how to spell in Esperanto if you write in Esperanto. Etc. Otherwise, you’ll lose your audience very quickly. Don’t always rely on spell check, either – they don’t catch homophones!

2.) Learn Proper Grammar. It’s pretty much the same song and dance as why you need to learn proper spelling. Obviously, improper or meandering grammar has its place. It can be used to establish a scene where a character begins breaking down. Or to create more naturally flowing dialogue. Or to paint a surrealist portrait using words. Or for the sake of humor. But, you kind, of sort of need to be careful, about, when and where and how you use, poor grammer, or else the same sort of, disconnect with, a audience, as with poor, spelling occurs and then you just come off, as a hack or unknowledgable and you kind of lose, you’re audience!.

See what I mean?

Obviously, you don’t have to go digging through the depths of the illustrious Grammar Girl and follow the most obscure regulations you can find. Just learn the basics and look up anything you find confusing that pops up along the way. You’re not always going to hit 100% of the rules 100% of the time, just like spelling. Don’t beat yourself up over it when any crop up. But if you ever hope to subvert these regulations, it pays to know exactly what you’re working with.

3.) Just Be You. At first, newer writers are going to emulate their favorite authors and thinkers. It’s perfectly natural! When I go back and read anything I wrote as a senior in high school, for example, it’s fairly obvious how much Chuck Palahniuk I ingested at the time. But continuing to write helps your work evolve into something more personable! Strive for authenticity and, if you’re writing for an audience, at least some degree of clarity. Allow yourself to grow and change and experiment and be influenced and – in time – influence others. Even with a writing assignment in front of you, it’s still possible to add personal flourishes. Obviously, if you’re being graded on a paper then you need to stick with your instructor’s directions. Don’t take liberties with facts for nonfiction pieces, for example. That’s kind of a different case, and I don’t want parents popping in on here telling me that their kid followed my advice and scored a failing grade. But for something more personable, creative – just stick with the tired old adage of being yourself. It’s a cliché for a reason.

And besides, honesty always ends up much easier in the end. Both in life and in writing.

4.) READ. Whenever possible, gobble down as many books that you deem interesting. Even if you don’t channel your inner Harold Bloom and contentiously dissect what makes a work of literature effective or ineffective, you’re still definitely learning something! Your subconscious will process quite a bit along the way – hence why you’ll come to start mirroring some of the techniques used by your favorite writers. Strong reading skills and strong writing skills work in tandem, though. So be sure to take in as much reading as you can if you hope to improve upon your writing.

Hope these help, and I would encourage anyone to leave comments and let me know if they found these helpful or entirely a waste of time. If I feel like writing out more tips in the future, I would like to tailor them to be as thorough and valuable as possible. I also invite other writers to chime in as well!

~Riot

Review

My coworker, the very delightful writer and media critic Dan Carlson at Slowly Going Bald, lent me his copy of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude after discovering my fondness for postmodernism and comic books. He said he thought I’d enjoy it, and…well…he said right.

The narrative centers around protagonist Dylan Ebdus coming of age as one of the only Caucasian children in a predominantly African-American Brooklyn neighborhood, tracing his life from his “fat, podlike, Tweedledee” (6) childhood self to a thoroughly confused but ultimately satisfied adult. Ostensibly a superhero story, the core tenets of the genre serve more as a largely effective support of the overarching – and very human – themes rather than narrative ends in and of themselves. As Ebdus grows up alongside companions Mingus Rude and Arthur Lomb, he finds himself embroiled in issues such as parental abandonment, race relations, the flexibility of human sexuality, gentrification, and drugs. And all along the way, he discovers how the stories present in his favorite comic books and music have their own parallels within the societies and imaginations they spring from.

To me, that is exactly why I found the book such an engrossing read. As a fan of superhero stories, I appreciated how Lethem deconstructed their usual devices in order to tell a story with a far firmer grasp in our reality. Any and all science fiction elements remain ambiguous – whether or not they exist as actualities or as a thread of common imagination is left to the reader to interpret as he or she sees fit. What they represent holds far more importance, and Lethem’s eloquently flowing prose dissects superhero mythos to shed light on all the divisive, seemingly binary, elements of human society. Externally, many of the depictions of race relations – just to use the most obvious example – initially seem to underscore the gulfs that exist between the groups. However, Ebdus and Rude begin to bond over the shared experience of emotionally and/or physically unavailable parents and their mutual love of comic books. Both of them, in their own ways, start off hoping to emulate their favorite heroes – ultimately showing how even the most seemingly different people still share some thread of commonality. Throw in a ring that may or may not bestow superpowers onto the wearer and Lethem solidifies his points quite adroitly. I am, of course, almost insultingly oversimplifying the entire book for brevity’s sake. Suffice to say, though, The Fortress of Solitude is one of those unapologetically complex novels that ought to be experienced moreso than read if one hopes to really dive down into its very heart.

Bibliographic Information

Lethem, Jonathan. The Fortress of Solitude. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Further Reading

While not entirely the same, I couldn’t help but see The Fortress of Solitude as almost a fusion of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Neither of these authors infuse their works with the same degree of science fiction ambiguity as Jonathan Lethem, but many of the themes still dovetail nicely all the same. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example, involves race relations and identity using superhero comic books as a conduit for finding both escapism and inspiration to build personal strength and identity. Dylan Ebdus’s later obsessive immersion in all elements of music (specifically, the output of African-American artists) shares a number parallels with how protagonist Rob Fleming’s life hinges on his record collection and shop in High Fidelity. They are not perfect matches, but I think that many readers will still enjoy them for their similarities all the same.

~Riot

Hey everyone!

A family emergency and the subsequent attempts to get back on my feet – which included a bit of make-up work – has precluded me from getting much reading or writing done this past month. Fortunately, I managed to set everything back on track this afternoon. And just in time to fill people in on what’s going on with the Houston Public Library, too.

Starting on April 17th, budget cuts at HPL forced the institution to scale back on its hours at all locations. More information on the ins and outs of the decision can be found right on their website, so there is little need to really delve into all of the details here on Burning Leaves. At first, I was content to show my appreciation through donating books to the Friends of the Houston Public Library, rearranging my schedule so I could volunteer at the downtown branch (as it is right here in my neighborhood), and writing a letter to the mayor and my local City Council representative requesting that they find some way of maintaining the original hours without contending with debt. Perhaps better empowering Houstonians to donate their used books, movies, and CDs, organize book drives, volunteer their time, sign up for donation programs at Kroger or Randalls, and/or patronize the Annual Book Sale and Children’s Book Sale as well.

After all…the library does so much for our community. In its time of need, we should band together and do what we can to give back in whatever way we can.

Nobody realizes this more than Gretchen, whose attempt to mobilize Houstonians towards taking an active role in keeping the library open inspired me to approach the issue from a more inclusive, communal standpoint. By making more people aware of the situation, Gretchen’s discussion opened up readers’ eyes to the various ways in which the new hours will impact the city. The open dialogue format also led to some more detailed possible solutions as well. Taking everyone’s opinions into consideration, I offered to write up a form letter for time-crunched people to copy and paste into e-mails, letters, or faxes. Quite a bit of passion went into the responses left on Gretchen’s forum, and my most earnest gratitude goes out to everyone who participated. Thank you very much to everyone who participated! And, of course, to everyone who may participate in the future…

For those interested in showing how much they love the library by fighting to find a viable means of maintaining their original hours, I am reprinting the form letter right here. I did what I could to incorporate all of the concerns and suggestions mentioned in the talk.

Please remember to read over and customize the letter with the date, your name and contact information, the recipient’s name and any personal anecdotes or issues. If you do not know who your City Council representative is, please check the City of Houston’s eGovernment Center for a quick, painless means of snagging all the information you need. Contact information for Mayor Annise Parker can be found right here for those who would like to voice their concerns to her as well.

For the sake of transparency, this particular entry will also be cross-posted at the multipartisan, multidenominational social justice blog PR Unfriendly as well. I welcome any suggestions you may have on ways to improve the form letter. And if any of you have written up any letters of your own and would like to share, I would very much like to read them! So feel free to leave those in the comments section if you’d like! Or you can express any opinions that were not covered in the form letter…or your experiences with the Houston Public Library…or, you know, pretty much anything so long as you stay civil.

Thank you everyone for anything and everything you may do to rally behind this intellectual and social necessity.

~Meredith

——-

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing you to express my apprehension regarding the new hours at the Houston Public Library. While I fully understand the reasoning behind the decision, I believe that such a move will ultimately send negative reverberations throughout the city. In 2008, 797,603 Houstonians[1] circulated an average of 18,205 books, movies, and musical recordings[2] and took advantage of the 956 public access computers[3]. A further 263,748 attended the diverse selection of programs[4] as well – fully solidifying its role as an absolutely integral facet of our community. To cut back on the libraries’ hours is to deny the citizenry myriad opportunities to engage and improve itself.

Even looking beyond the complimentary intellectual and creative stimulation bursting promisingly from the shelves, the free computer usage offers local children and teenagers from economically deprived areas many of the resources needed to complete their academic assignments. The after school and weekend programs provide them with a nurturing environment that facilitates personal growth and teaches them how to channel their energies into positive activities. Unemployed or homeless adults can take advantage of the free internet access to make valuable connections that will help them greatly improve their lives and become productive members of society. Every additional hour the library closes only further marginalizes the demographics needing its services the most. Without access to computers, internet, financial guidance, and activities, they lack the most essential resources required to better their lives and must contend with intensified frustration and hopelessness.

I realize the Houston Public Library’s decision was not made with the intention of shoving its most desperate patrons towards the fringes of society, but that stands as the most unfortunate and dire consequence. To resolve it, I support a contemporary’s proposition for a 1¢ per $100 valuation tax for libraries and propose a reevaluation of budget to discover the best route towards providing the populace the services necessary to finish homework, network to find jobs and homes, and grow into well-adjusted individuals who contribute to the community. I also believe that far more attention should be paid to the institution’s plight as a means of empowering Houstonians to take action. Open up to us. Let us know – in detail – everything you struggle with and what we as a people can do to give back to the organization that has already given us so much. Such transparency will encourage us to pool our time, money, and resources and make sure that all of the libraries’ needs are met without compromising their core goals and amazingly helpful services.

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,


[1] “Library Facts.” Houston Public Library. Web. 19 Apr. 2010. <http://www.hpl.lib.tx.us/library-facts&gt;.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

No Mad

March 16, 2010

Review

The premise of Sam Moffie’s No Mad showed some great promise right from the start. As his marriage crumbles, protagonist Aaron Abrams ends up in a state of shock and sets off on a road trip across the United States to gather research for his first nonfiction book. Unfortunately, the solid plot is just about the only thing that impressed me about this novel. Abrams certainly does go on a journey through the country, but I found myself not caring one bit about any of his adventures along the way.

My biggest problem with Aaron Abrams as a hero is his portrayal as absolutely perfect in every way. If he has any flaws, then Moffie does an excellent job of hiding them. Almost every page hemorrhages praise onto him for being an amazing father, one of the greatest living writers in America, a red-hot lover, and all around smashing fellow. Realistic imperfections help readers better connect with the main characters of a novel – to feature one entirely without any negative points really only works in a story that already requires a suspension of disbelief to begin with. And even then such techniques can be dicey. One need only look at the myriad portrayals of Superman to see this. But for a work where the author explicitly asks readers to sympathize and relate to the protagonist, it helps considerably to not depict him or her as almost unfailing in every way.

Moffie highlights Abrams’s status as the epitome of all that is man by having nearly every woman throw herself at him with reckless abandon. Any female character who does not immediately want his body and his money is either a raging shrew (his wife), a lesbian (his agent), or his daughter. They are nothing more than accessories in what reads as a reductive, adolescent male power fantasy where nubile young strangers waltz up to the leading man and volunteer, “I am 27 years old and you are so hot” (281). Suffice to say, I found this attitude incredibly insulting. Books do not always have to feature strong female characters, of course, but few works of contemporary literature are as blatant in their misogyny as No Mad. All heterosexual women here seem to fall in lust at the instant implication of money, power, and looks – which, of course, Abrams seems to have in droves – and are willing to bare all after knowing him for mere minutes. What negligible character development Moffie gives them comes second to their wanton desire of the hero. They serve only to stroke his ego, among other things, and nothing more.

Stylistically, I actually appreciated the inclusion of many interviews Abrams conducts while researching his book. It diverted some of the attention away from the self-absorbed hero and onto some of his former school friends. Though broadly-written, modern-day archetypes, their stories still seemed the more compelling of the lot. Moffie also infuses the narrative with numerous pop culture references, which is something I am pretty much always fine with. However, he has a tendency to bold every single one of them, as if the readers are incapable of deciphering the included bands, songs, writers, and other figures on their own. This technique – especially when paired with both the attitude that Aaron Abrams himself invented the great American game of Jinx and the juvenile depiction of women – imbues the book with an overall sense of smug superiority that condescends the audience instead of asking them to feel and explore the story.

Bibliographic Information

Moffie, Sam. No Mad. Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge, 2008.

Further Reading

Upon reading the book’s description in the press release, the first thing that popped into my head was how much it sounded like an updated version of Saul Bellow’s classic epistilatory novel Herzog. Both No Mad and Herzog deal with middle-aged Jewish men attempting to make sense of their broken lives and loves through writing and travel. But Moses Herzog is portrayed as a deeply, deeply flawed man who frequently self-sabotages his own happiness and stability. He is fully human – simultaneously repugnant yet sympathetic in his plight.  It is far easier to become absorbed in his struggles as a result, whereas the epic pinnacle of perfection that is Aaron Abrams only serves to isolate.

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