Graphic Novels? Or Comics?

Whatever you call them, "graphic novels" or "comics," they all originated in what our friend Jeff of Beachead Comics - the guy who supplies us with our fixes - calls "the funny pages." Today's post is dedicated to him, despite the odd color. Hiya, Jeff! May the gods & goddesses of commerce smile upon you! Those of you in the Lehigh Valley, be sure to stop by Beachead Comics on Chew St. and check out Jeff's wonderful store and classic decor. It's a fun place.

Before I get started, do click on the above title. Very cool website. So okay, I may sound a little punchy today. We had a great weekend in Wilkinsburg with J&P and the canine cousins (as well as the feline spawns of Satan), and I'm feeling very relaxed.
I'll start with the meta stuff -Robert Rodi's What They Did to Princess Paragon. It's a weird one, and funny, a comedy of errors. Our hero is Jerome, a stereotypical overweight man still living with his mother, the real world traded for a world in which superheroes (and more importantly, superheroines) always manage to save the day. Our villain, Brian, is a hugely successful comic book author/artist who has decided to increase his prestige by turning a declining WWII character, Princess Paragon, into a lesbian in order to increase sales through shock value. Jerome is appalled and disgusted, and will stop at nothing to save his true love, particularly when he finds out that Brian himself is gay.

By far the funniest and, ultimately, most lovable character in the book is Jerome's malapropist mother, Peachy Kornacker. With my own son about to head off to NYC in a few days, it's hard for me not to identify with Peachy when she makes the following emotion-laden speech:

"Well, fine then," she said at last, her voice small and gravelly.
"I guess I have to submit defeat. You go on off to Chicago
and enjoy yourself. But do me a favor and be careful.
You just cross your p's and q's, do you hear me? Lock
your door at night. Don't get smart with any strangers
who might have guns on them. And phone your mother
so she doesn't develop the problem of not knowing my
son isn't bleeding to death in a gutter somewhere."

And later, when Jerome has returned after doing terrible things his mother doesn't even know about, she berates him,

"I only wish your father was alive to see this! It would KILL him!"

Okay, so maybe it's not the most original humor, but the really good stuff is too context-specific to quote here and still make sense. You should just read the book. It's fluff, but it's funny fluff. And it does raise the issue of how the creators of particular comic book characters must feel when their creations are taken over and changed by other writers.
Which brings me to the book I happened to read next, entirely unwittingly. A very fun book by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins called Thunderbolt Jaxon. This was yet another book I'd gotten on a whim from PBS (all four of today's books were from PBS, requested knowing very little about them). It turns out that the character was an old British hero with an origin shrouded in vagueness (i.e. never explained), so Gibbons and Higgins made one up. After reading it, I have to say that it's still rather shrouded. Sure, they explain how Jack gets the magic belt - but the rest of the connections don't make a whole lot of sense. Still, I enjoyed the book, especially because there aren't many out there with Norse gods (aside from Thor). I hope they continue the series, as I'd like to see what happens with Loki!

Anyway, it was interesting to go from a novel dealing with the issue of recreating an old character, to a graphic novel that was an actual recreation of a 1949 character.

Adam Sacks wrote and drew a lovely, amusing and spot-on book (I can't even really call it a graphic novel, exactly) called
Salmon Doubts which really spoke to me. You can click here to see a few pages from it - it's quite different. My favorite pages are the sperm-and-egg pages. Just go buy a copy and support him, okay? He only graduated in 2003 and he probably needs the money. ;-)

I've saved the best for last. For stunning art and a remarkable, riveting story, read Pete Stathis' Evenfall. So far I've only read Vol. I, and I'm not sure the second volume is even available yet. But I need to find it, as I am hooked. Ordinarily, I post my graphic novels at PBS when everyone in the family is done with them, but this series I will keep. Stathis' stories remind me of Neil Gaiman's (highest praise I can give them!). I believe he publishes these himself; more power to him, as that's a hard row to hoe. I can't praise this enough. If you like Gaiman, you will like this. And an added bonus for my family: a book in which for once the main character isn't lily-white.



More student mandalas

This is the first semester that I've tried the mandala project online, and in my 6-week shortcourse it has worked beautifully! Students uploaded in a variety of ways, and this caused a few problems; lucky for me, my brother J came to my rescue and converted a few troublesome files (.bmp, photoshop & autocad) to .jpg, but in future I know to require .jpg only.

Take a look at some of the submissions!
This was done in autocad, and is a nice example of the art of geometry.
One by a Hindu student that I think is very pretty.
This can be viewed from either direction, and it's my favorite from this class. It is meant to be a star from one view and an eye from the other orientation, and I just love it.
These two were made with photoshop, using four flower images each. Aren't they lovely?
The interesting texture in the center of this, according to the creator, is photoshopped "fungus" colored in psychedelic colors!
This one's very nice.
If you see Mickey Mouse in the center - that is intentional!
It's not really made of wood, but doesn't it look like it?
Live flowers made this mandala the most ephemeral of all.



Two of C's Projects

The date on this should be February 2007, because that is when C made it for his 3-Dimensional Design class. The assignment was to make a facsimile of a shoe of his choice (he recreated one of his dress shoes) and then put it in an appropriate setting. He chose an awards ceremony (he couldn't find a tiny Oscar statuette, but I think that was what was in his mind). N loaned him some goblets and a trophy from her doll house for the podium.

This was his favorite of the 7 or so projects for the class. I think he did it some time in March. Not easy to photograph, since it was all in black, but it's lovely, and it reminds me of him not only because he made it, of course, but because the wolf has been his special animal ever since he was tiny.


Mandala Update

A while back, I purchased Judith Cornell's Mandala Healing Kit. I had gotten stuck on lesson three of Clare Goodwin's "Making Meaning with the Mandala," as it had devolved into "facing my critic" and other exercises I had found cumbersome and annoying, and looking through a couple of Cornell's books made me decide to splurge during Borders Books' teacher discount days and get the kit.

The first lessons involved general explorations and the rudiments of shading with colored pencils (something I need to continue to practice), and I'm not going to bother posting any of those here, but I will say that they were useful as far as gaining familiarity with the medium. Cornell describes the process of creating a mandala as "painting with light" (she emphasizes this so much that I feel I should put "TM" after the words, as if she invented them), so all the paper in the kit is black, and we are encouraged to envision the pencils as light-pens that are extensions of our own sources of light-energy. If you can get past the '90s touchy-feeliness of that, though, the exercises are quite good.

I tried listening to the accompanying cd and it gave me a bad headache. If there were a way to get rid of the ENGLISH chanting and just keep the music, it would be great. But the relentless repetition of one phrase in English for 15 minutes without let-up, overpowering the lovely music, went from annoying to painful. Even the guinea pigs hated it! So I have set it aside.

This first mandala I called "healing heart." The assignment was to draw a mandala with colored pencils (the first few were just with white), starting from a strong, bright center, to heal myself of something. This mandala actually began upside-down from the way it ended up, with the white dot as the white-hot center of a fire, and a red dot sort of appeared, making a stylized yin-yang symbol. After a while, I noticed that an upside-down half of a heart was forming, so I flipped the picture and made the heart whole, thus completing the healing process as part of the mandala's creation. It gave me a good feeling to finish it. I like the way the first dot that I'd made and then erased looks rather like a reflection of the moon-dot at what is now the top - reminding me of my favorite Chinese poem, "Drinking with the Moon."

The other mandala I am posting here is called "Thank You For This Moment." (Once again, ignore the stupid dates, which I still haven't been able to fix or turn off.) The assignment was to create a mandala while being entirely mindful - that is, thinking of nothing but the mandala the entire time. It was quite a challenge, and precisely because I was trying to keep my mind tightly focused on the mandala, I found it slipping away to look at other things and had to keep pulling it back to the mandala. Great exercise! Writing the words as part of the design (if you click on it, you can see what an integral part of every section of the design they became!) helped a great deal.

The other thing I will say about The Mandala Healing Kit is that the materials she includes are of pretty high quality. The stencils are on good, heavy stock; the black paper is great; and the pencils (while TINY - the kit is expensive enough that the publisher didn't have to be so minchy with the size of the pencils!!!) are wonderful. The white pencil, in particular, is amazing. I need to write to Cornell & find out where I can get another one: it is the brightest white I've ever seen in a pencil! I went to Dick Blick to try to find one like it, as I've almost used it up (mine arrived broken, alas), and the closest I could come was a pastel stick, which I can't sharpen, of course.



A Long Way Gone


The link in the subject line will take you to a BBC article explaining about the Civil War in Sierra Leone, an eleven-year war in which tens of thousands died and over 1/3 of the population was displaced. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is Ishmael Beah's account of his experience of that war. In one day, he lost his entire family and set out on a flight from both sides of the conflict (both the government and the rebels were recruiting children as "troops").

Traveling with other frightened, traumatized boys, searching for scattered family and friends as well as foraging for food, the boys nevertheless appeared to some villages as a threat, precisely because they were the same age as forced recruits that rebels sent to scope out villages prior to attacks. Instead of finding shelter and solace as orphaned children, they were most often driven away by people frightened of rebel attacks. Sierra Leone was in chaos, its culture in tatters.

A Long Way Gone isn't just as sad story, however. For one thing, Beah is a talented writer. The book is beautifully written and artfully crafted. His writer's mind is evident in his detailed memories, and in his ability to slip in and out of the thoughts he had at different times in his painful childhood.

Some reviews I have read say that the most hopeful aspect of this story is Beah's having made his way to the U.S., finished high school and graduated from Oberlin. He has put his past behind him, they say. Ah, the flexibility and resilience of the child, to have gone through such terrors and put them in the past!

Yet I read this book differently. Having known a child who lived through the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict, I have seen firsthand what can happen when a person does not find his whole self again. What Beah has been able to do - the true miracle of his experience - is that he has integrated his past with his present to come out of the horror a whole person. The things he saw, and did, will always be a part of him. But he appears to be at peace with them. Bless him. May the rest of us find such peace.


Christopher Moore Strikes Again!

Ever since I read Lamb (The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal), which is an absolutely brilliant book and not nearly as silly as it sounds, I've been a big fan of Moore's books. Last week when I was down with a four-day migraine, I pulled myself out of it - literally - by laughing my head off over his sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends : A Love Story (the first of his vampire books, written in 1995).
You Suck: A Love Story picks up where Bloodsucking Fiends left off - well, the next evening, that is. If you haven't read the first one, I won't spoil it for you, because the second one is more fun if you've gotten to know the characters by reading the first one first. They are an absolute hoot when read together, and I highly recommend this, particularly if you haven't read any Christopher Moore before.

I was exaggerating slightly when I credited You Suck with having cured my migraine; actually, laughing hard at every other page was quite painful, but once I'd begun reading I could not stop. So it was at least a diversion from the pain. They are both very clever, witty and just plain hilarious books, the sequel outdoing the original in humor (when was the last time you found a sequel that was even better than the first book?). Go read them.

I've been reading a lot of vampire books lately. Just finished the latest Maryjanice Davidson, Undead and Uneasy, which was amusing, but not up to her earlier standard of laugh-out-loud uproariously funny, so that was a bit disappointing. Still, the Wyckham werewolf pack arrived in Minneapolis for the adventure, which was interesting.
I have almost caught up with the Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake series. I think I have another 3-4 of those to read before The Harlequin, which just came out last week. Her website has a cute excuse form that you can download ("please excuse _______ from school/work/event/other as The Harlequin debuted on June 5th and they needed the time off to read it. Possibly more than once."). Her books are quite dark, and partway through the series took a startling turn than caused some of her readers to stop reading the books (and complain bitterly). I waited to see at what point I might feel offended or fed up, but so far it hasn't happened; there's a lot of darkness, but nothing that does not move the plot along, and I find them fascinating, though I wouldn't recommend them to everyone.
Another series I enjoy is P.N. Elrod's Jack Fleming Vampire Files series. She has a couple of other series as well, but the descriptions haven't appealed to me. Jack was turned into a vampire and has taken up detective work, which suits his vampiric condition admirably; he can do it at night, and can use his ability to vaporize to get in & out of locked rooms to investigate or get out of tight spots. They are entertaining mysteries in a sort of Dashiel Hammett style, quite different from all the others I read.
I can't end this discussion of vampire books without mentioning Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series. Beginning with Dead Until Dark, this was the first vampire series I ever read, and is still my favorite.
I know precisely what drew me to Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books, and I'm a little ashamed to admit it, because it seems like such a shallow thing, but it was the cover. It was all sparkly & comical - it just looked fun! So I tried the first one & loved it, and got drawn into her world. After that, it was easy to become curious about how other authors treated vampires and the vampire "condition," not always as an evil being but as a curse or a disease. For example, Jack Fleming (P.N. Elrod) woke up one evening as a vampire. He doesn't want to be a vampire. He doesn't want to drink human blood, so he doesn't - but I'll let you read the books for yourself and see how he solves that problem. He's a very good guy, but naturally there are plenty of people who don't believe that.

Anita Blake (Laurell K. Hamilton) starts out as a badass vampire hunter, convinced that all vampires are evil. Slowly, as the books progress, her view begins to change, and she worries that she is becoming as bad as the "monsters" herself. This is one of the primary themes of the series, and Hamilton keeps the tension up brilliantly.

As I teach Comparative Religion, I find the theme of good and evil riveting. And I'm always up for a ripping good yarn!