24 December 2013

2013 Christmas Cards

I enjoyed last year's Christmas card concept so much I brought it out again this year. I only managed to knock out eleven sketch cards this year, but I'm hopeful to do more than that next year. For the most part, I stuck to the idea of trying my hand at characters I'd never previously sketched. Another key element from last year that I repeated this year was blindly pairing each card with an envelop, so that I had no idea which card was being sent to which recipient. I didn't want to post these scans until I knew they'd all been received, but by now, one card sent to Germany has been received so I figure most of them should have been delivered. Only a few recipients have confirmed that they've gotten their cards, though I know at least two are out of town and may not have received theirs before departing.

Cheshire Cat
I initially tried to find an illustration by John Tenniel from the original publication of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland that I felt suitable for sketching, but I failed in that search. I elected instead to go with the Cheshire Cat design from Disney's animated movie. I added the dangling bell, which I found an amusing role reversal.

Cookie Monster
You already know of my love for Cookie Monster, Dear Reader, so it should be no surprise that he made it into the pool of subjects for this year's cards. I do feel that his jawline is too elliptical, though. As I look at it now, I also feel that I should have incorporated cookies into this sketch.

It's possible that I'd done another sketch of Eeyore once before, but I can't really say that I know of such an instance. I should have filled in the brim and ball on Eeyore's Santa cap, but otherwise I'm pretty pleased with how this one turned out.

Fone Bone
Fone Bone! I love how guilty he looks here. Like with Eeyore, I should have filled in the brim and ball of his cap to cover up the sketch lines of his head. I'm not sure whoever received this card will recognize Fone, but I adore the character and the design. This was, I think, my second sketch of him (the first being when I put him on my first ever illustrated comic book box in 2012).

Frankenstein's Monster
An unusual choice for a Christmas card, I'll grant you, but I absolutely love the character - specifically, the movie version in Universal's iconic series with Boris Karloff in the role of The Monster (or The Creature, as Karloff preferred). I thought it fun to put a Santa cap on the old boy. I'm not sure this one came out as well as I had hoped. Without the bolts on the neck, I'm afraid it's probably confusing who this is supposed to be since the cap obscures the most iconic part of the design (his flat head and distinctive hairstyle, plus the forehead scar).

Harry Potter
This one is taken from the cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I tried to think of something Christmas-y to do with it, but I'd already grown bored of throwing Santa caps on everyone and try as I might, I just could not think of a single thing to do with this one. That aside, I think he turned out fairly well.

Dr. Seuss is always good for sketch ideas, because his design work is instantly recognizable and usually fairly simple. I'd never sketched Horton before, and I really like this piece. Like Harry Potter, though, I wish I'd thought of something Christmas-y to add.

Ramona Quimby
I'm not gonna lie: this is my favorite. I adored the Ramona books as a young boy, and even named the youngest cat after the precocious character. I originally wanted to borrow from the cover of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 that I had in my youth, but they didn't have that version at the library. I instead lifted this from the cover of Ramona and Her Father, in which the two are down on their knees and elbows trying to stare down the other. I replaced Ramona's dad with a fireplace, and in the process transferred her frustration to impatience with Santa Claus.

I almost went with Papa Smurf, but I wanted to increase the number of female characters represented in this year's assortment of cards. This was taken from the DVD cover of the 2011 live action movie, which is why Smurfette doesn't look quite like her more familiar, original design. Still, I think she came out fairly cute and whimsical and I like this piece.

Like Dr. Seuss, Charles Schultz did some absolutely brilliant design work. I think I may have done a Snoopy sketch once upon a time, but I really can't say. I got a laugh out of this image when I came across it in a collection of Peanuts strips.

Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius
My favorite of the Looney Tunes bunch by far has always been Wile E. Coyote. Curiously, though, I'd never sketched him before this card. I regret not putting tangled Christmas lights in this sketch somewhere, but other than that I think he turned out nicely.

06 December 2013

Let's Talk About Rape Survivors

There's no shortage of reasons or prompts for starting such a discussion. We could pick a high profile case, such as the recently dismissed charges against Florida State University's star quarterback Jameis Winston. USA Network seems to run a weekly marathon of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. We have a seemingly endless parade of politicians saying something asinine, like Todd Akins's notorious "legitimate rape" remark last year.

But more likely, you or someone you know is the one in four women sexually assaulted each year in the United States.

Through social media, I have become connected with several such survivors in recent years. You might suspect that these women are man-hating militants calling for escalating acts of heinous violence in revenge, but you'd be entirely wrong. In fact, I have yet to encounter the revenge fantasy at all.
They want to heal.
Instead of those "they should all be castrated" champions rushing to their aid, they find themselves standing alone. Their situations are used as fodder for lazy storytelling; as the subject of despicable jokes; and perhaps worst of all, they find themselves under suspicion as liars. They become The Little Girl Who Cried "Rape", toxic to be around without trustworthy witnesses, because, you know, they have a "history" of attention-seeking.

What I have heard, time and again, is how crushing it was to speak up at all. This is true even of the most vocal activists I know. Even some of the most candid sharers have only been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that something happened, unable to go any farther into detail than that. It doesn't matter that philosophically, these survivors understand that it was not their fault. They face tremendous scrutiny and disbelief at every turn, and that is their ultimate battle.

Very rarely have I heard a survivor say much of anything at all about the actual assailant. Whenever a news report flashes across my Facebook wall reporting that someone was charged or convicted of sexual assault, there are often people quick to call for castration, the electric chair, etc. None of the survivors I know would bother to say such things. Not because they're altruistic, or possessed of zen master level big picture serenity, but because their real battle isn't with their assailant.
Their real battle is with the culture that puts the victim on trial instead of the assailant.
When the survivors I know have shared their stories, this is where their anger is directed: At the friends who chose to believe the assailant instead of them; at the police they could scarcely make themselves talk to in the first place who dragged their heels; at the ways in which total strangers rationalize defenses for why there's "no one to blame" but the victim for wearing a skirt or having a glass of wine, or for going to a party, or myriad other excuses.

It's even worse for women of color, and for the trans community - both of whom are marginalized inherently anyway. The statistics for either of these groups is staggering. Few believe a white woman who reports an assault; fewer even care when it's a woman of color or a trans woman. Women of color are still plagued by the "Jezebel" accusation dating to the era of slavery, and trans women are derided as not even being "real" women anyway, and since "a man can't be raped", they're obviously not trustworthy.

Sexual assault survivors want, need, and deserve to be believed. That's what they ask of our society. It's not hard to find survivors daring to tell their stories. They're all over Tumblr and Twitter. I won't embarrass anyone I know by citing or linking, but I invite you to take some time to seek out some of them. Read for yourself. Just knowing someone acknowledges and believes their account can help a little bit in their healing process.

21 November 2013

On Black Friday Eve (f.k.a. Thanksgiving)

It's been coming for the last few years, and this year, major retailers have essentially canceled Thanksgiving for their employees in order to bring Black Friday sales even earlier. Opponents have called for boycotts and protests. The Internet is all a-tizzy with condemnations about corporate greed, our enslavement to materialism, the disposable world of iGadgets, and the value of time with family above all. "It's disgusting to think there are people who would rather stand in line to buy an iPad than spend time with their family." (Personally, I exhaust my patience for being around my family about 20 minutes after we eat.)

A few years ago, I adopted something of an informal policy to refrain from discussing a lot of subjects. Following Craig Ferguson's advice, I began to ask myself, "Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me, now?" There's one thing in all the debating that I haven't heard discussed much that has prompted me to write this evening, and that's the importance to poor and working class families of those Black Friday deals, so here I am, saying something now.

The stereotype of the event, of course, is an angry mob of soccer moms trampling one another to fill their shopping carts with Tickle Me Elmo dolls and whatever the latest video game console is. We're sickened by the indulgence and extravagance, knowing that all this effort - and money - goes to buy things that kids will outgrow by New Year's Eve or will be obsolete by summer. Legit criticism, and I largely agree, but keep in mind that you're really criticizing the heart and soul of post-industrialist capitalism, which is all about peddling luxuries marketed as necessities. Fight that fight all year round, and don't just wait until November to get holier-than-thou about it.

But here's the thing: Not every Black Friday shopper is trying to keep alive a consecutive streak of spoiling their kids.
It isn't all about the fat cats at the top getting fatter because Little Johnny gets another iGadget for Christmas.
There are a whole lot of families out there who rely on these deals just to stretch their dollars far enough to buy coats and shoes that fit their kids. BFAds.net shows 24 pages of items in Black Friday ads for Kids' Apparel. There are eight pages of appliances. Nearly a quarter of those items are dryers. Really self-indulgent, those things.

I'm not saying that these items constitute the lion's share of Black Friday sales. They don't. But they do account for some of them, and the families who most rely on getting a break on these kinds of things have a very difficult time abstaining on principle. Here's a remark from something on Facebook tonight:
People are so stupid.Who cares about saving 100.00 on 1, 000.00 Tv or some other dumb shit.I just sleep on Black Friday.
Answer: A family who needs a $1000 item and only has $900 on hand. (I won't say TV, because setting aside the obnoxious debate about the extent to which anyone "needs" a TV, there are far better deals on TVs than $100 off a $1000 model to be found). Believe it or not, but there actually are families out there right now who are genuinely excited at the idea that they'll finally be able to wash and dry their clothes at home instead of going to a Laundro-mat, and all because a Black Friday deal is going to put a new machine within their financial reach. They're not "stupid". They're broke, just like an increasingly large number of us. It's not exciting. Dryers have none of the sex appeal of an Xbox One. But it really does bother me that, five years after the economic meltdown threw so many Americans down the ladder, that we still forget how hard a lot of families really do struggle.

I'm not suggesting that anyone reading this change their plans (whatever they may be). I didn't write this to guilt or to shame anyone, and neither did I write it to defend or excuse retail associates having to ring up thousands of people instead of enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with their families. But I think it's important for critics to remember that not everyone shares the same circumstances. It's as hard for a family trying to finally get hold of a dryer to abstain from these sales as it is for the worker who needs the job to refuse to work during those days.

Just try to remember, then, that just like the American economy itself, it might be the people burying themselves in luxury goods who make the magazine cover, but somewhere else you'll find a lot of people just trying to get by. For these people, showing up Thanksgiving evening to fight the crowds isn't about keeping up with the Joneses at Christmastime. It's about trying to do the best they can for their families, during a limited window established by people who have more power than they do.

29 October 2013

Now with Even Less Wisdom!

Back in July, almost as soon as I returned from visiting my friend in Georgia, I ran into some maladies. The left side of my mouth was sore, for one thing. After one doctor outright told me that my problem was an unnamed infection, and not a dental matter, I discovered instead the problem was a combination of a wisdom tooth and the gum disease known as Gingivitis. Here's an X-ray that was taken in August:

You'll note that on my lower right, I'm missing a molar. That one was compromised by the wisdom tooth I had removed two years ago. That wisdom tooth on the bottom left, however, had to go. You can see some indications of bone loss already attributable to the combination of that and Gingivitis (which I'm certain I got because of all the times I mocked the commercials for dental products that referenced it). Last Wednesday, I finally had it extracted. Unlike the last one, this tooth was entirely beneath the gum line. That made for a pretty invasive procedure, as these things go. I took this selfie Thursday, about 24 hours after the extraction. You can see how asymmetrical my jawline was.
I look hungover, and I've got some kind of Tim Burton thing going on with my hair (I spent most of that first 24 hours in bed). Yes, I'm in my bathrobe there. My warm, soft bathrobe that I adore. If I ever go missing, be sure this is the photo they circulate. (And, yes, that's a door-sized Six Days, Seven Nights poster behind me.)

Yesterday, I was finally able to open my mouth enough to get more than soup broth into my system. You just don't even understand how much I love mashed potatoes. I made that remark to a few of my friends, and they each tried to suggest they loved mashed potatoes more than I do. I replied with the following photo evidence of just how long, and how enthusiastically, I have loved mashed potatoes and I'll let you decide whether you want to challenge my devotion to that food:

I'm still pretty sore, but it's a tolerable soreness. I have a pretty high threshold for pain in general, and I was fortunate that this tooth issue didn't involve any nerves. It's a far cry from the last one I had, where I felt okay the next day. Again, though, this was a more complicated extraction and I understand that.

The moral of the story, Dear Reader, is not to mock overly dramatic commercials that mention a health malady, and to never challenge my love for mashed potatoes.

Muffin was my primary caretaker through the last week. I can never predict which of the cats will be the one to watch after me when I'm recuperating from something. Every time I woke up, he was nearby. It really was a source of comfort for me.

Muffin being shy, but sweet.
My thanks to Dr. Anthony Clark and the staff at East Springs Dental. They're friendly and warm, and I heartily endorse their practice.

25 October 2013

Review: RASL

RASL by Jeff Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Being a fan of Bone, I was eager to read RASL. It sort of slipped by me, though, for one reason or another, but I was happy to find the collected edition available at the library. I was quickly reminded of two Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes ("The Pegasus" and "All Good Things..."), but also of The Prestige for its characterization of Nikola Tesla. A dozen other stories also came to mind, and I confess that detracted from my enjoyment. That's not to say that RASL is un-original; there are some interesting ideas, and most of the characters are well developed. It's just that, for some reason, I'm less forgiving of stories that feel recycled when they're dealing with high concepts.

The narrative here is pretty solid, if predictable. I did enjoy that the antagonist, "Lizard Face", was motivated by extreme egocentricity that refuses to acknowledge any other universe as even being human. That's some special kind of bigotry there, folks, and it's not something that I've encountered often in such stories. Typically, it's just taken for granted that anyone who acknowledges the existence of a parallel universe accepts their legitimacy. So, yeah, I give Smith credit for doing something different there.

I did have the feeling that Smith was trying a bit too hard to distance himself from the all-ages storyteller of Bone. The instances of sex throughout RASL rarely feel organic, and the handful of swears are just as conspicuous. It just felt like he was trying too hard with those things, and that also detracted from my enjoyment of it. Not that I mind gratuitous sex or adult language; they're both to be found in my own novel, as well as quite a lot of my favorite movies, novels, comics, etc. But those two-page spreads of RASL with Annie or RASL with Maya didn't even feel like actual depictions of sex so much as Smith peppering in pin-ups. There's a sense that Smith wasn't as committed to exploring that kind of content as he thought he was when he planned those pages.

The Tesla stuff, of course, is all fascinating, and I got a personal kick out of seeing Smith's homage to Frankenstein. I recently re-watched that film on DVD. It's a personal favorite, and perceiving Smith's adoration for it endeared me more to him, to RASL, and to the story itself.

With just a little more polish, I think RASL could have been a lot stronger than it is. I understand Smith self-published, starting with a planned three issues annually, and that's a difficult schedule to maintain as writer/artist. Most parts of RASL feel pretty taut, but then there are some stray passages that seem like his mind was wandering. Reading the whole thing in a collected edition in two settings, of course, gave me a different perspective than I would have had if I had read each issue when it was originally published. Such is the nature of serialized vs. collected storytelling!

View all my reviews

06 October 2013

End of Year Two

It's hard for me to believe, but today is the second anniversary of when I nearly ended my life and instead admitted myself to Our Lady of Peace. I've borrowed two full years now. 2013 hasn't been quite as enjoyable overall as was 2012, but there have been several major highlights that stand out.

You may have noticed, Dear Reader, that I didn't write a single blog piece in all of September, though I did contribute two pieces (Criterion Commentaries on In Which We Serve and Rushmore). I haven't blogged much this summer. I'm not sure why that is. My sleep has been jacked up for months, and I'm flaring again. I haven't made it to a single movie since 25 July. There's certainly been more than enough to discuss, from trivial to politically important.

We're on day 6 of the federal government being shut down by the Tea Party (if they didn't want to own the shutdown, they shouldn't have flooded the Internet with cheers of excitement about it and acted like it was a bad thing, like everyone else in the world sees it). I don't have any real enthusiasm for discussing this debacle, but here's a screen cap from a recent Facebook discussion that I think summarizes my view nicely, and is also a solid microcosm of what's going on, and why it's going to be so hard to make any meaningful progress:

I enjoyed returning to Chicago in April with my friends to attend C2E2. In July, I visited a friend of mine I've known from the web for several years. Those few days with her were tremendous fun. I'm glad I got to spend that time with her, and I'm not just saying that because she took me to see Dr. No at the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta. Though, admittedly, that was pretty cool! I don't know what opportunity may exist for any kind of traveling or visiting with friends for next year, but I'm hopeful I can make something work, even if just for a few days. I try not to think too much about such things when I feel like I feel right now, because being anywhere other than bed or the bathroom sounds discouragingly ambitious.

I self-published Reunion at the Bluegrass Inn in August. It's been kind of neat to visit friends of mine and see a copy of my book in their respective living rooms. I've inscribed some of them, which is a little weird to do, but mostly satisfying. Ideas for my next novel have been circulating all year and I'm preparing to begin the first draft next month for NaNoWriMo. I want to hit the 50,000 word count goal by month's end, but I'm planning a lengthier book than the first so that 50k may not represent the whole story. The title is Elf Esteem and will center on a young woman named Claire who, while down on her luck, takes a job at a mall working as an elf for a Santa Claus booth. I initially conceived it as a comedy, like Reunion, but lately I've been more serious-minded and think I may explore some weightier issues. Maybe this will be my O Brother, Where Art Thou?* and I'll find out I should stick to comedy. In any event, I'm looking forward to writing again. I hope to have Elf Esteem written, revised, and ready to be published this time next year.

Beyond things I've done, the other big issue, I suppose, is how I've felt throughout this second year. Some of the anger, the fear and the pain have subsided. So, too, has some of the enthusiasm and optimism. The pendulum is settling, I suppose. I still try to raise awareness about depression, anxiety, and suicide but I don't feel as committed to it these days. Like Crohn's disease, it's part of who I am and always will be. I find myself bringing it up less frequently, though it's unavoidable in a lot of ways. One day, I might get better at balancing.

I spent most of yesterday in bed. I've been up for about three hours now and I'm drained. The Prednisone has helped with the pain but I still feel miserable, so I'm going to retreat back to bed. Not the most exciting way to celebrate such a personal anniversary, but c'est la vie. Thanks for reading, and for being part of Year Two.

*See Sullivan's Travels

13 August 2013

"Reunion at the Bluegrass Inn" - Now Available!

Remember back in 2011 when I first started writing a novel for NaNoWriMo? Well, it's now available in paperback! I've self-published it through Lulu, where it's available as a print-on-demand title. The price is a bit higher than I was comfortable with, but them's the breaks in 2013. I only get a very small part of the sale price, so in order to realize my dream of selling a zillion copies and then the movie rights in my grand scheme to meet Melody Gardot, I need you to not only buy a copy for yourself, but to talk everyone you know into buying one, too.

You can purchase the paperback from Lulu here.

02 August 2013

I Can't Whistle, Either

I haven't done much blogging in a while. I've been miserable for most of the last few months. Some of that has been physical, some of it (okay, a lot of it) mental/emotional. I've spent most of the last week-plus in bed, fighting aches, chills and a sporadic, mostly mild fever when I've been awake. I've also produced an inordinate amount of snot. [As if on cue, I had to stop typing just now to blow my nose again.]

I've also been in a depressive episode. I've felt empty, lonely and bleak. I've had suicidal thoughts, though no urges. I have been reminded in numerous ways recently the extent to which I am, by almost any measuring stick, an abject failure. This brings me to two points I've been meaning to address in this blog for quite some time.

I can't even guess how old I was the first time I was chided for my lack of self-confidence. My mom was encouraging of everything I did, as were her mom and her grandmother. My great-grandmother in particular thought I was the cat's meow. Later, my dad would often lament that they had filled my head with notions I was special, and that I needed to know I wasn't. I learned from that to not trust anything positive I hear about myself. I've lived in fear of becoming the egotist that he accused me of being. You can imagine how this fed into my depressive wiring, which I'm certain was there all along in me.

I've reached a point where I can see, and even admit, my good traits. I like to think I'm compassionate, patient and kind. I'm reasonably sure I'm funny, even if a blog full of posts about wanting to kill myself don't really convey that. I'm an above-average writer and I'm comfortable speaking in front of a crowd.

None of these things, though, inspire me to self-confidence. Compassion and kindness aren't things in which you actually measure them through competition or anything of that sort. I've been lauded for my patience over the years, but so what? I'm not the funniest guy in the room, and I'm okay with that. I like to laugh, and if someone else can make me, then I'm all for it. And if you think writing skills are the path to self-confidence, you don't know a thing about writers!

I've always responded to the challenge that I need to be more confident by asking, "Of what?" Just what should I be confident about in my life? My marriage having failed, the daunting task of trying to date has prompted me to take inventory of my life. I have...nothing. I have accomplished...nothing. I can offer...nothing.


The only thing I have in my entire life to offer anyone is just myself. That's not a hell of a lot. Some have tried to point to positive things about me, often leading to some variation on the above list I've identified. But so what? Do you know how many guys are out there in the world who are compassionate, patient, kind, funny, can speak in front of crowds and who don't have my baggage? Guys who are healthy, attractive, have financial security, their own place and car, who know how to excite a woman? I don't have an exact figure but it's somewhere between 19,814 and a zillion. I hate to reduce it to a competition, but realistically that's what it is. My upside is overshadowed by my downside, and I'm a pathetic competitor for the attention and affection of a woman.

No one has yet explained to me how self-confidence actually works. It's a lot like whistling, really, which is another of my deficiencies. Whistlers just assume everyone in the world can whistle. "You purse your lips and blow," they say. I do and nothing happens. They can't understand what I'm even failing to do, so they laugh or shrug and write me off as a non-whistler who will never get it.

The most helpful thing anyone has tried to suggest is that I "fake it" until I feel it. Except even that is meaningless advice. For one thing, I'm terrible at facades and faking things. It's just not my style. (I suppose I should add honesty to my above list of positive traits.) The other reason it's useless advice is that I don't know what I'm faking! How can someone who has never felt self-confidence possibly know how to fake it at all? Why not ask me to speak in Mandarin or repair a clogged artery? I could gamely just try to fake those things, too, and hope I got it right but there'd be a lot of confused and probably insulted Mandarin-speakers and at least one dead patient before I ever got it right.

Similarly, I have been advised often to "love" myself.

I have no idea what this means.

I don't even understand what loving oneself is, and I mean that in the most literal sense I can possibly say it. I understand love of others. I have no idea how that applies to oneself. I am me. Love isn't even relevant. I'm stuck being me regardless of how I may feel about it. Truthfully, I've always been resentful. I can remember as a child, lying in bed and despising my parents for not considering whether or not I even wanted to be born. I existed to satisfy some parental need of theirs, not because I wanted to exist. Since then, I've accepted that I do exist, regardless of why, though truthfully I've never let go of that resentment.

So, Dear Reader, I put it to you: How does self-confidence work? What is it to love yourself? How do these things even happen? What do they look like? What are the steps of either process? How do you know if you're doing them right? When do you know you've succeeded? How much snot can I possibly produce in the course of this one night? How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?

20 July 2013

"The Movement" #3 and "Batgirl" #22 by Gail Simone

It's Saturday morning and for me that means time to read (and review) comic books. Why did it take me until this Saturday to read and review a pair of comics that were both published before this week? I was away visiting a friend, which I'll discuss in a forthcoming post. Besides, what better way to mark that I'm nowhere near San Diego International Comic-Con this weekend?

The Movement #3

"Class Warfare"
Gail Simone - Writer
Freddie Williams II - Artist
Chris Sotomayor - Colorist
Carlos M. Mangual - Letterer
Amanda Conner - Cover
Dave McCaig - Cover Color
Kyle Andrukeiwicz - Asst. Editor
Joey Cavalieri - Editor
Matt Idelson - Group Editor
32 Pages/$2.99
Date of Publication: 3 July 2013

Continuing directly from issue #2, Katharsis is pummeled by Coral City S.W.A.T. officers while the rest of the team struggles against Rainmaker. The latter of these conflicts lasts until story page 14, by which point I sort of got "beatdown fatigue". The end of that confrontation is fairly anticlimactic, too, with Virtue calling for a truce and Rainmaker asking, "You don't work for the man?" It's all over just like that. A fight that lasts nearly half the issue all comes down to that simple exchange.

On story page 13, Burden channels Satan (or some similar demonic force). Rainmaker takes him down, shouting, "I don't know what you are. But I'm not Christian!" The only Biblical reference he had made was to Sodom, whose story appears in the Old Testament but also in the Torah as well as the Qu'ran, meaning non-Christians of the Abrahamic religions would still recognize and respond to the same, uh, character. Of course, yelling, "But I'm not an Abrahamic believer!" is clunky so there's that.

More interesting is a scene in the middle of all that in which Vengeance Moth delivers cheeseburgers to the two captured cops. Officer Whitt taunts her by pointing out that The Movement's treatment of prisoners fails to live up to even the reluctant standards of law enforcement, daring her to question whether the police - corrupt as Whitt and some others are - are the more merciful group. It's an ethical dilemma and one that rescues this issue from being wall-to-wall beatings. It also made me want a cheeseburger. At 7:30 in the morning. So thanks for that, Gail Simone.

Carlos M. Mangual's lettering really stands out in this book. It's kind of rough and complements Freddie Williams II's artwork nicely. Those two elements give the book a very gritty aesthetic that suits the narrative.

Batgirl #22
"A Day in a Life of Endless Velocity"
Gail Simone - Writer
Fernando Pasarin - Penciller
Jonathan Glapion - Inker
Blond - Colorist
Dezi Sienty - Letterer
Alex Garner - Cover
Katie Kubert - Editor
Mike Marts - Group Editor
Batman created by Bob Kane
32 Pages/$2.99
Date of Publication: 10 July 2013

Issue #22 is a much needed respite for Barbara Gordon, who has been through the fire - literally - since The New 52 returned her to action as Batgirl. She doesn't don her nighttime clothing once in this issue, which is kind of daring in a superhero book but it works here. It reminds us that Barbara - not Batgirl - is the real character in a way that Bruce Wayne really isn't the soul of a Batman book. Her date with Ricky is charming, though I'm struggling to recall how exactly they got together. I also enjoyed the brief gal pal camaraderie between Babs and Alysia, and Simone did a nice job reminding us of James Gordon, Jr.'s recent "demise"*, for which their father obsessively blames Batgirl.

This issue doesn't end on a typical cliffhanger. Instead, we're left with the sense that the eye of the storm is passing and what will come next will be rough. There are a lot of relationships up in the air right now, and these dynamics are what make Batgirl so compelling. I've always cared about Barbara, and to a lesser extent Jim Gordon. I've taken quickly to Alysia and I like Ricky so far, too. It's nice to know that someone sees characters in a superhero book as more than costumed brawlers, and that humanity is why I have loved this book from issue #1.

Incidentally, it appears that both The Movement and Batgirl are being skipped during DC's "Forever Evil" gimmick month in September, meaning after next month's issues I/we will go two months before we get back to these books. My thoughts on "Forever Evil" are already on record, and knowing the two books I read are being skipped to accommodate it does not endear me to DC, except for knowing that they didn't run roughshod over these two books and force it into their pages. I guess this was the compromise between the storytellers and the marketers who run the show. Any book that wouldn't play ball has to sit on the bench that month. You couldn't at least run Batgirl Annual #2 during this lull?

Whatever, DC. Whatever.

Gail Simone has written Batman: The Dark Knight #23.1 featuring The Ventriloquist for "Forever Evil", so that'll have to be my fix for September. Well played, DC.

07 July 2013

The Goodbye I Would Have Wished I Had Said

I have thought about writing this piece often over the last year and a half but never quite made myself write it. The topic: What I would have wished I had said in the event that I had ended my own life. I cannot speak for anyone else, though I hope if you've lost someone to Depression that maybe somewhere in all this you'll find something that helps you.

In my experience, what happened was that depression poisoned for me everything that was good in my life. I became convinced that I didn't deserve any of my friendships or my marriage. I withdrew from them because it hurt less to avoid them than to be around them, certain that they were only indulging me out of misguided politeness. This was not because of anything that any of my family or friends said or did - or didn't say or do. That was simply what Depression kept telling me until I believed it.

I rationalized the issue of how my death would affect them by reminding myself that everyone dies. They would have to face my death one day anyway. And I was in pain. Constant, daily agony. If it was a physical pain, a lot of people would have understood it as a "mercy" thing. But an emotional pain we're told to suck up because "that's life". I took it so far that I became angry at the very idea that I should live in pain because someone else would be inconvenienced by my death.

Depression is sneaky. It's skilled in rationalization and logic.

There is a school of thought that love should be able to save people like us. "Keep living for the ones who love you!" But Depression poisons that. Twists it. Tells us we don't deserve it. Why wait for old age? End it now, let them move on while they're still young enough to be more than a widow or widower or whatever.

We're led down a hallway where every day sees another door close on us. It pushes us downward to that very last door. We don't really know how we got there, but we look around and see only closed doors and a very long hallway; so long we can't even see light at the other end of it. So there's the temptation to go through that last one and hope that no one follows us down that hallway. We think that our death will become the DO NOT ENTER sign we want to hang there for our loved ones.

"They'll figure it out. They'll heal. They'll do things better without me. They'll do things better BECAUSE of me."

There's also the sense that whatever drain we've been will at least stop. "When you realize you're in a hole, quit digging", you know?

In my mind, I saw my death as a positive thing in the big picture for those I loved. I would never have done it to hurt them. I just didn't know any other way to stop my own pain.

People think suicide is the most selfish act there is. Suicidal people don't see it that way at all. We think the world will be unaffected by and indifferent to it, and that we're actually doing the best thing we can for those whose love we no longer believe we deserve. We end our pain and free them of their obligation to the albatross we feel we've become.

It's really the ultimate "It's not you, it's me" situation, except even that isn't fair or quite accurate because it wasn't me, either. It was Depression. Depression is the cruelest game of "telephone" where one person says something but Depression reports something very different. "Hey, we should hang out!" becomes "I feel like I have to say something about wanting to hang out with you but I really hope you don't take me up on it." That's how it works.

One of the most common reactions from people is that they admit they knew something was wrong, but they didn't realize the extent of it. Nor did they really know what to do about it. I've heard this from my own family and friends, and I've heard it from people who have lost someone to Depression. It's okay, I would have wanted to have said. I didn't know what to do about it, either. I tried. I really did try. But nothing I tried worked. Reaching out to those who would have done something if only they had known seems the most obvious thing in the world, but not when Depression has already convinced you to withdraw from all such people. I languished in my own pain, increasingly isolated looking at all those closed doors.

I would have wanted my loved ones to have understood all this. To know that in my mind, it was the most logical decision in the world. I worked out all the issues and sub-issues until suicide was the only reasonable thing left to me. My suicidal thoughts didn't actually originate with me being upset. On the contrary; I was actually upset by having suicidal thoughts.

You know when you have to admit that someone else is right about something even though you hate that something (and maybe even the someone else, too)? That's where I was with all of it. I tried to argue my way out of suicidal ideation. I brainstormed every possible way to make things better for myself, for my wife, for our marriage, for the whole world. Every single thing I considered died on the vine. My ideas were exercises in futility. It was only a matter of time before I came to see my very existence as also being an exercise in futility.

Somewhere in all this, I hope I've been able to give you a better understanding of how I got to that point. I can't say whether that's the exact same experience for each and every person who has succumbed to Depression's taunts and machinations, but I do suspect that there are certain near-universal themes that are applicable to most of Depression's victims.

01 July 2013

The Louisville Palace presents The Alfred Hitchcock Series 2013

My most-viewed blog post of all time is last year's Louisville Palace summer movie schedule so I assume some of you will want to know what this year's lineup is. Since it's finally been announced, I can now report that for the third year since the Palace began their annual summer movie series in 2001, they've designated Alfred Hitchcock as their theme.

All shows play at 8:00 PM. $5.00 apiece or $42 for a season pass.

19 July Rebecca
20 July Shadow of a Doubt
27 July Rope
2 August Strangers on a Train
3 August Dial M for Murder
9 August Rear Window
10 August The Trouble with Harry
16 August To Catch a Thief
17 August The Man Who Knew Too Much
23 August Vertigo
24 August North by Northwest
30 August Psycho
31 August The Birds

To Catch a Thief played as part of the Cinemark Classic Series earlier this year on 23 January, and Iroquois Amphitheater screened Psycho 3 June.

North by Northwest played in last year's The Great Directors: Hollywood's Golden Age series. The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo all played in 2011 as part of the Palace's James Stewart series. And, of course, 2010 was an all-Hitchcock year in which ten of this year's thirteen pictures played! If Facebook comments are any indication, there are more than a few of us who are disappointed that the Palace has gone back to the Hitchcock well yet again.

Still, I do love going to the Palace and $5.00 a pop ain't bad. Plus, it's nice to only be kinda sorta interested in any of the particular movies, meaning I can go to pretty much any of them without any sense of pressure that I have to see any specific one. I've gotten into James Stewart's films in the last few years, but slowly, so there are several of his in this lineup - repeats though they are - that appeal to me. We'll see.

23 June 2013

Review: The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures
by Dave Stevens
Collected edition published 29 December 2009
144 pages | $29.99

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Rocketeer first came to my attention when Disney made the movie in 1991. I wanted to see it, but didn't. In fact, to this day I still haven't seen that movie! I get a crack at it on the big screen 27 July when Baxter Avenue Theatres will play it at midnight and I'm hopeful to make it to that. I discovered that the Oldham County Public Library main branch has this hardcover collected edition of the original comics and decided it was high time I checked it out (literally).

I didn't realize until I got hold of this collected edition that there were so few actual Rocketeer comics - a mere eight issues that comprise two different story arcs. The old school pulp influence is easy to see, from the very concept to the characterization and visual aesthetics. Betty clearly embodies Bettie Page, for instance, and Jonas is almost certainly The Shadow. Fans of that era - particularly its entertainment - will find plenty of homages and Easter eggs to appreciate. Dave Stevens's artwork is clean, easy to follow and imbues the narrative with a specific lighthearted energy that makes it a pageturner. I finished the entire volume in just under an hour.

One thing that I liked is that even though the story is clearly a celebration of the stereotypical juvenile male fantasy, Cliff Secord is not a particularly effective hero. He's clumsy. He's selfish and a bit cowardly, and he isn't much good at all in a fight. In fact, other than his daredevil piloting and the stolen jetpack, there's not a lot to him. He's an everyman kid, kinda like Peter Parker.

Cliff's competition with Marco the Hollywood photographer for the affection of Betty is the dominant arc of the two stories. It's accessible because petty jealousy and insecurity are both (unfortunately) so universal. Just when I'm ready to roll my eyes that Betty is nothing more than a trophy for Cliff to win, she speaks up for herself on page 32:
"Grow up, Cliff! It's not money--I've told you! You can't own me!"
Cliff is certainly still an intellectual and emotional adolescent, as witnessed by him directing "Colonel Mayberg" to Betty's apartment. That wasn't done to get Mayberg off Cliff's back nearly as much as it was a prank pulled out of spite against Betty. (Seriously, who would do that?!)

Reading The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures leaves the impression that Dave Stevens didn't have a big picture story idea in mind and sort of made it up as he went. It's also highly likely that the difficulty finding a publisher for each issue not only hindered the publication but the writing of the stories. It's hard, I think, these days to properly understand how difficult it must have been for Stevens to get The Rocketeer onto comic book shop shelves in the 1980s. We're used to Dark Horse Comics, Image, IDW and other independent publishers making a strong showing, and now crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter make it possible for creators to get their content out to readers a whole lot more easily than could be done 30 years ago. It's important to cut Stevens some slack in that respect.

Betty suffers most from the inconsistency of publication. There's a sense that Stevens had in mind a maturation for both Betty and Cliff as individual characters and as a couple but we're left with only their squabbling over his insecurities provoked by her refusal to commit to him monogamously, to further her modeling career. Cliff is the kind of guy that Nicholas Sparks fans would adore, and would incite the ire of self-determining feminists. I'm in the middle. Part of me understands Cliff's thinking; that if he could just provide for Betty what those other guys could provide by throwing money at her, he would distinguish himself. Women want security. That's not unfair. Not being able to offer that puts a cap on how far a relationship will go and Cliff was at that cap. I get that.

The breakthrough on page 97 is cynical and embittered, but under that it's also healthy for Cliff to see Betty as more than just a prize to be won. They have different wants and needs, and it's okay that they do. It's a shame that Stevens didn't get the chance to write any further stories because I would really like to have seen both characters address those wants and needs, and to grow. Leaving them where we do, we have just enough reason to be hopeful but we're also left having to speculate for ourselves what became of them.

One last note: It's amusing to me that the language consists of such terms as "danged" and "blamed", evoking the "aw, shucks" era of tamed dialog while also presenting Betty's backside on page 47, or with her breasts all but completely bared to us on page 57. It's all in the spirit of the pinup, of course, but it doesn't quite jibe with the more wholesome aesthetic of the movie serials that set the tone for the rest of the comic.

I'm hopeful that I'll get to go see the 1991 movie version at Baxter next month, and I'm also hopeful that the screenwriter(s) addressed these characterization issues. There are kernels of really likable characters here, but going no farther than they do it's difficult for me to say just how much I actually like and care for Cliff and/or Betty.

View all my Goodreads reviews

21 June 2013

Unsolicited Advice for Newlyweds

It's summer, which means wedding season is in full swing. I myself was looking at possibly attending as many as three weddings this summer but I couldn't work out the traveling logistics of one wedding and my brother and his fiancee postponed theirs so they could work out plans that they really wanted - which just means that I'll not only attend their wedding next year but in all likelihood I'll be roped into playing some role. My brother was my best man, which meant he had to give a toast. I wouldn't put it past him to return the favor. Even if he doesn't, I know one thing that has become customary at wedding receptions is for attendees to be solicited for marital advice. Often that's asked only of presently-married attendees. I don't think that's necessarily fair or thoughtful since there may be widows and widowers in attendance. They're the only ones who have actually discharged the duty of the office of spouse to its fullest so they shouldn't be excluded from chiming in about how to do that.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about what I might say to newlyweds. It would certainly be tempting by cynical but that's not who I want to be. I'm reminded of the beautiful song "Dreaming My Dreams with You", written by Allen Reynolds (who later became Garth Brooks's producer) and first recorded by Waylon Jennings:
"But I won't let it change me, not if I can
I'd rather believe in love
And give it away to those that I'm fondest of"
With that in mind, then, here are the few things I have to offer on the subject.

Praise Whoever Washes the Dishes
Washing the dishes isn't quite the tedious chore it is with a dishwasher, but I'm still adamant that of all the household chores to be done, this is the one where you want to make a point to say, "Hey! I just noticed you washed the dishes. Go, you!" Laundry is an even more obnoxious chore, but that's one that's best left unspoken. There's no need to draw any more attention to laundry than is absolutely mandatory.

Don't Turn Off the Car Mid-Song
You pull into the parking lot. Your spouse is singing along with a song. Don't shut off the car just because you're parked. Let him or her have the moment. Stopping at an instrumental solo is acceptable if the song has just started playing. It feels like unfinished business to get out of a car without having sung along to the end of a song, and that can dampen the energy of the evening before you've even gotten out of the car.

Sub-point: Don't use time together driving to make a phone call unless absolutely necessary. The other person is completely trapped, unable to play music or do anything except hear one half of your conversation.

Turn Off Your Alarm Promptly
If you adapt to your morning alarm and it stops being effective, don't start setting it for an earlier time so that you can hit "snooze" repeatedly. You'll just continue to adapt and soon find yourself sleeping through the alarm entirely. Just get a new alarm. Make your ears react to a new tone. Because one day, you've become immune to your alarm and your spouse has become tired of fighting with you to turn it off and it's just a matter of time before your spouse is weighing the pros and cons of smothering you with your own pillow.

When Talking to Single Friends...Shut Up
You've got a marriage license, not a shared doctoral degree in human relationships. You're not actually qualified to talk to single people as though you're in the big leagues and you think if they open up their stance and choke up on the bat some that they can hit their way up the big leagues, too. For one thing, your single friends may not even be bothered by being single. And if they are bothered by it, the last thing they want is for you to sound off about how patient they need to be and how blessed you are and how their time will come, etc. Think back to when you were single and didn't feel all that patient or blessed. Remember wanting to slap some people? Yep. That's exactly how your single friend feels when you open your trap and start droning on about how being married is "so different" from what your premarital relationships were like - which, in turn, means it's superior to all the meaningful relationships your single friend has ever had.

Shut. Up.

Businesses Run All Kinds of Promotions. Use Them.
One day you'll find yourself chatting with a younger couple and they'll namedrop all kinds of places they've been and things they've done and all you'll have to talk about will be whatever plot lines have been running through the shows on USA. It will be humiliating for you to see the true scope of the rut you didn't even know you were in. Fortunately, you live in the time of online promotions. If you pay close enough attention to sites like Groupon, Coupons.com and Fat Wallet, you can go out together semi-regularly on the cheap...which is probably important considering the state of the economy and the complete lack of confidence any of us have that our dollar will be worth more tomorrow than the three seconds of warmth we can get from it by setting it on fire tonight. So go ahead and go ice skating. It's just $8 a person, with skate rental included. It'll be fun.

Remember: It's YOUR Relationship
No matter how many universal truths there are about marriages and relationships, no matter what every other marriage you know has in common, at the end of the day there are only two people in your marriage and you're one of them. Whatever works to make your marriage satisfying, do that. Some people scoff at the idea of a semi-regular girls' night out, thinking it unseemly for a wife to "step out like that". Some will roll their eyes and puke their guts up if you gush that you always do everything together and can finish each other's sentences. There'll always be someone who wants to project their experience onto you and to tell you what red flags to look for and to fear, or to shame you for not doing what a good spouse does.

So what? They're not in the relationship. Whatever works for you [plural], works. Period. If that means going into business together just so you can literally be within eyesight of one another at every moment until you die, so be it. If it means trolling Craigslist for swinging partners, fine. Going to church every Sunday and Wednesday keeps you grounded? Terrific! One spouse goes out drinking and the other stays home playing poker every Friday night? Have fun! You only conduct disagreements in a private online chat room instead of actually speaking to one another? Sounds measured and patient.

The point is, it's your relationship constructed from the dynamics shared between your spouse and you. Don't try to emulate another marriage and don't let someone else try to terraform yours.

(But I'm serious about that alarm clock business. I almost had to go to prison on numerous mornings over that.)

15 June 2013

"The Movement" #2 and "Batgirl" #21 by Gail Simone

I'm down to just two monthly books now, and since both are written by Gail Simone it seemed expedient to write one blog post to cover both books. I'll probably stick to this format. I picked The Movement to lead off this review because it was published the week before Batgirl and also because I read them in that order. Since I started reading new monthlies again, I've always read Batgirl last because it's my favorite.

The Movement #2
"With No Hint of Malice"
Gail Simone - Writer
Freddie Williams II - Artist
Chris Sotomayor - Colorist
Carlos M. Mangual - Letterer
Amanda Conner - Cover
Dave McCaig - Cover Color
Kyle Andrukiewicz - Asst. Editor
Joey Cavalieri - Editor
Matt Idelson - Group Editor
32 pages / $2.99
Date of Publication: 5 June 2013

I found The Movement #1 a bit too frenetic for my taste, with my chief concern being that I didn't have much of a feel for any of the characters. Issue #2 paused long enough to bring me up to speed, though, and now I feel like I have a grip on the players in this new book. I have to say, it's kind of fun to read a book with an original cast of characters where I have absolutely no preconceived ideas of personalities. Gail Simone is a very socially-conscious writer and I admire that about her work.

She's also apparently demented. Seriously, Gail - what the hell is wrong with you?!

I don't even know what to make of Mouse and poor little Trouncer. Story pages 5 and 6 are sad but kind of sweet...until that last panel on page 6. Then there's panel 1 on story page 10, which is something that can't be unseen once it's seen. What the hell is wrong with you, Gail? We learn more about the Movement team, or at least its "war council" and its base of operations at the 181/Sweatshop.

The history of the building is unfortunately not without actual precedent, though offhand similar known incidents did not take place in secrecy. Those kinds of fatal sweatshop conditions were an important part of the Industrial Revolution that our public school system doesn't acknowledge because "Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin" is much easier to write into a test than "Exploitative greed combined with misogyny to place women and girls in deplorable working conditions that cost the lives of a few hundred of them."

One thing I really like about The Movement, and I meant to comment on this in last month's review, is that its visual aesthetic doesn't seem as homogenized as the other New 52 books. Freddie Williams II's art is rawer and a lot less sleek than the other comics I've seen from DC. It gives the book a very specific personality and helps set it apart. It's a shame that all the other books are expected to conform to a singular design because this is the kind of thing that I always liked about reading comic books in the first place: Contrasting not just the work of one artist from another, but enjoying the impact that specific artist's work has on the storytelling of a given book.

The most striking image of the issue is that aforementioned first panel of story page 10, but I really liked those last three panels of story page 9. That's a terrific eye-roll! It's nice to see this kind of work in a comic. Then there's the visceral shot at the top of story page 31 of Katharsis, seething with rage and her face bloodied. That's more consistent with mainstream books, but it's done so strikingly well that it's a standout image.

When I picked up these two books, I formally added The Movement to my pull list. That makes it my second ever pull title, after...

Batgirl #21
Gail Simone - Writer
Fernando Pasarin - Pencils
Jonathan Glapion - Inks
Blond - Colors
Taylor Esposito - Letters
Alex Garner - Cover
Katie Kubert - Editor
Mike Marts - Group Editor
Batman created by Bob Kane
32 pages / $2.99
Date of Publication: 12 June 2013

This issue opens with Nightwing calling to check on Babs while simultaneously fighting some Scarecrow-themed thugs in Chicago. Their conversation recalls their sparring in issue #3, and it's nice to check in on that relationship again. His fight has nothing to do with anything else in Batgirl to date; it's just there (I think) so that we have some action to look at in the first few pages because otherwise, we don't see Babs back in action until the last of story page 10.

Which itself is kind of peculiar, actually, because we've just spent the first third of this issue watching her make the argument to Nightwing that she's incapable of being Batgirl at present. "...I can't wear the bat right now, Dick. I don't deserve it," she says on story page 4, panel 3. But then as soon as you turn the page your eye darts ahead and there she is on story page 7, busting a right into traffic on her Batcycle? I totally buy that she's having mental and emotional issues at present that make being Batgirl upsetting for her. That's actually one of the plot points of the book that works really well and appeals to me.

To see her go straight from the "I can't wear the bat" talk into wearing said bat just doesn't track. It feels incomplete, like there were a couple of pages originally intended to get us from Emotional Point A to Action Point B that somehow were truncated. I don't know. It's a sharp change of emotional tone and kind of jarring.

Once we get to Shauna's home on story page 9, things become pretty dark. I love that there's no actual explanation for how Shauna manipulates Ferdie or the corpses. I can be fickle about the supernatural in my superhero comics, but this is creepy as hell and works nicely. Readers I know through Twitter seem to feel that this Ventriloquist is pure evil, devoid of the sympathetic nature of other adversaries in the book so far. I disagree with that. I look at Shauna and see a broken young woman who has retreated into being the Ventriloquist in large part because that's where her life pushed and pulled her. I can easily envision her sitting in a group therapy session and being the one to break everyone's heart.

Speaking of emotions, my favorite panel of this book is the very last panel of the pages 2-3 splash, of Babs crying on the phone. The tightened eyebrows, the quivering lip, even the hand holding back the falling hair; just heartrending. That's actually the key reason I found it so confusing to go from her telling Dick she can't be Batgirl to her hacking the GCPD website to get back to looking for the kidnapped singer, Xavia. I just stopped reading and stared at that panel of Babs crying for probably five or ten seconds because it exuded such desolation.

I also liked the last panel of page 6, with Babs passing Alysia on her way out. Their brief handholding as part of saying goodbye/goodnight was sweet. Story page 8, with Babs's parents saying their goodbyes, was bittersweet, but it's kind of a strange interlude and it's kind of frustrating that Barbara doesn't set Jim straight on what happened to James, Jr. since she's the only one who could. (Or, I suppose, James, Jr. could since DC made a point to advertise that he's just joined one of the team books.)

Both The Movement and Batgirl issues include attacks on peoples' eyes. That's one of those things that squicks me right out and I'm pretty sure somehow, Gail Simone knows it. Which begs the question:

What the hell is wrong with you, Gail Simone?

08 June 2013

Merle Haggard "Same Train, A Different Time"

Same Train, A Different Time
Merle Haggard
sings the great songs of Jimmie Rodgers
Originally released 1 May 1969

This tribute album has been on my radar for years. I never came across it on any format, though I admit I didn't really actively look all that hard for one. Wednesday night, though, I turned up a copy on vinyl at Half Price Books for $3.99. Score!

What makes Same Train, A Different Time work is the obvious passion that went into it by Merle Haggard. Here's a guy essentially at the height of his commercial career, taking the time to record a double-LP tribute to an artist already fading from popular consciousness. These days, Rodgers is known almost exclusively to music scholars and fans of artists old enough to have paid tribute to him at some point in their career, as Hag did with this album.

Sometimes people who know about my political views are taken aback to find out that my favorite music genre is country. The part of me that intended to teach history really enjoys the genre's longstanding emphasis on tradition. Every genre keeps its history alive in one way or another, but country does it more formally through the Grand Ole Opry. There's something special to me about the intergenerational relationships of country music, tracing cultural roots through time and space. Same Train, A Different Time isn't just an album of a recording artist covering songs of one of his influences. It's a history lesson, as much about early 20th Century rural America as it is a music lesson about the beginnings of country music as a formal genre.

To that end, Hugh Cherry's liner notes and album narration help to document the context of some of these songs. Cherry prefaces "Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8)", for instance, with a brief explanation of what a mule skinner was because even in 1969 it was being forgotten. In those days, younger listeners might at least have heard the term from old-timers, but in 2013 our old-timers weren't even that familiar with it.

There's something romantic to conjuring images of hoboing across the turn of the 20th Century. Sure, the reality was rough and not at all romantic, but that doesn't stop the thrill conjured by these songs. Rodgers, like Haggard, celebrated the life experiences of his social class and peers through song. Cherry notes that Rodgers had never set foot in California when he wrote and recorded the album opening "California Blues", but what does it matter? Rodgers knew the subject matter well enough that his imagination could fill in the gaps. "California Blues" feels authentic.

It's certainly interesting to hear this version of "Frankie and Johnny", a song I know best through Johnny Cash's recording. Cash's version has a happy ending, unlike pretty much every other version out there. I've heard the Rodgers version lyrics elsewhere, but it was still surprising to hear Frankie gun down Johnny and be sentenced to death by electrocution! Cash's version also includes Frankie's sister, a character absent from the Rodgers version. I'm fascinated by these kinds of variants among songs of this vintage; "Frankie and Johnny" was already an old song when Rodgers recorded his version 10 August 1929 in Dallas.

The musicianship on Same Train, A Different Time is the other reason why the album is so compelling. There's an energy throughout all four sides of the album that bespeaks of the devotion to the source material on the part of both Haggard and the other performers. This doesn't feel like an album recorded for commercial purposes, but instead as something between a private jam session and a historical document. Hag loved the music, and he wanted to ensure its survival by lending his own star power to it.

Jimmie Rodgers was just shy of his 30th birthday when he first recorded "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" for Ralph Peer in 1927. He died at age 35, 36 years before Same Train, A Different Time was recorded by Merle Haggard in 1969, 44 years ago. That means that this album is now closer in time to Jimmie Rodgers's life than it is to today. I confess, part of me was disappointed to learn that none of the songs Hag selected for this album were ones that Rodgers originally recorded in his June 1931 sessions in Louisville.

That said, I only recently learned that Rodgers recorded in Louisville at all and it's directly because of Merle Haggard and this tribute album that I'm now more resolved than I previously had been to truly explore Jimmie Rodgers's music. If there's any question how successful Hag was with his ambitions for Same Train, A Different Time, I think that's testament enough.

04 June 2013

Another Open Letter to DC Comics

Every week, the comic book blogosphere justly calls out shenanigans at DC Comics. It's been an endless parade of a misogynistic portrayal of that character, firing this writer, killing that character, canceling this book, etc. since The New 52 launched in September of 2011. In December, I wrote An Open Letter to DC Comics asking them what they were thinking by allowing Brian Cunningham to fire Gail Simone from Batgirl - a completely terrible decision that DC thankfully reversed and rectified swiftly. I've groused elsewhere, but I haven't been so frustrated with DC that I've been compelled to write another open letter...until now.

Dear DC Comics,

Dan DiDio, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee recently announced that this September, for The New 52's second anniversary, they're launching a project called "Forever Evil". Forever Evil itself will be a seven-issue mini-series featuring literally every character in the DC Universe, according to DiDio. Because, you know, nothing says "thoughtful storytelling" like cramming every primary, secondary and tertiary character the company owns into 280 pages (7 issues x 40 pages each). This seems creatively bankrupt to me, but it's easily skipped so no harm, no foul. That mini-series will be just one more thing I don't read.

However, it doesn't end there. No, just like last year's "Zero Month", the marketing department has run roughshod over creative vision. Last year, you arbitrarily inserted origin stories for all 52 books into one month, interrupting arcs already in progress. That caused me to wait two damn months for the resolution of the story Gail Simone was telling in Batgirl, just because someone (DiDio? Lee? Johns?) threw up his hands and yelled, "WAIT! I HAVE IT!" This time, the idea is to spotlight villains in all the books. That actually isn't a terrible idea. 3D covers on all the books isn't a good idea, but even that isn't terrible.

Having several of the books go weekly throughout the month? That's a terrible idea.
  • Batman
  • Detective Comics
  • Batman: The Dark Knight
  • Batman and...
  • Action Comics
  • Superman
  • Justice League
All of those will have four issues in September, priced at $3.99 apiece. (The Flash will also have three issues and Aquaman has two.) That's the standard cover price for some of the books, but it's a $1 increase for Batman: The Dark Knight and Batman and... It would cost me $15.96 to buy just September's issues of Detective Comics.

At least, it would have cost me that if I was going to continue buying and reading Detective Comics.

The purpose of this open letter to you, DC Comics, is to inform you that I will no longer be buying or reading Detective Comics as a direct consequence of "Forever Evil", effective immediately. Issue #21 comes out tomorrow and it's the first issue of the book I won't be buying. It's a shame, because I've enjoyed it so far but I won't play these games with you, DC.

I've enjoyed the book so far, with both Tony S. Daniel and now John Layman writing it. If there had been just one issue of that book in this "Forever Evil" stunt, I'd simply buy that one issue and ignore everything else - which is exactly what I did during both "Night of the Owls" and "Death of the Family". I resented those tie-ins, but whatever. This is different, though, because this affects the actual publication of Detective Comics - not because the story required four issues within a month, but because your marketing department insisted upon it.

This leaves me buying Batgirl and The Movement. Those are just two books, but they're still two books more per month that you'll be selling me than you did for a decade. How long that continues is up to you. My advice is to keep your marketing department out of Gail Simone's way and let her write. That's why I buy those books: for her storytelling. Not to keep up with a crossover. Not for 3D covers. For storytelling. I'm old-fashioned like that.

Maybe you won't miss selling me Detective Comics each month any more than you miss selling me Batwoman each month (remember when I quit reading that book?). Maybe you don't even care whether I continue to buy Batgirl or The Movement. But see, I care. I care because I want to enjoy these things and I wish your "leadership" would let me.

Very Sincerely,

28 May 2013

Offensive Mental Hospital Is Offensive

"No good deed goes unpunished..."

In my last blog piece, I argued about the ways in which pot shots taken at Amanda Bynes and other celebrities going through very public "rough patches" undermines the confidence that the rest of us Nobodies have that we can find the compassion and help we, too, need. You can well imagine, then, how quickly my eyes rolled when I saw Bynes's statement on TwitPlus regarding the entire affair:
For once and for all, this is the last thing I'll say about the mistaken arrest. I'm suing NYPD for illegally entering my apartment, lying about drugs on me and lying about me tampering with non existent drug paraphernalia, then I'm suing for being put into a mental hospital against my will, then locked up overnight for coming home after a facial and working out with my trainer like the good girl that I am. I'm allergic to alcohol and drugs and don't partake in any of the above. I'm so offended by all of this but so proud to not be a drug or alcohol user. I don't need to talk about this anymore. My lawyer and I are taking this offense so seriously! Everything they did was against the law and The judge saw that there was no drugs on me or proof of any type of bong or mental illness (I was so offended to even be taken to a mental hospital and they would not let me call my lawyer until the next day after being in jail all night, then I went to court and was immediately released because the judge saw that I was wrongly arrested. The cops found no proof of any type of drug use or evidence of drug paraphernalia such as a bong in or around my apartment) I'm also suing my apartment complex for lying about me smoking in my building. I'm free forever! You can't lock up an innocent person! Thanks for caring! Look forward to seeing me in music videos! I'm getting in shape and getting a nose job! I'm looking forward to a long and wonderful career as a singer/rapper!
The bolded emphasis is, obviously, mine. I don't know anything about the particulars of her post-arrest hearing, and I'll refrain from speculating about how much attention went into any such determination that there was "no proof of any type of...mental illness". It seems a bit hasty, and anyway the difference between a medical and a legal opinion on the status of someone's mental health can be vast but whatever.

It's the part where she was "so offended" at the very idea of being taken to a mental hospital. The clear implication is that jail was bad enough, but that it was even worse to be remanded to a mental health facility. I mean, jail is one thing. Sure, it's not ideal but we all understand that's where you go when you're arrested. But you have to be seriously messed up to not even get to stay in jail, right?

I don't know the legal code where she lives, but here it's merely protocol given the nature of the allegations. Like I mentioned in my last piece, about half of us patients at Our Lady of Peace were there for mental health issues, but the other half were there for substance issues. It's become standard for people under arrest with those kinds of allegations to be treated in a hospital rather than left to sit in a jail without the proper care they (may) need. But since we don't talk about such things, the misperception persists that only the "seriously messed up" people don't get to just stay in jail with "normal" people under arrest.

I get it, actually. I really do. There's such stigma attached to "the loony bin" that even being there for substance issues and not mental health embarrassed and upset some of the other patients I met. But that's the problem, really; the persistence of that stigma. I know this was an emotionally upsetting experience for Amanda Bynes. It would be upsetting for most people, even without the added scrutiny of being in the public eye. I saw patients who were admitted after I was who basically sat and stared and tried their hardest to not cry their eyes out because they couldn't believe they really were where they were. I get it.

I couldn't believe I was actually there myself. It's funny, really. I mean, I was at a point where I very nearly combined a ton of sleeping pills with an entire bottle of bourbon to end my life, but I didn't think I belonged at Our Lady of Peace. If I didn't belong there, then who did? Where did I belong? So yeah, I definitely understand why it's so upsetting.

Just as taking potshots at a celebrity going through his or her own issues sends a chilling message to the rest of us about how little actual compassion exists out there for us, so too does it hinder us when offense is taken at being sent to such a facility. It's a matter of protocol, and for good reason, but that's not even relevant to the more basic issue of how we as a society talk about such facilities.

There are a lot of issues to be addressed in our mental health care system. Everything from the legal code to the nature of big pharma's pill-pushing culture, from how patients see themselves to the late night talk show monologues needs to be reexamined. I don't claim to have all, or even any, of the answers. But I do know that one thing we as individuals can do is to be more mindful of how we personally talk about such matters.

P.S. "Allergic to alcohol and drugs," Ms. Bynes? Like, all drugs? Allergic how, exactly? Because if they alter your behavior, that's not an allergy. That's what they do.

25 May 2013

A Baseball Wife, an Actress and a Nobody Walk into a Mental Health Facility...

Back on Monday, I caught one of numerous unkind things said on Twitter to a woman I follow. I'm not naming her because she deleted her tweets relevant to the discussion, which I take to be an indication she doesn't want to deal with it any further and I respect that. The short version is that she's married to a professional athlete and had expressed some anxiety - a topic she's shared just as candidly as I have (though, you know, with a much wider audience).

Naturally, some dude felt compelled to snipe at her:
damn you have such a tough life following your athlete husband around the country. Please cry about it more
I, of course, was instantly upset. As I noted in my earlier piece, "On Depression", there is no lifestyle insulated against the misery of mental health problems. People continue to think that everyone is equally miserable, until they get to the point they can buy their way out of it. Both parts of that are patently untrue. Again, we're back to the misconception that there are people who are, and who are not, "entitled" to be anxious or depressed. Anxiety and depression don't give a damn about such things.

This guy persisted, though:
quit crying nobody cares solve your own problems like other people and not seek attention for your problems 
I know firsthand that it is impossible to "solve" mental health problems alone. They thrive in isolation, which is why depressed people withdraw from the ones who love them most. It's paramount that those of us who do fight these chronic issues maintain a certain level of connectedness. Is this young woman an "attention-seeker"? Perhaps, but only in the sense that she is actively seeking attention on behalf of those who also struggle with anxiety. She knows what I know: that the biggest problem with mental health issues is the ignorance of the general public. Raising better awareness, promoting fuller understanding and putting a human face on the issue are instrumental if we're to change how mental health patients fare.

These are, incidentally, the exact reasons why I share what I share - in person, in this blog, on Twitter, on Facebook; wherever the subject may arise, I use my voice to try to change the misperceptions that have made it so difficult over the years for me and millions like me to receive the proper help we need. There is no philosophical difference between her using her voice and me using mine on this issue. The only difference is that she's known by a whole lot more people...which, in turn, means that she has the chance to reach a much wider audience than me.

This brings me to last night's arrest of Amanda Bynes. For months now, the actress has become controversial for erratic behavior. It seems that she threw a bong in her apartment, was arrested and then remanded to a mental health facility. That isn't actually the kind of dramatic thing it sounds. Half the patients with me at Our Lady of Peace were there for reasons similar to mine, but the other half were there on account of substance issues.

Throughout the day, I saw countless tweets about Ms. Bynes actively rooting against her receiving help. Here's a typical reactionary tweet, variations of which are easily found:
Amanda Bynes was arrested today. Day=Made
There's a reason this upsets me so much, and it goes beyond seeing Amanda Bynes as a human being. When someone like this tweeter makes such a remark about a celebrity going through such an obviously difficult time as Bynes has been recently, it sends a chilling message. If this person's day was made by Amanda Bynes being arrested, what support would she offer for the millions of us Nobodies going through similar ordeals? How much compassion can there be for those of us with mental health issues when even popular patients invite such active venom?

This is, of course, where such people become defensive. "It was just a joke, man." Maybe to you, but you didn't even stop to consider how it also undermines a very serious matter for other people. "Hey, that's not my responsibility. If they can't take it, they shouldn't read/listen/whatever." You don't tweet/write/speak in a vacuum. You don't get to choose who can and cannot read or hear you. You aren't responsible for how people react to your words but at the very least, you are responsible for being mindful of which ones you use.

"Well, if my one little tweet/joke/ecard meme was the breaking point for someone, then they clearly had bigger problems anyway." This is my favorite defense, because it argues that we were all playing a game of Jenga, and the tower was still standing after their turn. Your one little throwaway quip may not have been the one that brought down the tower, but you contributed to compromising it.

Will Amanda Bynes be affected terribly by any one person who tweeted that her arrest made their day? Probably not. But what about people who actually know those tweeters, who saw their quips and made the mental note to themselves, "Don't reach out to him/her/them about my own depression/anxiety"?

We cannot continue to try to have parallel conversations about mental health issues. We cannot treat celebrities with mental health problems as "fair game" and act as though somehow, that's different from mocking a Nobody like me. When I see a baseball wife or Amanda Bynes ridiculed for what they face, I know that the only reason that same scorn isn't actively directed at me is that they have no idea who I am. We need to quit this dangerous game of Jenga. The objective should never be to see how much we can take away from someone else's life before they collapse. It should be to see how much we can help build up one another.