Saturday, February 27, 2010

Forgotten Masters: M.A.R. Barker

It seems like a recent phenomenon to look at a lot of the tropes of fantasy literature & criticize them for being elaborate Eurocentric fables about colonialism. The blonde haired, blue eyed hero wades into the dungeon filled with swarthy barbaric orcs! Or you know, the white colonist invades the home of the indigenous peoples & wipes them out in a fit of genocide. Same sides of the coin. The thing is, M.A.R. Barker was there first. M.A.R. Barker was there almost at the beginning of Dungeons & Dragons; he was there when Arneson & Gygax were still putting the whole thing together.

M.A.R. Barker is typically compared to J.R.R. Tolkien, & not just because they both start with three initials. Professor Barker's world of Tékumel has its seeds in language, just like Professor Tolkien's Middle Earth. The difference here is that while Tolkien drew on Scandanavian & European roots for his languages, Barker went to Southeast Asia & South America. He carried that logic through to the rest of Tékumel, fashioning cultures & fashions from a wide variety of non-Western sources. Tékumel is a land of varied kingdoms, classes, races, & species, each level of which interacts with the other to form a complex organic whole.

Tékumel is Science Fantasy. That is, at the far distant root of the setting lies Science Fiction-- space ships & aliens. That is long since gone to dust-- the occasional artifact exists to be found, but largely the technology of the past is moot. The planet of Tékumel is absent of most heavy metals & terran animals; horses & iron have given way to foot traffic & weapons of animal chitin. Most sentient species besides human are treated like outsiders-- with speacies like the insectine Pe Choi replacing human-friendly species like elves. There are a few "inimical" species that hate the humans relentessly, predominantly the cinnamon-goo Ssu & H.R. Gigeresque Hluss. See, they lived on Tékumel before the humans came & terraformed it; they are the displaced peoples whose world was ruined & poisoned by the colonial species. Besides all that, Tekumel is now home to a range of psychics & magicians, & worse things too: the undead, extraplanar demons, & god-things. A few of the latter divinity-like creatures have been sanctified by pacts with the humans & are worshiped as gods: Lords of Stability & Lords of Change.

Tékumel exists in a few forms. As mentioned earlier, it was built in large part by the roleplaying tradition. Professor Barker's "Thursday Night Groups" were & are his personal testing ground, & that spun into a game line published by TSR. The game never really achieved commercial success, but has been around in various rule systems & formats since then for the devotees of the setting. As with anything with a loyal fanbase & an accessible guru, "The Empire of the Petal Throne" (as the dominant nation of Tékumel, Tsolyáni, is sometimes known) has also developed a horde of apocryphal ephemera-- mailing lists, newsletters, chapbook, a whole host of media. Professor Barker has also written five books about Tekumel:
  • The Man of Gold
  • Flamesong
  • Lords of Tsámra
  • Prince of Skulls
  • A Death of Kings
Each of which is a blending of pulp traditions of the best sort with M.A.R. Barkers atypical eye for multiculturalism. High action meets political intrigue; the game of kingmaking blends into adventure & exploration. Weird events transpire & the non-Western traditions are dealt with in such a matter of fact way that soon the castes & customs of Tsolyáni become second nature to the reader. The Noble Action of even the villains is understandable in context.

M.A.R. Barker doesn't get the attention he deserves; he's a modern legend, an overlooked master, & I highly recommend him. The first two books, Man of Gold & Flamesong are DAW books that are out of print, but they are easily gotten (cheap!) from online vendors; the latter three are available from a small press called Zottola.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Just say when!

(Image from Wikimedia Commons, by Ryan Junell from Oakland, USA)

How do you stop reading a book? I'll admit it, I'm bad at it, but I am getting better! It used to be that I was one of those who would stick to it, slogging it out till the bitter end. I still vibe with Past Mordicai's logic. "If you don't read things you don't like, how will your circle of knowledge expand?" I mean, yeah. Plenty of readers get stuck at that level, just reading page turner thriller, or page turner dragon books, or page turner romances. The same stuff they've always liked. Now listen, I'm certainly not slogging off on schlock! Nor am I saying that genre is equivilent to schlock. Having a wizard, or kissing people, or a lawyer in your book doesn't mean it can't be literature! I'm stepping away from my points, though. How do you stop? Can you stop?

I'm better now, as I said. If there is a book I'm reading that clearly isn't redeemable-- maybe it is schlock, maybe it just isn't good-- I will sometimes stop. If I've put in a hundred pages & it hasn't redeemed itself, pft, done. I've called it off after fifty pages, even. I'm not talking about a book I didn't like-- those I still feel obligated to finish, per the above logic. I have to finish it at the very least so I can have bragging rights when I heap obliquay on it. I'm talking about bad books. Poorly written, or filled with offensive stereotypes, or jammed with insulting cliches. You read enough of it to figure the lay of the land, the cut of the jib, & I say forget it. Toss it aside!

Now, I am still unable to put down a book after I read a fat chunk of it. I figure, at this point, why back away? Why step off? Plow through! I also won't quit if the book is mediocre, or uneven. If there is the occasional illuminating passage, I'll keep on chopping with my machete. I figure, hey, how many times have I heard about people tossing in the towel before they chopped through the first hundred pages of Lord of the Rings? Even I will admit that a hundo of hobbit parties & pastoral hiking can be a bit grueling. So like I said, I keep on digging. I'm stuck in that rut at the moment, actually: I'm reading Adam's Shardik based on the fact that I really like Watership Down & thought Maya was "meh." Sadly, I'm finding Shardik in the "meh" category. I'm more than four hundred pages in, & I occasionally like it, so what am I to do, throw in the towel?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Weird Fiction?

(Image from Homestuck by Andrew Hussie.)

Bring on the crazy. More importantly, bring on the New Sincerity. Here is the thing: I like a little whackiness. I like adolescent reptiles with martial arts training that have been genetically modified. I like swords & spaceships mixed together. I like Terry Gilliam & David Lynch. The thing I don't like is irony, or its sibling, preciousness. I don't like people who think they are "exploding the genre." So I'm more than happy to dig into House of Leaves precisely because it is genuinely pretentious. The goofy typesetting & Borgesian footnotes are affected. They are sincere, they are pure geeky sugar. I like Vurt's dripping surrealist druggie faerie tale because Jeff Noon isn't faking it. He means it, & not in some pathetic fashion. Not with some needlessly smoldering Byronic intensity. Just fully sincerely. I like fighting robots, don't you? I don't want it sullied with sardonic sarcasm. I mention this for the simple reason that is this: I think the tide is turning. I don't think hipster reappropriation is winning any more. You might be upset that Hollywood is selling out your youth to make movies, but they are figuring out that they don't have to mess it up. That a robot who turns into a semi-truck is awesome.

Why is this on my mind? Simple. The single craziest moment in any book, ever. Ever. Author? Clive Staples Lewis. Book? The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. Madness: Santa Claus. SANTA CLAUS. Easily the craziest cameo in literature. He just shows up...& then he gives people presents! It isn't even a little bit otherwise. Santa comes & gives gifts to the children. Not just any presents; awesome presents. Swords & suchlike. I can remember, quite vividly, being in first grade (Miz Budapest's class) & reading that scene & having my mind blown. What! Father Christmas! Out of the blue. Just crazy. I am now braced for it. In anything I read, I'm ready for Saint Nick to jump out & give the character's crazy loot. It makes reading...interesting. So go on, China Miéville. Put in an insane devil whale. Make Bas-Lag a wonder of colour bombs & brainsucking moths. You have a ways to go before I think you are very "weird."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

WIth your powers combined...I am Captain Planet!

I've been watching Avatar: The Last Airbender lately, & I've been really impressed with it. The basic premise of the show is simple: there are "Benders," who can manipulate the four hermetic elements. Fire Benders can shoot fire, Air Benders can glide & make wind, so on & so forth. One of the main characters, Aang, is the Avatar-- the most recent incarnation of the Master of the Elements, who can (at least in theory) "Bend" all four elements. Part of what makes the show so appealing is its faultless embrace of cultural paradigms beyond the standard bland European. The Water Tribe is influenced by Polynesian & Inuit art & fashion, the Fire Nation is a mix of Chinese & Japanese cultural stylings, the Air Nomads are a sort of Hindu & Tibetan fusion while the Earth Kingdom takes Mesoamerican architectural cues. The show sinks itself into the worldbuilding deep enough for you to never notice, if you aren't careful-- it is simple enough to latch onto the basic concepts & complicated enough to suit you once you have a grasp on the setting. Besides all that, the characters, especially earnest Aang, are compelling, the "villains" have plausible motivations, & the fights! The fights are incredibly well choreographed. Each "Bender" has a style of martial arts that inspired is-- internal & soft martial arts for Air Bending, for instance, & circular focused Tai Chi-like motions for Water Bending. The action sequences really use animation to stunning effect-- heck, your special effects budget isn't holding you back, so go hog wild! There is also, I should note, a giant six-legged flying bison named Appa.

I find the show very appealing & wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, regardless of age or interest. In fact, it was my wife's insistence that got us started down this path, & while she is plenty geeky it isn't the cartoon watching kind of nerdery. I think the last few cartoons that actually interested me were all superhero-- the currently running Batman: The Brave & the Bold for example, or Teen Titans & Justice League Unlimited before that. Come to think of it, the last non-Capes & Cowls cartoon I really got into was the deeply weird psychological noir, Big O.

My Top Ten Films Adapted From Novels No# 1: L.A. Confidential Written By James Ellroy

Deemed boastfully by its author the incomparable James Ellroy as uncontainable and unadaptable, L.A. Confidential is quintessentially noir, unmistakably gritty, easily sultry, narrative wise graceful. Adapted by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson and directed by Hanson as well, L.A. Confidential set in early 1950's Los Angeles, the film revolves around three LAPD officers caught up in corruption, sex, lies, and murder following a multiple murder at the Nite Owl coffee shop. Our main characters are as followed Officer Wendell "Bud" White, imposing, violent, feared, protector of women. Sgt. Edmund Exley, the son of a legendary LAPD Inspector, brilliant officer in his own right, determined to out do his father, cold demeanor all contribute to his social isolation from other officers. Sgt. Jack Vincennes, slick as slick can be, technical advisor on the television cop show Badge Of Honor, never saw a bribe he didn't like if it concerned a good narcotics collar, can't remember why he became a cop. Within the action, suspense, and romance, is a wonderful example of character study. These men have made choices in life that haven't been morally acceptable. Within the journey of this story, they are given the opportunity to not invent the wheel in determining what is moral superiority, but just simply do right. This is a film rich in visual aesthetic. The way Chinatown exuded 1930's postwar Los Angeles off the celluloid, L.A. Confidential provides the audience with an equally delicious feast for the eyes.
In a movie like this, there are always the scene stealing supporting characters. Kim Basinger as the Veronica Lake look-a-like Lynn Bracken. David Strathairn as the entrepreneur/pimp Pierce Patchett. Danny DeVito as the sleazy tabloid writer Sid Hudgeons. The list goes on. They all contribute wonderfully to the greatness of this film. I submit to anyone reading this L.A. Confidential is one of the greatest American films ever made. If you've never watched it, give it a chance, you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Hundred Handed Libram

You know what I like? Giant, stupid, over-sized books. Just ridiculous, humongous, nearly unreadable tomes. Makes me feel like a wizard, leafing through these odd trim sizes, these gargantuan volumes. Taschen is a major contributor to this addiction. Sure Taschen might be well known for their picture books of erotica-- or at least, that seems to be a solid mainstay for them. They also make titanic books about fashion! Or alchemy, or antique maps of the night sky! Or bugs, or bats, or-- well, they have all kinds of 'em! Just thinking about the top of my bookshelves, where I have my (oxymoron ahead!) meager giant collection makes me grin. I'm talking stupid big books. Harmonia Macrocosmica is like half a meter by a third of a meter! That's like two feet by a foot, if you are someone who hasn't seen the light of the future & embraced the metric system. Shame on you, by the way. Lately I've been jonsing for these illustrated Book of the New Sun volumes from Centipede Press, the people who made that huge Lovecraft Retrospective. They come in at $225 though, so I can't see myself splurging on all six. I mean, a couple hundred bucks for a mega-delicious vanity purchase I can see, but six of them might be a little too rich for my blood. Still, my heart yearns! It is full of yearning. My giant shelf has some other things; weird art books, small press compendiums of spooky illustrators, that kind of stuff. & yeah, I like it. A lot. I am a warlock in my library filled with grimoires! Sultry, delightful, stupidly bueno gigante books. As much as I'd hate to shelve them in a bookstore, I sure like to not-shelve them at home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I went into this one with expectations and not much else -- like an outbreak of the flu, gushing reviews and name-drops spread over my Google Reader, and I knew I had to read it. It made Time Magazine's top ten list, which is, one supposes, a big deal (they still print magazines?) for genre fiction. The Windup Girl sort of recalls the big fish of cyberpunk fiction in its dense world-building and dystopian almost-future, tracking a half-dozen or so characters across the tumultuous few weeks of a coup d'etat in post-petroleum bubble burst Bangkok, and wins some pretty hefty points both for showing off some very meaty world-building and for not showing off; the novel unravels some of its key background points, but the reader is left to fend for themselves in trying to extrapolate what Bacigalupi means when he talks about "The December 12th Coup" or "THE INCIDENT" in Malaysia, or on the precise means and ends of the calorie companies that make up the spooky boogeyman of the novel. There's a lot of reading between the lines to do, but those of us who dig into that sort of thing will find that Bacigalupi's logic remains pretty consistent.

Still, there's some tangle to cut through -- early chapters put me off a little bit. I mean, I get that your novel is about nationalistic tension and allegory, but when the white protagonist is a greedy, opportunistic wealthy business man, the Chinese protagonist is a shady, slippery middle manager who only refers to the white dude as "foreign devil" (no really!), the Thai character is a jolly, in-your-face former Muay Thai champion (yeah, really!) and the titular Windup Girl is a Japanese bio-engineered super geisha-- it's hard to duck out of calling it a little problematic on a couple of levels; especially in attempting to convey graphic horror in rape scenes (yeah, heads up -- there are a few of those), Bacigalupi leans a little too close to exploitation; I was squicked enough by an early scene that I nearly called it quits on the novel as a whole.

All the same, the novel quits dragging its feet about half-way through, and once it becomes clear that the awkward "Pretty Woman" sub-plot is disposable it picks up. There are some oddities, like a cop-out of an epilogue, a few characters that veer too far into the realm of the cartoony (you'll know him when you meet him) and early subplots that go nowhere (which maybe warrant textual analysis, or which maybe indicate a more expansive, Mieville-ish setting that Bacigalupi is setting up), but once the novel's principle plot of coup d'etat in dystopian future Bangkok gets moving it finds its feet; Bacigalupi's prose is lean and fairly filler-less, and as a triumph of world-building it is, for me, a happier and more intriguing answer to "What comes next after cyberpunk?" than "I guess steampunk comes next!"

The Windup Girl is out now on Night Shade Books.

If you liked A Terrible Book, maybe you'd like This Good Book?

(Image from Unshelved.)

We are in the middle of global distribution's creep. We're seeing corporations delivering rock bottom prices & we're seeing Big Box models like Wal-Mart & Amazon topping even that. Now on one hand, low prices are low prices, right? Hard to argue with that. On another, maybe-- probably-- the Big Box retail models aren't tenable. All that aside, the reality is that Big Players are putting the squeeze on your Friendly Neighborhood, Bookstore. So-- how do the Indies cope?

Well in one big way: knowing what they are talking about. Corporate models are kind of renowned for being soulless machines-- & while I'm sure there are a lot of clerks who know their business, the thing Indies have going in Spades is Book People. If you go into your Local Bookstore & ask for a recommendation, or for help finding something, or for...well, for anything-- you have a small cadre ready to hand-feed you answers. These aren't people just cashing in on a buck; they are people who Want To Be There. Heck, some Local Bookstores even offer hand delivery if you are in the neighborhood.

This is the future, I think, of brick & mortar. People. Knowledgeable people. A big bookstore is going to have the standards: the big sellers. That is just how they work. If, on the other hand, you want something off the beaten path? If you want something that isn't your everyday fluff? Your Friendly Neighborhood Bookstore is the place. Not only can you go there & find copies of the usual suspects, but you'll find that the staff keeps on hand the books they feel passionately about. Heck, so what if Vurt is too small a book for most big chains to keep in stock-- if a staff member at your Local Bookstore cares about that book, he'll keep it on hand. & he will try to hand sell it to you. The strip from Unshelved above is a perfect example of this-- if a customer walks into Shakespeare & Co. saying "I really liked The Da Vinci Code..." the staff-- well, me-- can walk them over to Stephenson comma Neal & say "Why don't you give Cryptonomicon a try?" & that, THAT, is the future of Brick & Mortal. The ability to have specialists-- who most importantly have Opinions-- recommend something to you. So that is my challenge, I think. Next time you go to a bookstore-- ask for a piece of advice. Ask for a recommendation...& then buy it & read it. Then go back & let the bookseller know what you thought. Hey! How about that. You are part of a community!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Alone Cannot It You Resist.

Happy Valentine's Day! Valentine's Day is popularly derided as "an invention of greeting card companies" &c, when in fact it has its whole own crazy past, &--well, if we're talking invented holiday's it is easier to start with stuff like X-mas or Easter; you know, really fake ones. Or for that matter acknowledging that all holidays are made up, since applying arbitrary value to the planet's rotations is, well, silly. Your equinoxes & solstices are at least a little less crazy...anyhow, my point being, I got my wife some nice presents. & then started thinking about Schwa.

The Schwa Corporation is not trying to take over the world. They already have done so. The Schwa Corporation is providing what you want; they are true capitalists. They provide Dominance when you are Submissive; they provide Control when you in Doubt. Calm when you are Happy. Same when you are Other. Pay no attention to the persistent iconography of wide-eyed otherworldly invaders. Pay attention. Hallucination is reality is hallucination is reality. You could be a winner!

If Schwa's message of Soma & Room 101 isn't to your liking, maybe Counter-Schwa (a division of Schwa!) is for you. Counter-Schwa resists Schwa at every turn, & is a fully accredited shareholder in all Schwa activities. With the full support of parent company Schwa, Counter-Schwa is involved in the cutting edge of Resistance Markets. Counter-Schwa will provide you with the tools to Dominate when others are Submissive, to Control those who Doubt, to Calm the Excited, to make others finally see the logic in your arguments. To join you in the struggle against Hated Oppressor (tm) Schwa Corporation.

Schwa is the brainchild of Bill Barker, & has gone through many phases. Bill Barker has issued "Schwa Credit Cards," which, when you mailed them to you, he returned-- with schwag in the bag, such as stickers, post cards, whatever. His real power lies in the ability to perfectly coin slogans with a deeply resonant & recursive message. & that face? The grey alien stare? It is his stylized version that really anchored it into the public mind. Schwa, you see, is bigger than Bill Barker. Bigger than arbitrary days used to control the population to accommodate consumerism & gender segregation. Schwa Is.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Top Ten Films Adapted From Novels No # 2: Up In The Air By Walter Kirn

George Clooney's impressive film resume continues in the form of this year's Oscar nominee for Best Picture Up In The Air. From the novel written by Walter Kirn, Up In The Air takes a look at the life of a corporate down sizer who relishes his life of solidarity. Director Jason Reitman and co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner have made a film filled with pain, humor, regret, and redemption. Its story was reworked to reflect the nation's job crisis and does a very good job, as it intertwines real life people talking about the effect of losing their livelihood has on them personally and psychology. The straw that stirs the drink in this film is George Clooney's persona. He infuses a character, that in the book was a neurotic mess, to a charming sympathetic, empty everyman. He's a man who thinks he is above commitment, but there is always that woman who changes the game. She comes in the form of Alex played by Vera Farmiga. She is Bingham's equivalent in every way including her emptiness which shows in an expected way. Including actors like J.K. Simmons, Danny McBride, Melanie Lynskey, Jason Bateman, Anna Kendrick and Zack Galfianakis, Up In The Air is the movie of the moment. Now is that a good thing, probably not, but it does resonate which is always a plus when involving a film. Only time will tell if this movie holds up twenty years from now.

Modern fiction: Boring or what?

There's an interesting article on the blog of the New York Review of Books called "The Dull New Global Novel" by Tim Parks that posits "authors’ perceptions of who their readers are [are changing], something that inevitably leads to a change in the kind of text they produce". In a reductive nutshell: writers are writing for a more global audience and it makes their books dumber. I disagree with your premise, Mr. Parks!

This may come as a surprise to the people who know me in real life. I have variously been described as a curmudgeon or a "hater" or, less kindly, a total jerk, when it comes to the analysis of contemporary works of fiction. And it's true that if you ask me to start listing the best novels I've ever read, the overwhelming majority of authors on that list will have been dead a very, very long time. But I think that's just because history has a deeper catalog to choose from, as opposed to the list of people who are alive and writing today, February 13, 2010. I'm pretty confident that if I lived in 1904, I'd be saying "Aside from Conrad's Nostromo [which didn't even make Publisher's Weekly 10 best-sellers list] everything else that came out this year was pretty much shit." That's just the way it is. And I am equally confident that the works of, say, Harry Mulisch and Hilary Mantel have entered my own personal canon forever, and will endure long after both they and I are gone from this Earth.

That being said, I don't find the claims and fears of Parks--himself an accomplished novelist and translator--very worrisome, and they seem to me to be the literary equivalent of the miscegenation fears of the 19th century. Yeah, the commercial mushing-together of attitudes maybe lessens the cultural distinctiveness of geographically or culturally separate people, but ... so? It's reasonable to argue the inequity of the mushing, as I think English-language writers have to make few, if any, of the concessions Parks' speaks of to make their works more accessible to foreign readers. But even if we are in fact careening towards a literary dystopia in which separate cultures all become one titanic monoculture, my question is again: So what?

That being said, when I hear things like Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro speaking out on "the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator", it does make me cringe a bit. As a retailer, of course I want writers to create works that are accessible to people, that will enable authors to connect with as wide an audience as possible, and that will insure the writer is reasonably compensated and able to make a living. As a reader and a lover of literature, however, I don't care about any of that. I just want people to create enduring works that take nothing into consideration other than the works themselves. Write big or write ... home. You know what I mean.

Don't get me wrong. I realize that commercial considerations have played a role in virtually all important works of literature created at any time in any language, and to propagate the myth of the "real", "noncommercial" writer is stupid and juvenile. People who write only precisely what they wanted in their first draft and refuse to ever change any of it are not magical towers of integrity, and people who listen to the advice of their editors to make all their characters' names easy to pronounce in English are not sell-outs. Reducing greatness to a checklist of the concessions, for whatever reason, the author is and is not willing to make is a loser's game. It's a moving target and I don't think there's any formula for it other than for authors to only write books they think will be capital "G" Great.

[Image of Winslow Homer's "The New Novel" from Wikimedia Commons.]

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Roll them bones!

Roleplaying books are different than other kinds of books. I mean, really different. I think about it sometimes-- they defy any attempt to link them into another class. There is a strong argument to be made for the roleplaying game as the pinacle of post-modernism, of the exploded novel. Talk about open to interpretation! The roleplaying book will give you the setting, & will give you metatextual ways of resolving narrative, but even sample adventures-- the more narratively laden example-- are devoid of anything you could call a traditional story. The tools for storytelling is taken out of the text & put into the hands of the reader. Readers become the characters, even the narrators of the tale. Wild stuff, & a valid lens to look at the gaming material.

They are like technical manuals, too. I mean, what is in a game book besides reference material? You refer back to it to see how the dice model the technical aspects of a fight, or what rules adjudicate spell casting. This slides into the page-by-page analysis: given how many times you read a page of a RPG book, they really are a spectacular value. Consider that you read a novel once, or maybe even re-read it a few times, then compare it with how many times you'll look at the entry for "elf," or the mechanics of "polymorph." The only other type of book that you go back to that often is a quality text book! Certain segments of the book become more valuable to you at different times-- your Ventrue vampire is going to get a lot more milage out of the rules for Dominate, while your Gangrel will use Protean's crunch.

I can't for the life of me think of anything else like them. & gosh, I didn't even mention the art. I mean, how many artists got their start here, in gaming books? How many flourish in their pages? Art books are a niche market for a lot of buyers, besides children's books &, well, gaming books. Which brings us again to the Role-playing Game as a genre buster.

The First Intergalactic Artform Of The Entire Universe

The Art of Shen Ku, by Zeek

Every now and again something special passes through the shelves here at Kit Marlowe & Company. One of those times is now, because -- holy jeez -- The Art of Shen Ku is amazing. To explain The Art is a little challenging. After all, it's "Simple Enough For A Child -- Too Complex For A Genius," not to mention that it transcends the ultimate barriers of time & space. I haven't even gotten into the governing of all conscious progress in any species anywhere yet, either.

The only way to really explain The Art Of Shen Ku is to imagine what might happen if The Dangerous Book For Boys had been written by Sun Ra and the Wu-Tang Clan instead of two mild-mannered Englishmen with funny last names. (Eds. note: If you haven't heard, The Dangerous Book For Boys and its companion volume, The Daring Book For Girls are both mind-blurringly awesome). The book is basically a compendium of weird bits of how-to -- see also "A Voyager's Guide to Avoiding Parasite Infestations" or "A Sailor's Quick Guide To Splicing," and "How To Execute Basic Judo Throws." There's a little bit of funky pseudo-science -- the column on Occult Numerology, for example -- but most of the guides are spot-on. Need to remove stains? Shen Ku has you covered. Need to reach a heightened state of cosmic awareness? Why, sir, Shen Ku has your back.

Everything's rooted in an oddball mythology surrounding Shen Ku, who is purportedly a traveling immortal of great skill and wisdom. Note that when I say "oddball" I mean "totally effing sweet." It's hard to say how tongue-in-cheek the book is; flipping through it you sort of get the feeling that it's a pastiche of the old adverts in the back pages of comic books, and sometimes you get the feeling that not only does this dude mean every word, he means every word and may be the key to global survival.

As of now we carry the book in stock, and you can get more information about the book and Zeek at The Art of Shen Ku.

Snowday link roundup

It's snowing pretty hard here in Brooklyn, and they've closed down the college next to us, so we have the opportunity to catch up on a lot of work around these parts which is nice. And I've had the opportunity to read through some blogs I've been behind on.

*For some unexplained reason, Life magazine has a slideshow of famous literary substance abusers from throughout the last century or two. That's famous literary drunkard and noted opium enthusiast Charles Baudelaire up there.

*Now that Dante's Inferno has found widespread success as an action video game, Wired suggests 10 more works of classic literature that ought to be turned into video games, although they forgot James Joyce's Ulysses, which I'm pretty sure would be a pretty crazy Wii party game.

*Curious/confused about the aftermath in the fist-fight between and Everybody Else? The superlative Melville House blog has some post-game analysis.

*And speaking of Melville House, apparently one of their authors--Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved--has been declared the messiah by an obscure religious sect?

*Someone loves them as much as me! One of my favorite publishers, NYRB, now has a Tumblr devoted to its terrific design: FUCK YEAH NYRB CLASSICS!! No, seriously, that's actually what it's called.

*Capturing America is a BBC program about how much ass America kicked in the literary world of the 20th century. All the interviews that were conducted for the program are available on BBC Radio.

*In 2015 Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf will be published in Germany for the first time since it was banned there at the end of WWII. I, okay, good for you guys I guess? Every time I remember there are first-world countries that still ban books, I'm always like, Whaaaaat? But then I remember how unique the U.S.'s broad freedoms of press and speech are, even among relatively prosperous postindustrial nations, and I am glad America kicks ass in other ways too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Secret of the Ooze.

(Taken from TMNT & Other Strangeness, by I think Peter Laird.)

Listen, I kind of have to side with xkcd about furries. I don't get it, some of the practitioners are gross, but like-- there is plenty of stuff that people would otherwise be like "Whatever, Dan Savage is cool with it." Like-- the internet is here to make us cosmopolitan & jaded; so get with it. I mention this because, well, I don't usually care about anthropomorphic animals. I mean, there are whole genres, besides the sexualized ones, that capitalize on it. & yeah, I say: whatever. Except when I don't. See, every so clicks in my brain. Or no, you know what; no. It clicks in the universe. The anthropomorphic animal stuff I like just might be perfect. I'm serious: I'm going to tell you the examples that tickle me pink, & you tell me if you think they aren't the best ever, ever.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Now, I'm talking everything. I'm talking the original Eastman & Laird comics, in their parody phase, in their ultraviolent phase, in their ultraweird phase. I'm talking the cartoon, I'm talking the feature film. In all honesty though, I'm mostly talking about the roleplaying game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness & its (totally sweet) spin-off, After the Bomb. The randomized goodness of the TMNT RPG has given me a mutant porcupine assassin & mutant poison dart frog who rode a giant mutant wolf spider. So, so good.

Speaking of comics gold, Usagi Yojimbo. Sure, he was in the TMNT cartoon, but that isn't his genesis. In fact, he's a long running comic figure created by Stan Sakai. Usagi Yojimbo is a samurai. Simple, easy, truthful. He is a ronin who epitomizes bushido. He's great, deadly, honorable, & charming. Reading his comics is like watching Kurisawa.

Of course, it we're talking the comic trifecta of anthrpomorphs, I should mention Cerebus. Cerebus is an aardvark; he's also a Conan spoof. Like TMNT, Cerebus had his awkward parody phase, but he then moved on; in Cerebus' case into a sprawling epic. Of course, the problem here is Dave Sim, the a misogynist. Now, at some level that taints his work; but the flip side is, well, Cerebus is kind of brilliant. Problematic, but worthwhile. Delve in, but keep your salt shaker handy; you are going to need lots of grains of salt. Did I mention that Groucho Marx is in this?

Which brings us to Mouse Guard. Oh swoon-worthy Mouse Guard! What you've got here are tiny little mice, itsy bitsy brave mice! Who, with sword & shield, protect their brother & sister mice. James (of this blog fame!) mentioned that he saw the success of the concept being that once you suspend your disbelief enough to anthropomorphize the mice, you don't need anything else. When a human knight fights a dragon, you've got to make your mind big enough to consider "dragon," & depending on the genre or tone, that raises questions along with assumptions. Now, when a mouse knight fights a snapping turtle...well, you have a much better foundation. You know about mice, you know about snapping turtles. When the mouse fights an owl...well, you know that owls eat mice, don't you?

I want to capstone this talking about a classic; one of my favorites. Watership Down. I was recommended this by Kingtycoon, & would have otherwise never peeked into its pages. I am very glad I did! The rabbits of this novel are barely anthropomorphized; they don't have hands, they aren't particularly smart. They count one, two, three, four, a thousand. The thing is, with a subtle use of constructed languages & lapin mythology, Richard Adams convinces you that these rabbits might not be at all like humans, but they are people. Want to talk about brave? Nobody is braver than Bigwig. Want to talk about smart? How could you be smarter than Blackberry-- he knows that wood floats. Fiver is the greatest prophet of all, & Hazel-rah? Hazel is a true son of the Prince with One Thousand Enemies, the god-totem of the rabbits.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

This Book Is Awesome, See Also: Out Of Its Mind

Let's talk about one of my favorite novels for a second.

The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman doesn't really make any sort of sense to anybody. One supposes it reads as if Monty Python had had a hand in writing David Copperfield, or what might have happened if A) Grant Morrison had been born in the 1700s and B) If continental Europe had access to peyote by that time.

It's an odd nut to crack, even by the standards of comic novels of the time. It's a fictional autobiography in the vein of Copperfield in which the author only ever gets around to his birth. Shortly thereafter, Shandy gets a little sidetracked. It's a tangle of allusion to the literary greats of Sterne's day, but in the most roundabout and obscure of ways; there is satire, but is left Swiftian than a satire of Swift, and -- well, one can imagine how baffling satire of satire might become.

On account of its sheer weirdness, the novel doesn't get taught that often; it's a darling of scholars, but it's not an easy thing to foist upon a college class who might have their hands full with dauntingly dense novels that, you know. Adhere to basic conventions of narrative. Still, every now and then we here and Kit Marlowe spot Shandy on an enterprising class list; but I think it serves best as non-required reading. This right here is the precursor to Burroughs and Palahniuk (well, maybe not the latter, Palahniuk sucks; there, I said it), and it's just the sort of inexplicable experience that you might not want to be led through, unless you're lead through it by somebody awesome. Speaking of which, there's still time to late-add Prof. Carey Harrison's class on the thing, if there's still room. There's probably not, but good luck to you.

Watchmen 2: Electric Buggaloo.

(Charlie Brown Watchmen by Evan Shaner.)

The rumors about Watchmen 2 are seeming to be true. They coincide with Paul Levitz stepping down as President-- Paul Levitz who was very clear on his "no new Watchmen on my watch!" policy. Frankly, I buy it-- it is said to be Dan DiDio's pet project, & frankly, it sounds like him. Unlike other pundits & peanuts on the internet who will just whine about it, I'm trying to think of how you could Sully this disaster to a safe landing in the Hudson. I mean, this is a tricky wicket, touching the venerable monolith & messing with it. Not to mention Moore is going to curse you. I mean, straight up put an evil spell on you. Well, maybe he doesn't go in for black hoodoo, but it is a concern is my point. Gibbons may or may not sign on, but with such overwhelming bad press from the beloved creator, I can see some dark clouds hovering.

One solution, the first solution everyone will reach for, is Grant Morrison. Now, Mister Morrison is a name in his own right, & has the wizardly caliber to put up some decent counterspells & abjurations if Mister Moore declares sorcerous monomacy. & he's shown me that he "gets" the new motif of superheros with his amazing, laudable, excellent in every way All-Star Superman. Seriously, what a piece of art that is. The thing is, he's also shown that he can totally bollocks up a DC mega-event with his confusing, shoddy Final Crisis. So, tricky waters! I say this, then: if you want to try to make Watchmen 2 into a hallmark of the Heroic Age, set it up as a tombstone for the Dark Age that Watchmen started, then get Grant Morrison. If you want to put it up there with Kingdom Come, tell Grant Morrison to get out his epic chops.

The other solution is easier, & maybe...maybe the smart way to go. Just start writing comics about the Watchmen. Put out a Doctor Manhattan comic where you let people like the aforementioned Grant Morrison write weird tales. Let him channel Animal Man or Swamp Thing or Sandman & write a Vertigo Comics house of oddity. Put out a Night Owl in the style of The Sentry, all full of four colour spoofs on the Silver Age. Give Garth Ennis a shot at some Commedian comics. Don't try to make a monumental graphic novel; try to make an awesome line of comics. Come on-- we all know we want to see Doctor Manhattan wrestle The Specter. We all know that the Final Crisis Superman story with Captain Adam should have been about Doctor Manhattan, right? So yeah. Make the Watchmen world one of the "52" Earths. I could live with that.

Or, you know, just ruin everything with bad choices.

(Watchmen Babies from The Simpsons.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Crisis on Infininte Comics!

(image from Lets Be Friends Again.)

In the last post about comics I sort of rambled about the deplorable state of female characters in comic books. Now, I meandered all over the place, but it occurs to me that in comics, as in so many things, your easy heuristic for "is this okay?" can be the Bechdel Rule. I want to shift my stream of consciousness discussion on ye olde funny book strips today, to the "other problem" I alluded to.

First though, let me talk about my history with comics; it is fairly narrow, to be fair. My childhood connection with comics is tenuous, at best. There was a fair chunk of Bronze Age comics left from some abandoned childhood when I was growing up-- notably, old Metal Men issues & a few of the less-weird Man-Thing floppies. I was given a few comics here & there to shut up me; random issues with no continuity-- Supreme #4 or one of the X-comics with Stryfe in it. My point being, I didn't really have a connection to comics. I wasn't a collector, a hoarder, a reader, even. Sure, I liked Batman, but I didn't know enough about comics to realize how much better Superman was than Batman (he's better. If you don't think so, know that I understand, but you are wrong). I played the Marvel Superheroes Role Playing Game with all its Stupendous! Amazing! Shift Z! feats, & while I knew that Captain America had his unbreakable shield, & that Black Panther lived in Wakanda, I didn't really know it, in that visceral part of my bones. I was a gamer geek, not a comics nerd.

When I was in Junior High, I convinced my Gifted class to go to a lecture at the local university about J.R.R. Tolkien. It was there where I first heard the names Alan Moore & Neil Gaiman invoked. I scoffed. "Sandman?" I said, "that lame Spider-man villain with the stupid shirt?" Which marks my turn into Vertigo. How I slipped into the graphic novel web! Sandman took all the pocket change out of my...well, my pocket. A summer of back of house work at a steak house, gone! Watchmen started explaining WHAT I was reading in the first place. It started coming together, but still, I was just dilettanting around. Nothing particular, nothing special. I knew a couple of big names, just a bandwagon fan! I started borrowing weirder stuff, like Cerebus, but was still lurking in the fringes.

At Shakespeare & Co., when I first started working there, there weren't any comics. Maybe a copy of Watchmen, but that was the start & finish of it. Still, one day the imp of the perverse came upon me. I ordered a slew, a whole shelf worth of comics! I had been talking about them with some of the other Shakers, & we'd started looking up the confusing pedigree of people like Klaw on Wikipedia. Madness-- just madness. So I ordered a shelf of comics...& they sold! So I slowly infringed on another shelf, till I'd nurtured two shelves. & at this point, I was reading the trade paperbacks, really getting into it. JACK KIRBY! He blew my mind. Still does. I was paying my dues, reading the old classics & the new. Two shelves grew & grew until it took over a whole book case. Nice, choice, shibby! & then David & Peter started buying floppies, & I started mooching reads off them; suddenly we were not only rooted in the fundamentals, but current & up to date? We had opinions about the greatest & the worst!

Oh man, did I forget to talk about problems again? Oh well. Next time!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I read a lot of blogs. I read a lot of blogs about...everything. I read a lot of blogs about nothing. Heck, I remember when blogs used to be called e/n websites, which stood for everything/nothing. Remember that? Heck I remember when the computer whistled at you, I know the secrets of atdt, I know the passwords to sooth the angry bbs! I know the haunted bones of the internet. Well, in the spirit of revisting the concept behind the webcomic post I wrote, I thought I'd speak about some of the blogs I read. Now, I'm all new fangled & sparkly, & run these things through my feed aggregator, but I went through the trouble to fish them out & write up a little blurb about them. In case you were curious what you were missing.

The Force is Strong is a quirky picture blog about everyone's favorite Space Opera, Star Wars. Number One is a blog...of pictures...of Commander William T. Riker. RetroFuturism is a blog about yesterday's tomorrow. The Faking Hoaxer makes fake UFO & space disaster videos that defy incredulity. Gamæcca is the research blog of author Nicola Griffith, whose blog blog is also worth reading. Worm-stung God is the epic Norse translation blog you've been waiting for! Strange Maps is a bunch of...weird...maps. BiblioOdyssey is a massive collection of gorgeous images. The Morae River is a stunning exploration of fictional flora & fauna.

Raising a Psychopath is a blog about raising your kid. When he's a psychopath. For real. Tiny Art Director is a father being yelled at, adorably, by his daughter. Brazen Careerist is the advice column slash blog of Penelope Trunk, who, as a woman with Asperger's, sees the world just akilter enough to help it make sense. Savage Love is the sex advice blog everyone you kno reads. Slacktivist writes a blog about politics, religion, & the occasional indepth review of the Left Behind books. Derren Brown is a noted mentalist, & he & his team update this blog.

Bai Ling is...more dada than Dada, more surreal than Sir Real. Jezebel is a Gawker blog marginally about feminism. io9 is a Gawker blog marginally about science fiction. Gothamist is the New York City blog everyone reads. Best Week Ever is a big ole media mashup. Playing DnD with Porn Stars is exactly what it says it is, & actually a good gaming blog, to boot. Vaguely NSFW but not actually pr0n. Haute Macabre is a gothy fashion blog full of awesome outfits.