Category Archives: Books

Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2016,’ Editor, Roz Chast; Series Editor, Bill Kartalopoulos

Reading "Best American Comics 2016" on the train.

Reading “Best American Comics 2016” on the train.

I read this year’s Best American Comics on the train and I loved it all the more for doing so–but more on that later. Bill Kartalopoulos is the series editor and this year’s editor is Roz Chast. Even if you think you don’t know enough about the contemporary American comics scene, you probably know Roz Chast’s work in The New Yorker. So nothing to worry about, even Roz Chast doesn’t think of herself as exceptionally knowledgable about the current comics scene. However, Bill Kartalopoulos knew right away that, no matter how splintered the comics scene may be, here was a legendary cartoonist, with a wealth of experience, insight, and a very special kind of irreverence. This book is a guide through the best of American comics from someone with just the right sensibility to add to the journey. And what a journey it will be kicked off by the artwork of Marc Bell on the cover, as well as within the pages!

From "Stroppy" by Marc Bell

From “Stroppy” by Marc Bell

The path begins with a forward by Kartalopoulos which explains how we got here from there and what sort of comics we are focusing upon. For the most part, the focus is on comics that have come to be known as alternative comics, or alt-comics. These are comics that fall well within comics as an art form. While genre comics occasionally rise to the level of art, that is not their main purpose. So, as I have maintained, it is useful to be able to separate comics within two main groups: genre and the alternative to genre. There is crossover (which is great when it happens and can be quite interesting), but, in general, art comics are on one side and superhero and various other genre comics are on the other side. So, while it is possible, you will usually not see the likes of Batman or Spider-Man in Best American Comics–even if that just doesn’t seem right somehow.

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine's "Killing and Dying."

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.”

Roz Chast’s introduction provides some clues as to what comics would appeal to her. Considering what she chose to include in the book, she is mostly intrigued by wry humor and in-depth autobiographical work. She says she’s not a prude but that if work gets misogynistic, that makes her sad. And she’s open to just about anything, even willing to go back to a comic that she wasn’t sure about at first. Chast does not categorize her selections. You just start reading. First up, is an excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s celebrated collection, “Killing and Dying.” In this excerpt from the title story, I can only imagine Chast’s love for zany humor telling her this is the piece to set the tone for the rest of the book: a story about a father struggling with his daughter’s sudden desire to be a stand-up comic.

Misfits band together in Chris Ware's "The Last Saturday."

Misfits band together in Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.”

Along with Adrian Tomine there are other clear choices to include: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, among others. But the treat is that they are set within the context of choices that Chast came to make. That fact adds another layer to one’s enjoyment of a story about struggling misfits by Chris Ware. And, it is quite true, there are so many comics out there that you cannot keep up with all of them. It does seem best to find a way to hook in and make some sense of things using different approaches each year. To that end, series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos has settled into taking a long view of things. Ideally, you don’t just read one Best American Comics annual but you keep up with it each year to find out what has made an impression and how it may fit into the current wave. What novelist Johnathan Lethem did as editor last year is different from what comics historian Scott McCloud did the year before.

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry's "Syllabus."

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.”

By the time I reached Lynda Barry’s story about coming to terms with a cartoonist’s goals and how to impart that wisdom unto students, I had a good sense of what Chast was going for. It provided me with a way to hook into everything else. And it was about that time that the rocking motion of the train added more resonance, especially as I patiently followed along lines of Barry’s handwritten writing reproduced from a notebook page. Both the train and the handwriting asked me to take my time. Earlier in my reading, I had been picking up on the fact that there is so much going on around you while riding in a train and how that is true for comics.

Barry brings up a challenging question: Just how long does it take to draw something? Well, it all depends. In the end, a good cartoonist develops a keen sense for this. It’s a variation of the old saw, When is a painting finished? So many art students have suffered from callous professors who dismiss work as simply unfinished. But, on the other hand, so many art professors have suffered from callow and impatient students who demand a checklist for assignment requirements. You cannot create anything, especially art, from a checklist! Time. It all takes time. So, in “Syllabus,” Barry sums it all up with, “Rushing it is missing it!” It is that standard that is maintained by all the cartoonists included here.

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

Cartoonists of this caliber are meticulous note-takers and obsessive in the best sense of the word. Among these type of cartoonists included in this book is an excerpt from “Adults Only” by Lance Ward. Ward states that he works directly on pre-made panels, without preliminary drawings, so that he can best attack his work. This runs counter to the Barry dictum of measured craftsmanship. However, Ward’s obsessive quality wins out. This is in the same spirit as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ward has gotten to the point where he has hit enough marks to know, on an intuitive level, where the marks will end up. The work has a spare and energetic look to it. Ward is recounting his misadventures working in a porn shop. That is the point of departure for his delving into struggles with his sexuality. A more free-form style could not have been invented for him. A cartoonist can try to minimize or maximize their style but, usually a certain way of doing things falls into place.

"Bike Fast" by Sophia Zdon

“Bike Fast” by Sophia Zdon

Ward, along with other rising talents included here such as Sophia Zdon, has found what works. Zdon, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in 2015, provides heartfelt observations as if out of dreams.

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie" by Casanova Frankenstein

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie” by Casanova Frankenstein

One of the most raw and honest expressions in comics comes from Casanova Frankenstein. In an excerpt from “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie,” he confides in the reader about a tumultuous life.

Panel excerpt from "Fatherland" by Nina Bunjevac

Panel excerpt from “Fatherland” by Nina Bunjevac

An excerpt from “Fatherland,” by Nina Bunjevac, published by W.W. Norton, provides insights into a peculiar and dangerous life in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II.

From "Fashion Cats" by Alex Schubert

From “Fashion Cats” by Alex Schubert

Alex Schubert‘s “Fashion Cat” is a hilarious look at the misadventures of a feline hipster, originally published in Blobby Boys 2 by Koyama Press.

From "El Deafo" by Cece Bell

From “El Deafo” by Cece Bell

Cece Bell‘s “El Deafo,” published by Abrams, is quite a captivating story about a little girl coming to terms with being deaf and how to navigate the world. The story is given an added lift by the nicely modulated coloring by David Lasky.

"Don't Leave Me Alone" by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone” by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone,” by GG, is a dream-like compilation of growing up with fear and uncertainty in an intolerant and hostile world.

From "Blanket Portraits" by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

From “Blanket Portraits” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

And then there are those comics that are simply transcendent–and can best inform us on the integrity and purpose of the comics medium. “Blanket Portraits,” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum, is a visual essay on a lifetime’s appreciation for blankets, their beauty and comfort, and what they symbolize. Geneviève passed away on July 9, 2016 from pancreatic cancer. As Bill Kartalopoulos states in a postscript, what made her comics unique was that they were “entirely expressive of who she was.”

The Best American Comics 2016

The Best American Comics 2016

“The Best American Comics 2016” includes the work of 30 cartoonists. It is a full-color hardcover, available as of October 4, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Best American Comics proves to be an essential and inspiring guidebook. As I say, Bill Kartalopoulos has taken the long view. You’ll definitely want to read this year’s edition and make it a habit to keep up with this most distinctive collection.

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Filed under Art, Art books, Bill Kartalopoulos, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Marc Bell, Roz Chast, The Best American Comics, The New Yorker

Interview: Bob Proehl and ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’

Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl

A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS, the debut novel by Bob Proehl, is a beautiful and quirky book mixing pop culture satire with a compelling family journey. It is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Read my review here.

“For all its acrobatic wit and outsize charm, at its heart this is the love story of two everyday heroes–a mother and son–who, like their author, possess the superpower of storytelling. A ‘Cavalier & Clay’ for the Comic-Con age, ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ is a bighearted, inventive, exuberant debut.”

–Eleanor Henderson, author of “Ten Thousand Saints”

BOB PROEHL grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his local comics shop was Queen City Bookstore. He has worked as a bookseller and programming director for Buffalo Street Books, a DJ, a record store owner, and a bartender. He has written for the 33⅓ book series and worked as a columnist and reviewer for the arts and culture site PopMatters.com. Proehl currently lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife, stepson, and daughter. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview.

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Filed under Bob Proehl, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Fiction, Penguin Random House, pop culture, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ by Bob Proehl

"A Hundred Thousand Worlds" by Bob Proehl

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds” by Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl is in touch with the natural, yet complex, details of a mother and son relationship. In Proehl’s debut novel, he has Valerie Torrey face the bittersweet transition of her son, Alex, leaving behind childhood and quite literally having to say goodbye to his mom. It’s complicated but, in this case, inevitable.

Alex Torrey is a nine-year-old boy who hasn’t seen his dad, Andrew, in six years. In Alex’s world, his dad is three things: an actor in Los Angeles; a movie star he can see on TV; and, just for fun, the character he plays, a time traveling secret agent. It was Valerie who made the reckless decision to kidnap her son and raise him in New York. Now, Val seems to want to make things right by reuniting Alex with Andrew. Throw in an assortment of superheroes, monsters, and robots, and you have the engaging debut novel by Bob Proehl, “A Hundred Thousand Worlds,” published by Viking.

This story hangs together very well on the tiny frame of nine-year-old Alex, who is at that magical age of still being very much a child and yet capable of profound observation. He is a character type that has been brilliantly employed in some great fiction from such diverse writers as Günter Grass, John Irving, and Jonathan Safran Foer. So, Proehl has created his very own charming and sad little imp. Alex questions everything. He has certain rituals he follows to help him find answers like reversing the letters to various names hoping to tap into some hidden meaning. It makes no sense to an adult but follows kid logic. From this heartbreaking innocence we can compare our own journey to self-discovery.

Valerie met Andrew while the two were starring in the hit sci-fi series, “Anomaly.” The mystery is what triggered Valerie to run away with Alex to New York. Proehl sets in motion a clever device to get Valerie, Andrew, and Alex reunited. Six years of separation from his father has taken its toll on Alex, a situation crying out for resolution. Valerie leverages her pop culture status and picks up some appearances on the comic book convention circuit, enough to cover her expenses on her odyssey with Alex, from New York back to Los Angeles. Along the way, we get plenty of jokey references to the comic book industry, many which will be appreciated by diehard fans.

Proehl’s work is ambitious as he juggles numerous pop culture references while developing something deeper. He does a wonderful job of straddling the lighthearted accessibility of a young adult novel with the richer field of literary fiction. Valerie, for example, is quite compelling as a flawed character. Andrew has made some obvious bad choices but Valerie has much to work out like her smothering overprotective nature.

Proehl knows how to satirize pop culture quite well. It is remarkable that he also knows how to evoke the qualities that attract us to mass entertainment. Nothing is ever so simple, not a divorce, not a child, not even a comic book.

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds Hardcover” is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, available as of June 28, 2016. For more details, visit Penguin Random House right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Comic-Con, Comics, pop culture, Superheroes

Book Review: ‘Disappearance at Devil’s Rock: A Novel’ by Paul Tremblay

"Disappearance at Devil's Rock" by Paul Tremblay

“Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” by Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay’s latest novel, “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock,” rings true with elements of a boy’s adventure tale mixed with a crime mystery that takes one devilish turn after another. Gradually, the heat is turned up and, like any good work of horror, you get hooked. Taking a different approach from Tremblay’s 2015 novel, “A Head Full of Ghosts,” this new novel does not go in spooky right away.

This is a tale of a boy gone missing. Tommy is a well-liked teenager, with swagger and good looks, but he normally keeps a low profile. He has two best friends in all the world, Josh and Luis, and he treats them rather shabbily. Boys will be boys. What becomes apparent is that Tommy is a complicated kid. There is something strange and sad about him.

The dynamic between the three boys shifts when Arnold, a young man of indeterminate age, ingratiates himself into the trio. Arnold reveals he has psychic powers. This leads Tommy to open up about his struggle with dealing with his father’s death. Luis senses something not quite right about Arnold. Our story begins with the disappearance of Tommy at Split Rock, known to the locals as “Devil’s Rock.” From there, the narrative alternates between the search for Tommy and moments in the past that indicate Tommy was not as strong as he thought and quite vulnerable to the Devil’s charms.

Favoring an enigmatic route, Tremblay invests a good amount of time in developing the characters closest to Tommy like his mother and sister. Some of the strongest scenes involve them trying to make sense of what’s happened. It’s like the foreboding flashbacks belong to the males and the present problem-solving belongs to the females. In both cases, the Devil is not far behind. As is made clear in a folktale that Arnold recites, the Devil has a funny way of making his presence known. You will sense him but not exactly see him, only for a glimmer in the corner of your eye.

“Disappearance at Devil’s Rock,” is a 336-page hardcover published by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins and available as of June 21st. For more details, visit Harper Collins right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Harper Collins, Horror, Paul Tremblay, Satan

Preview: MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE is a new project that I want to share with you. It is an illustrated novel by Jennifer Daydreamer and Henry Chamberlain. This is a dark comedy about Seattle that will be coming out later this year. More details to follow. Here is a synopsis along with an excerpt.

What It’s About:

Seattle, 2014. Mack Stuckey is stuck in a rut. He’s twenty-three-years-old, still lives at home, hates his job and has no girlfriend.

Mack is a blue collar type with a penchant for books. He’s from a family of fishermen and lives in a neighborhood called Ballard. He has to work in Fremont, a tech hub, where he’s a lowly security guard at the giant game conglomerate, Game Needle.

Mack stumbles into a friendship with the suave Devon Rush, one of the high-powered suits at Game Needle. Things are looking up in his life until he realizes Devon’s new romantic conquest is the girl he’s falling for, none other than the beautiful Jupiter Fellows.

Jupiter is one of Fremont’s most alluring hippies. As the two guys compete for her, Mack’s life becomes a roller coaster. Before they know it, Jupiter cajoles Mack and Devon to partake in a threesome.

Mack Stuckey’s Guide to the Center of the Universe is a dark comedy exploring the new realities in our economic times. There’s plenty of sex and foul language, therefore, FOR MATURE READERS ONLY.

Mack Stuckey stuck in a rut.

Mack Stuckey stuck in a rut.

Excerpt:

The siren sounds. I stare at the bridge. The skies, the mountains, the waters, are all a thick painted grey. I run, head down, as if the clouds are pressing against me. Shadows descend. My vision darkens. I know a storm will hit.

Washington State is a tease. The truth is it does not rain much here; we are just taunted with pregnant skies for months on end. And, yes, you will hear this fact about the weather in every Tom and Dick book out there about Seattle. But most of you don’t read, so I’m filling you in.

It’s grey most of the year and when the rain decides to happen it happens in annoying spurts as its usually polite fucking rain. Like it will start to rain in the evening when most people are lucky enough to be home from work. Or it will rain like hell in the middle of the night, where you are warm and dry and can hear the motherfucker lighting and all, from the safety of your home.

If you’re lucky and your roof doesn’t leak, you can enjoy thinking of all the greenery and how the rain is, you know, a supernatural phenomenon, because the pounding on your rooftop and on the ground, is FUCK YEAH UNBELIVABLE.

It gets your mind spinning at night, a rain to meet head on with in a forest, like you’re Indiana Jones. But you’re not Indiana Jones. You’re a fat lazy twenty-three-year-old fuck, a bear, lying in bed, in your mom’s old faded blue home, fantasizing about Indiana fucking Jones, running and slipping and jumping in the jungle and the rain and all. You’re wide awake from drinking too much coffee that day and therefore you’re an irresponsible lazy ass northern bear not getting enough sleep for the job you gotta go to tomorrow.

But, right here, right now, on top of the Aurora Bridge while I frantically blow my whistle as uncaring cars drive by puffing exhaust into my face, the rain turns the oil on the road into nasty slick circles which makes me slip.

I go down.

The cops descend on me, lift me up off the ground, chide me that I’m not one of them and then nudge me along back to my job. I’m not one of them alright.

I’m a lousy security guard. Deflated, I walk back to work in a downpour.

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Filed under Books, Henry Chamberlain, Humor, Jennifer Daydreamer, Satire, Seattle

Book Review: WEED: THE USER’S GUIDE by David Schmader

"Weed: The User's Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana" by David Schmader

“Weed: The User’s Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana” by David Schmader

With cannabis, you have a loaded subject, so to speak. Bringing up marijuana can often elicit nervous giggles. And people usually don’t know what they are giggling about. It’s time for all of us, especially government, to grow up. As cannabis continues to go mainstream, all of us, users and nonusers, need to get better educated on a very misunderstood plant. Over time, the general public will come to accept the many medical benefits derived from cannabis. What is more challenging is for everyone to enter a parallel universe where cannabis is accepted, integrated into our lives, and its use is common knowledge. To that end, one of the very best cannabis books as of late is “Weed: The User’s Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana” by David Schmader, published by Sasquatch Books.

The good news is that, for responsible folks, easy accessibility to weed should be a relatively easy transition. Retail sales of cannabis in Washington state, for example, are already geared to an older, and supposedly wiser, demographic. These are going to be, by and large, people who have a stake in the community and are basically going to do the right thing, so to speak. They will buy some weed and treat it in the way they would having a glass of wine on the weekend. Well, that is one ideal scenario. Schmader’s book covers not only this neat and tidy group but all of us. People can overdo it. People can go blindly into something. You know, all of us.

What I really love about this book is that, along with being entertaining, it is so honest in its approach. Hey, if weed it not for you, well then, that’s totally valid. Here is a great example of Mr. Schmader’s accessible and natural tone running throughout this essential book:

“Weed’s pleasurable effects are brought on by cannabinoids’s disruption of the brain’s neural messaging–but “disrupting neural messaging” is an imprecise art, and different strains in different brains can create effects that cross the line from pleasant and fascinating to itchy and weird. For example, the neuron-disruption that some users experience as expanded consciousness can trap others in a cul-de-sac of hypercritical introspection, and one person’s THC-driven explosion of creative ideas can be another person’s panic attack. The truth is that a good number of people who try weed experience predominately unpleasant effects, from intense anxiety to racing heart rates to crippling self-consciousness, and if you are one of these people, it is your right to never try weed again, no matter how persuasively it’s pitched to you. Think of it like coffee: Some love it and can’t imagine life without it, while others drink it and become insomniacs with diarrhea.”

The above quote is part of the sensible approach that is much needed as the discussion on cannabis moves forward. It is insightful to use the coffee analogy. If a person picks that apart, it might prove to be a useful reference point. The consumption of cannabis can be a challenge to compare to something else or describe in an objective way. Supporters will cite that no one has died from overusing it. However, misuse of it will mess you up just like beer, wine, or even coffee, can trash you in their own unique ways.

As a connoisseur, Schmader is good at not mincing words and getting to the point. Among numerous insightful factoids, you’ll learn one of the best weed hacks is to eat a mango before getting high. Both cannabis and mangoes have the chemical compound, myrcene, which speeds the delivery of THC to the brain. Schmader provides straightforward instruction on everything from how to use a bong to how to turn an apple into a pipe. You’ll get acquainted with a “green hit,” the first draw from a freshly packed bowl. You’ll get helpful suggestions on dose levels. And you’ll get cut-above recipes like his instructions on how to make your own tinctures.

Given the chance, some people would eat a whole chocolate cake. Thanks to David Schmader’s book, you can see how you can avoid eating the whole cake and still have a fun party.

“Weed: The User’s Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana” is a 208-page paperback. For more details, visit Sasquatch Books right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Cannabis, David Schmader, Marijuana, Sasquatch Books

Review: ‘Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe’ by Thomas Ligotti

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

The manipulating of elements in a story is always crucial, especially in a work invested in raising a level of suspense. Thomas Ligotti knows this like the back of his hand. Ligotti, as horror stylist of the first rank, knows what to deliver to a contemporary audience. We think, at times, that we can easily step in and write horror stories ourselves. Ligotti invites you to try. Like Lovecraft, and others, he provides notes on the art of horror. In the end, you settle in and read a Ligotti story, then another, and you come to realize that the man is devilishly good at what might, at first, seem like such familiar ground.

Take, for instance, “The Frolic,” the first story in this Ligotti collection by Penguin Random House. “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” came out last year and brings together some of Ligotti’s best work. The publication coincided nicely with HBO’s Ligotti-tinged first season of “True Detective.” Now, in “The Frolic,” we have a neatly-pressed family who have just moved into the neighborhood. The father is a well-regarded psychologist who has taken a position at the nearby prison. He is married to a charming woman and they have an equally charming young daughter. The only problem seems to be that one of the convicts that our main character treats is highly psychotic and is fixated on him. There is every reason to believe that this fiend is safely locked away but there is also reason to believe he is capable of anything. Everything pivots upon the introduction into the family’s home of an intricately sculpted bust of a boy’s head.

Thomas Ligotti Penguin Random House

Time and again, Ligotti lures us in. Consider “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum.” In this story, we deal with the penultimate horror trope: the haunted house on the hill. But the devil is in the details. These are not mere ghosts, if that is what they are, and these entities aren’t satisfied with just a perch from where to sit and observe. Ligotti keeps the reader off balance by supplying bread crumbs of information until we’re so deep in we cannot turn away. Consider “The Last Feast of Harlequin” about Mirocaw, a little town meant to go unnoticed. However, its winter festival is so unusual that it catches the attention of a persistent academic. Mirocaw has no choice but to gradually reveal itself.

Ligotti’s distinctive use of language is a mixture of ornate/contemporary. This highly theatrical style would fall apart with a lesser talent. But just the right curious turn of phrase and enigmatic description can engage the reader. You can pause, at random, and find a compelling passage spiked with the Ligotti sytle:

“The tone of voice in which he posed this question was both sardonic and morose, carrying undesirable connotations that echoed in all the remote places where truth had been shut up and abandoned like a howling imbecile. Nonetheless, I held to the lie.”

There’s been a march away from the sort of traditional gothic horror of H.P. Lovecraft for many decades now. But, in the right hands, the sinister and the macabre can indeed thrive amid the foggy moors in the spirit of Poe. Dark fantasy is at the mercy of Ligotti as he can satirize it and embrace it at will.

“Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” is a 464-page paperback published by Penguin Random House. Find more details right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Dark Fantasy, H.P. Lovecraft, Horror, Penguin Random House, Thomas Ligotti, Weird Fiction

Review: CAPTAIN AMERICA vs. IRON MAN: Freedom, Security, Psychology

Superheroes at Odds

Superheroes at Odds. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

What is most important to us? Freedom or security? Can both coexist? What if national security is involved? We have been grappling with this dilemma anew since 9/11. The current hit movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” pits superheroes in a bloody battle: Iron Man defending national security; Captain America defending individual freedom. “Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology,” published by Sterling, is a thought-provoking collection of ten essays exploring these very issues. One easy-going Sunday, Jen and I made our way to Miir, a favorite local coffee shop and store. We relaxed, chatted, and I put this review together.

Reading "Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology"

Reading “Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology”

Such basic issues as security and freedom naturally make their way into the often engaging world of superhero comics. Some readers dismiss superhero comics as just a genre full of capes and tights. But, as I always feel compelled to point out: Follow the story, not just the superhero! Always take note of who is writing the script! Because, without a doubt, compelling stories are there to be told. Mark Millar’s original comic book script for Marvel Comics is an exploration of this conflict between freedom and security. Congress passes a law requiring all superheroes to register just like any other law enforcement officer. Captain America is against such limits to his actions. Iron Man supports the new law, even if it leaves him at odds with Cap. And so you end up with a classic in the superhero genre.

Now, let’s place these two battling warriors on the psychiatrist’s coach. What are the root causes behind Iron Man battling Captain America? A Freudian could see this dispute as symbolizing the battle waged by the superego and the id to control the mind’s ego. And, since this is Freud, this would also be about masculine sexual competition. This is how we begin one of the essays to be found here, “Punching Hitler: Symbols in Red, White, Blue, and Gold.” It is written by the book’s editor, Dr. Travis Langley, and Tommy Cash. This essay represents the concise insight to be found in the rest of the book, steadily building from one idea to the next.

So, what further motivates this conflict? This strikes at the core beliefs of each character. Captain America originated during World War II and embraces America’s hopes and ideals of that era. Iron Man originated during the Vietnam War and cynically embraces the military industrial complex, “all the things the hippies hated,” for the sake of a greater good. You take those two symbols of heroism, Langley and Cash argue in their essay, and see how they clash with the contemporary framework of the War on Terror. You have the stage set for conservative fans on the side of Iron Man; and liberal fans on the side of Captain America. Each character represents a charged symbol, a distinctive way of seeing America and the world, one an ideal, one a reality.

The MiiR Flagship store in Seattle

The MiiR Flagship store in Seattle

Well, I hope this provides you with an intriguing taste of what to expect from this unique book. I was so happy to take the time out for this review and the setting I chose for my reading could not have been better. You see, MiiR is part of something really special. You could say they take individual freedom, and responsibility, very seriously. It all began with the goal of creating the perfect bottle and Miir did just that plus so much more. MiiR keeps giving back every step of the way. Each MiiR item you purchase directly supports a project helping those in need around the world. Hmm, talk about super powers! Check them out right here.

“Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology” is a 192-page paperback. For more details, visit Sterling Publishing right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Captain America, Comics, Iron Man, Mark Millar, Marvel Comics

Book Review: ALGORITHMS TO LIVE BY: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Pondering the Explore/Exploit Algorithm. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Pondering the Explore/Exploit Algorithm.
Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

If you can think it, there’s most likely an algorithm for it. With a wry humor running throughout, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths navigate the interconnections between computer science and human activity in the newly released, “ALGORITHMS TO LIVE BY: The Computer Science of Human Decisions,” published by Henry Holt and Company. You come to find that many of life’s golden rules actually have proven methodology. So, in a sense, this book is a self-help book, just a particularly resourceful one using algorithms.

Algorithms. The steps involved in solving a problem. We remember them from high school algebra. We accept them as part of our reality with computers. And, as Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths explain, they relate to everyday life in more ways than you may have expected. In fact, many of life’s decisions could benefit from considering an applicable algorithm. Perhaps the most compelling is the question of finding a life’s partner. While computer scientists may not be specifically finding better ways to manage your love life, you’d be surprised at how math can play a role as matchmaker.

Optimal Stopping: Knowing When to Stop Looking and Start Choosing

Optimal Stopping: Knowing When to Stop Looking and Start Choosing

It’s called the 37 Percent Rule. And, while only correct 37 percent of the time, this algorithm can prove helpful when making a variety of significant decisions. This is also known as, “optimal stopping,” or knowing when to stop looking and start choosing. Computer scientists offered a quaint scenario, “The Secretary Problem.” Christian and Griffiths explain, if you are interviewing a bunch of applicants for a job as a secretary, proceed about a third of the way through; afterwards, be ready to decide moving forward based on what you know. You can see how that would apply to looking for a new apartment and even looking for a new mate!

Christian and Griffiths offer you 11 of these algorithms applicable to real life. Okay, let’s consider another example. Let’s keep in mind that, during a search, you reach a point when you’ve gathered enough data and a continued search can be seen as both redundant as well as confirming what you know. Computer science offered another quaint scenario, “The Multi-armed Bandit Problem.” The idea here is also something of a wait and see game. You can also call it “explore/exploit.” For example, in youth, you explore what life has to offer; in your mature years, you exploit what you have learned. Take that advice to your local casino and, who knows, you might win a payout: try a bunch of slot machines for a while; later, focus on the ones that seem to suggest to you, based upon your exploration, that they’re worth further gambling.

"ALGORITHMS TO LIVE BY: The Computer Science of Human Decisions"

“ALGORITHMS TO LIVE BY: The Computer Science of Human Decisions”

Sure, some of the correlations can seem rather tongue-in-cheek. Should you depend upon an algorithm to help you find a mate? Well, how about when finding a parking space? Keep looking, perhaps you need help with sorting, scheduling, or breaking a bad habit. We seek order out of chaos and this unique book offers some refreshing ways to create some order.

“ALGORITHMS TO LIVE BY: The Computer Science of Human Decisions” is a 368-page book available in hardcover, paperback, and as an e-book. For more details, visit Henry Holt and Company.

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Filed under Algorithms, Book Reviews, Books, Brian Christian, Computer Science, Computers, Henry Holt and Company, Psychology, Self-Help, Tom Griffiths

Book Review: REFOCUSING CHAPLIN

The Little Tramp off into the sunset. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

The Little Tramp off into the sunset. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Aristotle speaks of the mimesis of the first order and the mimesis of the second order. When creating art, the goal is to distance oneself from the source. Mimesis of the first order is simply art imitating nature. Mimesis of the second order is art perfecting nature and turning it into something transcendent. That rule is certainly at play in the work of Charlie Chaplin. As Marco Grosoli points out in his essay on Chaplin, this was an artist keenly aware of his myth and in a unique position to go on to make great art from that myth. Marco Grosoli’s fascinating essay is part of a collection of essays from various writers on one of the masters of cinema, “Refocusing Chaplin,” published by Rowman & Littlefield.

There may never be another artist quite like Charlie Chaplin. However, his influence and relevance continues to evolve. And so that gives this collection of essays a great sense of urgency. In the same way that an artist of the first rank like Ray Bradbury could have anticipated social media some fifty years ago, so too did Charlie Chaplin foresee the power of a meme in a career that began over one hundred years ago. To say that Charlie Chaplin was beyond famous is an understatement. He reached the level of myth. It is not short of phenomenal that he continued to grow as an artist through a career that spanned the evolution of cinema.

Chaplin in 1941's "The Great Dictator"

Chaplin in 1940’s “The Great Dictator”

In Marco Grosoli’s essay, he examines the friction between two formidable myths in Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” from 1940. By then, Chaplin was more than ready to leverage some of his celebrity for the sake of his art. The timing could not have been more perfect. The difference between the myth of Hitler and Chaplin could not have been more extreme. As Grosoli indicates, Chaplin was not merely imitating Hitler. Chaplin was channeling the myth of Hitler. In that respect, Chaplin was getting at a greater truth. In a work that deeply explores the power of meme, Chaplin plays both the role of Dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a Jewish barber who looks identical to Hynkel. Dictator and barber are, in a sense, interchangeable. In the proper costume and context, everyone accepts whatever the Jewish barber has to say, dressed as Hynkel, even if it is the total opposite of what Hynkel would say. Push two extremes together, Grosoli suggests, and they strangely equate each other, form a perfect nothingness.

"Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon Through Critical Lenses"

“Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon Through Critical Lenses”

Essays in this collection feature a wide spectrum of themes including Marxism, feminism, gender studies, deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, new historicism, performance studies, and cultural criticism. This critical study covers a wide reach of films including The Circus (1928), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952). This collection proves to be a valuable resource on one of the leading masters of cinema.

“Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon through Critical Lenses” is a 250-page hardcover, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Visit them right here.

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Filed under Art, Book Reviews, Books, Charlie Chaplin, Critical Studies, film, Hollywood, movies, pop culture, Rowman & Littlefield