What I’m Reading: December 7, 2018

I always have a number of books on the go for one reason or another. Why not share?

Fiction: At the moment, I’m reading superhero comic books (gee, I wonder why?) and I’m mostly making use of my Marvel Unlimited account. (It’s a bargain, providing access to almost all of Marvel’s backlist for only $69 (U.S.) a year!) Right now I’m working through November 2014, so that means the “Axis” and “Spider-Verse” events (among others).

Other comic series I follow devotedly: The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, The Wild Storm by Warren Ellis, and Giant Days by John Allison.

Bathroom reading: Beyond Weird by Philip Ball, a book on quantum theory whose aim is to get past the “Wow, isn’t this weird!” stage and to work on demystification…to the extent that quantum theory can be demystified.

Kitchen reading: I always have a book in my kitchen for when I take a snack break during writing, or when I’m waiting for water to boil, or for all those other times when I’m in the kitchen with a few minutes to fill. At the moment, I’m reading Plant Biology by Alison M. Smith et al, because I don’t know nearly enough about botany. (Everybody should ask themselves what they don’t know enough about and then start correcting that omission.)

Sharing: November 23, 2018

More things I like:

Used first-year university textbooks
I live within fifteen minutes of two universities: the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Both have stores where you can buy used textbooks for under $10 each. The books that go for such low prices aren’t the latest editions—they may be around five years old. But even in 2018, the introductory principles of various disciplines don’t change much in five years. If you buy a slightly old textbook, you still have an amazing resource as a starting place for learning a subject.

So I’ve bought first-year textbooks in dozens of fields, from anatomy and economics to Italian and microbiology. Wikipedia is certainly great for quick-and-dirty fact finding, especially when I already know the basics of a subject…but when I want to learn something from scratch or in depth, I love textbooks. They’re designed to teach topics in some rational order, where one thing builds on another. So I strongly recommend that everyone should make a trip to the nearest university campus and see what gems you can get for a surprisingly low price.

By the way, let me add one way that I use such books: I keep one in my kitchen. Whenever I’m taking a break from writing and go for a snack, I can read a few paragraphs while I’m munching. Also, when I’m cooking and waiting for water to boil or something like that, I can also read a bit. I like having something to read that I can pick up and put down without too much angst.

 

The Comics trilogy by Scott McCloud
I’ve long been aware of Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s 1993 book on how comic books work. (The book also covers comic strips, manga, graphic novels, etc.) If you haven’t read it, rush out to your library and grab a copy now.

I was also aware of the follow-up, Reinventing Comics, published in 2000. It was McCloud’s attempt to nudge the creators of comics to aim higher and be more ambitious.

But I only recently discovered that he’d written a third book in 2006: Making Comics. I have no idea how I missed it…but I’m reading it now, and it’s full of great insights on how to create comic books that work. Highly recommended.

Excelsior!

In response to the recent death of Stan Lee, I’d like to say some things about Stan, and superhero comic books in general.

I’m old enough to have started reading comic books pre-Marvel: back when Batman was lighthearted (but not as silly as the 1960s TV show), and when Lois Lane was Superman’s girlfriend even though I can’t remember a single romantic moment between them. (Occasional issues had them getting married, but it always turned out to be fake or imaginary. Back then, they never kissed or even went out on dates. Later, their relationship became much richer; these days, I like it a lot. But when I first started reading comics, Lois only existed to get Superman in trouble.)

Then Stan Lee started Marvel, and the industry changed. He injected two priceless innovations into superhero comics: soap opera, and the soapbox.

By modern standards, Stan moved comic book characterization from zero-dimensional to one-dimensional. There was nothing subtle about Ben Grimm agonizing over his hideousness or Peter Parker smacked down by yet another horrible piece of bad luck. Most villains were complete numskulls; so were most police, army officers, politicians, and religious leaders.

But still, Stan Lee’s characters were more complex than elsewhere in the industry. We’d never seen anything like them. Not in comic books.

Characters actually had emotions and relationships. Sometimes, they got mad; sometimes, they were depressed; sometimes, they fell in love and actually did something about it.

Ben Grimm went over to Alicia Masters’ place on a regular basis—they ate dinner together and talked. Peter Parker went out on honest-to-goodness dates with Gwen Stacey and Mary Jane Watson. Sue Storm got ticked off with Reed Richards because he took her for granted, so she nearly had a fling with Prince Namor. (Maybe eventually, she did have a fling with Namor. I can imagine her looking into the camera and saying, “Whether I did or didn’t, it’s none of your business.”)

The characterization wasn’t subtle, but it was more than punching out bad guys. And it set the stage for decades of further evolution, in which comics did get subtle, at least sometimes.

Stan’s other innovation was the soapbox. Starting early in Marvel’s history, every comic had a page giving news about Marvel, and that page included Stan’s Soapbox: basically a monthly editorial column. Some of those columns are now legendary, denouncing racism and sexism, or urging kids and parents to have conversations about drugs.

Those editorials were far from revolutionary by modern standards—today we realize that racism and sexism are deeply systemic problems, not just overt misbehavior by people who are clearly “bad”—but at the time, Stan was applauded for going out on a limb. And remember, at the time, comics were still regarded as books for children.

But to me, the soapbox page was important for another reason: the page talked about comic book creators. I was old enough to know that superheroes weren’t real, but I hadn’t quite realized that the stories were made up by people. The soapbox page talked about the writers and artists as actual human beings making a living by inventing everything on the page.

Comics didn’t just happen—people made them. Sometimes there’d be photos of Stan, or Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko, or Marie Severin working away at their desks. People made these books. Stan just sat down and invented new stories about Spider-Man. In fact, he invented the characters themselves (in conjunction with the artists, of course, but that’s a whole other topic).

The point is I realized that making up a stories was a thing you could do. Wow! And for that amazing revelation, let me thank the one and only Stan Lee.

[The image at the top of this post is excelsior.]

Sharing: July 18, 2018

More things I like:

Anime: Darling in the FRANXX
A lovely story about teens slowly discovering how to live, love, and be honest with each other. Oh, and sometimes they get into giant robots and kill monsters on behalf of a vague yet sinister government agency.
A few of the details are offputting—there is some problematically gratuitous sexual stuff, like the doggy-style set-up for piloting the mecha—but the overall story is sweet and honest about the confusions and joys of adolescence.
Comic book: The Wicked + The Divine
Every 90 years, 12 classical deities are reborn as the darlings of their age: perhaps poets, perhaps warriors, perhaps socialites, but always celebrities. They live for at most two years before dying. In our modern age, they’re rock stars…and like many beautiful people, they make terrible life choices. The latest divine incarnations may drag the world down with them.
Movie: Ant-Man and the Wasp
Complete fluff, but fun…with a lot of inventive applications of shrinking/growth powers. (Yes, I’ve thought a lot about shrinking/growth powers. Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

 

Sharing: July 8, 2018

More links to stuff I like:

Comics: Marvel Unlimited
For $69 (U.S.) a year, Marvel Unlimited gives you all-you-can-read access to thousands of Marvel comics including much of their back list: all the way back to Fantastic Four #1 and even some earlier comics (from before they called themselves Marvel). When I first subscribed in 2013, I went back ten years and started reading everything Marvel had published beginning in 2003. I’m now on October 2014.

I should note that Marvel Unlimited doesn’t include comics from the most recent six months, so if you want the newest comics, you’ll have to buy those on your own. Or else, just wait six months and they’ll show up for free. (Well, for $69 a year, but that’s almost free, right?)

Role-Playing Game: Geist, the Sin-Eaters (Second Edition)
This is another Onyx Path game, set in the world of the Chronicles of Darkness. In this one, you play someone who dies but comes back to life by making a deal with a powerful archetypal ghost. This may sound grim, but the game actually evokes an atmosphere like Mardi-Gras or the Mexican Day of the Dead: hey, since you’ve already died, nothing worse can happen. So why not live life like a party? On the other hand, you gain fabulous supernatural powers based on the kind of things ghosts do in ghost stories.

Right now the game’s second edition is going through a Kickstarter, so it’s a good time to sign up and get goodies relatively cheap.

Podcast: Revolutions
This is another history podcast, dedicated to revolutions (duh). It’s now in its eight season, where it’s dealing with the revolution that killed the Second French Empire in 1870. Previous seasons have dealt with the English revolution (Oliver Cromwell et al), the American revolution, the French revolution (i.e. the biggie), the Haitian slave revolt, and more. The host, Mike Duncan, does a great job of making history accessible, even when the action gets messy (and of course, during revolutions, things can get very messy indeed).

Sharing: June 11, 2018

Cool things for the day:

Book Bundle: British Mysteries Ultimate Collection
I picked up this bundle over the weekend, and I’m thrilled. On Amazon Canada (see the link above), it was only 73 cents. For that tiny price, you get a huge number of Kindle books, including all the Sherlock Holmes books plus more from Conan Doyle, all the Wilkie Collins books, all the A.J. Raffles books, all the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, a ton from Edgar Wallace, and much more. I’m sure all the books are just taken from Project Gutenberg, but the convenience of downloading them with a single click is well worth 73 cents.
Comic Book Series: Lumberjanes
Lumberjanes is a lovely comic series for kids and those who’ve never grown up. Let’s say the series is for people age 7 to infinity. It’s about a diverse group of hardcore lady-types (i.e. girls, not all straight, not all cis) at a wilderness camp that’s enjoying an endless summer full of weirdness. I faithfully buy and read the collections when they come out, then pass them on to the daughters of some friends.
Role-Playing System: Mage the Awakening, Second Edition
I’m a big fan of games from The Onyx Path, who hold a license to create games that follow on from the old White Wolf games. I’d recommend pretty much any of their games, and will probably do so in the months to come. However, I’ve played Mage most recently, so I’ll lead with that. By default, the game is set in today’s world where you play (duh) a mage…which can mean any type of magic-using character you can imagine. The game system is very flexible; while it has long lists of predefined spells, you aren’t restricted to them. Since one of the groups I play with has several players who aren’t into reading rule books, I said, “Just tell me what you want to do. We’ll see if you’re powerful enough to do it.” For those who’ve only played games like Dungeons & Dragons, Mage can be an eye-opener.

 

Sharing: June 4, 2018

I’ve been reading Austin Kleon‘s “Show Your Work” again, and have been reminded of the value of sharing. So in that spirit, I’m going to try to do more blogging to share articles, books, etc. that I’ve been enjoying recently.

Article: Buddhists in Love
An interesting article on relationships. It also includes a nice introduction to some Buddhist principles, such as the idea of “No Permanent Self” which seems to perplex many people. (If you’re interested in more on this, ask me in the Comments section.)


Graphic Novel: Batman: Rules of Engagement
The Batman comic book is currently being written by Tom King, and I love what he’s doing with the character and the title. In case you don’t pay attention to comic books, Batman and Catwoman are now engaged and scheduled to be married in July. The collection I linked to above deals with various characters’ reactions to the engagement, including Cat and Bat going on a hilarious double date with Superman and Lois. It’s just lovely: well worth reading even if you haven’t looked at comic books for a while. (The link takes you to Comixology.com which lets you buy digital versions of comics immediately. You can also buy hardcopy versions from online vendors like Amazon, Chapters, B & N, etc. If you’re wary of spending money on comics, go to your local library—they probably have the book too.)

By the way, the book I’ve linked to is Volume 5 in King’s run on Batman. Volume 4 is also great, and I’m looking forward to Volume 6 when it comes out at the end of July.


Podcast: Hardcore History by Dan Carlin
Hardcore History is one of my favorite podcasts. It’s like a university lecture series on various historical events. The episodes are lengthy—some are as long as six hours—and Carlin himself would be the first to say they’re idiosyncratic. But they’ve certainly taught me a ton of things I never knew. I particularly recommend the series of episodes on World War I, titled “Blueprint for Armageddon”. The series will open your eyes and give you enormous respect for your great-great-grandparents.


That’s it for today. More links soon.