A Comical Anniversary

This Memorial Day weekend marked my first anniversary of reading comic books.  Well, maybe it did.  I wish I had noted the actual date the first time I walked into Galactic Greg’s in Valparaiso and purchased my first comic book (Hawkeye: Blindspot #1), but I know it was early summer – by the academic calendar, not the Julian one – and so what the hell, let’s call it Memorial Day weekend.   Here are some of the things I’ve learned in this first year.

1.  Comics are like crack for people with collector mentalities.  I have always collected things – cans, stamps, books, CDs – and the publishers of comics know exactly how to exploit this.  They number everything!  Monthly issues of comics are numbered, and so are the collections released in trade paperback format.  This is just evil.  Once you start gathering together a few numbered things, it becomes necessary to make sure you have all the numbers in order. Suppose a musical group has some albums named Crumpled Lunchbox, Green Bruschetta, A Flock of Knit Scarves, and The Laundry Basket Follies.   It may not bother you much if you were missing Green Bruschetta, but if their CDs were named simply 1, 2, 3, and 4, and you were missing 2,  you would go to extremes to make sure you filled in that gap.  The smart people who publish comics exploit this.  The bastards.  Ironically, for all the numbering they do on the outside of the books, they do not number the pages inside.

2) 2011 was a good time to start reading comics.  A lot of Marvel series were restarting with #1 issues, such as Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Moon Knight, Punisher, Uncanny X Men, Wolverine and the X Men, The Mighty Thor, Captain America, and Venom.  (I tried most of these; Moon Knight and Ghost Rider eventually got cancelled.) DC was going to relaunch everything, starting all over at #1 for 52  titles.  Dark Horse was firing up some new versions of older comics, such as Magnus: Robot Fighter, Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom, and Turok: Son of Stone (all of these have now been called off).

3) I’m a Marvel man.  There are many either/or questions out there:  Cubs or White Sox?  PC or Mac?  Ford or Chevy?  Rare or well done?  Ginger or Mary Ann?  In the comic world, it’s: Marvel or DC?   This is not a question of exclusivity, but more that you just develop preferences – and while there are some DC titles I enjoy, I have developed a noted preference for Marvel.  This might be because I held off on reading DC comics until their relaunch of all their titles starting in August 2011, and by that time I had grown to like many Marvel series.  But I think that in general, Marvel characters are more likable, the books often display a broader spectrum of humor, and the overall Marvel universe seems richer.

4) Give everything a try.  Or, don’t judge a book by its cover – literally.  Regardless of how silly the premise or strange looking the book, don’t dismiss something superficially.  Right now, one of my favorite titles is DC’s Swamp Thing – but at first I dismissed the book, thinking , “How good can a series about a green, gooey, slimy monster be?”  And then I saw the first several issues getting rave reviews, so I gave it a try – and now it’s one of my favorites.   No premise is too ridiculous, it’s all about how adept the writers and artists are at handling it.

5) Dig for gold.  Outside the Marvel and DC worlds, there is a wealth of other material to explore, and that is where many of the true gems are found.  This is the same as in the music and literary worlds, too.  Once you look past the best seller lists and pop phenomenon, you start getting to the really good stuff.  I think by now, some Dark Horse titles like Hellboyand the Star Wars tie-ins are very mainstream, but others – like the Hellboy offshoot BPRD – are still somewhat in the shadows.  Other more independent titles I am hooked on are The Sixth Gun, Chew, and Invincible.  More experienced comic afficianados will probably laugh at that and point to a cornucopia of more obscure titles out there, and I may find them someday – but for now, I feel like I’m doing well  at exploring in the wings.

In all, it has been a good year.  I have seen my tastes evolve towards non-ultra-superhero characters.   I imagine there is also an argument about what constitutes a superhero, but I distinguish a true Superhero (capital S) as a character who can do just about everything and is nearly invincible (not Invincible).  So yes, I’m talking about Superman and the like.  I do not find those characters interesting.  The ones I like better are superheroes (lower case s) who are merely people with “mad skillz” at something, originating through a strange twist of fate or simple life-long training.  So clearly I much prefer Batman to Superman.  One of my very favorite characters so far is Hawkeye – perhaps because a Hawkeye book was what got me started in all of this, but more because he’s just a dude who is really good at something.  He has flaws and is vulnerable.   His victories are obtained through cunning and skill, not just by punching the villain in the face harder than the villain is punching back.

Why do I like comics so much, at least so far?   First, it’s because I can finish a complete story in a short amount of time.  I used to devour books at a fast rate.  But with age, growing kids, and an inability to stay awake past 9pm while reading, it’s harder to find the time to plow through hundreds of pages of writing.  But I can read a single issue of a comic in about ten minutes.    That’s the length of time I can lay in bed at night before falling asleep, or the duration of a good bowel movement!  Second, the stories can just be fun, but also with deep themes and emotional hooks when written well.   Thirdly, I have a great appreciation for the act of creation of a comic book, because it’s something I could never do myself.  I could probably write a book if I tried – or at least, given enough time and coffee, I could go through the act of typing out 400 pages of text – as long as quality wasn’t an issue.  And with music, I figure if I had enough time to devote to it, I could learn to play an instrument at a novice level.  But in both endeavors, there are people with gifts – a writer or musician – I could just never match, no matter how much preparation I had.  And in comics, I find the same thing in the art.  My 8 and 10 year old daughters can already draw better pictures than me; a skill for drawing is just something I never tapped into.  And so when I read comics, I get to look at images that I would never, ever be able to create myself – and that’s a pretty awesome thing.

SoI have finally unleashed that last segment if inner nerd that was hiding inside.  I’ve done all the other stereotypical stuff to some degree – fantasy books, sci-fi, roleplaying games, video games.  Mywife blames my newfound interest in comics on The Big Bang Theory and its scenes in a comic shop.  I blame it on that, and the ProgPower USA message boards, where people who share similar musical tastes have started threads on comics, too.  I’m looking forward to another year of fun and spending!

Cheering for Chopped

Let’s take an inventory of all the TV shows that we like to watch as a family. This is more complicated than it seems, since there are four of us – leading to a complicated Venn diagram of shows each individual likes to watch, with some overlaps, and few shows in the intersection of all four.

Joy (8 yrs) mostly likes various Nickelodeon shows such as Spongebob Squarepants, iCarly, Victorious, Winx Club, and so on. Melody (10) likes some of these, but not all. Kathy likes the pre-teen / teen shows like iCarly. I like watching Spongebob with the kids, because I see it as holding the position of a modern Bugs Bunny – superficially aimed at kids, but with humor that adults can enjoy, too. Kathy does not want to watch Spongebob. Spoilsport.

Melody likes Big Time Rush, and several Disney shows like Jessie, Good Luck Charlie, and A.N.T. Farm. Joy also likes most of these, but they are not appealing to us adults. She pretends not to like Spongebob, but oddly won’t leave the room when it’s on.

Kathy likes to watch hours of Criminal Minds reruns in a row, and various reality shows involving animals (the Dog Whisperer) or people who act like animals (Hoarders). No one else likes those.

I like sports, sports, and sports. Sometimes I even tune back into pro wrestling to see if it has changed at all since I last watched devotedly in the early 2000’s. (It has not.) I watch Fringe out of habit (see another post about that one!) Other than that, I watch animation – Family Guy, South Park, Robot Chicken. No one else wants to watch the shows I do with real people, and the kids are not allowed to watch the animation I like.

Together, Kathy and I watch 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family. We watch these after the kids are in bed.

All in all, it looks like we fail at the American past time of watching TV as a family.  And this is true, with the exception of one show:  Chopped, on the Food Network!  This is a show where chefs compete to make the best courses in a meal (appetizer, entree, and dessert) using ingredients they do not know about ahead of time.  I have no idea what the magic of this show is, but all four of us like to watch it together.  The girls like to pick a favorite contestant at the start of the show, and root for him or her (usually a her) as the show goes on. They generally are in favor of chefs who do not have crazy hair and are not too obnoxious or full of themselves.  (I personally don’t like the chefs who present themselves as exaggerated cartoon characters.)  The girls also root for judges on the show.  Their favorites are Amanda Freitag and Alex Guarnaschelli.  If one of them is introduced by host Ted Allen,  the living room erupts in shouts of “Yay, Amanda!” or “Yay, Alex!” They are mostly indifferent to male judges, except for Geoffrey Zakarian, who they have decided is kind of a meanie who doesn’t like spicy food.

This show has affected our own dinner time; sometimes, the girls will critique one of the meals Kathy or I have made, as if they are judges on Chopped.  It has also made them slightly more experimental with the food they’re willing to try, which is a good thing.  Melody actually ate a dish made last week with kale and tofu!  (She doused it with soy sauce first, but hey, it takes what it takes.)  It has made me more willing to just grab something random from the produce section of the grocery store and decide what the hell I’m going to do with it later on.

My favorite aspect of the show is watching the contestants who choose to support each other even though they are competitors, rather than act like complete jerkfaces as do contestants on other reality shows.  (Often the players on Chopped will talk about how they are the best in the competition, and the other chefs are lame and inferior, but often I believe that’s at the encouragement of the directors.)  I think there’s a lesson in there about how there can still be respect and support among people even though they are vying for a common goal, and maybe the girls can apply that to their own interactions.

There is no studio audience for Chopped, but man, I imagine that room smells really good after a 20-30 minute round of cooking.  I wish they could find a way to bottle it!

The Fatal Flaw of Fringe

Having finished the last episode of Season 4 of Fringe, I realize that I have been watching the entire season out of momentum and habit rather than interest.  I just have not cared about what has been happening for a while, and now I know why – the writers of the show told me not to care.  For quite a good portion of Season 4, Peter kept telling Olivia and Walter that they were not his Olivia and Walter, and that he needed to get back to his own timeline.  And all the while, we were shown stories involving this temporary Olivia and temporary Walter.  But as Peter kept saying, these were not his, and thus not our, Olivia and Walter.  They may have looked, acted, and quacked like Olivia and Walter, but they were not the genuine articles – so why should I care about what’s happening to them?

And then, in the latter half of the season, the writers whipped up some hocus-pocus to give this temporary Olivia all of the original Olivia’s memories, declaring, well, guess what!, we’ll go ahead and now stick with these folks as the real Olivia and Walter for the duration.  Now care about them!  We won’t be going back to the first timeline after all.

Well, that doesn’t work.   These are still not the original Olivia and Walter.  They are replacement characters.  They are scabs.  And I don’t care about them.  I don’t care that David Robert Jones is trying to wreck this universe, too, because I’ve only been enduring this universe until we got taken back to the first one – which apparently isn’t going to happen now.    What about the real Olivia’s sister?  What about the real Olivia’s neice?   What about the original William Bell?  What about the cow, dammit ?!?