Archive for September 2010
The mountains don't seem like much out on the desert, but as you get into them, they get higher and scarier.
I really need to start carrying my digital camera around with me. Tuesday, September 28, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years, and it would have been great to have taken my own pictures of the trip. But, I didn’t have it. Therefore, I have lifted a few beautiful pictures from the internet to illustrate my journey.
I have lived in Arizona all my life. As a boy, my parents used to take the family on trips around the state. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon (many times), and to Nogales on the south side of the state. I have driven almost every major highway in the state. If it’s worth seeing, I’ve seen it. Meteor Crater, Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Chin-le National Monument, Four Corners, Kit Peak, Mount Lennon, Saguaro National Monument, Old Tucson, Yarnell, Montezuma’s Castle, and his Well, the ghost town of Jerome (actually a thriving community again these days)–I have gone to all these places and more. I enjoy exploring the back roads of my state.
A couple of years ago I found myself returning from a vacation in the pine-forested White Mountains along back roads through the Superstition Mountains. I wanted to show the family the mighty Roosevelt Dam that creates the water supply necessary to maintain a huge city like Phoenix. It is also where most of our electricity is generated. After leaving the dam, we took the shortest route back to Phoenix, and on the way we passed a little tourist trap called Tortilla Flat. As we drove by, I remarked that I would sure like to come back and eat there and explore the place some day.
Built in 1904, Roosevelt Dam created the biggest lake in Arizona.
Tuesday, I did it. Slipping away from home by myself around 11 a.m. I drove eastwards on Van Buren Avenue until it turned into Mill Avenue. I inched along through the college town of Tempe, rounded the curve by Grady Gammage auditorium, and continued on Apache Boulevard until it turned into Main Street in downtown Mesa. This was not the fastest way to get out where I wanted to go, but it was the traditional way to move through Central Arizona back before the freeways were built. It was the way my father would have taken me as a kid.
This pink monstrosity was built by Frank Lloyd Wright. The arts are alive at Arizona State University.
I drove all the way through Mesa and on out to Apache Junction, reaching the eastern limits of Maricopa County. I was worried that I would run out of gas–there were no stations on the main road until I almost reached the county line. But, I finally found one, filled the car with gas, got myself a cold Coke and a bag of fritos, and resumed my journey.
I had a little trouble finding the Apache Trail. State Route 88 is just a little 2-lane back road leading into the mountains. But I found it, and finally, more than 90 minutes after leaving home, I entered the true desert, and entered the Superstition Mountains.
The speed limit on this twisty road is 25 miles per hour! Even that seemed too fast in some places. I passed a couple of tourist attractions at the western end of the trail and didn’t stop–not for the town of Goldfield, which looks like a movie set for western movies, or the Lost Dutchman State Park, or the Superstition Mountains Museum. I was on a mission to reach Tortilla Flat.
And like any competent adventurer, I reached it. I enjoyed the ride, and I enjoyed the views like this one.
The water that you see is the Salt River, on its way from Roosevelt Lake to Canyon Lake.
And by about 2 p.m. I reached the fine western resort of Totilla Flat. It wasn’t nearly as busy as the next picture would indicate. Only about six cars were there including my own.
Grocery store, Restaurant, Mercantile establishment. School house museum and stable--that's the whole thing.
I parked, looked around, and went into the restaurant for lunch. It’s a colorful place. The food is good, not great. I had a beef burrito and a Mule Oil Beer which was served in a jar. I talked to a Canadian tourist who looked more like a cowboy than I did. I took my shoes off for a while until the management made me put them back on. After lunch I walked over to the trading post store, and bought myself a nice bolo tie for $10. I like the cheap, bargain ties. I am not a rich man to spend hundreds of dollars on a string and a stone to go around my neck.
Having satisfied my old promise to myself to eat lunch there some day, I got back in the car and drove home. Once out of the twisty mountains, I got on the freeway, and was home again in less than an hour.
It was a good adventure. It would have been better with a friend, but friends are hard to find when you’re an old retired geezer like myself. I might go back some time. I’d like to take a look at the Lost Dutchman State Park, and I’d love to photograph the big Lost Dutchman legend they had on display at Tortilla Flat.
Scheherezade lives again. This time her name is G. Willow Wilson, and she’s a journalist and a comic book writer. She doesn’t have to worry about getting her head cut off if the sultan doesn’t like the story. She writes good stories, but I don’t think her name will ever be as famous as Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Stan Lee, or Alan Moore. Well, at least she has the alliteration thing working for her.
I picked up Cairo because of the wonderful evocative cover. The very name is romantic here in the west–Cairo, city of spies, assassins, and undead mummies from looted tombs. I almost put it back down when I opened it and saw the horse-faced narrator Ashraf and all the gray-scale art. M. K. Perker’s art isn’t bad, but it didn’t grab me. A little research shows me that Perker is an award-winning Turkish artist who has also worked with Wilson on the Vertigo series Air (which I have read, and which is also very strange).
Perker’s work is all color on Air, and judging by the gorgeous cover of Cairo, he does exquisite color work. I wonder if he did Cairo in color, and the gray tones inside the novel are the result of reducing it all to black and white via photocopy or something. IMHO, Cairo should have been in color.
As a journalist, Wilson has spent a lot of her time in the Middle East. I believe she writes from a detailed knowledge of the lands and peoples–that despite her fair skin and Americn name, Willow would really like to be an Arab, or perhaps an enlightened Israeli like her heroine Tova.
Woman of Mystery
The story about Ashraf the hashish smuggler who talks to his dead mother (a framing device if there ever was one) wasn’t doing much for me until page 30 when Shams the Jinn appears to this goofy Lebanese American named Shaheed. At that point we leave the world of drug smugglers, bleeding heart liberal journalists, and misguided American yourh behind and enter the world of the Arabian Nights (with submachineguns). Yeah, that’s the ticket!
Shams is a thoroughly modern jinn (the real plural is jinni from which we get our American word genie). Shaheed ain’t never had a friend like him. He becomes involved in a quest for a Word in a box. The evil magician and crimelord Nar also wants that Word, and thus excitement and danger is injected into the plot. All the best treasure maguffins are metaphorical anyway. While Shaheed is going for flying carpet rides, and meeting gross Egyptian spirit entities like The Evil Under His Armpit–other main characters are being abducted and discovering the Under Nile, or are playing Chase Me with gun-toting thugs.
I don’t intend to recap the story. Find the book and read it for yourself if you want to know what happened to who. It’s worth finding and reading, even if it is all gray. Perhaps artist and writer were trying to catch that illusive feel of the old movies like The Thief of Bagdad. There is a lot to be said for letting one’s own imagination fill in the colors and details of one’s dreams, but all I can say is Thank Crom that George Lucas made his Indiana Jones movies in color!
I am a hopeless stick-in-the-mud. If someone offered me a trip to the real world Cairo, I would probably turn them down. Maybe if I was going to see the Pyramids . . . but the land and people of modern Egypt have almost no attraction for me. Still, I’m glad I was able to make this fantasy excursion to Cairo, and I hope Ms. Wilson will take me on other strange trips in the future. She is an excellent guide.
Donald E. Westlake is one of the world’s great Mystery writers. Actually, he doesn’t write mysteries, per se. He usually writes Crime novels, although he’s versatile enough to write anything he wants, and it will be a good book that will hold your attention from the first page to the last. Having said all that, I admit that I’m not really a Westlake fan. I know about him because I used to be a librarian, and during the best years of my library career I was a fiction librarian. It’s a fiction librarian’s job to know who the best writers are in every genre. Since public libraries don’t have a special Crime fiction genre, all such material either goes in Mainstream or Mystery. Westlake goes in Mystery. I have read a couple of Westlake’s Dortmunder novels which are more like comedy. Dortmunder is an expert thief who always runs into funny complications. He’s a nice guy most of the time. Parker isn’t.
Darwyn Cooke is a comics artist best known for his work on the D.C. special series: The New Frontier which examined the whole DC universe as if it were happening back in the fifties and early sixties. Well, I was alive back then, and D.C. was the world’s best comics at the time with Dell a close second, but it was a completely different story from the one that Cooke tells. Darwyn also had a rather weak run on Batman–his style simply wasn’t suitable for the Dark Knight.
Parker: The Hunter is a revenge story–the story of a hard man in a hard world. Betrayed, shot, and left for dead, Parker goes after his foe Mal with a ruthlessness rarely seen in life or fiction. It’s a gripping story–terse, grim, full of action and sudden death. Cooke is adept at moving the story along and painting a character portrait of Parker without any words. Parker isn’t a hero on a quest for revenge–he’s a cold-blooded bastard on a quest for revenge. I’ve never seen a comics character this callous. Even the Joker isn’t this cold-blooded.
The Hunter was originally written by Richard Stark, which is the alias Westlake generally uses when he wants to tell stories that aren’t funny. This wass is first Parker novel and apparently there is a series. I certainly hope Parker gets killed somehow in the last book. Here’s a look at the book cover for The Hunter.
Notice that the artist has chosen to do his cover for The Hunter in a monotone brown. That is the kind of world that Parker inhabits–monotone. Somehow Darwin Cooke came to the same conclusion, but he uses monotone blue for his story. Here’s an example:
I feel sorry for the women in Parker’s world. They all fall for his rugged good looks and tough guy behavior, and he treats them like dirt and leaves them dead more often than not. On the other hand, Cooke draws some gorgeous women with some very soft-core nudity in the story. People get naked not quite as often as people get dead in the Parker stories.
I found this graphic novel while just scanning for stuff in the library catalog, and decided to take a look at it, mostly because I saw Darwyn Cooke’s name and knew his reputation as an artist and storyteller. This book is from a small publisher IDW Press in San Diego, and will never get major distribution. It is certainly not for minors, and the old Comics Code would have shut it down in a second. But, this is very strong work on Cooke’s part. If you can handle adult stories and art–not pornography but unsuitable for children, you might enjoy Parker also. While I was reading it, I hated the character, and didn’t like the story, but I couldn’t stop or look away. It was that compelling.
Death in the desert.
In my last blog, I mentioned that I’d probably be reading a lot more graphic novels. I won’t be limiting myself to superhero stuff, although I love superhero stuff. There are many talented artists getting things produced today, and I’m open-minded enough to read all of it. Well, not all. That’s impossible. I’ll be limited to what I can find at the Phoenix Public Library.
Don’t expect long detailed reviews. There are plenty of comix reviewing sites on the internet. This blog is about what entertains me, so I’ll mostly be commenting on whether I liked things or not, and why. That being said, I have two more rather elaborate graphic novels to comment on before I go hunting for more.
Considering that the superhero publishers turn out graphic novels that are just a bunch of comic books stuck together in a single publication, it amazes me that so many publishers make the effort to make their comics look like books. Dark Wraith of Shannara looked like a book–you’d never know it was a comic unless you picked it up and glanced inside. The two I’m talking about in this review also look like books.
Crogan’s March by Chris Schweizer is a French Foreign Legion tale set in 1912 North Africa. Pete Crogan is an American boxer on the lam from the mob who winds up in the Foreign Legion. It is a miserable life, and then he falls under the command of a dashing captain who bears the reputation of being the only survivor of several major battles. Captain Roitelet is daring and funny, gallant and stupid, arrogant and prejudiced. Serving under him cannot possibly end well, especially when Tuareg natives are on the warpath.
Captain Roitelet, Pete Crogan, and the Kid.
This isn’t just a story of high adventure in the Sahara Desert. It’s a tale of imperialism in action. Back in 1912 France hadn’t given up on the idea of having a vast worldwide colonial empire, and having lost the battle to the British in North America, India, and China, the French were doing all they could to build up their influence and possessions in Africa. Empire doesn’t mean much to a tired soldier slogging through the sand, fighting off ambushes from the savage tribesmen of the desert. It kinda makes one think of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn’t it?. What are our soldiers doing there? The people who live there don’t really want them. The Berbers and Tuaregs of old Morocco didn’t want the French either.
One thing that needs to be talked about when discussing comix is the art. Independent cartoonists like Chris Schweizer are much freer to develop their own idiosyncratic style. They aren’t bound by superhero conventions. The characters don’t have to be superhumanly beautiful and muscular. They can have weird mustaches, bulging bellies, and eyes the size of baseballs. The art can be flat and 2-dimensional. Realism doesn’t matter, but consistency does. When the art has no pretension of being anything other than art, it allows the reader to concentrate on the story. That’s a good thing, I think. Schweizer tells a damn good story in Crogan’s March.
(There’s a nifty discussion of Crogan’s March here: http://shazhmmm.blogspot.com/ These guys go into far more detail and make a lot of valid points that I never would have thought of. It sounds like they’ve met Schweizer and know him a bit, which certainly isn’t true for me.)
My second book is called Salem Brownstone by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh. By comparson Crogan’s March isn’t really weird at all–ungainly perhaps, but not really weird. For all its talk of djinns and desert spirits there was no truly supernatural elements in the foreign legion tale. Salem, on the other hand is a book about demons, and the artwork is straight out of a drug-induced hallucination. The book is oversize and bound in purple velour. The feel is incredibly rich for a book. The paper inside is thick, white, and high quality. The endpapers have bizarre pictures on them–different from front to back. Candlewick Press has really pulled out all the stops for a book selling for a mere $18.99. Considered just as an artifact of bookmaking, the book is totally worth the price.
If you stare at the purple background of the cover long enough, you will go insane.
If I had to use a single word to sum up Salem Brownstone, it would be DISTORTION. Everything in this comic is twisted. Everything is grotesque. Nikhil Singh must have had a great deal of fun drawing all this stuff. By contrast, the story itself is curiously bland–generic. An ordinary person gets sucked into world-shattering plots. He meets bizarre allies and hideous enemies. He shows determination and courage and saves the world. It’s the same old story. I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m not impressed by the story. I am impressed by the art. Singh is very talented–much more talented than author Dunning. If you can read this book, do so, just to experience the journey into Nikhil Singh’s strange and distorted reality. Others have reviewed this book and compared the art to the black and white inked brilliance of Aubrey Beardsley. If Beardsley had become a comics artist, he might have become something like Nikhil Singh. The two artists have a lot in common.
These pictures are included as a sample of Singh’s art. Notice how twisted everything is. Excellent! I would like to live in a world where circus masters actually lived in dragon-shaped caravans.
I enjoyed Salem Brownstone, despite the weakness of the story. It was not original, but perhaps it was necessary. If there is no threat from outside forces of evil, then why would there be a story of a Magician’s Son and his very strange allies? I have a few quibbles with how the book was produced. For example, the chapter breaks in the story are indicated by framing an empty page. I know that empty space is important in artistic compositions, but in this case it just seemed like a waste of paper. There were 8 pages of empty white space, and 2 pages that were nothing but black–that’s ten wasted page that could have been filled with art–ten pages that could have built to a better climax than the rather weak and hurried ending that is in the book. Who faltered? Was Dunning’s story, so filled with bizarre and enigmatic characters, cut short so that we never got to see them develop? Or did Singh say something like, “Arrgh! I can’t draw much more of this stuff. Let’s wrap it up”? Did the project just run out of funding? After so much prologue and hard work in establishing the setting and the characters, why was Salem Brownstone rushed to its conclusion?
Then again, who am I to question someone else’s artistic vision? At any rate, the book is a gorgeous example of weirdness. And as such, it deserves our support.
One of the not-so-good things about being retired is that you don’t have as much money as you used to. You have more time to be entertained, but entertainment isn’t getting any cheaper. For me, that means buying less stuff, and finding more at the library. It means going to fewer movies, and reading more books. Reading more books means reading more grajphic novels. Some of those will be swords and sorcery, since that is my main joy in literature.
Last week as I was looking for things to read, I found THE DARK WRAITH OF SHANNARA by Terry Brooks. It is published more like a book than a comic–a trade paperback from Ballantine Books selling at $13.95, 199 pages, mostly illustrated by Edwin David.
Once upon a time I was a big fan of Terry Brooks and his Shannara novels. The major criticism of the series was that it was too much like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Elves, Dwarves, and Humans team up to save the world from Dark Forces. I liked it when Tolkien did it. I like it still.
This is a straightforward hero story told in comics. It seems to have been written for ten year-olds, but I won’t hold that against it. The art is by someone named Edwin David. He’s a fine artist–does a good job of making people and animals look real. He does both pen and brush-work and uses a lot of washes. Everything is sort of dark and gray. I hate to tell you, Terry, but comics really isn’t a medium that does well in shades of gray. It can be done. It has been done. But you didn’t do yourself a favor by doing Dark Wraith all in shades of gray.
Jair Ohmsford has inherited the power of the Wishsong–elven magic that allows him to create very real illusions. He uses it mostly to pretend he’s invisible, but when he gets in a jam where only fighting will get him out alive, he uses it to recreate the illusion of the greatest fighter he ever knew, the Weaponmaster Garret Jax. Garrett died in THE WISHSONG OF SHANNARA, but it seems like the wishsong when used byJair can create a corporeal Garrett Jax that threatens to come back to life at Jair’s expense.
Having Garret Jax on your side, or being Garret Jax is a good thing. The Mwellrets, hideous crocodile men with a dark lust for power, would have totally slain Jair, and his sister Brin, and his girlfriend Kimber, and old Cogline the ex-druid if Jair didn’t turn into Garret and carve them all up. But Jair is troubled by this power–his sister thinks it is wrong for him to become the shade of the Weapon Master. Even though it was that power that rescued her from the Crocodile Men in the first place, she lays a guilt trip on Jair to keep him from ever using it again. We all know from the start how that is going to wind up.
Weapon Master of Shannara
I enjoyed Dark Wraith of Shannara, even though I think it may be the weakest thing Terry Brooks has ever written. This really is a comic for ten year olds. The story has no depth and only a little conflict. The bad guys are hideously evil, ugly and bad. The good guys are handsome, brave, and pure. There’s an implied love story between Jair and Kimber, but he’s too conflicted to really participate in it. Pure love is well and good, but give me some good old-fashioned lust now and then. Give me a hero who sweats and bleeds, not one who mopes and makes do with illusions.
If you like Brooks and fantasy, you’ll want to read this comic. It is a part of his Shannara world and timeline, but it’s not a very important part. Check it out of the library.
On a totally unrelated note, I’d like to tell you about my theory of THEM. I don’t mean the giant ants–I mean elves, dwarves, trolls, ogres, etc.
They aren’t mythical. They’re real, and they walk among us, and we never notice. That’s because humanity, as a speicies, is infinitely varied. Our skin tones range from albino white to ebony black. Our size can range from gigantic norsemen to African pygmies. Mystics and wizards walk among us all the time. If it looks like magic, feels like magic, and works like magic, then by Crom, it’s magic, even if there is a scientific explanation. Whoever told you that science isn’t magic was wrong. That was just a person who doesn’t understand what magic really is.
Okay, so elves, dwarves, and ogres aren’t common in the human population. They weren’t common back in the Middle Ages either, but I think they were real. Today, the old dwarven enclaves are gone, and the dwarves walk among us. I have known some. They have integrated into society and are just regarded as short people. The same can be said for elves. And here’s what I want to tell you. Why does Terry Brooks write so much about elves in his fantasy? Because he is one! I saw him at a library convention once–he was signing books. I was getting autographs. I saw a man of slight stature with an impish face and pointed ears–not the exaggerated floppy elf ears or comic books, but real human ears that were more pointed then round on top. When I got up to the table to talk to him, I said, “you’re an Elf, aren’t you?” He just smiled but didn’t deny it.
So, the Ken St. Andre theory of THEM. They’re real. They’re out there, a part of our world. Keep your eyes open, and maybe you’ll see them, too.
I got tired of sitting around the house yesterday. Gathering my teen sidekicks, Corencio and Harley, I took my trusty Dragon Shadowfist deck and headed out to Extreme East Nowhere (eastern Mesa, Arizona) to see what was happening at CopperCon.
After arriving at the Con hotel (the Windermere–I was here for RandomCon earlier this year), we wandered into the gaming room. I talked to Joey, a Steve Jackson MIB, who was wearing white for this con and demoing games. A friendly guy, a great demoer, he had time on his hands. As we tried to decide what to play, I finally voted for the easiest thing–Steve Jackson’s Zombie Dice! When Isaid “Let’s play Zombie Dice”, Jason Youngdale, the guy running the Games Room, turned around from the next table, and handed me . . .
Lots of zombie dice in this cylinder.
“This is for being a big-name game designer,” he said.
“Wow! Thanks!” I said.
(St. Andre isn’t that big a name. LOL)
Zombie Dice is about as easy as a game can get. It features dice in the splatter colors of green, red, and yellow. The dice have 3 symbols: a brain, footsteps, and and explosion representing a shotgun blast. The green dice have the most brains, the red dice have the most blasts, the yellow dice are even. Roll 3 dice. Each brain rolled is a score–you save it. Runners are roll again. Explosions put an end to your cannibal zombie career. Three of them in a turn will take you down. Roll as many brains as you can. Stop when you want to. Three blasts and you lose all your brains for that turn. Play proceeds around the group clockwise. First player to reach 13 brains wins. Players behind him have a chance to tie or pass him. The only element of strategy is in knowing when to stop.
We're just about to start our zombie feasting. That's me in the hat.
It’s a good game to break the ice and get a few laughs.
. . .
With the zombies behind us, we finally got to playing some Shadowfist. Two epic games with 6 players each–my son Corencio won both of them. (For those who wonder–Corencio and James St. Andre) are the same person.
It was an afternoon well spent, even if it did cost me a quarter of a tank of gas to drive out there and back. My thanks to Jason, Joey, Paul, and the good folks at CopperCon who allowed me to crash their game room. I did not eat any Con food; I did not attend any Con panels or things; I didn’t even take any free posters from the tables in the lobby. I just gamed for a few hours with some friends. What better way could there be to spend a Sunday afternoon?
Going around the table: invisible Jason Youngdale, Paul Tanton, Talon in red, Ken St. Andre, Corencio, and Harley.
My compliments to Jason Youngdale, a young man who has been running local convention gaming rooms for some time now and doing an excellent job of it. He also took the two big photos in this blog and many more which you can see on his Facebook page. Thanks for letting me use the photos, Jason, and thanks again for making CopperCon fun for all we gamers.