Friday, July 31, 2009

That's How We (Blog)Roll

Blogs are funny little things. You can pour your heart and soul into creating an intuitive layout, finding nifty widgets, populating your sidebar with all sorts of interesting links, and other such endeavors; yet, after all your diligence and toil, the only thing some readers care about is what you wrote today--especially if they're not reading your posts on your actual blog.

That's why I'd like to draw your attention to the nine blogs that currently have the illustrious distinction of being included in our blogroll; we're fond enough of these blogs to allot them some premium sidebar space, and introducing each of them in this post is a way of sharing our interests--and that's what this blog is all about.

We keep a blogroll to show our support of the blogs we enjoy (and to give them some free publicity, because we bloggers are one big friendly community; that's also why we become Followers, right, Kevin?). However, there's more to it than that: Alex and I use this page as a sort of "home base" for all our geeky Internet needs: we've got links to most of the fandom-related blogs and websites we like to visit regularly, and I'll be the first to admit that I often check on the blog just to see what kind of activity is going on in the sidebar.

So, the blogs listed in our blogroll aren't just there for show; at least one of us is a regular reader of each one. We hope we might be able to turn a few of you to the dork side and join us in our geek reading. Here are the featured hobby and fandom blogs we're currently following:

Beneath the Screen

Beneath the Screen bannerBeneath the Screen is a small but rapidly growing blog that focuses on roleplaying games, especially Dungeons & Dragons. BTS started up shortly before EYH (that's us, in case you can't decipher acronyms, BTW), and we've sort of been "buddy blogs" ever since; BTS is written by a friend of mine from college, so it's out of some kind of residual loyalty that... wait, wait; no, that's not it at all.

Honestly, BTS has fantastic advice for DMs and players, intelligently written reviews, interesting recaps of real live D&D adventures, and plenty of creative quest ideas. Plus, Storyteller occasionally extends the invitation for me to write a guest post there, but that has very little bearing on anything. Really!

Fun fact: I found a little bit of inspiration for the layout of our sidebar from BTS. Don't tell anyone.

Comic By Comic

Comic by Comic bannerIncredibly, this blog is about comics. Also other things, but largely comics. What's nice is that the posts are usually fairly short--gut reactions to comics news, concise opinions about movie posters and geeky videos and whatnot, and pull lists that are a more condensed version of what we do with Waiting for Wednesday, with splashes of humor all over. Comic By Comic is a great gateway to comics news for people who lack the time or interest to follow the biggest comics news sites, plus it's frequently good for a quick laugh.

GameCola Blog

GameCola logoI'm a staff writer for GameCola, the humorous video game review site, so this was an obvious choice for the blogroll. The GameCola blog is used primarily for weekly updates on what new video games are being released, space for GameCola staff to rant about one thing or another, and publicity for every new video that goes up on the GameCola YouTube page, which I've volunteered to maintain. It's more of a news feed than a full-fledged blog, but it's worth looking into if you enjoy the kind of content GameCola produces.

Geekologie - Gadgets, Gizmos, and Awesome

Geekologie logoGeekologie consistently spotlights some of the most incredible, absurd, bizarre, and hilarious examples of geekiness on the planet. A dragon made out of soda can tabs? Check. Pac-Man oven mitts? Check. A bra made out of bacon? Check. A Death Star jack-o-lantern? Check. Geekologie has it all, with photos and videos to prove that such awesome (and absurdity) does indeed exist.

Each post is irreverently written, regardless of the subject, and it's difficult not to at least crack a smile when reading Geekologie. Be warned, though: there's a lot of vulgar language, and every once in a while there will be a post concerning something that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot unsee. If those things don't bother you (or if you're willing to deal with them), then there's absolutely no reason you shouldn't have Geekologie bookmarked somewhere, no matter what kind of geek you are.


Kotaku logoThis one's pretty straightforward: Kotaku covers video game news both large and small; it's got a hint of humor, and it's updated constantly. That's about all you need to know.

KP's Take

KP's Take bannerOf all the blogs on our blogroll, this one is probably the most "traditional" in that it's essentially the highly opinionated ramblings of a guy who has taken a deep plunge into comics and politics and ain't ever coming back. That guy is Kevin Powers, creator of Legends of Steel Creek and columnist/reviewer/editor for Comics Bulletin. Strong opinions provide good blogging fuel, so whether or not you agree with everything he has to say, Kevin calls it like he sees it, and he does so coherently, so bonus points there.

Fun fact: KP's Take is our other "buddy blog." Just in case you wanted to know.

Musings of the Chatty DM

Musings of the Chatty DM bannerWhile I could explain in my own words what this blog is all about, I think the Chatty DM himself puts it pretty plainly and neatly:

Musings of the Chatty DM captures that familiar feeling of entering your favorite gaming shop and seeing people hanging around the counter and passionately discussing their favorite games and adventures. I share my thoughts, opinions, ideas and experience about being a game master of tabletop roleplaying games. My game of choice is Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, but I often tackle general topics such as using the tricks of TV shows and movies in RPGs, Adventure Design, Gaming with Children and GMing Tips. Musings of the Chatty DM is the perfect place to discuss with friendly geeks who share your passion for RPGs.

...Do I still get XP for copying and pasting?

Neil Gaiman's Journal

Neil Gaiman's Blog bannerAlex enjoys reading Neil Gaiman's work. He's, like, an author or something.

Occasional Superheroine

Occasional Superheroine bannerBlogger, comics professional, and social media specialist Valerie D'Orazio writes one of the most tell-everything-and-tell-it-like-it-is blogs on the Internet. Well, as far as I've seen, anyhow. Comics and pop culture are generally the focus of Occasional Superheroine, which is sometimes controversial, often profound, and always honest and very personal. Valerie has valuable insights on gender issues and the comics industry, and even her "fluff" posts are consistently interesting and eloquently worded.

The way our blogroll is set up (in case you've never paid attention to it), the title of each blog's latest post is listed, along with how long it's been since the last update. Handy! Our blogroll fluctuates depending mostly on how often a blog updates; if a blog hasn't posted in a long time, or if we find that we're dedicating less time to reading it, we usually shift that blog to the "Some Sites We Like" section of our sidebar for a while.

There you have it. Now, go take a peek at some of those blogs.

Hah! This should show those fools a thing or two. They said a Friday Link Dump post was the lazy man's way out of blogging. Wait until I tell them I stayed up until after 2 AM writing this post. Now who's the fool!?


Thursday, July 30, 2009


A little something different for the blog today, as, in lieu of a long and rambling post on whatever, instead I'd like to show off some artwork. Artwork of what, you ask? Well, if all goes according to plan, artwork of a comic book that I'm writing for a new Web comics site, which should be debuting in about a month.

The book I'm writing is still very top secret, very hush hush (mostly because it's not finished...), but there is an artist attached, and his name is J.C. Grande. You can check out his work on his deviantART page. And, if by chance you picked up a book from Image Comics called Johnny Monster earlier this year, then you're already familiar with J.C.'s awesome talent.

Now, to say that I'm excited about this project is the understatement of the year, and as things get closer to being final, I'd love to share some in-progress reports and things with you guys.

So, to get a start on that, here are some of J.C.'s character designs for my first book, which is currently in production.
I will post more info as things move along, but hopefully there will be a big announcement regarding the book, and the site, in a couple of weeks.

Fingers crossed...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Waiting for Wednesday, Issue 22

After a brief, one-week hiatus to write for is back, with a vengeance baby!

Today is the fifth Wednesday of the month, which historically means that it's going to be a massive week of comics and things, so prepare thyself, becuase things might get a little crazy at the LCS this afternoon.

We have lots of dorky goodness to get to today, but before we get started, I wanted to once again mention zharth's great post on Eric Clapton--if you haven't yet checked it out, do yourself a favor and take a look. It's incredibly interesting reading.

And with that, on to the comics!

First up, we have what may be the flat out best mainstream super hero book on the stands today. Written by Greg Rucka, DC's Detective Comics, issue 855 features part two of the Batwoman story, "Elegy." I wrote about issue 854 in issue 18 of Waiting for, and not only were my expectations met, but they were far exceeded.

Detective Comics artA wonderful issue, well written, tightly plotted, and with stunning art by J.H. Williams. Really everything you could want from a comic book, and the second issue of the storyline promises more of the same high quality.

If you missed issue 854, DC is going back to press with it in the form of a second printing, and that also hits stands today. So if you want to catch up, they actually make it pretty easy to do so.

I've heard Rucka in interviews talking about the book, and he promises that Williams' art (somehow) only gets better as the series continues. Seriously, folks, this book just looks and feels different from anything else on the market today, so at the very least flip through it at your comics shop.

You need virtually no back story going into the book other than there's this woman, Kate Kane, and she dresses up like a bat at night to go out and fight crime.

Really. That's all you'll need. Now go, buy!

Next up, we have a title that I know very little about, other than that it looks like something new, and different, and interesting--three things I love in my comics. Plus, this is a small press book and the small press holds a special place in my heart. I'm a huge supporter of the "little guys," and while it's cliched to say at this point, the indie press and the breadth of books they produce truly are the lifeblood of the comics industry.

And, there's just nothing better than getting in on the ground floor of a title that, in six months from now, everyone will want, but only you and a handful of others will have.

With that impossible-to-live-up-to build up, The Stuff of Legend, issue one, ships today, and it's been getting some positive buzz online for a few months now. Wizard Magazine even ran a quick feature on the book a couple months back. And, being that there are no capes or boobs in the comic, that's a pretty big deal.

The Stuff of Legend artLike I said, I only know a bit about this title, and I'm going to be suggesting it to you all with some trepidation, as it lists for $4.99. But it's a book that I have high hopes for, and I am confident that the title will deliver.

Here's what I do know, though. Legend is published by Th3rd World Comics, which is an up-and-coming online company. Here's their blurb about the book:

The year is 1944. An allied force advances along a war-torn beach in a strange land, outnumbered and far from home. Together, they fight the greatest evil they have ever known. Never ending waves of exotic enemies come crashing down on them, but they will not rest.

Thousands of miles away, the world is on the brink of destruction. But here in a child's bedroom in Brooklyn, our heroes, a small group of toys loyal to their human master, fight an unseen war to save him from every child's worst nightmare.

Led by the toy soldier known as the Colonel and the boy's faithful teddy-bear named Max, the toys enter the realm known as The Dark. There they will face off against the Boogeyman and his army--a legion of the boy's forgotten, bitter toys.

Fighting to survive insurmountable odds, the toys will discover this is a battle not only for the soul of a child, but for their own as well...

And here's the official site for Th3rd World Studios, where you can check out all of their offerings.

So, while it's a big week, those are the two books I'm most looking forward to. How about you--what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When God Gets the Blues

Exfanding Your Horizons welcomes guest posts, and today's is a doozy. It's called "When God Gets the Blues," and it's a fantastic in-depth look at the music of the legendary Eric Clapton and the stories behind it. Whether you're a diehard Clapton fanatic or just interested in music and/or excellent blogging, zharth's post is well worth the read.

Oh, and if you need a refresher on what Eric Clapton sounds like--and I hope you don't--watch this (jump ahead to about 0:40 if you're impatient):

So as not to steal anyone's thunder, we're only reprinting a small excerpt of the post here; you can read the rest at zharth's blog, A NEET Life. The full post is safe for work, but particularly sensitive or easily offended folks would do well to exercise a little caution when poking around the rest of the blog. Just sayin'.

Now, onto the post:

Birthing a God

If ever there was a guitarist that needs no introduction, a guitarist whose name implies legend, a guitarist whose licks are recognizable to the uninitiated - it would be Jimi Hendrix, who turned the guitar world (literally, during some of his solos) upside-down. But do you know who even the revolutionary Jimi Hendrix idolized? His contemporary and leader of the hit supergroup Cream, Eric Clapton - who, even among the slew of guitar gods arising out of the heady generation of the 60's, earned the illustrious, and potentially sacrilegious, title of "God" among his most obsessed fans (usurping his more modest nickname of "Slowhand"). Now, I've listened to enough guitarists with amazing talent to realize that there's just no point in arguing who's the best (because clearly, nobody will ever beat Roy Buchanan), but, unlike many of his contemporaries, Eric Clapton possesses a good supply of talent, fame, *and* longevity, for which he deserves recognition. And he's had his share of misery, too. You see, even God gets the blues from time to time.

[Read the rest of "When God Gets The Blues" at A NEET Life]

Monday, July 27, 2009

San Diego Dreaming

San Diego Comic Con logoIt's been called many things over the years--Comic Con, SDCC, and now, officially, Comic Con International: San Diego. (But my favorite monikers for the event are "Nerd Prom" and "Nerageddon.") It's changed from a small dealer-oriented show to the biggest pop the planet.

It looms over fandom every year, and its arrival is anticipated by attendees and no-shows alike for the breaking industry news that comes out of it. But, today, there's really only one thing left to say about Comic Con.

It's over.

Like fifteen minutes after sprinting down the stairs on Christmas morning, all the toys are opened, some of them are broken, and everyone involved is exhausted.

Heck, when it comes to Comic Con, I wasn't there but even I'm tired this morning just from trying to keep up with all the show reports on the various news sites. Seriously, Newarama's Twitter feed was constant throughout the show, and Comic Book Resources updated, like, every ten minutes. And that's not even mentioning the five-plus hours of live coverage on G4 this weekend.

From the biggest news of the Con to what Brian Bendis ate for breakfast Saturday morning, there was no stone left unturned for the world of geekdom. If CNN was as dedicated to bringing us the news every day as the comics sites were to covering every aspect of SDCC, well, there'd be a lot more news on CNN.

And I like CNN.

But, seriously, there was tons of news coming out of SDCC--some interesting, some very much expected. From Marvel, the big announcement on Friday afternoon was that the publisher has acquired the rights to Marvelman, which, if you know comics, you know why this is a big deal. You can read about that story at The Beat.

There were exclusive movie clips, big name directors, and even Johnny Depp!

But all that stuff is covered ad nauseum on the big comics sites, and I'm sure most of you have already caught up on a good number of the goings on in San Diego over the past few days.

But, one story managed to not make it to the Newsaramas and the CBRs of the world. Instead, other than a few mentions on forums and a couple of blurbs on other, smaller comics sites and some horror film sites, the news has gone pretty much unnoticed.

And that's the story we here at Exfanding are most excited about.

On Friday afternoon, The Goon creator Eric Powell hosted a panel about his Dark Horse series, which is much-loved on this here blog. The most important news to emerge from said panel was that Powell, along with animators from Blur Studio, showed clips of the upcoming (and very hush-hush) Goon CGI movie, complete with actors' voices for Goon and Franky!

The Goon movie teaser photoFrom what I've been able to cobble together from various con reports online, there were a couple of clips of Goon and Franky played for the audience, starting with a Public Service Announcement on how to kill zombies (Ha!), and including Franky saying his classic, "Knife to the eye!" line.

The voices of the characters in the clips?

Playing the Goon was Clancy Brown, who you might know from The Shawshank Redemption, as Hadley, or from Spongebob Squarepants, as Mr. Krabs (I'm told). He's also the voice of Lex Luthor in the Bruce Timm animated stuff. Obviously, since I wasn't there and the panel has not yet surfaced online, I couldn't hear him as Goon, but from all accounts it seems like he nailed it. And, from his past work, he can obviously pull off a deep, resonating Goon. Nice!

The Goon movie posterAs for Franky. Well. This one rules, I must say. Mr. Paul Giamatti voiced the maniacal little knife-wielder, and received rave reviews.

Now, while both actors have pushed for the roles, there's nothing official yet, as the movie is not yet in production. But David Fincher is still producing, and he called in during the panel to see how things were going.

The panel itself was absurd and funny and dark and a little confusing, just as the book is. I really hope it shows up online at one point, because Powell's panels are always outrageous and worth checking out.

So, good news for Goon fans today, and as more info comes along, I'll drop a line here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Basics: Food

Food is a legitimate fandom.

People all over the world are passionate about food. Just like comics fans, food aficionados spend obscene amounts of money every week on this thing they love. They watch back-to-back television shows about food. "Foodies" (yes, we have a name for food fans) might learn all sorts of obscure facts about food that nobody will ever ask for--a fanboy trait if ever there was one.

Bookstores devote large amounts of shelf space to books about food. There are food conventions. You can even become a fan of food on Facebook, which means it has to be official.

Like with any other fandom, you can buy merchandise that recreates the magic of food in your own home: hamburger keychains, for example, or Philly cheesesteak... hats.

Man wearing a cheesesteak hatYes, food is a key ingredient in human survival, but that can't be the sole reason it has developed such a strong following; otherwise, I would have sold all these breathing-inspired lunchboxes long ago. No, food is a subject that is interesting and appealing on a variety of levels, a hobby that can be appreciated by amateurs and professionals alike.

Do what tastes right:

Food, when prepared properly, tastes good. Except cabbage; you can't do anything good with that stuff. Don't hate me, cabbage fanboys.

Seriously, flavor is easily the main reason why anybody makes a big deal about food. Think about it this way: Humans enjoy experiencing pleasure through the senses--listening to beautiful music, looking at gorgeous art, petting fuzzy kittens; that sort of thing.

People have a lot of options if they want to experience something pleasing through the senses of touch, smell, sight, or hearing, but a delightful taste experience is accomplished almost exclusively through food and drink (unless you prefer licking sewer pipes and munching on gravel, Roger Wilco).

Basically, if you want to enjoy life through all of the senses, you can't help but be a fan of food.

Food isn't just about the taste, though; the smell of freshly baked cookies can be intoxicating, and the texture of a melt-in-your-mouth steak can make you weak at the knees (or weak at the stomach, if you're a vegetarian, but let's pretend we're talking about me here, because we are). Even the aftereffects of food, such as a sugar rush from lots of candy or the amazing sensation of being awake at 5 AM after a cup of coffee, are reasons why people like to eat and drink.

Have it your way:

Whether it's cooking, baking, brewing, or just mixing up a batch of Kool-Aid, there's something gratifying about transforming a collection of different items into a unified whole; sometimes it's relaxing to leave the rest of the world behind and spend an afternoon or evening in the kitchen, especially when it means you get to eat or drink what you want, prepared the way you like it (unless you're a lousy chef).

On the flip side, there's a certain enjoyment to having someone else prepare your food, to enjoy the atmosphere and presentation of a fine restaurant, or to emerge from your Dungeons & Dragons session to find that someone has already gone to the trouble of whipping up enough pizzas for you and your six ravenous players. Thanks again, Mom!

Think outside the bun:

Though making food and eating food are perhaps the two most obvious ways to be a food enthusiast, one can also be a food scholar of sorts: regional recipes, international cooking techniques, religious and cultural customs concerning food, wine and cheese pairings, which foods do not taste good after brushing your teeth... there's so much to learn.

There's also a lot that goes on behind the scenes--food isn't just a hobby; it's also an industry, and the production methods and business plans and whatnot provide even more for food fans to learn about and participate in. Not that I'm itching to be the guy who puts lids on blenders for a living, but hey, that very well could be somebody's dream job.

In conclusion...

Food is a legitimate fandom. You can geek out about food the way you geek out about Superman or H.P. Lovecraft; go ahead, you have my permission. Share your passion for cooking with somebody who can't pour a bowl of cereal without somehow burning it. Go on a food tour of Europe; only visit those big landmarks like the Eiffel Tower if they're close to a decent restaurant.

But please... don't let me catch you wearing one of those ridiculous cheesesteak hats.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Basics: Music

As I mentioned last week over at this post on the Dave Matthews Band, a goal of mine for the blog is to write more about my music listening tendencies. Music plays a big role in my life, as it does, I'm sure, for most of you. And I feel as though I have all but neglected to Exfand upon my favorite musical genres, bands, and songwriters.

If the DMB post was Step One to alleviating that regret, then this is most certainly Step Two.

Now, instead of the usual format we've been utilizing for these "Back to Basics Week" posts, I'd like to create a dialogue. With myself. Hear me out.

I want to do this for several reasons. First, I find myself to be incredibly interesting. And second, I think it might be a nice change of pace from the whole, Alex and Nathaniel write until they collapse model we've been employing this week.

Speaking of employment, yes, we are both still employed. Even though I, for one, have been caught typing on this here blog during work hours at least three times this week.

Including two minutes ago.

Anywho, let's get right to the (form-busting, so creative it hurts) dialogue between me Hopefully this comes across as something other than creepy. Or crazy. Or both.


Before we get started, I couldn't help but notice that you came off as kind of a jerk a little ways up. Would you like to clarify your statements at all?

Um. No.

Okay, well, that's--

Just get to the questions, Bucky.

Fine, fine. Sheesh. Okay, what kind of music do you like?

Wow. Great question. I mean, really, you are a boon to the journalistic--

Oh, good God, man. Just answer the--

Sorry. Okay, well, the easy answer is: all kinds. I listen to a wide variety of musical types, from classical to hard rock, Bocelli to Bowie, James Taylor to Alice Cooper.

But who would you consider at the top of that list?

The Beatles. John Lennon. Yeah, it all starts from there.

What is it about that band, and Lennon in particular, that you're drawn to?

The Beatles are one of the most "musical" bands in history. What I mean is, there are bands out there who strive to recreate their sound. In order to do that, they have near-full orchestras playing on stage with them. But that's what the The Beatles had on every album.

They were orchestral, and yet you remember all of the words to all of their songs. To be both revolutionary and totally mainstream all at once is incredibly rare, but that's exactly what they were. Look at Sgt. Pepper. That album was a revelation to the music world--an entire album with interconnected songs and themes--and yet each song stands alone as a classic.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club BandBesides that, though, the words to those songs. "Let It Be," "Hey Jude," "Blackbird," "Across the Universe," "In My Life"...the list goes on and on. And later, after the band broke up and John Lennon released his solo stuff, there was an entirely new catalog of music. Imagine hit, and music changed again.

Since I was born in the eighties, I obviously never had the experience of buying a new Beatles record as it came out, and John Lennon was killed a couple of years before I showed my fat little baby head. But, like all subsequent generations, I can relate to Beatles songs, and they have a great meaning in my life.

Do you have a favorite song?

No. I think it's impossible to have one favorite Beatles song.

Gun to the head, answer the question or...well, you know...

Well, in that ultra-real (and needlessly violent) situation you've put forth...probably "In My Life."

Moving on, I noticed you mentioned Alice Cooper at the top. Alice Cooper?

Yeah, man. Alice Cooper. Like I said, my tastes vary.

How'd that start?

I heard "School's Out," playing on the radio one day and I liked it, so I went and bought his greatest hits. It played enough times in rotation on my car's CD player that I decided to find more, and the more I listened to, the more I liked the sound.

He's the guy in all the makeup, right?

Yeah, the eye black. His old stuff is good, old fashioned classic rock, and some of his newer stuff is a bit more out there, but still very much rooted in hard rock. He's also known as the "Dracula of rock music" because of his appearance and because of the theatrical shows he puts on. They're almost like short plays, actually.

Alice CooperAny specific songs you'd suggest to the newbie?

"From the Inside" is a favorite of mine, also "Billion Dollar Babies," "Stolen Prayer," and "Welcome to My Nightmare."

You've mentioned enjoying bands like Dave Matthews, for example. That's a big difference between DMB and Alice Cooper, no?

Sure, but why limit yourself?

What's playing on your system right now?

In my car, it's Billy Joel's The Stranger, at home it's Zeppelin IV on the CD player and The Best of Leon Russell on the record player. Currently on the iphone (and in my headphones as I type this at work) is some live Dave Matthews Band.

Led Zeppelin IVYou're going to get fired.

Nah. I'm like a ninja. A big, fat ninja.

Anyway, Zeppelin IV is a bit of a cliched answer, no?

Hey, the truth's the truth. And, despite how cliche that album has become (and how the radio thinks that Stairway is Zep's only song)I always have IV ready to go. Even with Stairway's eight minute running time, the album runs through at a feverish pitch, and the "locations" of the songs change dramatically as the album rambles on.

Ha! Nice. "Rambles" on...

Yeah, I crack me up. When the record came out, the tracks were divided, four on side one and four on side two. All eight songs are classics in their own right, but together, there's something magical--or mystical, if you will--about them. It really is just a great, great album.

And, like with all things when it comes to that band, there's an interesting back story to the recording sessions. Zeppelin recorded the album at Headley Grange, a looming Victorian stone structure that at one point was a poorhouse in East Hampshire, England.

Headley Grange in East Hampshire, EnglandI've read that the band wired the whole place for sound, and Jimmy Page set up mics all over the place. Because it was a big, empty place with high ceilings, Page hung mics down from higher floors and in doing so, created all kinds of echoes and natural feedback.

Also, there's some rumors (started by Jimmy Page) that the place is haunted. It would have to be, right? And front-man Robert Plant supposedly wrote all of the lyrics to Stairway while hanging out there.

Cool. Any new bands that you're into at the moment?

Eh, I'm not a huge new music kind of guy, but I recently discovered Jill Sobule, who is a really cool indie artist, and she sings a song called "Spiderman," so yeah, right up my alley. Also, I'm a big fan of the Pat McGee Band, a group of Southern rockers who don't get nearly enough credit.

Anything else you'd like to talk about before we end this thing?

Just that I've really enjoyed this week's worth of posting and I hope everyone out there did, as well. Keep the comments coming, everyone, and as we mentioned last week, if there's a fandom you'd like to write about, just drop us a line!

And now I will officially stop talking to myself...

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Basics: Horror

As we continue our week-long effort to provide in-depth posts on different fandoms, so far, we are both still employed. So, there's that. Yes, we missed Monday. And yes, we'll now have to post on Sunday, but hey. We're trying here.

Anytransition, today I'd like to talk about horror, and my affection for the medium. Um...genre. Whatever. If you follow this blog regularly, you can tell that much of my comics reading tends to lean towards the horror side of the spectrum. Sure, I read a bunch (read: way too much) of other stuff as well, but just about every week I am on the lookout for another horror title to add to my pile.

When it comes to literature, I'm very much the same way. I read just about everything. As a matter of fact, I just finished a sci-fi title called The Somnambulist and I'm currently reading a book called No Man's Lands, which is written by a guy who travels to each location in Homer's Odyssey. I'm also making my way through Giuseppe Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, about Sicily in the 1860s.

So my reading is pretty much all over the map, and I am always on the hunt for new writers and titles. But the one constant in my reading pile has always been horror fiction, from old school Stephen King to post modern noir horror such as Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt novels. I don't know what it is about horror that keeps me coming back, but I guess I'll be exploring that over the course of this post.

I'd like to start off by saying that, no matter what some people say, horror fiction is most definitely a genre of literature. And, more importantly, it's a legitimate genre of literature. And today I'd like to mention some of my favorite horror works, be them in prose or in comics, movies or television, and talk a bit about how and why I got into such things.

Before I go any further, though, I should say that I don't like being scared.

What I mean is, I know there are some folks who go to every horror movie that's playing just because they need that rush of adrenaline, that visceral reaction that horror hounds crave. I am definitely not that person. I put the importance on watching a good movie before watching a scary movie.

For example, The Exorcist is, in my opinion at least, the most frightening movie ever made.

The Exorcist posterBut more important to me is the overall quality of the flick, from the script to the acting to the cinematography. And in all of those fields, The Exorcist shines. Don't get me wrong, it's not a movie I watch more than once every few years if it's on television, but still, it's a quality film with powerful themes and great performances by the cast.

And my take is that Exorcist , while being incredibly disturbing and most certainly rooted in horror (and therefore out to make the audience scream), is still a great film. It's pretty much the oldest story ever told--good versus evil for the sake of the children.

You know, all that.

And what we get from this movie--a film that received as much negative press from religious groups as any up to its release--is something altogether uplifting. Now, hang on. Let me finish.

[And, even though it was released over 30 years ago...Spoiler Alert for anyone who hasn't seen the film.]




The Priest dies at the end. Both Priests, actually.

But the little girl, Regan, lives, and she does so because of the selfless actions of Father Damien Karras and Father Lenkester Merrin, who both sacrifice their lives for hers. That's pure, simple good overcoming pure, simple evil. The real debate about the movie is the final scene in the bedroom, as Karras invites the demonic entity that plagued Regan into his own body.

He is overtaken by the demon, and his eyes turn black. But, for a brief moment, we see very clearly that Karras' eyes return to normal. The very next action is his jumping out of Regan's window, down several flights of stairs to his death.

Some argue that the demon won, as it gained possession of Karras and caused his death. Others, me included, argue that Karras was, in that briefest of moments, in complete control of his actions. He knew the only way to kill the demon was to go out that window and down those stairs.

Father Karras won. Case closed. And in doing so, he managed to save a young girl's life.

And that's how I like my horror, with some sort of redemptive quality to it. When, in the end, we see that all the monsters can actually be beaten and humanity can triumph. I suppose that's why I don't much like the splatter flicks of the 1980s, and the killing machine bad guy who can't be stopped. And, in fact, continues to not be stopped through sequel after sequel.

That's just not my bag, though. There's enough true horror in the world today, there are enough dead bodies on the news every night. I don't need to see gallons of red corn syrup and chainsaws, thanks.

I like horror that makes you think. Horror that makes you, as the reader or the viewer, come up with your own images of the thing that lurks in the shadows. I like horror that has a point, a deeper meaning.

Here are some of my favorite horror stories, movies, and whatever else. Hopefully it's a diverse list, and hopefully you can take something away that you'll enjoy. Anyway, here goes:

It Starts With Poe

Edgar Allan, that is. I'm sure there's no need to introduce Poe to anyone today, but his contemporaries didn't think much of him. Poe died penniless and alone (not to mention drunken) on the streets of Baltimore, known more as a critic than as an author is his own right.

But he was the master of the macabre, and anyone who hasn't read The Fall of the House of Usher, or The Raven, or The Tell Tale Heart really is missing some of the most cerebral, frightening writing of the past two centuries.

Stoker. Bram Stoker.

I love vampire lore and fiction, and really, it all starts with Stoker’s turn of the century masterpiece. Another author who was known more for being something else (in Stoker’s case, assistant to Henry Irving, the big theater star of the day), Stoker’s Dracula was not well received.

At all.

Readers, and critics, of the day saw Dracula as a cute little something, easily forgotten, written by Irving’s assistant, the heavy set guy at all the big, social events of the time period.

Photo of Bram StokerStoker made very little money off the novel, and, despite his several, solid short horror stories before and after Dracula was published, and some other longer works, Stoker died before any of the dramatizations of his most famous novel were performed. His wife, seeing that her late husband’s work may actually be worth something after all, fought tooth and nail to retain the book’s copyright and even sued, and defeated, the filmmakers of the German expressionist classic silent film, Nosferatu over the naming rights.

Hence the film’s eventual title and name change for the Dracula character. Obviously, none of these things helped Stoker much since, unlike his most famous literary creation, Bram was very much dead...and staying that way.

Still, Dracula stood up to the test of time and the story and its characters have become ingrained into popular culture. Looking at the novel through post modern eyes, Dracula can be seen as a warning against the coming advances in technology at the turn of the century, a cautionary tale about foreigners “invading” London, and even a cry for help written by an author who was more than a little conflicted in his sexual orientation.

Dracula book coverBut, at its heart, Dracula is a gothic cornerstone, a horror classic that simply must be on any true horror fan’s bookshelf. It’s one of the very few longer works that I’ve read several times, and was able to find more enjoyable after each encounter (Moby Dick and Waiting for Godot are the two others that spring immediately to mind).

If you enjoy vampire fiction, or movies and television shows with vampire themes, and you haven’t yet read Dracula, then you are doing yourself a great disservice.

Forget Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe was the Bee’s Knees

There’s only one writer who has his own section in bookstores today, and that’s Will Shakespeare. (Granted, in most chain stores, Stephen King is pretty darn close!) But, during his time, Shakespeare was seen as inferior to one of his contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe.

Every time I pass by the Shakespeare aisle, I have to stop and wonder what Marlowe must be thinking, wherever he is. Probably something similar to how Henry Irving feels when blog readers go, who the heck is that? I mean, try finding Marlowe's The Complete Plays in a Borders. Usually, there’s one copy, and it’s ALWAYS after the last tome on or by old Will.

Anyway, Marlowe’s work is certainly more deserving of remembrance than Henry Irving’s, and personally, I’ll take Kit over Bill any day of the week. I took a class in college, taught by one of the leading Marlowe scholars (I know, he’s probably one of three), and I re-read all of his plays.

For this post, however, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is most pertinent, as it involves a deal with the devil and the horrors that follow such a pact.

The Tragical History of Doctor FaustusFaustus, similar in theme and characters to Goethe’s Faust, tells the ageless story of a man who craves immortality and the answers to questions he has no business ever knowing.

Faustus decides that it’s in his best interest to make a deal with the devil--buying him years of life and access to magic in the process. Of course, this goes poorly, and Marlowe explores the consequences in this epic play.

You probably encountered Faustus in school, but if you haven't revisited the work since, you should try it without those pesky deadlines and essays all of our teachers made us write.

The Grandfather of Modern Horror

Stephen King may be the most famous horror writer to come along in a century, and, love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge the breadth and creativity of his body of work. He is prolific in his writing and his stories are so engaging that every one of them gets snatched up to be made into a movie.

And when it comes to marketability and sheer public appeal, there’s really only a handful of other horror writers who can match King. In my opinion, one of those writers, Richard Matheson, stands above the rest.

Actually, Stephen king himself calls Matheson his biggest influence, and for good reason. Even if you don’t know the name, it’s likely you know the works. Ever see that Twilight Zone episode with Captain Kirk and the thing on the wing of the plane?

Sure you have.

Well, that story was written by Richard Matheson and collected in one of several volumes of short fiction. How about I Am Legend? Will Smith running around the heck he was dodging in that movie? Yep, it was adapted from Matheson’s original tale.

And, while in the Smith version, there are mutants and dogs and other people running around an otherwise barren New York City, the real Legend deals with vampires and one, single remaining human being. It’s a tale of survival that, after reading it, I immediately thought of movies like Dawn of the Dead and comics work like 30 Days of Night.

I Am Legend book coverI Am Legend is, simply put, the greatest vampire story ever written. A bold statement? Sure it is. But I’d fight you over it.

It’s one man’s fight to survive in a world that has turned completely into vampires. And, while vampires are the most immediate threat, it’s the sense of loneliness that comes from the main character’s complete isolation from humanity that runs through the heart of this novel. Legend is thought provoking and scary in a cerebral sense. Anyone out there who loves zombie films, and despises Twilight, should check out Legend. It is well worth your time, and it comes with the Official Exfanding Stamp of Approval.

So you know it’s good.

And, for those of you who love a good haunted house story, Matheson’s Hell House is considered by many to be the finest example of that particular sub-genre ever penned. It moves at an incredible pace, and it is just flat out creepy. Another favorite of mine.

He Created Conan, Didn’t He?

Robert E. Howard is, as I’ve written in the past, one of the most underrated American authors. Working primarily for the pulp magazines of the 1920s, Howard churned out tale after tale of swords, sorcery, and the fantastic. He is the creator of legendary pulp heroes like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, but he also wrote some of the great, early 20th century American horror.

Along with his friend H.P. Lovecraft, Howard thrilled readers of pulp magazines like Weird Tales with bizarre and unsettling stories of the macabre. Howard's horror classics, like Pigeons From Hell and The Children of the Night, are known for their intensity in the buildup to the final reveal.

A lesser known creation, Howard's Solomon Kane is a Puritan who roams the earth to rid it of evil spirits. It's classic pulp-meets-horror, and I highly recommend that everyone checks out Hills of the Dead and The Castle of the Devil. Classic, classic stuff.

Solomon Kane book coverBefore I Go, a Post Modern Selection

If you read comics, you might know the name Charlie Huston. He's written Marvel characters Moon Knight and Wolverine in the recent past. But I discovered Huston's prose fiction about a year before his Marvel work started to ship, and man am I glad I did.

Huston's writing is frenetic and visceral, and his is a wholly unique voice in the neo-noir genre today. Huston's Joe Pitt Case Files are about the vampire underground of New York City, and it follows bruiser Joe Pitt around as he navigates the vampire infrastructure of clans and gangs. Huston released the third Joe Pitt novel at the tail end of last year.

Entitled Half the Blood of Brooklyn, Huston’s latest foray into the life and times of vampire enforcer Joe Pitt proves to be just as smash mouth as the previous two volumes, while going in some strange, new, and intriguing directions.

Huston’s trademark fast-as-lightning prose reads like a graphic novel should; kind of like an angry Frank Miller without the limitations of the Comics Code. Huston’s style is refreshing and unique, with no pauses to attribute quotations to characters.

The reader always knows exactly who’s talking, though, and Huston has the one-after-another cadence of real life speech down pat. Huston is so good at characterization through dialogue that one could randomly flip to any page, put a finger down on a quote and instantly recognize who is speaking. Interestingly, one could argue that Huston’s prose actually reads more like a graphic novel than his comics do.

In addition to the grittiness that's omnipresent in Huston's writing, Brooklyn provides a surprising amount of heart and soul. There are some moments that will take Pitt enthusiasts by surprise, as alliances change quicker than the characters speak.

But, if this is the type of thing you think you might be into, start with book one, Already Dead.

Speaking of being already dead, I'm just about tapped out with this post. There's way more I'd like to include, but at the very least I'd like to talk briefly about the affinity I have for John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic, Halloween.

Halloween movie posterAs I said way at the top of this post, I'm not a big fan of slasher films, which is a bit of a dichotomy, since Halloween is essentially responsible for the deluge of such movies in the 1980s. Halloween did to horror movies what Dark Knight Returns did to comics. It showed people something new, while using old tropes, and it was imitated endlessly. Usually not well.

Halloween's villain (or hero, if you're a crazy person) is of course Michael Myers, and he haunts the movie just as he hunts the onscreen characters. The killer is always on the fringes of the film, and while we see the approach to a murder, we don't see much of the murders themselves.

What John Carpenter knew was that the viewer would come up with way more frightening scenarios than the filmmakers ever could. So he turns the tables on the viewer, and leaves the gory stuff to our imagination.

Halloween is an almost entirely bloodless film, which makes you really stop and go, wait, then why did all the subsequent slasher flicks have so much of the red stuff? But that's what makes the original so great, and so scary. The viewer provides the horror.

I could go on, but as I said, I'm about beat, so here's how I'll wrap things up. As you can see from my recommendations, I like very classic, somewhat "tame" (at least in violence and gore) horror stories and writers.

Finally, there's obviously an incredible amount of stuff that I didn't get to mentioning, but that's where you guys come in. As you've been doing, please leave some comments with your thoughts on the genre. We appreciate it!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Basics: Roleplaying

I love telling stories.

I tell stories through conversations with people. I tell stories through my writing. For several years, I told stories through acting on a stage. Telling stories is only part of the fun, though; I love being involved in the events that make up my stories.

I love being creative.

Whether I'm jotting down a haiku or drawing up blueprints of the high-tech future home I'll never have the resources to build, it is deeply satisfying to me when I loose my imagination and create things.

Tabletop roleplaying games incorporate storytelling and creativity.

I love roleplaying games.

To clarify, I mean tabletop roleplaying games, A.K.A. pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Not that you necessarily need to play at the table (I've played on the floor plenty of times), nor is it a requirement to use a pen and paper (some people use their laptops to record all their information); "tabletop" and "pen-and-paper" simply mean "not a video game," as in, "played with real people."

I know, there's this misconception that gamer geeks don't have any friends, so the notion of a geeky game played with other geeky people seems counterintuitive.

The person running the game, often known as the GM or Game Master, is essentially a storyteller, describing the setting and the events of the game, as if he or she were the narrator of a book. A player takes on the role of a character in the interactive story the GM is telling; not only do they usually have free reign over designing their characters, but they make every decision and speak every line of dialogue for their characters, influencing the direction of the story.

Players will often say that the process of creating a character is one of the most rewarding parts of playing an RPG. In a way, creating a character is like designing your own superhero: you get to choose his or her (or its!) strengths, weaknesses, quirks, opinions, pet peeves, religious views, political affiliations, breakfast food preferences (I suggest Scotch n' Bacon--sorry, in-joke), etc. When characters first start out, they're usually somewhat-above-average commoners, but with enough looting and experience under their belts, characters really can become superheroes... or gods, even.

Most player characters (also known as PCs) in a roleplaying game can do things that would be impossible for the players to do in real life. Depending on the game, characters might be able to survive a fall into an active volcano, shoot the wings off a fly, or turn a person's underwear inside-out with their minds. PCs can be anything a player wants them to be, from burly brawler to elegant spokesperson to ace detective. Though RPGs have rules that govern character creation, a character is only truly limited by the player's creativity (or by the demands of the GM).

During the design phase, players also have an opportunity to develop a backstory for their characters. Sometimes players write a few sentences to give the GM a basic idea of the character's personality and history. Sometimes players write a veritable novella, complete with geneaologies and esoteric details that will never, ever, come up during a game session. Ever. Still, creating a character backstory is like writing a short story, and putting that backstory into use during a game is like self-publishing.

Character creation is an excuse for artistically inclined players to sketch their characters and present their artwork when prompted for a physical description of who they're playing as. Theatrical players get to play around with different accents and speech patterns they might use while speaking as their characters. Strategy-oriented players might plan not just the creation of their characters but their long-term development as well, crafting their characters so that they start out on a direct path to obtain all the powers and abilities the players want their characters to have as they grow stronger.

Then there's the matter of playing as the characters; otherwise, we'd call it tabletop rolemakingbutnotactuallyplaying. Just imagine all the history and power and personality of the character you've created and then becoming that character, then interacting with other characters and creatures in a place that is driven by imagination and held together by whatever rules the GM sees fit. At this point, you'd almost certainly have a bigger say in what happens in your character's life than in your own life. Limitless choices. Freedom.

But that's nothing compared to the benefits of being a GM.

Whereas players generally only get to create and play as one character at a time, the GM has an entire universe filled with characters to build and roleplay. Let me back up a moment: the GM has an entire universe. Period. Just as there are rules to guide the creation of a character, there are rules to guide the creation of a game universe... the only difference is that the GM gets to decide whether or not to follow the rules. Limitless choices. Ultimate freedom.

There are plenty of preexisting game universes and campaign settings for GMs to use, but, realistically, anything a GM can imagine is fair game to incorporate into a game universe. Granted, there's an art to going bonkers with your creativity without disrupting the experience of the players, but there's nothing that says you can't have a world governed by talking shoelaces that live in a purple mushroom on the gold-plated elbow of a zombie hedgehog.

See? This is why I don't write horror novels.

There's also something tremendously satisfying about watching how players interact with your world. Few geek joys compare to the feeling you get when your players gasp in utter surprise or grin from ear to ear about something you, the GM, have poured your heart and soul into creating. No matter how many rules you have to memorize or how many hours you've dedicated to pulling everything together, that feeling makes it all worthwhile.

Perhaps you're interested in giving this whole roleplaying thing a shot. Roleplaying is a bit trickier to get into than some other hobbies because real people are among the required materials, and, speaking from experience here, attempts to purchase them in the store are rarely successful.

Things You Need:

First and foremost: A group of people who are willing to play. No experience necessary. Unless you're just staging battles between PCs, somebody is going to need to be the GM, even if they have to learn everything on the fly. I have found that an ideal group size is between 3 and 6 players (plus the GM); games with fewer players need to be custom-tailored to the characters' (or character's) skill sets for them to have a chance to succeed, and games with more players quickly become unmanageable.

Second and secondmost: A game to play. Yes, the GM could make everything up on the spot, but it's usually in the best interest of the players to use the rules and ideas of an established, playtested game that provides the GM with all the tools he or she will need to run a successful session.

Popular roleplaying games include (but are certainly not limited to) Dungeons & Dragons, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game; Vampire: The Masquerade, a dark game where vampires are far more than just cheap movie villains; Shadowrun, a game that blends futuristic technology with magic; The Star Wars Roleplaying Game, which is exactly what it sounds like; GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System), which is actually a set of rules that is adaptable to any number of genres and settings; and a slew of other games that are far too numerous to mention, except for Adventure!, which is a '20s pulp fiction game that's loads of fun.

Now, in order to play the game you've chosen, you'll need the sourcebook(s). Every RPG that I can think of (though there may be exceptions) has at least one book that explains all the rules and outlines everything you, the player, will need to know.

If you're the GM, chances are good that you'll need additional books that cover things the players really don't need to know. Furthermore, there are usually supplemental books that cover things the players and GMs really don't need to know unless they're trying to break away from the core rules and concepts, which you may wish to do to help keep the game fresh after a long while. (Side note: Sometimes you can find source material online. Sometimes it's free. Sometimes it's illegal.)

Third and thricemost: Playing materials. You'll probably need writing utensils and some way to keep track of the status and abilities of your characters; a "character sheet" for your game of choice is usually easy to photocopy from the sourcebook or find online.

Also, it's almost a guarantee that you'll need polyhedral dice. "Polyhedral" is Latin for "Not available in normal stores." Many results are determined by the roll of a die; don't assume that you can automatically set the mayor on fire just because you said so. Standard six-sided dice are good enough for some games, but others will require at least one twenty-sided die (which we call a "d20") plus a few others, or simply an inordinate amount of ten-sided dice.

Also, you'll probably need Mountain Dew.

Indeed, feeding a group of gamers is often as important as giving them pens and pencils with which they can grudgingly write how much damage you are doing to their defenseless, inept wizard wannabes. Pro tip: If you're the GM, make the players bring the food. Unless they bring lousy food.

Case in point: If I have my facts straight, I once had a group of five players each bring salsa and chips to a session. They knew I didn't like salsa. They knew I can't stand to throw things out. For the next several weeks, I had three containers of progressively moldier salsa in my fridge.

...But I digress.

Fourth and frostmouth: A good playing location. Secluded room with comfy chairs, a big table, and mood music is preferable. McDonald's Playplace Ball Pit is not. Though it would be fun for about three minutes. Make sure you've either got a group of people who aren't bothered by confused and offended stares from passersby (should you be forced to play in a public location, such as a Denny's), or else you should play in a location where agitated neighbors will not call you out for shouting "I'M THE KING!!!" at around midnight on a school night. Especially when you're the RA and should know better than to make so much noise so late.

Not that I would know anything about that.

So those are the major things. There's plenty more advice to be had about how to run a good game session, how to play your characters more effectively, which kinds of food are not offensive to bring to my sessions, etc., but this post is all about the basics. And, basically, that's about it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Basics: Comics

[Editor's Note: Waiting for Wednesday will return to its regular time slot next Wednesday. For now, listen to Alex blab on and on]

Comic book people are weird.

Comic book shops smell like the monkey cages at the zoo.

Women do not read comics.

Children do not read comics.

Well-adjusted grown-ups do not read comics.

People with even a modicum of appreciation for literature do not read comics.

Comic books are not art.

Comic books are nothing more than adolescent male power fantasies.

And so forth...

The above are all things that I've heard, and things that I've been told (usually condescendingly, by an English major) at one point or another over the past five or six years.

And, while there may be some truth when it comes to the statistically low numbers of women and children who read SUPERHERO comics today, just go to any Borders or Barnes and Noble and check out the Manga aisle. Kids, teens, and parents trying in vain to drag away said kids and teens from the shelves.

Now, it's very true that, in my local comics shop at least, there are very few female customers. But there are some. And I'm sure every comics shop has several women buying books on a week to week basis. So, while women typically aren't the ones buying every variation of every Batman action figure on the market, they do in fact read comics.

As for the other points made in the opening, well, as you can imagine I strongly disagree. Try reading Signal to Noise, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean and tell me that's not art. Or Sandman. Or Watchmen. Or Preacher. Or A Contract With God.

How about Blankets . Or Love and Rockets. Or Cerebus.

Obviously, I could just keep doing this forever, so I'll stop for the sake of your sanity. But the (heavy-handed) point I'm trying to make is--comics is an art form. Creative, sometimes brilliant, people write and draw some of the best stories in literature.

Comics have given us the modern day mythological figures of Batman and Superman, Spider-Man and The Avengers. Comics properties that I've never heard of are being optioned for film rights every day. Why? Because comics movies make the most money.

Comics have been an important part of the culture of America since the 1930s, and each subsequent generation has been introduced to the same, timeless characters. Comics culture has always been on the fringes on "normalcy," but, finally, with movies like The Dark Knight and Spider-Man, Iron Man and Watchmen, comics have come to the forefront of "accepted" cultural hobbies.

This week is Comic Con in San Diego, and the event sold out, completely, months ago. Hotels in the area were booked within minutes of taking reservations. Again, months ago. The event has grown from a small, one room dealer show to a massive, pop cultural mecca. Movie stars, TV stars, authors, publishers, producers, directors...

Everyone goes to Comic Con.

Because they have to. Because that is the market everyone wants a piece of. You make a solid, fan-friendly movie, you've got millions of comics crazies backing your every step.

Now, for those of you reading this and going, um, Alex, I'm here, so I obviously already like and appreciate comics, I'd say, first, bless you, and second, this post really isn't intended for you. I mean, please keep reading, and please leave some comments, but really, if I do my job with this, I will get a couple of decidedly non-comics people to maybe (just maybe) pick up a graphic novel and give it a chance.

So for those of you out there who come to this blog mostly for the video game stuff, or the posts about orchids, this one is just for you. It's my last ditch (well, for this week) effort to get you all to read comics, and I am going to try harder than Spider-Man did that time when he was trapped in that water thing.

Amazing Spider-Man coverLet me begin my case with the following. I would have likely agreed with the comments at the beginning of this post(hey, what can I do--I was an English major, too!) before I read The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. That book was my comics epiphany, and if I hadn't read it at the exact time that I did...well, let's just say I wouldn't be writing for this blog today.

Absolute Dark KnightAs a college senior, Dark Knight was actually required reading for my Writing New York class at NYU. By the time the book was assigned, I had just started exploring local comics shops and buying a couple of new releases--mostly Batman books. But that was a one or two book a month habit, and while I enjoyed taking a walk through the aisles, it never even crossed my mind to spend more than a few bucks a month on comic books.

But then I got the syllabus for that particular class, and I saw Dark Knight Returns was assigned for later on in the semester. Well, when I saw that I figured it would be a good excuse to hit up Forbidden Planet and grab me the trade paperback collection of the series. Sure, I could have picked it up at the school bookstore, but where's the fun in that, right?

So I headed out to Forbidden Planet during a break in my schedule for the day, and I asked around a bit about Frank Miller's book. And the response I got was pretty much the same thing, time and again. "It's a milestone in the medium. You have to read it."

So I bought it and stuck it in my bag and went to my next class, and went home and forgot about it.

Then the weekend came, and after I checked out what was expected from me for the coming week, I decided that I very much did not feel like starting on any of that. So I cracked open Dark Knight and started reading it.

A few hours later, the book was finished and my head near exploded.

This was most definitely not the Batman from my childhood. This was something completely different, and I loved it. I guess I was just hooked on comics from then on. The first thing I did after my early Monday morning class that week was to head back to Forbidden Planet and find something--anything--else to read.

Being that I was in a Batman mood, I picked up a couple of the latest issues. The art looked great, so I figured, what the heck? Well, little did I know that actually, the Batman books I was buying were all from the acclaimed Hush storyline, by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee. I just didn't know it at the time.

Reading the issues as they came out, I remember thinking a couple of things. First, the story is really fun, and second, the artwork is amazing. It's no Dark Knight, but it was never meant to be that. It's just a great serial story, a mystery that kept readers coming back (in record numbers) for over a year. And, more importantly for the medium, it was the jump start the (at the time, flailing) industry needed.

Absolute Batman: HushHush made Batman relevant again, in a way very similar to Frank Miller's revival of the character in the 1980s. And there I was. I'd just finished Dark Knight, a linchpin moment for the art form, and I was about five issues into a second watershed event.

And so it was the combination of Miller's cerebral, gritty, inspiring Dark Knight and the flat-out mainstream awesomeness of Hush that hooked me on comics.

But let's get back to my first love--Miller's Dark Knight. Dark Knight tells the story of Gotham City, sometime in the future. The heroes have all been forced out of commission, and Superman remains as a government lackey. Batman's been retired for decades, and Joker has been rehabilitating at Arkham, posing no threat to anyone.

That's how Dark Knight starts--basically, it's an aging and increasingly useless Bruce Wayne/Batman still coming to grips with the decision to hang up the cowl. By the time the book ends, Frank Miller has managed to explore brand new territory and answer questions that had never even been asked about the character, and his world.

The art is, at times, (intentionally) crude and the characters are bulging and ugly--just like the world in which they reside. Miller's style is very distinct, and while there are flashes of his mainstream work (such as his historic run on Marvel's Daredevil book) that remind the reader of previous incarnations of the character, Miller's Batman is wholly different than any other artistic interpretation.

The book just doesn't look like a DC comic. It's not pretty and the people aren't god-like, and everyone in the book has problems. Dark Knight is an altogether literary work; it's both mainstream and underground, somehow managing to straddle that line for the past twenty-odd years.

So the first challenge I present to any non-comics fans out there is this. Go to your local library and borrow a copy of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. And if you're worried about not knowing what's going on because you've never followed the characters before, don't be. If you know Batman, Joker, and Commissioner Gordon, then you're all good to go.

Give it a try. See if you like it.

Now, when you start off with two of the best-written, best-drawn, and best-crafted stories in (mainstream) comics history, as I did, it's not surprising that I was instantly hooked on the art form. But, instead of staying within the confines of the super hero genre, I immediately decided to venture out and find as many smaller press titles as I could get my hands on.

Doing so led me right to Eric Powell's The Goon, which in turn will allow me to die a happy person. But that's another story altogether.

What I'd like to do now is give you all a list of books to read if you've read and enjoyed Dark Knight (and even if you didn't). And, again, anyone interested, please do leave some recommendations of your own in the comments section.

For the English Majors

Comics aren't literature, eh? Well, I dare you to give these books a shot. First, forget Watchmen, and skip right on over to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, an historically-based, heavily researched look into the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Never mind the movie that came out a few years back--the book is the real gem.

Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison tells the story of a group of English majors, post college, trying to find their way in the big city. Sound familiar? Then check out this black-and-white masterpiece.

And then there's Neil Gaiman's Sandman. As I wrote about at length, in this post, "starting with issue 1 in 1989 and ending with 1996's issue 75, Sandman was, simply put, one of the greatest graphic stories ever told." And now that the entire series is collected in a variety of (affordable) ways, there's no excuse not to read it!

For the Anti-Super Hero crowd

Hate super hero stories? Well, so do these creators! Check out Garth Ennis' The Boys, a story about the people who are put in charge of watching over the super hero community. It's ultra-violent, ultra-satirical, and incredibly well written.

Garth Ennis' The BoysAlso, Warren Ellis' The Authority, from DC Comics. Another graphically violent, "realistic" look at super powers in a post modern world, this is an early example of the post modern super team.

And then there's Watchmen, Alan Moore's comics masterpiece. This book manages to subvert the hero trope while it writes a love letter to the medium. A group of washed-up heroes struggle to come to grips with the changing world of the 1980s, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Moore and artist Dave Gibbons pull absolutely no punches in this meticulous, staggering work.

I Just Want to Laugh

If heavy melodrama isn't your thing, then these books might do the trick. Eric Powell's The Goon is one of the funniest, craziest books to come into the market in the past twenty years. It's an amalgamation of different styles (humor, noir, horror, old school Jack Kirby monsters) and it's a wholly unique entity in the publishing world today.

For sheer geek delight, you really can't beat John Kovalic's Dork Tower. This one's for the gamers, the video gamers, the anime fans, the dorky movie fans, and well, just about everyone who reads this blog. It's more of a comic strip than a comics series, but there is a continuing storyline that will keep you entertained (and laughing your head off) time and again.

Dork Tower coverUm, But I Actually Don't Mind Super Heroes

Well, if that's the case, then check out these high points in the medium. As mentioned earlier, Batman: Hush was a majorly important story in the history of DC comics, and to the comics industry in general.

There's also Brian Michael Bendis' take on the Spider-Man mythos in Ultimate Spider-Man, a book that examines the life of a high school aged Peter Parker, and can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. No back story needed. Start at collection number one, and you're good to go.

For an older audience who like some noir in their super heroics, Bendis' epic run with artist Alex Maleev on Daredevil is arguably the best mainstream crime comic ever written.

Daredevil YellowGrant Morrison's All Star Superman gives an entry-level look at the Man of Steel. This series is loved by longtime fans as well as people like me--the very anti-Superman comics readers. I guess I always see Superman as being a very boring character, but Morrison's take on the red cape is entertaining and unique.

All-Star SupermanNow, I could literally go on all day, but I'll stop here because I think the stuff listed is a good start for newbies.

So, try one (or more!) of these books out, see if you dig it, and then please come on back here and tell us about it!