Arriving at the Intersection of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Classic Comic Books

What is your nostalgic pleasure, the thing that makes you hark back to a simpler time?  For me it is, and has always been, old, vintage comic books.  Since I was in junior high, these gems from yesteryear have called out to me with a song and a story I can’t resist.

 

I have always found it easy to imagine transporting myself to a time years before I was born–say, circa 1955 in a drugstore or a little corner shop, browsing through the comics rack, listening to the squeak it emits when I make it spin, and figuring out which issues to plunk my dimes on.

 

When I started collecting comics, the mid-1950s were, to me, an alien world glimpsed primarily via old, grainy, black-and-white TV shows or Hitchcock classics.  I enjoyed them, but they belonged to another era, beyond the purview of my personal experience.  Vintage comic books, however, brought the mid-20th century alive to me in ways television and cinema never could.  The culture of that period jumped off the pages, both from the stories themselves as well as from the ads and fan letters. I couldn’t afford the issues that were in tip-top condition.  I could only buy the ragged copies, with missing staples and spine rolls and water stains.  Some even had corners chewed off by rodents who had no doubt long since met their demise.  If anything, though, these imperfections just made me love these comics even more.  They were more personal this way.  More mine.

 

To this day, I still have hundreds of old comics.  I have the tried-and-true titles, such as Mitchell Brant’s favorite, The Fantastic Four, along with other stalwarts like Superman, Batman, The Avengers, and The X-Men.  But it is the science fiction comics from the 1950s, sans superheroes, that appeal to me the most.  The ingenuity of the stories, the old-fashioned and innocent tone, the crisp, imaginative artwork all inspire.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, I respect the attempt these vintage issues made to educate as well as entertain.  Granted, it was with a light touch, but the effort was deliberate and consistent.  The authors and editors of DC’s (the same company that gave birth to Superman and Batman) famous sci-fi duo of Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space eschewed all-out, no-holds-barred fantasy in favor of hard science fiction that always managed to have one foot firmly planted in the laws and realities of science.  By approaching their work in this way, the creative team inserted tidbits of learning for their readers.  The hero would generally solve a puzzle, perhaps even save the world, through some ingenious application of a scientific principle.

 

While it’s true that many liberties were taken, nuggets of actual science were always there to be mined.  For example, in Strange Adventures number 95 (August 1958), in a little tale titled “The Boy Who Saved the Solar System,” the protagonist, a twelve-year-old son of a scientist, accomplishes what the best minds of the Solar System cannot.  (Indeed, in the story, we meet the brightest minds from Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn.  Liberties!)  The entire Solar System is imperiled by a great gaseous cloud that emits a blight, the effects of which are ruining the crops and farmlands and limiting the food supply.  As the twelve-year-old’s father tells him one evening, “”It’s slow starvation, Son–for the entire human race.”

 

The boy is interested in science himself, and while his father tries to find a remedy for the worldwide (actually, Solar System-wide) blight, he fills balloons with hydrogen gas.  When his father forgets his wedding anniversary (he’s busy trying to save the world, so the date slipped his mind until it was too late!), the boy tells him not to worry, he’ll find something to give to Mom and then offer Dad the credit.  The boy picks some roses from the backyard–from the same rosebush one of his hydrogen balloons broke on the day before.  The thing is–the roses are perfectly healthy, not a sign of the blight that has plagued virtually all other plant life on Earth.

 

That’s when the boy and his dad realize–hydrogen kills the blight!  And Dad dutifully informs us that hydrogen is the simplest element in the universe.

 

So we have a good son, covering for his absent-minded dad, and in his kind act, he accidentally discovers the cure for the worldwide blight.  A neat and tidy (and deliciously corny) tale wrapped up and delivered in six pages.

In addition to the stories, there were other methods of sharing scientific information with the audience.  Take this same issue, Strange Adventures number 95.  In a page called “Amazing Ratios,” we learn that the weight of the earth in tons is equal to the number of atoms in a single drop of rain–6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!  And that Phoebe, the outermost of Saturn’s moons, takes longer to revolve around the planet it orbits (550 days) than Earth does to revolve around the sun (365.25 days).

 

There is even a “Spotlight on Science” letters page, where readers ask science questions for the editors to research and answer.

Likewise, in both The Eye-Dancers and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel (scheduled for release this fall), an attempt is made to tether the far-out and the mind-boggling with some semblance of scientific explanation.  And the primary vehicle for achieving this, in both novels, is Marc Kuslanski, the science wiz, who is, in some respects, the scientific mouthpiece for the unfolding events.  When Mitchell or Ryan or Joe stray far afield in their speculations, Marc is there to reel them back in, often with a theory or a hypothesis grounded in quantum mechanics or cold, hard logic.  And does he ever have his work cut out for him in The Singularity Wheel--which takes the concept of parallel worlds from The Eye-Dancers and expands it exponentially.

 

At the outset of The Singularity Wheel, Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers, is five years older and five years more advanced in her ability to bridge the chasm between dimensions.  And she wants to explore.

From the opening scene of The Singularity Wheel:

 

“She was endless.  Infinite.  She knew that now.

Monica Tisdale smiled.

With her eyes tightly closed, she sent out a mental thought-wave to . . . herself.

No.  That wasn’t right.  Not to herself.  To herselves.  She was more than one—far, far more.

She had practiced religiously, diligently, ever since she’d contacted the boys who had rescued her.  The boys who had come here from another world.  That knowledge had awakened a thirst in her, a quest to learn and discover.

And connect.

She was not like other girls.  The day-to-day happenings in Colbyville, New York, bored her.  Sure, she loved her mom and dad, liked a few of her classmates at school, and sometimes just wanted to have carefree fun.  But she had always been different, attuned to phenomena most people didn’t recognize and didn’t see.  As the weeks merged into months, and the months to years, her awareness of these things had sharpened.

She was ready.”

 

And in so doing, Monica sets off a chain reaction that will push her to the brink, as she sees and experiences her life in an infinite number of worlds, remembering things from a billion places, unable to know one world from another, one self from another.

 

Marc will be there, of course, to try to make sense of it all–if he can.

So while The Singularity Wheel will be as much fantasy as sci-fi, it will, hopefully, in the tradition of the classic sci-fi comic books from decades ago, keep its eye on the factual and the actual as it ventures off into the shifting, capricious landscapes of the unknown.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: