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

Five Years and Two Hundred Posts!

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1817, construction of the Erie Canal began.  It had been a long time in the making. First proposed in 1780 as a means to create a navigable water route between Buffalo and the Great Lakes to the west and New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Erie Canal had its share of roadblocks, delays, and controversies.

 

Construction wasn’t completed until 1825, and along the way, there was plenty of public backlash and criticism.  Skeptics of the canal referred to it as “Clinton’s Folly” and DeWitt’s Ditch,” mocking one of the primary movers and shakers of the new waterway, New York State governor DeWitt Clinton.  But it was Clinton and other proponents who would ultimately have the last laugh. The canal fostered a population upsurge in upstate and western New York, including my hometown of Rochester.  And it also served the primary purpose for which it was built.  By 1855, 33,000 commercial shipments traveled up and down the Erie Canal.

 

That number would slowly and inexorably decrease as the decades ensued, as first the railway and, later, the automobile and the truck superseded the canal as avenues for shipments.  Nevertheless, the Erie Canal would live on.  It wouldn’t stagnate and succumb to neglect and decay.  As the canal’s primary function shifted from shipping goods to recreation, it would remain an enduring jewel of the Empire State.  Today, water enthusiasts still can boat along the canal, either in their own craft or on a cruise.  Bicyclists, joggers, and walkers (Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski among them!) enjoy the miles of trails that line the water’s edge.  Two hundred years after ground was broken for New York State’s grand man-made waterway, the Erie Canal continues to prosper.

 

The Eye-Dancers blog is no Erie Canal!  But this entry marks the site’s two-hundredth post.  If someone would have told me, back in the summer of 2012, that The Eye-Dancers website would last five years and two hundred posts, I would have smiled and asked them if they might like to buy a bridge I wanted to sell.  There was no way I could envision it.  I was just trying to craft a few coherent blog posts, not make a fool of myself in the process, and help to spread the word of the at-that-time soon-to-be-released novel The Eye-Dancers.  Along the way, though, I learned that there was nothing to worry about.  I learned that the WordPress community is made up of generous, kind, interesting, and wonderful people who welcome blogging neophytes with open arms.

 

And so, today, five years on, I pause, take stock, glance back, look forward, and thank you all so much.  You are the reason why I’m still here, still blogging, still enjoying every minute of it.  If it weren’t for you, there surely wouldn’t be a two-hundredth post.  You have all inspired me to keep going, keep writing, keep believing, even when doubt and uncertainty threatened to sabotage my efforts.

 

That’s true, too, of The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  The support I have received from you regarding the sequel has been a motivator, an elixir, encouraging me to press forward with optimism.  I am in the stretch run of editing The Singularity Wheel, and will look forward to releasing it just as the trees here in the Northeast begin to transform from a canopy of green to a color show of golds, reds, and oranges.

 

In the meantime, and long afterward, I will continue to post, and continue to appreciate everything I have learned and experienced in this worldwide community.  I hope you’ll stick around for the next two hundred posts!

 

Thanks so much for all the support these past five years, and thanks, as always, for reading.

–Mike

Our Stars, Our Memories (Or, a YA Reminder)

“So, why do you write YA fiction?” is a question I get often.  “What is it about YA that inspires you to write in that genre?”

I suppose the question is natural enough.  After all, The Eye-Dancers is a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel, and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, due out late this summer, is as well.  But the truth is, I’m not a YA writer–at least, not exclusively.  Prior to The Eye-Dancers, in fact, I had rarely ventured into the YA waters.  For years, I wrote short stories–dozens of them.  And nearly all of them are mainstream/literary.

 

Even at that time, though, there was an occasional appeal to write about younger protagonists.  One story in particular, called “Marbles,” about a teenage boy who has a moment of epiphany causing him to realize and fully embrace that he’s no longer a child, and that he must look forward and prepare for his life as an adult, stayed with me.  It wasn’t long after writing “Marbles” that I began working on The Eye-Dancers.

 

It’s odd on the surface.  I am a long way from being a teenager myself.  The days of junior high and high school, for me, reside in a previous century, back when smartphones were unheard of and the personal computer was only just becoming mainstream.  When I was in junior high, Larry Bird was the three-time reigning NBA MVP, postage stamps cost 25 cents, and Tiffany was topping the pop charts with “Could’ve Been.”

 

It was a long time ago.

And yet . . . are we ever truly beyond our formative years?  Do we ever “outgrow” our first date, our first rejection, our first triumph?  Experiences from our past do not disappear like smoke upon an autumn breeze.  They linger.  Sometimes they hide in the shadows, buried beneath the layers of intervening years.  Other times they rise to the fore, reminders of an experience decades gone, remarkably vivid, as sharp and vibrant in our mind’s eye as the day they happened.

 

But still.  Why revisit the old haunts of adolescence on purpose?  Why write an entire novel (or two!) about teenage protagonists up to their chins in angst and insecurities?  Why walk the perilous path down memory lane that retouches old wounds and scabs?  It’s something many writers, as well as readers, do.  In fact, a 2012 survey concluded that 55 percent of YA readers are adults.  Again, the question of why resurfaces.

 

I can’t speak for others, only myself, and for me, writing The Eye-Dancers–and now, finishing up The Singularity Wheel–has been a labor of love.  The characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton were all inspired by neighborhood friends from my childhood, and then merged together with sprinklings from my own life.  When, for instance, I describe Mitchell’s enjoyment of his favorite comic book in chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel, I am, in essence, remembering my own discovery of that same issue when I was a teenager . . .

 

“He refocused on Fantastic Four number 51.  It was a remarkable issue—the first appearance of The Negative Zone, an alternate universe composed of negative, rather than positive, matter.  In the story, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has just made the discovery and resolves to explore this new and dangerous place.  He journeys through the void, bridges the gap between dimensions.

“Just like I did once, he thought.  Like we all did.  Five years ago.”

Of course, I’ve never traveled across time and space, as Mitchell has, but the appreciation he and I share for old comic books is real–and a reminder for me of what it was like when I was Mitchell’s age.

 

Not all of my adolescent memories are positive. Some of my most humiliating experiences happened in school.  Like so many others, I was at times the butt of jokes, the object of derision.  In high school, I struggled with acne and was overweight.  Believe me, I was made aware of both on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis.

 

But I was lucky.  Even on the worst days, I understood that.  I had a strong, stable family life–my parents never moved.  Many of our neighbors remained the same through the years.  Friendships in the old neighborhood ran deep.  The real-life inspirations for Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan would all get together with me–especially in summer.  We’d hang out on the driveway, shooting baskets; we’d invent games and spend entire afternoons arguing about the ever-evolving rules, having a blast the whole time; when we grew a little older, became teenagers, we’d talk about the things adolescent boys talk about, and we’d compete in sports and play strategic board games that lasted for hours.

 

Through it all, there was a camaraderie that was resilient, strong, enduring.  We still keep in touch today–not that often, not like we used to.  But whenever we get together, special things happen.  The years peel away, and the memories merge with the present day, creating a synchronicity in the space-time continuum that can only be described as magic.  And I am taken back to a simpler time, a time when forty was still decades hence, when, despite setbacks and doubts and insecurities, opportunities still seemed endless and all things were possible.

 

Maybe that’s why we write, and read, YA fiction, even as we get older.  Maybe as we take on the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood, as we perhaps feel trapped in a career we don’t love, a situation we can’t extricate ourselves from, a diagnosis we can’t pretend away, we need a reminder.  We need to remember what it was like when we were young.

 

As I look back through the lens of memory, I remember those summer evenings, lingering in the driveway, leaning against the car, talking with my friends as we swatted at the mosquitoes in seek of our blood and watched the fireflies dance and glow in the dark.  We’d talk about nothing, and everything.  We weren’t in a hurry.  Just being there was enough.

 

And we’d look up at the night sky, feel a sense of awe, and wonder.  I hope that sense of awe, that desire to probe and question and discover, that willingness to wonder and to believe in the so-called “impossible,” remains always.  I hope it never grows old.

 

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Quality of Mercy

Ryan Swinton knows how it feels to be an outsider.  In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released later this summer, Ryan is in a major slump.  Now seventeen years old, on the cusp of his senior year in high school, he struggles to find his place in the world.  To his eyes, it seems that all of his classmates know what they want to do with their lives.  Even his kid brother, Tyler, has plans to become a marine biologist one day.  But what about Ryan?  What will he do?

 

From chapter 3 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He [Ryan] walked into the living room.  A fifty-gallon saltwater aquarium, with bright orange-and-white clown fish and yellow tangs and angel fish, lit up for the night with a florescent bulb, served as a reminder that Tyler was focused, determined, sure of what he wanted and how to get there.  Even the fish appeared to know just where to swim, as if they had each staked a claim to designated areas within the aquarium.  Everyone and everything always seemed to have a plan, a clue, a path to follow.  Why was it so different for him?”

 

In short, Ryan Swinton all too often feels like an outcast, a reject.  An other.

********************************

In the third-season Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy,” a young lieutenant fresh on the scene of battle understands well what it’s like to view someone else as “the other.”

 

Rod Serling introduces the episode this way in a voice-over:

“It’s August 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight, and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

 

The American platoon in question, a ragtag group of perhaps twenty men, have taken the high ground overlooking a cave.  Holed up in that cave, a small group of Japanese soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, resist surrender.  The American force shells the cave incessantly, hoping, thus far in vain, that the sheer bombardment will force the Japanese soldiers to quit.

 

This is the situation Lieutenant Katell inherits.  He arrives on the scene, a fresh-faced commanding officer, full of vim and vigor.  When he is briefed by Sergeant Causarano, a battle-hardened veteran, Lieutenant Katell exclaims that since the artillery didn’t smoke the Japanese soldiers from their cave, “It looks like we’ll have to do a little mopping up ourselves.  Move in frontally.  Go right in there and wipe ’em out.”

 

The sergeant and some of the soldiers push back.  What the lieutenant is proposing would guarantee casualties, on both sides.  There is little justification to assault the cave in a frontal attack.  Causarano asks the lieutenant how long he’s been out there, on the battlefield.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Katell responds, defensively.

“You talk like it’s a football game, Lieutenant,” Causarano says.  “And this is no football game. . . . You have to remember . . . you haven’t been shot at yet.  And you haven’t shot anybody, either.”

Lieutenant Katell acknowledges his relative inexperience, but promises, “When it comes to killing Japanese, I think you’ll find me a pretty efficient officer.”

 

Later, the men smear mud on their faces for camouflage.  They are grim.  There isn’t much talking. The decision has been made–they are gearing up to assault the cave.

As they prepare, Lieutenant Katell notices Sergeant Causarano giving him a look.

“I’m not your cup of tea, am I, Sergeant?” Katell asks.

“You got a little too much vinegar for me, Lieutenant,” Causarano says, and makes a plea to bypass the cave.  The men trapped in there are “sick and half-starved.”  Why go through with this?

“Because they’re Japs!” the lieutenant snarls, as if that explains everything.

“They’re men,” the sergeant counters.

 

Lieutenant Katell cannot hide his disdain.  “If I had to size you up,” he says, “I’d say you’ve either got battle fatigue or you’re chicken.”

Causarano admits he may be a little of both. The war has gone on too long.  Too much has been lost. Enough is enough.

Katell blasts him again, calling him a “lousy soldier,” and reminding him that “when you fight a war, you fight a war!  And you kill until you’re ordered to stop killing!”

 

The sergeant can only shake his head.  “What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?” he says.  “How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?”

To which Katell answers, “Offhand, I’d say all of ’em!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they get it!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!”

Here, flustered, the lieutenant drops his binoculars.  And everything changes . . .

 

A Japanese soldier picks up the binoculars, hands them to the lieutenant, addressing him as “Lieutenant Yamuri.”

 

The lieutenant, shaken and confused, runs off, only to be shot at by enemy gunfire.  But when he looks at the enemy soldiers, he sees they are American soldiers.

When he returns to where his men are, he asks, “Who are you?  Where are we?  When?”

To his astonishment, he is told it is May 1942–over three years earlier.  Even more perplexing, the lieutenant slowly understands he is now–somehow–a Japanese officer.  “What’s going on?  What’s happened to me?” he wants to know.

 

The captain arrives.  He is a serious, scowling-faced man, and he is not pleased with the lieutenant’s antics and confusion.  He tells him so.  Lieutenant Yamuri, nee Katell, tries to pull himself together, tells the captain he is okay now, that he was just “feverish for a moment.”

The captain then reports that the artillery fire has failed to do its job.  The Americans trapped in the cave before them have not been destroyed, and have not surrendered.  They will undertake a full frontal assault, and Lieutenant Yamuri will lead the charge.

But the lieutenant is shaken.  It has dawned on him that he is now living the same situation, except in reverse.  No longer is he an American officer commanding a platoon to ambush a cave full of beaten, injured Japanese soldiers.  Now he is a Japanese officer being commanded to lead an assault on a cave full of beaten, wounded American soldiers.

He objects to the mission.  The Americans holed up in that cave are wounded, sick.  Couldn’t they simply bypass the cave?  Why attack it?

 

The captain is not sympathetic.  “They are Americans!” he says.  “They are the enemy!  We have to destroy them.”  He goes on to explain the well-being of enemy soldiers should concern the lieutenant no more than an anthill he might step on during the attack.

“But they are men!” Lieutenant Yamuri says.

The captain slaps him, leaves him there.  They will attack without him.

 

“May I ask the captain,” Yamuri says, “how many must die before he is satisfied?”

The captain’s words are hauntingly familiar:  “I would say all of them!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they die!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they die!”

 

Stunned, the lieutenant glances at his binoculars, and in that instant, he is returned to 1945.  He is the American Lieutenant Katell again, in the moments just before he and his men are to ambush the Japanese cave.

But he is no longer the angry, gung-ho man of action.  His face is ashen.

Suddenly, there is cheering among the soldiers in the camp.  Army headquarters has called.  The war is over.  The platoon has been ordered to retreat.  The impending battle has been averted.

Sergeant Causarano, seeing the lieutenant standing there, shell-shocked, mistakes his reaction to be one of disappointment.

“I wouldn’t fret,” Causarano says.  “There’ll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off.”

To which Lieutenant Katell, changed, solemn, remarks, “I hope not.  God help us, I hope not.”

 

*******************************

The fracturing of society, the clear lines of demarcation many people draw between themselves and others is by no means a thing of the past, relegated to television shows in grainy black and white, originally aired six decades ago.  Our time has been witness to a disheartening and increasing extremism, a polarization of politics, where nationalism, xenophobia, and an “us-versus-them” worldview are on full display.

 

Ryan Swinton does not like being viewed as an “other.”  He doesn’t like being left out, abandoned, misunderstood.  Shamed.  None of us do.

As he so often did, Rod Serling offered a fitting takeaway.  In the closing voice-over to “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling says:

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’  Shakespeare.  The Merchant of Venice.  But applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth–or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Ditko or the King? (Or, Why Does It Have to Be an Either/Or?)

Nearly every second of every day, we are confronted with choices.  Many are made without our even being aware of it.  Did you just tap your foot against the floor, and perhaps not even realize it?  Did you glance up at the ceiling?  Look to the left?  To the right?  Maybe you cracked a knuckle, stretched your calf muscle, took a quick sip of coffee.

 

We make choices all the time.

When writing–be it a novel, a short story, a newspaper article, or a journal entry, and everything in between–we also make myriad choices.  Again, the vast majority of these are at an unconscious level.  If you were to stop and ruminate over every word you wrote, you would, quite literally, be paralyzed, incapable of creating a single sentence.  The words come as they come. The story evolves–often on its own, as if imbued with a certain ineluctable magic.  Authors and thinkers and scientists have pondered the creative process for centuries.  It may never be fully understood.

 

But, whether understood or not, whether made beyond the awareness of the conscious mind or only after a tortuous and seesawing inner conflict–the choices are real.  And, when writing, one of those choices is:  Should you tell it with gusto, with in-your-face enthusiasm and beefy, muscular prose?  Or should you go for a more subdued, subtle approach, using the quiet power of understatement to capture the essence of the scene?

 

Fifty-five years ago, in the offices of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee faced a very similar dilemma.

********************

In the summer of 1962, Marvel Comics was on the rise.  Just over the past year alone, the company had introduced The Fantastic Four, The Ant Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and The Mighty Thor to the world.  The driving creative force behind this comic book revival–Marvel (previously called Timely Comics during the Second World War and Atlas Comics through the 1950s) had been mired in a slump for several years–was Stan Lee, the company’s lead writer and editor.

 

But Lee certainly wasn’t acting alone.  For any comic book endeavor to thrive, it needs the services of a top-notch artist, and Marvel, at the dawn of the 1960s, had two of them:  Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Both were accomplished, worked quickly, and brought their own, unique form of genius to their work.  Kirby was the older and more experienced of the two. The King, as he was called, had already put his stamp on The Fantastic Four--he would be their primary artist for a decade.

 

Nevertheless, Stan Lee’s next planned her0–The Amazing Spider-Man, set to debut in the high summer of 1962–needed a different touch.  Kirby’s work was larger-than-life, his covers and panels bursting with energy.  He was ideal for penciling giants and powerful, musclebound monsters, action sequences, and battle scenes.

 

But for Spider-Man, Lee wanted a defter touch.  Spidey’s alter-ego, after all, was Peter Parker, an awkward teenager, a nerdy bookworm, the antithesis of powerhouses like Thor and The Hulk.  Who better to draw Spider-Man than Steve Ditko, a master of shadows and the macabre?

 

Ditko’s Peter Parker would be skinny, almost scrawny, a science geek who accidentally is bitten by a radioactive spider.  And Spider-Man himself, particularly in those early days, is lithe, a creature of the night, hunting criminals in back alleys and climbing buildings, elusive, hunted by the law and striving to avoid the limelight.

 

And so–who is the top dog here?  Does the decision go to Ditko, or the King?  To subtlety and nuance or bold, in-your-face power?  Perhaps there isn’t a clear-cut decision.

Maybe it just depends . . .

*********************

When it comes to the writing process, the Ditko method, if you will, is ideal for dialogue, where the characters’ words and body language, along with a sprinkling of interior monologue or brief descriptions of place and surroundings, say everything, and the need for lengthy, power-packed narrative exposition is limited.  This approach also works for emotions–rather than crafting paragraphs that tell what the character is feeling, a writer can instead simply describe what the character does, or how he or she acts, thereby indirectly informing the reader what is going on inside the character’s head.

 

In chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers, there is an attempt to accomplish something like this with Mitchell Brant.  Mitchell, self-conscious and lacking in confidence, is afraid of girls his own age. And so:

 

“Suddenly, the girl appeared—the pretty one.  She looked at him, and, up close, she was even more beautiful than he’d feared.  She had shoulder-length dark brown hair, close in color to his, and wore a sleeveless sundress that showed off a summer tan.  Worst of all, she smiled at him.

“So he did the only thing he could think of.  He escaped into the diner.

“As soon as he opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence.  Faces turned to look at him.  Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble.  Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up.  Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes.  The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window.  He saw the girl walking away.

“Whew.

 

But the Kirby approach definitely has its place, as well.  The Eye-Dancers is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, so there are parts of it that are “out there,” complete with interdimensional transfers and dreams that are far more than “just dreams.”  These portions are built for Kirby-esque flair.

 

In chapter six, Marc Kuslanski and the others are pulled into the void, bridging this universe with another.  From Marc’s perspective, the journey begins this way:

 

“‘Wake up!’ he said.  ‘You have to wake up!’  He wanted to shake them, hit them, but he couldn’t.  He had no hands.  All he could do was yell and plead and hope they would hear.  But they were almost gone now—beyond the point of hearing, perhaps beyond the point of anything.  And he was joining them.

“His arms were gone.  He had no feet, no shins, it felt like he was standing on air.  Horrifically, he watched as his thighs slowly vanished, eaten away by the invisible force that had trapped him.  The others were completely gone now, and he felt himself being pulled . . .

“He had no body now, none of him remained, but he could still think, was still aware of his surroundings.  The basement grew indistinct, fading out of focus.

“He tried to talk, to say something, anything, but no words came out.  And now the basement was gone, the bar, the blue glasses and bottles of champagne, a memory.  He looked around, saw nothing, no one—only emptiness, a vast blue ocean that spread out as far as he could see.

“‘What the . . .?’ he said, or thought he said.  There was no sound, only thought.

“And then, in a flash, he was there again—his hands, his feet, his legs, all of him—there.  He clenched his hands into fists, smacked himself in the chest.  Yes.  He could feel.  He could move and kick and reach.  But what good did it do?  There wasn’t anything solid to hold onto, no firm ground to walk along.  He was surrounded by blue, the deepest blue he had ever seen, stretching on forever.”

 

So often in life, we want to declare a winner and a loser, to settle a competition.  But some contests are better left undecided.  Or, perhaps more accurate, some contests are better left unplayed.  Because when said contest calls for us to choose between the literary equivalencies of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, that is just as difficult, and unnecessary, as choosing between the artists’ original creations.  Why decide which style, or which approach, is “better” than the other?

 

Stan Lee found room for both men in the offices of Marvel Comics.

Surely, we can do the same.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Most Bittersweet of Words

On the surface of it, the accomplishment should elicit nothing but joy.  So much work has been put in, so many hours spent, so many unexpected hurdles and twists and roundabouts have been navigated.  It should be a celebration on par with a holiday parade.

 

And yet . . .

***************

Recently, after three-and-a-half years of working on the manuscript, I finally completed the first draft of The Singularity Wheel.  The Singularity Wheel (which didn’t name itself until I was three-quarters of the way through the story) is the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It wasn’t necessarily planned.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I expected it to be a one-off, not the start of a protracted story arc that would need to span multiple books.

 

But one day, while taking a walk, an image popped into my head–just like that.  Snap-your-fingers fast.  I hadn’t been thinking of The Eye-Dancers on that walk.  I hadn’t been thinking about any of the characters, or anything related to the novel.  But there it was, and it was strong enough that I had to stop moving.  I just stood there, seeing it.  I blinked, shook my head.  The mental painting did not recede or fade away.  If anything, it clarified, coalesced, the blurred edges straightening and sharpening, the smaller details coming in to focus, as if caught under a magnifying glass.

 

There they were in my mind’s eye–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–the main characters of The Eye-Dancers.  Only, in this image, they were devoid of color.  Everything was.  The road they were standing on, the field behind them, rich with tall grasses swaying in the breeze–all was a monochrome, a black-and-white world drained of greens and oranges and yellows.  There was only gray.

 

They stood before a monstrous structure, easily the width of a dozen football fields and as tall as a skyscraper.  Each floor of the building had an exterior walkway and countless doors, all closed.  And somewhere, several stories up, they saw a gray, colorless man frantically roaming from door to door, trying to open them, desperate, as if in search of something lifesaving.

 

High above them, above the structure and everything else, the sky was gunmetal gray.  But then it changed.  Two eyes formed in the clouds.  They expanded until they blotted out the sky, became the sky–a deep, penetrating blue.  The image shifted, the picture moved, and the eyes slanted and darkened.  They were angry.  The boys shrank back, but there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.  They knew, as well as I, that those weren’t just anyone’s eyes.  They belonged to Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers.  After five years, she had come back for them.

 

Nothing else came to me that day, but it didn’t matter.  Something within me was urging me forward, letting me know there was a new story that needed to be told.  In the days that followed, gaps filled in, motives crystallized, story lines emerged.  A fortnight later, I sat down in front of my PC, opened an empty Word file, and keyed in the first sentence.

 

At the time, I couldn’t have known how difficult, or how long, the journey would be.  If The Eye-Dancers was “out there,” The Singularity Wheel was a million light-years away, spinning its threads from some far-off corner of the universe, regularly making me pause, rub my eyes, and ask, “Is there any way I can pull all of this together?”  The characters’ problems this time around were more nuanced, more complex.  Five years had passed since the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers.  They were about to enter their senior year in high school.  They were saddled with girl problems, family issues, worries about their future.  Some of them felt as though a continent had fallen on their shoulders.

 

But perhaps the character who had changed the most in five years was the “ghost girl” herself.  Unlike in The Eye-Dancers, in The Singularity Wheel, Monica is now a point-of-view character.  In fact, the sequel begins with her, in her bedroom, about to undertake a (quite literally) infinity-spanning trip across the layers and undulations of time and space.  And it will be a trip that puts her life–along with those of Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc–in peril.

Throughout the creative process–through the surges of “aha” moments, the flourishes of frenzied writing sessions on the dark side of midnight, the inevitable blocks that at times seemed to render the entire project null and void, and the incessant, nagging self-criticisms–the ending often felt far away, a high meadow lying beyond a range of towering mountain peaks.  But I forced myself to persist.

 

The only way I could, I discovered, was to focus on the now.  Sure, I needed to have an overall goal in mind, a general direction I was working toward.  But if I thought too far ahead, I would become bogged down, overwhelmed with the vast distances I still needed to traverse to reach the destination.  “One chapter at a time,” I said to myself, over and over.  “One scene at a time.  One paragraph at a time.”  I felt like a walking, living cliche, the coach who spouts off “coach-speak” to overeager reporters desperate for a scoop they wouldn’t get.  But it was the only way I could keep moving forward.

 

And when I got there, when, just the other night, I keyed in the bold, decisive words “The End,” I felt elated–for perhaps a minute.  And then I realized–I had been living with these characters, thinking with and through them, struggling along with them and cheering them on for over three years (almost eight, in fact, if you go all the way back to the start of writing The Eye-Dancers).  And while I still need to flip back to page 1 and undertake a full-book edit, and while I will blog about the characters and the sequel quite a bit in the weeks and months to come, the actual process of writing the story itself is over.

 

Writing a novel, particularly when there are stops and starts to the writing process, and when you can’t devote uninterrupted time to writing the book, is a marathon, a grueling exercise that tests an author’s will just as much, and probably more, than it does his or her imagination and storytelling abilities.  To finally arrive at “The End” is a tremendous relief, an event to celebrate.  And celebrate I did.  I popped some popcorn, fired up a DVD of a favorite movie (I am old school with digital entertainment!), kicked back, and enjoyed.  (I know, I’m a wild one, aren’t I, with the way I celebrate?)

 

But, mixed with the relief and feeling of accomplishment, there is also a profound loss.  Writing about the characters that populate your novel is not the same as writing through and with and for them.  When you are in the middle of writing a novel, you not only are writing it when you’re sitting at your desk pecking away at the keyboard.  You are “writing” it 24/7.  At any point of the day–in the shower, half-asleep in bed, at work, driving down the interstate–an idea might arise, a new direction might become clear, a new approach to a scene or a chapter might manifest itself.  Those moments, once you have typed “The End,” are gone.  They cannot return–the book is finished, the race is over and run.

 

There will be future books, of course, future projects.  I will get back in the game.  But for now, it is on to editing, to blogging more (which I look forward to doing!), to transforming an imperfect first draft into a (hopefully) polished and presentable product.

 

So am I glad?  Happy?  Satisfied?  You bet.  A literary-sized albatross–the work-in-progress–has been lifted from my neck.  The sense of relief is tangible.

 

But will I miss it?  Will I miss the process, the Everest-like highs of inspiration, when the muse is generous?  I will.  I’ll even miss the struggles, the walls, the worries of what I’ll do ten chapters hence.  It’s exhausting, confounding, and at times all-consuming.  But I love it.  And its absence leaves an undeniable void.

 

Then again, maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a new idea, a new seed that demands to be planted and allowed to grow.

 

Can it be, then, that “The End” is only just the beginning?

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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