The Gift

The season is upon us.  It has arrived, and regardless of your faith, your beliefs, your worldview, there is no escaping the yuletide.  It is all around us, enveloping the streets and stores and online digital marketplaces like an omnipresent universal force, inexorable and all-consuming.  For many, Christmastime is stressful, tragic, depressing.  For others, it is joyful, energizing, the apogee of the calendar year.  And, perhaps for most of us, it is somewhere in between–a little of this, a little of that–some years tilting more toward the negative, other years more toward the positive.

 

For me, as I wrote last year, this time of the year will forevermore be bittersweet, and it will never, can never, be the same.  However, there are things I can do, memories I can cherish, perspectives I can take that contribute to making the yuletide a special season still and after all.  Be it watching a classic movie, or enjoying the company of family and lifelong friends, or remembering things, little things, that stay with me through the years, there is no shortage of material to work with.

 

This post is about a memory.

And a gift.

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I’ve written many times on here about my love of comic books, how I was introduced to them at a young age, and formed a lifelong friendship with these pictorial tales of wonder.  I’ve also written about some of the various comics shops in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, where I grew up.  And the one that stands out from the pack is, without question, Empire Comics.

 

Empire Comics was already a Rochester niche phenom by the mid-1980s, when I started going.  It didn’t take me long to see why.  Back then, in the ancient days before the internet, it was the comic book shop where collectors went if they wanted to buy “back issues”–those gems from yesteryear that seemed always to accrue in value exponentially each year.  If you weren’t wealthy, you had to pick your spots, and, for me, often, that meant selecting back issues that were ragged.  Maybe a water stain, a spine roll, a missing staple–maybe all three.  The fact was, the mint-condition issues were usually priced too high, so I needed to dig down, beneath the surface, and appreciate the singular aesthetic nuances of issues with plenty of wear and tear.

 

By the winter of 1987, Jim, the proprietor of Empire Comics, knew this about me.  I’d been a regular visitor and shopper to his store on the city’s south side for two and a half years by that point.  He also knew that, within a week of Christmas, the previous two years, I came into his shop with my mother to select a special “Christmas back issue”–the sort of issue I usually wouldn’t be able to afford the other eleven months out of the year.  (Okay, so my mother’s the one who actually paid for it, if you want to get technical!)  How do I know Jim knew about this developing Christmastime tradition within my family?  Because of what happened in late December 1987 . . .

 

We arrived midmorning, four days before Christmas.  It was a Monday; I remember that.  It was sunny, a rarity in western New York in December, the cloudiest month of the year.  Entering the shop, the bell Jim had placed atop the door tinkled, a welcoming sound I always looked forward to.  The store was free of other customers–validating my mother’s prediction.  “Monday morning, no one’ll be there,” she said.  She was right.  She often was.

As we stepped inside, Jim shouted my mother’s name–“Linda!”–as was his custom.  Though I was the collector, it was my mother he usually talked to.  I was busy flipping through the merchandise, and my mother, outgoing to her core, did not choose to simply stand there while I browsed.  So she and Jim had become friends.

This time, though, after calling her name, Jim beckoned for me to join him by the register.  It sat atop a glass display case housing Empire Comics’ most prized back issues–rare jewels from the 1940s and 1950s, so far removed from my price range, they might as well have been for sale on Mars.  That didn’t stop me from peering inside, though.  Looking through the glass was like looking into a realm of pure possibility.  It always made me think of the Gold Rushers from the middle of the 19th century.  Buried treasure.  Items so rare as to be precious.

 

Someday, I’d think, in awe.  Someday . . .

But that day, that sunny December day, like a sleight-of-hand magician, Jim pulled out a comic from underneath the register and set it atop the display case.  It was a worn copy of Fantastic Four number 20, originally published in November 1963 and featuring the first appearance of the supervillain The Molecule Man.  It was my ambition to own every back issue of the FF, as fans called them.  I was getting closer and closer by the month, but number 20 was one that had alluded me.  Jim knew that, too.

 

“Take it,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was the only thing I could think of.

“It’s yours, free of charge.  A gift.”  He spread his arms and smiled.  A few feet away, I saw my mother giving him the side eye.  Sure, he was a nice guy and sure, he’d become something of a friend.  But who ever heard of a shopkeeper giving away his merchandise?  While the issue before me was beat up–heavily creased with a slight mouse chew ripped out of the top right corner–it still likely garnered a $15 or $20 price tag (far higher today; if you’re looking for a strong “stock,” you can’t go wrong with old comics!).

“I got a bunch of ’em in the shop right now, and I know it’s one you need,” he said.  “So, take it.  On me.”

We talked for a while, my mother joining in.  It didn’t take long to see Jim was serious.  He was giving me a $20 comic book.

What was I to do?  Refuse the gift?

I took it.  I still have it to this day.

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When I think of all this now, it strikes me as remarkably old-fashioned.  So 20th-century.  Almost like something you’d discover in a time capsule.  The fact it feels that way at all, however, is a warning, a signpost up ahead, if you will, telling us as a society to take a breath and slow down for a moment.

 

We live in an age that is so far removed from 1987 technologically, the distance ought to be measured in eons, not decades.  In the ’80s, we had landlines, the postal service, VHS tapes (video stores!).  Newspapers and the nightly news were still the media most people used to digest their information.  Even fax machines did not become widely used until late in the decade.  If you went to an office, you did your work on a typewriter, and a personal computer was a Commodore 64.  And smartphones?  Social media?  WordPress?  All the accoutrements that so monopolize daily life on the precipice of 2020?  These existed only in the pages of science fiction.  To a 21st-century native, the 1980s and the Mesozoic era are, no doubt, for all intents and purposes, synonymous.

 

Today we can buy literally anything we want, no matter how obscure, on a device we carry with us wherever we go.  We can look up information anytime, anywhere.  We can watch movies while we walk, find Babe Ruth’s 1929 batting average in ten seconds flat, interact digitally with people all over the world, any time of day or night.  In a way, we can do anything.

 

And yet . . . for all the value in finding that deeply discounted item on Amazon, or that comic book on eBay, there is something to be said for the human connection, for a store owner to know his customers well enough to plan ahead, prepare a holiday surprise for a middle-school kid who frequented his shop, month after month, year after year–and to be able to do it not because a software application told him to, but because he remembered, personally, all on his own, due to a genuine and real rapport that had been earned and nurtured through person-to-person interaction.

Honestly?  I don’t even remember what I purchased that day at Empire Comics.  Whatever it was has been blurred, swept away in the mists of thirty-two years.  All I remember is the gift.

“Merry Christmas,” Jim hollered as my mother and I exited the shop.

And a joyful and blessed holiday to all of you, in 2019.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

In the Midst of the Action, a Quiet Remembrance (Or, Hanging Out in the Comic Book Shop)

In recent years, the world has been introduced to the Marvel universe through a series of Hollywood blockbusters, complete with endless action, A-list actors, and hi-tech special effects.  The result has been a surge in superhero popularity.  As a lifelong comic book aficionado and collector of the vintage comics from yesteryear, I view all of this as a positive development.  That said, I am not a huge fan of these movies.  I’ve seen a couple of them, thought they were okay, but I am far from a devoted watcher.

 

In a way, this seems counterintuitive.  Why wouldn’t I, of all people, who spent a good chunk of my childhood lost in the pages of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The X-Men, be the first in line to see the debut of a new superhero movie based on the comics I love?  Of course, it’s not that I dislike these modern-day box-office smashes.  It’s more . . . I can take them or leave them.  They’re okay.  Not bad.  If I had the choice to watch a recent Marvel movie or an episode of the original Twilight Zone or a rerun of Cheers or The Honeymooners, it wouldn’t be a close call.  I’d go for Serling and the sitcoms!

 

One reason for this, I suppose, is the fact that I am a comic book purist.  (Is there such a thing?)  I have a deep fondness for the comics themselves, the original stories, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and the talented staff at the old Marvel offices back in the 1960s.  So when I see the movie adaptations, which, while endeavoring to be as faithful as possible to these adventures from yesteryear, nevertheless take dozens of liberties with the characters and plotlines, I become, how shall we say, a bit unnerved.  I equate it to watching the film adaptation of a beloved novel.  It’s never the same, and you recognize the cinematic shortcomings and limitations within the first few minutes of the movie.

 

But it’s more than that.

The movies are loud.  In-your-face.  As they should be.  I’m not criticizing them for that.  They are, after all, action-packed blockbusters replete with the best special effects our technology offers.  But, for me, the comic books I remember, the comic books I still own in boxes and protective Mylar sleeves, are steeped in quiet.  Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around the comics shop.  When I was a kid, before I was old enough to drive, and before the advent of the mobile digital age revolutionized our culture, my mother would usually take me to the local comic stores.  We didn’t have a comic book shop in our neighborhood.  We needed to travel to the other side of town–generally once or twice a month.  There were a couple of different comic stores we went to.  One was owned by someone I always thought of as The Lion Man.  But the store I went to the most was Empire Comics, located on Rochester, NY’s south side, across the street from Mt. Hope Cemetery, which at nearly 200 acres, is a destination unto itself, and just a few blocks removed from Highland Park, a verdant oasis amidst the urban hustle and bustle, and home every year to the Lilac Festival.

 

Sometimes I’d go there just with my mother.  Other times, some of my friends would tag along and we might make a day of it–starting out at the comic shop, then maybe taking a hike through the park or the cemetery (which is like a park), all topped off with lunch and ice cream at one of the many local restaurants.  Whoever was with me, though, I always savored my time in the shop.  Empire Comics was long and rectangular.  The owner, Jim, had his best, most valuable comics locked away in a glass display case by the register at the front of the store.  Beyond that, there were rows and rows of back issues, lining the shop, sorted in alphabetical order and arranged by issue number.  The layout and floor plan of the fictional Eastside Comics in The Singularity Wheel, where Mitchell works, is based on the interior of the old Empire Comics. (Empire Comics closed its doors about ten years ago.)

 

My mother, indifferent to the world of comic books, nevertheless made the most of these sojourns.  She’d talk to Jim and his staff–she was much, much more outgoing than I am.  It got to the point where, when my mother and I walked into the shop, Jim would yell her name, akin to the famous “Norm!” greeting from Cheers.  He wouldn’t shout “Michael!”  No–it was always, “Linda!”  I didn’t mind.  I just wanted to look at the comics.  And buy a few, too.  As my mother chatted away with Jim and the other workers, I lost myself in the comic book bins, browsing through hundreds of back issues.  I’d wander to the back of the shop, take in the sights–for me, it was heaven.  I felt as though I were in a magical cocoon.  It was quiet.  Oftentimes, my mother and I were the only customers in the shop.   I’d get lost in the musty smell of decades-old comic books, and I’d dread the moment when my mother would call over to me and tell me we had to go.

 

And so when I watch one of the new Marvel movies, they just seem too aloof somehow, too loud.  As the cliche goes, and as I’ve said aloud to more than one Marvel movie, “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Because, for me, those old comic books, those long-ago visits to Jim’s shop, are sacred.  Personal.  They are embedded, tucked away in a corner of my heart, entrenched in a permanent wrinkle of my soul.  In some ways, The Eye-Dancers saga is an extension of this, a literary shout-out to my childhood, the comic books I shared it with, and the remembrances that remain, steadfast and solid, like a faithful and devoted friend.

 

Will I watch another Marvel movie, despite my lukewarm, even critical, view of them?  Sure.  Any movie that features The Avengers can’t be all bad.  But while I do, you can bet I’ll be thinking of Jim and my mother and the sounds and silences of the old comic book shop on the corner of Langslow and Mt. Hope on the south side of Rochester.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Superman Without the “S” on His Chest? (Or, The “Flaws” That Make Us Special)

By the turn of the year, 1940, Superman was already a sensation.  The Man of Steel had been around for just under two years, and, as the first comic book superhero, the titles he starred in (Action Comics and Superman) always were at the top of the marquee.  Imagine the surprise, then, with the publication of Action Comics number 20 (January 1940)  when the world’s greatest adventure hero appeared on the cover with a major omission on his costume.

 

It’s not hard to visualize the youth of America that holiday season of 1939-1940 (historically, comics always appear on the newsstands a month or so earlier than the date listed on their cover) as they spun the squeaky comic book rack at the corner store.  Browsing the covers of the new issues, trying to decide which one to plunk down their hard-won dime on, surely they would have paused when confronted with the cover of Action Comics number 20.  What sacrilege was this?  How could they make such a mistake?  And yet . . . there it was, for all to see.

The yellow triangle with the signature red “S” at the center that was supposed to grace the Man of Steel’s barrel chest was . . . missing!  In its place was . . . nothing—a blank, an empty spot orphaned of its famous emblem.  Was DC Comics changing Superman’s costume?  Had they decided it was too flashy, too loud?  But no.  Of course not.  When the following month’s issues arrived, the “S” had returned on Superman’s costume, confirming that the cover of Action Comics number 20 had been . . . an oversight.  A mistake.  A gaffe.

 

The result?  Not much.  It’s not as if the youth of the day rebelled and planned a “Superman strike,” protesting the publication’s carelessness.  They continued to support the Man of Steel, and Superman has not suffered.  He has been around for eighty years, after all, gracing thousands of comic books, not to mention a wide array of TV series and movies.  The Man of Tomorrow is enduring.

 

But so is the cover of Action Comics number 20.  Maybe the buying public of 1940 didn’t create a stir (though surely there were letters streaming in to the publisher’s offices that winter), but, as the decades ticked on and as comic book collecting became a major hobby worldwide, vintage comics enthusiasts began to take notice.  In fact, they especially sought out the issue.  Action Comics number 20 is now a prized item, often priced higher than the issues that immediately preceded it (a rarity in comic book collecting, unless a particular issue introduces a key character or for some reason had a smaller print run).  Look it up in the comic book price guide and the note will be provided:  “Superman appears without ‘S’ on his chest.”  Rather than creating a black eye for the issue, the costume oversight has made it something special, something unique, a one-of-a-kind presentation.

 

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In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists also must deal with what they perceive as slights, flaws, blemishes that make them feel less-than or even freakish.  Mitchell Brant has a speech impediment.  Joe Marma is the shortest boy in his class.  Ryan Swinton is the tallest, and has a nasty case of acne.  Marc Kuslanski, as a junior-high student, is the class nerd; as he matures, he feels the need to shed his thick glasses and rid himself of the label.  And Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl,” feels like an outcast, wielding a rare and devastating power that makes others—and sometimes even she, herself–fear her. Each of them must learn to accept, even appreciate, the very things they are ashamed of, the things others make fun of, belittle, name-call.

 

They are not alone, of course.  We all carry insecurities inside of us.  Some of them are nagging things, relegated to the back burner, a little voice that whispers in our ear at certain moments.  Others are monsters, albatrosses, wound tight around our neck like a gallows waiting to snuff the life from us.  No one is immune.

 

There is no magic spell, of course, no secret code or talisman to erase the things that dog us and threaten to drag us down.  Whether it’s some aspect about our appearance, or the way we talk, or the way we walk, or our professional acumen, or the way we furnish our home or the car we drive, or any and every other permutation imaginable, we are all imperfect, and we all feel the weight of it.

 

But, in this season of Thanksgiving, perhaps we can at least try to perceive our “faults” a little differently.  Maybe, just maybe, that “S” that’s missing from our chest makes us stronger, more genuine, more compassionate.  Maybe it’s the flaws that radiate the beauty and the potential within.

 

Just ask the Man of Steel.  If any character is said to be “perfect,” surely Superman—with his super-strength and super-memory and super-intelligence and super-morals and super-everything—tops the list.  And yet, for all that, it’s his decidedly imperfect cover from eight decades ago that is still, all these years later, remembered and treasured by the collectors and pop-historians who know him best.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Musty Magic (Or . . .The Counterintuitive but Wondrous Nature of Collecting )

So . . . what do you do?  Where do you go?  How do you deal?

For me, when life gets too hectic; when the creative process is blocked with thick, rough-hewn logs; when the rage tweets emanating from Washington become more numerous and unhinged by the day, even the hour; and when the world just seems like too much to take, I have several “safe places” where I turn.  Places that calm me, allow me to escape the madness, if only for a little while, to get grounded again, to become reacquainted with the magic and the wonder.

 

Old movies provide comfort–I have always enjoyed films that predate my birth.  I often say, “If the film is black and white, I’ll probably like it.”  Walks in the woods or along winding country roads provide the opportunity to de-stress and re-center myself.  Vermont, my adopted state, is replete with quiet, pastoral hideaways, and for that I am thankful.  Books–fiction and nonfiction alike–have been my friends for as long as I can remember.  Stepping away from the cacophony to enter a well-plotted novel or an engaging biography or historical tome is, and always will be, bliss.  And sports and the long-standing family and friends fantasy football league I have been the commissioner of since the 1990s have always offered a fun diversion.

 

But if there is one thing that never fails, one thing I can count on just as surely as the sun rising at the break of day, it is comic books.  I fell in love with them when I was a little kid, and it’s been a lifelong love affair ever since.

 

I remember where it all began, too.  In my older brother Dave’s room, back when I was six years old.  Dave was a collector of sorts–he’d amassed a collection of several hundred issues by then–primarily The Amazing Spider-Man, Conan the Barbarian, and The Defenders.  He kept his comics in protective Mylar sleeves, and the most valuable ones also had a firm, thin cardboard backing to keep them from being bent or folded.  I enjoyed leafing through his issues, admiring the covers, sniffing their distinct comic book scent.

 

Indeed.  That has always had a lot to do with it for me.  The smell.  That old comics smell.  In The Singularity Wheel, Mitchell Brant is sure “that if you could store magic in a bottle, it would smell just the same.”  He won’t be getting any arguments from me.  And when I began collecting seriously myself, around the time I entered junior high, there was nothing that thrilled my senses more than visiting the local comics shop.  The musty scent was all around me, engulfing me like a fantastical cloud, full of wonders and adventures and history.

 

I spent all of my teenage years saving up what money I had to buy collectible comic books.  People would ask me, “Why not just buy the reprints?”  Why plunk down so much extra for an often ragged, beat-up original from 1955 or 1960 instead of buying a fresh, new replica for a fraction of the cost?  It was–and still is–a difficult question to answer.  It goes against everything practical, economical, utilitarian.  Whether you buy an original or a reprint, the story’s the same.  So why do it?

Countering with the old-comics smell isn’t sufficient.  While it’s true that newer comics don’t have that musty magic about them, it’s not enough.  There is more to it than that.  A lot more.

An original comic book from the 1950s predates my existence by two decades.  For me, that increases the charm exponentially.  There is something almost mystical about opening an issue from 1955 or 1956–or 1946, for that matter–and knowing that I am holding in my hands a treasure trove of memories.  If only the comic could talk, I think!  But it can.  If you listen, it can.

 

The artwork, the story, the dialogue–primarily aimed at children and teenagers of the day–feels dated, quaint.  It’s a window into a time sixty years in the rearview mirror, when adventures and imaginative tales were presented in a far different manner.  Reading such stories, I am transported back to a decade when my parents themselves were just teenagers.  I am, quite literally, stepping into a time machine, the years peeling away, reversing, autumn to summer to spring, fifty times over, crashing through the speed of light.

 

But even so, the skeptic says–can’t you still experience all that with a reprint?  Just read the stories . . . And that’s true, I suppose.  A reprint can offer a peek through the partially opened door, a glance through the window.  But it’s not the same.

A reprint is new, contemporary, a facsimile of something that came before.  (Though, it must be said, comic books have been around so long now, some reprints are, themselves, decades and decades old.) The original, the vintage comic book from 1945 or 1957 or 1962, was picked up, leafed through, handled (often roughly) by kids back then, when the story was conceived, when the writers and artists who created it were thinking of the children and teenagers of that day.  Every time I flip through an old comic, I think of the sandy-haired boy at the corner drugstore, sixty years ago, who may have grabbed the same issue from the spinning, squeaky comics rack in the corner, drawn by the cover and the promise of adventure within.  Did he have a dime to give to the store proprietor, enough to buy the comic and take it home?  Did his sister or his younger brother steal it from him later when he wasn’t looking?  And did he wrestle it back?  Is that where the spine roll came from?  The small rip in the upper right corner?  The creases that line the cover like wrinkles, forged by the passage of time?

 

There are two stories to enjoy in vintage comic books.  The one the creators cooked up, the twists and turns of the plot, the nuances and renderings of the art.  This is the same story available in reprints.  But the second story–the story only the original can share–this is the story of the physical comic book itself.  It’s the wear and tear, the yellowing of the pages, the mouse-chewed corner on page 6, interfering with a thought balloon.  It’s the ads for X-ray-vision glasses and sea monkeys, magic wands and moon monsters.  It’s the interweaving of past and present, of memories and moments, and of childhood dreams that have spanned the long years, bridging one century to the next.

 

You can’t get that kind of story in a reprint.  And you can’t put a price tag on it.

And, after all, there’s nothing quite like a tank full of sea monkeys.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Value of a Dime

In both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski can’t help but notice how inexpensive things are in the variant town of Colbyville.  In The Singularity Wheel, in fact, Ryan manages to secure a room in an inn for just $5 a night.  Prices like that make the boys think of period-piece movies, Beaver Cleaver, black-and-white still lifes from a bygone era, speckled with cobwebs.

 

Indeed, I once worked with a woman who, every year, upon receiving her annual “cost-of’-living” raise, would grouse, “Well, three percent of nothing is still nothing!”  Many of the other employees would nod their heads in agreement.  We all notice the increase in prices ($4.49 for that box of cereal?  $10 for a standard book of twenty stamps?) and are caught in the current of escalation as it continues along on its slow, steady, and inexorable march.

 

It has gotten to the point where there are plenty of people, reasonable people at that, who argue that coins should go the way of the dodo.  “Who needs ’em anymore?” a friend of mine said just the other day.  “All they do is clutter up my jacket pocket.”  And I had to admit, he had a point.  But I’m also glad we still have our coins, our one-cent, and five-cent pieces.

 

Our dimes.

In the economic milieu of the 21st century, a single dime cannot purchase much of anything.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Take comic books . . .

Nowadays, to buy a single issue, you need to plunk down $4.  But jump in an imaginary time machine, become ten years old again, and pretend it’s 1950.  At that time, a ten-year-old (let’s call him Kyle as a point of reference) might ask his dad for a dime, just one dime (“I’ll mow the lawn later, Dad, promise!”), and then head over to the corner store, where dozens of comics would be tantalizingly arrayed on a spinning rack.  He’d browse over the issues, the rack squeaking as he turned it, hunting for just the right one, and, maybe, just maybe, he’d pick out a gem like Strange Adventures number 2.

 

This particular issue hit the newsstands in the fall of 1950, and for just ten cents, Kyle was rewarded with a glorious, end-of-the-world-style cover, four feature stories, fifty-two action-packed pages, not to mention tempting advertisements, a short picture-less sci-fi tale, and various illustrated informational blurbs scattered about the issue, one of which was called “A World of Thinking Machines.”  This prescient piece laid out the groundwork for AI and advanced robots.  In fact, thinking machines were not just figments of imaginative sci-fi enthusiasts.  At the time of the issue’s publication, sixty-eight years ago, the article proclaimed the existence of a “metal monster with sinews of electrical wire that can solve the most intricate mathematical equation in minutes . . . [and which can] ‘think’ more perfectly than a dozen human mathematicians!”  The next step, according to the piece, “will be the robot–a tireless, mechanical servant that will perform man’s duties in factory or office or on farm with the utmost efficiency.  The metal workers will usher in the dawn of leisure”–which, the article concludes, will ultimately spread to the home itself, allowing for the “bliss of domestic luxury.”

 

That was a lot of material for a humble dime’s investment.  It brings to mind, in the cold, hard light of 2018, how far we have come, how much inflation has affected our world.  This isn’t a diatribe against inflation–I’m no economist.  Just a statement of fact.  It elicits a certain nostalgia.  I was born long after the phenomenon of ten-cent comic books.  But there is a part of me, perhaps a substantial part, that hungers for a simpler time, a simpler age, when coins were cause for a child’s excitement and enthusiasm.

 

What is the value of a dime today?  What does a single, solitary ten-cent piece, in and of itself, have to offer?  Anything except the ability to break change? In a purely practical, utilitarian sense, perhaps not.  But consider the dime from a different angle.  Look at it with a new perspective.

For starters, the physical characteristics.  I have before me a dime with the year 1993 imprinted on its copper and nickel surface.  The left-facing profile of FDR stares at something we cannot see, his stoic expression etched for the ages.  On the flip side, there is a lit torch flanked by an olive branch on one side and an oak branch on the other, symbolizing liberty, peace, and strength.  The dime in my possession still maintains some of its original luster, even twenty-five years on, though smudges also exist, the result of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fingerprints coming into contact with the surface–some rubbing, some squeezing, some flitting across it for the briefest of moments, but leaving their mark just the same.

 

And those prints, those hands that touched this lightweight alloy of metals, have a story to tell.  This dime could write a novel or a memoir if someone might just give voice to it.  Was it stashed at the back of a dresser drawer, out of sight, for months or years on end?  How many times did it get rolled and deposited into a bank?  How many cashiers handed it out when making change, and when they did, were they focused on this dime, the customer, the next person in line . . . or were their minds drifting, wondering what they might do when their shift ended, if Jeff or Suzie would agree to hang out later, what they would eat for supper, or where they’d go on their next day off?

 

Did the dime ever lie in the belly of a child’s piggy bank, the ten-cent portion of a financial dream?  Did someone perhaps drop it on a sidewalk or a parking lot unknowingly, or, if knowingly, without care?  And did someone else later pick it up, pocket it, and add it to their jar of coins under the kitchen sink?  How many cities has this dime journeyed through?  Has it been to the West Coast and back?  Was it in someone’s pocket as they toured Manhattan?  Has it tasted the sting of dust on a country road in late summer, the sun shining, hot, the hands that fiddled with it salty and moist with sweat?

 

It’s true.  A dime can no longer purchase fifty-two-page comic books that can mesmerize a child–or an adult–over the course of a lazy, leisurely afternoon.  But the other things it can do, the narratives it can weave, and the lessons it can teach if we’re willing to look and listen and wonder and imagine are worth far more than a mere ten cents.

 

And all this time later, I’d like to think that Kyle, our fictional friend from yesteryear and now on the doorstep of becoming an octogenarian, would see it that way, too.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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.

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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 . . .

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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

Words of Wisdom from a Cartoon Character–Or, Reminders of the Meaning of the Season

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.  Sometimes world events, presidential elections, and our far-too-often harried personal lives threaten to throw us for a king-sized and ever-expanding loop.  The weather this time of year doesn’t help.  Daylight Savings is more than a fortnight in the rearview mirror; it’s dark when you go to work in the morning, and dark when you come back home.  And what little light there is, especially here in northern New England, is often muted by brooding thick gray clouds that hang low and bloated over the land, like dirty laundry concealing the blue beyond.

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For me, the reminders begin with the little things, the homey things, the kinds of things Truman Capote writes about at the beginning of his gem of a short story “A Christmas Memory” . . .

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

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Every year, early on Thanksgiving morning, when the house is dark and the sunrise is yet a rumor, I flip through some of the old classic comic books I’ve had since I was a kid, when I began a lifelong hobby of collecting comics.  Many of the issues I have tucked away in closets and boxes were printed decades before I was born.  Their pages, musty and faded with age, never fail to bring a smile.  There are old ads in those pages, tempting the children of sixty years ago with baseball gloves and magic tricks, radio sets and sea monkeys.

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adseamonkeys

 

And then there are the stories, of course–simple, far too often devoid of any real character or nuance, distilled to the most rudimentary of plot devices.  But for all that, they are brilliant, ingenious, and, perhaps most important of all, fun.  They offer a break from the stresses and strains of daily living, an escape from the next doctor appointment or set of bills, while simultaneously laying out a bridge to an imaginary world that is always there, only a thought away, ready and willing to amuse and cheer and revitalize us, if only we take the time to visit it.

On Thanksgiving morning, I spend fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with these old issues, these relics from a bygone era, these simple reminders of childhood . . .

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comiccoversuperman117

comiccoversa46

 

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

In the 1965 musical The Sound of Music–based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic of the same name–Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, sings about some of her favorite things:

someofmyfavoritethings

 

“Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles/And warm woolen mittens . . . Cream-colored ponies/And crisp apple strudels/Doorbells and sleigh bells/And schnitzel with noodles . . . Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/Silver white winters that melt into springs . . .”  These are a few of her favorite things!

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It’s a basic list, simple and everyday; it echoes the sentiments of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

But perhaps it was everyone’s favorite bookworm, Marcie, who said it best in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving:

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“But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. . . . We should just be thankful for being together.  I think that’s what they mean by Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Super,” “Fantastic,” and “Batty”? — Milestones All Around!

It was a gala event, an anniversary for DC Comics’ signature hero, and the creative team made sure to announce it to the world.

When Superman number 100 hit the newsstands in the late summer of 1955, the title had been going strong for sixteen years, and the character (introduced in Action Comics number 1, in 1938) for seventeen.

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The 100th issue would serve as a celebration of what the cover proudly proclaimed to be the “World’s Greatest Adventure Character!”

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In 1955, this sort of special anniversary issue was a new phenomenon, in part because the comic book industry had yet to become the collectible gold mine it would morph into several decades hence, but also because most titles simply hadn’t been around long enough to feature major anniversary issues.  But the celebration of the Man of Steel’s status kicked off a trend in the industry.

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The following year, it was Batman’s turn.  The Caped Crusader’s title hit number 100 in the spring of 1956, and just as with Superman, Batman’s title was celebrating sixteen years at the time issue number 100 rolled around.  (The character of Batman had been around one year longer, introduced in 1939 with Detective Comics number 27.)

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Once again, DC pulled out all the stops.  “Batty” stuff indeed . . .

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Meanwhile, and several years later, another powerhouse in the comic book field–Marvel Comics–was marking the anniversaries of some of its signature titles:  The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, and Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four. All hit their 100th issue in the early and mid 1970s.  By this time, it was fully expected that such a milestone issue would be celebrated with pomp and circumstance . . .

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avengers100

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The stories housed within these special anniversary issues may or may not have been among the best of the genre.  In some ways, it didn’t matter.  More than anything, a title’s 100th issue represented a benchmark, a reminder, if you will, that the heroes had been able to stand the test of time and that the writers and artists involved still possessed a passion for storytelling and a desire to press on.

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

I began The Eye-Dancers blog in the summer of 2012, a complete novice to the blogosphere.  If you were to look up the word “blogging newbie” that summer, my picture probably would have been looking back at you.

me

(Okay, so putting my kindergarten picture here is probably a bit of an exaggeration.  Chalk it up to poetic license!)

I remember feeling overwhelmed and confused as I launched the blog.  I was about to release The Eye-Dancers, the novel, and I knew I wanted to “get the word out,” but how would I manage to do that?  And how many original posts would I be able to come up with?

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So I thought about it, and struggled through the first few months, still grasping for blogging ideas, flailing and poking and writing posts that I doubted anyone other than myself would read.  I’d hit the Publish button and imagine the words drifting outward, not to other bloggers, but to some nowhere zone at the center of a lost cyber-galaxy, an eternally hungry black hole that feasted on unread sentences and paragraphs.

blackhole

 

But then I would see a Like appear, and before long a few intrepid fellow bloggers began to follow the blog.  Very few at first, but their support filled me with enthusiasm and optimism.  Someone out there was reading my words.  Encouraged, I again thought about what I could do, how I could potentially blog for the long haul.  And I decided–why not just write about things that interest me?  Sure, I would want them to tie in to The Eye-Dancers, the novel, in some way, but even so, the possibilities seemed endless.  I dove in, and a remarkable thing happened.  The insecurity lessened, the ideas started to arrive in waves, and I had a blast!  It was fun.  And more surprising still, more and more bloggers began following The Eye-Dancers.  Suddenly that black hole I had initially imagined disappeared, and an ongoing and wonderful adventure kicked into high gear.

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And now, four years after its inception, The Eye-Dancers blog has reached 5,000 followers. If someone had told me in the summer of 2012 that, by 2016, The Eye-Dancers would be fortunate enough to acquire such a following, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  But that’s been the great thing about these four years.  The WordPress community welcomed me with open arms, and things just continued to get better and better.

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Then again, there’s no need for me to break out the past tense here.  I’m not going anywhere.  The sequel to The Eye-Dancers–as long as the literary stars stay aligned–will be due to come out during the early portion of 2017, and I will certainly be blogging about that, as well as many other things, in the months ahead.

starsaligned

 

It is my great hope that you all will continue to read and follow these ramblings and ruminations of mine.  Certainly, The Eye-Dancers doesn’t compare with the great superhero icons and their anniversaries from yesteryear, but your ongoing encouragement has often been as much a tonic for me as any radioactive spider bite or red Kryptonian sunlight.  You are the reason this blog is so enjoyable for me, and you are without a doubt the reason The Eye-Dancers blog is still going strong four years in.  I can’t thank you enough for all your support over these past four years.  You are all the best.

redsun

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I can’t wait to get started on the next four years!

–Mike

From Frost to Thor, with a Cup of Hot Cocoa (Or, the Literary Dualism of a New England Stick Season)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live year-round in balmy, gentle conditions, where palm trees sway in midwinter and heavy, insulated coats are strange accoutrements only seen on television.  I’ve never experienced anything like that–not even close.  I grew up in Rochester, in upstate New York, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its long winters and the lake-effect snow machine that produces blizzards and white-outs with alarming regularity.

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So, what did I ultimately do?  Move to Southern California, the South of France?  Tahiti?  Not quite.  I moved to Vermont, colder and harsher still than Rochester!  I have no regrets.  Vermont is a rural gem, a rugged little state tucked away in the far northwest corner of New England.  It’s one of the most beautiful places you will ever see.  It is also, to put it mildly, a land of extremes.  Few locales on earth experience such robust, exaggerated seasons–there is nothing subtle about the weather in New England.  The region, according to Henry Cabot Lodge so many years ago, yet still as appropriate today as when he proclaimed it, “has a harsh climate, a barren soil, [and] a rough and stormy coast.”

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And yet . . . there is one time of year in New England that is more subdued, nondescript, and soft-spoken, almost shy in its fundamental drabness . . . The month of November, tucked away in hiding for so long, creeps up on the calendar, whisper-quiet, as if inching forward on its tiptoes.  And, once arrived, it has a personality, a starkness, all its own.

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The flowers and blooms of spring are a distant memory, as are the ripe fields, muggy nights, and poolside gatherings of high summer.  October, with its breathtaking, almost narcissistic display of reds, golds, and oranges, is still fresh in the mind’s eye, but it’s a brief performance, a limited run.  The hillsides, afire with splashes of color only a fortnight ago, now lay stripped, with row on row of gray tree trunks and skeletal limbs reaching for the cold, late-autumn sky.

stickseason

So, yes.  In many ways, November (what the locals sometimes refer to as “stick season” around here) is a somber, even depressive month.  The days grow successively shorter, colder, as the interminable New England winter approaches. There is a stillness to the land, a sharp crispness to the air, and all too often a succession of leaden-sky days with low-lying clouds hovering like bruises over the earth.

There is also, at least for me, a sense of slowing down, of stepping back, looking over the bare, windswept terrain and pausing for reflection.

It’s easy to see, walking along a Vermont country road littered with the desiccated harvest of fallen October leaves, or climbing a knoll and looking out at the ancient, rounded spine of the Green Mountains, how this area has served as an inspiration for some of the world’s great writers and poets.  Something in the rocky soil, the rugged, unyielding terrain, the windswept contours of a rolling New England field in the fall instills a serious quality to an author’s prose, or a poet’s verses.  Frost, Emerson, Thoreau, Plath, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Dickinson . . . the list goes on and on.  Surely, there is something special about this place.

plathariel

 

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I feel it throughout the year, but at no point does it affect me more than the month of November.  November brings out the serious and the brooding in my writing, makes me want to try my hand at poetry (a proclivity I rarely feel over the course of the eleven other months) and pen an introspective novel, light on the action and saturated with layered themes, obscure symbols, and tortured, existential characters.  I want to reach, pursue, challenge myself to write about the subterranean undercurrents of life, raging beneath the surface, often hidden beneath a civilized and well-practiced facade.  I want to produce art, works that inspire and examine, question and illuminate.

existentialart

Worthy aspirations, all, but sometimes, when unchecked, they can become an albatross, long-winged and sharp-beaked, weighing me down, choking off my airflow.  I appreciate the masters of the craft and serious literature as much as anyone, and hope a small smattering of my own output can be labeled “literary,” but at the same time, at least for me, there is an element even more important than the profound, more essential than the sublime.

albatross

Thankfully, the month of November also speaks to this lighter aspect.

I find November, with its protracted evenings and roaring, crackling hearth fires and frost-covered windows, to be one of the coziest times of the year.  There are few treats I enjoy more on a cold fall night than preparing a mug of hot chocolate, maybe popping a generous portion of popcorn, and settling in to watch an old black-and-white classic–nothing extraordinary, not necessarily an Oscar- or Emmy-winning masterpiece, but rather something fun, silly even.  Perhaps I’ll binge-watch episodes of The Honeymooners, or tune in to a corny old sci-fi movie with bug-eyed monsters, mutated spiders, or ever-expanding gelatinous blobs from outer space.

theblob

Other times, I’ll dig into my vintage comic book collection, perhaps pulling out a science-fiction title from the 1950s like Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space.  If I’m feeling more superhero-minded, maybe I’ll flip through an old issue of Journey into Mystery with the Mighty Thor or, Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four.  Whichever choice I make, a classic sitcom; a cliched but riveting movie produced decades ago, short on character but high on smiles; or a vintage comic complete with nostalgic ads and the musty, old smell all comic book collectors know and love, I’m just glad that Old Man November, with all its grays and dark, wistful sighs, has its lighter side to help me keep things in balance.

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It’s a noble thing, a calling, really, for artists and writers and creative souls the world over to want to imbue their work with meaning and thoughts, words, and images that move their audience from tears to laughter and back again.  It’s something every serious artist should have, and cultivate.  But if our creative process isn’t also fun, if we don’t love what we do, that, too, will be reflected in the final output.

“Write only what you love,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love.”

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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some hot cocoa, freshly popped popcorn, and a legion of telepathic crab monsters.

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Thanks so much reading!

–Mike

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