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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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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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:

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“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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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The (Cover’s) the Thing . . .

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

It’s an expression so common, so overused, many of us may turn a deaf ear to it.  Perhaps we even roll our eyes and think, Can they spew out more cliches while they’re at it?

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But for authors who have worked countless hours on a novel, experiencing the high, soaring peaks and muddy, shallow bottomlands of the creative journey, and who stuck through the process, even on those dark days when all seemed lost and the literary well seemed as dry and barren as the surface of a dead world floating endlessly in orbit, the notion that the story, their story, which they have finally completed, needs the window-dressing of a sensational cover may at first blush seem rather insulting.  After all, isn’t it the story that counts?  The prose?  The characters that populate the pages?  Shouldn’t the novel stand alone, on its own merit?

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Of course it should, and, to a large degree, it does.  But readers can only enjoy your story if they know it exists.  They can’t become entranced by the literary world you’ve created unless they first choose to purchase the book.  And, apart from family, friends, friends of friends, what can an author who is anything but a household name do to attract a broader readership?  Social media, paid advertising, marketing, and of course joining the wonderful WordPress community are all potential ways of discovering a wider audience.

community

But creating a can’t-miss, spectacular cover for your book is essential, and its something comic book publishers have known, and practiced, since the first issues hit the newsstands nearly a century ago.

As a lifelong comic book collector, I am not ashamed to admit–there are some vintage issues I have acquired over the years simply on the basis of the cover alone.  I can well imagine the comics buyer from decades ago, the ten-year-old with the freckles, the teenager in pigtails, spinning the squeaky rack, deciding which issues they should plunk their dimes and nickels and pennies on.  In an era before cable television, before VHS cassettes and DVDs, and long before the Internet and smartphones, comic books were wildly popular.  Hundreds of issues graced the stands every month.

comicrack

A great cover was not just an option.  It was a necessity.

Classic comic book covers came in all genres, all styles, all moods . . .

From the bombastic . . .

ff3

to the fun . . .

detective99

action57

to the spooky . . .

hos92

hos97

to the startling . . .

ASM121

shocksuspenstories7

journeyintoUW49

to the adventurous . . .

MIS44

marveltales152

to the ironic . . .

SA91

to the larger-than-life . . .

TTA10

SA2

*****

When it came to The Eye-Dancers, I knew from the outset who I wanted to design the cover.  One of the earliest posts on this website covered (pun intended!) this topic.  Matt Gaston, artist, graphic designer, and all-around talented and creative guy, is a lifelong friend of mine.  I was very fortunate that he agreed to do the cover for the novel when I asked him.

Like me, Matt is a longtime comic book collector, and we agreed that the look and feel of The Eye-Dancers cover should pay homage to our hobby.  So whenever anyone tells me, as some have, that the cover of The Eye-Dancers reminds them of a graphic novel or a vintage comic from yesteryear, I smile.  I’m sure Matt does, too.  We wouldn’t want it any other way.

eyedancers

When we were kids, Matt and I used to talk about the future.  Maybe we’d team up and do a comic book strip.  I’d be the writer, he the artist.  We never quite made it to collaborating on a comic strip.  But I like to think that The Eye-Dancers represents a little slice, a miniature helping of that long-ago dream.

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

When that last sentence is written, when you shed a tear at “The End,” thinking of the long journey, the obstacles overcome, when you hope that your characters will move readers, that your words, your similes and metaphors, your twists and turns, your story will carry them away to another world, far, far away, beyond some distant, star-speckled horizon, consider those classic old comic books that wowed the young, and young at heart, of bygone eras . . .

No book should be judged by its cover.  But it just might be purchased because of it.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Embracing Your Inner Grogg, Zog, and Groot!

There are so many aspects, so many parts to the process.  An idea strikes, giving birth to a story–perhaps it’s a short story that can be crafted in a day; perhaps it’s a novel that will take months, even years to complete.  But here, now, at the outset, that’s not important.  All that matters is the desire, the need, to write.

idea

 

It doesn’t take long for that to change, and for the situation to become more complicated.  I know, for me, if I have written a short story, there is the initial euphoria of finishing it.  A job well done.  But now–where to submit it?  Will anyone want to publish it?  A dozen rejection slips later, a crisis of confidence hits.  Who was I fooling?  It isn’t any good.  Maybe it’s not as polished as I thought–so I go back, edit it some more, and then resubmit to a dozen more magazines.  Eventually, I have so many rejection slips and form letters, I can wallpaper my office with them.  But I keep submitting, keep believing.  It just takes one . . .

rejectionslips

 

And as for the novel . . . multiply the above by a thousand.  Whereas the short story is a sprint, a forty-yard dash, the novel is a marathon, a test of endurance.  At some point, I know, I will question the entire project.  There will come a low point, when energy reserves have been depleted, when ideas hide underneath rocks and behind thick, impenetrable walls, when I ask myself–“Is this story going anywhere?  Where do I take it?  What do I write next?”  Writer’s block, while in the middle of a novel, is a grim feeling.  All the work already put forth now appears for naught, stuck in the middle of a chapter that refuses to cooperate.

index

 

I had to confront this middle-of-the-story crossroads while writing The Eye-Dancers–the point where the novel will either take off and infuse me with a literary second wind, or die on the vine, withering under a sweltering summer sun, thirsting for ideas that never arrive.  For me, and for The Eye-Dancers, this defining moment occurred in chapter 18.

I was slightly more than halfway through the novel, and felt pretty good about what I had so far.  But chapter 18 was a quagmire.  It was a pivotal chapter, and one of the longest in the novel.  I couldn’t seem to get it right–everything I wrote came up flat, like soda left out on the porch all night long.  I wrote a first draft–ugh.  Lifeless and forced.  Reluctantly, bemoaning the wasted effort, I deleted every word of the chapter and began anew.  The second draft proved no better.  I threw my hands up, literally.  Was my concept wrong?  Should I take a step back and rethink the whole thing?  I remember taking a long walk, thinking, figuring, looking at the impasse from all angles.  But nothing came to me.  Nothing sounded right.

crossroads

 

It brought to mind something George Orwell once said:  “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

orwell

 

Later that day, at a total loss, I flipped through some of my old comic books, looking for something, anything.

I found it.

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

When I was in junior high school and began collecting comic books seriously, I never thought I would buy any issues that weren’t superhero-related.  The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and later Batman and Superman were my focus.  But as I learned more about the history of the medium, realizing how rich and layered old comics were, I decided to branch out.  One of the gems I later discovered was what collectors often refer to as “pre-hero Marvels.”

spiderman

 

Prior to The Fantastic Four number 1 (November 1961), Marvel Comics published a small line of adventure and sci-fi comics–certainly not unique in those days.  Even DC, creator of Superman and Batman, incorporated a quality line of non-hero comic books.  But what made the Marvels special were the monsters . . .

ff1

 

With names like Grogg, Groot, and Zog, just to name a few, these larger-than-life creatures jumped off the page.

st83grogg

 

tta13groot

 

I can easily imagine an exuberant ten-year-old in 1960, at the height of the phenomenon, spinning the comics rack at the local corner store, trying to decide which monster-book to plunk his dime on.

jim56zog

 

The stories, with titles such as  “I created Sporr, the Thing That Could Not Die,” were formulaic, silly, and, frankly, ridiculous.  But they were magic, too.

goliath

 

What’s more, they were fun.

tta34

 

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

That particular day, seeking something of an escape from the writing process, I opened Tales of Suspense number 29 (February 1962).  Tales of Suspense is the same title that, ten issues and just over one year later, would introduce the world to Iron Man–but I wasn’t thinking of the Golden Avenger as I flipped through the story, laughing and smiling all the way through “The Martian Who Stole a City.”

TOS29

 

The story was dated, predictable, and by no means a masterpiece.  But it was just the tonic I needed.  It made me feel twelve years old again.  It infused me with optimism, a sense of wonder, and it instilled in me a belief that anything was possible, and that any obstacle to creativity can be hurdled and left far behind in a sun-streaked rearview mirror.

Energized, invigorated, I went back to the book, dared to key in the first word of the revised and revised and revised again chapter 18, which expanded to the first sentence and then the first paragraph.  Two pages later, I paused, pumped a fist.  The logjam had broken.  The mind-block had lifted, disintegrated, like smoke on the wind.

smokeonwind

 

It was a necessary reminder that, no matter what our Amazon sales ranking, no matter what or how many reviews we have, no matter how hard it sometimes is to get our thoughts and visions onto the page, when it’s all said and done, we are doing something we were born to do.  Something we need to do.  Something we love.

Ray Bradbury once wrote, “Zest.  Gusto.  How rarely one hears these words used.  How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them.  Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto. . . . For the first thing a writer should be is–excited.  He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”

As I continued to type, the words now pouring out of me like lava, the classic issue of Tales of Suspense number 29 still lay there, in full view, on my desk.

enthusiasms

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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