We Interrupt These Stories to Bring You Andrez Bergen, Great Capes and GeekPron

Originally, I was going to make the month of October 2013 Storytime for Mythic Bios: if only because for the past three entries I have been posting up stories. And I was going to do it again today until it occurred to me that there are two updates that I need to make.

So first of all, I am friends with Andrez Bergen: an author and musician whose Blog you can find under a cap-locks version of his name right here with the subtitle: a wayward soapbox for author/hackwriter Andrez Bergen. He has written a few books, but the one that I have read is his new Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?: of which you can either click on the previous link or look at Heropa itself. Basically, imagine a virtual reality world modelled after an original Silver Age comics universe where players can be either superheroes or villains. Then add to it with the fact that it operates on the Comics Code Authority rules: such as no swearing, fraternizing between hero and villain roles, drinking in public, revealing your secret identity, and then some. And then complicate it by having set in a dystopian offline society and have the dregs of it start to affect this ideal world.

I actually met Andrez in the WordPress Blogsphere when, I believe, I wrote My Best Friend Was a Sith Lord. What it seems like in this amateur version of Blog archaeology or psychogeography is that Andrez commented on my entry and I commented back, followed him to his site where his book was being promoted and still in the process of being finalized … and the rest is history that can be summed up into a continuing friendship and a consequent Sequart article published yesterday entitled Revisionism Comes to a Silver Age: Or Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?

Suffice to say, I am really pleased with how the above article turned out and if you are interested please buy Andrez’s book, look at my article and read through Sequart’s really fascinating scholarship on the medium of comics and everything it has influenced. You can find the link to Sequart through my article or my Blogroll on the right-hand side of Mythic Bios proper.

It is just amazing how things can come together: and in ways that you didn’t even think of beforehand. I also have another element of news. As you might have seen from my Blogroll, I have been following G33kPr0n for some time now. What you might not know is that they were looking for some contributing writers and, after sending them some work, you are looking at one of the newest members of the G33kpr0n Contributing Writer Staff. 😀

I didn’t want to say anything until I posted my first article and made it official. It is different writing for G33kPr0n than for Mythic Bios, but it has opened various new avenues to me: if only out of sheer geeky enthusiasm. My first article actually covers The Dark Crystal Author Quest and outlines it for the readers of G33kPr0n. I am also getting revitalized for my work for the Quest as well in creating my story. I know what I want it to be about and the rest is now a question of details and time. Suffice to say, I have a whole lot of ideas for G33kPr0n articles, new space to collaborate with, and good awesome geeky people to share it with as well: both staff and readers.

I have wondered, however, if this will impact my writing of Mythic Bios: if I will have to cut down on articles in order to also work on my other projects … maybe to once a week instead of twice for a while. I still need to look for other avenues as well and we will just have to see where it goes. But in the meantime, yay: lots of links tonight, ladies and gentlemen and beings of all kinds. I believe I will have some other news if and when specifics are given to me as well. I have plenty of branching ideas and I just want to see how they bear fruit.

So stay turned everyone, as I become an even more obnoxiously speaking-Geek. Same Mythic time, same Mythic Bios …

Looking Outward

This is Not a Less Impressive Daffodil: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I thought I was going to just make that small post about how most–if not all–of Neil Gaiman’s stories could be construed as being part of a multiverse of his own creation. I thought I could leave it at that and not talk about The Ocean At the End of the Lane in and of itself. Certainly, that would have been easier. For a 181-page novel, Ocean is intimidating and in a lot of ways really hard to describe.

In fact, the reason why Ocean is so hard to deal with, at least from my perspective, is that its writing is seemingly so sparse, but there is so much packed into those charged sentences. In terms of structure, the narrative and writing style reminds me of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Julian The Magician in all the different ideas that have compacted into almost poetic sentences. At the same time the resonances, metaphors and allusions to other events through imagery and small stories is reminiscent–to me again–of a more “spread-out” George R.R. Martin: in that there is a very intricate storytelling structure that incorporates physical, visual, visceral and emotion description well. I even know that if and when I read this novel again there will be more hints and foreshadowing’s and authorial winks that will meet me along the way to the end of the lane.

All of the above are the technical elements that stand out at me with regards to the writing style of the book. And I haven’t even gotten to where this can fit in with regards to Neil’s own mythic “storyscape.” Amanda Palmer goes into this far better than I can–even better–she provides no spoilers to the book whatsoever. I will however say that one very striking part of her Blog review on Ocean is that apparently this story is the closer to autobiography or semi-autobiography than a lot of Neil’s other words or, as Amanda put it, “Neil dialed down the usual setting of his blender” so that you can see a much clearer distinction between “the reality that we experience” and “the art we create.”

Of course, this is not the first time he has done this. Violent Cases and The Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch are works that definitely come to mind with regards to where the writer’s experiences and what the writer creates can be observed to some extent as that “twilight place where the man and the writer smash into each other and for a second there’s a wrinkle, a schism, where you can jam a stick into the works of the blender and see the whole, floating components of a soul” but I will say that this is probably the first time that Neil has ever written a prose novel along these lines.

I also can’t help but wonder if somehow Neil was somehow, in some stylistic or personal way, inspired or influenced in some part by C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections: a collection of short stories that Neil read, wrote praise for and even–as “an American God” sent an editor to look at. You can find my review of Anthony’s book here. Certainly, there is a nice resonance between the first-person mostly-child narrative of Anthony’s stories and the unnamed mostly-child protagonist in Ocean: both of which were narrated by adults.

And now, my friends, this where I place my obligatory disclaimer: for in this Ocean there be Spoilers. If you plan to read this book, turn back now. It is a really good book, so please read it. If not, or if you’ve read it continue walking down this lane … if you dare.

If I had to sum this story all up in one sentence, I would say that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story about childhood fear and wonder for grown-ups. I’m not talking about Coraline or any of Neil’s other children’s stories that are made for children but can be read by adults or even the film MirrorMask with its own child protagonist putting herself into danger. No, the danger inherent in the situation of the unnamed protagonist is one of a very painful real powerlessness in the face of an unfathomable adult–and also fantastic–reality. The protagonist discovers a lot of hard truths at his age of seven even before the magical element comes into play: which, in turn, is triggered by one of those harsh adult and alien truths in a really terrible way.

The protagonist already starts off as a child that can barely tolerate his reality without books and is alternatively lonely and does not care much for people in general. He actually describes it as mostly unhappy, though he does admit that he had moments of contentedness. He is not a child like Coraline who can trick her way out of situations, or Bod with his canniness and supernatural influence: and he is made very painfully aware of how weak and small he is compared to an adult. That is not to say, in retrospect, that he doesn’t his own intelligence or craftiness: after all, not only did he learn basic survival skills–if only out of necessity–but he has books as his oldest companions and books can teach you things if you let them.

But even his resources and the high level of child intuition that he possesses, the protagonist cannot solve all of his problems by himself: which is something that the narrative makes quite clear. Even the books he reads, each one about children overcoming adversity, or an evil adult is offset by his reality of actual helplessness: as if Neil is trying to hit home–the home and childhood the protagonist realizes he is losing–that this is not that kind of story. The protagonist can be a cowardly child, a thoughtful child, a brave child but he is still just a child.

And children need help when they find themselves in a bad situation: domestic or otherwise.

The Hempstocks are a family of three women that live at the end of the lane. The youngest is Lettie, her mother is called Ginnie and the grandmother is, well, Old Mrs. Hempstock. Lettie Hempstock, with her red hair and snub nose, is a seemingly eleven year old girl reminiscent of a Pippi Longstocking with magical strength and “just-so” knowledge. Of course, these three women are not what they seem and yet, at the same time, they are. This pattern of three women of power comes up a lot in Neil’s works: from the Lilim in Stardust, to the Kindly Ones in Sandman and even the immigrant Slavic goddesses in American Gods. I’d also be remiss if I forgot to make mention of the Norns or the Fates from mythology as well.

In this case, though, the three are here to help the protagonist: at least whenever he finds his way to them. The Hempstocks themselves seem to have come from another dimension countless millennia ago, from the Ocean pond next to their farm and in at least one form they are pure energy. These three are pure Hempstocks and apparently there are other female Hempstocks throughout the world created by the wandering male Hempstocks: who aren’t as powerful, but are just as special in their own ways. The fact that there is a Hempstock in Stardust and The Graveyard Book may well be coincidences.

What is also interesting is that the pure Hempstock females do not have fathers. Perhaps they are born from the multiverse or perhaps not. The original male Hempstocks may be the same and I wonder if there is one as old as Old Mrs. Hempstock out there somewhere. It is not known if male Hempstocks can make other male ones in the same as they do female ones. So basically, while these male Hempstocks wander and play Zeus across the world and nowhere in this narrative whatsoever, we are left with these three who are a child, an adult woman, and an old woman: and yet so much more.

And then we have the antagonists. Skarthach of the Keep is a flea. She isn’t a flea in the conventional sense, but rather an ancient creature in the multiverse of the Ocean that is awakened by the badness that happens in this world and seeks to rule it by providing what people want and feeding off of the sensations they get from it. She is massive, powerful and old. So you might think to yourself that what we have here is a classical Lovecraftian entity or even an Other Mother that will manipulate the protagonist and Lettie as they come into her acquired dimension. Well, if you did think this, I’m afraid you thought wrong.

What Skarthach does–after becoming a humanoid named Ursula Monkton–is worse. She physically infiltrates the protagonist as a worm–which in and of itself has some very unsettling overtones–and after he takes her out, she changes into a human that becomes his babysitter. Out of perhaps some pettiness for Lettie attempting to seal her away in her own dimension or simply wanting to keep the protagonist “safe”–because she placed a gateway back into her dimension within him after being in his body–she begins to control his life. She infects his family with her “food” and makes them love her: his married father in particular. But before and after that, Ursula limits his physical freedom–essentially taking it away–and threatens to take away his books while enforcing “early bedtimes.”

And all of this is before she gets his father–who has some aggression issues of his own–to attempt to drown him. She is literally the stereotype of every wicked stepmother–or surrogate mother as she takes over the family–rolled up into pettiness, spite and pure evil. She is an epitome of insidious adult bullying and abuse. Neil did such a good job on illustrating all of this that I’ve even stated that Ursula Monkton is the first of his antagonists that I have ever truly despised and I took great joy in watching her pretend a fearless she didn’t have and then cry like a little baby smeared in mud– just as she had done to the protagonist before (it’s not so grand when it happens to you, huh Ursula?)–as her very painful doom came to her.

But it is slightly before that when you begin to understand something. Apparently, fleas had come to reality before and they were almost always accompanied by things that Old Mrs. Hempstock called varmints. I originally thought that they were just infected humans or offspring that the fleas made when they colonized worlds. But I fall victim to expectations as well and I realized after a while that I was wrong. Fleas are deathly afraid of varmints: and anything else with half a soul would be too. The reason for this is because they are cleaners: they eat fleas and everything associated with them. And apparently a lot of them dwell in Earth’s universe because there are no native fleas there. I pictured them like the mounts that the Nazgul in Return of the King rode, but I know they are even worse than that and only barely have passing resemblances. All I know is that when they ate one constellation out of existence, it reminded me of various terrible events from Dr. Who.

I think what I really related in the end is that the protagonist, even after the removal of the worm and the path to her portal still has the gateway to other dimensions inside of him. It is described as this piece of ice in his heart. Later you discover that when he is older, he makes art and even though the Hempstocks observe that he is “growing a new heart,” even though he may have died in one version of reality from the varmints hunting every last bit and trace of the flea,  I wonder if that shard is really gone. It was a nice allusion to what a writer can actually be.

Other things that I really liked in Ocean was the metaphoric and literal quality of the ocean itself and how, through simple language and the perspective of a child, Neil manages to show the wrongness in the death and supposed replacement of a loved one: as if somehow substituting one cat for another that you killed can ever replace the being you loved, or if another thoughtlessly intentional violation somehow makes the previous accidental one better. It is that last image that really sets the tone for the protagonist’s story really: at least to me.

I am nearing the end of this strange review now. I just want to leave off with some quotes that really caught my eye: both in their meanings and undertones and just for the simple elegance of their craftsmanship.

“I was far away in ancient Egypt, learning about Hathor, and how she had stalked Egypt in the form of a lioness, and she had killed so many people the sands turned red, and how they had only defeated her by mixing beer and honey and sleeping draughts and dying this concoction red, so she thought it was blood, and she drank it and fell asleep.  Ra, the father of the gods, made her the goddess of love after that, so the wounds she had inflicted on people would now only be wounds of the heart. I wondered why the gods had done that. Why hadn’t they just killed her, when they had the chance?” (53)

It is a very good question, I might add, although it might be answered by the shard of ice in the protagonist’s heart and the art it possibly inspires him to make: as some consolation anyway.

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were (53)

“Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t” (112).

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world … Except for Granny, of course” (112).

“In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping” (43).

This particular quote has a flow to it and a glowing golden aura–like reading some precursor to ancient Greek–and yet flows so well and with such a seeming effortlessness like breathing that it makes me want to cry. This was by far my favourite quote in the entire book for that reason alone.

And then there is this one:

“My book of Greek myths had told me that the narcissi were named after a beautiful young man, so lovely that he had fallen in love with himself. He saw his reflection in a pool of water, and would not leave it, and, eventually, he died, so that the gods were forced to transform him into a flower. In my mind, when I had read this, I had imagined that a narcissus must be the most beautiful flower in the world. I was disappointed when I learned that it was just a less impressive daffodil” (68).

I have to say that aside from the various nuances and connotations within these lines, this has to be one of the best, most subtle and utterly poetic insult ever. I can just imagine going around telling a person that annoys me that they are “just a less impressive daffodil.”

So, suffice to say, I am going to give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a 5/5. I know there is so much I did not discuss or make parallels to, but then I have to also remember that this is just one road to one place in Neil Gaiman’s multiverse. I think what really got to me, when all of this is said done, however, is the fact that this style of story–with the exception of a few descriptive details and elements–is something that I have been working on myself in my own writing and it was really interesting to see Neil making a story like this for himself and the rest of us. Perhaps we all dip into the same place: a place that can be a well, or a spring, or a stream of consciousness, or a pond … that is an eternal, bottomless, ocean.

Becoming a Gateway: Or What Anna Anthropy Twines Together

I will say here, off the bat, that there are some video game and article links below that can be construed as Not Safe For Work. Player’s discretion is advised, though enthusiasm is also encouraged. I am also hoping that I can communicate and do justice to these ideas and some of my own creative license as best I can.

I’m not sure how I first met Anna Anthropy. Actually, that is not entirely true. I do remember first being introduced to her when I discovered Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: though how I came across that book to begin with is a memory now lost to time.

I did plan to buy that book eventually, but then life got in the way. One day, after a series of insane events, I found myself brought to the 2012 CanZine Toronto Event by some friends who thought I needed to see it: and I did. What I didn’t know, or what didn’t really bridge the cognitive dissonance in my head was that Anna Anthropy was there with her partner Daphny David and that they were selling the very book that I had been so interested in.

I’m going to admit that I felt sad, but I was still getting used to that endless process of being social again that I tend to find myself in and by the time I realized that they had been there, it was too late. So I bought the book for myself later instead.

There are many very good reviews that detail what the contents of the book were about: how it worked, how it possibly didn’t, and all of those various details. But there were a few things that stuck out at me. The main message that I got from Rise of the Video Game Zinesters was that Anna Anthropy wants there to be more accessible technology and means for anyone to create a video game. My younger self, the boy that really wanted to make games, would have totally agreed with this concept: even if he didn’t have the knowledge at the time to understand many of the other details surrounding it.

Essentially, Anna Anthropy wants there to be a means for a game-making technology or software–a manifestation of communication and language–that is easily accessible for anyone to use for the purpose of, well, making games and creating ideas. Or taking names and kicking ass: whichever definition you prefer. Of course, there is more than that. The idea is that by having different people of different backgrounds, social classes, career-paths, sexual and gender orientations, queerness, life practices, and a wide gamut of humanity that does not necessarily understand coding you can vary up the content and the gaming experience of a game without an industry-ruled homogeneity: where plots and stereotypes are recycled to keep a sure profit.

It is a very seductive idea. Anthropy compares this “much needed” product and the mindset behind it to the creation of the printing press in Renaissance Europe: thus freeing the production of literary articles from the Catholic Church’s scribes and making them accessible to everyone. The fact that the printing press allowed for religious texts to be made with vernacular language–the words of the everyday layperson–instead of a Latin known only to nobles, priests, and scholars is probably an analogy not lost on Anthropy when she brought up the image to begin with when you consider that she looks at games as a language that all men, women, humans, and other sentient beings should be able to relate and have access to.

She also briefly looks at the history of game-making itself and equates video game development with the earliest forms of games: with symbolic piece and board games, carnival games, arcades, all the way to modern board games and more miniaturized computer games. In addition, Anthropy makes a very compelling case as to how video games were and are in the providence of an elite minority: that it was male computer programmer students and the academy that developed code and the games that came from it. Yet it is also clear that there are changes that are–and have been–in the works to that regard.

I’ll tell right off, as some other reviewers of Anna Anthropy’s work have mentioned, I don’t always agree with what she says but she makes some very intriguing observations. There is one point in particular that sticks out at me. Anthropy writes that a single game creator in sole control of their project can make a much more focused and more personal form of art–a game–than a large team of staff members can. I don’t know if I am articulating that thought as thoroughly as I should, but that is what I got from that. What I find really interesting is that Will Eisner, in his book Comics and Sequential Art, also makes a very similar statement with regards to the development of the comics medium and storytelling within it. These are two different mediums, both of which had to fight to gain recognition as a legitimate medium, yet it is really fascinating how two of their advocates come to similar conclusions.

Eisner did mention, however, that there was nothing wrong with a collaboration between two or more artists on a work. Indeed, in his book Graphic Storytelling he goes into a lot more detail with regards to that. And even Anna Anthropy, in her book, mentions that she is writing the book not merely for game creators but for anyone: writer or scholar that is fascinated with her topic. It should also be noted that Anna Anthropy has collaborated with a few other artists in her own works: such as the fun and frustrating Lesbian Spider-Queens From Mars, the very personal and visceral Dys4ia, and the thought provoking puzzle game Triad. While much of this collaboration has been in the form of graphics and sound, even programming for the latter game, it is still a form of collaboration: though obviously not an industry-mandated one. Rather, these are the product of an agreement between artists that respect one another and actually work together to make something cohesive while still keeping the personal element of Anthropy’s own vision.

Now, to get beyond the book and go a bit into Anna Anthropy’s games. I like them. I like the concept behind them: of taking a video game form and using it to communicate a personal experience. There is something really beautiful about that. I know that Anthropy may not be the only person who does this–and I suspect she hopes she isn’t in the only one either–but she is the one that really introduced this to me on more than a cursory level. I think she is one of those who reinforced for me that the games of my youth–that inspired me as a creator–are more than just frivolity or an inferior art-form. Some have said the same thing about comics, about film, and–back in the day–even theatre and other forms of painting and art.

Some people have been giving Anthropy flak about her games: about how they all tend to follow a very similar pattern or themes of lesbianism, BDSM, and transgender issues. The thing is, well there are two things. The first is that all of the above things are not mainstream in video games: at least not from someone who has all of those elements in their own life. The second is the age-old adage: write about what you know. And Anna Anthropy knows about all of this. She writes about and makes what she knows. Her viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s and it is more than okay for her to make games about what interests her: because there are others out there who will relate to it.

The fact that she uses similar themes in her work, and I would say never quite in the same way with regards to game play mechanics, is irrelevant to me: because the industry does the same thing for the most part with many mainstream themes and even the best creators make what they know.

I think what I admire about Anna Anthropy and others like her is that although I can’t always agree with them, they do something that is remarkable. Sometimes the people in charge of publishing or video game industries and coding are called “the gatekeepers.” And what Anthropy and others are doing is they are becoming gateways: gateways and fiery Bodhisattvas into alternate perspectives and the potential for the creation and expression of new game experiences.

This is something that I deeply respect and it is a thing that greatly motivates me now. There is one thing I have mentioned before in this Blog: that I am looking into Twine game-making because of Anthropy’s mention and use of it. Twine is a software that lets you create a “choose your own adventure” style text game without a knowledge of coding, or with enough video tutorials to get into it. I want to do the same thing that she and others are doing now. I want to make a game that can communicate my own–albeit different-experiences: ones I’m not sure even Anthropy will always agree with. I want to have the ability to put someone else into my own shoes: as it were. Or use my experience to make something else entirely and let people make their own choices.

So Anna Anthropy won with regards to me: because she has influenced me to make a game. But I think what is also remarkable is how she even affects her reviewers and critics. Take Jenn Frank’s Rise of the Existential Crisis: How One Woman Nearly Never Finished a Book Review, or Cara Ellison’s Choose Your Own Anna Anthropy Interview.

Frank’s article adopts Anna Anthropy’s writing style from Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: emulating Anthropy’s own combination of history and criticism and inter-dispersing it with her own personal experiences in a seemingly scattered narrative but ultimately bridging the gap between the reviewer and the creator of personal expression while Cara Ellison actually makes a Choose Your Own Adventure Game using Twine–Twine–in order to bring her interaction with Anthropy across. Just looking at the styles and mediums used by these two women is utterly fascinating: Frank does not necessarily agree with Anthropy’s statement that everyone should make a game–though she wishes on some level that she had–while Ellison flat out makes a game to express her interaction and her influence from Anthropy’s philosophy in a very demonstrative manner.

I will also say right now that this article was a long time coming. I just didn’t have the words then. But if Ellison’s Twine article further influenced me to make my own game (and I didn’t even realize she was using Twine to do it at the time, another example of my cognitive dissonance), Frank’s article actually encouraged me to write this. And I have been influenced by Anthropy in other ways as well: you will probably see relatively soon outside of this article.

But if I had to sum up everything I have written here, I will say this: that in terms of video-game storytelling, its potential as a medium, and her own potential influence on its future, Anna Anthropy is immensely important.

P.S. My favourite Anna Anthropy Twine game is this one: Hunt for the Gay Planet. There is a story behind its creation that she can explain far better than I, but what really inspires me is the story of a person who tries to find other people like her and goes on a long well-written intergalactic journey. This piece inspired me so much that I bought the Choose Your Own Adventure book from Anthropy’s own site: which is coincidentally on my Blogroll as well.

Sea Shells, See Shells by the Sea Shore: A Review of C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes

I have been looking forward to reading C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections for some time, and now that I have finished reading it, I find I have a lot of different things to say. In fact, what I think I’m going to do is the following.

I am going to write two sections to this review. The first will be an attempt at a more literary perspective of Lunatic Heroes, while the second will deal with my own personal reactions to the stories themselves. Before I go on, however, I just want to say that I will be referring to Anthony by his first name due to the way that I was introduced to him. I will elaborate on that later, but I just want to say that it would feel weird after reading about him and his own work to call him anything else. It’s the not first time I have done this with an author and it probably won’t be the last.

Lunatia heros is a species of Northern moon-snail that likes to live close to the shoreline of bodies of water. They are large gastropods that like to eat clams and other snails: including members of their own species. They consume their prey by drilling holes in their shells, releasing digestive enzymes, and sucking out the partially digested contents of their victims from within those shells. In fact, the only thing left of their fellow snails are these empty shells. According to Wikipedia, these moon snails hunt other mollusks down by searching for those that bury themselves in the sand of the shoreline.

Of all the titles Anthony could have given his work, Lunatic Heroes is by far the most apt. This book is essentially a collection of fifteen short stories or, technically written recollections, of some of the major events in Anthony’s life. Even though the book itself is categorized as a memoir, which it is, each narrative is both interrelated and self-contained.

At least twelve of these stories deal with Anthony’s childhood with his Italian-American family in Boston, while the remaining three focus on Anthony as a developing independent adult all the way to contemporary times. I don’t want to make too much of a generalization, but each story is about the insanity of the human condition. After all, the word lunatic is derived from the Latin word Luna and it was once thought that someone suffering from madness was “moon-touched,” while at the same time the moon itself has always been associated with the other world of the night, creativity and intuition.

In this, the metaphor of Lunatic Heroes functions in a few different ways. On one hand, most of Anthony’s stories are about the dysfunctional elements of his own family and his 1950s childhood: about the way each character would attempt to devour Anthony’s extremely introverted essence, digging under the sand where his self hid in order to successfully–or unsuccessfully–get at it.

On the other hand, Anthony’s narratives also take many of these same characters and portray their other more relatable sides. It is no coincidence, after all, that the heroes of ancient literature–for all of their deplorable moral behaviour by contemporary standards–still possessed a spark of divinity and managed to perform great deeds. In a fiercely passionate and witty voice tempered with a nostalgic unsentimentality not unlike that of Will Eisner, Anthony manages to show that these characters from his own life aren’t always monsters, but are very fallible human beings with some moments of relation, levity, and downright comedy: even and especially in some of the worst situations that he depicts.

What drew me in as a reader were the very mutable archetypes that Anthony managed to identify in his life: specifically with regards to how they transferred and inter-lapped throughout each story that he gathers together into a strange whole. Sometimes each narrative doesn’t always fit in a straight-line–which is more than fair given how a life of human interactions is generally never shaped that way–and he occasionally repeats a sentence from a previous story. But the archetypes really drew me in. Certainly, the whole Scylla and Charybdis parallel childhood dilemma in “Force Fed” was made very uncomfortably clear, just as the figure of a Far Eastern form of enlightenment and a symbolic place of personal transformation is within “Swamp.”

So thus ends the very brief and relatively spoiler free part of my review. Now I am going to talk about my personal reaction to Lunatic Heroes. I will say that I particularly related to “Force Fed.” When I was a boy, I was a very fussy eater and after I started to lose weight at twelve, my family thought that I had some kind of eating disorder. I didn’t really see a problem: in that when I stopped feeling hungry, I simply stopped eating. I was also lactose intolerant and I didn’t know that until my doctor and a slough of very uncomfortable and embarrassing tests happened. I lost a lot of weight from simply no longer eating dairy and then having a growth spurt. It also didn’t help that I was a very nervous child and my stomach suffered for it. But I could definitely relate to Anthony’s account of being made to feel like there was something wrong with you just because you simply weren’t hungry enough by the standards of others or the fact that you didn’t want to become sick.

I could definitely relate to the moments of introversion and hyper-sensitivity from Anthony’s depiction of his childhood self and that paradoxical need to have your parents always in your life, but at the same time that need to keep that bubble of personal space around you from being violated by the rest of the world: sometimes in vain. That is why I particularly related to–and if anyone knows me and is reading this they will be laughing by now–the last story “Hate.”

I admit that I was actually concerned when Anthony ended his memoir with a story entitled “Hate,” but it made sense. The thing is, Anthony is a psychotherapist and there are some things he talks about throughout the entire book–mindfulness, being in your head and needing to be in your body–that is very reminiscent of what my own therapist has been telling me for quite some years now. In “Hate,” Anthony even mentions how he still has snap judgments and immediate–and sometimes unfavourable–superficial impressions of people. They can bring up various associations his life: not all of them pleasant. But he also mentions how by realizing that these same people have pain and loss in their lives, it makes them relatable as human beings. It is still a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of during some of my more misanthropic world-obliterating moments of glee.

I also totally understand where Anthony is coming from in “The Head,” when he writes about the darkness and anger that he is feeling in himself even while he is with his wife and dog at a peaceful retreat: the knowledge of this fact that just made him feel worse until he has one moment of mindfulness. I think Anthony really hit home for me that you can mentally and emotionally awaken many times in life: and for different reasons. In that, “Swamp” and the events with regards to the freak show in “Carnival” really come to the fore. In addition, the story “Nonno” made me really miss my own Zaidy while I can more than sympathize with the need to belong and centre yourself and finding a place like “Harvard Square” home.

I am almost finished this strange review. But to make it even stranger, I want to write down some very notable lines, or moments of text that just made this entire book for me:

Anthony writes about longing: “But this time I felt the ache you get when longing for something you don’t think you have, coupled by the fear that you’d blow it if you did” (107).

He also describes the process of maturity, stating, “I was pulling off the heist of the decade, stealing the truth about myself from every encounter” (108-109).

Finally, there is this: “I imagined eventually befriending the Devil and getting promoted to demon status, sharing the power of evil and control over an infinite number of she-devils who would hungrily do my bidding” (129).

These are just such universal impulses and feelings, and as a writer I kind of wish I had been the one to express myself in such a way. The metaphor of the Lunatic Heroes is even more ingenious because in addition to moon snails being predators, Lunatia heros always leaves perfectly preserved husks from all of its feedings. Think about that for a few moments: even though the snail is gone, like the imprint of a lost self or Virginia Woolf’s spot on a wall, its shell–the testament to its existence–is left unearthed in the sand. It’s left there for others to find and see and marvel in the patterns that they created. In other words, we are the predators and the prey of our selves, but by simply living we take the selves of others with us, and we leave a testament to their existence. It is an excellent extended metaphor for a writer, the act of writing, literature itself and the state of being human.

Now I am finally going to tell you the reason why I refer to Anthony by his first name in this review. Through reading Anthony’s book, I feel like I know him a little more. But that is only part of it. The rest of the reason has to do with how I discovered him.

It was mainly by accident. I was searching for Amanda Palmer’s Blog and I came across her entries about Anthony and just some of what he means to her. I will let you read that entry should you so wish. But what I will say is that Amanda wrote the “Introduction” to Anthony’s book and she said something that really got to me.

Amanda wrote the following, “I had a small glimpse into the act of writing as a direct escape from pain. For the first time, I experienced the physical truth of what it felt like to dwell in the act of creation as the only viable escape from an unbearable, unfaceable reality” (ix). I read this statement and I took a look at myself. I took a look at my notebooks around me in my room. And then I looked at the one hundred or so posts I’ve made on this very Blog. I took a look at what I try to do every single day now and I thought…

Yes. Just … yes.

Amanda also went on to talk about how she and Anthony delve into the uncomfortable, and awkward, and painful moments of clarity that is life. And you will find that and more in exquisite detail if you read this book.

Now I am going to end off now by doing something even stranger. I am going to give Lunatic Heroes a four out of five.

And here is why.

After reading “The Introduction” and Anthony’s “Acknowledgments,” and just hearing about him and some of his life from Amanda’s Blog, I wanted to know … more. Even though the way he describes his childhood, sometimes blatantly and sometimes tinged with hazy mythical half-memories is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases, I want to know about the rest of it: the adolescent rebellion you see forming in the latter stories, what happened in the rest of his travels, what his other fights were about, and more about his exposure to other philosophies and other relationships.

When it comes down to it, I want to see more. And as one lunatic hero to another, Anthony, I sincerely hope to.

The Rise of a Geek or How Video Games Made Me Want to Write Novels

I wrote my first novel in Grade Ten.

In high school, I carried around a clipboard with a manuscript’s worth of lined paper in my backpack along with a book. I would sit in the front entranceway of Thornhill Secondary, outside the door of a class,  in the cafeteria, in the quad, on one of the chairs in my Drama class, and in classrooms before class began scrawling onto that paper with a black or blue pen.

Almost everyday, someone would see me sitting there: in my strange clothes that I mostly wore because my Mom got them and I had to wear something, my Blue Jay baseball cap to keep me hidden from people, blue jeans (because I was bullied over wearing sweatpants in Grade Nine), and my backpack with its many compartments and my handy-dandy pencil case with all my utilities: colour pencil crayons, pencils, pens, erasers … all of that fun stuff. I even had an Art Kit back when I fancied myself a graphic artist: a large bag with an ink pen that I loved, various sized pencils, a grey puddy eraser and a sketch book.

And yes, I did draw characters from my novel.

My novel was called Order and Chaos. It was seventy-five computer pages long with a glossary at the end. It was about a man named Derem who was born in the future after humankind colonized a new Galaxy and created a brand new Empire. There was a war between the human scientists and mages: and the mages lost … their territory disintegrating into an unstable vortex of space known as the Xarion Region. It was thought that magic had died out, as it had once before back on Earth millennia ago, but there were survivors and people still born with the gift.

My world was ruled by a secular humanist technocracy (which my younger self would have loved to have the words for) that was the Empire: composed of different noble Houses that each had a particular division of labour. This same Empire also made the acquaintance of other alien species who stayed out of the whole conflict, and they have differing relations with them.

Derem was a young man who discovered that he was a mage and a Chronomancer: someone who could manipulate time itself. There was an evil villain named Jagan D’Karos, leader of House D’Karos, that wanted to take over the Empire from House T’Jal: that was dying out. D’Karos was a borderline madman who secretly wanted to rediscover magic in order to essentially dominate existence and there was a rebellion against him, and all that lovely stuff.

There were supposed to be two more books. I created outlines for all of them and tried to fill them out. Book One was the only one that truly lived in its way. I also recall holding the entire stack of paper together with one multi-layered bad-ass paperclip. Yeah. Pretty much.

I know for a fact that people noticed me in my school and when I worked on it at summer camp. In many ways, it was my constant companion in addition to the books I read. I wanted to be the next Tolkien obviously. I also wanted to look busy and to focus all of my imagination in a world of my own creation that no one else could really see as of yet.

I had my influences: the Dune II video game my friends were so interested in and which inspired our own role-playing games, Final Fantasy VI (which I knew as III) where magic was a terrifying lost weapon that even helped make Magitek Armour and where there were Espers and epic moments, and I was probably also influenced by Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.

But essentially, I was inspired to write my first novel by video games.

I would have once been ashamed to admit that: that video games are just for fun and are not real literature. Of course, by the same token, I was all like “screw real literature,” this is is what really does it for me. Basically, I just wanted to tell a story and Final Fantasy VI and Dune II pushed me to do it. They pushed me to go beyond my limits and keep working on something: something beyond me, but was still a part of me.

They influenced me in other ways. I went from the Dune game to reading Frank Herbert’s books and–in addition to Star Wars–got really interested in human political machinations and manipulations. Final Fantasy VI on the other hand showed me the majestic beauty of soundtracks, the utter diabolical power of evil, story lines, character development from a seemingly simplistic 16-bit sprite model, a great depth of humanity, and a variety of different ways to interact with things.

It was not the last time games would influence me to that extent either. As I went up through the Grades, and people watched me–as I would learn directly later–I discovered Chrono Trigger and really changed. Order and Chaos was, to put it charitably, a novella in length. Deceptions of Nevermore was even longer: though it was supposed to be a Trilogy that didn’t survive past the first book. And the title may have been influenced by Secret of Evermore: that I never actually played.

That one was a story that took place in a high school: in a small town called Eldara. There was a great evil buried before the founding of the town and the last survivors of a civilization of virtually immortal mages try to keep it from awakening. But there is one mage that wants to wake it up. Centuries later, a girl named Rachel stumbles onto all of this with her Wicca friend Chara, a borderline obnoxious half-demon named Karnak and so on. I also admit that Joss Whedon’s Buffy played a large role in the development of this story.

I also recall there being a story I called The Epic Project with the working title Revelation’s Saga. I vaguely recall working on it after Order and Chaos but before Deceptions of Nevermore. In any case, it was a post-apocalyptic world where an empire called The First Technocracy cloned and resurrected different species of magic-using creatures called Psytans as slave-labour. As the First Technocracy fell and became the Second, many lands had free Psytans or some that actually tried to coexist with humankind. The term Psytan was a blanket bastardized term that defined dryads, goblins, elves, and other creatures as an entire species. They were cloned from something older and I made a whole world with different cultures.

How the humans treated the Psytans reflected a lot on the different cultures. I remember the Sor’cerin Imperium: where women ruled because I reasoned that more women than men would be magic-users and thus have more power. Psytans there would be fellow Bond-Mates to the sorceresses and the Empress. Whereas the Technocracy was more or less equal in that they wanted to mechanize and control all life.

I was definitely influenced by X-Men, and Final Fantasy–especially since my main character was a young woman named Amnah–but also … Pokemon. All right, that last revelation was a little more reluctant on my part even now, but back then I had a whole system figured out. This book went on for hundreds of lined pages. It was my first insanely long novel. I remember working on it everywhere and I mean everywhere … even in some places I no longer go to.

Like I said, I felt a combination of shame and defiance for video game inspiration with my first novels but they helped me make all of this. They helped me deal with the realities of high school and adolescence. You know, once I showed an excerpt of my Epic Project to the Del Rey Writer’s Workshop when it was a free online community. One person said I should have made it a children’s story and I got really offended by that. But looking back, I was essentially a young adult writing young adult stories. They may not have been very good, but they were mine and the product of my time.

For a while, like some people, I thought that our time had nothing more to say. But what I like right now is that everything from our childhood and onward has a meaning and isn’t as fragmented or diluted as others might claim. I do read classical literature now, but I also read comics and sometimes I even play video games. It has changed and it is still changing me to this very day. It’s also clear that there were and are many more people like me to this regard: upraising the things we love and even when we make fun of them, still see them and make them beautiful.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That said, I’m still working on fulfilling that prophecy from my last Yearbook:

High School

Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

So now I’m going to do an actual review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey. And yes, there will be spoilers in addition to Middle-Earth references. So watch the movie first please, and I will try to be more specific with my Tolkien knowledge as well.

Anyway, let me start this off by stating that the last time I’d seen so many singing Dwarves was back when I first watched Snow White.

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But all joking aside, I really liked this film and the entire world, the story thus far, and even the singing elements were incorporated well. The narrative begins slowly and much in the way that the multitude of trailers suggested that it would. I smiled when I saw Bilbo on the screen writing in what would become the Red Book of Westmarch.

I was puzzled, though not completely surprised, to see Frodo in those initial scenes as well. I know that many people have had some issues with him being there: saying that his and Bilbo’s interactions were superfluous to the plot and point of the story. But it was refreshing to see Frodo there: young and unburdened by the absolute hell he will be thrust into much later on in his own saga. He also provided a nice counterpoint to Bilbo as an old, and as a young Hobbit.

So now let’s get to the adventure. I’ve not actually read The Hobbit in some years, or read all of The Unfinished Histories and Tolkien’s notes, so you Tolkienites please bear my ignorance as much as you can. I really liked the encounter and banter between young Bilbo and Gandalf. But I think what I caught my eye in particular were two things in this beginning. First, I appreciate how each Dwarf that comes to Bilbo’s home looks and acts differently from his fellows. They looked very different from my kind of generic view of Dwarves in my head when I first read the story.

And then there is Bilbo. I’ve realized now that Bilbo has always been my favourite Hobbit for a variety of reasons. I guess I can relate to him: as the unwanted person thrown out of his comfort zone and not always wanting to be there. But there was one part in the beginning of the movie that Gandalf states: namely about how once Bilbo used to take after the adventurous Took side of his family before his mother died. And that really turned my head because, from what I inferred from that comment, Bilbo almost seemed to become sedentary and stuck in his ancestral Hobbit-Hole after his parents were gone. For a few moments, it made me wonder if it was a bit of fear or grief that changed Bilbo from a child to a more conservative Hobbit at the time. Even if it was unintentional on Jackson’s part, it was a nice detail.

The Dwarves, like I said, were fleshed out well and their singing more than appropriate given the nature of Middle-Earth as we have seen it through Jackson’s perspective and the gravitas of their quest. I talk about some scenes that really touched me when I watched this film and made me really relate to it, so now I can go on and mention some things I didn’t talk about in my previous post.

The panoramic views of the Shire and the path the company of fourteen (or thirteen and a half) take are breathtaking as always. I think that sometimes the film compensated for certain aspects by adding a lot of battle scenes. I don’t, for instance, recall Gandalf being involved with Bilbo’s dealing with the Trolls quite the way he had. At the same time, I loved how other things were inserted into the film narrative.

I absolutely loved Radagast the Brown. He is so unlike Gandalf or Saruman. He is kind of goofy and ridiculous, but he is still an Istari–a Wizard–and he acts like one when he needs to. There is something very shamanic about how he looks: especially with his fur robe and hat, and his sleigh of rabbits. I loved the nod to Middle-Earth lore with the mention of Ungoliant being the ancestor of the giant spiders of Mirkwood, and also Gandalf mentioning the two Blue Wizards whose names he … can’t particularly recall after two thousand years (which is fair because even now not everyone who has read the Middle-Earth books is sure what they were called or really whatever happened to them in the East). Now, what really intrigued me was the White Council. You know: Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and our favourite White Wizard-before-he-becomes-an idiot-Saruman.

I do recall Gandalf disappearing, or not appearing, in the book’s narrative at various points and apparently Tolkien’s notes and The Unfinished Tales have explanations as to what the Grey Wizard was up to during those times. And believe me, he was not just smoking pipeweed or drinking red wine or … letting Galadriel stroke his hair. I like how they draw The Necromancer into this saga and even how Saruman has some hilarious lines. Really, he was so serious in the Lord of the Rings films, but his comment about Radagast, as short-sighted and arrogant as it is, is really kind of funny. It also makes some matters clear with regards to what might happen in the other two Hobbit movies, and I will get to that later.

Before I move on though, I really like that gesture between Gandalf and Galadriel. All I can say is that Elves have a very different culture from the race of Men and a very radical understanding of the world. Galadriel actually has a husband and consort–Celeborn (who is known as the wisest Elf on Middle-Earth, take from that what you may)–so the gesture between her and Gandalf could be as an old friend and colleague comforting another.

At the same time, it should also be mentioned that Gandalf is not human, nor is he an Elf. He is a Maiar spirit: one of five sent from the Undying Lands by the Valar (or gods) of Middle-Earth to help the land deal with Sauron: who is also a Maiar. He is a powerful spirit that has been manifested, or chose to manifest in flesh. Galadriel herself is thousands of years old, but Gandalf is much older. He could have looked very different back in the day and they both lived in the Undying Lands once. Also, he has worked with her and the White Council closely and Galadriel herself is probably the most approachable consolatory member of the rest. So whatever the case, there is definitely a history there between them and it is fun to think about.

Now onto other matters. I must say that I have never heard of, or really recall the stone giants in The Hobbit or anywhere in Middle-Earth and it makes me wonder if Jackson simply put them there. They look like animated humanoid rocks that throw each other, and I will avoid making a pretty self-evident crude joke about the matter, but they were jarring to see in an otherwise seamless film.

I really appreciate the rapport of riddles and then the subsequent treachery between Bilbo and Gollum. I never get over how sorry I feel for Gollum and the way that he is almost friendly but vicious with Bilbo, ultimately insane when his ring is gone, and then completely despondent. That last is actually heartbreaking to watch.

So … now for the end. My brother wondered just why it is that the Great Eagles took the whole company only halfway towards the Lonely Mountain and not directly to the Mountain itself. I also wondered about this and I’m pretty sure that How It Should Have Ended would have addressed this much in the same way they did Lord of the Rings. But it actually makes sense when you think about it. Gandalf and the White Council were very reluctant to let the company go to disturb the Mountain because of the Dragon Smaug. Even Gandalf was concerned that Smaug might awaken and ally himself with Sauron.

Now, if you’ve seen that ending and you see what one bird managed to do can you imagine what would have happened if a whole flock of giant Eagles with twelve Dwarves, a Wizard, and a Hobbit with a Ring of Power (that he might not put on as of yet) came to the Mountain right away instead? Place your bets as to who would actually prevail in that immediate struggle. Then wonder what Smaug might do after that. He might just go back to sleep. Maybe. Anyway, it’s kind of a moot point at this time considering.

All in all, it was an excellent movie. I suspect that the second movie will deal with Smaug himself, and then the third will focus on the aftermath and the Battle of the Five Armies. But for now, I give this film a five out of five because, I think I am quite ready for another adventure.

P.S. And my answer to How It Should Have Ended‘s Lord of the Rings are Nazgul … on Fellbeasts.

Worms and Bicycles Or How People Make For Strange Stories: Menocchio and Igor Kenk

I’ve been rereading Pop Sandbox’s Kenk: A Graphic Portrait and I kind of wish that this comics work had been published when I worked on a previous assignment of mine.

In one of my previous Graduate courses, our class had to read Carl Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. It basically dealt with the idea that an individual can not only embody the culture that they come from, but that that person can represent different kinds of culture and actually interpret cultural information differently for themselves. Really, what I got out of it was that an individual can create their own world or mythic reality from information they have access to from their own culture.

As for why the work is called The Cheese and the Worms, it’s due to the fact that it focuses on the record of a man named Menocchio who compared the world’s creation to be not unlike that of rotten cheese. I’m not making this up: the Roman Inquisition that interrogated and took testimony from him apparently got this account from the man. So obviously, I felt compelled to do a presentation on this and focus my course paper on it because, well, look at the title and the subject matter. Really: how could I not?

I think that I found the most interesting about Menocchio himself was the examination of how he possibly came to the conclusions about the world that he did. He was not born of nobility or the upper-class in Italy, but rather came from a merchant culture. As such, while he was literate and he had the means to buy books, he also grew up with an oral literary tradition: a culture that passes on lore through the ages and word of mouth.

Ginzburg seemed to really like to point out the strangeness of this figure of Menocchio: how he was almost an intermediary between the oral and the written as well as peasant and “higher culture.” Menocchio himself lived during a time of transition between oral culture and the development of the printing press and written literacy: a revolution of sorts. Menocchio existed during the time of Martin Luther’s Reformation: where the ideas of Catholicism and Christianity itself were being challenged by the new Protestant movement using said printing presses. It is also worth mentioning that Ginzburg liked to examine colportage–cheaply printed chapbooks detailing songs, tales, and the lives of saints–as a backdrop of Menocchio’s literacy as well.

All of these traits and more are eerie parallels with Richard Poplak’s observations about Igor Kenk. Kenk grew up during a time between socialism and capitalism in Slovenia of the former Yugoslavia. One thing that Richard Poplak likes to point out is that it was also during this time period that common citizens in Slovenia were allowed access to photocopy machines: mechanisms of distributing information that were originally in the charge of the State. The counter-cultural Theatre FV 112/15 group– also known as the FV movement–used photocopiers to create a collage art known as FV Disco: a form of which–thanks to the artist Nick Marinkovich–Kenk also utilizes. This was the time and conceptual place where Kenk developed as an adult.

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As such, Kenk also possesses a very unique world-view based on the transitional culture of his time: the idea that all things can be recycled and that you need to choose to struggle in life in order to survive as a person: which is part of what he seems to call “The Monkey Factor” or survival. From what I understood of this book, his notion of “recycling” also seems to mean reselling stolen bikes as well as hoarding. As an aside, the fact that Kenk believed the system of debt, borrowing, and capitalism to be doomed is also linked to his philosophies and it’s only now, years after I read the first time, that I wonder what he would think of the Occupy movements back in 2008 before his arrest, and what they might think of him now.

Igor Kenk came from a social order that was radically changing and between extremes. He was considered to be a Math prodigy and did well in his education. For a time he was even a police officer in Slovenia–surviving their harsh regimen–until he was discharged, and then proceeded to cross the border into other countries to get goods as Slovenia’s political alignment and its economy changed. Then he eventually came to Canada and became something of a merchant himself by selling and fixing bicycles in Toronto.

What I’m trying to say is that both Kenk and Menocchio are products of their time and culture, but at the same time how they chose to interpret their changing cultures was very idiosyncratic to them. In other words, they created some very unique world-views. And both of them arguably paid for it by the powers that be: Menocchio with his life for not recanting his beliefs to the Roman Inquisition and Kenk doing jail time and losing his Bicycle Clinic for the thefts he was charged with.

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All of the above can arguably be considered gross simplifications, of course. In my paper that dealt with the implications of Menocchio, I pretty much say the same thing more or less. But I think the reason I’m attempting to compare two men from entirely different time periods, cultures, and countries is due to a greater issue: namely, why are they important?

I mean, come on: neither Menocchio nor Kenk would traditionally be considered important in a historical sense. In the grand scheme of things, someone might say that, while these parallels are interesting, who the hell cares?

The reason that I care, and one of the reasons why modern historians, journalists, and–in some ways more importantly readers–find these accounts so important is because they are narratives that deal with real people. It’s true that neither Menocchio nor Kenk are politicians, or artists, or even popular cultural figures in themselves but they are people that–while arguably normal or common in terms of class or historical significance–symbolize greater historical and cultural shifts by just being who they are.

They are ordinary people with very un-ordinary perspectives and there was a time where we would never have even known about them: or at the very least we’d only get a summary of them in passing … or at least we’d get something like this from a dominant or “higher cultural” narrative. Because there is one thing I keep coming back to in my head: it is the idea of oral history.

What is oral history? We know that oral culture or literacy is something that is passed on verbally from one storyteller to the next throughout many generations. But history, as Westerners, understand it is derived from the ancient Greek word historia: which is something along the lines of scientific inquiry or observation. Oral history, from my understanding, is thus something of verbal origin that is written down for other people to see.

Menocchio’s “worm and cheese world” survived through the written accounts of his interrogators, whereas Kenk seems to have actually been interviewed by the book’s producer Alex Jansen and filmed by Jason Gilmore as he espouses his world-view of “Monkey Factors and recycling” in that context.

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Oral culture in our world is very different in that we have sophisticated image and audio technology to preserve and record the spoken word, and where that spoken word comes from. There is a scholar named Walter Ong–who I looked at in my own studies for my Master’s Thesis–who looked at oral culture and degrees of orality.

Ong believed that there is something called “secondary orality”: in which spoken word is preserved through technological means like video and radio. But I’ve always wondered if he would have included illustrated images in this definition as well, and how problematic it would be if these images were accompanied by written words. Can the visual be considered part of the oral or the written, or is it something by itself? Obviously I’m talking about the medium of comics and what kind of literacy that would be defined as but–this tangent aside for now–right now I’m thinking about the idea of oral history being a historical narrative that records down what life and reality is like for “the common person”: if there is any such thing as a common person.

I actually think that this conception of oral history has led to the idea of journalism: of interviewing and recording down what a particular person or witness has to say, and then researching the environment in which this person came from for a greater perspective. Is journalism the child of oral history? And then you take something like Kenk into consideration too: something that is written down but also given a sequential FV Disco style is that is both an illustrative and video collage aesthetic.

It’s fascinating to think about Kenk as an artifact of not only “comics journalism”–a medium that some comics creators like Joe Sacco have already developed–but also written literacy, oral culture, history, and mass-produced art. I look at Kenk and I wonder if this is our contemporary version of the colportage of Menocchio’s time, or the pamphlets and photocopies of 1980s Slovenia. Because in the end, it’s not just Menocchio and Kenk that have a lot in common, but also the media used to try and capture what they are … and what they are not.

When I started writing this article, I thought it was going to be easy: like it was all fully formed in my head. In a way I’m doing what I said I would not do by delving more into the academics I’ve tried to put some distance from: at least with regards to jargon. My train of thought tends to drift and it has been a struggle to communicate and even cohesively perceive all of these parallels here.

But if this were a paper of mine, if this were some rough form of the Graduate essays I would write, I would end this post in the following manner. As someone who has studied mythic world-building, I believe that art is an engagement with different parts of the world around you, and an expression of who you are as a result of what you choose to accept of that world. In that, the man called Menocchio and Igor Kenk–specifically in how their scholars and artists portray them–not only made their own art, but actually lived their art, and allowed for the creation of more of it.

I also believe that when you take all of this into account oral history, journalism, comics journalism, or whatever you want to call it reveals one more truth. Writing about an individual not only reveals that there are no “ordinary people,” but that it never makes for making any “ordinary stories.” Ever.

Again, I’d like to thank Alex Jansen and Jason Gilmore for lending me these pages of Kenk to place here in my article to make both point and emphasis.

If you are interested in this topic, you might like my What is FV Disco article as well. They both deal with similar subject matter, but in different ways.

Book Review: Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret

One evening, when I was living downtown, I came across a book in a church-run thrift store. It was this big thick-paged book with a very luminously colourful ornate cover. I’d never ever heard of The Invention of Hugo Cabret before this point, but I saw that Scholastics had published it, and it was about five dollars or so. So I bought it and it sat in a cupboard for a while until I finished my initial draft of my Master’s Thesis. Then a day or so before leaving on a trip, I began and finished reading it.

Hugo Cabret is the story of an orphaned boy of the same name who finds himself operating and maintaining the clocks of a Paris train station while attempting to fix an old and broken clockwork automaton. It is when he attempts to steal some parts from an old man’s toy booth at the station that he reveals a far greater story and his life changes forever.

I really don’t want to spoil this book. I will tell you now, though, that it is excellent. Brian Selznick is not only an excellent writer that knows how to pace and flesh-out his characters, but he is a brilliant illustrator. Hugo Cabret is essentially an illustrated novel: with pages of text inter-dispersed with sequential pages of softly shaded drawings and stylistically-faded copies of sketches and photographs. It basically looks like a notebook or a journal: especially with the image of a lock on its cover. Given that there is a notebook that features somewhat heavily in the plot–once belonging to Hugo’s inventor father–the aesthetic follows the form well.

What I also like about Selznick’s aesthetic form is that it is on that border between an illustrated novel and a comic: in that while there are pages of words, and pages with pictures and words, there are also entirely silent panels that display interrelated sequences. It’s a nice borderline form and it adds to the content nicely.

In terms of content, this book is apparently labeled a work of historical fiction. This is an interesting designation because while there is definitely one central character that is real and historical, Selznick has taken some creative liberties. I also wonder in light of this if the other characters may be conceptions of this particular character’s work made into real personalities in a meta-narrative sort of manner. I love that kind of thing, in case you didn’t already get that, but even if it’s not true there are definitely moments where the concepts of the characters could very well fit into … other conceptual places.

But what really intrigues me about this book, aside from its liberties and ambiguities as “historical fiction,” is how it eventually focuses on the medium of film. In contemporary times, we often take moving film for granted. It had to develop from somewhere after all: both technologically and artistically. Even Hollywood itself was a small independent pioneering workshop studio at one time before it gained more resources and popularity.

While this story seems to take place in the 1920s, it refers after a while to the turn of the century when film was being developed: as well looking at the kinds of people who helped to create it. And who were these people? Some of them were magicians. I am not being figurative here. Some of them, including one of the characters in this book, were artificers, artists, and stage magicians before they became directors and creators. And it makes sense. After all, aside from the fact that vaudeville and its acts, along with theatre, and opera preceded a night at the movies in terms of prestige and guaranteed entertainment, film is kind of like watching a magician’s shadow-play on a thin skein of reality. It is a concept that reminds of Clive Barker’s short story “Celluloid”: where the silver screen is a more permeable layer of existence with our world than we would be comfortable to believe.

I love the image of the magician as film-maker and inventor, and if you read this book I assure you, you will understand what I mean. A friend of mine once said to me that if I embodied any kind of film, it would be the black and white 1902 A Trip to the Moon: something that is extremely symbolic, experimental, even comic, but also parodies and is self-reflexive and aware enough to know that by consciously parodying things, it reveals its opinions on what these things are. I mention this film for a reason that has to do specifically with one aspect of the book. What’s also interesting is that not long after I read this strange and awesome artifact, a film was released based off of it: one I’ve still have yet to see.

That digression aside, I give Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret an unambiguous five out of five. Until next time, au revoir. I seem have something in my eye.

Dreams and Dragons, Wolves, Wargs and Wights: Shamanism and Magic in A Song of Ice and Fire

So in my last post on this matter, I promised to talk about shamanism in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: especially with regards to some particular characters. If you have not read the books yet or you have not finished reading the books in the series that exist so far, please stop reading this post now because there be spoilers here.

All right. So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’m going to unpack some interesting characteristics that I’ve noticed in some of the Targaryens and the Starks. These two Houses are descended from the Valyrians and the First Men respectively: making them the potential heirs to various kinds of magic that manifest subtly at first and then become more overt later.

First, let’s deal with the blood of the dragon. We know from the novels and the novellas in particular that the Targaryens–a family descended from the mystically advanced and dragon-riding Valyrian Freehold–have members with Dragon dreams. These dreams are highly figurative and metaphorical but they can essentially tell the future or even I would imagine say something about the past. Aside from these dreams, however, and inbred family members that are either genii or insane with predilections towards greatness and fire, the current Targaryens do not seem to possess anything else in the way of magic.
Even with dragon eggs and some knowledge of the maegi–with that mystical group’s knowledge of blood magic–other Targaryens could not bring their dragons back from extinction.

With one very notable exception.

daenerys and dragon

While her brother Viserys seems to have inherited the insanity and pettiness of the family, and Maester Aemon has only the dreams and the genius, Daenerys Targaryen has “dragon dreams” and awoke her dragon eggs. But how? How did she, out of all her family,  properly “awaken the dragon” within her? How did she become immune to fire for just enough time to stay with her dragons on Khal Drogo’s and Mirri Maz Duur’s funeral pyre?

The thing to understand is that is how it all happened. The reader already knows that Daenerys has the dreams. But the dreams aren’t enough. They are the first step it seems. When the dragons died in Westeros, a lot of Valyrian lore and ritual about them was lost over the generations: with details such as how to hatch dragons, breed them, and tame them disappearing into the mists of time.

Now the easy answer to how Daenerys awoke her dragons is to say that she used blood sacrifice to awaken them in the flames and access the latent power inside of her. Then you also have to take into account Melisandre of Asshai’s assertion that dragons can only be awakened by royal blood and then consider that Daenerys’ unborn son Rhaego Targaryen died in Mirri Maz Duur’s ritual so that Khal Drogo could “live” again. This–combined with the maegi’s own death–could have awakened the dragons.

However, there is something else to consider. When Ser Jorah carried Daenerys into the tent where Mirri Maz Durr was performing a ritual to “save” Khal Drogo, she either almost died or something far worse threatened to swallow her spirit. She had a dream of running away from a great blackness and, as she did so, she passed several generations of Targaryens urging her onward to save herself: from the earliest to the last. If I recall properly, even her son was there. It is at that point, that I believe, after this experience that something wakes up in Daenerys: namely the power of the blood of the dragon.

I’m not sure if her immunity to fire was temporary, but it probably was as she has burned her hands after these events. But it seems, to me anyway, that Daenerys accessed the blood of her ancestors and maybe even their spirits to become whatever it is she is on the road to being in addition to the Mother of Dragons.

One important rite of the shaman is to die and be reborn. The flames from which Daenerys Targaryen came from seems to cover that in a very symbolic way. But as I said before, there are others aside from the Targaryens who follow something of a shamanic path.

The Starks are the others that I am thinking about: particularly Bran Stark.

We know now that the First Men and their descendants have the capacity to be wargs: to be able to send their spirits into animals and either control them or influence them through symbiosis. We also know that the “simple minded” can be influenced in this way as well by a warg. An interesting real-world parallel is when you look at people accused of being werewolves, it had sometimes been said that they were sorcerers that shed a wolf skin or put in on. It is metaphorically similar to how a warg works and it definitely has shamanic undertones.

Off-tangent, the mere fact that the Westerosi Houses adopt animals for their sigils and familial-identity is pretty totemic. I’d imagine their ancestors also adopted these traits as protective measures: having the belief that by linking these animals to them they would gain their abilities in some spiritual way. They may have even had shamans or wisemen among them. But some of the First Men’s descendants go further than that in taking “animal skins.” In addition, some tend to have “wolf-dreams”: not merely living through their adopted animals, but sometimes having visions as well.

Bran and most of the Stark children, including Jon Snow, have been having these to greater and lesser extents: though not Sansa because of the death of her direwolf Lady. But Bran and Jon are the most striking of the Starks to this regard. We know that wargs are born, but I strongly suspect that if what Bran’s teacher, the Three-Eyed Crow, says is true about a rarer few among the wargs being greenseers, then something must set off this trait.

Bran Stark’s powers as a warg and dreamer only truly manifest when he’s pushed out of the tower and left to die. He is physically crippled: as though he paid the price for this death which he came back from. The young Stark even has an older teacher to guide him. In some shamanic traditions, a shaman loses a physical part of them before gaining power. Usually, it is their eyes or sense of physical sight but not always. They also tend to have mentors or teachers.

While I do think Bran had the potential for being a greenseer in him, there needed to be a traumatic event or powerful catalyst to bring it out: as with some shamanic awakenings. I also imagine that if anyone else had gone through that fall, warg or no, they probably would not have woken up.

But then we have Jon Snow.

Jon has his direwolf Ghost and has been seen to go into the latter’s mind sometimes. He can’t go into multiple animals yet and he probably isn’t a greenseer. But he does have “wolf-dreams,” and one prominent dream he had at one time was being in the crypts of Winterfell where the dead of the Stark family were viewing him from oldest to the most immediate (if only in perceived disapproval because of his bastardy). Does this sound familiar at all to another person having another dream about their ancestors?

As for Jon’s future, I am just as much in the dark about it as everyone else, but I suspect that if he is as close to death as he is now and he somehow comes back he will not be the same … or maybe he will be even more of what he is supposed to be.

These speculations aside, I know there are problematic elements to consider. I mean, Theon Greyjoy has nightmares of the Winterfell crypt and he isn’t even a Stark: not remotely. And others have dreams too besides some of the Starks and the Targaryens. But there are a lot of really eerie parallels going on here that I just wanted to draw attention to and put in some kind of framework.

I guess in the end it comes down to a discussion of what magic in Westeros and Essos actually is. What is fascinating is that the children of the forest had greenseers before the First Men and we know the children taught the First Men about the land and their magic. It’s stated that children and perhaps even humans that are greenseers change eye-colour or have strange eye hue to begin with. Bran’s eyes seem normal, but there is also a rite in which he has to ingest weirwood seed paste to fully awaken his greenseeing abilities: specifically in sending his spirit in the weirwood trees all over the known world. As such, he has to be physically integrated into a tree to do so.

What is striking is Bran’s master. I suspect that the Three-Eyed Crow is the Targaryen bastard Bloodraven and if he is, and I’m sure he is, he is not only an older man than Maester Aemon was–if you can still venture to call him a man at this point–but he is of Targaryen blood and is a greenseer. We know that Bloodraven was an albino and had red eyes. Targaryens have always had different coloured eyes from everyone else. I wonder how a Targaryen can be a greenseer: if only perhaps through his mother’s First Men-descended Blackwood line?

But the Targaryens themselves, like I said, have different coloured eyes and hair from everyone else and they sometimes have strange abilities. I wonder if there is any relation somehow: at least in how some magic works.

It also makes me ponder another matter. The red priests of Rh’llor in Essos use fire to heal, look into the future and even in some cases resurrect the dead by breathing their fire into a body’s mouth. It makes me wonder if there is some relation to them and ancient Valyria: aside from the fact that the Westerosi Prince that Was Promised or the Essoi world saviour Azor Ahai reborn is supposed to come from the Targaryen line if all things are to be believed or be consistent. I also wonder if Rh’llor was one of the gods that the Valyrians worshipped as well before their Doom: though it is also likely that worship of him came from Asshai-by-the-Shadow. Then you also have to consider that Rh’llor’s great nemesis is supposed to be the Great Other and, according to Melisandre, the god or ruler of the Others beyond the Wall. Certainly, like the Others, the priests can reanimate a person yet they lose their short-term memories, they do not heal properly, and they become essentialized versions of their previous selves … or the animated echoes of their last task.

And this brings me to something else. Aside from the fact that I wonder if the order of the green men on the Isle of Faces have any relation to the greenseers, there is also the nature of a greenseer to consider. They link with the weirwood trees and they know how to presumably influence animals and simple-minded beings: even take control of them. They are apparently so potent that it is suggested that the gods of the First Men are actually greenseers: either still conscious or comatose and dreaming in their trees.

The Others apparently use necromancy to animate their wights. The wights seem to have no personality but they do have remnants of memory that allow them to serve their masters. Their eyes also change colour into an ice-blue: a hue matching that of their masters: the whitewalkers. It is also notable that when the warg Varamyr Sixskins abandons his body for his wolf after he unsuccessfully tries to transfer his spirit into a woman, that he only sees the woman later animated as a wight and not his original body with it. Perhaps the presence of warg blood keeps someone from being possessed or being reanimated in the same way: the character of Coldhands being a potential example for instance.

https://i2.wp.com/images4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110411014304/gameofthrones/images/c/cb/White_Walker.jpg

We also don’t know what the Others–specifically the whitewalkers–actually are. They could be a people or maybe they are constructs? What disturbs me is that no one really knows about the lands they come from or like I said what they even are. There are hints of babies being sacrificed or being shaped into them. Certainly, the fact that they dissolve when exposed to dragonglass is a very strange phenomenon and may be indicative of the possibility that they are constructed, but a lot of that is just rumour and conjecture like a lot of this post.

But I wonder what lies beyond the Wall and the known wildling territories. I wonder if something else is lying in wait and also sleeping: but dreaming lucidly. I wonder if the whitewalkers really are the Others … or if the Others are something far more terrifying.

It’s fun to actually go through all of this. I know I don’t have thorough textual evidence or quotes to back up what I say, but I do see there being something of a pattern here. I just don’t know what it is. Ygritte once said, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” and that makes at least two of us. I do look forward, however, as an avowed fanboy to learning more as the story continues to present itself.

What’s That Sound? It is the Sound of A Song of Ice and Fire … Singing

File:A Game of Thrones Novel Covers.png

I admit that last week I was not meeting my quota of a post on Monday and Thursday. But in my defense, I had a very good excuse: namely, finishing off reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’ll tell you now: I didn’t originally anticipate writing an article on this series. In fact, it’s ironic because I never planned on reading the series in the first place. I know: that’s blasphemy and all that. So here I was at the turning point of finishing my Master’s Program, typing up and haphazardly organizing my notes on mythic world-building when my friend Noah messages me and asks me essentially where I’ve been for about a year now. I tell him I’ve been writing my paper for that time and more and as well going a little bit crazy.

So he tells me about A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, I only knew about it peripherally. I had friends who were–and are–still complaining that Martin is taking too long writing the books and they spend that time speculating about what happens next. You have to understand, I went through my epic fantasy reading phase where each book is a tome and a half long a while ago at this point. Not too long ago, I was reading and rereading books and articles for my Master’s Thesis. I’d also attempted to slog through all of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and failed from lack of attention. In addition and I know this is really going to sound snobby, I sometimes have this inherent distrust for something that is that popular: though I’ve ignored that distrust multiple times in the past and this was no except.

But it was also more than that. I didn’t want to start reading something and investing myself into it. Because those kinds of books–if they are good ones which A Song of Ice and Fire is–they will do it to you and I was already becoming a master of procrastination. Moreover, I was afraid of letting more imaginary characters into my head space and investing in them if that makes any sense at all.

It turns out, though, it was exactly what I needed.

It was also very fitting. The irony that I had originally avoided reading a series of mythic world-building because of my mythic world-building project did not escape me and it was a problem that was rectified after letting myself table-top role-play again and hearing in tangent things about Westeros and that world in snippets. You know what I mean: your friends telling you little things about green men and fire priests and politics but not wanting to spoil anything for you because they believe that it is a crime that you of all people aren’t reading this story? Yeah, those kinds of snippets and previews that you read online as well.

So I will try not to go into any spoilers and just make a few writing observations about Martin’s ongoing masterpiece. The best way to start this is to talk about something that seemingly doesn’t relate to anything here but ultimately will.

I’m going to talk about Achilles’ shield.

When I was in Undergrad, I took a course called Interpretations of Homeric Epic where our professor told us about the shield of the Myrmidon hero Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. What is so special about this shield? Well, it is a shield that encapsulates the sun and moon, the world, the people farming it, warring in it, and serves as a microcosm of an entire world: the same world that Homer depicts in his narrative that he applies to our world when he writes or tells it. One possible literary term for the metaphor of the Shield, if you’d like to see it, is ekphrasis: which is essentially a method of describing and bring an experience to a reader or listener through the use of immense and multi-layered detail.

I will freely admit that I took some dilettante-like and potentially inaccurate liberties in defining ekphrasis as a literary device–which Achilles’ Shield represents–but I also think it really describes the intricate details inherent in A Song of Ice and Fire‘s narrative. The books themselves are a source of ekphrasis: along with the weirwood trees and other beings that find themselves becoming more immanent and saturated into their world.

Through a few perspectives, you will find yourself awash in a sea of beauty, sex, cruelty, filth, banality, mystery, hints, poetry, laughter, politicking, battle, subtle magic and death: lots and lots of death. And not just figurative character deaths, but brutal and literal character deaths. Through each chapter from a different person’s perspective, you will watch them interact with this finely woven world-tapestry of things right in front of them and inches away and either watch them change in the process … or wink out entirely. That is what A Song of Ice and Fire is: at least from my own understanding.

What amazes me, however, is not only how Martin can turn a phrase but also how he is able to keep so many details straight–large and small–and make his narrative more intricate, interlocking, and flexible than a Maester’s chain. I sometimes feel like I have to go to a Citadel of my own to get everything straight but his world stretches out so beautifully even with all the horror: and this is not counting the terrifying supernatural menace here either. It does make me despair of the humans in Westeros and that whole world sometimes: just as it sometimes intimidates me as a reader and especially as a writer. I wonder just how Martin is going to resolve all of this.

I could go on somewhat off-tangent to talk about the shamanic element in Daenerys Targaryen and Bran Stark’s journeys, but I might save that for another post. I will however say one thing. The real reason it took me so long to create another post on here was because I was reading George R.R. Martin’s Dunk and Egg novellas: stories that take place approximately a hundred years before his main saga.

I didn’t know if I would like them, but I did. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of intrigue, manipulation, treachery, and politicking–known fondly as “the game of thrones”–but the Dunk and Egg stories look at a hedge knight and his strange squire wandering Martin’s multi-layered world and bringing almost a … purity or simple wonderment to another otherwise dark yet beautiful place.

Now I think I will end this long post with a quote from one of the books. It encompasses everything I feel when I read good literature: especially from a genius like George R.R. Martin.

Martin states, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … The man who never reads lives only once.” If you want to know the context of this quote or indeed of a lot of the things I just said, read the series. You will not be disappointed. I’ve already lived quite a few lives in various forms in the saga of Ice and Fire. I expect there will be more before this is all said and done.