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Archive for the ‘art’ Category

It’s the end of the year, the end of the decade, so it’s time to look back and see what I wrote in 2019, as well as what happened with my two most recent books.

cinemaps & geek culture

Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies was translated into German (and was reviewed here). This follows it winning “Best Illustrated Book on Film” at the Frankfurter Buchmesse Film Awards, as well as its being translated into Japanese and Spanish. But whatever language you choose, Cinemaps makes a lovely gift! (Thanks to Andrew DeGraff‘s amazing art.)

My most recent book, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture, also makes a lovely gift, being more timely than ever! (There’s a new Star Wars movie out, in case you’ve not heard.)

I also published a short story with Conjunctions: “Sandy Szymanski,” which is about a young woman who’s worried that she’s turning into a duck (and that nobody cares). This follows two other stories I’ve published with that magazine: “You’ll Be Sorry” and “Days of Heaven.” And I’m pleased to announce that Conjunctions just accepted another of my stories: “Thirteen Short Tales about Monsters,” which will appear in issue #74, “Grendel’s Kin” (now available for pre-order).

Beyond that, I devoted a lot of the year to working on two new books—a novel, and another critical book. More about which soon, I hope…

As for this blog: first, I added two pages to make it easier to find both my fiction and my non-fiction. (You can access these pages through the tabs at the top of the site.)

I also published a bunch of new stuff:

Beyond that, two older posts have been receiving a lot of traffic:

If you haven’t read them yet, why not check them out? And remember, you can find all my fiction here, and all my non-fiction here.

In conclusion, I hope you had a terrific 2019. If you want to share any of your own writing or other work, please do so in the comments!

Happy Holidays, and see you in 2020!

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When I started writing my most recent book, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture, I wanted to make an argument about aesthetics. Namely, I wanted to argue that when it comes to art, geeks tend to like works of realist fantasy, which puts the lie to the widespread belief that realism and fantasy are opposites. (They’re not: realism is a mode, or way of making art, while fantasy is a genre; any genre can be done in any mode.)

As I worked on the book, however, I realized that people were just as interested, if not more interested, in the history of geek culture. Whenever I told people what I was doing, they said that they hoped the book would explain why geeky stuff is everywhere these days—why it’s taken over the culture. Why are all the movies at the Cineplex superhero movies? Why is everyone talking about Game of Thrones? Why is it now considered OK, or mostly OK, for adults to read Harry Potter novels and comic books? So I knew I needed to write about that, too.

As it turned out, this wasn’t a problem, because the two topics are intimately intertwined. Indeed, you can’t understand the history of geek culture without also grasping its aesthetics.

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In Part 1 of this series, I documented how the Star Wars franchise, which burst so spectacularly onto the scene in 1977, fizzled out by the end of 1986. Before the first movie had even celebrated its tenth birthday, George Lucas had stopped making not only new Star Wars films, but Star Wars comics, cartoons, TV movies, action figures, novels, video games—you name it:

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But of course the story didn’t end there. In May 1991, the franchise rumbled back to life, resuming all of those product lines, and eventually going on to release new Star Wars movies:

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What’s more, all of those products have continued in some form or another until today.

What explains that four-year-long gap, when Star Wars disappeared? And why did the franchise return, and why has it stuck around since then?

In order to answer those and other related questions, I wrote my most recent book, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture, which I encourage you to buy and read! But if you want the short version of the story, then read on …

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Like a lot of people my age, I just missed out on seeing the original Star Wars movies in the theater. Instead, I grew up with them on VHS. And right around when I was really getting into them, in 1986, Star Wars went away.

Which perplexed me at the time. Why did Star Wars disappear in the mid 1980s? And why did it come back, and come back differently, starting in 1991? These questions haunted me so much, I eventually wrote a book about the subject: I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture. Because it’s an interesting story, I’ll explain what happened in this series of blog posts.

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Specifically, it was translated by Berni Mayer, and published by The Heyne Verlag. And is available here and here!

This follows the Spanish-language and Japanese-language editions, as well as the original English. It also follows Cinemaps winning “Best Illustrated Book on Film” at the Frankfurter Buchmesse Film Awards.

About Cinemaps:

Acclaimed artist Andrew DeGraff has created beautiful hand-painted maps of all your favorite films, from King Kong and North by Northwest to The Princess Bride, Fargo, Pulp Fiction, even The Breakfast Club—with the routes of major characters charted in meticulous cartographic detail. Follow Marty McFly through the Hill Valley of 1985, 1955, and 1985 once again as he races Back to the Future. Trail Jack Torrance as he navigates the corridors of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. And join Indiana Jones on a globe-spanning journey from Nepal to Cairo to London on his quest for the famed Lost Ark. Each map is presented in an 11-by-14-inch format, with key details enlarged for closer inspection, and is accompanied by illuminating essays by film critic A. D. Jameson, who speaks to the unique geographies of each film. This beautifully designed atlas is an essential reference for anyone who loves great art and great films.

 

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Uncanny X-Men 141 cover DETAIL

Uncanny X-Men #141, cover (detail)

Like many, I became an avid fan of the X-Men in the late 1980s / early 1990s. I can’t remember the first issue that I read—my best friend Philip shared his copies with me on the school bus—but I remember the first one I bought: Uncanny X-Men #270, Part 1 of the “X-Tinction Agenda,” published in November 1990. Wanting more, the following month I picked up Wolverine #34, at which point I was hooked (at least for a while).

I also started purchasing back issues as best I could. But the high price of those comics prevented me from making it back past the mid-1980s. So I took for granted the way the characters were at the time that I was reading. As far as I was concerned, the Wolverine of 1990 was the same as the Wolverine of 1980, or ’75.

But one interesting aspect of serial narratives, whether they’re comic books or television series, is that they rarely start out fully formed. Rather, their concepts and characters develop over time, as the people making them figure out what does and doesn’t work. The Wolverine that I met c. 1990 was a significantly different character than the one that older readers were introduced to in 1974. And although I didn’t know it at the time, 1991 would prove another turning point in the character’s nature, as different creators brought different ideas to Wolverine, revising both his present and past.

In this series of posts, I want to delve into that history, demonstrating how the writers, artists, and editors behind the scenes created and refined Wolverine as a character over the first twenty years of his existence. Broadly speaking, there are three distinct periods:

  1. 1974–1982: Wolverine comes together as a character. Initially a short-tempered man with claws, animal senses, and a tendency to fly into berserker rages, Wolverine later gets his unbreakable adamantium skeleton and his fast-healing factor, as well as his fondness for smoking and drinking, plus his catchphrase.
  2. 1982–1991: Wolverine’s history as a secret agent gets fleshed out. He thinks and speaks frequently about his past, from the time he spent living in Japan, to his team-ups with fellow military officer Carol Danvers.
  3. 1991-onward: In a major retcon, Wolverine is reinvented as an amnesiac, as well as a victim of the nefarious Weapon X program. In order to accommodate these new ideas, much of his past life is rewritten.

In this first post, I’ll tackle the initial period, 1974–82, showing how it took around eight years for the people behind the scenes to get the basic character down.

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Marvel vs DC

Some people say that Superman is boring because he’s too powerful. Who could beat him in a fight? No one. He’s stronger and faster than everybody else, on top of which he can fly, see through walls, hear people whisper from halfway around the world, fire laser beams from his eyes, freeze things with his breath—plus he’s nigh indestructible, to boot. There’s practically nothing he can’t do. He can survive direct hits from nukes, and bathe in the sun without breaking a sweat. And since no one can beat him, the thinking goes, Superman, the Man of Steel, is never really in any danger, which means his stories lack peril, tension, suspense. There aren’t any stakes. There’s no thrill.

But to think about Superman this way misunderstands not only the character, but the superhero genre as a whole—what makes it unique, and what type of stories it’s best suited to tell. Worse still, this misunderstanding obscures the genre’s historical limitations, as well as how artists might transcend those limitations in the future.

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For a while now, I’ve wanted to point out something about the ending of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and the way the film uses recurring space to visually convey its narrative. (Spoilers from this point on—and spoilers, too, for George Orwell’s 1984 and Federico Fellini’s . Spoilers for everything!)

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In the first part of this series, I described how the first season of Twin Peaks was fundamentally a soap opera, a lovingly ironic take on popular prime-time soaps like Dynasty and Dallas. That version of the program, sultry and cool, reached its peak on 23 May 1990, in a cliffhanger-packed finale.

Four months later, Twin Peaks returned for a second season. But it wouldn’t be the same. Over the following twenty-two episodes, the show’s soap operatic qualities faded away—quite literally. The soap-within-a-soap, Invitation to Love, disappeared, no longer playing on anyone’s TVs. It’s heard but once in the second season, in the background, briefly—an afterthought.

What took its place? While it would be going too far to claim that Twin Peaks turned into a sitcom, it must be said that the show’s second season is much goofier than the first, littered with five-dollar words, camera mugging, and canted angles. Oddity replaced elegant aloofness, as Twin Peaks switched from running cool to hot. Many characters turned wacky, weird for weirdness’ sake, wrapped up in cornball scenarios. This is especially evident in the character of Deputy Andy Brennan. In the first season, Andy’s green, dropping his pistol during a raid, and vomiting and crying when exposed to violence and death. But in the first season finale, Andy mans up, saving Cooper from Jacques Renault, then summoning the courage to ask Lucy why she’s been giving him the cold shoulder (which leads to her telling him she’s pregnant). The start of the second season sees that progress wiped clean as Andy regresses, becoming a clown who steps on loose floorboards and knocks himself out, and who wraps his own fingers up with Scotch tape while trying to hang up sketches of BOB—a fitting image for the series’ new direction.

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Andy’s joined in his buffoonery by Nadine, who emerges from her coma transformed into an immensely-strong amnesiac who thinks she’s still in high school, as well as Ben Horne, who goes from villainous to vaudeville, chomping on celery stalks in lieu of cigars as he comically re-stages the Civil War. Amplifying these antics is a cavalcade of guest stars, including Ian Buchanan as the aptly-named Dick, a cartoonishly smarmy cad, and David LanderLaverne and Shirley’s Squiggy—who turns up three times in what could almost be three separate parts. This Twin Peaks, the more comedic Twin Peaks, the slapstick Twin Peaks, crescendos when, late in the second season, a weasel runs amok in the Great Northern Lodge after biting Dick.

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Compounding this zaniness is the fact that, behind the scenes, the powers that be at ABC forced Lynch and Frost to reveal who’d murdered Laura Palmer, which hamstrung the show. TV is always all about stalling, but presumably some of the show’s more comedic plot lines were never intended to drag on for so long. But Lynch and company needed something to pass the time while they struggled to figure out some reason for Agent Cooper to stay in town, as well as a larger, overarching storyline—another mystery to replace Laura Palmer’s murder.

But Laura was one of a kind, irreplaceable. Late in the second season, we’re introduced to Lana Budding Milford, who’s meant to recall Laura: Dr. Jacoby attests to her prodigal sexual prowess, and every man who sees her is instantly smitten. Just like Laura, Lana has the talent of making fellows feel special, the sole object of her affections.

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But unlike Laura, Lana’s a cartoon—the sitcom Laura, the Looney Tunes Laura. Lacking is Laura Palmer’s duality, her mystery.

With Laura gone, and its soap opera missing, Twin Peaks looked elsewhere for a mystery, for a new animating spirit. It found it by taking a turn toward the supernatural, reorienting itself around “the evil in the woods.”

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Before it was anything else, Twin Peaks was a soap opera, a prime-time melodrama about murders, love affairs, drugs, double crosses, nefarious schemes, and dark secrets—to borrow the tagline for David Lynch’s aborted follow-up series, Mulholland Drive, it was about “good people in trouble.” Set in a cozy backwater town in the Pacific Northwest, five miles south of the Canada–US border, Twin Peaks was at heart voyeuristic, making its viewers feel as though they were spying on their neighbors. More than once, Audrey Horne, inspired to play detective by her new crush, Special Agent Dale Cooper, spies on men—her father, then one of her father’s underlings—recalling how Jeffrey Beaumont, in Blue Velvet, peered at Dorothy Vallens through the slats of her bedroom closet. Indeed, Lynch started work on Twin Peaks when his agent asked him to expand Blue Velvet into a TV series.

KYLE MACLACHLAN BLUE VELVET (1986)

Accordingly, a later episode sees Audrey’s father, Ben, ask whether a rowdy group of investors from Iceland are on “nitrous oxide” even as his business rival, Josie, follows him and his lover, Catherine, to a motel, snapping photos from her car just like Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey.

Blue Velvet took place in Lumberton, USA, and Lynch similarly set Twin Peaks in a seemingly wholesome logging town that harbored dark secrets. But Lumberton mostly resembled an actual place, with its hardware store and its diner and tree-lined streets, even if Lynch ironized their depiction with close-ups of gleaming white picket fences, waving firefighters, and obviously fake robins. With Twin Peaks, which premiered on April 8th, 1990, Lynch pushed that irony further. There has never been a small town like Twin Peaks, and there never will be. Twin Peaks was idealist, its characters archetypes—caricatures, but no less true despite their exaggerations. We meet roughly two dozen of its inhabitants, all of them adults; even the teens at the local high school are played by twenty-somethings. They are also, one and all, impossibly attractive. As FBI Director Gordon Cole later exclaims, “The world of Twin Peaks seems to be filled with beautiful women!” The people of Twin Peaks were ridiculously gorgeous, as well as classy, glamorous, well-dressed. Uniforms abounded. Men wore suits, while women wore sweaters, skirts, dresses. And when they moved, one caught hints of stockings and garter belts.

That was a metaphor for the show: decorum on the surface, with a hint of sexuality underneath. After Laura Palmer’s death, FBI man Dale Cooper arrives in town and starts tugging at various threads, revealing the tranquil, idyllic town’s sleazy underbelly. But while the show revolved around lurid things, Twin Peaks was never lurid. There was no nudity or language, and not just because the show aired on network TV. Twin Peaks was a tease—Audrey using her mouth to tie a knot in a cherry stem. It was dreamy and romantic, elegant, a companion to the prime-time soaps like Dallas and Dynasty that had dominated television and the culture throughout the 1980s. It wasn’t until the film Fire Walk with Me—which tellingly opens with a shot of a TV set exploding—that Lynch produced an R-rated installment, in which we, like Donna Hayward, got to shadow Laura Palmer on her rebellious late-night excursions, with their nudity and foul language and graphic violence and gore, and which tragically led to her grisly death at the hands of her father, Leland, wild-eyed and frowning grotesquely as he raised his arms toward heaven, unfurling an iconic sheet of plastic.

Until then, the sordid details of Laura’s secret life and murder played out only in our heads, and Twin Peaks was escapist, fun—an adventure. As Dale Cooper put it, “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have no doubt that it will be a place both wonderful and strange.” Today “Lynchian” is a synonym for “nightmarish,” but Twin Peaks, back in the beginning, wasn’t a nightmare. While it got strange at times, even outlandish, it remained grounded in the familiar, and we tuned in each week to watch the same characters visit the same locations. We wanted to go there, to hang out with them, to tag along with Cooper and Sheriff Truman as they visited the Double R Diner for coffee and cherry pie. Watching the series, we get the sense that time isn’t passing—that we’re caught up in the timeless nature of a remote town where entropy isn’t in effect. The plates of donuts are always full, the pots of coffee always fresh. We can eat donuts and pie and coffee all day without gaining so much as a pound. The series as a whole seems to glow, the lighting warm and soft, the tones earthy and wooden, mahogany, honeyish. At its heart, Twin Peaks was goodhearted. “Every day, once a day,” Cooper tells Sheriff Truman, “give yourself a present.” Twin Peaks was that present.

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