The Ages of Our Lives

A couple of months back, one of my college friends mentioned she’s retiring from her law-enforcement job, having put twenty or thirty years in. Another friend, who retired some time back, is looking forward to touring the country with her husband now that her mother-in-law has passed and no longer needs them to care for her.

A number of other friends my age have retired and either started new careers or settled down to travel and visit the kids and grandkids a lot. All of which got me thinking about how the idea that we pass through clearly mapped out stages in life doesn’t have much relationship to actual life.

I remember an article some years back in which the writer said that when he was a kid in the 1950s (I think he must have been about ten years older than me), the stages had been clearly marked. First you were a kid, then a teenager, and that phase was all about fun. Then you became a man and put away childish things, and were serious. As the title put it, “Ozzie Nelson Never Owned a Dirt Bike” (Ozzie being the star and patriarch of hit sitcom Ozzie and Harriet). But the writer, even though he’d hit forty, still used his.

Even in my own youth, the sense was that when you got old — i.e., the age I am now — you stopped doing stuff. You retired sat in a rocking chair or a hammock, watched TV, lived quietly.You didn’t keep working. You didn’t start second careers.

I’m 60, but I’m still working. Even though my work isn’t physical it’s possible the deterioration of age will sideline me long before I want to be, but until that point, I’m happy to keep writing. And TYG is a good deal younger, which changes the calculus too. Even I hung up my spurs, we wouldn’t start traveling the world or anything like that (quite aside from not wanting to leave the dogs for too long). And of course, I don’t have kids, and didn’t marry until I was 53. My path has always been a little off the theoretical norm.

I’m not suggesting I’ve found the one true path to living as an old person. Some people, like my traveling friend, do just want to relax, and that’s cool (I know how hard she and her husband worked when they had jobs. She’s earned it). Lots of people don’t have the physical ability to keep doing what they’re doing; for them, sixty is the new sixty.

But even knowing that, noticing how my path deviates from the expected still gives me pause.

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The little things: Georgia O’Keefe and Sherlock Holmes quotes

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” — Georgia O’Keefe (creator of the painting illustrated here, The White Flower).

“The little things are infinitely the most important.” — Sherlock Holmes

Any writers reading this know detail is a big part of what we do. Which ones we need to include. Which ones we have to include. Which ones we should leave out.

Detail can make or break a story. Details can bring a character to life — the scars on their back from fighting dinosaurs, their passion for playing chess by mail (yes, that used to be a thing), their freaky tattoo or being nitpicky about other people’s grammar. They can also bring settings to life: the smells, the flavors, the music. The minor details of alternate timelines, such as Leslie Howard and JFK still being alive in the film Quest for Love. Or the slightly different wording of the song “Teen Angel” in my Atoms for Peace (“That fateful night the saucers came/We were caught in their attack.”). For historical fiction or fantasy, the fine points of slang, culture, attitudes and politics can make the period vividly real.

Or take the throwaway line in Monty Python’s crunchy frog skit where a chocolatier points out the repellent ingredients in his chocs are all listed on the label — lark vomit comes “right after monosodium glutamate.” It makes the grotesque premise (there really is a small dead frog in “crunchy frog chocolate”) that much more vivid.

But as O’Keefe points out, details can also distract and confuse us. The classic example is dialogue. Real human speech is full of pauses, mumbling, distractions and repeated words (one of my friends used to use “like” in sentences as a punctuation mark). Even when quoting people as a reporter, I trimmed that stuff out.

Too much visual detail can bore or frustrate readers (it’s TYG’s biggest complaint about the Game of Thrones novels) as much as a lack of any detail. Some people love the nitty-gritty details of how magic systems work. I usually find them boring as all get-out (as long as the magic feels right and stays consistent, I’m fine with not knowing the details). Errors in factual details can make readers stop taking a book seriously. For example, a nonfiction work I read some years back that mentioned in passing that research into identical twins has proven our personality is 100 percent shaped by our genes. Um, NO.

Of course some readers or viewers will treat any inaccuracy or error as a fatal flaw that ruins the entire work. When Stage Crafters did A Glass Menagerie, we got a note from the audience that the pillows had those “do not remove this tag” tag on them even though they weren’t around at the time of the story (late 1940s). How could we make such an utterly incompetent error? Given that Tom, the protagonist, specifically states at the beginning this is a subjective story and not a literal retelling, that seems really pointless nitpicking. But for some people, the nits wreck the story.

So that’s part of the challenge. What some people see as a distracting detail, others are going to find fascinating and fundamental. There’s no perfect level of detail that works for every writer, every story, every reader.

But hey, nobody ever said our gig was easy.

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Giving us the bush leaguers: Gerry Conway’s Detroit Justice League

Gerry Conway’s creation of the “Detroit League” after seven years as writer of Justice League of America is often treated as one of the worst creative calls in comics. Rereading it over the past year, I don’t disagree, but what struck me is how Conway writes his new team as if even he didn’t think they were worthy heirs to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

Conway wanted to shake up the series by changing out the membership. He’d have more control as the characters wouldn’t be obligated to other series. And they wouldn’t come with the baggage and expectations that established DC characters did. While most of the League is fighting a menace off-world, J’Onn J’Onzz’ people arrive on a mission of conquest. The JLA wins but without the big guns. A furious Aquaman decides that if the other members can’t commit to a full-time life in the JLA, they should quit, so he invokes a convenient clause in the League charter that empowers him to dissolve and rebuild the team. Superman, Batman and most of the others are out; Zatanna, J’Onn, Aquaman and Elongated Man stay; and newbies Vibe, Gypsy, Steel and Vixen sign up (all put to much better use in the CWverse later). Steel’s family offers them a fortified HQ in Detroit and their new adventures begin.

Conway says his template was the Silver Age Avengers story where Stan wrote out Thor, Giant Man, the Wasp and Iron Man and brought in Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver under Captain America. Teen Titans also did it successfully when Marv Wolfman and George Perez rebooted them with a mostly new membership in the 1980s. The Detroit League didn’t do so well.

Part of the problem was relocating them to Detroit. I like the idea of local, neighborhood-protecting heroes, like Wonder Woman during her depowered period. And the scenes of the League interacting with the locals are fun bits. But a local feel doesn’t really work for a team that has a history of protecting the entire US, not to mention the world.

A bigger problem is that even Conway didn’t seem to feel his creations were up to the task. In the first few issues, Stan Lee’s “Kooky Quartet” of Avengers took on established foes (Attuma, the Enchantress, the Mole Man) and new ones (the Commissar, Power Man, the Swordsman). Lee constantly emphasized that the foursome didn’t have the raw power of the earlier team, but he showed they had the skill and guts to triumph nonetheless.

The Detroit League? They defeat their first foe, the alien Overmaster, when J’Onn figures out it’s just an imposter and wakes up the real Overmaster. The League faces the team’s old foe, Amazo, but even though his mind has been switched for a drunken bum’s, it takes J’Onn to stop him.

In #238, the villain defeats the classic League, which would seem a perfect opportunity for the new kids to prove themselves. But no, they go down too; it takes the villain’s brother to save the day by shooting him.

The Detroit League doesn’t get into serious heroic mode until it takes on Despero (an old JLA foe, heavily buffed up) in a multi-issue arc. There, they prove themselves, but it was too late. As Conway says in the interview link above, sales had dropped, so he concluded the experiment hadn’t worked. The higher-ups thought he was the problem, not the cast (and even before Detroit his stories hadn’t been up to his best work); he got to wrap up this incarnation of the League (Steel and Vibe die, Gypsy and Vixen quit, the JLA dissolves) and left the book.

While a few writers since have looked back at the era and tried to show that it was cool (Gypsy, for some unfathomable reason, keeps cropping up), it never really was.

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The Arcana and a Beastmaster; two reviews leftover from last week

THE LAST SUN: The Tarot Sequence Book One by KD Edwards gets points for an unusual urban setting, the colony that Atlantis erected on Nantucket Island (apparently the continent’s sinking took place a lot later in this mythos) by transporting pieces of mundane cities to build it together, creating a rather eclectic layout. Protagonist Rune is the last of the Sun house (Atlantean aristocracy being modeled on the Major Arcana), a private investigator tricked into guarding the heir to The Lovers until he reaches age while also being hired to find a missing child of House Justice, all of which, of course, turns out more sinister than anticipated.

 

I enjoyed this, and would probably have liked it more if I were more of an urban fantasy fan. It’s competently plotted, and I liked that it had a gay protagonist. However I could have done without a tragic gang rape as part of his backstory. And given that Arcana heads seem to reflect the nature of their cards, why is Lord Tower relatively normal when that card is an ominous card of doom?

I’m a lot less fond of space Westerns than I am urban fantasy, but Andre Norton’s THE BEAST MASTER is a very good space Western. Protagonist Hosteen Storm is a Navajo veteran in te war with the alien Xik; humanity won, but Earth got blown to smithereens (fortunately we were already out in the stars). Storm, slightly PTSDed, shows up on the planet of Arzor, nominally to use his skills and his telepathic link with his beasts (eagle, meerkats, dune cat) on the frontier but secretly to avenge an old wrong. Much to his surprise and annoyance, he finds himself bonding with the colonists, even the man he’s out for revenge on. He also likes the native Norbies, who respect him as a warrior. Then he discovers a hidden Xik base on Arzor, from which the aliens are stirring up a Norbie/human war. It’s his chance to settle the score with the Xik — if he can.

Norton making her hero Native American was a radical step at the time, and Storm is indeed a hero, not a sidekick. He’s extremely capable and respected by everyone, though as Judith Tarr points out, Norton’s portrayal has problems. It’s an all-male cast, which surprisingly didn’t bother me as much as it usually does. My biggest problem is the handling of the aliens. The Norbies are very noble savage, the Xiks are pure evil, apparently willing to whip up a war just for kicks.

This might be Norton’s most successful work, in that it inspired the Marc Singer Beastmaster movies, which are fantasy and only carry over the idea of a hero with telepathic animal partners (as does the much less entertaining TV series). I was actually surprised how little role that aspect plays in the book; the animals need as much conventional training as they do telepathic guidance. The telepathy could probably have been dropped altogether.

Regardless, it really is a great book, if the flaws are not deal-breakers for you.

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Hand-waving poverty and other links.

There’s a school of right-wing thought that as Jesus said the poor are with us always, there’s no point to helping them. We’re not going to end poverty, we may not be able to help everyone, so what’s the point?

Of course by that logic, there’s no point to paying for police. We’re not going to get rid of all crime,we’re not going to catch all criminals, so why not just give up? But people do grasp that stopping crime is a good thing, even if you don’t bat 100 percent. I dont’ think poverty’s any difference. Helping one person who can’t get medical care (the topic in the link above) does make a difference. And Jesus wasn’t saying don’t bother to help the poor because you can’t end poverty. He’s quoting an Old Testament passage, the point of which is that poverty enduring is a reason to be generous, not to just give up.

There’s a right-wing school of thought that not only is it bad to help the poor with tax dollars, it’s bad to help the poor period. Homeless shelters are bad because they give homeless people less reason to get a job and afford rent. What they need is to suffer so that they’ll have an incentive to get off their lazy asses. Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it?  A variation on this idea is that what poor people really need is not charity but jobs, so capitalism is the real charity. John Stossel, for example, wrote some years back that putting your money into a new business would do far more good than putting it into charity.

Of course that ignores that increasingly money flows to the stockholders, not to paying employees jobs they can live on (see here for more). Nine out of 10 jobs in Silicon Valley pay less than they used to. It’s worth remembering that capitalism by itself has a mixed record at best of helping out the poor and downtrodden. Wages were good in the 20th century because of unions and government support for labor rights, moving us away from the Gilded Age where the worker had no rights at all.

Nevertheless, Kevin Williamson (yes, Kevin “kill women who get abortions” Williamson) takes that ball and runs with it, and runs roughshod over Christiantiy. Sure, Jesus said that if you have two coats, you should give one to someone who doesn’t have one. But you know what? Capitalism mass-produces coats! If you open a coat factory, you can hire people, pay them well and they can afford their own coats! Besides, what if he needs food more than a coat, huh? While Williamson also acknowledges that charity is important, it feels like lip service as he gets to the important point, reassuring rich people that just by running businesses they’re making the world better.

And of course, there’s still the standard war-on-the-poor tactics: Arkansas requires Medicaid recipients report their work hours to keep coverage. But it makes it very hard for them to do so, for example only allowing online reporting.

Rep. Paul Ryan is leaving office getting plaudits for fighting the deficit. But his budgetary priorities increased it. He only cared when it justified slashing the social safety net.

Will Congress start holding banks accountable for misdeeds?

Greed is not good.

A couple of economists continue insisting that supply-side economics works. They’re wrong.

 

 

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Super heroes, maps, design issues and squabbling soldiers: my week in books

BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD: Emerald Knight by various writers and artists shows this is still the funnest 21st century Batman, as far as I’m concerned. This is a Batman who actually enjoys squaring off against the Dinosaur Head Gang, helping Huntress against the stalking super-villain Mr. Camera (the twist on why Huntress came to him for help was really neat) or discovering Egghead has allied with the cosmic horror Ygg FuSothoth (a takeoff on Wonder Woman’s Egg Fu). Certainly this was more fun for me than anything in continuity since the New 52.

The first volume of STRONG FEMALE PROTAGONIST by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Mollie Ostertag collects the webcomic about Alison Green, the former superhero Mega-Girl. Alison quit when her anti-hero archfoe Menace made her see that all their clashes of titans weren’t actually changing the world — and the people who’s powers could have, have been eliminated over the years. But she does want to make the world better so how does she do it? I like the concept and the character interactions and Alison’s decent heart, but sometimes she’s so idealistic she’s an idiot. I think that’s intentional — like a lot of idealistic college students she doesn’t always see the forest for the trees — so it didn’t bother me too much. The art’s kind of “meh” though.

ATLAS MAJOR is a reproduction, with notes, of Joan Blau’s 1600s atlas of the world (his plans to further map the heavens and the oceans never came to pass). I flipped through this mostly in relation to something I’m working on, but this was unquestionably an impressive achievement. It also shows me I didn’t know the world of old atlases as well as I thought. My mental image is of beautifully illustrated global maps like the one above, but a lot of Blau’s atlas shows far more detail about major cities or regions than I expect. For me it’s more something to page through and go “oooh” than read closely, but there’s a lot of “oooh” here.

SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Why There Is No Perfect Design by Henry Petroski looks at efforts to design better chairs, better toothbrushes, better potato peelers and better car cup-holders to show how any design is guaranteed imperfect due to cost constraints, consumer interest or lack of interest and the pros and cons (better toothbrush handles are too large to fit into toothbrush holders). Even in the best circumstances, Petroski points out, there’s not going to be a perfect design because we always have to admit that there might be something better that hasn’t been discovered yet. As usual with Petroski, extremely interesting. However his efforts to expand his theme and discuss how everything is design (how we plan our weekend, how we decide what we’re going to eat) were forced.

Two decades before John Ostrander introduced his super-villain version of the Suicide Squad, Robert Kanigher tried repeatedly to make the concept work. SUICIDE SQUAD: The Silver Age collects the stories of Task Force X (seen above) an elite team known as the Suicide Squad because of the deadly nature of their missions. The stories are the weird kind of monsters and SF menaces Kanigher used in his Wonder Woman and Metal Men runs, but like the Blackhawks, it suffers from having too many colorless protagonists.

When this series failed to sell, Kanigher switched to “The War That Time Forgot,” which ran for eight years in Star Spangled War Stories. The series premise was WW II soldiers battling dinosaurs, sometimes thawing out of suspended animation, sometimes living on isolated islands, always absurdly powerful (as one fan site noted, real dinosaurs can’t bite through tanks, but it’s certainly cooler when they can). It included one shot characters but also several recurring protagonists. One was a PT boat skipper in a “Suicide Squadron” so nicknamed for its dangerous missions.

Then came a new version of the Suicide Squad, once again an elite team trained for impossible two-man missions. Kanigher tried to jazz up the drama (as John Seavey says, he didn’t seem to think dinosaurs were enough) by having the mission teams hate each other. Morgan, for example, hates his partner Mace for getting Morgan’s brother killed through (as Morgan sees it) cowardice. Every issue they’re in we get Morgan explaining how Mace’s every heroic action just proves he’s a coward … somehow. It gets old. It doesn’t help that Mace just grits his teeth and takes it; if he hated Morgan back, it would be better.

While I’m not a huge fan of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, it’s definitely the best version of the concept to date.

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Women solving mysteries: this week’s movies

 

FRIDAY FOSTER (1975), which I listed in Tuesday’s memorable films post, is a blacksploitation throwback to 1930s films about fast-talking, female reporters such as Glenda Farrell’s Torchy Blaine series, though it’s actually based on a newspaper comic strip (the first with a black female lead). Pam Grier is Friday, a camera jockey trying to figure out the connection between a friend’s murder, “black Howard Hughes” Thalmus Rasulala, fashion designer Eartha Kitt, gay drug dealer Godfrey Cambridge, lecherous clergyman Scatman Crothers and a mysterious conspiracy called “black widow.” The plot has some huge holes (I honestly can’t see what the bad guys would have gained from killing Friday) but it’s fun and Grier is charmingly sexy (she also hops into a number of beds without the movie doing any slut-shaming, which is cool). With Yaphet Kotto as Grier’s PI boyfriend, Jason Bernard as a schemer Ted Lange as a pimp and Jim Backus as the Evil White Mastermind. “Sex is on the male mind every other minute … and on the female mind every other second.”

Normally when a movie trailer promotes T&A as much as STACEY (1973) I assume that’s all the movie has to recommend it. As it turns out, this is pretty good as a low-budget PI thriller with Anne Randall (whose impressive T&A are displayed quite a bit) as the gumshoe (happily a very competent one) hired to check out a wealthy widow’s potential heirs. What she finds includes adultery, homosexuality, group sex and of course, murder. Fun, though the ending chase feels like padding at times. “Never trust anyone you haven’t been sleeping with for a while.”

INCENDIES (2010) is a French/Canadian film in which an Arab immigrant’s will denies her adult children the right to put up a gravestone until they find the brother they didn’t know they had and the father they thought was dead. Investigating, the daughter learns about their mother’s past as a pacifist idealist, an angry terrorist, a torture victim and a heroic prisoner (“They call her the woman who sings.”) and where the rest of their family is hiding. Very good. “Childhood is a knife stuck in your throat.”

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33,000 and counting

I accomplished 57 percent of my November goals. That’s primarily because I underestimated the impact of my colonoscopy on my work Thanksgiving week (and for that matter my off-work activities). And yes, insomnia played a role. As I sleep great on weekends, I’d anticipated making up for lost time over the four day weekend. Instead interruptions from one source or another meant I only got one night of good sleep. Bleah!

The biggest fail on my goal list was not finishing Southern Discomfort. That one I can’t really blame on my colon, though the short work week certainly had an impact. So did the Leaf articles continuing longer than I’d expected.

But the main reason is, it’s been a long while since I read an entire novel aloud, and I’d forgotten how long it takes. Rewriting and changing the scenes is taking more work than I thought too. I’m rewriting the flow of conversation so it makes more sense, adding tension to some scenes (though some of them are simply going to be about setting and character, and that’ll have to be enough), checking formatting. Every decision then leads to more changes (well, not the formatting). Making Maria more skeptical about whether it’s really magic in one scene means she needs to be skeptical in the next scene, or I have to show her changing.

Still, when I counted up the completely finished wordage this week, I was pleased. As of today, I’m a little over 33,000 words done, out of a 92,000 word book. And next month this is my only writing goal besides the Leaf articles, which will wrap up before too long. So I should be done by New Year’s Eve. Well if the good lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, as they say. Even if it rises, I can get it done in January, but I really want to start 2019 fresh.

And I wrote another Dr. Mabuse article for Atomic Junkshop. As I didn’t have time for even a half-hearted film review, I looked at two Dr. Mabuse songs, Dr. Mabuse by Propaganda and Dr. Mabuse by Blue System. Thanks to my friend Ross Bagby for alerting me they even existed. Below is the CD cover for one of the Propaganda versions (there are several of various lengths floating around).

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Let’s start off Friday with some cover images

I don’t think that stuff is good to drink. Art is uncredited.

Joe Kubert cover for the story of a WW II Navy officer who grew up as a feral child raised by pterodactyls. And how often does one get to say that?

Next, a couple by Powers

OMG, it’s a man with an icecream on his head! Horrifying! Luckily for the artist, the art is uncredited.

Mitchell Hooks did this one. I saw the woman’s meant-to-be-ecstatic face on lots of covers back in the day.

An eerie one by Kelly Freas.

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Sherlock Holmes: “It is easier to know than to explain why I know.”

Yep, time for another of the Great Detective’s insights into writing: “It is easier to know than to explain why I know.”

Holmes’ point was that it was much easier to make a lightning-fast deduction than to break down his chain of thought for Watson or Lestrade. I’ve often had the same experience writing: at some level, my unconscious mind knows what the story needs even if I can’t explain why it’s right. Sometimes I can’t explain what it needs, only that it’s not what’s on the page.

I think the first time I had the experience was writing my second novel. I’d had a big major fight scene midway through the book, and it was decent, but then I found I couldn’t write the next scene. My gut seemed to clench up and obstruct me every time I tried. Finally I realized it was because what I’d written was wrong. Oh, it was perfectly adequate, but there was a better alternative, if I could only find it.

Eventually I did. It was a lot better. The book didn’t sell, but it was still a better novel.

I’ve had that sense of “something’s wrong” since, though not usually as strongly. And more generally I find a lot of choices and decisions I make in writing are intuitive: choice A simply feels better than choice B. My gut is a good guide.

But unlike Holmes, not a perfect guide. In writing new drafts, I spend a lot of time thinking and studying the previous draft’s structure and pacing. And after I’m satisfied that a story feels right and the logic holds up, then I go get feedback from my writer’s group or other beta readers.

For example, when I wrote The Savage Year I thought a lot about the story’s structure, giving Diana and Artemis multiple encounters with the villain. I thought about the talismans that would make logical sense for him to hunt for. But I also trusted my feelings about the story. As I was dealing with quasi-Lovecraftian horrors, I felt the sensations the magic triggers in Artemis needed to be weirder and more horrible. So I wrote at one point about how the magic made Artemis feel like rats were running around in her stomach, and trying to climb out. Other magical efforts triggered similar unpleasantness.

Then I showed it to the group and got lots of feedback. Including that the bad guy needed to come on stage sooner and that the effects of his magic weren’t creepy enough. I took those suggestions both into account. Eventually the story sold to Lorelei Signal (unfortunately the web site’s been down so long, I wonder if it will ever come back up).

I don’t know if this is true for all writers, and it doesn’t need to be. Everyone’s got their own method. As long as the story works for readers (or listeners, or viewers), it doesn’t matter whether we get it by following a formula or improvising based on intuition.

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