The right comic can make everyone happy

The pressures of Christmas shopping can be enough to ruin the holiday for anyone, but sometimes it’s an easy thing to spread a little joy around. It just takes a little engagement.

Earlier today my daughter and I visited one of the area comics shops to pick up volume six of Terry Moore’s “Rachel Rising” for her mother. While we were there, I got into a brief conversation with another customer, who had brought his son along to buy him a comic for his eighth birthday.

“Stick with the classics,” I said. (We had just been talking about “Sandman” and Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing.”) “Get him a Spider-man comic.”

“Yeah, but where do you jump in? There’s so much of it.”

It’s true. When I started reading comic books in the 1980s, Spider-man appeared simultaneously in four monthly titles. The exact lineup has changed, but the bandwidth given to Marvel’s flagship hero hasn’t. Even if he weren’t in the Avengers never had a guest appearance in another Marvel title, Spider-man easily appears in 48 published issues each year.

In the 55 years since he first appeared in Amazing Fantasy 15, Spider-man has been a central character in thousands of stories told across thousands of different issues. There are defining runs, like what Tom DeFalco did in the 1980s and what J. Michael Strazcynski  wrote in the early 2000s, on “Amazing Spider-Man,” but there was about 15 years’ worth of crap in-between, to say nothing of the “Superior Spider-Man” debacle that came after.

“Start out with ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,'” I said. “It’s mostly retreads of the original Lee/Ditko stories, but Bendis makes them work, and the continuity’s not nearly as convoluted. Better yet, start him out on Miles. Miles is much cooler than Peter, and he has a movie coming out next year.”

The guy liked my advice. He found a $40 volume of Miles’ first four trade paperback collections and bought it. He’s happy. His son is happy. And the guy who owns the comics shop?

Ka-ching!

Pretty sure he’s happy too, and I’ve become one of his favorite customers.

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On Atlas and the inestimable burden he bore

I read once that for siding with Cronus and the other Titans against the gods, Zeus sentenced Atlas to shoulder the weight of the sky forever.

Think about that for a moment, not in our cute modernist sense where we realize that the sky is a misconception borne of vantage point, but in the proper sense. The sky was a giant dome that if it fell would crush the entire earth. The Hebrews knew this; on the other side of the sky pressed limitless waters that could flood the earth and destroy everything, if God just opened the floodgates. The Maoris knew it; the sky had been separated from the earth only under the steady exertions of Tane, who planted himself between them and grew, treelike, until they finally were separated and life could flourish. The Greeks knew it too, and they imagined poor Atlas, holding a weight too great for anyone, god or mortal, to withstand.

Imagine the slow march of years. Time would go no faster for Atlas than for anyone else, and pinned in spot by the sheer weight of responsibility loaded upon his shoulders, it must have crawled past in unspeakable agony.

Prometheus had the terror every day of an eagle that would come and gnaw his liver out every day, but he could comfort himself that he had won his injuries by fighting for humanity and one day would be vindicated. Plus, his liver healed every day, bringing relief and even cool sleep. Atlas every day felt the unrelenting pressure when the sun rose, still unlessened when the sun set. If you’ve ever been pulled from sleep by the pain of a toothache then you can imagine what it must have been like for Atlas, and yet he knew that if he faltered, then everything and everyone he loved would be lost.

Greek mythology mentions that relief came one day when Heracles came and asked for help getting golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. Atlas shifted his burden onto the demigod and for a few brief moments, the time it took to take a short walk, he was free.

And then Heracles proved that he wasn’t the dumbest person in Greece after all. He tricked Atlas, and once again the titan was back under his burden.

Loaded down.
Overwhelmed.
Hopeless.
Powerless.
Trapped.
Unable to go about, to talk to others, to see the world.
Nothing to do but carry a burden that was too big for anyone.

And this time it was worse, because for fifteen short minutes he had been free of his terrible burden.

Mythology says Atlas found relief one final time. Fresh from victory in Libya, the demigod Perseus came his way, and they chatted.

Atlas asked what was in the bag.

Perseus told him, it was the head of Medusa.

Atlas knew what that meant, but he asked to see it anyway.

And with that request, the old titan gave Zeus the proverbial finger, and escaped his burden forever.

 

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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The importance of selecting a good name for your character

I’ve always felt that naming my character in D&D is as almost as serious a matter as naming a child.

It’s true, you will not have to listen to your player character come home from school in tears after his first day in middle school because someone discovered a vicious new insult based on his name, but a paladin will never be taken seriously if he saunters into town with a moniker like Benedict the Virtuous. Sure, he’ll try to impress the elf princesses by telling them his name is really Dirk, but word will get out soon enough and he’ll be run out of the woods to taunts of “Benny the Brown-Noser” in no time.

The source materials back when I was a teen always seemed to have amazing examples of names like Fang Ironwolf, or Lisbon the Dauntless. I tried strategies like spelling things backward, and got memorable losers like “Retcarahc” and “Nrael Divad.”

I found that my friend Chris Adomoshick’s last name, once reversed, worked quite well for a Yazirian when we played “Star Frontiers,” with a little extra tinkering. Thirty-five years later, and I still like the name Kismodé. (If TSR ever greenlights the line of Star Frontiers novels I pitched when I was 14 years old, I’m definitely having a space-monkey name Kismode traveling around the galaxy.)

The king of memorable names was Anthony Gazzillo, whom I played D&D with about 10 years ago. Anthony had a knack for finding names that stood out by violating standard Western naming conventions. Sure, he had characters with easy names like Tovarth and Inquill, but Inquill worshiped a god named Chemlochnibutentagen and had a drinking buddy named Cha-bing-cha-bing-cha-bing-a-whiz

As a dungeonmaster Anthony independently had discovered the technique of spelling words backward to get good names, and took it to new levels. As the campaign ran on, our party of adventurers got help from people named Allerazzom, Raddehc and Eladyelsnew.

My favorite was Eseehc’eot.

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The campaign where no one trusted anyone

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you surely appreciate the value of a well-developed campaign.

To players, a good campaign is an exercise in problem-solving, teamwork and old-fashioned roleplaying. Be a bard who sows chaos, a paladin who rushes headlong into danger, a wizard who destroys cities to get out of a parking ticket. Let your hair down and imagine!

For a dungeon master, the story is a chance to stretch her creative muscles. She can instill favored themes, tailor parts of the adventure to favor the strengths or weaknesses of a particular character, take advantage of the team dynamics and do some truly amazing things with story structure.

About 10 years ago, I played a campaign that was designed by Anthony Gazzillo and Tom Palmieri. The adventure was a doozy. There was an old god who was dead and whose worshipers were trying to bring him back. There were evil people accomplishing good despite themselves, and characters whose purity of heart was bringing great evil upon the land. At the heart of it all there was an aberration in the heart of reality that served as the central mystery of our campaign.

The guys really outdid themselves with this one. They had gamed together regularly with friends back in their undergrad days, and it showed. The story actually had four legs, and we experienced them out of order, so that when the first arc finished, we suddenly found ourselves at the start of the third arc. Only when that one ended would we begin to recall the events of the second arc.

It was an amazing story, bold in conception, carefully constructed and with components that could have left us lost in thought long afterward.

Alas, the campaign had one fatal flaw: It had us for players. I hadn’t played in years and was having difficulty getting into character properly. Chris and Tom had a stack of rulebooks 10 feet high and combat dragged as they consulted charts and debated the logistics of grapple checks, and we had another player who had difficulty navigating social interaction. Gaming was fun, but the party of adventurers never gelled the way it was supposed to.

When the first story arc ended, it did so suddenly. One of our opponents killed Rowena, the lone woman in our party; and then Chris’ character spontaneously turned into a werewolf, ran across the field, pulled the third lever from the left and handed 5 gold pieces to the monk. A minute later the bad guys’ machine blew up and they all fell to the ground, dead. My character Parker stood on the field of battle, sword in one hand, shield raised with the other arm, as the blood pounded in his hears and he wondered what the hell had just happened.

“I’m sorry that was so unexpected,” Anthony told me later in the car as we drove home. “I really figured you guys would actually, you know, talk with one another and share things so everyone would know what was going on.”

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Still life: tree

Image may contain: tree, sky, house, plant and outdoor

It’s a thing in Haiti to plant a tree for each child born. It’s a big deal; from what I am told, families have been known to sell their houses and the land they sit on, but retain rights to the trees and the fruit they produce.

We adopted this tradition when we started having children and bought a house of our own. For our oldest, a maple; for the youngest, an oak; for the second, a tree that was mislabeled as a dogwood.

What are saplings after all, but a type for children? They are young but hardy, and we plant them with an eye on the future, when they will tower over us, provide us shelter, and mark our passing long after we are gone. We plant trees like we plant our children: with faith that tomorrow that they will still be here, and make life worth the living and worth the wait.

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Keeping the faith in the Age of Trump

The church was never meant to side with the wealthy and powerful, neither directly nor through its silence. It has always been God’s intent that the church be built with the broken, the hurting and the cast-offs of society.

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus once reminded the leaders of his day.

As the church continues its ill-considered dalliance with Trump and the GOP, it’s ironic that those who leave in disgust will be seen as abandoning the faith when the truth is far more painful: The church left us, when it stopped following.

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Still life: manhole

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That time John Donne was an idiot

John Donne famously said “No man is an island.”

Donne, you limey bastard, that’s the whole freaking problem. We’re nothing but islands, impossibly far from one another in this vast archipelago, and none of us knows the name of the wind that will carry us from one to the other.

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What I learned about photography as a writer in the news business

All I know of photography I learned from working in newspapers with staff photographers like Joseph Sorrentino, who took the time not only to kvetch about what philistines the lot of us were when it came to selecting and editing photos, but to pass on selected nuggets of wisdom as well.

One of the rules Joe taught me was the rule of thirds: Instead of centering your subject in the middle, divide your shot into three segments (horizontally, vertically or diagonally) and then create movement by having the subject off-center. He also advised putting some aspect of the subject in the foreground, and having it recede in the other two-thirds, so that the photo is more dramatic and less flat.

Another thing Joe and other photographers inclined to share their tips have hammered home repeatedly: The biggest key to good photography is to throw out the worst 90 percent of your shots. If the managing editor wants one picture, take at least 10.

Also, don’t be afraid to be creative. At Worrall Community Newspapers especially, our photographers got some really awful assignments. “There’s a park bench being dedicated to so-and-so’s memory,” the county editor would say. “I need a shot of it.” Or “A pet store in town just bought an ad with us, go get a shot for Page Six.”

A really bad photographer would return from an assignment like this with a picture of a storefront. A capable but uninterested photographer might get a shot of a bunch of people standing around a bench in nice balance, good lighting, the sort of portrait you’d buy at Olan Mills if you liked to look at people standing around benches, or if you liked portraits of storefronts.

We had one photographer who didn’t care — there’s always at least one — who didn’t think twice of going into a Laundromat, and taking a picture of a bunch of dryers with their doors open, to make the ad rep shut up. Her pictures were always like that: in, out and done in five minutes. I always dreaded having her take shots for my paper.

The others did some things that ran from great to amazing. On the pet shop assignment, Joe went into the store and got a picture of four ferrets doing whatever it is ferrets do in terrariums lined with wood shavings. For the bench dedication, Reena Sibayan got a close-up of the dedication plaque, with the hands of the dedicatee’s loved ones framing it. Those were both excellent shots.

We never saw all the crap shots they took on those assignments, though I’m sure there were many, because they wanted us to be impressed with their skills.

I’ve tried to keep those examples and those lessons in mind every time I take out my camera, even though I always remember Joe’s other photography advice: “I don’t try to write the news stories. What the hell makes you think you should be taking pictures?”

 

* Actually I think Joe’s all-time least favorite shots were the football shots. Rather than ask the photographers to attend the football games and get action shots from the games, with things like tackles and intercepts, the sports editor would have him waste an entire afternoon every fall getting headshots of all the players on the teams, so he could run those with the game article.

At some point, even though I have zero interest in fooball, I started assigning game shoots so I could run the action pics on Page One to promote the sports coverage on the last page … where the editor ran headshots with his stories.

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Recommending ‘Presents’ for Christmas

a0670900301_16If you’re like me, you probably have thought at least once this year “I am so freaking sick to death” of Christmas music.”

Seriously. It’s either something you would like to fill your brain with cement over, so you can forget it (like the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick”), it’s an overenthusiastic rendering of a children’s song, or it’s one of those tired Christmas songs arranged with a symphonic accompaniment, just like your other 47 favorite Christmas albums.

Check out Voices of Virtue, and their Christmas album, “Presents!” It’s got tracks that favor some truly beautiful vocals to carry the song (they do) with mild music accompaniment, some clever arrangements (personal favorite: “A Scarborough Manger”) and some good old-fashioned witticism to assure yourself that this is not like every other Christmas album you have (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).

CD costs $15, or you can download the tracks for $12. (Disclosure: I get paid nothing for shilling this. I just like the album.)

Seriously, if you love folk music and folk arrangements — and who doesn’t? — this is the Christmas album for you.

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