Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. Also Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and a Tangent on Modernism

Monday, July 11th, 2016 | Posted by Nick Ozment

Astro_City_A_Visitors_Guide_Vol_1_1This is mostly an homage to Kurt Busiek and Astro City, and to one story in particular, but buckle in because we’re going to cover a lot of rambling ground getting there in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way, taking in stuff by random association — sort of like the streets of Astro City itself…

Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is one of my favorite superhero comics. It consistently delivers brilliant, funny, poignant, human stories in a colorful, wonderfully idiosyncratic comic-book world. It is Busiek’s magnum opus — like Bendis’s Powers, it towers above his other work for the big publishers using their branded characters. He brings the sensibilities he honed in the groundbreaking Marvel miniseries Marvels to his own universe and, beneath all the ZAP! BANG! POW!, weaves tales you will never forget.

What Marvels did that was so fresh in 1994 is it “lowered the camera” from the god-like supers knocking each other through buildings and focused in on the ordinary humans down here at street level, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, watching it happen. What impact did the existence of such powers have on their day-to-day lives?

In Astro City the camera is completely unfettered, ranging to the heights to reveal very human dramas among people who have the power to level cities and then zooming down to the alleys to follow a day in the life of a two-bit petty thief who is really a pretty ordinary, decent human being (with the exception that his skin is covered with a steel alloy). Through the course of following Carl Donewicz, aka Steeljack — in the classic story “The Tarnished Angel” — we come to sympathize with and like him, and even find ourselves rooting for him: just once, could one of his heists go off without a hitch and not be foiled by The Jack-in-the-Box? And in Astro City, where narratives don’t always follow the comic-book formula, he does have his day. A fun, feel-good story, that one.

And then there are Astro City stories that rip your heart out. “The Nearness of You,” I contend, is among the great American short stories of the late twentieth century, and I think it could be anthologized as such. (Wizard Magazine does rank it number 6 on their list of “100 Greatest Single Issue Comic Books Since You Were Born.”) Publishers these days would have no problem formatting a four-color comic story into their prose collections. But should they? It is, after all, a comic book.

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The Series Series: Why Do We Do This To Ourselves? I Can Explain!

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Wheel of Time-small

What’s up with the Big Fat Fantasy books? Books that crest a thousand pages, books that fell forests, books that travel in savage packs of series. We wait three years, five years, ten years for the next volume. Meanwhile, the scope of what the author must remind readers about between installments expands (a storytelling problem anatomized over here by Edward Carmien). We click over to the fan-run online encyclopedia to remind ourselves who the characters are, both because it’s been so long since the last volume, and because the cast size is just that large.

Yet many of us love such books. In my case — and maybe yours, too — not just a few odd specimens of the type, but the type itself.

Thomas Parker laid out all the objections that can be leveled against the sprawl of our genre’s most popular novels, not as an outsider but precisely as an insider shocked at what has become normal to him. (Embrace the tongue-in-cheek hyperbole and just go with it — the main point’s still sincere.)

Someone please tell me. Why? Why do we do this to ourselves, we devotees of science fiction, horror, and (especially) fantasy? What did we do to deserve this? What crime did we commit in some previous existence that we now have to expiate with such bitter tears? Judge, I deserve to know! I demand answers!

If readers are asking themselves that question in that way, even in jest, you can bet the authors are, too, often with a greater level of frustration.

I have to marshal all my hubris to say this in public, but guys, I think I might have the answer. Seriously, not just an answer, but maybe the central answer.

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Wanderings on Writing by Jane Lindskold: Enter to Win a Signed Copy!

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Emily Mah

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I am back! In the months since you last heard from me I started up a ebook and paperback formatting company, and we’ve formatted some very cool stuff. The coolest, I will post about here on the site (note, this is not all I will post about and I do not benefit commercially from these postings. This is all stuff I want to shout from the rooftops because of its coolness.)

First up is: Wanderings on Writing by Jane Lindskold, which is a compilation of essays about writing, plotting, storycrafting, characterization and much, much more. She is giving away a signed copy here –> a Rafflecopter giveaway.

Wanderings On Writing-small

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Raised On Potter: Give the People What They Want?

Monday, April 21st, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

864751637_bbb406661f_zAs I mentioned in a recent post, I just finished teaching a creative writing course. Most of my students were college sophomores. None were creative writing majors. To cut a successful swath through my class, they had to write a short story, a poem, and a short play — and then revise each one multiple times. In order to bring a proper perspective to their efforts, I forced them (at dagger point) to read a great many examples of each form.

Thus ends the exposition. Now for the drama!

At the tail end of the semester, I asked my students to rank each reading on a five point scale, with one being exceptional and five a yawner. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that without exception, it was the fantasy and horror offerings on my syllabus that drew the strongest responses.

What can account for this?

My answer: J.K. Rowling.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Worlds Without End

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was verySO-2 green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).

The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic — but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.

I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher, and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.

By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?

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Passive vs Active Heroes

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 | Posted by Alex Bledsoe

Ask any established actor, and s/he will always say something along the lines of, “it’s much more fun to play a villain than a hero.” It’s no wonder: villains tend to get the best lines (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”), certainly their share of the trophy companions, have a higher standard of living, enjoy life more, and many go to their eventual demise laughing.

There’s another difference, though, that strikes at the very core of the hero/villain dynamic. The villains get to be pro-active. That means that traditional heroes are always re-acting.

It’s in the nature of heroes to simply sit around and wait to be needed. The most vivid example of that is in Batman Returns, when Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is shown sitting alone in the dark until the bat signal calls to his alter ego. Superman can’t act until Lex Luthor unveils his nefarious plan. Philip Marlowe has to wait for a client to walk in the door.

Just chillin' wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

Just chillin’ wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

And this goes against one of the great Rules of Writing, which is to never let your hero be passive. But it’s in the very nature of heroes to be passive, to wait until the villain makes a move, to respond to a threat. After all, how do you act like a hero pro-actively?

Well…ask Conan.

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Look Over There, See the Pretty Castle?

Friday, October 18th, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

pretty blue castle-smallI have very little visual memory for places and possibly even less visual imagination. One time, I needed to know the type of paving in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor – you know, the stuff you walk on? Keep in mind that I’ve been walking on this stuff regularly since I was six. I drew a complete blank (no pun intended) and had to ask my husband, who, at the time, had been there exactly once. He was able to tell me that it’s cobblestones, by the way. Unless you’re under the arcade, where it’s flagstones.

Last week, I talked about describing characters and particularly the difficulties of describing point-of-view characters. But as writers, we’re far more often required to describe places and spaces, both interior and exterior. For fantasy writers, this often means versions of places that exist (or existed) historically in our own world. If you’re the kind of person who, like my husband, can call to mind the descriptive details of things you’ve seen, this will mean a certain degree of ease in your life as a writer.

If you’re my kind of person, alas, you’re not going to be able to tell your friends what colour their living room is painted, no matter how many times you’ve been to their house, let alone describe the halls of a castle or the streets of a town.

So, what do you do? Since that Plaza Mayor episode, I’ve tried to remedy my poor visual memory by taking and collecting photographs. Lots and lots of photographs. While I’m travelling, I take photos of anything and everything that I think might be useful in terms of exteriors or interiors. In The Sleeping God, I use the interior of a restaurant in Trujillo in western Spain, in The Soldier King, the punishment square and prison in Elvas, in Portugal, and the cistern system from another Portuguese town, Monserrat, in The Storm Witch. I also used the map of Elvas to lay out my characters’ escape route, but that’s not really the type of description I’m talking about here.

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Campbell’s Reheated Mythopoetic Soup

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 | Posted by Alex Bledsoe

In the fall session of my teen writing class at our local library, I’m planning to teach Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. I’ve avoided this for several sessions, because personally I’m sick of its influence.  It’s been the default setting for epic fantasy, certainly since 1977. But if nothing else, it’s a structure that presents easy examples and will hopefully prompt some good discussion on why it’s popular and what writers can do with it.

But it’s also got me thinking about how it applies to my own stories, particularly those in the heroic fantasy genre. Because although it might sound counter-intuitive, the Hero’s Journey is really the antithesis of heroic fantasy.

"It's perfectly reasonable that all your fantasy epics for the foreseeable future will be based on my work. And yes, I rock the plaid."

“It’s perfectly reasonable that all fantasy epics for the foreseeable future will be based on my work. And yes, I rock the plaid.”

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Low Adventure: Clasp-knives and Fortunetelling in Carmen

Friday, September 27th, 2013 | Posted by eeknight

Prosper Mérimée Carmen-smallWhy does it have to be the days of “high adventure?”

Low adventure can be extraordinarily riveting, as I recently found when I revisited Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, the novella that inspired the Bizet opera. I’d read it once before, after seeing the (definitive, to my taste) Rosi film of the opera in the early 80s. Thanks to that film, I was so enchanted with the light and color of Andalusia that on my first trip to Europe I spent the better part of it there, on the coasts, in the alleys of Gibraltar, and especially in the stony mountains of Spain’s Sierra Nevadas. Thanks to a stay at an Andalusian cortijo (estate-farm) I was able to see some of the more remote areas on horseback, dragging a dutiful, saddlesore (need I say “ex”?) girlfriend behind who would have much rather been sunning on the beaches of Marbella or examining the wonders of the Alhambra.

Spain is a country of regions. The differences you might notice between northern Italians and southern are trebled in the expanses of Spain, divided as it is by mountains and joined by indirect routes reaching back into the dust of antiquity. There’s something of Robert E. Howard’s Zamora in Andalusia. Rome, the Caliphate, Catholicism, and for the history-minded traveller with a good guidebook, traces of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Napoleon can still be found. Each province has its flavor, industrious Bilbao, pretentiously bustling Madrid, historic Toledo, artistic Barcelona, leaving a distinct impression. The Andalusians are famous for just living life. Every meeting is an excuse for a party, every parting as one between old friends. Visiting Spain revised my personal definitions of “courtesy” and “hospitality.”

I see I’ve imitated Mérimée in framing these notes, elaborating the circumstances of my acquaintance with Carmen and Don Jose and the search into their origins. So enough about me.

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The Tales of Gemen the Antiques Dealer: From Idea to Publication

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 | Posted by markrigney

free-standing-dry-stone-archAs of Sunday, August fourth, the last installment of my Gemen trilogy is up and published right here on the Black Gate site.

It’s a curious feeling to have these three closely linked tales “on display” at last. I wrote the first entirely on a whim back in 2004, but the storyline itself had actually evolved decades before, in 1986. How Gemen got to where he is today — that is to say, fictionalized, and available for public scrutiny — is a tale that will perhaps be instructive to rising writers, and hopefully of some interest also to those readers who’ve kept pace with my hero’s travails.

Yes, Gemen is the love child of Dungeons & Dragons (possibly too much Dungeons & Dragons, although that, I hope, will be left to the eye of the beholder), but consider this: in all the literally thousands of hours of role-playing in which I immersed myself from approximately 1980 until 1989, only one idea, one small glimmer of a scenario, presented itself later as worthy of being translated to fiction. Lucky Gemen: alone among my endless sword & sorcery imaginings, he has stumbled into a literary afterlife.

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