Comic Bookin’ For Grown Ups

I’ve picked up a passion in my young adult life that  I never had as a kid. It’s an experience I can now say I shared with my young, prepubescent father, one I never shared when I was as young as he was though. I’ve slowly but surely become something of a comic book nerd. The thing is, the comics I read would not be ones I’d like to show to my ten-year-old dad, if we were to meet up in some wacky time-travelling comic book shop. The stuff I savor often features graphic violence (looking at you, Walking Dead,) sexual situations, (looking at you, Saga,) and a whole bunch of language my grandma would not appreciate her little boy learning so soon, (looking at you, pretty much all of my comics.)

In a lot of ways, the years between my dad buying The Amazing and/or Spectacular Spiderman issues every week at the local newsstand and my comic book hobby today have really changed the industry. Nerd culture has become more “cool” and acceptable to the mainstream public. Comic book fans have grown up and introduced new, darker, edgier twists to their old favorites, and created original material that added an adult edge to the medium. Think Frank Miller’s edgy Batman, a huge inspiration for the Ben Affleck Batman in the admittedly ill-fated Batman vs. Superman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which was also turned into a film, and definitely a more successful one. People eat edgy comics up, even when they aren’t comics.

Sure, just like the Marvel super hero movies are still very much billed as family affairs, there’s still places for younger readers in the comic book world. Still, the scene has changed. Probably the main reason I didn’t get into comic books as a kid was that there was no friendly neighborhood newsstand to grab the latest Marvel or DC comic books from. That practice, along with a whole lot of print media, was already dying by the time I was a kid. Comic books moved to comic book stores, which were intimidating to me as a young girl. Sure, some titles were also stocked in bookstores, which I definitely frequented, but I was so distracted by all the regular old books that the most I ever picked up from the bookstores was a relatively brief but still embarrassing fixation on Archie comics.

I started my love affair with comics when the Walking Dead became a hit TV show, and my nerdy uncle gave me a few volumes of the series to try out. I was then introduced to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and I slowly but surely started exploring these wild worlds of sex and violence layered over rich writing that introduced characters and plots as beautifully fleshed out as any of the novels I’d be reading. It was all much better written and drawn than my Archie books with two identical hot girls you could only tell apart by their hair color fighting over a less than photogenic red-headed boy that barely deserved either of them.

With that, I slowly started to explore the comic book world. I looked at the comic book sections in bookstores and libraries more closely. I was even brave enough to find comic book shops and face down the intimidating nerd man-cave vibe. Turns the people in these stores were mostly perfectly friendly and didn’t angrily challenge me with obscure trivia facts as soon as I walked in the door. Even if there were less than friendly people, I’d had the experience of growing up a girl and eventual woman on the internet, where I’d gotten used to angry nerds typing out vitriol they’d never spew in person. I could handle the comic book shop, it turned out, although visiting one now poses such a threat to my wallet I still try not to go too often.

Now I’m reading loads of comic books, ranging from the artsy memoir kind like Persepolis and Mausto the outlandish and fantastical, like The Wicked and The Divine or Fables. I read some superhero stuff, but honestly not too much. The super hero comic industry has a habit of treating artists, writers, and their visions as disposable, taking in and kicking out people to best serve what they see as the superhero’s image. So many artists through the ages covering one hero can create an interesting variety, but I more often stick to series written by one author. Like traditional novel series, I feel this practice allows writers and artists to create a fuller story and world. That’s just my personal taste though, and like I said I’m not against exploring DC’s New 52 or perhaps some Deadpool and Ms. Marvel from Marvel comics.

I’m a grown up and a comic book nerd, and I encourage others to try following in my path. The comic book as a medium has a huge variety of genres to explore, and a quality that would shock people around for the comic’s original pulp fiction roots. All your favorite movies are coming from comic books. If you give the real thing a try, you’ll find out Hollywood is, as usual, holding back. There’s loads of brilliant books and series that Hollywood is missing out by not exploring. Don’t make the same mistake. Feel free to check out any of the series I’ve name dropped here, unless maybe you are twelve or younger. Then ask your parents first. This stuff can be pretty grown up.

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Better Know a Crazy Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft

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A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have no reason, no grounds to be standing up for your rights. They might say you are crazy. You might start to feel crazy, even, at your darkest moments, but don’t despair. There have been people speaking their mind, living their “crazy” values and being called unstable way further back in history than you might think at first.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a hardcore feminist before feminists with even the most mildly muscle-toned cores would be accepted by society to any degree. Wollstonecraft was born in England in 1759 and died in 1797, when she was only 38. Yes, an 18th century feminist. It’s a rough gig, by all accounts.

Wollstonecraft was a prolific writer who published many pieces on civil rights, especially as they pertain to women. Her most famous work,  is required reading in just about any course on feminist literature, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It featured such audacious and outlandish arguments such as “Hey guys, women and men are equal beings. We should really make some changes in the social order to reflect that.” Wollstonecraft was really taking a long shot there, especially with that last part. As intelligent and talented a writer she was, it would take a long time before people would even believe the first part of her claim, that women are equal to men. Her audience was getting revved up on the cries of freedom and liberty that started the French and American Revolutions, but no one was ready to get that crazy.

Wollstonecraft lived a dramatic, somewhat tragic life. She started her career of sticking up for her sex at a young age, when she would attempt to protect her sisters and mother from her abusive father who drained the family finances until Wollstonecraft and her sisters had little to nothing to inherit when they came of age, leaving young Mary and the rest of her family  with a difficult future.

When she grew older, Wollstonecraft tried to open a school with her close, well-off friend Fanny Blood. When Fanny tragically died, she had to close the school and take up work as a governess while continuing her own writing. Much of her work concerned getting girls better educations and doing away with the frustratingly limited career options poor women had in her time. She wrote about the hardships she lived, meaning her work was as passionate and filled with experience as it was rhetorically exacting.

After her time as a governess, she went to France during the Revolution, before it got all bloody and guillotine-y. She fell in love with and had an affair with an American explorer, Gilbert Imlay. She became pregnant with his child, but he left her before the kid was even born. Yeah, classy guy. Wollstonecraft did not do too well trying to live as a single, unmarried new mother in the middle of an increasingly blood thirsty French Revolution for some reason. She got so desperate she attempted suicide, but was prevented. She went back to England eventually, and pretended she was married to the jerk explorer guy so her kid, Fanny, (after her friend,) wouldn’t be considered “illegitimate.”

Of course, when she hit it off with and eventually married radical thinker and early anarchist William Godwin, people realized that she was never married before and they dropped out of the couple’s social circle really fast. Still, the two were a power couple, each radical mind fueling the ideas of the other, and the match was made in heaven.

Unfortunately, Mary Wollstonecraft was not destined to enjoy that relationship for too long. She died giving birth to their first child, a daughter they named Mary, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. (Yeah, they gave her both their names. Do I need to remind you that this was in 1797?!) This Mary would go on to achieve writing fame in her own right. In fact,  while Mary Wollstonecraft is not that well known beyond feminist theory circles today, just about anyone will know her daughter. Technically, they know this Mary by her married name, Mary Shelley. Yes, that Mary Shelley.

So living the life of a radical feminist in 18th century Europe can be hard, but Wollstonecraft proved that it’s a life that can be very fruitfully lived. You might be going through some hard times of your own right now, or in the near future. You might be wondering if you have what it takes to stand for what you believe in. Just remember, you’re not alone. The ghosts of a thousand “crazy” idealists that lived in a time when their ideas fell on mostly deaf ears are behind you, Mary Wollstonecraft among them.

Romantic Poems for Romantic Occasions

Finally, Valentine’s Day is almost here. No, I’m not awaiting a lovely romantic evening with someone special. I enjoy Valentine’s Day because, like any excuse to get romantic, it means people will start to pretend they care about something I actually enjoy; poetry. Specifically, we’re talking about love poems. Around Valentine’s Day, people start to look for ways to make grand romantic gestures. Books of love poems are great for that. They’re like a whole bunch of Hallmark cards stapled together, but with even more oomph. You could also just pick a poem from a collection of romantic poetry and memorize to recite to your beloved.

Here’s the thing though, bookstores usually have a relatively small selection of poetry, and as such they only ever seem to offer the same limited selection of romantic poetry collections, three of them by my count. I’ll give you a break down here of what those varieties are and which are good for what kind of romantic fool you claim to be.

First, there’s the Romance Poetry anthology. That’s specifically an anthology of poets from the Romance movement in 19th century Europe, not just a collection of poems that are considered “romantic.” Byron’s “She Walks  in Beauty” will be in there for sure, as well as a smattering of poems by Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth. There may be a few others, but these are the names you will recognize, and the pillars of this poetic pantheon that are almost always included in any collection of that era. These are the poets you had to read in high school. So yes, there is the risk of inducing high school English terror flashbacks, but don’t count this type of collection completely out.

Romance poetry is perfect for the romantic who loves a refined, old fashioned air. These verses are usually as flowery and cherub-ridden as the art and architecture created around that time. If you secretly wish that those flouncy ascot scarf things were still in fashion and think maybe you could’ve put up with wearing a corset for the right flouncy dress, then this is the love potion for you. Also, for those who actually enjoyed high school English, these poems could be a pleasant reminder of better times, and their first foray into poetry.

Next, we have something more modern The love poems of Pablo Neruda are always a big hit. Neruda, born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, was a Chilean poet who could write quite passionately and beautifully about love. He wrote just as passionately about other things as well, and you will probably find larger collections of his work that include a wider variety of his poetic tastes, but publishers just love a good Neruda love poem collection. Any collection you find in English is a translation, as Neruda composed all his works in Spanish. In many cases, and this isn’t uncommon for poetry translations, the poem in its original Spanish is printed next to an English translation. I, like many others, have mixed feelings about translated poetry. Rhyme and meter are difficult to translate without altering the original poem’s exact phrasing, and poetry also relies heavily on a precise use of language.

Still, there are many well-translated collections of Neruda out there, as he is so popular. Or perhaps you are a part of the sizable population of Americans that can speak Spanish. That works great too. Neruda’s poems are for people who might find Romance era poetry to old and stuffy. His language is far more modern and dynamic, and his form is less rigid. He still shows great poetic skill, of course. His poetry is for the wilder, more passionate romantic.

Finally, we have a blast from waaay back in the past. This poet hails from much further back than the 19th century, but that, somewhat oddly, hasn’t hindered his recent growth in popularity in Western cultures. Rumi, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī or Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, is a 13th century Sufi Muslim poet of the Persian Empire. Confused? Well, Rumi was always a highly respected master of philosophy, theology and poetry back in his homeland. Nations like Iran and other places that emerged from the Persian empire can point to the distinct influence Rumi had on their classical poetry and music.  As far as I can tell, the relatively recent boom of Rumi’s popularity in the US probably came from that tendency of disillusioned Westerners to go off and seek wisdom from Eastern gurus and masters, for that extra spicy, exotic enlightenment they just can’t get from reading Shakespeare for the billionth time in a row.

I personally enjoy reading Rumi’s poems. They are two centuries older than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those poems that you might remember from high school as being very hard to read and definitely not in any English language you recognized, so his poems do have to be a bit updated in their translation. Modern English translations have a smooth, readable pace to them. I’d say they’re for the philosophical, pondering sort of romantic. As with Neruda, you will find more general collections of poems, but his love poetry is very popular. His sentiments are generally quite timeless, and ironically he sounds a whole lot less stuffy than Romance poets that technically come much later than him.

There you have it, an in depth run down of what’s likely the bulk of your nearest bookstore’s romantic poetry selection. I generalize, of course, but I defy you to walk into a bookstore, find the usually well-hidden single shelf of poetry they have and tell me I’m wrong. Hopefully you’re now one step closer to making the perfect Valentines Day for your loved one.

Why Must the Good Dogs Die?

I’ve always been a dog person. I love ’em; walking them, cuddling them, reblogging cute pictures of them, and so of course I love reading about them, or I would. You might’ve noticed when your grade school teacher made you read Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows; books about dogs tend to kill off their main protagonist before the end. Heck, A Dog’s Purpose, the recent movie that was of course based on a book, features the same dog soul dying several times. It gets reincarnated of course, but we’re still left reading a book that kills multiple lovely doggies that we are made to fall in love with. MULTIPLE DOGGOS PEOPLE. I will not stand for it.

Sometimes though, I just need a good book about a dog. Books from the point of view of dogs are some of my favorites, because nonhuman narrators are always interesting when they are done well, and inside a dog’s mind is usually a fun place to be. That’s one of the reasons why I read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Someone recommended it to me a while ago and I finally got around to deciding I’d read it. The plot summary said the book was about a dog learning a lot from his human’s difficult life as a race car driver. Well, no reincarnations mentioned there, and they didn’t make it sound like the human had a great time, but hey. I’m worried about dogs having a bad time in my books, not people. Every other book I read is horrible stuff happening to people. It doesn’t phase me. Dogs though, dogs I care about.

Of course, The Art of Racing in the Rain opens on the main dog character talking about how he’s old, can’t walk, and knows he’s gonna die soon. The story technically encompasses the dog’s whole life with his human family, and that beginning point is just a starting point for that whole flashback to start, but c’mon! I should’ve known better than trust a dog book, I know. This one just straight up sucker punches me in the gut the minute I open it. Bam! Dog is dying right up in your face! I suppose you could view it as a warning that the story will end with a dead dog too, and I suppose in that way it’s just trying to tell me to get ready, but you know what else is an option? Not killing the dog at all!

We all know we’re going to die. Literature loves to remind us of that fact too, of course, but not every human protagonist’s story is defined by their eventual death. Why do so many classic and modern dog book hits involve the dog’s eventual death?

Drawing on my own experience, I know that when my first childhood dog died, it was emotionally  devastating for me. It was the first time I came to truly understand that all my loved ones, including the humans, are mortal and will die. Those half a dozen or so pet fish I killed did not have the same impact at all. I’m sure lots of people could say they had a similar experience, lots of writers, perhaps. I suppose I get the urge to want to write about that feeling, that first understanding, that microcosm of mortality. I understand, but that doesn’t make these books hurt any less.

Dogs just generally seem pretty good at getting to the meaning of life, living simply and for the most important, joyful parts. More books could be written about the lives of these zen masters. I never enjoy the part where they get to dying, but in the end that’s just a part of life, and you still have to do it and do it well. Maybe it is only fair dogs show us how to do this too.