Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Death of the Author

In my college literary theory class, we read an article by French theorist Roland Barthes entitled “Death of the Author”. Barthes argues that when analyzing any literary work, critics must separate the text from its author’s identity in order to achieve true interpretation. Basically, the moment the author relinquishes their work to the public eye, he or she dies a symbolic death while the text lives on; this way its analysis is unhampered by the reader’s assumption of the author’s intentions.  
Years later, this concept still haunts me. As a reader I see its value, but as a writer I bristle at the idea of my metaphorical death. And not just any death, but death at the hand of my own work. A classic tale of creation killing its creator, it conjures images of Frankenstein, tormented by his monster until his eventual demise.
Or perhaps it’s the reader who commits murder, rather than a piece of text. I’m positive there’s an Oedipal analogy in there somewhere. The reader, Oedipus, loves his mother, the text, and kills his father, the author. Freud would approve.
Regardless, I find this concept disturbing. Barthes’ work demonstrates the characteristics of a homicidal maniac, let loose on unsuspecting authors world-wide.  I’d question what traumatic events from his childhood influenced this essay, but that would violate his edict to “kill the author”. Either way, I’m keeping my manuscript away from sharp objects. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Insightful Ages of Comic Books

Though I always thought comic books were a bit of trivial fun, I’ve since realized that, like all good art and literature, they delve much deeper into human psychology. Comic books are a reflection and response to the political and social times they developed in. As society changes, their content changes. In order to best define and categorize the transformations in comic books over time, critics divide them into FOUR major “ages” (though some would argue it’s really seven). They are:

1.  The Golden Age of Comic Books:
The golden age lasted from 1938, with the first publication of Superman in Action Comics #1, until 1950. During this time writers and artists developed the very first superheroes. DC Comics flourished with publications like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash, while Timely Comics, Marvel's predecessor, responded with the Human Torch and Captain America.   

With World War II, comic books became extremely popular due to their cheap, entertaining tales depicting good triumphing over evil. But more than that, the war shaped the face of comics; they often reflected war-time themes and occasionally acted as war propaganda, with recognizable heroes battling Adolf Hitler or Japanese soldiers. During this time, the concept of the “superhero” became permanently defined and developed as the center of comic book story lines.  Larger than life, they became a symbol of virtue and morality for Americans desperate for something heroic to cling to during turbulent times.

2.  The Silver Age of Comic Books:
After the war finished, comic books suffered a decline in popularity. To stay in business, creators shifted focus from superheroes to tales of horror or romance. However, in 1954, renowned psychologist Dr. Fredric Werthham published Seduction of the Innocent, discussing links between teenage delinquencies and comic books. As a response, comic publishers executed the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to regulate subject matter.

With the creation of the CCA, as well as political movements like McCarthyism and the 1950’s focus on morality and ethics, comic book content altered greatly. During the Silver Age, which lasted from 1956 to 1970, subjects shifted away from the graphic horror scenes they covered post-war back to heroism and noble principles. Creators that remain household names today rose to the forefront, including Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Beginning with The Flash in DC’s Showcase #4 (1956), they modernized and revamped older heroes like Green Lantern, The Flash and Captain America, causing the second resurgence in superhero interest.

3.  The Bronze Age of Comic Books:
The Bronze Age lasted from 1970 to 1985 (though some debate surrounds the end date). During this time, comic books became much darker, beginning in 1971 when Stan Lee published an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in the direct face of CCA disapproval. Following his lead, other publishers opted to do the same. Plots turned darker and more mature, with heroes facing real-world issues like drug use and alcoholism.  

We can see how the darker comic book trends of the 70’s and 80’s reflect social cynicism following the Vietnam War, Cold War and the Nixon scandals. And with 1973 came the dawn a new type of hero – the ‘anti-hero’. Anti-heroes, like their earlier counterparts, perform valiant deeds and protect the public from dangerous criminals; however, their motives are anything but pure, their actions dangerous and questionable, and often motivated by vengeance rather than justice. Wolverine and The Punisher remain two of the most popular and recognizable anti-heroes.

4.  The Modern Age of Comic Books:
The Modern Age began in the mid-1980s and lasts all the way through present day. Like the Gold Age, it reflects changes in society both internally and externally. For example, on par with war themes from the 40’s, technological advancement makes its way into today’s comic books with both heroes and villains using the newest computers and electronics. But beyond that, just as WWII created a surge in comic book print media because of their cheap, easy production, now advances in computer graphics and technology allow heroes and villains to step off the page and into other media like movies, television, computer games, and digital or webcomics.

As traditional publishers Marvel and DC commercialized, independent publishers, like Dark Horse, rose up. With their boom in the film industry, comic books attracted new celebrity writers like Frank Miller, Joss Whedon, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Writers realized that comic books and superheroes are an excellent outlet for social commentary. In The Dark Knight, Batman fights corruption in the political systems. In Iron Man, Tony Stark battles corporate greed and experiments with alternative energy sources though his arc reactor. And the X-Men comics and movies show the problems we face with suppression of political rights for minority groups.

Additionally, characters developed even darker and more psychologically complex, with the anti-hero as the standard model. A shift towards emotional realism occurred where, rather than using their extraordinary abilities on a quest for good, heroes fought crime out of a deep psychological need to destroy criminals. Like their Bronze Age counterparts, these anti-heroes reflect a general disillusionment within society.

From the earliest paragons of heroism to modern anti-heroes, comic books reflect and highlight the social and political climates they’re produced in, and remain an excellent lens to view social changes and the American public state of mind. As both a history and English major, I find this a fascinating discovery and resolve to pay more attention to the surfeit of superhero movies releasing in the next two years.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Completed...But Not Finished

Today I completed the first draft of my novel, The Evil Overlord Society’s Guide to Becoming an Evil Overlord (yes, the title’s a mouthful). For those not already subjected to my many late night emails with plot changes or villain name debates, and therefore unaware of the premise, it’s a parody of a real how-to guide – in this case, how to become an evil overlord. Like many of my blog posts, it involves comic books heroes, super-villains and plots for world domination.

Though I couldn’t be more thrilled to finally see the entire thing on paper (or computer as it were), the idea of editing it overwhelms me. It’s akin to the anxiety I dealt with starting the first chapter. Over abundance of adverbs, passive voice…I’ve got it all.

However, I read something interesting in a blog post by Chuck Sambuchino, editor of The Guide to Literary Agents. New author Rebecca Serle posits “You don’t write a book. You write a sentence and then a paragraph and then a page and then a chapter”, sage advice I’d have appreciated last year when beginning my manuscript. But perhaps this philosophy works the same way with editing. I’m not revising a complete novel, but a page, and then a chapter. And then another chapter, until it’s finished. Still a challenging project, but not quite as defeating.

Luckily I have a wonderful support system to help me in this daunting task. A few sarcastic friends not afraid to point out spelling errors and plot holes. My mother, an incredible writer herself. And The Houston Writer’s Guild – a group of aspiring authors who meet once a week to help each other with editing and general writing catastrophes. Special shout out to Terry Lee-Rosing and Julie Tuovi Hansen, not only great friends but fantastic writers. Check out their blogs!

In short, thanks to everyone for all your help support, and if you don’t see much of me for the next few weeks, someone make sure my novel didn’t murder me in my sleep….

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Nature of Superheroes

A new recruit to comic book geekdom, I recently spent some time familiarizing myself with the genre. I figured heroes were just people running around in costumes, beating up on bad guys. Turns out, there's a lot more to it. While I could probably write an entire thesis on the subject (possibly throwing in some more pretentious literary theory and critical analysis), the most important thing to understand is this:

There are three kinds of superheroes – those who are born, those who are made, and those who become. For those that haven't spent time researching the topic, here’s the breakdown...

1.  Born Superheroes:
The first type of superhero involves those born with special abilities. They often come from other places, sympathizing with humanity despite their differences, and selflessly use their powers to protect the human race. The most common, and perhaps most celebrated example is Superman. Born Kal-El from planet Krypton, his abilities include super-strength and speed, flight and invulnerability. Like many heroes from this category, “Superman” is his true persona, human alias Clark Kent his disguise. Wonder Woman, the Amazonian princess, Thor, member of the Asgard race, and all the X-Men mutants also belong to this category.

Though I don’t discount their good deeds, I typically enjoy reading about this type of hero least. Some call Superman the best of his kind, but I find a hero defeated by one whiff of green kryptonite slightly overrated.

Exception: The X-Men are perhaps my favorite comic book series, and not included in my disinclination for “born” superheroes. Though gifted with powers upon birth, they share more in common with “made” superheroes. Born on earth, rather than aliens from a foreign land, they’re more human than others in this category, suffering in a society that detests their differences. 

2.  Made Superheroes:
The second category depicts regular human beings who become superheroes after their DNA is altered in some way. Peter Parker for example, bitten by a radioactive spider and given his “spidy” sense. Or Bruce Banner, hit with a high dose of gamma radiation and transformed into The Hulk. Even the Fantastic Four team, altered by cosmic rays. These characters deal with a whole host of problems as they grapple with the aftereffect of their transformation, from the loss of their old lives to their new roles as superheroes. Though often resentful of their obligation to protect humanity, they nevertheless follow the sage wisdom of Peter’s Uncle Ben (“With great power, comes great responsibility”) and continue defending mankind.

As previously mentioned, I much prefer “made” superheroes to “born”. Having my own fears of radiation and cosmic rays (they say the ozone layer’s disintegrating right? It could happen), I find their struggle more interesting and easier to identify with. Like going through puberty, radioactive mutation is never easy.

3. Becoming a Superhero:
The third and final category covers humans with no powers or magic abilities, but become superheroes by turning their own strengths into superpowers. The two most recognizable are Iron Man and Batman – Batman uses his financial situation and desire for justice/vengeance to drive him to heroism, while Iron Man utilizes his incredible cunning.

Personally I find this the most interesting type of superhero. First, because they must overcome their human weakness in order to rise as superheroes. And second because if I were to become a superhero, this is how I’d accomplish it. Step 1 – get rich. Step 2 – use my superbrain to invent a special suit that allows me to fly. Step 3 – find a few bad guys and kick butt. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Hemingway Challenge

For a bet, Ernest Hemingway once wrote a story in only six words:
“For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

He manages to tell a heartbreaking tale in the shortest amount of space possible. Some say this was his favorite piece. Having read of his six-word triumph, Wired magazine asked several sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers to do the same. Here are a few of the best:
“Automobile warranty expires. So does engine.”
- Stan Lee
“Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved.”
- Margaret Atwood
“Leia: ‘Baby's yours.’ Luke: ‘Bad news…’”
- Steven Meretzky
“Epitaph: Foolish humans, never escaped Earth.”
- Vernor Vinge
“Lie detector eyeglasses perfected: Civilization collapses.”
- Richard Powers
“The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.”
- Orson Scott Card
“Batman Sues Batsignal: Demands Trademark Royalties.”
- Cory Doctorow
“Heaven falls. Details at eleven.”
- Robert Jordan
“Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.”
- David Brin
And my personal favorite:
“Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.”
- Joss Whedon

As the type of writer who often uses ten words where five would do – making revisions long and challenging, I often wonder how some writers manage to be so succinct. But reading these six-word stories, I’m amazed at how much you can say with so little. From Atwood’s commentary on modern celebrity to Whedon’s brilliant evocation of Anne Boleyn style-death, these ‘very short stories’ prove that less is not only more, it’s plenty . 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Houston Writer's Conference 2011

If I needed to envision my happiest memory to summon a patronus, I'd think of the Houston Writer’s Conference.  The first I’ve attended, I spend weeks preparing for it. Terror overwhelmed me every time I thought about meeting literary agents and editors, but much to my surprise, rather than the sharks I expected, I met professionals that offered nothing but encouragement.

At dinner the first night of the conference, my friends from the Houston Writer's Guild and I  sat across from a certain editor/author of How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack: Defend Yourself When the Lawn Warriors Rise Up (And They Will), a book I stumbled across several months ago while researching The Garden Gnome Liberation Movement (think Amélie). Never would I have imagined the crucial role my love of Michael Biehn, The Princess Bride and garden gnomes would play in my networking capabilities. 

Over the course of the weekend, I learned a lot about the long and arduous process a writer goes through publishing their novel. I left the conference with contrasting emotions – terror that I’ll never get my novel published, thus destroying my life’s dream and months of hard (and payless) work, and joy at my first contacts in the publishing industry.

Though it may be years before my novel sees the light of day, this was without a doubt the best moment in my writing career thus far. A special thanks to my friends from the Writer’s Guild for helping me hold it together, Nikki Loftin for sharing her struggle to get her novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, published, and all the agents and editors I met for their generous comments and guidance. 

A Guide to Recognizing Your Apocalypses

For everyone who’s watched movies about aliens, dinosaurs, or vampires and thought to themselves ‘what if this really happened?’, here’s a list of your five common apocalypses to prepare for and the guides most appropriate for preparation.

1. Computers/Machines:

Perhaps the most likely apocalypse, one should always be wary of modern technology. As countless movies and novels warn us, given too much power, computers are nothing if not capable of becoming self aware and exterminating us with our own weapons. The best defense is acute suspicion – beware of how much power you give your electronics. And in the event that our government makes the mistake of trusting computers with sensitive information capable of destroying mankind – as I suspect they will - the following are essential for preparation:
- Terminator
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day
- iRobot
- The Matrix
- Battlestar Galactica
- Transformers (Decepticons, not Autobots)
- Eagle Eye

2. Vampires/Werewolves:

Vampires and werewolves, also called Lycanthropes, are one of the most deadly threats to humanity. They’re often depicted in conflict with one another, as well as the human race. Occasionally seen as benevolent (like Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), they’re by no means a friend to mankind. Should a strain of either species break out, it’s better to be prepared with stakes, crossbows, silver bullets, crucifixes and holy water than to fall back on the unlikely chance that beneath their terrifying exterior lies a mortal soul. In the event that you spent last decade living under a rock, and therefore unaware of what it takes to defeat these immortals, the best guides include:
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- The Underworld films
- The Blade series (both film and Marvel comic)
- John Carpenter’s Vampires
- Daybreakers
- Bram Stoker's Dracula
- Dracula 2000
- The Wolf Man
- Van Helsing (not a personal favorite, but worthy of mention)
- Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles

- Note: Despite their popularity, the Twilight novels are NOT appropriate reading material when preparing to face vampires or werewolves in an end of the world showdown. However, if you’re looking for a guide on how to become involved in a love triangle consisting of a member of each, let Meyers be your guide. Similar guides for forming romantic attachments with vampires include the television shows True Blood and Moonlight. On the other hand, J. K. Rowling gives some exceptional advice for potions to help werewolves become more human-friendly.

3. Zombies:
A popular motif in horror films, the zombie apocalypse has become a recent pop culture favorite – perhaps influenced by recent outbreaks of the swine flu and mad cow diseases, etc. Furthermore, between germs, overcrowding, genetic testing, and questionable fast food products, a healthy fear of zombies seems more and more reasonable. Unlike vampires or machines, which use seduction techniques or a cold and calculating intelligent design to kill, zombies are usually depicted as mindless, though no less threatening. Beware, or they might turn you into a “human happy meal” faster than you can say “ahhhhh”.- Zombieland
- 28 Days Later
- The Zombie Survival Guide
- Dawn of the Dead
- Night of the Living Dead
- Note: Zombieland suggests several rules for surviving in a post-zombie apocalypse world. I stipulate these rules are useful when facing all manner of apocalyptic horrors.

4. Aliens:
Considering the vastness of space, it’s naïve to assume that we’re alone in the universe; however, let me be clear. There is every possibility that aliens from outer space really are peaceful creatures with no intention of harming us (such as ET, the alien hotties from the show Roswell). And as much as I regret promoting an us/them, kill-the-aliens mindset, I still entertain the possibility that there could, one day, be an invasion where aliens wipe us out in order to take over the planet, steal our natural resources, etc. My general pessimism and phobias therefore insist that I prepare should such an event arise. So, guides to be used ONLY on vicious killer aliens and non-ET type personnel are:- Independence Day
- War of the World
- Alien
- Aliens
- Stargate SG1
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- Men in Black
- Battle: Los Angeles

5. Prehistoric Creatures/Dragons:

Though one of the less common and therefore less feared apocalypses, it should still be on your radar. Though we believe dragons non-existent and dinosaurs extinct, one should never underestimate how far modern science has come. They say birds, chickens and some species of frogs share common DNA with dinosaurs – and isn’t that something to keep you up a night? Better safe than sorry I say, so no matter how unlikely, the next time you have nothing to do on a Sunday evening, take a quick look at a few of the following:
- Jurassic Park (novels and films)
- Reign of Fire
- How to Train Your Dragon
- Godzilla

Disclaimer: There are many other novels, films and TV shows not mentioned in this article that are of the genre but not appropriate for battle preparations.