Wearing the Cape is a Great New Book Series


At the beginning of the year, Fr. Roderick Vonhögen of SQPN in his podcast “Geekpriest” recommended a new ebook he’d picked up on Amazon called “Wearing the Cape – The Beginning”. It was a free Kindle book that gave the reader the first 13 chapters gratis, enough to pull you into the story and spend a few bucks on the whole thing.

That first book was quickly followed by more in the series, “Bite Me: Big Easy Nights”, “Villains, Inc.” and two I haven’t read yet, “Young Sentinels” and the short story “Omega Nights”.

The premise is unique. At some point in the near future, an Event occurs that causes humanity to begin changing in apparently random occurrences called “breakthroughs”. When confronted with a life-threatening or similarly supercritical situation, someone who’s prone to breakthrough (and there’s no way to know ahead of time if they are) will suddenly begin exhibiting some type of superpower, usually related in some way to form that the situation took shape and to their own personality and experiences. In other words, if the person were caught in a fire, they could become someone who controls fire or someone who controls water, the antithesis of fire, or who can freeze things, the antithesis of heat. And these powers can take many forms, including those that are impossible under the laws of nature as we know them and thus people don’t just become Superman or the Flash, but can become magicians or witches or vampires of werewolves or even Tony Stark-ish inventors of impossible-to-duplicate technology.

The author, Marion G. Harmon, has spent quite a bit of time on his world-building–a quality I appreciate in authors of science fiction and fantasy–and so you see how breakthroughs vary by country of origin, by culture, or by outlook. Those raised on a steady diet of American comic books become superheroes, “capes” in the parlance of the books. Or they become supervillains. Or supersoldiers. In other countries they take on different forms and become warlords or spiritual masters.

What really draws me into these books is the self-awareness of these characters. The people of this world know that the breakthroughs have brought comic books and literature to life. Imagine if wizards à la Harry Potter could suddenly exist alongside Batman and James Bond superspies and immortal Highlanders. What would that do to those people? How would it change how they go about their lives? How would it affect how ordinary people live theirs? For one example, in the real world, a musclebound bruiser can rest assured that he’s usually more powerful than some rail-thin pipsqueak. But in the world of the “capes”, that pipsqueak could have superstrength hidden inside.

And so these breakthroughs cause all kinds of changes in the world. Law enforcement and the justice system has to figure out how to deal with criminals caught by what amount to non-police citizens. Every country suddenly bulked up with super-powered soldiers now has the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction at their disposal. Even the Church would have to figure out the theological implications and in fact, Harmon hints at some impressive knowledge of how the Church works as he writes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gets involved in many cases and that the pope wrote an encyclical on the breakthrough phenomenon. (I wish I could read that!)

Harmon may not go into as much obsessive detail in his world-building as S.M. Stirling does, but it’s still very impressive. There’s so much detail, in fact, so many breakthroughs, that I wish there were an illustrated guidebook to keep them all straight as I read the stories.

As for the stories themselves, they mostly focus on one young woman, Hope, who experiences a breakthrough just as she’s about to head off for college. (See the parallelism there?) We follow along with her as she figures out to reconcile her new powers with her now jeopardized plans for her life. Will she become a “cape”, someone who makes it their profession to be a crimefighting superhero? Will she keep a secret identity or be like others who live their life in the public eye, a new kind of celebrity for the media to gawk at and exploit.

I’m not a young woman and never was one so I can’t say for certain whether Harmon does a good job of characterization. I like Hope and she’s at least as substantial as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. I will say that Harmon is a bit better writer of action than he is of the relationships in Hope’s life, especially those of her small social circle of girlfriends, who come off feeling a bit vague.

I mentioned that the second book in the series is called “Bite Me: Big Easy Nights”. While the other books focus on Hope as our protagonist, this book focuses instead on Jackie, who starts as a secondary character in “Wearing the Cape”. She’s a young woman whose breakthrough turned her into a vampire. Another interesting element of the breakthrough phenomenon is that not only are the superpowers gained based on the individual’s own experiences and personality, they also experience the limitations they would envision as well. Thus a “Superman”-like superhero would have a kryptonite that could harm him. And anyone who becomes a vampire is subject to the restrictions they believe vampires would live under: being harmed by sunlight, aversion to garlic. For those who watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they would be restricted from being able enter a space without being invited. But since Jacky wasn’t your typical vampire breakthrough, i.e. not someone who fantasized about it or read a lot of Anne Rice, she wasn’t bound by many of the usual restrictions.

Where “Wearing the Cape” feels like an exploration of the superhero comic come to life, “Bite Me” feels likes an exploration of monster movies come to life.[1] Jackie encounters Anne Rice-style vampires, Buffy-style vamps, werewolves, redneck monster hunters, and even voodoo practitioners. She also encounters a priest, one of a couple of Catholic priests who play important supporting roles in the story, yet more examples of the Catholic faith showing up.

In fact, I would say the books show the imagination of a man with Christian sensibilities. The books contain no salaciousness, no gratuity of sex. The main characters act downright chaste so far.

One final point: the books were apparently self-published as e-books. That’s not intended as knock on them or an apology for inferior work. These books are as good as and better than many books I’ve purchased from mainstream publishers. They’re an example that the era of independent self-published authors is at hand. It also shows that good marketing techniques work. If Harmon hadn’t offered the first 13 chapters as a free ebook teaser, I’d never have discovered the series. And as a self-publishing author, Harmon is also close to his fans, as one can see from his own website called appropriately enough WearingtheCape.com.

My bottom line is that this is a fun series of books with a thought-provoking premise, enjoyable plots, likable characters, and world I’ve like to visit. I would also say that these books are as good as any of those by J.K. Rowling and deserve a wider audience. Happily it appears future installments in the Capeverse are on the way.

N.B. Despite introducing her to the stories after I started them, Melanie finished them first and her reviews are here and here.

  1. One note about “Bite Me”: At one point Harmon introduces a ghost whose presence seems tangential to the story, yet the protagonist makes plans to come back and investigate further. Yet she never does! It doesn’t affect the overall story, but it’s a bit maddening. As Anton Chekhov said, if you introduce a gun in the first act, then in the second act it should be fired. I wish he’d fired the pistol and paid off on that narrative bit or just left it out.  ↩

Book Review: St. Peter’s Bones, by Thomas J. Craughwell

The chapel in St. Peter's right above Peter's tomb
The chapel in St. Peter’s right above Peter’s tomb

It must be the fact that I was 12 years old when “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out, but it might also be that I’ve been a National Geographic magazine subscriber since about the same time, but I’ve always been a sucker for archaeology stories, especially those related to a fantastic treasure.

The relics of St. Peter, the first pope, aren’t the usual type of treasure in the sense of gold and jewels, but it is a treasure to the faithful. For 2,000 years tradition has held that the giant Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City in Rome was built above his final resting place, but for most of that time nobody really knew for sure. That is, until an excavation begun in the Grottoes underneath the basilica in the late 1930s uncovered a Roman necropolis.

In his new book “St. Peter’s Bones”, Thomas Craughwell provides a popular re-telling of the tale of the dig and what was found. It’s full of the usual intrigues, personal foibles, politics, faith, and unbelievable happenstance. But along the way, we don’t just learn how Pope Pius XII set in motion one of the great Christian archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, we also learn much more about the Church throughout the ages. We learn about St. Peter himself, how he came to Rome, and how he died there. The ancient burial practices of Romans, Christians, and others are explained. Myths about ancient Christian ways are exploded.

We see how the history of Christianity revolves around veneration of the places connected to Christ, Peter and the Apostles, and the early martyrs, including the catacombs of Rome and other excavations.

But it’s the main story that is most compelling. We start with four clerics tasked with the job of excavating by Pope Pius. Ironically, they were told to stay away from the the expected location of the tomb of St. Peter when they started, but as they discovered more and more of the necropolis, including evidence of Christian burials around the time of Christ and clear references to Peter, they were able to start digging toward the first Pope’s burial spot, which tradition had said was beneath the high altar, such that if you could drop a plumb line from Michelangelo’s dome, down through the high altar, down through the ground, it would land right in the middle of his burial spot. And, spoiler alert!, that’s where he was.

Of course, we didn’t know any of that because of a quirk of ecclesial politics. The digs were overseen by another priest, not one of the archeologists, but the one responsible for all of St. Peter’s Basilica. His main concern was that the remains of Christians being dug up by the explorers be respected and so every night he went to the digs with a workman and carefully gathered up all the remains they found and placed them in a storage area. So one night, they went into a newly opened space, one that the archeologists hadn’t explored yet, and removed a set of bones. Off they went to storages for years and years before they were brought out again and it wasn’t until decades had passed that enough evidence had been amassed to declare these the bones of St. Peter!

In his efforts to provide due respect, the poor priest had shoved the first Pope’s holy relics in a box in a storeroom where they were nearly lost.

There’s a lot of other great information in there as well, including how grafitti played a major role in identifying the remains as St. Peter’s. Just imagine! What we would call vandalism today was key to saving this location for us 2,000 years ago.

If I had any quibbles about the book, it was that it could do with some illustrations and maps. But there are some good resources online that helped, including an unofficial site dedicated to St. Peter’s Basilica that has some maps, illustrations, and photos of the Scavi (as the excavations are called); an entry on a blog that goes into great detail, including information on and illustrations of the previous churches built on the site; and Kathy Schiffer’s post from last fall about the exposition of the relics by the Vatican to end the Year of Faith.

By the way, Fr. Chip Hines and I interviewed the author, Thomas Craughwell, on our radio show The Good Catholic Life, a couple of weeks ago and you can listen an audio recording of the 1-hour-long interview.

Reading The Hobbit to My Children

The Hobbit

I first read The Hobbit when I was a wee lad of just 10 or 11 years old. I’d found it on my mother’s bedside table and when I asked her if I could read, she said sure. That was a lifechanging decision. (That’s the actual book in the photo there.)

As I’ve chronicled before, I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings more times than I can count. I do know I read LOTR at least 16 times in high school.[1] That pace has slowed in my adult years, but I’m still crazy about Professor Tolkien’s[2] works, making my way through The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and the The History of Middle Earth, the last being a 12-volume series containing the Professor’s complete writings on the topic.

I’ve always known that I would one day read the stories to my own children and I have eagerly awaited the chance. Perhaps too eagerly at times as I tried to read The Hobbit to Isabella when she was 3 or 4. Too soon. Melanie introduced them to The Chronicles of Narnia, which Bella particularly has taken to in a big way, listening to them over and over again as audiobooks after Melanie refused to read them aloud a third time. But Tolkien is mine to give them.

Over this Christmas vacation break, after having steeped myself in Peter Jackson’s movies of The Hobbit, I decided now was the right time for them and for me. Since most chapter book reading in our house occurs in the afternoons, it’s usually Melanie who reads to them[3] so having me read a chapter book was a novelty.

It’s been fun so far, watching them get caught up in it. They all gather around and while the boys flit in and out of the room, Isabella and Sophia stay right near me the whole time. They were fascinated by the introduction of the dwarves in Bag End, not to mention the “Blunt the knives” song which delighted them. They were apprehensive about the trolls, although the funny Cockney accent I gave them, defused some of the tension. Rivendell and the Elves had their predictable charms (including the silly songs they sang, so unlike Jackson’s stiff depiction of the Elves), while Goblin-town and the Riddles in the Dark brought back the tension in spades, as they kept asking me if Bilbo was going to make it out of the mountain and whether he would ever see the dwarves again.

Reading the Hobbit
Reading the Hobbit on my Kindle to Bella and Anthony

Oh yes, they’re hooked. And I’m having fun too. It’s been so long since I’ve read The Hobbit, I’d forgotten what a quick read it is and how unlike LOTR, not to mention the movies.[4] Frankly, I’m not sure the movies would have been improved by staying closer to their source material. They’d be so different from the LOTR movies that casual fans would have been put off I think.

In a related matter, I’ve been wondering if I should show them glimpses of certain scenes from the movies, like the “Blunt the Knives” song, but I’ve decided against it. I want them to experience the books as books first and then once they’ve assimilated them in that form, some day show them the films. That will be a long time from now, though, as I’m sure Bella wouldn’t be able to handle the visuals and not anytime soon.

Anyway, now that I’m going back to work after my vacation, we’ll have to find regular time to finish our book. After that, well, I think LOTR is still a few years in our future. That’s a darker, more intense book that I think will be suited for pre-teen Isabella and Sophia.

  1. It wasn’t the only thing I read. I was a voracious reader and was known to devour 4 or 5 books per week.  ↩
  2. Oh, and happy birthday to the Professor, born on this day in 1892.  ↩
  3. Of course, we also do reading at bedtime, but of necessity those are shorter stories and books or we’d be up all night.  ↩
  4. I’m also intrigued by how Tolkien breaks all the rules of English, combining strings of adverbs, misusing words, using double negatives. As they say, you have to become a Master before you’re allowed to break the rules, because you must break them in a deliberate way for a specific end, not just because you’re lazy or ignorant about them.  ↩

The Hobbit and Peter Jackson’s compromises

The Hobbit

The Hobbit

I’ve been watching the DVD extras on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey during this Christmas break and it’s been fascinating. It’s a great glimpse into both the incredible attention to detail and the reasoning behind the compromises made by Peter Jackson and the other filmmakers. I’ve heard a lot of complaining from Tolkien fans online about the liberties taken with Tolkien’s work, especially in the second and most recent installment of the three Jackson movies, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (which I saw just before Christmas).

Some of those liberties come from the practical limitations of filmmaking. For example, in the book Thorin is an old dwarf with a long, grey beard that he forks and tucks in his belt. But in the movie, he is a relatively young prince with a short, black beard. Jackson explains that in order to match the approximate age of Thorin in an actor, he’d have to find someone in their 70s, or 60s at the youngest. But while dwarves only get tougher and more fierce as warriors as they age, an elderly actor would never be able to keep up the grueling pace of acting and stage-fighting and running about in full kit and prosthetics. You’d kill the man. The young man they did get could barely keep up himself. As for the beard, well, it covered up the character too much and didn’t distinguish him enough from the other dwarves. From a visual standpoint, the character of Thorin needed to be seen by the audience as he acted and let the character he played come out in his real face.

Meanwhile, other compromises come purely out of the desire and need to tell a story to a modern movie audience. As Tolkien fans, what we want is for the book we have known and loved to spring forth to life before our eyes, just as the Professor wrote it down, unsullied. But that just isn’t going to happen. A prime example of this in action comes from The Return of the King. In the book–and the movie–the end of the story comes in several stages. The first ending comes as Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor and comes into his own. In any other movie, that would be the natural end. But then we see the return of the four hobbits to the Shire and that should be the end. Wait, there’s more! By the time the hobbits have arrived at the Grey Havens, the teenagers sitting behind me in the theater were groaning and wondering how long this was going to get dragged out.

As a Tolkien fanatic, I was in heaven. The more you can give me of what I remember from the books, the better. That’s why those extended-edition DVDs sell so well: because they cater to those ultra-fans who are willing to sit through material that couldn’t be put in the general theatrical release. But for these average movie-goers, the triple ending of ROTK was all too much and absent the context of the books’ larger narrative, all a bit mysterious as to why it was included. And thus the filmmakers are constantly making decisions about what not to include in the films that was in the books, and perhaps more controversially, what to include that wasn’t in the books.

It may seem like a dumb question, but I shocked myself a bit by asking it today: Why do we, the fans, want to see a big-screen adaptation of our favorite novel, in all its exacting details, just as we read it and formed it in our imaginations? “Because then it’s real,” we might say, but is it? No matter how faithfully the director tries to hew to the written word, it can’t be what you or I or the author, even if he’s living and standing next to the director every moment on the set, can have imagined. The filmmaker can only give you what his imagination sees, his interpretation. Even then, as I said above, he’s limited by the realities of budget, technology, time, natural law, and the taste of the moviegoing public.

Going deeper though, why should we want this, for our books to become films? Why aren’t the books themselves good enough? We have become a culture of mediated entertainment. Through TV and movies, we have become accustomed to having our imaginations side-stepped and spoon-fed whatever play can be presented to us. Don’t get me wrong: I love good TV shows and movies. But we should be aware as we consume the entertainment presented to us that it isn’t the same as books. Books are a partnership between author and reader. The author has his vision, which he conveys through the words, and the reader takes those words into himself, melds it with his own experience and vision and context to create a story in his own mind that is uniquely his.

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out a decade ago, many people, including myself, loved it. But there were some good Christians of my acquaintance who said they weren’t interested, perhaps especially because of how realistic it was said to be. “I have no desire for Mel Gibson’s vision of the Stations of the Cross and the Passion of Jesus Christ to replace the one I have in my own mind,” they said. It’s a fair point and one to keep in mind as we see our beloved works of fiction adapted to the screen. When we watch a movie or TV show, we are letting that vision supplant any we may have already had. Even now, having seen five of Peter Jackson’s movies set in Middle-earth, I can see how his imagining of the world has become the model for how I see it in my own mind, how I think about hobbits and dwarves and elves[1] and Rivendell and Minas Tirith and Erebor and Smaug and all the rest.

Peter Jackson has done a great job bringing Tolkien’s books to life and the power of those works is such that despite whatever Jackson’s intent, the spiritual mythopoeic power of the eucatastrophe whose ideal and form are found in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I don’t know that lesser works fare as well in the transition to film or that another director would not have altered the Tolkien corpus so as to lose that connection. We’ve been a bit lucky in that regard.

So while I’m interested in seeing the films made of adaptations of favored books, I do so knowing the consequences and the reality that they will never give me the same kind of joy that the books did. That’s okay for me. I think many people don’t see it the same way.

  1. Jackson’s elves are my least favorite of his imaginings, because they are all too effete and, as one wag said of Thranduil, had all the gravitas of a petulant hairdresser, when what Tolkien described were a race of perfected mankind, somewhat more spiritual and connected to the world beyond. Certainly not pointy-eared, long-haired, girly-men.  ↩

Amazon Kindle Matchbook is a great idea … in theory, so far


I think Amazon’s Kindle Matchbook program is a good idea. They now allow you to get Kindle versions of physical books you’ve purchased from them in the past or from now on for anywhere from free to $2.99. I love the idea of having some of my favorite books in ebook format so that I always have them with me. It’s great … in theory.

Unfortunately, the reality–at least right now– is lacking. You can sign in and get a list of your purchased books that qualify for the program, but of the hundreds (mayb thousands) of books I’ve bought from Amazon over the past nearly two decades, a grand total of 7 qualify to be matched. And only one of them is a reference book that I might refer back to, while the rest are novels I know I will never read again. (Although there are some novels I would love to get as ebooks.) On top of that, they’re all $1.99 except for the one reference book which is $2.99. That’s not a lot of money, except by definition I already own these books (or owned, since I’ve already given most of these away; like I said, not books I intended to read again.)

I suspect that the list of eligible books will grow over time as Amazon creates agreements with publishers and authors, but for now there’s nothing there for me.

Book Review: “A History of the World in Six Glasses”


I seem to be in a phase where I like books that show me the hidden life of the everyday things all around us, especially food and drink. A few years ago I read “Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany”, by Bill Buford, which started me on this quest, which was followed by several more books, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, by Michael Pollan. Most recently I read “The Search for God and Guinness”, by Stephen Mansfield.

Now, I’ve finished “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage, which connects the span of human history to 6 different beverages that affected history culturally, politically, anthropologically, nutritionally, and economically. The six, in rough order of their era of greatest influence, are beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, tea, and cola. More broadly, you could have called the book “A History of the World in Two Brain-Altering Chemicals: Alcohol and Caffeine.”

It is a fascinating look at how these drinks sometimes have been responsible for pivotal moments in history, causing one civilization to rise and another to fall. While human affairs are much more complicated than one factor can explain, we can’t deny that one of the reasons ancient tribes turned from peripatetic hunting-gathering to more stationary agriculture was the need to cultivate grains for beer, for instance.[1]

Most the drinks had origins–or at least early primary uses–in religious rituals, especially beer, wine, coffee, and tea. Whiskey and cola, which were much more modern inventions were just consumer products. Eventually, all of them made the leap to common use. What made them significant was their eventual ubiquity, even if at first they were reserved to the elites.

There were also some very interesting anecdotes, such as the story of how coffee came to Europe from the Middle East. Some theologians rejected it as a Muslim invention, thus of the devil, while others embraced. So a decision had to be made.

Shortly before his death in 1605, Pope Clement VIII was asked to state the Catholic church’s position on coffee. At the time, the drink was a novelty little known in Europe except among botanists and medical men, including those at the University of Padua, a leading center for medical research. Coffee’s religious opponents argued that coffee was evil: They contended that since Muslims were unable to drink wine, the holy drink of Christians, the devil had punished them with coffee instead. But the pope had the final say. A Venetian merchant provided a small sample for inspection, and Clement decided to taste the new drink before making his decision. The story goes that he was so enchanted by its taste and aroma that he approved its consumption by Christians.

Other sources claim he said: “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” True or not, I will be sure to thank Pope Clement VIII and pray for him every day over my morning cup of joe.

Another interesting tidbit concerned the importance of tea to the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th and 19th century. As labor became less about individual craftsmen and more about unskilled workers who could maintain machines in monotonous repitition over long hours, tea and tea breaks helped them to remain alert and concentrate. Likewise, even as the factory workers were gathering together in closer working and living conditions, waterborne illnesses became almost extinct, not just due to the boiling of water for tea, but for the phenolic acids–the tannins–in the tea itself.

Infants benefited too, since the antibacterial phenolics in tea pass easily into the breast milk of nursing mothers. This lowered infant mortality and provided a large labor pool just as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

In fact, every one of the six drinks was considered for both their positive and negative effects on society. Coffee led to 16th-century coffeehouses that were the locus of the Scientific Revolution that led to the Enlightenment, democracy, free-market economics, and more. The Chinese stranglehold on tea production and insistence on Westerners buying it with silver, not trading it for Western goods, led to the creation of the opium trade from India that eventually destabilized China in the 19th century, which last through the 20th century until the rise of Communism.

While these six beverages can’t be said to have caused the most important and decisive moments of history, they often played significant roles in moments that caused the course of history to go in one direction and not the other. If not for the wine it exported, would Greece have risen to a great culture that brought us philosophy and so much else?Without tea or rum/whiskey, would Great Britain have become the empire on whose flag the sun never sets? Maybe, maybe in a different form or in a different time, but undoubtedly different.

“A History of the World in Six Glasses” was a fun and quick read that makes me want to delve more into the various individual elements it presents. Which is the best kind of book, isn’t it?

  1. Standage points out that of course the grains were also used for bread too, but bread and beer were nearly interchangeable in most places, two phases of cooking of the same product. Beer was “liquid bread” and bread was “solid beer.”  ↩

Entitled to a good story or just the ending?


Apparently there was this funny moment at the San Diego Comic-Con this past week involving the author George R.R. Martin, author of “Song of Ice and Fire”, the novels on which the HBO series “Game of Thrones” is based. He took part in a stunt in which he crashed a concert by the YouTube duo Paul & Storm, while they were singing their song “Write Like the Wind (George R.R. Martin)”, in which they comedically encourage him to write his epic series of novels faster than he has, at one point referring him to as a “great bearded glacier” and pointing out that Shakespeare wrote 35 plays in the time’s he written his (still incomplete) saga.

The video of the song:

The video of the Comic-Con stunt:

You’ll notice that the author Neil Gaiman comes out and forces an apology from the performers in the form of, if you’ll excuse the language, “George R.R. Martin is not our bitch.”

That particular phrase is Gaiman’s involvement in all this. It’s from a 2009 response to a Martin fan complaining about Martin’s glacial pace in producing new novels, where Gaiman pointed out that “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch. … People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.” He went on to explain how the writing process works and that a reader buying a book does not create a contract, explicit or implied, with the author in any way, shape, or form.

It seems to me that there are a lot of entitled attitudes these days among many kinds of fans, whether they be fans of novels, TV shows, movies, or even technology and gadgets. Many people act as if they have a right to have their every demand, every whim, every “need” answered. I bought your music on iTunes and so you, the artist, should feel compelled to answer my Tweet or sign my autograph. You, the TV actor, writer, or producer must answer all the questions that have arisen in the course of your show before the end of the season, or God forbid, the series.

I’m beginning to realize that there are many people out there, maybe even most, who don’t care about seeing or reading a good story, if they could just find out whodunnit or whatever the Big Reveal at the end is right now. There are plenty of websites out there dedicated to revealing the “spoilers” to movies and TV shows. When I once complained on Facebook about people revealing spoilers of shows that aired that evening, not taking into account the many people who watch stuff on DVR the next night, I was taken to the woodshed for being so presumptuous. I want to discuss the death of that particular character NOW.

LOST in the story

I think this is why Melanie and I loved LOST so much, even the ending, and why so many didn’t. For one thing, we never expected to get the answer to every question that had been raised, every loophole that had been opened, every thread left dangling. We’d been listening to the official podcast with the showrunners, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, all along and we knew that it wasn’t going to happen.

But even if we’d not listened, we’d still have been okay with the end, because we both agree that our interest in LOST was never about the answers to the big questions. Sure, it would be nice to get it wrapped up in a nice bow, but that was never the point.

As the old saying goes, it’s the journey, not the destination, that really matters. We want to know the stories of the characters and see them grow and experience the unfolding. The telling of the story, in all its rich tapestry and artful turn of phrase and enchanting beats and colorful descriptions and clever dialogue, is what matters. But a lot of people just want to get to the end. What’s the Smoke Monster? Does Bilbo kill the dragon? Who ends up as king on the throne of swords? Is Bruce Willis really a ghost in Sixth Sense?

And when the story doesn’t deliver the neat, packaged answers or when the author takes his time crafting the story he wants to tell, the readers and viewers get angry and disappointed.

We’re a society that doesn’t want to wait for anything anymore. Fast food isn’t fast enough. Never mind the 30-second commercials during our TV shows; the 15-second pre-roll ad on the YouTube video drives us crazy. There’s an acronym you see online all the time now: TL;DR. It means “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” You see that in response to YouTube comments, for crying out loud!

So people like poor Gareth, the Martin fan, obsessively hits refresh on his web browser, reloading his favorite author’s blog over and over, demanding to know why he’s out tending his garden or visiting friends, when he should be home pounding out another novel, dammit, and never mind crafting art, just tell me what I want to know right now so I can tell the author that the series dropped off in quality, but at least he finally wrapped up all the loose threads.

Are we heading to a future of 150-page pulp fiction novels churned out by a factory of ghost writers on a monthly schedule so no one ever need wait for their fix? Is the soap opera to be the model of storytelling in the future, where we’re spoon fed a little bit more of the answers to the questions that crop up, as implausible as they all are, each day, just enough to keep us coming back no matter how banal and stupid the stories actually are?

And is anyone still reading this long tome or did everyone sign off after the videos above with a reflexive TL;DR?

Why I don’t like comic books

I have to come clean. I don’t like comic books. I tried. I really did, but I had to give up.

Let’s start at the beginning. When I was a kid, I loved comic books. What boy didn’t? I liked Superman and Archie and Richie Rich. I wasn’t a superhero-snob. I loved all kinds of comics. At one time I had a box of comics that stood two-feet tall and I would dig through it regularly reading and re-reading.

For some reason that bothered my mom. Maybe she thought I should be reading real books instead. (Maybe she’ll chime in here in the comments.) In any case, one day they were gone. I remember being devastated, but after awhile I got over it and I never picked up the habit again.

Part of the reason probably had to do with the lack of a convenient place to buy them and little money to buy them with. Back then they were pretty cheap, but even so what little money I had usually went to, yup, real books.

Fast forward a few decades. Sometime in my 30s, around the end of the first dot-com boom, it seemed like comics got big again and this time they weren’t just for kids. There were these “graphic novels” for adults because they had sex and violence, but also regular comics too, mainstream superheros and alternative anti-heros and all that. From my outsider’s point of view there was a comic renaissance, but I still didn’t get back into them, I think still because they were not convenient to buy. By this time, I was buying all my reading material at Amazon and places that sold comic books were not on my regular list of places to visit.[1]

But another big reason was that I hate jumping into the middle of stories, especially complicated story lines. I always feel like I’m missing something or trying to catch up. And all the comic books I would think about reading were like that.

Fast forward to two years ago. I had just got an iPad and was reading as much on it as I could, most Kindle books, but a few magazines as well. I’d heard about the Comixology app for iPad, which is a sort of bookstore and comic book reader, and I thought it was a cool idea. Then I heard about The New 52.

DC Comics’ was relaunching all 52 of its major superhero comic book lines, starting over completely from Issue #1[2] and rebooting the story lines from scratch. This was perfect! I could go back to reading my favorite superheros and not have to feel like I need to catch up on 30 years worth of missed storylines. Best of all, the first issues of the relaunch would be free to download. Like crack, your first hit is free.

So I downloaded Comixology to my iPad and then started downloading my favorite superhero comics. But then I ran into the first difficulty: Which “favorites”? For instance, there isn’t just one Superman comic, there’s at least two: “Superman” and “Action Comics”. The latter, it turns out, mainly concerns when he was just starting out, but I was never certain the story lines overlapped. Batman is even worse. There’s “Batman”, “The Dark Knight”, “Detective Comics”, “Batman and Robin”, “Legends of the Dark Knight”, “Batman and Red Robin”, and so on. Then there are the spin-offs: “Robin”, “Nightwing”, Batgirl“, ”Supergirl“, ”Smallville“. And then the crossovers like ”Justice League”, where the superheros are creating new story arcs interacting with each. And even though it’s a re-boot, there’s still a history I’m missing to explain, for example, all of Batman’s sidekicks.

But I gamely tried to get into it. I reasoned that many guys my age who I respected for their taste were comic book aficionados and I should try it too. So I started with a handful of series: “Superman” and “Action Comics”, of course as Superman was always my favorite. Also, “Batman”, “The Dark Knight”, and “Detective Comics”. “The Flash” because he was always my second-favorite as a kid because, you know, running so fast. And then “Justice League” to round it out because I thought it would give me a taste of other superheros like Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman.

I kept at it for a while, almost a year in fact. Each month, I’d buy and download another handful of comics. And even though I usually waited until they were being offered for below cover price, it was still a little expensive. I was downloading at least 7 different lines per month and by end I’d added a couple more. Twenty dollars may not be a lot to some, but it’s not nothing to me.

More importantly, I realized I wasn’t enjoying it like I’d hoped. I was putting in the time to read each issue, but I wasn’t getting out of it what everyone else seemed to. Each issue was so short that it felt like the storylines advanced at glacial paces. And even where they did advance I’d forget after a month what happened and have to go back and read to understand what’s going on in the new issue. Then add the complexity of three completely separate storylines for the same character, Batman (were they in alternate universes? I never figured it out), and I was lost.

And the comic stories themselves were unsatisfying. Maybe I’m more of a word person and less for pictures. I don’t spend time on each panel, but glance at the image to get context and then the words to get the story and move on. Perhaps, the fault lies not in the comics, but in ourselves. I’ll grant that.

Yet after a year of trying I realized it was time to cut bait and admit that comic books aren’t for me anymore. Which I kind of regret because in a way I’m letting go of a piece of my childhood. And I would have loved someday to share an interest in, say, Superman or Spiderman, with my own kids, which I admit could still happen. Nevertheless, right now, I admit defeat. I’ll stick to my novel-length ebooks and leave the comic books to their fans and just hope that this admission doesn’t mean the permanent revocation of my Geek status.

  1. There was the one place in Salem that sold cigars and comic books, among others things, but my disposable income went to cigars in those days.  ↩
  2. Some lines had kept their continuous numbering since the 1930s.  ↩

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Melanie and I took advantage of having her mom with us and not yet having a newborn baby to go to the movies, something we don’t ever get to do. I think the last movie we saw in a theater was the Star Trek reboot in 2009. So this time, we went to the matinée of The Hobbit in IMAX 3D at the local theater.

To put my remarks in perspective, I will point you to the photo accompanying this post. It’s a photo of a 36-year-old copy of The Hobbit. When I was eight, I saw it sitting on my mother’s bedside nighttable and picked it up, thus changing my life from that moment. Over the next two decades I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings several dozen times, as well as The Silmarillion, the 12-volume Histories of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, the Children of Hurin, etc. I am a devourer of Tolkien’s literary opus magnus on Middle Earth. Not only that, but the book also launched me on a lifelong love of the genre, which admittedly has resulted in plenty of not-so-good imitators and very few almost-as-good novels.

So when I say I approach this film differently from many movie fans, that’s what I mean. The obvious question is whether I liked the movie. Having heard so many disappointed reviews I was braced for the worst, but I did recognize going in that those who I knew were Tolkien fans like me had given it high marks.

First, I know I sound like an old man, but when did movies get so loud? Right from the first trailer, I actually had to hold one hand over an ear at times. Second, while I enjoyed the IMAX 3D experience, Melanie did not and made me promise for the second and third movies that there would be no 3D. She said it makes it seem blurry to her.

As for the movie itself, I liked it. I thought the addition of the material from appendices was a good move. In a sense the director Peter Jackson isn’t making The Hobbit, per se. He’s making a movie that fills in the gaps in the story of the War of the Ring at the End of the Third Age that the first three movies did not tell. I’m okay with that.

I saw some didn’t like the more playful elements, like the Dwarves throwing the dishes at Bilbo’s home or the Goblin King’s too-humanness or Radagast’s oddities or the three trolls’ vaudevillian act. All those scenes are true to Tolkien’s original story and in fact, in some cases I think Jackson could have gone further. I genuinely missed Bilbo’s tricking the trolls with the different voices, not to mention their names: Tom, Bert, and William. But he also changed the substance of the scene, where the book has Bilbo getting entangled with the trolls because he wants to prove himself as the burglar he was hired to be.

Of course, being a big-budget blockbuster, there has to be plenty of action, a lot more than the book offered. Melanie counted at least six literal cliffhanger scenes (someone actually clinging to a cliff) and a whole lot more pitched battles. I suppose I also accept the presence of Azog the Orc. I can see the filmmaker’s need–where the novelist had none–to have an antagonist to thread throughout the story against our protagonists. As others have pointed out, the book is very episodic and not a continuous story, like The Lord of the Rings. You can tell it was composed as a series of bedtime tales that thread together. Thus Jackson needed something to unite all the episodes across three movies. I think this method will do.

If I were to be a strict adherent to Tolkien, I would be more disturbed by the places that diverged from the book, especially where such divergence didn’t seem necessary for the medium. But that’s not me. I can appreciate the movie on its own terms and as a creative work separate but related to Tolkien’s, a sibling artwork, if you will.

Finally, I’ll leave you with these final thoughts. Every time I saw a sweeping vista or the framing of an iconic place in the story, whether it was Hobbiton or the Misty Mountains or Erebor, I was caught up in the joy of seeing it for real. Of course, I know intellectually that it’s not really Middle Earth, but some location in New Zealand. And yet, it also seems real. As a boy, I lived in Middle Earth in some sense, or it inhabited me. I pored over those books and over every map and companion guide I could get my hands on. I knew every corner of the place. And now here before me in glorious IMAX those places have come to life. In that theater, I felt the old yearning I had as a boy to be there, to go there and back again, if you will. And perhaps it’s The Hobbit’s ability to elicit that fundamental response in me that let’s this fan boy say, I really, really liked this movie.

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