Prevailing wisdom among people who study pre-teen reading habits is that girls will read books about boys, but boys are less likely to read books about girls.
Maybe this is changing because of the success of “The Hunger Games,” with a strong female lead whose exploits in three bestselling books are a hit with not only the YA crowd, but adults as well.
I’ve always been an exception to the boys-not-reading-about-girls rule, myself. One of my earliest literary adventures was “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” with spunky Dorothy traveling down “the road of yellow brick,” encountering eccentric companions and showing off her silver slippers to good effect. (Her route became “the yellow brick road” and her footwear turned ruby only in the MGM movie.) I’ve read the book more than a dozen times, and Judy Garland was one of my first big-screen crushes, even if she was too old to play Dorothy.
Recently, I had a chance to revisit another childhood favorite with a female protagonist: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, newly reprinted in two handsome hardbacks by the Library of America.
These books hold a special place in my heart. When I was a new student at Washington Elementary School in 1976, my second-grade teacher, Melva Jean Watson, read aloud from “Little House on the Prairie” almost every day. Something about the Ingalls family leaving Wisconsin and heading West in a covered wagon struck a chord with me, even if my own migration from Middlebranch to Washington Township in the backseat of a car wasn’t much by comparison.
I am still impressed by the family’s moxy. Laura’s father, referred to mostly as Pa, decides the woods of Wisconsin — immortalized in the first book of the series, “Little House in the Big Woods” — are becoming too crowded. “Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an ax which was not Pa’s ax, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun,” writes Wilder, who refers to herself in the third person. “The path that went by the little house had become a road.”
Those all sound like good reasons to stay in Wisconsin, not leave it, but nobody has ever accused me of having an overabundance of pioneer spirit.
In the books, little Laura and her sisters often take a backseat to the story of their parents, and Laura’s main occupation is to observe the ways of pioneer families. Not surprisingly for people who lived for — and by — the harvest, the books are filled with food, much more than I remember from age 8. (Maybe Mrs. Watson omitted some parts.)
The Ingalls’ attic in Wisconsin is a veritable produce stand: “The large, round, colored pumpkins made beautiful chairs and tables. The red peppers and the onions dangled overhead. The hams and the venison hung in their paper wrappings, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.”
In “Farmer Boy,” which tells the boyhood story of Ingall’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, in New York, mealtime is almost sensuous. “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed …”
All that’s missing is a cigarette afterward.
Nearly every page of the Little House books is filled with industrious people planting, nurturing, harvesting, storing, slaughtering and building for winter. It’s impressive, especially to a reader whose winter preparations involve nothing more than covering the air-conditioning unit with a tarp and buying a new ice scraper for the car.
Wilder’s characters have fun too, going to the occasional dance and inviting extended family to visit at the holidays, but mostly they work.
One of my favorite sequences in the books, however, has nothing to do with harvests or dances. Later in “Farmer Boy,” Almanzo’s teacher drives a group of disruptive students out of his classroom using an ox-whip. Taking the biblical injunction to spare the rod and spoil the child almost literally, the teacher thrashes the students, jerking them off their feet, tearing their clothes and bloodying their bodies.
Maybe it was my imagination, but I always thought Mrs. Watson read that section with even more vim and vigor than the other chapters.
It’s always nice to revisit old friends, and even nicer to find out that they are more companionable than you remember. So it is with the Little House books. While these new editions omit the classic illustrations by Garth Williams, they are hardly missed. Laura Ingalls Wilder still holds me in thrall with stories of pioneer pluck and an almost-vanished lifestyle that appeal to either gender and all ages.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published April 25, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
A woman talked dirty to me the other night.
I woke out of a dead sleep and heard it: A sensuous female voice, saying things a true lady would never say, and saying them loudly. Passionately, even.
Then I realized that my wife had fallen asleep while listening to a book and that one of her earbuds had slipped out and landed on my pillow. The voice wasn’t talking to me, it was narrating a novel, one that sounded like a cross between “Deep Throat” (not the Watergate Deep Throat but the other one) and the restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally.”
The book is “Fifty Shades Darker,” the sequel to best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, that’s about … that. By “that” I mean that, the indoor sport where most Americans earn a letter, the practice responsible for our very lives, the one used to sell us everything from soft drinks to sports cars, but the act we have trouble talking about with our kids and that we like to leave on the backburner of national dialogue unless it involves celebrities behaving badly.
It’s what Shakespeare calls the beast with two backs, and what “The Newlywed Game” calls making whoopie. Procreation.
I’ve not read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and I probably won’t, even though my spouse was so scarred by the first installment that she could hardly wait to start the second. I imagine if she’s sufficiently traumatized there, the only cure will be book three, “Fifty Leagues Under the Smutty Sea” or whatever it’s called.
I’m not staying away because I fear being scandalized. I’m a high school teacher, for heaven’s sake. After years of absorbing pieces of teenage gossip in the hallways, it takes the moral equivalent of an atomic bomb to shake my foundations.
No, I’m not reading because, based on what my wife tells me, the portion I heard summarizes the entire series so far, and I have better things to do than read the same scene over and over. There’s grass to watch grow, belly button lint to collect and too many other books to read.
I’m also not reading because I likely would spend the entire time pouting that somebody other than me capitalized on such a simple concept. James began her literary career as Snowqueens Icedragon, writing “Twilight” fan fiction online. At some point, she changed her lusty hero and heroine from vampires to regular, albeit kinky, folks and started marketing to the masses.
Now the author is like a McDonald’s sign: billions and billions served. What are the royalties on 18 bazillion copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” anyway? Her annual income probably dwarfs that of some smaller European nations.
But ultimately I won’t be reading because I’d hate for anybody to see me with the books. This country’s Puritanical streak, which condones violence (an unnatural act) while suppressing sex (a natural act), is alive and well, and I’m as affected as anybody.
While the U.S. gives lip service to negative effects of violence, we aren’t that upset by it. Violent video games, movies and television are a fact of life. Stick a parental advisory label on it and we’re good to go.
Sexual content is another matter, however. Most of us have sex.
We’re surrounded by it in advertising and marketing. But the act itself is still frowned upon and considered dirty, more so for women than for men.
This split-personality is alive and well in politics, too. Consider those brave, conservative men in elected office who support the continuation of the military-industrial complex and then vote to restrict women’s reproductive rights. How else but by a double-standard do you explain Michigan lawmakers, who last month barred Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking during debate over an anti-abortion bill after she had the temerity to use a medically approved term for part of her own anatomy?
By comparison, maybe it’s not so bad that I don’t want to be seen with a silly book. It’s a hang-up that runs deep in my family, apparently.
To wit: Last week, the movie my parents, my wife and I wanted to see was sold out. After my father and I dropped the women off at the door and parked the car, they conspired to buy tickets for “Magic Mike,” a racy comedy about male strippers that leaves little to the imagination.
After the final credits rolled, Mom was alarmed that I had already posted my thoughts on Twitter. “Maybe you could not mention that I was with you?” she asked, sounding a lot like a person who might enjoy listening to “Fifty Shades of Grey” anonymously through headphones in the dead of night.
Don’t worry, Mom. Your secret’s safe with me.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published July 12, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
Some writers, artists and musicians make an indelible first impression, so that we remember exactly where we were, who we were with and what we were doing when we first encountered their work.
Others, however, are more subtle — creators who seem always to have been a part of the DNA of our imagination, whose stories or films or songs have taken root and sprouted seeds in our conscious and subconscious minds.
That’s how I feel about Ray Bradbury, the noted fantasy writer (I won’t say “science-fiction,” although much of his work is billed as such because he chose to pepper his stories with rocket ships and alien worlds), who gave us the gifts of “Fahrenheit 451,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Dandelion Wine,” to name only a few.
Oh, I suppose if I thought about it long enough, I could remember where his work and my life first intersected. It might have been in junior high, when I discovered his wonderfully creepy “Emissary” in a magazine at a school book fair. It’s the story of a sick boy, his loyal dog and a sympathetic teacher who visits his bedside. When the teacher dies suddenly, the dog goes digging in the graveyard to fulfill his master’s wish to see her again.
The story is a paean to youth, a melancholy reflection on innocence lost (why DO people have to die?) and a flesh-crawling exercise in terror, all perfectly realized in a few short pages.
But was that before or after I read “The Martian Chronicles,” the book of short stories that inspired a television mini-series? Or before I discovered the time-travel classic “Sound of Thunder” adapted as a comic book?
I don’t know. Bradbury has always just been there, timeless and seemingly immortal, a Mount Vesuvius of creativity who could be counted on to erupt every few years with another collection of stories or essays.
Beyond the work, however, there was Bradbury himself, consummate fan of the fantastic and ardent supporter of reconnecting with one’s inner child, a muse to whom he attributed all his success.
“When it is a long damp November in my soul,” Bradbury wrote, paraphrasing Melville, “and I think too much and perceive too little, I know it is high time to get back to that boy with the tennis shoes, the high fevers, the multitudinous joys, and the terrible nightmares. I’m not sure where he leaves off and I start. But I’m proud of the tandem team.”
Bradbury was an unapologetic believer that life should be about joy, that if something vexed you, it wasn’t worth your time, but that if something inspired you, you should pursue it with all your mind and heart. He is sometimes criticized as treacly and simple because this theme recurs in much of his work, but truly, I’m hard pressed to think of a better recipe for happiness.
As a teacher, I came to an additional respect for Bradbury because his stories and pronouncements never failed to ignite response. Students scoffed at his contention that he remembered his own birth and circumcision. We had to research eidetic memory to learn the phenomenon was real, although many remained unconvinced of Bradbury’s claim.
But by far the biggest reaction came from “Fahrenheit 451,” the prophetic novel of book-burning and censorship that is second to only “1984″ as the consummate dystopian fiction. A few years ago, we were listening as a class to the novel on cassette when we realized the tape had characters spouting the occasional “damn” or “hell,” while the printed page did not.
“How ironic,” remarked one student. “They censored ‘Fahrenheit 451.’”
Indeed they had, something Bradbury himself was unaware of for many years, until other students (not mine!) made him aware of the changes. In a 1979 coda to the novel, he proudly announced that the book was being reset, “with all the damns and hells back in place.”
Elsewhere in the same piece, Bradbury offered my favorite anti-censorship quote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
Bradbury died last week at the age of 91. His passing reminded me of one final quote, from an appreciation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, that Bradbury wrote in 1975:
“I went home to Mars often when I was eleven and twelve and every year since, and the astronauts with me, as far as the Moon to start … Because of (Burroughs) and men like him, one day in the next five centuries, we will commute forever, we will go away…
“And never come back.
“And so live forever.”
Mr. Bradbury, thanks for the memories, and have a nice trip.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on June 14, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.
The above words are from the first chapter of “A Princess of Mars,” which purports to be the memoirs of one John Carter, a Confederate soldier and uncle of fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Carter’s adventures on our solar system’s fourth planet, which we call Mars but which its inhabitants call “Barsoom,” arrive on the big screen Friday courtesy of Disney Studios, but they were first chronicled in a series of stories that Burroughs began 100 years ago.
I first encountered John Carter in the pages of some Canaveral Press hardbacks that I borrowed from the Marlington Middle School library in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There, I revelled in Carter’s adventures with the savage, green-skinned Tharks, fierce warriors with four arms; thrilled to his attempts to save the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris from the clutches of her many enemies; and fantasized about sharing Carter’s super-strength, a byproduct of gravitational differences between Earth and Mars.
I don’t remember much of what I learned in class during my misspent youth, but I’ve never forgotten those novels.
In retrospect, I was the perfect age to discover Burroughs. I had outgrown L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and wasn’t yet ready for the more violent adventures of Robert E. Howard’s Conan or the more intellectual rigors of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”
Burroughs was a good stopgap. His authorial stance that Carter was his real-life relative added a layer of reality and made me another in a long line of boys (including noted fantasy writers Ray Bradbury and Michael Moorcock) who stood outside on warm spring nights, staring up at what we imagined was Mars and, like Carter, tried to send ourselves there through the power of our mind and astral projection.
Never mind what science taught about the inhospitable nature of Mars; the real Mars was the arid landscapes, dry canals and swashbuckling action that Burroughs sketched through words in his novels.
After the 11 John Carter novels, I moved on to some of the author’s other creations, including stories of adventurer David Innes that took place in the Earth’s hollow center, dubbed Pellucidar by Burroughs; Carson Napier, who called Earth’s other neighbor astronomical neighbor, Venus, his home; and of course, Tarzan of the Apes, who stands beside Superman and Sherlock Holmes as one of the most recognizable fictional creations in the world.
Even the novel’s titles were promises of adventure: “The Warlord of Mars,” “At the Earth’s Core,” “The Wizard of Venus,” “The Beasts of Tarzan,” and dozens more. Burroughs, equal parts romanticist and entrepreneur, was nothing if not prolific, churning out titles that he sometimes dictated aloud and turning to self-publishing to keep a higher percentage of the profits.
Rereading “A Princess of Mars” and some of the other Martian novels today, I’m struck by the stilted dialogue, repetitive nature of the plots and often-purple prose. Nevertheless, I’m still carried away by the author’s take-no-prisoners narrative style, a hallmark of which is a sense that anything could happen at any time, on any page. Writers don’t stay in print so long without some connection to the reader: For Burroughs, that link is pure wish-fulfillment. No red-blooded American boy who reads these novels can put them down without wishing that he, too, could be John Carter.
To the uninitiated, “John Carter” the movie looks like a thin copy of “Star Wars” by way of “Avatar,” but those in the know recognize Burrough’s Barsoom adventures as the precursor to both franchises — and many others, as well.
(First published March 8, 2011 in The Alliance Review)
This week’s column:
Despite the convenience of watching movies at home, where we barricade ourselves in the privacy of our living rooms and subvert the filmmakers’ art by pausing for snack breaks and phone calls, I still enjoy going to the theater.
Maybe it’s only to remind myself that I know how to behave in a crowd and bemoan the fact that more people don’t. Maybe it’s the magic of hearing audiences gasp or laugh or cry in unison, transported for a magical few hours away from their own problems to become invested in the stories of larger-than-life fictional characters. Maybe it’s the decadent, buttery popcorn.
Regardless, from the first trailer I saw for “Contagion,” months before its release, I knew this was one movie I would be watching at home. The description on the back of the DVD box explains why: “When a lethal airborne virus with the power to wipe out humanity is unleashed, the worldwide medical community races to find a vaccine to stop the panic from spreading.”
I am a germaphobe who only gets along day to day by willfully denying knowledge of various micro-critters that inhabit every square inch of our environment. Countertops, hotel pillows, restaurant drink stations, door handles — you name it, germs have been there, done that.
I’m the kind of person who figures out how to open restroom doors with his elbows, who slides food and medicine under a closed door when his spouse gets the sniffles, who actually follows those crazy directions about washing hands in warm, soapy water for a full minute even when a gigantic patron in a cutoff T-shirt is tapping one steel-toed boot on the floor behind me.
A few years ago, I read Richard Preston’s “Hot Zone,” which relates the true story of pubic health officials’ attempts to circumvent a potentially lethal outbreak of Ebola virus. Unfortunately, I was on vacation at the time, so my poor family had to put up with my graphic descriptions of the horrors that Ebola could wreak on the human body, all while watching me turn doorknobs with napkins and question the cleanliness of condominium bedspreads. It was traumatic for all of us.
When I go to the movies, I am acutely aware that the seat where I choose to park myself has been occupied by thousands of people before me, and that many of my celluloid-watching predecessors have hygiene habits roughly equivalent to Old World rats. The plush headrest could have been last touched by somebody who slathers Vaseline on his scalp as a means of lice control; the cup holders could have been fondled by people who touch dead animals or who practice coprophagy (look it up); the seat itself could have cradled somebody whose terminally sagging pants allowed the cushion to come into contact with his underwear.
No way was I going to watch Gwyneth Paltrow — the modern-day Typhoid Mary in “Contagion” who sashays from Hong Kong to Chicago to Minneapolis, spreading a lethal virus she picks up from eating a contaminated pig — while sitting in a seat where other patrons hacked and coughed and wheezed and affixed their DNA-riddled gum to the underside of the armrest.
Instead, I sat next to my wife on the couch, who halfway through the movie started holding her stomach and complaining of chills. At first I thought she was just playing with me, but no, she was really sick. So, with a portable electric heater keeping her and her germs comfortable, warm and breeding, I watched as characters on the screen had symptoms remarkably similar to hers, except that they were dying by the thousands while she just kept flopping around on her end of the couch.
I pulled my shirt up over my mouth and persevered.
Twenty-four hours later, my wife felt well enough to watch the parts of the movie she had been too feverish to enjoy the first time, thereby reinforcing certain scenes in my already troubled mind.
Now I’m questioning if I will ever go to the movies again. If so, I may take along an old fitted sheet to cover the entire chair, something I can roll up — wearing disposable gloves, of course — and throw away on my way out.
And I may replace the decadent, buttery popcorn with something more healthy. Like Purell.
Books 10 Oct 2011 09:38 pm
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve stared for weeks at the Animal Farm cover above and saw only the blood smear behind the title. Then I realized it was in the shape of a pig.
This week’s column:
I spent last week reacquainting myself with Holden Caulfield.
Caulfield’s not always the best company. He swears a lot, sometimes shouts during conversations and asks pointed and embarrassing questions about sex. Still, he’s much more interesting than many of the “phonies” (as he calls them) at the various prep schools from which he’s been expelled.
One of Holden’s more riveting stories is about the night after he leaves Pencey Prep. Kicking around New York City instead of going home to face his parents, he decides to hire a prostitute. The girl’s name is Sunny, even though her disposition is anything but. By the time she arrives at his hotel room, Holden — a virgin — has changed his mind, but gives her the agreed upon $5 anyway. (In 1951, $5 went a long way.) The episode ends with Sunny’s pimp beating Holden to a pulp.
Holden and I met again in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye,” the novel of adolescent angst by J.D. Salinger that is sometimes said to be on every serial killer’s bookshelf. I doubt that’s true, but I also don’t doubt that many serial killers have read the book, if only because so many teens see the novel as a rite of passage, and serial killers were teens once too.
Salinger’s novel has been praised and reviled, analyzed and dismissed, and sometimes even pulled from library shelves and school curriculums. According to the American Library Association, the book is the second most banned and challenged classic, behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Teachers have been fired for teaching “Catcher,” protesters have called it “anti-white,” and charges such as “obscene,” “vulgar” and “unacceptable” have been leveled against it.
Beginning Saturday and running through Oct. 1, the ALA is celebrating Banned Books Week to call attention to our right, as citizens in a free society, to make our own decisions about “The Catcher in the Rye” and hundreds of other books that have offended someone, somewhere.
It’s a week to celebrate titles such as “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s story about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin into a loving home; “Crank,” a novel in poetic form about teenage drug addiction; and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is often singled out for racist language by readers who can’t discern the theme of equality at the novel’s core.
I’ve never understood why some people feel compelled to have books removed from libraries and schools. Parents certainly have the right to monitor what their children read, and they have a right to refuse their children access to any book they find unacceptable. What they don’t have the right to do is make such decisions unilaterally for an entire community and force their objections on other people’s children.
As an English teacher, I initiate this conversation with many of my classes. Most students agree that other people’s parents shouldn’t tell them what to read; we often part company, however, when it comes to their own parents telling them what they can read. I felt the same way when I was their age, and I was fortunate never to have adults who second-guessed my book choices. I, in turn, never objected to any of my daughter’s reading material. Other parents feel differently, and I respect that.
I also believe that you can never judge a book until you’ve read it, one of the reasons why I assign “The Catcher in the Rye” to my juniors, so that they can join in the debate. Some relate to Holden’s angst; some find him unbearably whiny. I never direct opinions either way, and their culminating assignment is to judge the book’s literary worth and legacy — to decide, in other words, if it’s worthy. What they decide is secondary to how they express themselves.
With apologies to Mark Twain, who said that a classic is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” my own definition is that a classic is a book with something to offend everybody.
I’m not sure if Twain’s definition or mine is right when it comes to “The Catcher in the Rye,” but personally, I always look forward to sitting and talking with Holden. If he were real, he’d take great pleasure in knowing that he still inspires controversy 52 years after first railing against “phonies,” talking loudly and holding up a mirror by which we can judge ourselves. That’s what literature does, and what most of the titles on the Banned Books list do better than most.
Books 15 Aug 2011 09:10 pm
My wife and I listened to Dean Koontz’s Relentless as we drove to and from Myrtle Beach last week. It wasn’t very good. Koontz has some winners on his resume (most notably, to me, the Odd Thomas series), but he seems to have lost his mojo. This book starts with a unique premise — an author who is tormented by a literary critic — and then jumps the rails and never recovers.
The protagonist, Cullen “Cubby” Greenwich, has his novel savaged by Shearman Waxx, a notoriously fickle critic who, to add insult to injury, gets so many plot points wrong in his review that Cubby doubts Waxx even read the book. Turns out Waxx is a psychopath, and after an odd incident where Cubby’s son almost urinates on the critic’s shoes in the bathroom of a local restaurant (I kid you not), Waxx makes the whole thing personal.
The biggest problem is that Koontz slips into farce territory fairly early in the story, and he can’t get out. Creating unique, compelling characters is one thing. Having the characters be so eccentric and bizarre that readers have difficulty relating them to real-life people is another. This book features a survivalist who looks (and, on the audio version we listened to, sounds) like Santa Claus, a demented hunchback, a heavily accented German-dominatrix type, a super-savvy dog, and a six-year-old boy genius whose inventions are cobbled together from video-game consoles and top-secret government parts that his grandfather procures. Any one of these would be enough to signal a break from reality (and in a thriller like this, you want to bend and stretch reality, but never break it); all of them together had my wife and I shaking our heads in disbelief.
I had the same problem with the third volume in Koontz’s Frankenstein series. The first two books were pulpy and fun; the third one played up the humor, introduced a dwarf (if memory serves) and jettisoned any character development in favor of short-short chapters and strings of one-liners.
Relentless is more of the same. To be fair, there are some plot twists and turns I didn’t see coming, but they are so unbelievable that this is hardly a compliment. I still believe Koontz can produce a first-rate thriller, but my faith was sorely tested by this one.
Superhero stories have become a genre all their own, with a set of standard ingredients that are easily recognized. Strong-jawed hero. Heightened mental or physical prowess. Colorful costume. Secret identity. Youthful sidekick. Villains bent on world domination.
It’s how these elements are mixed and the approach taken by the creators that determine if the final product is just one more standard morality play or something unique. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro have opted for the latter with “The Life and Times of Savior 28.”
In the introduction to the trade paperback, Dean Haspiel notes that a version of this story has been floating around for 25 years, originally pitched by DeMatteis for Marvel’s Captain America. In the intervening years, it morphed into the present tale. While the story’s Captain America roots are still evident, it’s clear that the writer incorporated chunks of Superman’s mythology here, as well.
Boiled down to its essence, this is the story of what would happen if a hero — in this case, Savior 28 (so named because 27 earlier attempts to give man super powers failed) — decided to stop thinking with his fists and embraced peace. The answer, of course, is that the government would have to kill him.
DeMatteis gives narration duties to Savior 28’s former sidekick, the Daring Disciple, so we see Savior 28’s mission from the Disciple’s cynical, jaded perspective. It’s a story told in flashback, beginning with Savior 28’s assassination and then taking us through various phases of his 100-plus years of life. (Immortality is one of the side effects of Savior’s super powers.)
It’s not exactly a fun story, but it is a good one. Savior 28 is greeted with approbation when he’s whaling on bad guys and promoting a culture of thoughtless violence, and with scorn and derision when he opts to stop fighting and start talking. The Savior doesn’t understand how his well-intentioned meetings with world leaders — including heads of countries that the U.S. does not agree with ideologically — could be perceived as a threat, and he is genuinely baffled when other costumed heroes (including Blackrat, a wicked send-up of Batman) bring him down.
When DeMatteis focuses on Savior 28 and Daring Disciple, he’s on sure ground. The book meanders a bit when other costumed heroes come to the forefront. The concept works better, I think, in a world where the only super-powered wild card is Savior 28; the introduction of a whole group of send-ups for the Avengers or the Justice League lessens his impact slightly.
At first, I thought Cavallaro was an unusual choice of artist. He draws with a highly stylized line that is intentionally informed by the seminal work of Jack “King” Kirby. My initial thought was that this book needed a more realistic style to complement its serious nature. But I soon changed my mind when I saw how cleanly Cavallaro told the story and how expressively he illustrated it. The Kirby homage is wholly warranted for a character inspired by Jack’s work on Captain America, and as the story begins to veer in directions that Kirby never traveled, the presence of his style feels intentionally incongruous, and I mean that as a compliment.
DeMatteis covers a lot of ground here — our celebrity-obsessed culture, the 24/7 news cycle, the addictive nature of violence and its pervasiveness in modern society — but he never once succumbs to the temptation to sermonize. “The Life and Times of Savior 28″ is an entertaining deconstruction of the superhero genre. Captain America and Marvel’s loss is independent publisher IDW’s gain with this winner of a book. Grade: A.
Here is this week’s column, as published in The Alliance Review on July 21, 2011.
Records for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″ are falling faster than a quidditch player without a broom.
The eighth and final movie adaptation of the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling raked in $168 million in the United States last weekend, enough to dethrone previous record-holder “The Dark Knight.” Worldwide, the boy wizard’s last bow has made $475 million so far, as pent-up demand for one final visit to his imaginary world brought out fans in droves.
It’s no wonder Harry Potter has been a license for Warner Bros. to print money. Scratch semi-literate people of a certain age (say, between 16 and 26) and just below the surface you’ll likely find that Rowling’s creation was a big part of their formative years, either through active participation, bemused sideline spectating or open scoffing. One way or another, they’ve dealt with Pottermania.
Yes, the books have older fans, but like the “Twilight” series, Harry’s adventures are the special province of youth. Adults don’t have the same affinity for the material as somebody who has aged along with the characters — and, in the case of the movies, with the actors who play them.
I don’t think it’s an accident that my Advanced Placement classes of the last few years have been filled with disproportionately large numbers of Potter fans. The books are a rite of passage: Every year or so, a new brick (those things are heavy — kids should receive gym credit just for lugging them around) was released into the world, and bleary-eyed kids would wait in line to get their copy and then spend half the night reading. Their goal was to finish the book the way most of us finish ice cream cones — in two or three compulsive gulps.
One mother I know even paid to ship the last novel to her son at a remote scouting camp so that he could read it at the same time as his peers. I find that level of devotion heartening, a sign that reading isn’t a casualty of our quick-fix, instant-gratification society, after all.
I can recognize the impact of the Potter phenomenon, even if I can’t share it. My own attempts at reading the books have been unsuccessful. I can’t get past the first one, and when people tell me to be patient, that it gets better in the third installment, I am baffled: This is pleasure reading, people. What’s the percentage in slogging through hundreds of pages in the hope that the situation will improve? When there’s no test at the end, readers should bail on books they don’t like, period.
Yet I recognize in Harry Potter similarities to my own communal reading experiences as a boy — the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, the early novels of Stephen King, the comic-book adventures of Daredevil and Wolverine, and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” My friends and I devoured them openly during evenings, weekends and study halls, and surreptitiously during classes, passing along dog-eared copies and cogent, sometimes biting assessments — “Just like the last one,” “great action sequences, man,” “too long,” “too short” or “too (fill in your own adolescent critique here).”
What was different, with everything except the comics, was the sense of the adventures being written and published just slightly ahead of our reading. Burroughs and Tolkien, after all, were long dead when I started reading them. What was also missing was a way to instantaneously connect with fans around the world, to be part of a family of readers who worshipped at the altar of Middle Earth or Barsoom (Burroughs’ name for Mars). As teens, we knew such fans existed, but in those pre-Internet days, they were impossible to find.
Not so for Harry Potter. The books have straddled the analog-to-digital hijacking of our social lives, coming at the perfect time to benefit from chat rooms, websites and online fan-fiction treasure troves. Finding fellow Potter fans wasn’t — and isn’t — difficult.
Then there are the movies. I remember agitating over whether to see Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” not wanting to surrender my private Middle Earth to Hollywood. Eventually, I did, and as much as I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure it was the right decision: I find it hard to erase the silver screen versions of hobbits, elves and ringwraiths when re-reading the books.
This hasn’t been a problem for most Potter fans, who take the films in stride as inevitable extensions of the reading experience.
Everything about Harry was the perfect storm of synchronous marketing — the books were a few volumes ahead of the movies, the movies fueled interest in the books, and each new installment (print or celluloid) fueled the fire, brought new fans into the fold, and reinforced Pottermania. The genius of Rowling was writing fast enough to keep up with the kids, aging her characters as her readers aged, and knowing when and how to pull the plug.
I wonder how many fans who cut their literary teeth on the novels will go back later and reread. What will they find?
Undoubtedly, their experiences will be tinged with nostalgia, so they will always view the series through rose-colored glasses. Today, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is still my favorite book, hands down. Would it be if I were reading it for the first time at age 43? Probably not.
The real magic of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling may be that they made reading hip and relevant again, at least to those lucky enough to experience it as it was happening. But will they have a lasting impact?
To those who absorbed the Potter culture through their skin, they already have.