Monthly ArchiveDecember 2010



Commentary 31 Dec 2010 10:38 am

‘What am I becoming?’

This week’s column, just in time for New Year’s:

My brother-in-law David Woodruff runs a successful education company, Ed4Nurses, and often blogs about issues specific to the medical field, but which also apply to other professions.

He recently wrote a piece that examines how employees should view opportunities at work. Instead of constantly focusing on the bottom line — what am I getting? — Woodruff says we should instead consider a question asked by Princeton President Harold W. Dodds: “What am I becoming?”

Woodruff writes, “What have you learned in your current position, how many lives have you been able to positively affect, and who have you gotten to know and love, as a result of the position you currently have?”

They are good questions, with Dodds’ query “What am I becoming?” paramount. I’ve had occasion to ponder it as a recent convert to Google Docs, a Web-based program that allows me to create documents “in the cloud,” as the advertisement goes, instead of on a specific hard drive or server. This means I can access my work anywhere with an Internet connection — at home, at work, from a public terminal, from my smart phone.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been creating tests and worksheets for my teaching gig on Google Docs, migrating my ever-present “to do” list onto Google Docs, and even writing this column on Google Docs.

It means that I can be productive anywhere — in the few minutes of downtime before a meeting starts, in the waiting room at the doctor’s or dentist’s office, standing in line for holiday shopping. Wherever I am, I have my work at my beck and call. Even in the middle of the night, I wake up, reach for the phone beside the bed and peck out a few lines of prose or remind myself to put gas in the car the next morning. Total productivity.

But what am I becoming?

I grew up, like tech writer Nicolas Carr, in an “Analogue Youth” that rapidly matured to a “Digital Adulthood.” Through most of college, I pounded out work on an old manual typewriter, the same one my mom used when she was in school. Somewhere along the line, I was introduced to computers, and quickly adapted them into my everyday schema, growing more and more entranced by freedom from paper tyranny and near-instantaneous access to any information, no matter how esoteric.

I’ve always considered myself lucky to have lived an Analogue Youth because it allows me to appreciate each new technological advance in a way that somebody who has grown up with such marvels cannot. I’m a kid in a cyber-candy store, constantly pinching myself whenever a new sweet is placed in the display case.

But with the digital ascendancy has come a dark side, exemplified by how quickly a tool designed to make work faster and more efficient took over my life. Or, more to the point, how quickly I allowed it to.

Because the goal at the end of the day is not to have spent every waking moment being productive.

The goal is to be more productive so I can spend the rest of my time doing things that are really important: Interacting with family and friends, reading and sharing good books, learning and passing along new skills, communicating through writing and speaking.

Yes, technology makes all of the above easier, a means to an end, but too often it becomes the be-all and end-all, instead.

In my current careers, I want to learn, to affect lives, and get to know people. In my personal life, I want to do the same. And I need to ponder the long-term ramifications of moving more of my memory out of my head and “into the cloud.” What am I becoming?

I won’t stop using Google Docs, or any other productivity tools that make work more streamlined, but I do want to stop letting them use me.

Which sounds suspiciously like a New Year’s resolution, one that will be much harder for this old workaholic to keep than the traditional promises to lose weight or stop biting fingernails.

What are you becoming? It’s worth asking as the ball drops in Times Square and the confetti flies, worth considering long after the smell of pork and sauerkraut has faded in the dawn of another tech-savvy year.

Books & Comic books 30 Dec 2010 11:53 am

Secret Invasion

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A few years ago, I gave up three issues before the end of Marvel’s mega-crossover event, Secret Invasion, because the story was all sizzle and no steak. Thanks to Things from Another World’s $1 nick-and-dent sale, I picked up the trade paperback to see if Brian Michael Bendis, a writer whose work I generally enjoy, penciler Leinil Yu and inker Mark Morales redeemed the story in those final installments.

They didn’t.

The opening issues of Secret Invasion have such a great paranoid hook: Skrulls have been among us for years, infiltrating our governments and our heroes, and nobody is entirely sure which heroes are the real deal and which have been replaced by simulacrums.

The premise could have given Marvel the chance to clear the slate for several under-performing characters and an opportunity for years worth of compelling stories. Instead, most of the heroes are revealed to be exactly who they’ve always been, and the last few issues devolve into multi-page slug fests. Yu and Morales have a lean, angular style that’s not to my liking; everything and everybody looks thin and stretched, maybe as a result of working around Bendis’s trademark penchant for lots of dialogue.

I don’t know if Secret Invasion was knocked offtrack by editorial fiat, or if this is the story that Bendis intended to tell, complete with an ending that is nothing more than a cliffhanger for the next big event. Either way, it doesn’t work.

Commentary 24 Dec 2010 10:10 am

Christmas cards sap holiday spirit

This week’s column, dated Dec. 23, 2010.

The last vestige of my holiday spirit slipped away quietly last week as I waited in line at the post office.

It wasn’t that the line was inordinately long, but that the customer at the head of it — who had the full attention of the sole clerk on duty during the busiest mailing season of the year — was shipping clothes, which she had asked to have weighed.

The weigh-in was followed by a recitation of shipping options longer than Santa’s list of naughty kids, some hem-hawing over which option to use, and a folding and packaging of said clothes, all while I waited to buy stamps to send into the world my Christmas cards, one bill, and the questionnaire that came with my jury summons. (Ho ho ho.)

I don’t blame the clerk, who was being kind. And I don’t blame the customer, who was doing what customers do. I blame myself — and not for waiting until the week before Christmas to send cards, but for sending them at all.

In the 21st century, Christmas cards are about as useful as an appendix. They squander natural resources, clog landfills, and cause paper cuts to the tongue that can be infected with roach eggs harbored in envelope glue.

Counter this with the small tingle of excitement (which, after all, might only be indigestion) one gets from receiving a hand-addressed envelope, and it’s mostly a losing proposition all around.

And if a card comes stuffed with a hateful holiday letter about everything the sender and family have done since last December (”Little Billy got his first tattoo on Mother’s Day!” and “Uncle Cletus is out of jail again — praise God!”), then it moves from minor annoyance to biblical pestilence on the scale of locusts.

Despite this, my wife says we should mail Christmas cards, so we do. When you’re a husband/wife duo named Chris and Holly, despite being born in June and April, respectively — what were our parents smoking? — certain holiday observations are expected.

I was even proud of myself, because I didn’t fuss or grouch as much as in previous years. Instead, I read aloud each name in our address book while my wife agonized over who should receive greetings. In the end, most everybody did.

We mail cards to people I wouldn’t recognize if I passed on the street, just as we receive cards from people I have never met. I would guess that 15 percent of the recipients of our mailed cheer are dead, or at least dead to me (he said in his best Brando-as-Godfather voice).

My next task was to personalize the cards, not only with our names but also with names of each recipient. I guess this is in case the receiver has dementia and can’t remember to whom the outside envelope was addressed. Otherwise, it seems like a terrible waste of ink and time, the latter of which could better be spent learning to play cribbage or memorizing the provinces of Belgium.

Nevertheless, I wrote each name dutifully, even for families who have far too many children, causing my hand to cramp, a lesser-known reason for contraceptives. I even added a little flourish to the signature, drawing a smiley face with Santa hat and beard for the people I truly like.

(To head off a tide of mail from family and friends, Smiley Santa was an ongoing development, so receiving a card without the smiley doesn’t mean I don’t like you. It might mean your card went out before I had the brainstorm. Of course, you’ll never know which, will you?)

My last task was envelope licking, hence the concerns about roach eggs. Yes, I know you can buy fancy envelope moisteners or get by with a damp wash cloth, but I find it bitterly ironic that my mouth might fill up with roach pupae because of holiday sentiment gone horribly awry, which makes it worth the risk.

I didn’t get a paper cut, but I did swallow prodigious amounts of glitter sprinkled on each card, which I hear is a carcinogen, so there you go.

All of which brings me back to the post office. By the time I made it to the clerk, I was so flustered I forgot how many stamps to buy and simply guessed. When I trudged to the desk at the rear of the building and applied the stamps, I was one short, but didn’t have enough spirit to get back in line.

So this entire column is just a roundabout way of telling Kathy Hardesty, whoever you are, that your card is still riding around in my car and won’t go out until December 2011. Merry Christmas, anyway.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

Books & Commentary & Movies & Music & Television 20 Dec 2010 10:33 pm

It’s Not Christmas Until …

… I hear “Father Christmas” by the Kinks ….

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… read the classic Carl Barks’ comic-book story “Christmas for Shacktown” …

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… hear Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore in their rendition of A Christmas Carol from the golden age of radio …

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… read, see, or listen to some version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (with the exception of the rotten live-action movie from a few years back) …

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… listen to one (or all) of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas CDs (but the original, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, is still the best) …

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… and of course watch movies It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Holiday Inn, but I’m too tired to dig up images to go along with them.

Anybody else have any favorites?

Movies 20 Dec 2010 02:47 pm

Nativity 2010

Hard to believe that this kind of digital narrative would have made no sense to us five years ago.

Comic books 19 Dec 2010 08:46 pm

Life with Archie #5

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Five issues in and I’m still enjoying Life with Archie, even if Archie isn’t. The book is an intriguing look at what would happen if Archie married Betty and Veronica — not simultaneously, but in two separate timelines. The short answer is that Mr. Andrews would be miserable either way because Veronica’s father rides roughshod over him in both.

Mr. Lodge’s villainy in these tales is approaching Dr. Doom and Lex Luthor status. He’s pulling strings and crushing Archie’s friends in his scheme to take over Riverdale in the Archie/Veronica scenario, and punishing Archie for not marrying Veronica by destroying the young man’s burgeoning musical career in the Archie/Betty scenario.

At first I thought this magazine would die on the vine when writer Michael Uslan left after the first issue, but scripter Paul Kupperberg keeps turning up the heat, ably abetted by veteran artist Norm Breyfogle. Rather sneakily, the pair has created one of current comics’ most mature storylines — an honest-to-goodness domestic drama (two of them!) about the challenges of young love. If TV execs come calling on Archie Publications, I hope the company hands them this magazine to adapt.

Yeah, I’m buying a monthly Archie magazine that also features articles on Leah Michele (”Fashion Forward”), Zac Efron (”Sizzling Hot”) and Rob Pattinson (”Steamy & Dreamy”). Wanna make something of it?

Comic books 18 Dec 2010 01:26 pm

Detective Comics 871, Thor the Mighty Avenger 6

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The first two comics I read out of this month’s stack (which, because I’m ultra-cheap and pick slow-boat-to-China shipping, is really last month’s stack) were Detective Comics #871 and Thor the Mighty Avenger #6.

I stopped reading reviews of Scott Snyder’s debut Detective issue when they all gushed effusive praise, afraid that the book itself wouldn’t live up to the lofty expectations these critics had created. No worries there:  The book is rock solid. For readers like me who are jumping on because of our appreciation for Snyder’s work on American Vampire, the writer makes it easy to understand this Batman, who isn’t Bruce Wayne but is instead Dick Grayson, the former Robin.

The change in aliases shifts the Batman/Commissioner Gordon dynamic, something to which Snyder devotes a significant number of pages. This is appropriate considering the title of the book and Gordon’s status as Gotham City’s top cop. He’s obviously playing a key role in this run, something else to look forward to. The plot of this issue involves a “hormonal mutagen” that turns a child into a killing monster and connects (tangentially, thus far) with Killer Croc and the Mad Hatter. It’s a good piece of storytelling that will likely invite readers back for a second (or third) look as more pieces fall into place later in the arc.

Artistically, the book is on firm footing, as well. The lead story is illustrated with panache by Jock, the amazing one-named artist. I especially love the introduction of Batman, framed in a large window as rain pelts the glass. No matter how many stories the character has been in, his first appearance in any particular issue should be a capital letter Big Deal, as it is here.

Jock’s more minimalist take on the book is nicely contrasted by Francesco Francavilla in the Commissioner Gordon back-up story. Francavilla has an almost Ditko-esque quality to his work that is nicely augmented by his own coloring.

Together, this trio is a Detective team worth watching and reading. Who knew that in the waning days of 2010, DC could ever find a way to lure me back to a monthly Batman title?

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Reading Thor the Mighty Avenger is a bittersweet experience because the book is so damn good, but still so damn cancelled as of its eighth issue.

In this outing, another great done-in-one by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee (along with Matt Wilson on colors) that nonetheless builds on what has come before, Thor takes on a shape-changing Heimdall at the gates of Asgard. Langridge choses to intercut the battle with later scenes of the Thunder God and Jane Foster enjoying an evening on the town (er, the world), viewing the Aurora Borealis as they continue to cement their relationship. The climax, which is Thor’s decision to stop challenging Heimdall for entrance into Asgard, is therefore neatly bookended with showing us his reason: a growing love for Jane.

Langridge has the freshest take on Thor that I’ve seen in years, and I feel that Marvel is robbing readers of a chance to discover and appreciate this title, despite my understanding that comics is a business and that titles must pull their own weight in sales. I hope that the early truncation still gives the team enough time to tack on some kind of resolution — or that maybe Marvel will relent and we can see the occasional Langridge/Samnee special somewhere down the road.

Commentary 16 Dec 2010 09:08 pm

Reading on the throne

This week’s Review column, published Dec. 16, 2010:

Column writing is a lonely business, so I’m happy for whatever comments come my way, good or ill.

Still, I was taken aback when one of my wife’s co-workers shared that she read my latest piece while on the toilet.

Reading on the commode has a long, if not a proud, history. As long as indoor plumbing and literacy have existed, people have generated material to help while away the boring time between countdown and ignition. It is not a pastime that I share, however, preferring to read on the couch, on the floor — almost anywhere except on the porcelain throne.

I’m in the minority, however, if the pile of newspapers and magazines on the floor of many men’s rooms is any indication, not to mention the sheer number of bathroom-reader titles available on bookstore shelves.

And with the advent of digital books and smart phones, a whole new world of entertainment options is available for those whose diets are lacking in fiber. Imagine having access to 3,500 titles with the flip of the thumb, the same thumb that moments later might be used to twirl tissue off the dispenser. (Makes you think twice about borrowing somebody’s phone, doesn’t it?)

Indoor plumbing is fascinating, but grossly under-documented. One of the few writers to blow the lid off the topic is Richard Zacks, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject in his 1997 book, “An Underground Education.”

Zacks writes that one of the earliest examples of an indoor flush toilet still survives on the island of Crete, where engineers created a system with a stable stream of water to remove waste. Civilization as a whole, however, has solved the indelicate problem for most of history via the chamber pot. Ancient Romans considered highly ornamented chamber pots to be a status symbol, the same way that teens view name-brand tennis shoes today.

The great Leonardo da Vinci once designed a castle that called for “flushing channels inside the walls and ventilating shafts reaching to the roof,” Zacks reports, proving that scents associated with the privy were just as difficult to tame as they are today.

And while Zacks has nothing to say about reading material of the ancients, he does share a drawing of a 1600s porta-potty hidden inside a piece of furniture that is designed to look like “a stack of books resting on a footstool,” proving the text-toilet connection extends back 400 years, at least.

(And is it just me, or did Beethoven’s composition process anticipate the era of iPods and other portable music players that people take with them into public restrooms? After all, he did write in movements.)

As for my wife’s friend, I wasn’t sure if her comment about my writing was exactly complimentary. She told me she had finished her business before she finished my column, and she didn’t feel the need to hang around a few more minutes to see how my piece turned out.

That’s why this week’s column is a little shorter — I want to give my readers a fighting chance to get to the end. That way, if they don’t like it, they can always wipe me from existence and flush me out of their memories.

Books & Comic books 14 Dec 2010 03:27 pm

Tarzan Versus Predator at the Earth’s Core

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When readers think of definitive Tarzan interpretations in comic-book form, the names Manning, Kubert and maybe Buscema spring to mind. It’s doubtful that many think of Lee Weeks, but they should. Probably the only reason the artist doesn’t rank higher is that his association with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle lord consists of a four-issue mini-series where Tarzan shares the spotlight with the Predator franchise.

I reacquainted myself with Tarzan Versus Predator at the Earth’s Core (Dark Horse) this week, thanks to a half-price sale at Things from Another World. The trade paperback is written by Walter Simonson (the writer/artist of ’80s Thor fame) and illustrated, beautifully, by Weeks.

What I like most about the series is its ambition. Simonson easily could have phoned in an acceptable Tarzan/Predator plot involving a crash-landing ship in the dense jungle and lots hunter/hunted action scenes. Instead, he creates a fully realized pastiche of Burroughs’ work that encompasses Pellucidar, the world of eternal sunshine at the earth’s core, and the characters that ERB created for that series, including the villainous Mahar. Every page drips with love of the source material; if this were typed up in prose form, it could sit comfortably alongside entries in both the Tarzan and Pellucidar series. (ERB himself makes a guest-appearance on the other end of the Gridley Wave Radio, the device that the inhabitants of Pellucidar use to share their adventures with the author, who types them up in fictional form — or so the story goes.)

Weeks channels the work of previous Tarzan artists, yet still provides his own visual take on the character. In panel after panel, he captures the essence of the jungle lord — proud and savage by turns, loyal to his men and his mate, a hero with a foot in two worlds, one civilized, the other primeval.

The Predators themselves I can usually take or leave. The first Predator made a good foe for Ah-nold, but I never understood the appeal of the character(s) beyond that initial appearance. Here, they fit well into the ERB milieu, using a mixture of savagery and science to serve as worthy foes for Lord Greystoke.

Really, this is the perfect winter’s afternoon read, taking me back to warmer summer days of my childhood when a battered Burroughs’ paperback was a gateway to a world of fantasy. The name Tarzan may not be a sales shoe-in these days, butI wish Simonson and Weeks could team again for another crack at the character, with or without those bothersome Predators in tow.

Books & Comic books 12 Dec 2010 10:21 pm

Kill Shakespeare

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The concept of Kill Shakespeare (IDW Press) a land where the playwright’s creations are real, and where both his heroes and villains seek a magical, godlike Bard — is a slam-dunk. The execution of it, however, is not, at least not at first.

As arguably the most-popular of Shakespeare’s creations, Hamlet takes center stage in this story, spirited away from the plot of the play just after his killing of Polonius but before his killing of Claudius. He finds himself in a magical world where he is supposedly the fulfillment of a prophecy calling for a “shadow king” who will kill Shakespeare. At least that’s what he learns from the villains — Richard III, Lady Macbeth, and Iago — whose cause he naively joins before being recruited to the side of the angels, represented by a plucky Lady Juliet, Othello, and Falstaff.

The problem is that Hamlet, as written by series creators Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, is a bit of a cipher, bland as tapioca in the opening installments, and the narrative suffers as a result. Playing Hamlet this way allows for some natural character growth; unfortunately, it points to a fundamental misreading of Shakespeare’s character. Hamlet as written by Shakespeare is not indecisive; his long pause before seeking revenge on his uncle for the murder of his father is because he must gain additional proof of the crime from a source that is not a ghost. In Elizabethan times, ghosts were not automatically assumed to be the spirits of our loved ones returned in ethereal form; instead, they were apt to be thought of as demons that purposely took on the guise of those familiar to us to lead us to our doom. Hamlet isn’t wishy-washy, then. He is merely conscientious — perhaps to a fault.

At any rate, the Hamlet of Kill Shakespeare slowly grows on readers, until by the time that he and Falstaff appear in drag he’s a rather likable chap, and by the time he meets with Lady Juliet, we are invested enough in him and his world that we care what happens next. 

The villains are hissable, always a plus, and Iago is just as smoothly tongued as his theatrical equivalent. Lady Macbeth steals the scene from her more famous husband, although the way she shuffles him off this mortal coil owes much more to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” than anything by the Bard.

Andy Belanger’s artwork is solid throughout, and like the script, grows stronger as the story progresses.

It’s fun to watch a team grow into a book and a concept, which is exactly what is happening here. By the end of the sixth issue reprinted in the recent trade, Kill Shakespeare has gone from an interesting idea to an acceptable fantasy. I don’t love it, but I like it enough to stick with it.

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