I’ve been thinking more and more about stories and how they are often more true than, say, the daily news. Stories define us–a story that gets told, remembered, retold, elaborated, and infused with myth–holy, mundane, slight or legendary myth–becomes a landmark, a signifier, a tie that binds. Stories that grow and stick around can become the basis for a shared history, culture,art, religion, country, and world. Peter Milligan’s been dealing with that in an accessible yet beautifully literate way in his comic series “The Unwritten,” and recent articles by people like Stephen King (who  succinctly presented the idea in the afterword of his latest book), but it’s how this concept has come at me from such various sources in a relatively short amount of time that has made me really ponder it’s deeper meaning.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I believe stories matter.

From obviously separate collections, I recently read “No News, or What Killed the Dog?” by Ray Bradbury and “Chicxulub” by T.C. Boyle. Both stories grapple with what the meaning of life is in their own way. Bradbury is very much a Norman Rockwell of a writer, his work is nice and neat and nostalgic yet Bradbury has a way of sneaking in big ideas or dark murmurs when necessary. “No News” is a bit on the light side and very rooted in a fifties mentality in certain ways, but it presents a look at life that is both optimistic yet just as uncertain today as it likely was then in terms of actuality. In the story, a family awakens one morning to find their family dog (“Dog”) of 20 years has died during the night. The family is devastated, the parents calling the children who have grown up and moved out of the house to come home and be with their younger siblings and parents as they make arrangements. The family contacts a pet cemetery to do a service and burial for the dog, a process that strikes them as being silly if it were only for someone else’s dog and not their own beloved companion.  At the funeral, the father gives a eulogy in which it dawns on him and he relays the realization to the audience that the death of the dog is the worst thing to have yet happened to the family. He invokes a litany of human accomplishments that have made life better in the present age, the “science-fiction” age as he calls it since the things taken for granted are in truth so remarkable (radio, TV, etc. are the big gadgets he invokes which makes the reader wonder what the character would marvel at about today’s technology). Life is easier, much  easier for his children than it was for his generation, he insists–growing up he lost brothers and sisters, classmates and neighbors all at young ages to various illnesses and problems routinely dealt with in modern society, so much so that the death of the dog was the first tragic experience his roughly 7-27 year old children have had to face.

In Boyle’s “Chicxulub,” a couple faces the dreaded late night phone call in which they are asked to come to the hospital because their teenage daughter has been in an accident. The process of nervous fear, hankering numbness and horror at impending tragedy facing the father as narrator is interspersed with his comparisons of life and  the Chicxulub hypothesis of what killed the dinosaurs. The asteroid that theoretically hit the earth was of a size that could hit the earth again at any time–the narrator wonders what to make of life in the face of impending doom, if a “civilization-ender” can remove every trace that not only he existed but that all of humankind ever existed. The couple ultimatley finds out that the victim of the accident at the hospital is not their daughter but a friend of hers whom she loaned her driver’s license so that the younger girl could make it into an R movie. The father concludes that he narrowly avoided his own Chicxulub event but that it was hurtling to that other young girl’s parents even now as they likely slept unaware of the call they were about to receive.

These stories made me wonder–do we live in the science-fiction age? If so, is it “The Jetsons” or is it “The Road?” Obviously neither, we’re not carefree with universal ease and technology for all nor are we in an apocalyptic scavenger hunt for survival, at least not the majority of us. But pose the question, when do you wish you had been born?, to me and I’d shrug my shoulders and be unsure (if the relationships I’ve formed and wish to hold onto were not a factor in such a decision). Many decades or eras look good in hindsight for particular groups of people with the “right” privileges and opportunities, but even then only in hindsight with the knowledge that whatever pressing calamities of that day ultimately didn’t fully come to fruition.

We do live in the “science fiction age” in some positive ways and the points made in Bradbury’s tale are true for a great number of people. Life expectancy has grown in much of the world, infant and child mortality rates have decreased in the same areas of the world, technology is ever-growing and possibilities for medical breakthroughs always loom. The great majority of the industrialized world can count on food, clothing and shelter, etc. Yet Boyle’s story is right too in many regards; the great “civilization ending” meteorite may not hit in any of our lifetimes, but then again it may. It may in many other forms, forms that with our current resources and knowledge as collective humanity we should know better than to be held victim by–global warming, nuclear warfare, prejudice and genocide.

With all of our resources we still seem hellbent on destroying each other over ideology or greed. We have the best and worst possible world as a global people. Ultimately though, if there is something more than what we see and feel on a strictly temporal level–something that the narrator of either story failed to recognize, that the narrator of Boyle’s emphatically denied, then the collective destiny of humankind cannot be eradicated by a chicxulub event on a wide or personal scale, nor can all be made better now by new gadgetry and social progress–something  more is already there if we are receptive to it.

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2010 Addendum (Last Recap)

January 6, 2011

As always, I find myself with odds and ends that did not make it on any of my year-end “best of” lists but warrant a mention anyway, so I have one last catch-all post to highlight those items.

First, I did not manage to catch “The King’s Speech” prior to ranking my favorite films of 2010, but managed to finally view it last week. I’m not sure where it would have made it on my list if I’d seen it sooner–arguably right in the middle, but anywhere on the list would have forced my tenth slot, “The Town,” off of the list and into the “honorable mentions” category. “The King’s Speech” is a truly wonderful film, full of humor and heart. Colin Firth is an excellent actor as always, giving a performance that ranks with or quite possibly is his single best yet as “Bertie,” or Albert, or the man who adopts the title of “King George VI” when his brother deserts the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. The friendship he cultivates with his speech therapist Lionel Logue (played terrifically by Geoffrey Rush) is the core of the movie, but everything about this one clicks from the expertly crafted sets that recreate England in the 1930s to the marital relationship of Albert and his wife (another fine performance from Helena Bonham Carter), the charming look at Princess Elizabeth and Margaret’s childhood, etc. Every performance is out-of-the-park, and writer David Seidler and director Tom Hooper manage to craft suspenseful scenes out of public addresses as Firth gives his heart and soul (as George) into attempting public speaking–who could have thought a battle to overcome a speech impediment could rank with the best of “the big game” style scenes from sports movie classics?

I never do a TV best-of, primarily because I rarely catch a show all the way through as it debuts–my favorite shows from the past few years (The Wire, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad) were all viewed way after the fact via Netflix, but I did catch AMC’s “The Walking Dead” from the beginning each Sunday night this year and was thoroughly impressed. I enjoy Robert Kirkman’s Image comic that this is based on, and the entire premise that makes that series work is that it is a detailed, in-depth look at the survivors who have to live in the world at a time after the spot most zombie movies roll the credits–a film adaptation of this simply wouldn’t work, it would miss the point. So this AMC approach is phenomenal, it gets to adapt this story in the format that the comic did. Not only that, by having years of material to draw from, the series can know where each player will end up and thus be more certain of their portrayal early on. This show was harrowing and taut, wonderfully acted and shot uber-creepy. The first episode was arguably the strongest, but each of the six from this first season had plenty to offer whether psychological or visceral, action or drama, focused on the zombies or the internal human threats. I look forward to the second season and hope that the director’s idea to move from a writing round-table to a BBC style freelance script submission will prove to be a good move.

I still heartily recommend Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars,” which I reviewed here. It was his best book in years. I’ve had a blast playing “Red Dead Redemption” on the PS3, I’m sure many gamers have reviewed that one all across the web so I’ll add nothing to that other than say it’s a lot of fun. Also, “Scalped,” “Northlanders” and “The Unwritten” continue to be some of the best ongoing series Vertigo has put out into the comics field in some time and they deserve a shout-out even though their particular runs for this year didn’t make the top 10.

 A few more albums that didn’t get listed on my best of but deserve a listen: Eric Clapton: Clapton, Elton John and Leon Russell: The Union, Vampire Weekend: Contra, Ra Ra Riot: The Orchard, Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch: The Social Network Soundtrack, Danzig: Red Deth Saboth, High on Fire: Snakes for the Divine, Girl Talk: All Day, BoB: No Genre, Hold Steady: Heaven is Whenever, Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here

10) King: A Comics Biography- Ho Che Anderson

Ho Che Anderson’s massive “King” compiles the three Fantagraphic novels he wrote and illustrated over the course of nearly twenty years (partly due to his own struggles with addiction as noted in the commentary essay in this volume, one of a slew of extras). The art is amazing–wholly original and stark, shifting and versatile. This was an attempt at portraying King as a real human amidst a particularly volatile struggle and historical setting. As such, Anderson doesn’t try to display just King the icon or giant–though at attempting to deconstruct him and display all of his flawed humanity, he displays some of that greatness even better. Along the way readers get to see balanced and complex portrayals of JFK and other key figures from the era and the struggle of the civil rights movement. A dense work that adds something new to the already wide variety of biographies on this leading American figure, but one that manages to utilize the comics medium to do things otherwise impossible. The multi-angle “commentary” on King by figures around him praising or lamenting him can get brutal, especially when detailing the rants of “average” racists of the time. “King” is worthy of reading even by non-comics fans. The only thing keeping this tome from ranking higher on the list is that it is very dense and there are moments when you get bogged down in the depth of a particular page.

9) Stuck Rubber Baby – Howard Cruse

This is another black-and-white graphic novel set in the south during the civil rights movement and based on fact, in this case a comic autobiography of someone coming out of the closet during that volatile period. “Stuck Rubber Baby” is gorgeously illustrated by the writer, each page has an incredibly detailed and warm feel, and it’s easy to see what caused the author to work on it for so long. It is also very interesting to see how closely intertwined the struggle facing gays and blacks was (and arguably is), and in this particular example the two struggles overlapped to a great deal in large part because these friends often fell in both categories and the struggle for rights under the threat of violence took its toll on both communities. This graphic novel was originally published 15 years ago but was out of print when Vertigo got the publishing rights and released this excellent new edition.

8 ) Fantastic 4

Fantastic 4 was Marvel’s best book and one of the funnest superhero monthlies (and certainly of Marvel’s) in 2010 under the formidable talent of writer Jonathan Hickman. Unfortunately the current arc is leading up to a “death” of one of the four key characters; I’m sure Hickman will tell this chapter in an entertaining way but I’m equally sure that in a year at most that same character will be back–there have been enough of these hyped up “deaths” this year (and many other years), so Hickman is doing himself a disservice to sink to such a ploy, but I’m reading along anyway (and the same thing for DC’s Batman this year under Grant Morrison turned out to be a lot of fun if only for giving us this new “Batman Inc” and allowing other characters to shine for awhile).  The single issue in which Ben Grimm gains the ability to be transformed into his old self sans the rocky exterior for a night on the town with Johnny Storm culminating with a surprise visit to his long-time girlfriend is perhaps the second best single (“floppy”) issue of the year (for the best, see later in this list). That issue was a sort of interlude and the main arc consisting of many superb sub-arcs was almost equally entertaining, from the multiple-universe battles between different Reed Richards’s to Sue Storm’s liaison to Atlantis, the Foundation for the Future group and the adopted child geniuses, the intergalactic and inter-dimensional family adventures, the teamwork with Victor Von Doom, and the reappearance of the Silver Surfer acting as herald for Galactus, this book delivered classic Marvel thrills for the 21st century in a traditional yet fresh way…all at the old 2.99 price point, one of the last titles Marvel hasn’t yet sold out on its fan base to sell.

7) Echo – Terry Moore

Terry Moore continued to deliver his independently published title with about 8 more issues making a 2010 appearance as the end of this title fast approaches…each issue might be a bit short at 20 pages a piece, but each page is filled with his wonderful dialogue and excellent pencils. I love each issue, from the cryptic historical quote and pace-setting snapshot opening to each cliff-hanger ending. Moore gives us a realistic, terrifying, all-too-plausible scientific horror story and ended the year with an unlikely tie-in to his long running completed masterpiece “Strangers in Paradise.” I like most who caught that am unsure how he plans to tie these very different pieces of comic landscape together, but I trust he won’t let us down after this great ride thus far. Let’s just hope Julie and her pals make it out alive, she’s been a charming heroine throughout.

6) Wednesday Comics

Rather than paste a picture of the cover, I couldn’t resist showing off some of the excellent art by Amanda Connor who fuses vivacious with humorous and cartoon so deftly as she does in her “Supergirl” strip here. This was the best coffee-table book of the year but much more than just that! It’s huge, measuring at 18 by ll.5 inches. The size makes it nearly impossible to fit it on any book shelf, but it shows off the artwork fantastically–those diverse, creative, colorful pencil and ink or paint drawings. The concept was to take the “Sunday Funnies” and do a “Wednesday Comics” version–ship a newspaper of 15 stories each week in serial form, which DC did last year for 12 weeks using some of the biggest names in comics. This year that successful experiment got the deluxe hardcover collection to display those strips in a new and collected way, trading up the newsprint for high quality paper but keeping the size. Most of the writing is pretty good, especially considering the way these writers had to restrict their length to fit each installment on a single over-sized page. “100 Bullets” partners Brian Azarello and Eduardo Risso give us a solid “Batman” story,  Amanda Connor is always a blast on female superhero stories as well as perfectly matched with Jimmy Palmiotti as a writer, and her “Supergirl” strip is a hoot. Neil Gaiman gives Metallo a shot and delivers some artistic quirkiness,  Lee Bermejo draws some jaw-dropping “Superman” sequences, Paul Pope gives us a fantastic “Adam Strange” story, and everyone else does nice work as well.

5) Chew

“Chew” continued to be a blast, even better this year than last. Each panel is loaded with gags and Easter-eggs, each joke works, and each issue holds up to repeat reads. The characters are fantastic, the situations absurd. Even amidst the absurdity and jokes, all of which are illustrated in a laugh-out-loud comical manner, the action and suspense still manages to excite. Who would imagine that a story focusing on FDA agents policing a US in which poultry is outlawed in the wake of a bird flu would be so much fun (and so oddly believable)? Add to that a government conspiracy, a handful of people with different “food-based” special abilities, “vampires,” aliens, cyborg-cops, dysfunctional families, and poultry-pushing crime syndicates and you have the best and most absurd slapstick comic in years.

4) Justice League Generation Lost

DC has managed to keep their big flagship super-team book (JLA) pretty much unreadable for too many years to count, but thanks to “Brightest Day,” we got this book sharing a bit of that title but with none of the big names–bringing back Keith Giffen’s international version of the team, the “B-list” heroes, “Generation Lost” manages to display those supposed second-tier characters in a fun, captivating, and cool way. This was the most fun super-heroes were in 2010; this book had it all–big fight scenes, funny jokes, mystery, suspense, cliff-hangers, time travel to apocalyptic possible futures, retconned origins that were better than the original versions, group chemistry, treacherous villains, and pretty much anything else a comic fan might want from such a book. A great bi-weekly series that seemed to up the ante with each issue and was actually better than the actual “event” that ushered it in.

3) Demo vol 2

Everyone praised “Daytripper” as Vertigo’s best and most heartfelt mini- of the year, but I vote for “Demo volume 2.” Sure, that other mini- had “big” issues of life and death at its forefront, its art was beautiful and it had more than its share of tear-jerk moments, but “Demo” gave us casual moments of life and death too,beauty in unexpected places, and “powers” that don’t seem so magical. Brian Wood is a terrific writer whether up close and personal in this and “Local,” or bigger than life in “Northlanders” and “DMZ.”  Each “Demo” stand-alone installment was packed with importance even in sparse panels and Becky Cloonan’s black and white pencils were gorgeous. The “Volume One Love Story” was the best of the lot and the year’s most unlikely yet fulfilling romance, perhaps seconded by another Demo, “Stranded” (after the tragedy ended anyway). “Pangs” was downright horrific, “The Waking Life of Angels” is a bit in the vein of this year’s “Black Swan” film as far as claustrophobic psychologically scary goes; “Sad and Beautiful World” was just devastating. These were emotional tales that merged the line between romance and tragedy, comedy and horror, all under the guise of supposed “gifts” that ordinary folks find themselves with–“Demo” is a cynical look at what “superpowers” would be apt to be like in the real world.

2) Brave and the Bold #33

J. Michael Stracynzski really dropped the ball on “Superman” and “Wonder Woman” this year and gave a whole new generation of fans reason to hate his work, but he was on his A-game for this excellent one-shot story in “Brave and the Bold” which featured a missing tale from Batgirl’ s history (turning out in the surprise ending to be her last possible chronological story before she became Oracle). It was 2010’s best single “floppy” issue. The story follows as Zatanna gets a premonition that something bad is around the corner and arranges a girls night out with Wonder Woman and Batgirl. The girls tear through bars and sing karaoke, then sober up over coffee and conversation just before dawn in a diner and on the final page we find out this is directly before the events of “Killing Joke” as Barbara Gordon arrives home. This was a perfect book for DC fans, giving us a missing piece of history that felt unforced and natural and in doing so, JMS topped off a fun (and stunningly illustrated by Cliff Chiang) one-off with a heartbreaking final twist that lands this tale solidly in DC history.

1) Unknown Soldier

Joshua Dysart and Albert Ponticello’s jaw-dropping, emotionally devastating, and pitch-perfect 25 issue run on Vertigo’s “Unknown Soldier” came to a close this year; they had gotten notice in plenty of time that 25 issues would be the end of their run regardless of how many they had planned to try for, so Dysart was able to plot the story so that nothing was left unanswered and it could come to a natural close. He does so perfectly and as a reader I wasn’t left feeling cheated (as I was a bit with “Young Liars” and to an extent “Vinyl Underground” which faced this same problem), though I would have proffered an additional 25 issues. The ones we got in 2010 were phenomenal and this rounded off a work of art that was not only the best comic of 2010 but one of the best and most important pop culture products of the past few years–these 25 issues are crying out for a massive hardcover Omnibus complete with Dysart’s essays and historical recounts, hopefully withsome unpublished extras–plot lines, sketches, research pieces, etc.  DC’s classic “Unknown Soldier” was pretty much a pulp romp featuring a WWII soldier with a bandaged face, but what we get in the 2000s version is a pacifist turned violent force of a man etching out revenge and survival in Uganda. Each part of the story dealt with harsh realities yet occasionally with hidden beauty and life.Each character was vibrant and real, each facet of culture exhaustively researched and authentically portrayed. This book ratcheted from horror to romance to political commentary and gave readers characters, settings, and situations rarely found in any American media. This book held a microscope up to issues ignored by the mainstream media as the protagonist strove to put an end to Joseph Cony’s child-soldier-training reign of terror; this book dealt with difficult ideological debate as it examined the pull of pacifism and its seeming impossibility in the face of abject horror. This was a tough, thoughtful, unflinching, terrifying, despairing, inspiring, hopeful, tragic, bloody, violent, caring, hard-working, faithful, beautiful, real story that deserves to be read but is often emotionally difficult to do so. In the process Dysart gave us a twist we didn’t see coming, a tie to that older DC staple, and a fulfilling, logical, yet expected disheartening ending.