Monday, September 28, 2009

Getting the Boot

I thought I'd been fired, but it turned out to be an escape

Late on a recent Friday afternoon I was left a VOICE MESSAGE telling me I was being replaced. Nice. The new editor of a publication I designed freelance for 10 years couldn't extend the courtesy to tell me directly, and instead had her boss leave the news on my voice mail.

The event spurred discussions with people & colleagues in my inner circle, and I learned it's not unusual nowadays to dismiss people via voice mail or e-mail. I'm not sure if it's due to cowardice, lack of respect, laziness or indifference. But whatever it is, it's symptomatic of cultural malaise.

A week and a half went by when I received a call from one of my printers, telling me the former client had called and asked for downloads of my files. When the printer informed the client that it was illegal to accommodate them, the client emailed me, instructing me to give my permission to the printer to release the files!

As most people in the creative industry are aware, when a freelance designer, photographer, illustrator or other creator of original content, is hired, unless it is specifically stated that the arrangement is for a buyout, copyright ownership is retained by the respective creators. The client is buying the "deliverable"—be it a finished brochure, annual report or other collateral—not the objects themselves.

So, I was let go, and they hired a replacement who was unable to move forward without my files.

A volley of emails ensued. The client insinuated I was trying to strong-arm them for more money because at one point I tried to explain the value of the files and left the door open for her to call me (which she elected not to do). She failed to recognize: If they had been respectful; if they had asked me instead of told me; and if they had not gone behind my back, I would have given them the files to them as a gesture of goodwill.

But lack of professional consideration left me no choice. I let them know their designer needed to proceed on her own. The client then had a "virtual" tantrum, but as far as I was concerned, it was a dead issue.

The next day, out of the blue, I received an email from another person from that office who acted as though everything was rosy, and asked in a friendly way if I was willing to give them the files, or possibly discuss a buyout? She was seemingly unaware of what had transpired between her boss and me, but the ironic thing was, she was the person who originally approached the printer! It was the theatre of the absurd. I explained to her the plan to have their new designer move forward on her own. End of story.

But not quite.

A few days later I received the following handwritten note in the mail:

"Dear Terri,

Thank you for your extraordinary contributions to XXXX with your work on XXXX over the years. You've always impressed us with your creativity and dedication. We are certain it won't be long before another [client] snaps you up! We hope our paths cross again in the future.

Please stay in touch. Thanks again.

[signed] XXXX and the communications team"

The reason for the note is a mystery. After the unethical actions and insulting missives, to suddenly receive such a complimentary note made no sense at all. It was a disingenuous attempt at...what?

When I first learned I'd no longer be working on this project, I felt sad about the loss. Now, realising what a goofed up group of new people are in place, I can only be thankful I'm not sucked into their quagmire.

Since that fateful Friday I've picked up several new clients—all wonderful people who are professional and know what they're doing. So the stars are shining upon me, it seems!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Take Me To Your Leader


When the little green men make contact, we earthlings don't always know exactly how what to do. Do the spacemen come in peace or in war? Do we greet flying saucers with open arms or armed missiles? Do we conspire with them or do we believe the conspiracy theories? It all depends on what book you're reading. Sometimes we love our new alien neighbors, sometimes we can't wait to blow them out of the sky, and sometimes we don't know what the hell kind of weirdo space creature we're looking at. Humans. Aliens. Can't we all just get along?

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, 2002, Modern Library Classics, originally published 1898 (Science Fiction Classics)


Back in the later days of the nineteenth century, there was an author named H.G. Wells who was way ahead of his time. He envisioned time travel (The Time Machine), advanced scientific experiments (The Invisible Man), and of course, alien invasions. The War of the Worlds begins when a silver spacecraft from Mars lands in the English countryside.  Atmospheric disturbances are observed; curious crowds gather. But when the spaceship hisses open and alien arms bearing deathly ray-guns emerge, there's no doubt that war is on. Narrated by an observant and astonished everyman, the story of how humans fair against an advanced enemy they never knew existed is as riveting now as it was in 1898--or in 1938, when Orson Welles's radio broadcast of his own adaptation convinced a few unsuspecting listeners that the story was all too real. The War of the Worlds is the grandfather of alien stories, and as a certain Tom Cruise-Steven Spielberg-special-effects laden blockbuster recently proved, it's not the kind of story that we outgrow. Despite the old-fashioned setting, The War of the Worlds is about something we understand all too well today: The fear that we're not really as powerful as we think we are. It's a lot of food for thought (especially when you find out what the Martians eat). There are dozens of editions to read; one of the best was illustrated by quirky artist Edward Gorey in 1960 and reprinted by New York Review Books in 2005.

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, 2001, Del Ray Books, originally published 1953 (Science Fiction Classics)

When a massively superior alien race arrives on earth, things to much more smoother that you'd think. Because the Overlords aren't here to attack or conquer. Their one demand is world peace, and under their guidance (mysterious though it is) mankind is only too happy to oblige. But eventually the lack of any need to better the world starts to take its toll. There's no human creativity, no problem-solving, no invention--and the Overlords still won't explain why they're really here. Humanity is approaching a fork in the road and no one knows what lies at the end, much less which path to take. Childhood's End gives us the ultimate goal of peace on earth and dares to tell us that it ain't all its cracked up to be. Author Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most lauded science fiction writers to date, and his book pushes the boundaries of our expectations about ourselves, makes us think about what mankind might really be capable of, and suggests that what we want might not be what the universe wants. It's a risky premise, but the result is one of science fiction's literary masterpieces.

The White Mountains by John Christopher, 2003, Simon Pulse Books, originally published 1967 (Children's Fiction/ Science Fiction)


The Tripods have landed, taken over earth, and re-established the feudal lifestyle of lords and ladies and serfs and servants. It is harder for people to rebel, after all, when they're either living lives of ease or distracted by the day-to-day grind to survive. That the Tripods are barely understood (are they intelligent machines or machines driven by intelligent life?) certainly helps them rule, as does their annual Capping ceremonies. When boys and girls reach a certain age they are fitted with a metal mesh cap that provides the Tripods with a convenient element of mind control over hapless humans. Young Will Parker, son of hard-working English peasant folk, is disturbed by the changes in a beloved older cousin who is Capped. Suddenly rethinking everything he's been taught, Will opts to run for it. With a couple of other rebellious boys in tow, Will heads for the White Mountains where, legend has it, a group of un-Capped stalwarts survive. The journey is long and filled with the unexpected, the Tripods are on their trail, and there just might be some benefits to being Capped after all... The White Mountains is the first book in the classic Tripod Trilogy, a series that has been read by generation after generation since their publication in the late 1960s. Will is a strong character, realistically flawed and tempted, with difficult decisions to make. The alternate past-like future that author John Christopher invents is highly original, and even if you read The White Mountains in your youth, it's never too late to go back and escape being Capped one more time.       

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, 2003, Tor Books, originally published 1985 (Science Fiction)

On the earth of Ender's Game, aliens have already made contact. They've already attacked, in fact, and nearly won not once but twice. The government is determined that the third battle will be the final battle, one that earth will win. To that end, the military has been training children in the desperate hope of finding a future leader who will lead the armies of earth to the ultimate victory. The highest contender for this position is Ender Wiggin, genius among geniuses at the tender age of six. Ender is, without a doubt, an extraordinary child. He's so quick to learn that he catches on to every "game" that his adult instructors throw at him as they train him in the space-age fighting techniques that he masters faster than anyone else. But as year after year passes in battle games, Ender struggles to make sense of the warlike boy that he's become--and all the while the very real threat of invasion and defeat looms over his young head. Ender's fight to make his own choices in a world that has already predetermined his role will resonate with readers of every age. Ender's Game won the two highest awards given to science fiction, the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, and for very good reason. Orson Scott Card followed up this feat with his sequel, Speaker for the Dead, which goes deeper into the story of the alien race that threatens Ender's world.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, 2004, Harmony Books, originally published 1979 (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Humor)


"DON'T PANIC." Its advice that villagers from The War of the Worlds might have disregarded as they ran from the attacking Martians, but it's a reassuring message to readers of a very friendly, very helpful book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This strange book is Arthur Dent's only guide to the life he now finds himself leading. He woke up this morning, you see, to find his house being demolished by a local construction crew and his planet being demolished by an intergalactic construction crew, and his friend Ford Prefect yanking him out of the way of both. Now Arthur is on a spaceship with Ford, who's really an alien doing research in the guise of an out-of-work actor; Zaphod Beeblebrox, the dazed and confused two-headed President of the Galaxy; Veet Voojagig, an alien grad student obsessed with all the pens he's lost; Marvin the chronically-depressed robot; and pretty Trillian, a earthling who Arthur once hit on at a party and now Zaphod's new girlfriend. And what this motley crew seeks is no less than the answer to The Ultimate Question:  What is the meaning of life? And where did all Veet's pens go? Readers will laugh aloud as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy introduces Arthur to alien creatures like the language translating babelfish and the horrid poetry-writing Vogons. Satirical, nonsensical, inventive, and wildly popular, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most delightful fusions of science fiction and comedy to be read on any planet in the universe.

Deception Point by Dan Brown, 2001, Pocket Books (Fiction/ Thriller/ Mystery)


NASA, after several embarrassing incidents that have done absolutely nothing to advance the exploration of space, has finally struck it big. Deep in the arctic ice, scientists have found a meteor containing fossils. And a big rock from outer space with the remains of creatures in it can mean only one thing: Proof of extraterrestrial life. Intelligence agent Rachel Sexton and oceanographer Mike Tolland are thrilled and eager members of the team sent by the President to validate the alien find. They're taken on a whirlwind tour of the discovery site and presented with proof after proof by the equally excited NASA science team. And then, even as the President prepares to announce the news to a breathlessly-awaiting public, doubts begin to set in. Soon Rachel and Tolland are running for their lives across the frigid landscape, desperate to separate fact from fiction before it all blows up in their faces. And the reverberations of what they find will shake the walls of NASA, the White House, and the top-secret National Reconnaissance Office. Talk about alien conspiracies! High tech thrills, military secrets, and cunning politics are just a few of the ingredients in this thriller from the bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, 1997, Ballantine Books (Fiction/ Science Fiction)


When radio telescopes on earth first pick up the strange and beautiful extraterrestrial singing, it is the Society of Jesus that gets it together and prepares a mission to the alien world.  That's right--Jesuits in space. It's a startling notion, one that certainly captures a reader's attention. But the characters that author Mary Doria Russell creates in The Sparrow are much more than a bunch of Bible-toting missionaries. Her story centers on Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest and skilled linguist who collects a charismatic group of believers and non-believers to accompany him on an interstellar mission that results in earth-shattering revelations. The twists of fate, triumphs, and tragedies of this group are revealed with great suspense as the story alternates between the year 2019 when the alien songs are detected, and the year 2059 when Emilio returns from the faraway planet to be questioned by his Jesuit superiors. The stories merge gracefully, and even as readers finally learn what happened to the humans and aliens on the planet of Rakhat, new questions of faith, science, fate, coincidence, family, and humanity are posed. More literary fiction than science fiction, The Sparrow is intense, unsettling, gripping, and new. It's a book that's hard to resist and impossible to forget. Fortunately, Russell wrote a sequel in 1999, Children of God, that reunites Emilio Sandoz with the plant of Rakhat.

100 Figures

Dear Seniors:

I am using this blog to formally assign the workshop project to which I have vaguely referred, from my perch in the Detroit airport.

You are to produce exactly 100 figure drawings/pictures of humans between 1:00 today, Friday, and Monday morning at 9:00 am, when your new week begins. These drawings should be at least 11” x 14”. The figure must dominate the picture–no “scenes” with teeny figures. And 100 drawings means 100 drawings.

I will conduct a walk-through midday Monday to confirm completion.

You may find this surprisingly difficult. All of your usual approaches will wear out within 20 drawings. You’ll have 80 to go. You will scramble to find another medium, a different way of thinking, and then you’ll have 30 done, with 70 to go. You may go bonkers. Nonetheless you will have to deliver 100 pictures of humans on Monday. The vexation you will experience is part of the process, and of significant value. If they take too long to produce, alter your methodology to speed things up.

My students have confronted this project for a dozen years. Some of them–Mssrs. Zettwoch and Flynn come to mind–generated frightful amounts of variation and quality. Others gasped and limped to the finish line. But all gained insight about their working methods, and always after the fact.

So do not think, behave. We’ll figure out what happened later.

Which reminds me of a story.

When I was in college, I had a brief and unsatisfying experience with a Greek organization. During “Hell Week”, which really did sort of have quotation marks around it, we were subjected to mostly lame but somewhat taxing rituals. In one of them, we were expected to remain quiet as doofy incantations or instructions of one sort or another were read aloud. To be honest, I don’t really remember the content. But I do clearly recall my friend Alex receiving a scolding from an upperclassmen named Mike, a peach of a guy who was nonetheless working to set the right tone.

Alex is goofing around, cutting up with our mutual friend Bill. Mike observes these shenanigans.

Mike reproaches my friend. “Alex...” he corrects, at notable volume, with a parent’s sense of modulation and across-the-room control. “Behave.”

Without missing a beat, Alex looks back and replies, stone-faced, mimicking, seditious, absurd: “Mike...Beehive.”

Have a productive weekend! Survivors of the 100 Figures project from previous groups who frequent this blog are invited to submit notes of encouragement or hectoring graphs.

Image: a very early Al Parker for Ladies Home Journal, May 1934.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In Praise of Bernie Fuchs

I am late getting to this. In recent days I've appreciated the work of others, notably David Apatoff, in celebrating the life of Bernie Fuchs, a paradoxically famous but unknown illustrator whose work in the 1960s and 70s established a look characterized by light touch and grace. (I say famous but unknown because those in the field knew him as a major figure, but the shrinkage and slippage of periodical illustration after 1950 cost him a broader public following of the sort enjoyed by major illustrators from the first half of the century.) Mr. Fuchs died late last week. Today's New York Times runs an obituary by Steven Heller.

I remember Bernie Fuchs' work in Sports Illustrated from my youth. I didn't really get a fix on the person or the profession; I just looked at the pictures and thought they were cool. Fuchs did a lot of golf work for SI, as his investment in light and gift for pacing (inside a single image!) made him a natural. His work will always make me think of my Dad, a serious golfer at the height of his powers when Bernie was, too.

On a different sort of personal note, I am eager to celebrate Bernie's achievement as a favorite son of Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach. I had the pleasure of meeting Bernie and his wife Babe when they came to campus in 2001 for the Al Parker symposium.

My wife Lori interviewed Bernie at the time. I have rummaged around and found a transcript of that interview, which includes a wonderful anecdote about Bernie meeting Al, who had been a hero of his. I will post snatches of that transcript this weekend when I have some time.

I raise my glass to Bernie Fuchs. I see him strolling up a light-soaked fairway toward the last green, smiling.

Images: Bernie Fuchs Sports Illustrated covers, from 1961, 1970 and 1974, respectively. I bet he wasn't very happy about that horsey red spot they stuck on his Masters cover from 1961!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Space by Implication

Today, in a class devoted to the moment-to-moment progressions in cinematic storytelling, I showed a few shorts.

One of them was a Gerald McBoingBoing UPA film in which Gerald goes to a language therapist to learn how to speak in words instead of sound effects.

I chose the short in part because it uses such minimalist production design. Rarely do we get environmental information that goes beyond a color field. When we do get more, it's for a very good reason, and even then the touch is light. Below, a still from a hilarious sequence combining super-scientific technological processing with jet-age jazz.

Gerald's incomprehensible vocal signals are reversed telephonically–by placing a call across the room via Europe–and restated as words:

United Productions of America, released in 1954. Directed by Robert Cannon. Putting it up as a reference for students.

Monster Love

Love. It’s a wonderful thing, even when your new guy or gal is a vampire. Or a werewolf. Or even a zombie. Sure, it can be dangerous dating an undead, shape-shifting creature of the night, but that doesn’t mean the romance is gone. As these stories of inter-species and paranormal relationships show, sparks can really fly when a human falls in love with a monster--especially when every kiss might end with your head being bitten off.

Vampires are the monsters we most often fall in love with. They’re immensely popular and trendy--Twilight, anyone?--even though authors have been writing about vampires for over a hundred years. But really, it’s no wonder. Vampires rise from the dead to bite and suck the blood of humans so they can remain immortal. There’s something definitely sensual about that, and the vampire’s best weapon is his power of seduction. Vampires are ageless, mysterious, and they need us humans to stay that way. No wonder we’re irresistibly drawn to them.

Dracula by Bram Stoker, 2009, Puffin Classics, originally published 1897 (Fiction Classics/ Fantasy/ Horror)

There are two basic kinds of vampire books—those where we fall in love with the vampire and those where we hunt the vampire. Dracula, believe it or not, is both, as well as being the first major vampire novel. On one hand, it’s the story of the hunt for the evil Count Dracula, the original undead monster who sucks the blood of his victims so he can live forever. On the other hand, it’s the story of two beautiful young women and the men who love them. Sweet, lovely Lucy receives three marriage proposals in one day—and then finds herself in the cold embrace of Count Dracula. Her suitors, led by Professor Van Helsing and accompanied by intelligent, vibrant Mina and her boy-toy Jonathon Harker, set out to avenge Lucy. But Mina soon encounters Dracula and forges a deep connection with him, and keeping her safe becomes a daunting task for the vampire hunters. Dracula is the source of almost everything we know and love about vampire mythology, from sleeping in coffins to turning into bats to how to make a new vampire. Even though Count Dracula is a grade-A creep and not a hunky vamp to fall over head heels in love with, there’s still dark romance and intrigue aplenty. And if you’re going to call yourself a fan of vampire fiction, you really have to know your Dracula.

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, 1997, Ballantine Books, originally published 1976 (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Horror/ Romance)

Vampire romance would not get far without Anne Rice’s vampire series, which begins here with the vampires Lestat and Louis. Amongst the steamy moss-draped streets of New Orleans in 1791, lonely lovesick Louis agrees to let the overwhelmingly persuasive vampire Lestat turn him into a fellow bloodsucker. For the next two hundred years, Louis and Lestat wander the earth, prey on humans, and seek out others of their kind—most notably the esteemed Parisian vampire Armand and Claudia, a doomed little girl whom Louis can’t bear to kill or to have as a fellow killer. The interview of the title takes place between Louis and a skeptical human reporter; the narrative is framed as Louis shares his tale in intimate, luxurious, atmospheric detail. There are many relationships in Interview with the Vampire—Louis and Lestat, Louis and Claudia, human and vampire—some based on love and some on hate, and most with an intriguing and complex blend of both. Anne Rice single-handedly transformed the vampire genre with this book. Because of Louis and company and their all-too-human desires, we stopped hunting vampires and let them seduce us, even though we know how deathly dangerous they are. Of course, the risk has been worth it—vampire romance is a flourishing genre of its own now and Anne Rice herself has contributed over half a dozen related titles. Interview with the Vampire, however, remains her masterpiece.

The Twilight Saga: Twilight/ New Moon/ Eclipse/ Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer, 2005-2008, Little, Brown and Co. (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)

Few vampires have proved as irresistible as the hero of the Twilight series: smoldering, brooding, intensely hunky Edward Cullen. Twilight is the first book in a quartet that chronicles the challenges high school loner Bella Swan faces when she falls fangs-over-heels for Edward, a mysterious classmate who is also an immortal vampire. Even though theirs is a very dangerous attraction (Edward’s non-human-killing vampire family guards their secret carefully, and Bella is so appealing to Edward that he’s in constant danger of losing control and eating her), it’s Love At First Sight. Their love is continually tested by well-intentioned humans, desperate vampires, and a love-triangle threat in the shape of young Jacob. Jacob’s personality seems as sunny as Edward’s is moody—but he’s got a dark shape-shifting secret of his own and an increasingly important role to play in Bella’s life. Ultimately, despite the vampires and otherworldly creatures that haunt the Twilight saga, the series is Classic Romance all the way: two young lovers must fight against all odds to stay together. It’s a dark, twisted, intense courtship but still, fans of paranormal relationships have sunk their teeth into Twilight and its fellow books with an obsession that transcends mere trendiness. To readers who dearly love a good interspecies romance, Edward and Bella’s is one for the ages.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley, 2003, Berkley Books (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)

In the world of Sunshine, vampires are a constant presence. Leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone, that’s the general rule. Anyway, Rae “Sunshine” Seddon doesn’t have time to worry about vampires. She’s too busy baking cinnamon rolls for her loyal customers at the bakery, getting into tiffs with her well-intentioned mother, and trying to decide how serious to get with her on-again-off-again biker boyfriend. Until one night Sunshine gets a little fed up with the regular characters in her life and wanders off for some peace and quiet—only to end up surrounded by characters of the undead, blood-sucking kind. Sunshine is chained to a desperately thirsty (but still good-looking) vampire named Constantine who—surprisingly and mysteriously—refuses to kill her. In a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque sort of way, Sunshine finds herself drawing on untapped magical powers instilled in her by a sorceress grandmother and is soon caught between the desires of the human and vampire populations. Nevertheless, she’s determined to protect Constantine, for whom (like Buffy for Angel) Sunshine has developed something of a soft spot. Author Robin McKinley is best known for her modern retellings of fairy tales. Here, McKinley puts an urban spin on vampire lore. A thoroughly modern girl falls in with an old-fashioned forever-young vampire. Monsters are just as likely to lurk outside city bakeries as they are outside abandoned lakeside cabins. And savvy readers are sure to be alternately spooked and charmed by Sunshine.

The Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries: Book 1, Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris, 2001, Ace Books (Fiction/ Mystery/ Fantasy)

Sookie Stackhouse is a small-town waitress on a seemingly permanent streak of bad luck. She can read minds (which is annoying), one of her coworkers has been murdered (which is unpleasant), and her new love interest is a vampire (which means he might kill her). Life in rural Louisiana has just gotten very complicated. Still, Bill is a hunk and dating a vampire does have its benefits—Sookie can’t hear the thoughts in his head, for one thing, which is a refreshing change—but it’s not all fun in the dark. Bill has some decidedly unsavory friends, and there is that pesky murder—and that’s just the first book! But Sookie’s no damsel in distress. She’s a smart, thoughtful, generous young woman who readers care about, even as author Charlaine Harris causes thrills and chills with a quirky array of supporting characters and suspenseful mystery plots. Plus there are vampires, and let’s face it, we all love a mystery with a blood-sucking undead creature of the night. Sookie’s relationships with various mythical creatures continue in eight other books. Each one is as colorful and atmospheric as Dead Until Dark, which serves as the introduction to Sookie and her distinctly unusual lifestyle (and is the inspiration for the hit TV-show True Blood). Cleverly blending romance, action, and the paranormal, Sookie Stackhouse is the go-to girl for some seriously spooky sleuthing.

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore, 1995, Simon and Schuster Books (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance/ Comedy)

When Jody is attacked and turned into a vampire on her way home from work, she doesn’t panic. Instead she gets help, someone to do all the things she can’t do during the sunny daylight hours. Aspiring writer Tommy is destined to be Jody’s boy-toy, and he doesn’t mind at all. Jody’s sexy and mysterious, and what better to inspire art than with a hot-and-heavy love affair? But everyday life soon gets in the way of romance—the fledgling couple can’t spend enough time together with Tommy working the late shift, their wildly different dining habits are interfering with date nights, the vampire who created Jody is framing her for murder, and the cops are mighty suspicious. The narrative of Bloodsucking Fiends is a tad uneven at times, but author Christopher Moore is juggling a lot of inventive genres—mystery, comedy, satire, and fantasy among them. And the story has its moments, among them Tommy and Jody’s gleeful experiments to find out which vampire myths are fact and which are fiction. Bloodsucking Fiends is a breath of fresh air in the moody, intense atmosphere of vampire-human romances. Even die-hard vamp-fans will appreciate the well-intentioned elbow in the ribs. Finally, someone acknowledges the weird, awkward, funny side of paranormal romance, and with a 2008 sequel titled You Suck, Moore doesn’t show any intention of letting up.

Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2007, Thomas Dunne Books (Fiction/ Horror/ Fantasy)


Republished as Let the Right One in after an internationally successful movie adaptation of the same name, the originally titled Let Me In is Scandinavia’s contribution to the vampire fad that is sweeping the globe—and for good reason.  Vampires are creepy and fantastic, and when the setting is a lonesome snow-covered suburb in Sweden, the moody intensity just grows and grows.  Oskar is a twelve-year-old boy who is constantly bullied and beaten at school.  With no friends to turn to, Oskar’s outlets are daydreaming, shoplifting, and keeping a scrapbook of gruesome crimes clipped from the newspapers.  Then he meets Eli, a girl about his age who moves into the apartment next door.  Eli only comes out at night and smells a bit funny, but Oskar is desperate for companionship and Eli’s quirks suit his own oddness.  Meanwhile, a series of brutal deaths begin to plague the area—bodies are drained of blood.  It doesn’t take long to discover that Eli is a vampire stuck in a permanent childhood, a deadly little creature who is both desperate to survive and genuinely fond of Oskar.  Their sweet, awkward relationship is a splendidly creepy contrast to the blood and gore of the murders.  Author John Ajvide Lindqvist adds some original twists to an occasionally predictable story that is part crime novel, part horror story, part paranormal crush.  The dark, atmospheric quiet of the film is an excellent companion to the novel and will allow you to be delightfully creeped out on both page and screen.     

Vampires are solitary creatures of the night, but Werewolves—humans who transform into powerful super-wolves—roam in packs. This means lots of fussing, fighting, and family feuding. And when it comes to romance, no creature is more passionate than a wild untamed werewolf. Plus, you can date during the day. If you thought vampires were attractive, get ready to turn the pages of these next books. No doubt about it--werewolves are a rowdy, feisty, sexy pack of wild animals.

Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, 1997, Delacorte Press (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)

In Blood and Chocolate, the worthy werewolf finally gets a chance at love. Vivian is sweet sixteen, strong and beautiful, with all the boys on her tail—literally, because Vivian is a werewolf. But life is not as sweet as chocolate. Her close-knit werewolf pack has moved to a new home, needs a new leader, and definitely does not approve of Vivian’s new human boyfriend. But Aiden is sensitive and kind, and Vivian is sure that he will understand her other, wilder self. Her divided loyalties are put to the test when a contender for new pack leader takes an intimate interest in her, and life becomes even more complicated when a human is murdered and a werewolf is the culprit. Vivian’s attempt to lead a double life is endangering both the humans and the werewolves she cares about. Who is Vivian supposed to protect? Who is she supposed to be? The werewolves of Blood and Chocolate are sassy and stubborn, and they don’t make Vivian’s choices easy—but they certainly do make things interesting. Even with a pack of wild animals roaming through the pages, Blood and Chocolate remains a fierce, sexy, gripping coming-of-age story about love, betrayal, trust, and acceptance. And fans of author Annette Curtis Klause’s werewolf love will be pleased to know that she played matchmaker with our other favorite monster, the vampire, in her first book The Silver Kiss.

·      Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009, Scholastic Books (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)


Shiver is a werewolf’s hungry reply to the best-selling, blockbusting, fan-favorite Twilight Saga, and Shiver’s young lovers Grace and Sam are more than a match for the moody intensity of Bella and Edward’s love affair.  Grace is a solitary, intelligent girl who relishes the wild tranquility of the woods behind her house.  The wolves that dwell there are especially fascinating, and one wolf in particular—a yellow-eyed handsome creature who once saved her from the rest of his pack—holds a unique attraction for her.  That wolf is Sam, a werewolf who was bitten as a boy and who is just as smitten with Grace as she is with him.  For years Grace and Sam keep their distance despite their curiosity, but during Grace’s seventeenth year they are thrown suddenly and violently together when wolves kill a boy and human hunters retaliate.  Now, Grace finds herself nursing a wounded yellow-eyed boy who must be her beloved wolf, and the star-crossed lovers finally get to know each other.  Sam and Grace’s romance is tender and true but fraught with danger.  Author Maggie Stiefvater creates a werewolf mythology that keeps the creatures in wolf-form during the frigid winter months and allows the warm weather to transform them into humans for the few brief summer months.  Sam’s injury makes him revert to teenage boy form, but the wolves, the humans, and the winter cold are swiftly approaching and threaten to destroy this new relationship and Sam and Grace’s very lives.  Shiver is told from Sam and Grace’s alternating points of view, making this Romeo and Juliet plot (with a sequel, Linger, due in July 2010) all the more suspenseful, passionate, thrilling, and chilling.              

Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar, 2008, Soft Skull Press (Fiction/ Fantasy)

Kalix is a lonely werewolf girl. She’s seventeen and angst-filled, not to mention drug-addicted, antisocial, and lovesick. She’s attacked her father, the Thane of the powerful MacRinnalch werewolf clan, and is on the lam in London. And no one is going to leave her alone. Her brothers Sarapen and Markus both want Kalix dead and are fighting each other for the throne, her sister Thrix is too busy designing a fashion wardrobe for the Fire Queen Malveria to be bothered with her little sister’s problems, her ex-lover Gawain has been banished, and a guild of professional werewolf hunters is hot on her trail. But when two human students, Daniel and Moonglow, take a kindly interest in Kalix, the lonely werewolf’s luck might just be about to change—even as civil war is about to erupt in the Scottish Highlands where her werewolf family dwells. And these werewolves are violent, passionate, impatient, and beautiful—which makes for a playful, witty, wicked page-turner of a story. The many love affairs, love triangles, and lovers’ quarrels play a big part of the action. Werewolves are, after all, a lusty bunch who really know how to hold a grudge. With a cast of characters ranging from a punkish Fire Elemental to twin werewolf rock star wannabes to childish, moody, endearing Kalix herself, Lonely Werewolf Girl is one helluva gritty, grungy urban fantasy.

Zombies come back from the dead to eat the brains of the living. Most authors won’t stoop so low as to pair a human with a zombie love interest, but there’s still a lot of romance to be mined when the undead roam the earth. But are flesh-eating zombies really deserving of love? Absolutely. After all, there’s someone for everyone--even rotting, moaning, stumbling reanimated corpses.

Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament by S.G. Browne, 2008, Broadway Books (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance/ Comedy/ Horror)

Andy Warner died in a car crash. After his chemical treatment at the funeral home but before his funeral, Andy woke up as a zombie. This is not incredibly unusual; it just happens sometimes. But zombies are not exactly welcomed back into their everyday lives as examples of a miraculous escape from death. Instead they’re barely tolerated, looked down upon as less-than-human and policed by Animal Control. Andy’s too dazed to mind at first—he can’t even talk because his lips are stitched together—but he finds time to emerge from his parents’ basement and attend Undead Anonymous meetings. There he meets a sexy suicide named Rita and Jerry, a banged-up walking-dead stoner. The trio is introduced to fellow zombie Ray, and Ray introduces them to the joys of the afterlife. Soon Andy is refusing to sit in the back of the bus and picketing for the return of zombie civil rights. With pretty Rita at his side, Andy just might get used to the zombie life—unless the human “breathers” have anything to say about it. Feeling sympathy for a flesh-hungry zombie is a new emotion for most readers, but we want Andy to have it all. We also don’t want to get eaten, and that’s what makes Breathers such a unique and unusual read—it’s gruesome, endearing, tragic, and darkly comic all at the same time. Author S.G. Browne describes his debut novel as a zom-rom-com—a zombie romantic comedy. With a genre-bending label like that, what more can you ask for?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, 2009, Quirk Books (Fiction Classics/ Romance/ Fantasy/ Humor)

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is one of the most beloved love stories of classic literature. Author Seth Grahame-Smith decided that the only thing that could improve the story was, naturally, zombies. And even die-hard fans of Jane Austen will be hard pressed to disagree. As our story begins, a mysterious plague is bringing the deceased back to life to roam the English countryside in search of fresh human brains. Miss Elizabeth Bennett, well-versed in both the feminine and the deadly arts, is content to defend her family against the zombie threat—until she meets the dashing, arrogant, equally-skilled Mr. Darcy. Scenes from the original Pride and Prejudice are intermingled with zombie mayhem. Darcy admires Elizabeth’s fine eyes at the Meryton ball; zombies attack. Elizabeth promenades at Pemberley; zombies attack. Elizabeth and Darcy are recast as scornful acquaintances occasionally united in battle against the moaning, groaning walking dead. And still, the classic romance unfolds exactly the way it’s supposed to. After all, nothing brings a couple together like fighting off zombie hoards.

Note:  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has spawned a whole slew of Jane Austen-monster hybrids. Not only is Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters lurking on bookshelves nearby, but Mr. Darcy, Vampyre and Vampire Darcy's Desires hide in the shadows, and Jane herself is a vampire out for revenge in Jane Bites Back. When vampires, werewolves (maybe Werewolves at Mansfield Park?), and zombies starts breeding with the great classics of literature, well, that’s some real wild monster love.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Super Park

Late last week I drove past the St. Louis airport and was reminded of these relic aircraft guarding the Missouri Air National Guard entry. When the Department of Defense went through the last round of post-Cold War base thinning, they kept the Air National Guard base, but got rid of the 131st Fighter Wing, which had flown out of Lambert for many years. All the F-15s are gone, but these talismanic remnants are still here. Something about the civilians trudging along with their suitcases near these planes-on-poles seemed evocative.

Coincidentally I posted another picture of airplanes in January with a discussion of onsite drawing and photography. In that case I sat down and drew, then checked photo reference after the fact when I got around to painting the spread.

Here I wanted to compress the planes with the parking folderol. This image cannot be seen in real life, because these two planes are half a mile from one another. Plus the parking booth is down a hill and quite some distance from the plane on the right. So I shot some photographs in several spots and built a composite image which suffices for the purpose. But I went straight to the drawing table when I got back early Friday evening, so my spatial sense of what I'd photographed was still fresh. Otherwise the effort would have gone to waste. Dead photographs, no drawing, less hard drive space.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Figures and Conventions

My Visual Worlds class is off to a good start. On the first day I handed out copies of the image at the top of this post, a goofy little hand-painted diagram of what might be called the creative scope of the course, but more importantly, one's own invented/interpretive universe. There are handful of big fat questions one must answer, typically through an evaluation of empirical evidence: what does my work say about what I'm interested in?

Few questions loom larger than the ones connected to representing people. The art school lingo tends to emphasize the figure. This locution, which strictly speaking is accurate, tends to reinforce the received practices of figure drawing as traditionally understood–and thus leaves out representations like the Fisher-Price cylinder-with-ballhead people, or other highly schematic visualizations. 'Tis a pity.

Charcoal-and-naked-people habitual associations narrow students' choices before the fact. So I try to keep the language a little breezy, and to emphasize the conventional aspects of representing people.

By conventional I mean the use of varying conventions, not a synonym for "normal" or "conformist." We'll be exploring figurative languages over the next month or so.

Never Mind the Swine Flu: Books About the Plague and Other Diseases

When you cough and sneeze and the hypochondrium sets in, the best cure is to read about a disease you definitely don’t have (or do you?), be it the Black Death or smallpox or cholera or the always-threatening zombie plague. These books go into all the clinical details about symptoms, contagions, and cures (or lack thereof) so you’ll know exactly what you’re up against and how much Tami-Flu you’ll need. You’ll also sniffle (do you have a cold or are you just sad?) as heroes and heroines help and hinder each other on the road to good health. You might not be convinced that it’s just allergies when you’re done reading these books, but you’ll definitely appreciate your health.

The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carell, 2003, Dutton Books (Nonfiction/ European History/ American History/ 18th Century)

Our parents and grandparents might still bear the scars of their smallpox vaccination, but today’s children are free from the threat of that deadly disease. The Speckled Monster is the story of how two individuals emerged from the epidemic-ravaged eighteenth century and began the fight that made smallpox a disease of the past. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a clever and wealthy London aristocrat who managed to beat the disease—a feat that was the exception rather than the rule. In Boston, hard-working Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was also a smallpox survivor. Separated by an ocean and a significant class divide, Lady Mary and Dr. Boylston began working, in their own ways, on introducing the African concept of inoculation. A patient was purposefully infected with a small bit of live smallpox material, and that patient would get a mild case of the disease and be forever immune to the deadlier forms of smallpox. We know it works today, but people of the eighteenth century thought the idea ridiculous and mad--which only made Lady Mary and Dr. Boylston try harder. Written almost like a novel, with dialogue and conversation taken from diaries and letters, The Speckled Monster presents the portraits of two everyday revolutionaries who flouted medical convention put their trust in the power of prevention. There’s a lot of science and fact, but by grounding the story in the real lives and words of these unique individuals, The Speckled Monster becomes both a relevant history and a dramatic story.

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, 1992, Bantam Books (Science Fiction/ Historical Fiction) 

Kivrin is a student of history and time travel at Oxford in 2048. With the help of her devoted professor, she’s about to go back in time to the Middle Ages of the fourteenth century for the ultimate historical research. Kivrin has been prepped in every aspect of time travel, but nothing can prepare her for a virus that hits home in the twenty-first century, trapping her in the past and causing an error in where--and when--she ends up. She finds herself smack-dab in the middle of a Black Plague outbreak. With everyone at home too sick to find her, Kivrin can’t help but become deeply involved in the lives of the people in this small disease-ridden village. The Doomsday Book alters between two storylines, one in the past and one in the future, both taken equally unaware—despite the supposed advancement of the future—by this new and deadly threat. And both communities respond with suspicion and fear, and ultimately with compassion as neighbor cares for neighbor regardless of the century of their birth. Award-winning author Connie Willis writes strong characters, her vision of the future is detailed and realistic, and her historical research is impeccable. The tension between the past and future is palpable, the story is harrowing and fraught with suspense, and the reader will be irresistibly drawn into this remarkable tale than spans the centuries.

The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Mightiest Army by Stephen Talty, 2009, Crown Publishers (Nonfiction/ European History/ 19th Century)

In 1811, Napoleon Bonaparte was the undisputed emperor of forty-five million people. His French Empire spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Russian borders, from northern Germany to southern Spain. He was a master of the art of conquest. True, Spanish rebels fought against his rule and Great Britain was still free, but Napoleon was still the most powerful leader of the day. Until, that is, he decided to send his enormous, state-of-the-art army into Russia. Utter and total defeat was in the cards for Napoleon for the first time, but not from the Russian army. No, Napoleon’s soldiers carried their deaths with them from the start—in a tiny microbe clinging to their gear called typhus. In The Illustrious Dead author Stephen Talty traces the fall of one of the greatest armies the world has ever seen and shows how one little pathogen altered the course of history. From the tsar’s palace in Moscow to the bedsides of stricken soldiers, and with the giant personality of Napoleon Bonaparte hanging over it all, this is a fascinating book rich in historical and scientific detail.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, 2001, Penguin Books (Historical Fiction)

In 1665, Anna Frith is an eighteen-year-old mother and widow in a rural English village. Anna is befriended by the vicar and his wife, who teaches her how to read. The vicar convinces Anna to take in lodgers, but when a tailor from London boards at Anna’s house, he brings with him more than rent money. Hidden in one of his bundles of fabric is an infected flea. The flea bites a rat, the rat bites a villager, and the Black Plague is suddenly sweeping through the remote town. The village voluntarily shuts itself off from the rest of the world to contain the horrible disease (a fact based on the true-life story of the real village of Eyam). For the rest of the year, we live with young Anna as she experiences first-hand the devastating effects of disease, death, and despair. Year of Wonders is an elegant tale for all its heartbreak and Anna’s story is a triumph over human tragedy in all its forms. Author Geraldine Brooks’ prose is lyrical even while she describes the worst that the plague brings out in people; her treatment of Anna’s intelligence and grace results in a compelling portrait. It’s not always an easy book to read, but it is a fine example of historical fiction and the lessons learned from the past.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Deadliest Epidemic—and How it Changed the Way We Think About Disease, Cities, Science, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, 2006, Penguin Books (Nonfiction/ British History/ 19th Century)

When cholera struck a London neighborhood in1854, it became the deadliest epidemic the city had ever seen. Victorian London has a reputation even today as an era of progress and wealth, and it was indeed a city on the verge of immense cultural and industrial growth. But science and medicine still had a long way to go—no one knew about germs or how contagions were spread or how to effectively treat many of the diseases that killed people every day. And the study of cholera was especially bogged down by old-fashioned beliefs. Doctors of the day were convinced that the disease was spread by foul odors in the air. London was indeed a stinky city, but the notion was way off base. When a single physician, Dr. John Snow, presented the theory that cholera was in fact spread by contaminated water, he was dismissed by the bureaucracy that was supposedly responsible for public health. But he was right, and The Ghost Map is the story of how he proved it and paved the way for much of the understanding about the spread of diseases that we take for granted today. Author Steven Johnson uses Snow’s experiences to shed light on the evolution of civilizations and the organization of cities, but his story is firmly centered on the real people who lived and died in the epidemic, including devoted minister Henry Whitehead who walked the streets of his Soho neighborhood to keep track of who, when, and where the disease struck. Cholera is a small threat these days, but The Ghost Map reminds us that the foundations of our sleek modern cities were laid down hundreds of years ago, and that the threats of the past are never too far from the present. An engrossing and lively book, The Ghost Map is certain to entertain—and educate.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, 2006, Crown Books (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Horror) 

Ten years ago, the zombie plague swept the globe. Now, our narrator has taken it upon himself to document the stories of those lucky enough to survive. And, oh the horror. From early breakouts in China to full-scale military tactics in America, different characters tell their stories in their own voices to our intrepid author Max Brooks (son of Mel and author of the all-too-comedic Zombie Survival Guide). There’s an undercurrent of social and political criticism that’s hard to resist, and let’s face it—nothing is as heart-stopping and attention-grabbing as hoards of the undead moaning and lurching over the ruins of Tokyo and New York, across the freezing plains of Iceland and Canada, and into the worlds’ oceans to sink into the waves and pop up on beaches far away, sopping wet but hungry for human flesh. Despite the outrageous premise, the pain and outrage that the survivors express is real and tangible and much less like a mockumentary than you’d expect. In fact, World War Z is written with such realism that you’ll begin to think it’s all too real. Don’t worry—it’s highly unlikely that your sniffling cold will transform you into a member of the walking dead. But you can never be too careful, so take care of yourself, watch your back, and keep a copy of World War Z in your pocket at all times.