Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Friday, September 9, 2011
Last week I read the new book Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture. This is a collection of ruminations on the most quotable quotes from those things held dear by self-proclaimed geeks and nerds everywhere: Comic books, movies, Fantasy and Science Fiction books, and television, among others. The premise of the book is that these well-known and oft-quoted phrases are more than just a secret language allowing Geeks to find each other, but form a body of wisdom that are part of a secular, Pop Culture, mythic interpretation of the universe. A variety of authors contributed to this book and the whole was edited by Stephen Segal.
I need to say up front here that Steve is a friend of mine, and has been for quite some time now. I first met Steve when I was writing articles for In Pittsburgh Newsweekly and he came on staff as an Arts editor and eventually moved on to the Editor in Chief position. He also became a customer of mine at Phantom of the Attic Comics and our mutual love and shared interest in these topics cemented our friendship. We have had both a professional and personal relationship ever since. Steve is the editor perhaps most responsible for shaping my journalistic writing skills, and as a writer I followed him from In Pittsburgh, to Whirl Magazine and Pittsburgh Magazine.
So I'm kind of biased to like what he does is what I'm saying here. With that caveat in mind, read on.
Since leaving Pittsburgh Steve has worked for Weird Tales Magazine, won a Hugo Award, and is currently an editor at Quirk Books. Geek Wisdom is simply the most perfect project that Steve could have done. This so clearly reads like most of the conversations I have ever had with him. He has tapped into a concept here that every Geek knows deep in their soul. We all have these conversations all of the time. Our pursuits are not the frivolous, ephemeral things most people would believe, but are the result of a tremendous amount of thought, intelligence and, yes, wisdom.
The book begins with the well-known quote from the first appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. “With Great Power there must also come, great responsibility!” Since I fall primarily in the category of comics geek, this made me very happy. I see this as one of the truest things ever said in comics, and it provides one of the most pure motivations for a hero ever. But beyond the scope of the comic it is something anyone who wields power in any form to remember, whether that is political power or physical power, or whatever. Our words, the words of each and every one of of us, have to power to inspire or to hurt. We need to be aware of the power we have over those around us every day, and to use them responsibly.
And that's just where the book begins. While it does deal with heavy issues it never loses its sense of humor. That alone is one of the hallmarks of Geek Wisdom.
No matter how secular our society has become, or how far from traditional religion anyone has gone, we are all still seeking meaning in our lives, a way of understanding our place in the world and the universe. We are looking for stories by which to live.
Geek Wisdom does not present itself as a replacement for more traditional spiritual paths or religions. It does point out that wisdom exists wherever one chooses to look for it. Most of the analyzed quotes in the book fall firmly within the boundaries of wisdom established by those traditional paths. Pop Culture wisdom is the wisdom of the ages, tarted up in a new post-modern outfit.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
I recently read both Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World by Deepak Chopra. That's probably a HUGE surprise to everyone who knows me and my interests. Both books covered the same general topics: The concept of the superhero as an image/icon/idea to aspire to (that's a huge simplification). What follows is not meant so much as a review of either of these, but very quick reactions to them.
Morrison makes the point that we are all becoming superheroes and illustrates this through a combination of analysis of the symbol of the superhero through specific comic books and characters, as well as through a sometimes off-topic personal autobiography of his life in comics. I've talked to some people at the store and seen some critiques online that the autobio parts are where he lost people. I found his whole approach interesting. I liked that he made the topic personal and viewed it through the lens of his own experience. I think this was necessary for the point he was making. He claims the title of “Magician” for himself and I think he very definitely views his life as the life of a superhero, at least given the definition of it he proposes. This approach is self-reflective and creates a recursive interplay of the more esoteric ideas he presents with real life experience and examples. A lot of his experiences, specifically his abduction/awakening, can be hard to swallow as “factual” but I accept that he believes it as his truth. Whatever the “truth” of this event it led him on a journey of self-discovery that has been transformational in his personal life. I know a lot of people just can't get past the mystical nature of what he is saying, but if you can't believe it “really happened” then approach it as a metaphor and move on.
Personally, I like his approach a lot (more than most of his actual comics these days). He reflects a lot of the ideas and attitudes I have about comics and superheroes role in pop culture. I won't bore you all with the number of times I was reading this book and thought to myself, “Hey! That's exactly how I covered this topic in my class!” This belief was reinforced last week when I had lunch with one of my students and she said pretty much the same thing, unsolicited by me.
Chopra's book was less impressive to me. The primary reason for this is that Chopra is very obviously an outsider to comics culture, and as such his manuscript is riddled with factual errors. I'm boggled that an editor, or his son Gotham, who is a comics fan and has worked in the industry, didn't correct these before the book went to press. His knowledge of esoteric thought and spiritual matters is great, and I applaud anyone who attempts to present work that makes us all take stock of our way of living in the world and presenting a metaphor for personal growth. I consider myself a prime example of someone who learned a lot of his basic morals and sense of right and wrong from the superheroes I grew up with. But his errors in comic book specifics undermine the perception of validity of the rest of the book. It really wouldn't have taken much to ascertain that Wolverine does not physically transform into into anything like he claims (“...to a range of superheroes like the Incredible Hulk and Wolverine, hereoes who physically transform themselves are plentiful and perennial”), or that Storm from the X-Men doesn't physically become an actual storm (“... or the character Storm transforming into a lightning storm.”).
The other problem I see is Chopra's undifferentiated, generic use of the word Superhero. He uses it all-inclusively. “Superheroes do” this. “Superheroes are” that. It's as if he believes that each and every superhero embodies all of the seven laws of spirituality. This is not only untrue but serves to limit the concept of the superhero and ignores the vast differences in characterization that has taken place over the years. If at any point he had stated that he was using the term as an all-encompassing archetype (and I would have the same problems with that in terms of limitation), or using it the same way a lot of texts refer to Buddha-nature, as an ideal to aspire to, I don't think I would be bothered. I didn't see that distinction in the text and as a result his statements came across as ill-informed, and more importantly, in a way that demeaned (or at least didn't acknowledge) the complexity of comics and the superhero.
Chopra's book is still worth reading for the underlying spiritual ideas if you haven't been exposed to them, but the specifics about comics are very light, and off-putting to those of us who know this stuff better than he does. Morrison's book is the opposite in many ways. His approach is based on an in-depth knowledge of the history and symbolism of comics, but due to his personal spin much of it is so idiosyncratic and specific that his point in the broader sense can get lost.
I love the fact that both of these books are available. It's symbolic of the increased interest in comics as well as the broader base of knowledge and academia being applied to them. Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend.
Separate links for books and Kindle editions.
Friday, September 2, 2011
I went to the first ever Pittsburgh Zine Fair last night at AIR (Artist Image Resource) on the Northside last night. Once again I am highly impressed with the sheer amount of great material being produced in this city and the community that supports it. The variety of topics covered in the zines represented is amazing. There were mini-comics, poetry chapbooks, art books, music zines, zines of political activism, and those that deal with all of the above and defy easy categorization.
I was intrigued by some of the conversation about the role of the internet in this sort of DIY atmosphere. It's been said that writing/producing is 3% inspiration and 97% staying the hell offline, and I think there's some truth to that. It can be a tremendous time-waster, I do see the internet as a great way of increasing the visibility of your work, finding a bigger audience for whatever you have to say, and most importantly, networking.
As my posts here indicate, I'm an old guy when it comes to this type of scene. I was putting together mini-comics by hand and selling them through the mail before a lot of the people at last night's vent were born. That is not meant to be an insult or demeaning to what they do. This is their t ime and I support the effort because I remember what it is like to want to get your work out there. I still do.
But I remember the days when it was really difficult to find an audience, or to let anyone else know what you were doing. When I was doing mini-comics and contributing to zines it was all through the mail. Today, one status update on Facebook lets more people know about your product than did in the entire time I was involved in the scene. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount out there, but it's possible to get it out there!
There is also the community. There were probably lots of other people in Pittsburgh doing the sort of thing I was in the early 90's. I knew about six of them. To walk into AIR last night and see that many people involved in this was remarkable. We were far more isolated in our efforts back then, simply because there weren't as many avenues of communication.
What an awesome display of creativity and mutual support. One more reason to celebrate Pittsburgh's scene.
Here's a view from one of the show's organizer's, Nick Marino.