Friday, May 30, 2008

The Best Fantasy Trilogy

I really really really want to declare this a tie. I really do. I almost felt that I had to hold off posting this to let the bloom of newness wear off and consider my feelings from the perspective of time and distance.

But I can't, really. I can't wait and I can't declare a tie because how can two things be The Best of one thing? They can't. And that's why it's my sad and excited responsibility to say that The Lord of the Rings has been supplanted and The Best Fantasy Trilogy is the His Dark Materials set by Philip Pullman.

I just finished the set last night, and I was simply blown away. That's all I can say. This was a phenomenal piece of work, from start to finish.

I only picked up the first book, The Golden Compass, in the first place because of the controversy surrounding the movie made out of the book. The movie looked dumb, but the book sounded interesting, so I checked it out of the library. I didn't expect much, to be honest. My opinion has always been that "The Lord of the Rings" is the standard bearer for fantasy works, so much so that just about every fantasy book you read in some way rips off Tolkien's work.

In some ways, fantasy writers can't be blamed for that. Tolkien wasn't the first fantasy writer, but he might have been the broadest; his books were so grand in scope that they occupied the entire fantasy field. He had elves and dwarves and dragons and giant spiders and wizard battles and orcs and goblins and trolls and mysterious Balrogs and underground empires and malicious mountains... the list goes on and on and on.

So it's tough, then, if you're trying to write fantasy, not to seem like you're ripping off Tolkien. I know that when I first read a book about a young wizard who wears glasses (and who shall remain nameless because I don't want to get sued by any authors who maybe have gotten a little too big for their British britches or other parts of their wardrobe) and that wizard went into a "Forest" that was "Forbidden" and found a bunch of spiders, the first thing I thought was "Mirkwood."

It also was not lost on me that the rather smallish wizard-- let's call him "Larry Lotter" -- faced off against a giant spider at one point. Remember "Shelob?" Tolkien fans do.

It's not like that's the only book that certainly didn't rip off Lord of the Rings but seemed to. If you have an elf or a dwarf or a wizard or a major battle in your fantasy book, it's going to call to mind Lord of the Rings or it's going to suck, the same way that all space movies either seem like "Star Wars" or they're crappy. Throughout my life I've read fantasy books that in one way or the other seemed to be extensions of what Tolkien created. Even the goblins in Xanth and Phaze seeming a lot like the goblins that Gollum used to hunt using the Ring.

Even the concept of The Ring carries over into other works -- the object of power that must be destroyed or must be gained to win or lose the battle, depending.

Tolkien didn't invent all of these things, by any means. But he made them so real, so intricately crafted, so well-done that it became inconceivable to picture them in any other way, and they got so ingrained in our mind that way that it was hard to break away from them. It would be like having a skinny Santa Claus with a handlebar moustache; there's no reason that he couldn't look like that, but it'd just be wrong.

That was the first thing that impressed me about His Dark Materials. Expecting a crummy Tolkien rip-off that wouldn't have hit my radar at all if the religious people of the world hadn't brought it to my attention, I was amazed from the very beginning how different Pullman's world was from my world and from my expectations.

[FROM HERE ON OUT, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS]. I'm not going to categorize everything about the books that's different, but two big examples that stick in my mind are spectres and the daemons.

Take daemons first. Pullman's people all have "daemons," which are not a soul or spirit or companion but a mixture of all of them; they're an animal companion that is linked to and part of but not quite joined with their human. The daemons are extensions of or reflections of their people but act independently of them. They're like a conscience and a friend at the same time; they have their own opinions and can act independently, but they and their human are linked, and they reflect some essential aspect of their human. The concept is a fascinating one and one I've never run across in any book I've ever read before, and Pullman handles it brilliantly, fleshing out the concept carefully across three books.

Then there's spectres, the other new thing out of many that I'm singling out. as a completely new concept that I don't recall seeing before. Spectres are ghostly apparitions, visible only to adults and other ghosts, which prey only on adults and leave children unharmed. [SPOILER ALERT] As it turns out, they do that by eating people's daemons, although that's not explained for some time in the books, but when they attack someone, they don't kill them or eat their blood or drain their mind; they kill the daemon and leave people uninterested in anything. One victim, attacked while wading across a river, remains in the river, standing there, not caring about anything.

In those two concepts, Pullman brings across the essence of what it really new about his books and what captivated me and made these books more than just fantasy novels.

Good fiction, including good fantasy fiction, expands from its storyline into something universal without being pedantic about it. The first rule of writing is to tell a good story. The second rule of writing is to make that good story one that causes the reader to understand himself or his world or something a little better or differently or more clearly. Pullman does all of those, and daemons and spectres are at the heart of it.

I have to digress for a moment to explain: Pullman's books have been attacked as being anti-God or anti-Christian or anti-church, and I suppose you could read them that way if you're narrow-minded or if your beliefs are easily challenged. My beliefs are not so shaky and while I understood where people would get the idea that he's attacking a church or all churches -- he says at one point that the Catholic Church is based on a lie -- I also understood that these were characters in a work of fiction saying that. Specifically, these characters [REALLY REALLY BIG SPOILER ALERT] live in a fictional world where God is not the "Creator" of the universe, but just an angel who took charge early on and began running the universes and now is old and decrepit and largely the pawn of his associates.

That in and of itself is a unique, completely different type of storyline that I haven't heard before. Yes, the idea that "God is dead" or out of touch or otherwise not really running things is around before, but you have to read Pullman's work to understand why this one is so new and different.

It's important to know that, and I had to digress, because attacking Pullman's work by saying it's "anti-church" ignores what his books are saying; Pullman himself says he's an atheist and that may be true, too -- I never believe that people are really atheists, because it's a position that's very difficult to defend and they can't really defend it -- and he certainly writes the part, because one of his characters sets off on a quest to kill God, but Pullman's books are in fact quite spiritual and positive, and they are that way in part because of daemons.

Pullman posits that everyone -- including us; our world is part of his trilogy -- has a daemon, a part of themselves that is both linked to and separate from them, a part that exemplifies something unique about that person while also being a separate entity. He makes clear that it's not a "soul" but something else entirely; you can survive the loss of your daemon but not for long, and having your daemon severed from you or killed will first turn you into little more than a living lump of disinterest and later will probably kill you.

Alongside that daemon, Pullman gives people a body and a spirit, the body that lives in this world and is envied by the angels, and a spirit that travels to the world of the dead -- accompanied by our own Death, which is yet another entity that accompanies us, closely or distantly, throughout our life; our Death, like our Daemon, is a constant companion that is unique to us and has a bodily form.

These are spiritual concepts; the characters in the books travel through a variety of worlds, accompanied by a variety of entities who have different relationships with their daemons and souls and spirits and Deaths, but all of those other entities are not human. Pullman says that if you lack flesh and spirit and Death and your daemon, you are not human, and only humans with all of those things can experience the full range of life -- from our human lives with the senses and treats of the flesh to our deaths to our journey through the Afterlife to, eventually, dissipation.

Those are spiritual concepts; those are religious ideas. Those are the basic teachings that any organized religion tries to get across: that humans have something of the divine and something that is human and that we are unique among creation for that, and that makes our journey through creation unique, and imbues us with a responsibility towards that creation -- something that Pullman explicitly recognizes when he has a character [THIS IS THE BIGGEST SPOILER YOU WILL EVER READ] opt to leave behind happiness because short-term happiness for her would mean that she would not live a full life and her full life is necessary to turn her world into The Republic Of Heaven.

You see why I say that maybe people who say they are atheists aren't really? Pullman's whole trilogy was, in the eyes of some, aimed at tearing down religion, and yet the ultimate message of the book is that human beings becuase of their special nature have an obligation to build the Republic of Heaven. Pullman may not like organized religion, but he has written a trilogy that says that a specific person had a specific quality in her that meant she had to go through a lot of troubles and tests, which, when she survives them and returns to her world alive and intact, will help her lead her people into the Republic of Heaven. That does not sound atheistic to me.

But it does sound new, which is where I began on this huge digression. And everything about His Dark Materials is not just new, but also fantastically well done. I said that the first rule of writing is to tell a good story, and Pullman does that. He creates characters that are real and well-rounded and who grow on you over time and who are complex. He leaves you guessing about motives and keeps the pace of the story moving...

-- which is another place where, unfortunately, he outshines Tolkien, who had a tendency to drone on and on for pages about things that just weren't interesting. Did you ever try to read The Silmarillion? God, it's awful. And there are whole sections of The Fellowship of the Ring that might as well be an instruction manual--

...and follows a bunch of disparate threads of storylines that, in the great tradition of fantasy, realign at the end in ways that you might have imagined or might not have but they feel fresh, anyway.

Characters, in fact, are Pullman's strong suit. His characters, even the bit players, are fascinating, and he doesn't spend a lot of time talking about them; you get to know them through their actions and the story. He introduces them out of nowhere; suddenly, "Lee Scoresby" appears and you're thinking who's this? and a few chapters later you're holding your breath...

-- yes, I was holding my breath as I read --

while you read about Lee holding off a set of Russian soldiers on a rocky path, because you don't want any harm to come to him.

Standing above all of the other characters, too, is Mrs. Coulter, the woman who is so duplicitous, so untrustworthy, that the reader simply never believes anything that he or she reads about her. When Mrs. Coulter stops to make tea at one point, Pullman has built up the distrust to such a level that you think the tea must be part of a trap. How Pullman handles her character, the reason why he builds her up to such a level, is one of the masterstrokes of literature ever. I won't say anything about it to spoil it but I will say that Mrs. Coulter is one of the great characters in the history of writing, and one of the most complex because there is nothing about her that is worth liking or admiring and yet Pullman will make you like and admire her while hating her still.
All of these great characters go on this questing, battling journey through a ton of different worlds, all of which are more or less related to each other in different ways, and the story just gets bigger and bigger in scope. It starts with one little girl in a small college and moves on to a group of people going to rescue another group of people and turns into a couple of groups of people fighting each other over that rescue and eventually graduates into all the beings on all the levels of existence joining up into two giant armies to fight a battle that literally is for everything...

...and at the exact moment when it swells to that crescendo, Pullman takes it back down to the personal level again, and wraps things up somehow on both levels at the same time.

And all of it, like I keep saying, is new and different and fresh. It was something that was completely unlike any story I've ever read before. I just kept turning page after page and being astonished at how new and great the books kept getting. There have been a lot of great fantasy books written, but most of those were interesting stories that were well-written; they didn't break new ground, and it seemed as though they couldn't because Lord of the Rings had broken all the ground.

That's what made Lord of the Rings loom so large. But it lacked one thing; as great as Tolkien's story was, as compelling as his characters were, as broad in scope and well defined as his writing was, his story did not move off the page and into your thoughts. His story was... just a story. There's nothing wrong with that; it's the first rule of writing, after all.

But for true greatness, a story must begin to occupy a spot in your mind; it has to take root in your thoughts and get you not just caring about the characters, but absorbed in the philosophy of the story and ruminating on it, however consciously or unconsciouly you do so. It has to rise up past your eyes and into your mind, making you care about the characters because you understand them and their concerns and their concerns are somehow your concerns, too.

Lord of the Rings, as a trilogy, had a lot going for it, but because it defined so well the boundaries of a fantasy world, its heroes and villains and denizens have stopped being wondrous, the way that New York City stops being wondrous if you live there. And Tolkien's books never had grander scope that made it transcend being "just a story." You remember Tolkien's stories, but you don't think about them.

His Dark Materials presented something new and brilliant and entertaining. In time, Pullman may be seen to have redefined fantasy; in time, his witches and bears and angels may be so familiar to us that they are like the backs of our hands and they will join Tolkien's elves and dwarves in the lineup of the traditional; but for now, they are as unheard of as any characters we've ever seen. Those characters carry with them not just a great story, but a great deal of things to think about and mull over, as well.

Every other time I've read a great book, or set of books, like this, I finish, and I close the book, and I set it on my chest and I just relish it for a moment. Then, I think I wish all books could be like this.

I didn't wish that this time. I don't want any books to be like this. I want these books to stand, alone, at the top of the pantheon for all time as The Best Fantasy Trilogy.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Best Scary Kids' Song

Some kids' songs do not make much sense to me. That's why I generally dispense with "kids" songs when I sing to the Babies! and instead focus on the songs I know by heart. Those are generally by The Beatles and The Violent Femmes, but you work with what you have. They don't actually understand that "Rocky Raccoon" is a sad song, anyway.

I have to focus on grown-up songs because traditional kids' songs are weird, confusing, or scary. Take "Pony Boy," for example. I first learned to sing "Pony Boy" when my sister was born; I'm ten years older than her, so I was old enough to do all that baby stuff for her. Here's how "Pony Boy" goes:

Pony Boy, Pony Boy, won't you be my pony boy.
Marry me, carry me, ride away with me.
Don't say no, here we go, giddy-up and go
Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, WHOA!
Pony Boy.

(As you sing it, you bounce the baby on your knee like he/she is riding a horse, and when you say "Whoa!" you lift the baby way up in the air).

We used to sing that to my sister, but it was weird. I couldn't help wonder, as I sang it: Who is talking? Is she the Pony Boy and I'm singing to her? Or am I the Pony Boy and she's supposed to be singing to me, which makes more sense? And then I'd think Or am I overthinking this?

Now, I sing that song to Mr F, but it's even weirder. Is he the Pony Boy? And who's he singing to, if he is? It's so confusing that we mostly dispense with the rest of the song and focus on the "WHOA!" because he likes that the best anyway.

As a song, "Pony Boy" is preferable to the scarier end of the childrens' song ouevre.

Everyone knows about the scariness of kids' songs like "Ring Around The Rosie" and how that's actually a song that became popular as a way to ward off the Black Plague. Or "London Bridge," -- not Fergie's version -- where kids sing about London Bridge falling down and a prisoner getting caught and sent to prison not because he's guilty but because he can't pay the bribe to set him free. Those are obvious ones. There are less-0bviously-scary kids' songs to worry about, songs that range from the somewhat disturbing to the downright frightening.

On the somewhat disturbing end: "I've Been Working On The Railroad" and "The Wheels On The Bus." What are these songs supposed to be teaching kids? Cheat on your husband while he works? Don't trust mass transportation? I don't like these songs.

In Railroad, I've been workin' on the railroad, all the livelong day, just waiting for Dinah to blow her horn... but someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, just a strummin' on the old banjo. There's a euphemism if ever I heard one.

Meanwhile, the wheels on the bus go round and round -- until the engine on the bus blows and everyone has to get off, probably ending up late for work and getting laid off, having to go home and tell the kids that it's macaroni for dinner that night again.

Another disturbing one? Three Little Fishies. Seems innocent enough:

Three little fishies in a little bitty pool.
Three little fishies and a mama fishy too.
Swim, said the Mama Fishy, swim if you can,
And they swam and they swam right over the dam.

But that's only if you sing the first verse. There's three more:

"Stop" said the mama fishie, "or you will get lost"
The three little fishies didn't wanna be bossed
The three little fishies went off on a spree
And they swam and they swam right out to the sea

"Whee!" yelled the little fishies, "Here's a lot of fun
We'll swim in the sea till the day is done"
They swam and they swam, and it was a lark
Till all of a sudden they saw a shark!

"Help!" cried the little fishies, "Gee! look at all the whales!"
And quick as they could, they turned on their tails
And back to the pool in the meadow they swam
And they swam and they swam back over the dam
. . .

There are those who might say that the message of that story is that if you don't listen to your parents, you'll get into trouble. Those people do not have children. Children never get the right message. A kid, even a fish-kid, who refused to listen to Mama and swam over the dam and sees a shark and a whale and gets back home is not going to say to him- or herself "Gosh, I'd better listen to Mama next time." No, what the fish will say is "See, Mama? You said I'd get in trouble but the sharks didn't eat me so obviously I know what I'm doing." Then he or she will get drunk on Friday night and you've lost control. Trust me on this. I have extensive experience being a kid and being around them. They will get it wrong.

Kids' songs get even scarier and more confusing than that. How about "Where Is Thumbkin?" You know this one: Hold your hands behind your back, and sing:

Where is Thumbkin, Where is Thumbkin
Here I am, here I am
How are you today, sir?
Very fine I thank you.
Run away, run away.

While you hold up first one thumb, then the other, then pretend they're talking to each other. One thumb asks "how are you," the other responds, and so on. What could be wrong with that, you ask? I'll tell you: why are they running away? If Thumbkin, and Tall Man and Pointer and Ring Man are all very fine I thank you, why do they run? They're up to something.

Those songs are all somewhat obscurely weird and frightening. Other songs just come out and tell you people are going to die or that life isn't worth even going through the motions.

Teaching kids the futility of life at a young age is important, apparently. Otherwise, we'd have no use for "Hole In the Bucket," where a man sings about the hole in the bucket that he can't patch because to patch it he needs to cut something with an axe and the axe needs to be sharpened and the stone is dry and he can't wet the stone because... there's a hole in the bucket. The lesson from that song? Don't even bother getting out of bed, kids.

Don't bother because life is not just futile, it's fatal. We know that because "There Was An Old Woman," a song that is marked by this closing line of virtually every stanza: I guess she'll die.

Ha-ha! Sing that one, grandma! Also, it teaches kids to have an eating disorder. The Old Woman's answer to every problem is to eat something.

Death is not just probable, but present, by the time we go from the Old Woman to "This Old Man,"in which an old man stalks a kid, probably touches him in a bad way (he played knick on the kid's knee and 'hive' ), then dies (he plays knick-knack in Heaven), then comes back to life as a ghost or something and plays knick-knack some more. Lesson: Kids, you will never get away from that creepy guy that's bothering you on the way home from school.

All of those pale in comparison to The Best Scary Kids' Song, which is "Big Rock Candy Mountain." I love this song; I loved it as a kid, when I had a 45 record and a little record player and would play it over and over; I loved it as an adult, when I'd sing it to kids. This is the version of the song that I always knew:

On a summer day
In the month of May
A burly bum came hiking
Down a shady lane
Through the sugar cane
He was looking for his liking
As he roamed along
He sang a song
Of the land of milk and honey
Where a bum can stay
For many a day
And he won't need any money

Oh the buzzin' of the bees
In the cigarette trees
Near the soda water fountain
At the lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
On the big rock candy mountain

There's a lake of gin
We can both jump in
And the handouts grow on bushes
In the new-mown hay
We can sleep all day
And the bars all have free lunches
Where the mail train stops
And there ain't no cops
And the folks are tender-hearted
Where you never change your socks
And you never throw rocks
And your hair is never parted

Oh, a farmer and his son,
They were on the run
To the hay field they were bounding
Said the bum to the son,
"Why don't you come
To that big rock candy mountain?"
So the very next day
They hiked away,
The mileposts they were counting
But they never arrived
At the lemonade tide
On the big rock candy mountain

That version is bad enough; I don't know how it got to be considered a kids' song. Cigarettes? Gin? Burly bums? It's a land of Teamsters setting up some sort of communist society. Plus, I think the bum abducts the farmers' son at the end of that.

But that's not the real version of the song. The real version of the song is even scarier. The real version of the song came out in 1928, and was sung by Harry McClintock:

That version makes it clear just what's going on: people during the Great Depression, criminals, especially, are dreaming of a land where they can get free smokes and lemonade... and avoid the cops and if they get bit by dogs, the dogs won't hurt because of their rubber teeth.

What makes that song so scary is first that it's so rooted in real life; in its yearning for jails that you can leave, and lakes of stew, and porters having to tip their hats and the lack of shovels and picks, you can hear the longing of the singer for a place where life is a little easier and where he'll be treated like a human being again, and have some food and drink.

But, second, it's also a song that imagines that even in a magical land like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, even in a place where there's lemonade springs and the bluebird sings, life is still nasty, brutish and short -- because on The Big Rock Candy Mountain, they don't just paddle around the lake of stew in a big canoe. They also have lynch mobs: they hung the jerk that invented work.

That's what makes "Big Rock Candy Mountain" The Best Kids' Song, though. Being a kid, as I recall and as I imagine now looking at my own kids, is exactly like that song: you're in a world where life is magical, wonderful, and terrible. As a kid, food appears magically for you; you don't know how hard your parents had to work to make sure that you had Cookie Crisp on the table in the morning, and milk is always just in the refrigerator. Everything in the world is new and exciting; I took our Babies! to the hardware store -- the hardware store-- and they stared around and smiled and laughed like it was Disneyland.

At the same time, life is hard. Your brother keeps stealing your little plastic pig. Strangers come up to you and loom over you and touch you. Parents go away for the day even though you don't want them to. You bump your head and fall on your knee and get bit by the dog and touch the hot stove.

"Big Rock Candy Mountain" encapsulates that: there's a land that's fair and bright... but there's still jails. It doesn't sugarcoat that there are bad parts to life, but it manages to somehow be hopeful and a little happy at the same time. The sun shines every day and there ain't no snow.

It teaches you, too, to appreciate the little things in life. You never change your socks. The hay is soft. You may not have a bed or much in the way of clothing, but if you look at it the right way, those are good things.

Most of what we tell kids as they're growing up makes no sense, or will be misinterpreted by them in some way. "Big Rock Candy Mountain," The Best Scary Kids' Song doesn't mess up its message with sharks or prisoners or Thumbkins-that-have-social-phobia; it just quietly communicates that kids should dream of a better life, but at the same time, understand this life and make sure they appreciate it.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Best Misunderstood Comics Character Who's Not Actually A Villain.

It was tough to choose which superhero to pretend to be as a kid. You've got to pick carefully because if you choose wrong, your day might as well be over.

You've got to first consider whether your superhero will suck. Who wants to pretend to be Aquaman? Unless all your friends agree that you'll be in the ocean, you're out. It was not likely, either, that we'd be in the ocean because we were at the park where there was sand and a tornado slide and a jungle gym shaped like half a dome made out of metal bars. So is all that stuff underwater? Plus, if you pretend your underwater everyone has to make swimming motions all the time and talk liiiikeee thiiiiiiisssss because that's how your voice sounds underwater.

You also have to pick a superhero whose powers you can in some way emulate without looking dumb. Superman is out because to fly you have to run. For some reason, Spider-Man was in even though we couldn't webswing. But you can, as Spider-Man, climb the jungle gym. You can also use your webbing to get you out of the sand, which inevitably would be quicksand.

As a kid, all sand is quicksand. I'd be interested to see how common quicksand is in real life. I picture all of the jungles of Africa, plus about 98% of the rainforest, being quicksand, based on what I believed as a kid.
There were certain superpowers that were great in comics but not so great in real life. Pick Green Lantern, and spend your day yelling "No, I made a giant green anvil there and a giant hammer and you're on the anvil and my giant green hammer came down on you and killed you." You don't want want to a superhero who has to keep telling other people what to envision.

Finally, I could not pick the guy I really wanted to be because even though his powers were great and he was cool, he was too obscure and all my friends and cousins would question whether I made him up.

The guy I always wanted to be was "Soljer." "Soljer" appeared in only one issue of one comic ever, but it's a comic that I've remembered, and kept, for 33 years now.

"Soljer" appeared in Superboy Starring The Legion Of Super-Heroes #210. His story was one that is all too common among our fighting men and women: he was a guy embroiled in war (World War VI, in this case), who, to save his troop, threw himself on top of a gamma bomb at the exact same time as he was struck by lightning. He was then buried by his compatriots, who lacked the grasp of basic science that they needed to understand that gamma bombs + lightning = still living soldier. That kind of thing happens all the time, I understand.

Later, while practicing superheroing, Lightning Lad misses Superboy -- hence the cover -- and accidentally wakes up Soljer, or reinvigorates him, or something. Soljer is remarkably well-preserved and now also has superpowers -- any weapon he imagines, he can use. So he can pretend he has a rifle, and imagine shooting it, and lasers will shoot out. He has a pistol that can level buildings, too.

Soljer goes on a rampage, completing his mission to destroy Metropolis, shooting it with his imaginary/ultrapowerful guns and bringing down building after building while the Legion and Superboy try in vain to stop him. They realize, just in time, what Soljer really is, and how to stop him by [SPOILER ALERT INVOLVING SUPERHEROES FROM THE FUTURE WHO CAN CHANGE SHAPE] having Chameleon Kid take the shape of Soljer's superior officer and tell him he did a good job.

With that, Soljer salutes, and dies.

No doubt, Bobby Darin has written a jaunty song about this whole story. But beyond that, you can probably see why I liked Soljer so much as a kid. He wrapped up into one storyline all the necessary things you need to pretend to be a superhero.

First, his powers were perfect: they were imaginary, too. So I could have just held out my rifle and shot and I'd be doing exactly what Soljer does.

Second, he was the latest in a long line of misunderstood city-wreckers who we think are wreaking havoc because they're evil, but really they're just misunderstood or not used to being giant-fire-turtles in our world or something like that. I was kind of a clumsy kid and prone to breaking parts of me or parts of our house. I identified with the misunderstood creature of destruction.

Third, Soljer had the perfect tragic storyline. Forget, for a moment, that his job was to destroy Metropolis, which was in America, which means that technically Soljer was an enemy trooper who had invaded America. I never focused on that. What I focused on was that Soljer's lot in life was a terrible, sad one. He had sacrificed everythign for his buddies, and then, when he realized there was a little more to do, went and did that, too, keeping it up until he was done. Or at least until he was tricked into thinking he was done and then died, which is more or less the same thing.

I like to think that I had that same can-do spirit. Not the can-do spirit that would allow me to invade America and try to destroy it singlehandedly; I told you to ignore that part. No, the can-do spirit I had was the kind of can-do spirit that would make me leap on a gamma bomb and then survive underground for centuries and then come back to life and continue to do my job. I did not actually have that kind of can-do spirit; I had the kind of "can-do" spirit that, when I was told to clean my room, would shove things under the bed and pull up the bedspread and run outside and hope for the best and then act indignant when Mom would get mad at me. But in my mind, my can-do spirit was much like Soljer's.

Soljer was an archetype -- he was the misunderstood villain who is not really villainous, and comics were full of those guys back then. The Lizard fought Spider-Man all the time, but he was really not bad; he was Dr. Curt Connors, who only wanted to regrow limbs and couldn't help that he always turned into a horrendous crocodile-manthing. There was Bizarro, who was the "opposite" of Superman but wasn't always evil; he was just misunderstood because he was imperfect. The Hulk was a misunderstood bad guy, for most of his history, who was always getting shot at but would stop to rescue women from under cars. People thought Spider-Man was a criminal. There was, too, "Solomon Grundy," a guy I never quite understood but who was like a white Hulk. I don't mean that in a racial way; he was white. Really white:

and if I recall correctly, he was treated like a bad guy but was really not that bad of a guy or maybe he was bad because he was mistreated. He fought, I think, the Swamp Thing, who himself was a misunderstood hero of sorts because people were always afraid of him. Maybe. I never really read Swamp Thing.

Misunderstood villains are a big part of American culture -- they are the bad guys who are just waiting to be good guys, or good guys who are, unfortunately, bad guys because they don't realize that they're really good guys -- like Bowler Hat Guy in "Meet The Robinsons," for example, a guy who wants to be bad, who thinks he's bad, but he's not really bad, he just hasn't had the opportunity to be good.

Isn't that America, in the end? Haven't we always been that way? Haven't we always been the misunderstood bad guy? We were the unruly problem child of the British Empire, demanding representation with our taxation (200 years later, we don't bother with the "without representation" part; we just demand no taxation) and insisting that the government's power came from the people, not from God. The British Empire looked at us the way we would later look at Godzilla and the way Superboy looked at Soljer -- as a bad guy, as someone who needed to be stopped before we trampled the subway/blew up Metropolis/undid centuries of world history focused on kings.

We won that battle, and have spent the next 232 years trying to convince people that we're not so bad, really. Okay, fine, we made all the Indians move to South Dakota and Canada. Yes, yes, we dug a big ditch in Panama to make it easier for us to dominate the world with our navy. Sure, we blew up some civilians with our atom bombs. Fine, yeah, we should have signed onto the Kyoto Treaty and maybe things would be better if we didn't just invade countries and bomb people whenever our presidents get a little bored or accused of things. We acknowledge all that, but we try to point out all the good we did, too -- we conquered the West! Invented TV! Cured smallpox. Okay, fine, we gave smallpox to natives, but then we cured it! And we're making the world safe for democracy, we think, by blowing up parts of it!

America periodically focuses on guys who seem to be villains but really aren't because that's us. We are the misunderstood villains of world history, and want desperately for the rest of the world to know that the only reason we're blowing up Metropolis is because we're confused after jumping on the gamma bomb and being buried for milennia.

In the comics, Soljer never got the chance to do what America has spent two centuries attempting; he never got the chance to turn from marauding amnesiac supervillain into tragically heroic figure. I could have done that for him, if I could have convinced the other kids that he was a real guy and they should let me be him. I could have made Soljer into a hero, and in doing that I'd have played my small role in advancing America's dream, in forwarding our progress towards that day when the world recognizes how it has always viewed us in the wrong light, and instead of hating us, loves us and realizes how we were good all along. I could have done that for our society.

Plus, I totally could have shot my cousin, who was always Batman. Soljer would have destroyed Batman.

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Punk Rock Pickle:

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Ever wonder who will win in a fight? What fight? ANY fight! My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad will tell you.

After 12 years of lessons, you'd think I'd at least get a chance to be a piano hero.

Caffeine, snacks, guitars, video games, rock'n'roll, chicks... oh, to be young again. I'm nearly forty. Just typing those things made my pants tight, my joints ache, and caused Sweetie to consult a divorce lawyer.

But for you people who aren't over the hill, ENGOBI has pretty much the only thing you'll want or need to do this summer: the "Don't Be a Piano Hero" contest. They want you to film videos of you and your friends rocking with Guitar Hero, then upload them to their website. In the meantime, as you do that, ENGOBI is going on tour with their ENGOBI girls to hand out snacks and free stuff.

Want more info on the contest? Click that link. But what more could you need to know? ENGOBI bills itself as "the love child of caffeine and snack chips." So a caffeinated snack wants you to play video games, rock out, become an internet star, get free stuff from them, meet some gals, and maybe win an Xbox-360 enabled customizes Fender Stratocaster.

Luckily for you, you don't have to face any competition from me. In my younger days, I'd have whipped out the old Atari 2600 joystick and show you a thing or two with it. Why, the way I could get that tank on Combat to move around...

But those days are gone now. You go rock out with Engobi. I'll just watch CBS or something.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Best Public Service Announcement

The Internet, my always-faithful friend, might just let me down for the first time ever.

I've spent the entire morning searching and searching for a clip from The Best Public Service Announcment, and I can't find it. As someone who has subcontracted his memory out to Google, that's disturbing. I've come to rely on the Internet to be instantly available to tell me what that song in the commercial was (Bounce With Me by Kreesha Turner) or how to get raccoons out of an old shed I'm tearing down (scare them out, which, FYI, doesn't work) or, in this case, to help me see, again, the old Public Service Announcement that I remember so well from my youth.

See, like everyone everywhere, I stopped at age 12 listening to people tell me what the right thing to do is. That's why all public service announcements are aimed at little kids, after all. After age 12, they're useless. Teenagers take PSAs as instructional manuals -- oh, man, I didn't know you could drink and drive. I'm trying that tonight. Adults simply tune them out because they don't apply to us at all; who's got time to worry about something called an 'environment' when we've got real worries -- like those raccoons in the shed. Get to us enough, and we'll actively wish against your public service -- I hope the environment is destroyed, because then those stupid raccoons would have to leave.

Prior to age 12, people can still be reached by public service announcements, which is why if something is being done right, or if people are doing good in the world, it's being done by people under age 12. They're the only ones who are listening. Global warming, tobacco companies, terrorists-- all are being fought, exclusively, by people under the age of 12. Adults' only contribution to this fight is to buy Girl Scout Cookies.

Lest you doubt me, too, answer this: Why hasn't Brad Pitt rebuilt New Orleans yet? It's because he's not under 12. Probably the little progress they've achieved is Maddox's work.

I'm no different than anyone else: I never paid attention to Public Service Announcements after age 12. Up until age 12, I did give a hoot. I did prevent all the forest fires I could. I did do... something about tidal pools, which I remember being of keen interest to me as a kid.

And most of all, I deplored construction in the woods, because of The Best Public Service Announcement, which I can't find on the Internet because the Internet is letting me down.

As a kid, I lived in the suburbs, and they were a place of great peril (as we know). But right behind us was "the woods." We were among those fortunate people who lived in a new suburb, so most of the farmland and woods had not been, yet, turned into streets named after the things you would have previously found on farmland and in the woods. We didn't have "Elm Lane," we had elm trees. (I now live on Elm Lane, but I have hickory trees.)

The woods, as a kid, were great. We had the "canyon," which was a little valley full of sumac trees. We had "the pine tree" which was a pine tree. There was "the swamp," which was a swamp. Okay, so we weren't the most creative kids ever; we did at least have "Kill Hill," a very, very steep hill named for what we imagined it would do if anyone ever rode a bike down it.

I spent a great deal of time in the woods as a kid, playing 'guns,' and riding bikes (not down Kill Hill!) and climbing the pine tree and, once, running away from home (I got as far as the field of stinging nettles, where I learned why they're called "stinging" nettles and why you shouldn't walk through them in shorts. My running away from home was called off pretty quickly.) We played hockey on the frozen swamp and generally wandered through the woods like suburban Huckleberry Finns.

My connection with "the woods" was why the public service announcement I loved so much affected me so greatly. And I've checked yet again and yet again cannot track it down. Here's what I recall of it:

A kid walked through the forest, and tells the camera that he has a secret place he calls the forest. He tells us that animals run there and birds fly there, etc. He moves on to a secret place he calls the meadow, where again birds fly and flowers grow and things. Finally, he says he has another place: men work there, buildings grow there, and we see a construction site. "I hope they never find my secret places," the kid says.

That PSA stuck with me all my life. A few years back, we took the kids on a nature hike and discovered a little area where the river flowed over a couple rocks to make a sort-of waterfall where you could wade up to your knees and sit and cool down. We hung out there, splashing and playing and climbing around. When we got up to leave, I looked back and said "I hope they never find my secret place."

The rest of the family looked at me like I was nuts. But that's because they never saw The Best Public Service Announcement.

They air these PSAs, tv stations do, all the time, about a variety of topics. If you go over to Youtube and search for "Public Service Announcements," you'll find that there's something like 16,000 of them listed there. Most of them are variations on a theme of some earnest actor looking at a camera and telling you that heroin is bad or parenting is good or parents on heroin are bad. Most of them stink and most of them are forgettable and are quickly forgotten.

Why? First, because most of them aren't well done. They're done cheaply and quickly and ineffectively. Compare PSAs to 'real' ads. 'Real' ads have production values and a storyline and thought given to them because there are hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into making us believe what the ad tells us. More effort goes into getting us to buy a certain type of paper towel than anyone would ever imagine.

PSAs, on the other hand, are typically done by some celebrity who has to work off his or her community service and just wants this over with. So while insurance companies can use CGI animation and hire a writer to parody nature shows and get you to think a gecko is drinking from a bubbler, PSAs get that guy who played Ross to stand in front of a blue screen, tell us not to drink, and then wave that star from the Rainbow Brite toys around. The message is clear: they don't believe enough in their cause to put any effort into it, so why should we?

But more importantly, these ads don't speak to us. They don't communicate in the language of anyone over the age of 12. They don't talk to anyone who has worries like whether someone will ask them to the prom, or whether those raccoons will bite, or whether the Internet will let them down.

Maybe it's because they're too earnest. When I was a kid, I could watch that PSA and worry about my secret places. I could see, all too well, that the construction crews would arrive soon enough and the pine tree and the swamp and the canyon would be gone, covered by bulldozers and condos and coffee shops--

... which, by the way, is exactly what happened; I went back to my hometown a few years back and there's a park and a bike path and the swamp was filled in by condos. They found my secret place...

--and that earnest tone reached me and touched me, made me want to do something about it, and instilled in me a love that exists to this day of nature, of unspoiled wilderness and forests and meadows and swamps and rivers.

But I'm not earnest anymore. I'm not that simple anymore. Life when you're 8, 0r 10, is simple. There are woods, and you like them, and nobody should build condos there.

Life, when you're nearly 40, isn't so simple. There are woods, and you like them, but those woods have deer ticks in them and you can't take the kids there because of that, and also there are people who need a place to live, and not everyone can live in an apartment, you know, plus you kind of like your yard even though your house contributes to urban sprawl, and you have to give serious thought to maybe using some weedkiller but you heard that's probably poisonous for the lakes, and, yeah, it's not really wilderness if they put a hiking trail through it and wooden plank boardwalks, but it's better than tract housing, isn't it, and the kids need a place to play baseball...

Try putting all that into a public service announcement. You'll end up sounding like Ben Stiller in Reality Bites-- confused and hopeful and wanting not a big house but a nice house and thinking you know why the caged bird sings. (Ben's character was the only person in that entire movie with whom I could have spent 10 minutes; put me in a room with any other person in that movie and I'll strangle myself with my own tongue if necessary.)

As a kid you want to make the world a better place. As a grown-up, you'd like it to be better but you're not sure what you mean by "better."

It's probably just as well that I couldn't google up my PSA. It probably wouldn't live up to my memory. As it is, I keep The Secret Place PSA in my own secret place, a place where my earnest desire to help make the world a better place still lives and occasionally pops up its head and makes me, for a minute at least, try to improve things.

I have a secret place I call my memory... little kids play in the woods there, a pine tree grows there, and The Best Public Service Announcement still works there.

Pictures in this post, except for Woodsy Owl, were taken by Middle Daughter.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Best Choral Version of A Pop Song

Today's nomination is in an unfairly underrepresented musical genre. High school concerts aside, there is a dearth of choral remakes of popular songs, and that's a shame because choir singers are great singers. Put a bunch of great singers together, and you have greatness multiplied exponentially. Apply that to virtually any song, and the song becomes better and more interesting.

Don't believe me? Take the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which quite honestly was never very good. The guys in Nirvana had some talent and all, but their place in the pantheon of rock history will someday be lowered from their current level (On the "U2" shelf, just below "The Beatles" and "Elvis" level) to their rightful place, next to the "Bee Gees" a few rungs lower.

That's right: Nirvana was simply the Bee Gees of the 90s. Anyway, here's the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as reinterpreted by the Scala Girls Choir:

It got much better, didn't it? That's because of the level of talent being applied, and because the re-interpretation that is required whenever any song is done by a choir makes the song fresher and more interesting. I'm not saying it would hold up forever, but hearing a song done by a choir presents a new take on it.

And, yes, I mean any song benefits by being performed by a choir. Any song.

And pretty much any choir will do. I said that it's professional voices, but it's not like you've got to be Bono or something. The combination of voices makes each one better where one alone might not carry the song, and the enthusiasm of people singing together patches over any rough parts. Hence, Young @ Heart becomes more than the sum of its parts:

And a middle school can put on some blue suede shoes:

These songs are so cool, so fun, I'm not sure why this isn't a bigger area of music. I'm not sure why there's not traveling choirs out there re-interpreting all of our favorite songs. If they can make musicals out of Billy Joel and ABBA songs, why can't my dream of a country full of roaming bands of choirs descending upon a town in tour buses, taking up residence at the Civic Center for a few days, and treating us to peppy, fun versions of great rock songs come true?

Also, Young @ Heart does The Ramones:

But really, I think there should have been given a little more thought to a bunch of seniors singing about their desire for sedation. If Young @ Heart performs that at the wrong kind of nursing home, we've got another Heaven's Gate on our hands, sans the comet.

Choir interpretations are also a universal thing. I've spoken before about how music can bring the world together. Some of that is already happening. How else to explain the Russian Army Choir performing a Frank Sinatra Song with what looks to be the the guys from A Flock of Seagulls?

I'm glad those guys kept working. "Space Age Love Song" was good and all, but it shouldn't be both the high point and the end of one's career.

No survey of musical trends would be complete without at least one "Macarena" reference, right?

I thought, for a while, that choir music would catch on big, given that it was on TV and everything, a show you'd figure I'd have watched given that it combined choir music and Nick Lachey:

That, by the way, was phenomenal. I didn't watch the show due to it's distressingly low number of aliens and lasers, but I hope Nick won.

But enough random choir versions. I'm here to tell you which Choral Version of A Pop Song is The Best, and I know which one that is.

Back when I was young and didn't wake up with my ankles hurting for no apparent reason whatsoever, as though I'd been running in my sleep, which is ridiculous because I don't even run all that much when I'm awake, but, there you go, I wake up every morning with sore ankles and a little less hair. Back when that didn't happen, I went to a Paul McCartney concert at Soldier Field in Chicago. At the end of the concert, he did "Hey, Jude," which is itself one of the top 10 songs of all time.

The entire audience, all 100,000,000 people in the stadium held up lighters (this was when regular people smoked. Nowadays, only jerks and cowboys smoke) and sang along with the chorus part.

It was beautiful. I still get goose bumps. There was never a song more meant to be done by a choir, by a bunch of people all singing together about making the world a little better.

And I've found The Best possible version of "Hey, Jude" by a choir. Without further ado, I give you The Best Choral Version of A Pop Song.

In fact, I'll give you TWO:


Check out these reader nominations for this category:

Merton Sussex nominated the Sacramento State Jazz Singers' version of Ben Folds' "Selfless, Cold & Composed."

Anonymous nominated the Capital Children's Choir's tribute to Lily Allen.

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Lesbian Zombies Are Taking Over The World is a serialized novel. It is first published at its own site, so if you want to keep up with the adventures of a lesbian zombie and her octopus in a timely manner, click that link.

Make out:

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Welcome Another TBOE Reader!

My fans are many. Among them are a few famous ones. But none, I think, is more creative than the great cartoonist Natalie Dee, who I once asked to illustrate a book I was writing and whose cartoons I read every day.

I hope Natalie Dee submits her own link soon for me, because I'd really like to link back to her, seeing as how we both love Cadbury creme eggs --

But I loved them first.
Thanks for reading, Natalie!

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Best Evil Supercomputer In A Movie

This post will appear in my upcoming book, "Up" was "Macaroni." Find all my books here.