Wednesday, March 26, 2008

VG Review: God of War: Chains of Olympus

Sony, for the PlayStation Porta­ble, rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudi­ty, sexual themes, strong lan­guage), $39.99.

Usually when a popular video game is spun off onto a handheld console, the game play ends up being watered down considerably.

That’s not the case, however, with “God of War: Chains of Olympus,” the latest sequel in the “God of War” series, this time for Sony’s PlayStation Portable system. Despite the small screen, “Olympus” is just as robust and enjoyable a game as its big-TV brethren.

“Olympus” is a prologue to the first “God” game, with bloodthirsty (but very emo) anti-hero Kratos serving as a hired hand for the Greek gods in order to atone for his past crimes and guilt feelings.

If you’ve played either of the first two games you know what to expect here. “Olympus” plays nicely on standard Greek mythology to offer an epic game with vast sets, fearsome enemies, lots of spurting blood and the occasional bare breast.

It’s all in good fun though, and if the game’s content might give parents and moral censors reason to worry, the game’s button-mashing, “press-X-now-to-perform-really-sweet-finishing-move” sense of style makes the Gothickiness go down a lot easier.

Kratos has a few new powers in his gore-soaked sleeves this time around, including a massive gauntlet that allows him to unleash devastating punches. Most of the new abilities add some variety to the game, which is a good thing because it does feel a bit overly familiar at times, not to mention rather short.

But if “Olympus” seems a tad recycled at times — like it could have used a bit more boss battles or puzzles to solve — that doesn’t really diminish the developer’s overall achievement. “God of War: Chains of Olympus” feels like a bonafide, full-fledged sequel, and not a stripped-down afterthought. It’s one of the best games I’ve played on the PSP in quite some time.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, March 24, 2008

Graphic Lit: 'The Ten-Cent Plague'

Comic books have never really been respected as an art form by the general public.

That being said, it might nevertheless surprise some folks to know that there was a time when comics were seen not only as kiddie fare but as harmful, vile, mind-alteringly dangerous kiddie fare.

That history is recounted in David Hajdu’s excellent new book, “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America.”

Hajdu provides a captivating, insightful and detailed look at how American parents in the 1950s became convinced that the crime, horror and romance comics their kids were devouring would turn them into sociopaths.

He builds his history slowly, taking readers through a basic history of how the medium took shape in America and describing how artists such as Charles Biro and publishers such as EC’s Bill Gaines saw a way to sell books by offering lurid, pulpy stories of criminals, killers, vampires and other monsters.

Parents, psychiatrists and other do-gooders, led by one Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose book “Seduction of the Innocent” accused the industry of being little more than Nazis, feared such material would lead to antisocial behavior.

They began a pogrom of attacks in the media, attempts at censorship through legislation and book burnings in towns, all of which Hajdu recounts with flair.

While Hajdu makes it clear what side he’s on, he nevertheless is careful not to portray the comics industry as being rife with innocents.

He chastises certain people for their naivete and greed, not to mention disregard for seeing their books as anything other than product.

It all came to a somewhat literal head during a congressional hearing in which Gaines, high on diet pills, was asked whether a cover depicting a severed woman’s head could be in “good taste,” Hajdu said.

His answer inadvertently led to the Comics Code, a self-policing organization that proceeded to violently neuter every book on the stands.

Comics quickly lost whatever cultural cache they had and more than 800 talented people lost their jobs as companies folded.

Only Gaines managed to salvage through, taking his humor comic, Mad, and turning it into a 25-cent magazine that still thumbs its nose at popular culture today.

Hajdu’s central conceit is that the comic book was the opening salvo in baby boomer culture wars. He makes a strong point.

The kids who read “Crime Does Not Pay,” after all, would go on to discover rock ¤’n’ roll, grow out their hair and protest the Vietnam War.

And yet this sort of cultural battle has occurred throughout history.

People freaked out about the waltz, for example, when it was introduced in the 18th century, calling it vulgar and sinful.

To those who think such censorship scares could never happen in today’s enlightened times, I only ask you to consider the pillorying video games receive today from such upstanding moral folk as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman.

‘Comic Book Comics’

If you prefer to have your comic book history told in a more ... well, comic book fashion, then perhaps you should pick up a copy of the oddly titled “Comic Book Comics.”

Having explored the lives of deep thinkers such as Nietzsche and Kant in their previous series, “Action Philosophers,” writer Fred van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey decided to take on the convoluted and at times controversial history of the comics industry.

“We realized we couldn’t keep [“Philosophers”] going on forever. We were running out of thinkers,” van Lente said during a recent interview. “The one thing we could be certain all comic fans like are comics.”

“Comics” takes a more linear approach than “Philosophers,” starting with the appearance of the Yellow Kid in newspaper pages in 1896, then hurtling forward to the birth of the comic book and animated cartoon while touching on important figures such as Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Walt Disney and Max Fleischer.

There won’t be any resting on laurels however. Van Lente and Dunlavey plan a series on U.S. presidents.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Jeff Smith

When I did my column on Jeff Smith's new series, RASL, early this month, I opted to do a more feature-y story than the usual Q&A, due to newspaper space restrictions more than anything else. You can read the original article as it appeared here, but I thought for P&P it might be fun to run the whole unedited (except for spelling errors). So here it is.

Q: What was the inspiration for RASL?

A: There were two things driving me to it. One was I’m really interested in science. I love to read Brian Green and Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. All the stuff about unified field theory and string theory. They really believe there are multiple, multiple dimensions, possible quantum pathways. All this really far-out stuff fascinates me. It all sounds like science-fiction, even the real stuff.

So I wanted to do a comic about that. The other thing I was interested in is I wanted to do a comic about a bad guy. With Bone, the main character was a good guy just trying to survive. But his cousin Phoney Bone was this really rotten, greedy character. And he was so much fun to write. I just thought “What would it be like to do a comic about the rotten character?” That was kind of the idea behind doing RASL.

Q: Are there any kind of themes or goals that you’re hoping to explore with the book?

A: I’m also interested in noir, film noir. There’s all sorts of themes of betrayal and the kind of things you find in psycho-thrillers. I’m really interested in that. I wanted a character who was world-weary and has made a lot of mistakes in his past, and the mistakes are catching up to him. Very noirish. It’s kind of a standard thing. But if you play with it and you care about your character, I think it’s going to be fun to explore.

Of course, everything I do, I’m looking for that “secret of the universe” type thing. I want that. And here’s a guy who’s got a machine that let’s him touch the unimaginable, the total theoretical. And so I’m going to get into that too.

Q: You mentioned science fiction and noir, and certainly those are both very well known genres. And certainly with Bone and RASL you work very well exploring certain genres. But do you worry about being hampered within a genre? Or being labeled to a certain extent?

A: I do think about it sometimes but I can’t do anything about it. I just have to write the stories that I want to write and I’m working in genres that turned me on when I was a kid. I mean, that’s what I liked when I was a kid! I loved Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Pogo, and I like science-fiction.

Inside those genres, even as a kid I can see there was metaphors for politics and things that were going on socially in the culture. It’s kind of cliched to point it out but everybody remembers that Star Trek was really about what was happening in America in the '60s. I think that’s a great way to explore themes. So I have no problem with genre. The idea of literary fiction, or someone who’s kind of an outcast who doesn’t get along with anyone at his job, that’s a genre also. Genre just means category. Although I know what you mean ...

Q: Yeah, it’s an unfortunate categorization. I think you’ve been able to tap a rich vein in a lot of ways.

A: I agree. I think people like genres and like stories and if you can tell a story that has good characters, the genre doesn’t matter. There’s bad science-fiction stories and there’s bad straight fiction. But the good ones are the good ones.

Q: How aware are you of the cliches when you’re working with something like RASL, saying something like “Well, people are going to expect this sort of cliche coming up, but I’m going to completely twist it around” or “I’m going with the flow here because that’s a true sci-fi staple and I’m not going to mess with that”? Do you know what I’m talking about?

A: I do know what you’re talking about, and in Bone that especially came into play as I reached the end of this giant 1,300 page story, it was pretty clear that in a big, epic fantasy I had to have a battle. There’s that final battle between good and evil, right? It had to happen. So I was aware that I wanted to try to handle it in a slightly different way which in the case of Bone I decided to go with an old city that was based on Katmandu, eastern palaces and things instead of the more traditional Camelot, Cinderella-type looking things.

The same will be true in Rasl I’m sure. There are certain things in noir and sci-fi. There’s a femme fatale. You have to have one. I definitely will play with expectations.

Q: There’s a pretty big difference between RASL and Sin City and both are considered noir to an extent.

A: Mine’s kind of a more personal — I actually think Sin City is a good example.

Q: I didn’t mean that as a slam against Sin City.

A: I didn’t take it that way.

Q: You mentioned Bone and despite doing Shazam last year, this is going to be seen as the official big follow-up to Bone? Do you feel any pressure since Bone was such a huge success for you? Are you feeling any sophomore slump?

A: It’s totally true and I’m a nervous wreck about it. I’m putting everything I’ve got into it. I putting into it as much as I do Bone.

But I didn’t know Bone was going to be as accepted and successful as it was. I put this out and it’s been out since Wednesday. You can talk to any of my friends, I was a nervous wreck. I was just a nervous wreck. I was so sure everyone would hate it and find things that are wrong with it. I’m not reading the reviews. I read the first two that popped up and they were good. I said, “That’s it! I’m not reading anymore!”

It seems to be selling out. That was a surprise. We got re-orders from our distributors on Friday. So that’s a very good sign. We may be going back to press. I’ve got my fingers crossed, but yeah I’m a nervous wreck.

Q: Why do it as a pamphlet series, especially when the market wisdom is the small press publisher should be focusing on graphic novels?

A: Well you know I did the Shazam book — it came out as a serialized four issues but then it came out as a book. We may have well skipped the four issues, I did it all ahead of time. I worked on it for two years and we put it out and it came out as a collected graphic novel in October.

I just really didn’t enjoy the process. I drew it, I wrote it, I put it out, the people liked it — some people didn’t like it — but I was unable to roll with comments.

There’s something about comic books, there’s something about the community, that allows us to go back and forth between the reader and the artist. You get these letter columns. When I was doing Bone for a decade, after every issue I would get all these letters from people — and it turned into emails about halfway through — you can react to what people think. If people are excited about something you can play into it and deliver it and make them happy or deliberately twist and shock them and that’s fun. I was unable to have any organic feedback from Shazam. I just put it out and there it was. You either like it or you don’t.

So I decided intentionally to go back to the way I did Bone so that I could get feedback and incorporate that reader response into the book. I think it made Bone a better book and I think it will be good for RASL too.

Q: What is your schedule for RASL? How long do you think it will take you to do the entire story?

A: I think it might take me about three years to do a big arc. That will probably be it. But that depends, I may have more ideas and want to keep going. This might be the first Sin City-type arc and then I may do more with the character because the world might be kind of ...

Q: Do you see it as a whole universe here?

A: Yeah. Or multiple.

Q: How do you see this differing in form and content from Bone and how is it similar?

A: It’s similar just because it’s me doing a comic. I draw a certain way and I pace comics a certain way. I think you can pick up a comic and tell it was me doing it just like you can see a movie and know it was Steven Spielberg. There’s a certain flavor, certain kids of shots that I do. Certain kind of drawing. I’ll do a panel with no words as a pause. There’s a signature to what I do.

But flavor-wise, this is going to be nothing like that. This is going to be much more bloody. A little more world weary. As opposed to Bone which is much more filled with wonder.

Q: Are you surprised by how Bone has been adopted by libraries and kids in general? I know it was a very personal project for you.

A: Yeah. Aren’t you?

Q: Um, no. I think ... how can I put this ... You mentioned that sense of wonder and I think that’s something that kids can latch onto very well.

A: I guess I’m not really surprised that kids like it. I think I am surprised to the degree of it and how it’s been just really taken to heart by kids and librarians and schoolteachers. I’ve really been surprised by that.

Q: What do you attribute that to?

A: I don’t know. I’m not kidding you. I really don’t know what it is. I’ve always tried to figure — is it the humor? There’s a Scott McCloud theory that the Bones aren’t anything they’re not a particular face or race or even gender or age so anybody can put themselves into it. But I don’t know.

Q: We talked about being hampered by the success of Bone but in what ways has the success helped you?

A: Well I’ll tell you what. When I decided to do this book RASL? I didn’t have any trouble getting publicity. When I rolled this book out baby, I rolled this book out. (laughs) It’s a double-edged sword for sure. And I love that Bone was successful. If that’s the only thing that I’m going to be remembered for, that’s not going to be a problem for me. It’s not like something I just tossed off. It took me 13 years.

I don’t think anything I do will have to live up to it. And possibly that’s why I wanted to do something that was very much in a different direction. So it wouldn’t have to live up to Bone.

Q: One thing I noticed in reading the first issue is you really take your time to set up place in mood, as in the first issue where you have your protagonist walking through the desert. I’m assuming that comes from your interest in animation but it struck me that it has a lot in common with manga as well.

A: It may. I’ve not read much manga but what I have seen it’s very clear that manga artists are going for the same things I’m going for which is an amount of time goes by in each panel. I think it’s trying to recreate this very cinematic experience.

I do draw on what I believe is all our collective experiences, watching film and TV we’re a very visual educated culture. I can use that. In that same scene where he looks up at the sun and then looks away at the moon, then I can use that as a transition into the next scene where the moon became a pebble which fell into the water and brought about the next scene. Those kind of matching cuts are — we’re very visually literate as I said, we can do that kind of stuff in a comic and I expect the reader to feel that and understand it.

Q: You are one of the original self-publishing stalwarts. When people think of the self-publishing scene there’s you, Terry Moore and Dave Sim. And now all of you are within a month or so releasing a completely new series in pamphlet form. It seems like an odd coincidence. What’s your take on that?

A: I think it’s an odd coincidence too. And all these projects are very well developed and there’s no way any one of us could have pulled something out really quick. I just think there’s something in the air. I don’t know.

Q: Do you feel like someone coming in could do self-publishing a bimonthly or quarterly series and make a go of it?

A: Yeah I do. They’d have to do it in their own way. You can never do the same thing twice. The market’s changed so much. There were 11 distributors when I started. But there weren’t really any self-published things so I had my own little things to try to figure out. I had to make it OK to like a self-published black and white comic book, which was hard in 1991.

On the other hand I didn’t have a lot of competition. Once I did, I stood out. Now there’s a lot of competition but the markets are much more accepting, and we have the Internet, which allows so much. When you start out you have to be willing to start small. My first orders for the first issue of Bone were something like 1,100 so you have to start small and be willing to work your way up.

The big difference I see in the indie comics now from 15 years ago, is the sheer amount of talent. The amount of good cartoonists and good books that are coming out, almost on a monthly basis, is mind-boggling. Cause it took me 10 years to do Bone, it took Art Spiegelman 10 years to do Maus. It takes a long time. But now there’s enough people working that they’re doing these books in three years and there are some beautiful books coming out. Have you seen Tales from the Farm by Jeff Lemire?
Q: Yeah.

A: And of course you mentioned Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. She’s been doing alternative comics for a long time but this was her first shot at an original graphic novel and it’s a doozy.

But that’s what I’m saying. The quality level of this material is fantastic. And we have Barnes and Noble. We have newspapers like yours writing about comics. It’s a whole new golden age. I absolutely think any new cartoonist can do it.

Q: Do you at all of that and think about the hand you hand in developing it?

A: Sometimes. I just went to SPX which was one of the shows I started as a self-publishing tour. I used to go to them all the time. I stopped going for a little while and I just started going this year and I had a blast. There was a whole generation that was 10 when I was doing Bone and they’re 25 now. To them they look at me like I used to look at Frank Miller. I had a blast. I have a really good time when I go to those things.

Q: It’s always exciting to just see the variety of material that’s out there. It does energize you.

A: Like I said, the quality is incredible. It was a much more mixed bag back when I was doing it. You could count the really good people on one hand.

Q: For someone like me, it’s so much harder to keep track of anymore. If you’re trying to be all-inclusive and talk about manga and comic strip reprints and whatnot, you can’t keep track of it all.

A: But can you imagine 15 years ago having that problem?

Q: No, that’s the thing.

A: I just can’t believe it. I think this is a great time.

Q: One last question from my six-year-old daughter. How is Gramma Ben able to run so fast?

A: She eats her spinach. She eats lots of vegetables.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Graphic Lit: Oh those naughty Japanese comics!

The Japanese, it’s been said many times, tend to be more relaxed about depictions of sex, violence and potty jokes in their comics than we Americans are.

As a result, a lot (though certainly not all) of the manga material that gets translated over here tends to be:

A. Aimed squarely at teen audiences.

B. Censored, edited or otherwise altered so that nothing too gross or overtly sexual gets into little hands. Just as often, a series aimed at younger readers will be marketed for adults in the West.

But as manga and anime become more and more popular here in the U.S., more and more publishers are starting to take a chance with releasing edgier — or more risque — manga.

Take for example, “Crayon Shinchan.” Originally released (and ignored) by now-extinct small press publisher ComicsOne, the series is being revived by CMX, no doubt mainly due to the fact that the animated version of the character can be seen on the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” lineup.

Shinchan is a mischievous boy, 5, with a knack for mortifying his parents, teachers and any other adults who have the bad luck to come into his vicinity.

He frequently runs around without pants on. He mistakes his mom’s underwear for a swim cap. He sneaks looks at dirty magazines at the bookstore and plays games like “scene of the accident.”

He has a habit of asking incredibly inappropriate questions to complete strangers (most of which cannot be repeated in a daily newspaper).

Frequently uproarious, “Shinchan” is often compared to “The Simpsons,” but “South Park” might be a better example.

Not that Shinchan is as worldly or foul-mouthed as his Comedy Central brethren. What makes the series so funny is the way Shin remains essentially clueless despite his constant misdeeds. He doesn’t understand everything he says and does, he just knows it gets a reaction.

Another, perhaps even better example of the increasing willingness of mainstream publishers to take risks is Tokyopop’s release of “Manga Sutra”

Known in Japan as “Futari Ecchi,” “Manga Sutra” is, as its title not very subtly hints, a how-to sex guide for the clueless.

The story focuses on newlyweds Makoto and Yura.

After a whirlwind, awkward courtship, they get hitched only to discover that not only are they both virgins, but they’re both utterly clueless when it comes to the intricacies of bedroom intimacy.

As the manga progresses, friends and family members offer (often unwanted) advice, and we follow the couple’s attempts to figure out how sex works, often with comedic results.

As you might expect, there’s a high level of nudity and frank talk, though the book stays an arm’s length shy of being actual pornography (Japan’s obscenity laws, for example, require that any naughty bits below the waist be obscured).

If fact, perhaps the most amazing thing about “Manga Sutra” is how conservative it is. Its emphasis is firmly upon monogamy and education over titillation and lust.

Unfortunately, that attitude includes an adherence to some regrettable sexual stereotypes. The husband is a dopey horn-dog while the wife is a demure innocent who feels guilty about being “kinky.”

The ultimate problem with “Sutra,” though, is we never see Makoto and Yura develop as a couple outside of the bedroom.

They don’t seem to have any common interests or interesting personality traits. If the series weren’t already up to volume 37 in Japan, I wouldn’t have given much hope for its future.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Graphic Lit: Comics in the classroom, part two

Here's the second part of my "comics in education" story, with a look at a the Center for Cartoon Studies and some quotes from students taking the afore-mentioned comics class at Dickinson College.

While Dickinson students are taking classes to learn about comics, Chuck Forsman of Mechanicsburg is taking classes to learn how to make comics.

Forsman, 25, is enrolled at the Center for Cartoon Studies, a two-year, full-time school based in White River Junction, Vt., focused entirely on the art of cartooning and comics.

Founded in 2004, the school deals with everything from basic drawing classes to design, production, storytelling, history, color theory and more, said Michelle Ollie, the managing director and co-founder of the school.

“We saw there was a demand for having a program that has the intensity of curriculum and faculty and programming centered around cartooning,” she said.

For his part, Forsman had been attending classes at HACC, but “the desire to do comics was really swelling,” he said, “It was like I was 10 years old again.”

Forsman credits the school with improving his drawing and storytelling skills.

“I think it’s really easy to think that the school has had a smaller impact on us than it actually has because comics are so solitary that it kinda feels like I did it all myself,” he said. “But then you realize everything that the instructors introduced you to, and all the little things you know and take for granted now and realize how much you have gotten out of this place.”

Forsman will be graduating from the school at the end of this semester and says his future plans include working on a serialized, self-published comic, a graphic novel idea and some children’s book pitches.

“As far as making money,” he said, “I will probably try to get into a design job somewhere. and work on comics at night.”


Here’s what the students of David Ball’s Graphic Narratives class at Dickinson College have to say: 

“I thought [the syllabus] would just be a lot more of ‘Sin City,’ ‘V for Vendetta,’ the vigilantes and super heroes and it’s not. It’s very contemporary and realistic, just like actual short fiction and novels today.”
— Senior Kaitlin Marks-Dubbs, 21, of Pottsville 

“Before ... I would see comics as a children’s thing or for those who just like to read stories ... I never knew comic strips and comic books could have such depth to them. It’s really surprising to me.”
— Sophomore Garrett Green, 19, of Simi Valley, Calif. 

“I wanted to take this class because I was really interested to see what I didn’t know about comics. I felt like I had this impression of comics, that they were a low art form. This class ... showed [they] could be poetic and literary, and I thought that was really interesting and different than any other class that you would take on campus.”
— Freshman Lauren Schoneker, 18, of Landsdale 

“I’m loving it a lot. [I’ve been surprised by] the extraordinary depth of all of the literature that we’ve been reading.”
— Freshman Danny Mulvihill, 18, of San Diego, Calif. 

“There’s a lot more to comics than I previously thought. Things I hadn’t thought about. It’s definitely sparked an interest that will continue after the course is finished.”
— Freshman Chris Skove, 20, of Richmond, Va. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Graphic Lit: Comics in the classroom

This was a big Arts package that ran last Sunday and which I had been working on (or struggling over depending on the day) for several weeks. I think it turned out pretty well. I wish I could show you the actual newspaper page or had permission to post some of the great photos that ran with the piece because they really added to the text.

I'll post the second part of the story, which includes quotes from students in the class mentioned below and a short interview with a local CCS student tomorrow.

Historical relevance. Artistic self-awareness. Aesthetic beauty. Intertextuality. Epistemology.

These are the types of topics you might find students discussing in your average college-entry English literature class.

The students in Dickinson College professor David Ball’s class aren’t dissecting Faulkner or Joyce, however, but comic books.

More specifically, they’re dissecting the stories found in “McSweeney’s Vol. 13,” a Chris Ware-edited — and highly acclaimed — anthology of work by various alternative and independent cartoonists.

Welcome to “Graphic Narratives,” a new course on “an emerging genre in contemporary American literature” as the syllabus states, that treats artists like Ware, Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) and Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”) with the same level of inquiry that is normally reserved for Shakespeare and Hemingway.

“Some of the most exciting work that’s been done in the last five years has been done in this interdisciplinary medium,” Ball said. “My interest is both in the quality of the work itself, the way it’s being produced, and in the way that it stretches your brain in different ways.

Ball’s class is just one example of the many ways comics — or “graphic novels” as they’re being called these days — have infiltrated the academic world.

Long regarded — even feared — as a hindrance to literacy, comics are now seen as not only worthy of inclusion in college classrooms but also as an excellent educational tool in K-12 classes and public libraries across the country.

Teaching tool

The notion that comics might have not only a literary but also educational value might be surprising to those whose knowledge of the medium is limited to the funny pages in their newspaper. But those who have labored in its trenches are well aware of its potential.

“If you’re trying to use comics to educate someone or convey ideas, using pictures helps get information into the head very quickly,” said Juniata College biology professor Jay Hosler, who moonlights as a cartoonist and has produced such acclaimed graphic novels as “Clan Apis” and “The Sandwalk Adventures.”

Hosler, whose new book, “Optical Allusions” takes readers on a tour of how the human eye works, cites other things that comics do well, such as acting as an intermediate step to learning difficult concepts, or being able to control the rate at which you move through the story.

“What I’ve always found is that a lot of times educators are really excited about another tool,” he said. “They’re facing struggle on the ground and they know through experience they have to continually find ... innovative ways to engage the student. That’s the real challenge.”

It’s a tool that Scott Shaffer uses frequently. A reading teacher at Southeastern Middle School West in Fawn Grove, he recently formed an after-school comics club where students learn how to make and eventually even print their own comic book stories.

“I tell the kids you don’t have to be the best artist. We have kids coming in drawing stick figures,” Shaffer said.

A longtime comics fan, Shaffer is well aware of the medium’s educational potential.

“I could list for you a dozen reading skills that could be taught in isolation out of a comic book,” he said, “such as making predictions ... making inferences [between panels], ... sequence of events, cause and effect, character, onomatopoeia — really I use them not only in the club, but I also use them as a teaching tool in my own instruction in my classroom.”

In the library near you

It’s not just schools that have hopped on the graphic novel bandwagon. Public libraries have been incorporating them into their shelves to draw younger and wayward readers through their doors.

The Elizabethtown Public Library, for example, recently held a “Teen Anime and Manga Night” (manga being the term for Japanese comics) that drew 31 attendees.

“If you’ve seen teenagers on the bus and they’re reading anything, that’s something a teen librarian is going to notice and want to have in their collection,” said youth services librarian Mary Anne Stanley, who has been active in getting graphic novels into the Elizabethtown library.

“There are certain specific customer groups who are primarily interested in that material who aren’t necessarily drawn to novels of Jane Austen, she said. “Teenage boys and young men are often very happy to have graphic novels and comics available for them to read.”

What’s more, she added, comics “have some very challenging vocabulary and concepts even when you’re talking about things that people don’t ordinarily think of in that way, like superhero comics. You can get some pretty heady vocabulary out of that.”

Comics helps a person not only become a better reader but a smarter one as well.

“I want students to become intelligent readers of a number of different manifestations media, from Super Bowl ads to Shakespeare,” Ball said. “The analytical and critical thinking skills that you apply to comics are ones that can be used when you’re watching an ad of someone trying to sell you something, when you’re reading a book of American literature. They are skills that are transferable.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Friday, March 07, 2008

Graphic Lit: Grading the funny pages, part two

As promised, here's the follow-up column to my comic-strip critique that I posted yesterday. Don't forget, when I say "you," I'm referring to Patriot-News readers and not all you lovely Internet folk out there. I'm sure you don't like Zits either.

Q: What's a surefire way to get your inbox flooded with messages over the weekend?

A: Write a column critiquing your newspaper's comics section the Friday before.

Since my last column ran I've received more than 90 e-mails, telephone calls and letters, letting me know that I'm either: a) 100 percent correct; b) completely lacking in intelligence and taste; or c) somewhere between the two.

Most readers were extremely polite, however, and appreciative that someone wanted to write about the funny pages. In return let me say I valued each response, even the snarky ones, and my thanks go out to all who took the time to comment. I wish I had the time to respond to you individually but ... well it was more than 90.

I find the overwhelming response very encouraging. Obviously, comics still matter.

Going over the mail, I found a few recurrent issues that are worth pointing out:

1) Relax, we're not dropping any comics any time soon. There were some who thought the column was announcing some changes in the funny pages. It wasn't. This was just a chance to have some fun, garner reader interest and share some thoughts I've been having about the paper's comic strips. Some folks think about the meaning of life. I think about the dark undertones in "The Family Circus." I'm just wired that way.

2) You folks really like "Pickles." Of all the strips I neglected to grade, "Pickles" was the one for which most readers expressed their enthusiasm and wondered why I hadn't included it. It wasn't out of malice. I actually like "Pickles." I just had to stop at some point or risk having my column take over the entire Life section. If I do a sequel -- and I plan to down the line --
I'll be sure to include it.

3) You really don't like "F Minus." With one or two exceptions, the comic that received the most vitriol was the gag strip "F Minus." "Its title matches its quality" was a regular comment.

I don't hate it nearly that much, though I do find it veers wildly from "funny" to "mind-bendingly awful." As with "Pickles" though, I'll save my final grade for a future column.

4) Re: "Zits." Yes, I know, when my kids are teenagers I'm sure I'll find the strip to be an unerringly accurate view of life with an adolescent. Until then, however, my grade stands. It's not that I want the strip to be loaded down with "relevant" issues, mind you. It's just that I find the teens in "Zits" to be completely divorced from any of the fears, problems or joys that
plagued me when I was teen or the teens I know today. This is disconcerting enough to pull me out of the strip on a regular basis.

5) Re: "Doonesbury." My high grade has very little to do with the strip's political leanings and everything to do with Garry Trudeau's ability to portray the Iraq War veterans' plights with
sympathy and humor. As I said, I think the strip was all but unreadable for most of the 1990s (and some of the '80s as well). If you had asked me about it even five years ago, my grade would have been a lot lower.

6) "Comics should be funny" -- Many readers wrote in to express how important the comics pages were to them; how it offered a moment of respite from the daily grind, not to mention the oppressiveness of the dour news that clutters the front page.

I can sympathize and identify with that feeling up to a point. Where I differ a little is with folks who argue that the funnies have no business being anything but funny. You see, I don't want
them to be just funny. I want them to be good. Which is not always the same thing.

We're living in an age where just about every significant comic strip of the 20th century is being collected in a lavish format from "Gasoline Alley" to "Krazy Kat" to "Popeye" to "Terry and the
Pirates," just to name a few.

Many of those strips looked to provide a daily chuckle, to be sure. But they were also imbued with the creator's own unique vision. They offered more than just a daily laugh. They offered artistry.

Today the comics pages are dominated by "legacy" strips that limp along well past their sell-by date. They feel more like place-holders than comic strips. If I mock "Beetle Bailey," it's
only because the strip is a pale shadow of its former self.


"There is nothing comical about Doonesbury. Garry Trudeau is a perfect fit for you and your papers left-wing proganda agenda."

"F Minus gets a D-. It is fairly new; you should have found something else. Maybe you got it cheap."

"My husband and I wish to grade you with a triple F minus."

"You're a Democrat, aren't you?"

"I can't believe you gave Pearls Before Swine an A. I've tried too many times to read that strip, and finally decided to never try again. I find it to be not only dumb and not funny, but also not worthy of space in your newspaper."

"How do you come by denigrating Zits on the basis of not having to deal with drugs, sex, social pressures, etc. HELLO? It's a comic strip, not [Patriot-News columnist] Nancy Eshelman's column."

"You apparently have never had a military experience, had small children, or enjoyed the actions of a pet dog!"

"A few years ago my New Year's resolution was to stop reading The Family Circus. I'm happy to say it was a resolution that I've been able to keep. I advise others to do the same."

"I think for Hi and Lois you should have brought up how Trixie seems to be dominating the strip lately. It feels like every other day the strip is about her, which is not funny and not cute -- it's annoying. And I'm a girl. When a girl is saying babies aren't cute, you know something's wrong."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Graphic Lit: Grading the funny pages

Before we delve into this Graphic Lit column, a bit of explanation is necessary.

It being a slow week a while back, my editors and I decided to do the big "comic strip critique blow-out" we had been talking about for awhile but had been holding back on in case we did a reader survey (as most newsp
apers do every so often).

Below is the column as it ran on 2/15. Reader response was huge. In fact, it was so big we decided to devote next week's column to it, which I'll post here tomorrow.

At the bottom of this post, you'll also find a little sidebar on five strips I'd like to see in the Patriot-News. My apologies if you find all this a bit too localized for your tastes. Also, my thanks to Tom Spurgeon for his help in picking the replacements and my apologies to Josh Fruhlinger for basically stealing his schtick.

For months now, my editor and I have been talking about doing a column in which I critique and letter-grade our comics pages.

Ideally, it was supposed to run whenever we do our next survey, but that might be awhile and I'm not getting any younger, so I figure today's the day.

There's not enough space here for me to critique every strip we run, so I tried to pick ones that either delighted or annoyed me. Or at least gave me something to talk about.

No doubt your own favorites differ. Feel free to e-mail me and let me know just how wrong I am. If we get enough responses, we'll do a follow-up column in the near future.

"Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau: For most of the '90s, "Doonesbury" was floundering, retaining little of the satiric bite it was initially known for. Recently though, it's undergone a superb renaissance. The strips about B.D. coming home from Iraq and dealing with the loss of his leg are some of the best comics I've read in recent memory. A+

"Pearls Before Swine" by Stephan Pastis: Despite the minimalist, almost sub-par art, this remains one of the snarkiest and funniest strips around. I'm a sucker for good dark humor though, so bear that in mind. A

"Mary Worth" by Karen Moy and Joe Giella: I love this strip, but in the same way I love bad sci-fi movies and that "punk rock" episode of "Quincy." So I give this a very ironic A.

"Baby Blues" by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott: I absolutely love this family-themed strip, even though it features one-half of the "Zits" team (see below). It feels true-to-life in a way that the other simply doesn't. Maybe that's just because my own kids are the same age. Perhaps in a few years, I'll really identify with "Zits." God, I hope not. A-

"For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston: There was a time when this was my favorite comic strip, bar none. Johnston's awkward old/new hybrid, her often forced sentimentality and her insistence on shacking Elizabeth up with (brrr) Anthony has dimmed the strip somewhat in my eyes, but I'll still give it a B+.

"Funky Winkerbean" by Tom Batiuk: I'm torn here. With the recent cancer story line, Batiuk is proven he can handle delicate story lines with grace and honesty. At times though, it seems like every other character is suffering from some horrible "TV-movie-of-the-week" malaise. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and a B.

"Mutts" by Patrick McDonnell: I'm not a pet person, which is probably why McDonnell's constant forays into cuteness grate on me. He's still a versatile and clever cartoonist though, so I'll give the strip a B.

"Jump Start" by Robb Armstrong: A likable, if unexceptional, family strip, notable for the fact that it brings the only bit of ethnicity to what is otherwise an overwhelmingly white funny page.

"Beetle Bailey" by Mort and Greg Walker: When Sarge and Beetle finally acknowledge their love for each other, I'll give the strip an A. For now, I'll settle for a C+

"Zits" by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman: You might think this is a strip for and about teenagers, but really it's a strip for and about the parents of teenagers. I say this because "Zits'"
teenagers live in some magical wonderland where they never have to deal with drugs, sex, social pressure or any of the other real things that actual teens deal with on a daily basis. Jim Borgman's wonderful art is the only reason I'm giving it a C-.

"Hi and Lois" by Brian and Greg Walker and Chance Browne: Zzzzzzz. Oh, I'm sorry, I was reading Hi and Lois and was lulled to sleep by its utter mediocrity. C-

"The Family Circus" by Bil & Jeff Keane: I find the entire Keane family, with their misshapen heads, mangled English and ability to see ghosts and dead grandpas, extremely disturbing. If providing readers with a subversive horror strip is the Keanes' secret agenda, then I'd give this an A. I suspect it's not, however, so I'm giving it a D+

"Garfield" by Jim Davis: I have this image of Jon's apartment being one long table with nothing on it. This isn't a comic strip. It's a marketing ploy. D

"The Fusco Brothers" by J.C. Duffy: I'm sorry, Mr. Duffy, but there's only room for one dadaesque, non sequitur strip, and that's "Zippy the Pinhead." You lose. F

"Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" by John Rose: Do hillbillies even exist any more? Haven't they faded into yesteryear along with the rotary phone and the Charleston? Why is this extremely unfunny strip still around apart from sheer inertia? F

"Marmaduke" by Brad Anderson: No. I'm sorry, but ... just no. F


Everyone complains, but few offer alternative solutions. It's with that in mind that I present this short list of five comic strips I'd like to see in our newspaper:

"Lio" by Mark Tatulli: A hilariously dark, wordless strip in the vein of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey about a little boy unperturbed by the supernatural elements that invade his neighborhood.

"Cul de Sac" by Richard Thompson: Possibly one of the best family-life, little-kid strips to come
down the pike in a dog's age.

"Pooch Cafe" by Paul Gilligan: As previously noted, I'm not much of a pet person, but this strip
makes me laugh.

"Brewster Rockit: Space Guy" by Tim Rickard: A rather funny parody of traditional sci-fi tropes. Think "Dilbert" in space.

"Zippy the Pinhead" by Bill Griffith: One of the (deliberately nonsensical) greats.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Monday, March 03, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Alison Bechdel

Before 2006, Alison Bechdel was what would politely be termed a “niche” artist. Her biweekly comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, had won her a loyal but small following, but greater success seemed distant.

Then came the release of Fun Home, her 2006 memoir of her relationship with her father, an emotionally distant, closeted gay man (and funeral director) who died, possibly by suicide, just when she herself was coming out of the closet.

The book wowed folks in and outside the industry, garnering praise from unlikely sources such as Time magazine (which named it the book of the year) and Entertainment Weekly, and Bechdel’s name quickly moved into the upper tier of comics artists, alongside folks like Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman.

Bechdel will appear Tuesday evening at Dickinson College to talk about Fun Home, Dykes and the art of making comics in general. I talked to her recently about the book’s success and how it has affected her.

Q: I want to start off talking about your visit to Dickinson. You’re going to be attending two classes, one on memoirs and the one on graphic narratives. Do you have anything planned? Any idea what you’re going to be talking about?

A: (laughs) You know, I didn’t even realize I’m going to be speaking to two classes.

Q: I could be wrong, so —

A: I haven’t really examined my paperwork (laughs). I guess I shouldn't really admit that should I? I've just been really busy. That sound really fun though. I would love to talk to a memoir class and really get to address the more literary, writing aspects of the book.

Q: Well what’s your evening lecture going to be about? Is it going to be similar to the F&M one?

A: It’s going to be very similar. Not identical. It will be certainly updated. You’re going to think I’m a total fraud (laughter).

I talk about my comic strip and its history and evolution, some of the current story lines I’m grappling with. Then I’ll read from Fun Home and I don’t think I’ll really talk about insofar as I’ll be answering any questions people might have.

Q: I know I really enjoyed how you went through how the book came together.

A: Oh no, you’re right, I will talk about some of the particular production issues, like how I made it and what the process of drawing it was like.

Q: I found those things fascinating, but then I’m a big nerd.

A: It’s a very nerdy activity.

Q: How has your life changed as a result of Fun Home’s success?

A: I spend a chunk of every day turning down projects that people want to do. Invitations to submit something to an anthology (laughs). It’s this invisible part of my new job description. It’s so hard to stay focused on something because everyone wants you to do something else while you’re still a hot commodity.

I did get drawn off into one project that took months of my time but it really felt worth it. That was including a graphic essay about the state of Vermont for a book about the states that will be coming out later this year.

Q: That sounds interesting.

A: It was a really different sort of thing for me to do.

Q: Is it a history of Vermont or more about what it’s like to live in Vermont now?

A: The project is called “State by State” and edited by Sean Wilsey. It could be anything we want. The book is based on the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project tour guides that hired unemployed writers to produce during the depression. They had people like John Steinbeck writing whatever they wanted about a state. It’s kind of like that. I got to do whatever I want. It’s mostly historical but it’s also personal.

Q: The book won a lot of accolades — book of the year from Time magazine, number one nonfiction book from Entertainment Weekly — I’m sure you were surprised by all the praise, but what do you attribute it to? There also seems to be some sort of cultural shift going on.

A: Totally. I think it’s two cultural shifts. One is the increasing acceptance of graphic narrative and literacy. People read comics more readily than they used to. The whole “comics are not just for kids anymore” thing. People are recognizing the true potential of this medium.

But the other thing is, at the same time that graphic narratives were slowly inching towards mainstream acceptance, so were gay and lesbian narratives. When this all happened to me 25-30 years ago, I couldn't have sold a story about a lesbian and her gay dad. Who would want to read that? There’s been this whole cultural and political movement that has made those stories accessible and meaningful to a broader audience.

I just happened to be out there on the ocean paddling on my surfboard and I sorta caught both these waves at the same time.

Q: It’s interesting because you were someone who was known in the gay communities and comic strip community for Dykes but within the larger comics and indie community you weren’t well known before Fun Home. Do you feel vindicated by the success of the book?

A: Vindicated, that’s a good word. I do kind of feel that way.

I had been laboring in obscurity for decades. I was getting more and more bitter about it.

Q: Were you really?

A: I was! It was getting harder to make a living on Dykes to Watch Out For, I was working on this crazy project about my dad that was taking all of my time and energy and I had no idea if it was going to work. I never really threw myself into the comics universe, into that world because when I started working, it just seemed natural that my milieu was the gay and lesbian literary scene. That was my world and I didn't even try to enter the comic book universe.

Since Fun Home came out and since Dykes has persisted over the years, I’ve kind of been grandfathered in as a member of the cartoon world, which was surprising to me at first because I always felt completely invisible.

Q: You’ve been making the rounds lately — you were at the New York show and I saw you at MoCCA. For someone who’s been out of that community what has that experience been like to be thrust in the middle of all these comics conventions and whatnot?

A: It was crazy. I’d never been to a comic convention before. I loved MoCCA because it was so small. The other ones — San Diego and New York — were just kind of mind-blowing.

Q: What was your impression of them?

A: People were always talking and joking about how people go to these conventions and dress up in costumes and it was there. But it was exciting to see people who really cared passionately about this medium. That was thrilling. I was a little confused by all the other things that seem to get drawn in under the rubric of comics like pro wrestling? I don’t quite get all that.

Q: Did you feel like you were well received in San Diego and New York?

A: Oh yeah. There’s so much going on. The people I wanted to find found me.

At San Diego I was worried about that. I went to check out the room I was going to be in and it was huge. It was ridiculous. And it was pretty full, all these people came. It was a sympathetic, excited audience. That was really gratifying. Cause I was up against who knows what. Some comic book they were trying to turn into a movie.

Q: In the book you talk about how you bristled at the way literature was taught and symbolism was forced. But now your book is being taught in college and not just any but a class about comics. What’s your reaction to that?

A: It’s a little disturbing to be institutionalized. But of course I’m immensely grateful for it. I think of people being forced to read my work and I don’t like that. I just got an email from a kid — I have to read this to you: “I just read Fun Home in an English class Intro to the graphic novel. Initially I thought it would be an angry story about the struggles that a homosexual American faces, but I’ve got to say that I was wrong and I really enjoyed it." That’s pretty touching, but I do feel that it’s getting shoved down some people’s throats. That’s a little disturbing.

Q: Are you worried about it becoming institutionalized in other senses too? The book is being quickly put up there next to Persepolis and Maus.

A: I know and that is so crazy! But that’s just how people process a medium. Those books are all so different.

Q: It does seem like the memoir seems to be an easy way for people to slide into comics. If it’s a true story people seem more willing to accept it. Do you find that to be true?

A: Yeah, and that’s actually another of those waves that I should’ve mentioned. This craving for memoirs that the culture is undergoing. I kind of caught that wave too.

Q: There does seem to be a real memoir wave right now.

A: Personally, I love fiction but everyone can’t make up a story (laughs). Turing a story out of the stuff of life fascinates me. How do you make a coherent narrative out of just the random chaos of our lives? I find that very exciting.

Q: Has the book’s success hindered your work at all? Has it proved daunting for you?

A: Oh my god yes. I was pretty much reconciled myself to the fact that this next book is going to suck. I can’t think too much about that or I’ll be utterly paralyzed. I have been paralyzed for a while actually. But I think it’s going to be alright.

Q: Can we talk a little bit about your family’s reaction to the book?

A: Sure.

Q: When I talked to you last time you said they weren’t happy, not so much about the book itself but it’s success.

A: Well none of us were prepared for how visible the book was going to be and how much press it was going to get. We all sort of expected it would reach the audience that Dykes to Watch Out For did which meant the neighbors wouldn’t see it.

Well, the neighbors did see it. My mom’s friends read about it and read it. We hadn’t anticipated what that would mean and it was difficult for all of them to have someone else tell their story.

None of them object to anything in particular that I wrote. I think they would agree that it was fairly accurate. But still they have different versions of those events and different interpretations and I think it was just hard to see the one version out there be assumed to be the true or correct version. It would be disturbing to have someone else use me as a character in their story.

Q: Have they been able to reconcile over it since then?

A: We don’t really talk about it that much. It’s kind of blown over.

Q: That’s certainly something you can talk about for your memoir class. The dangers of putting your family in your work.

A: Yes, but it’s a funny, double-edged thing, because I don’t think I’d be the kind of person that would expose my family’s intimate stories in public if I hadn’t been raised by that particular family. I kind of have this emotional distance to things. It enables me to do something that other people might be too squeamish or decent to do.

Q: I do want to talk a little bit about the book. One of the things that impressed me about the book was its cyclical nature. You go forward in time and then go back and reveal a bit more. What made you decide to take that approach rather than a straightforward, linear approach?
A: It wasn’t so much a decision. It became clear very early on that I couldn’t tell the story chronologically. I tried to put the events in order and there were so many things that I wanted to say about each of them that I kept going off on these tangents and I realized that wasn’t going to work. What interested me most about the story was not what happened but my ideas about what had happened.

I realized fairly early on that I was going to have to organize the material thematically and not chronologically. That just redirected everything. There’s a chapter about death and growing up in a funeral home. There’s a chapter about homosexuality. I would take the narrative elements of the story that fit into that theme and unfold them there. I just hoped the story revealed enough information about the actual story that it would all work. Some events were gone over multiple times from different angles. It was kind of just by necessity. I didn’t start out looking at it that way.

Q: What about your choices like the green color in the book? How did that come about?

A: It’s hard to even remember now. I guess I’d seen — I don’t know if it was the publisher’s idea or mine but I’d seen stuff like Ghost World where it’s two color, blue and black.

I balked at it at first. I was committed to doing everything in black and white because it was sort of like my story with my dad. My dad was a color freak and he was always into painting and wanted me to do more with color. He would show me how to color in my coloring books as a child. I would always rebel against that. I wanted to prove that you don’t need color to reproduce the world in a convincing way. I just felt like I wasn’t going to not do it because of my dad. That would just be giving him more power. So I decided sure, what the hell, let’s use color.

Q: Was the book cathartic for you in any way? Did you feel a certain chapter had closed through working on it?
A: There were certainly moments in the earlier part of the process that were very emotional. There were these intense things I had to wrestle with. The book was cathartic. Not every moment I was working on it. It was grueling labor. But I feel like the book is my proper funeral for my dad. Whatever it is funerals mean to people. Some kind of acknowledgement of a person’s life and death.

I just never felt like that was never done properly. The funeral we had felt very farcical to me. I couldn’t relate to it. This is the most overused word in our culture, but I didn’t have any closure to his death and I think I do now.

Q: As you’ve been touring and doing signings over the past two years, is there any particular reaction or response that stands out for you?

A: There’s no one event but it was striking to me how many people from wildly disparate backgrounds said they felt like it was their story about their family. I’d think “Oh, you were raised by a gay man in a funeral home too?” Some of them were frighteningly similar. I don’t understand why so many people felt it was so intimately about them.

Q: Perhaps it’s a comment on how family secrets are more common than we like to think.

A: Yeah, I think revealing secrets was exciting for people. Everyone has that stuff.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m trying to understand human love relationships. It’s a case study of my own romantic history. People ask are you doing a sequel and I guess technically it is cause it’s about my twenties and early thirties. I’m examining relationships and trying to figure out why we do this. In this project I’m reading a lot of psychoanalytic stuff. It sounds really deadly, but I’m learning some interesting things and I want to find a way to make those more accessible to people who aren’t going to sit down and read Freud. I don’t know how it’s going to go. It’s still very much in the early stages.

Q: I was going to ask how far along you were.

A: Not very.

Q: Didn’t you have to cut back on the strip in order to get Fun Home out?

A: I did slow down. I thought I might just do this because my deadlines for this book are really short. The last book took me seven years and this one has two and a half years, one of which is already gone. I did try to cut back for awhile and I did that for about six months but I found that it took me exactly as much time to produce one strip a month as it did to produce two. So I went back to two.

I feel like I’m keeping this little world, this parallel universe, going, but it’s unspooling in real time and I was having to get as much material into one strip as I would into two. So it was actually more work.

Q: Does working on the strip serve as a kind of antidote or cleansing?

A: It did with Fun Home. I would be totally in my own navel doing this intense, introspective stuff and it was very refreshing to come out and deal with the real world for a week. But I haven’t gotten into a rhythm with the new book yet. The title of it is Love Life. I'm hoping to get into that rhythm pretty soon.

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