It is the little rift within the lute/That by and by will make the music mute

“And ever widening, slowly silence all,” according to Tennyson in Merlin and Vivien in Idylls of the King. Which is why my illustration is Julia Margaret Cameron’s Vivien and Merlin.

Tennyson’s point is a version of chaos theory: a very slight crack can shatter something big and strong. Which is why I’m a little obsessive about scheduling and goals: I always feel that if I ease up, the stuff I miss will throw me so far off course I won’t get anything done. Which leads me to this week’s writing .

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been having trouble focusing on my reading in the evenings. So on the mornings I woke up early, the first thing I did was read. It was much easier to concentrate, and as insomnia usually  leaves me with more hours in the week than I planned, it didn’t seem like a problem (normally I work until I fall back to sleep, which more than compensates for naps during the day).

But this morning, TYG had a sudden schedule conflict so I had to walk the dogs. She would have been fine if I just took them out for a squat in the yard, but I hate doing that, so they got an hour-plus walk. That was a chunk out of the morning, and when I got back, I just could not get my head into writing. I wound up settling for some research reading instead. As I’d hoped to get a lot of fiction done today, that was frustrating.

And that brings me to my second Little Rift. I realized this week that because I keep missing my “1,000 words of fiction a work day” goal, I’m beginning to ignore it completely. So this Wednesday, when it was very tempting to give it another skip, I made a special effort and got it done. Only today, due to the extra walkies and losing focus (there were a couple of other non-writing things I had to do too) I didn’t get it done. Next week, I’ll be back to shooting for all five days.

So other than my Screen Rant column and my Leaf articles, not much accomplished to talk about this week. A lot of things almost accomplished (I almost had Questionable Minds submitted) but not beyond that. I look forward to resetting and starting over next week.

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New Screen Rant out: if I told Superman he had a beautiful body, would he hold it against me?

More specifically, it’s on 16 Wild Things About Superman’s Body.  For example, that he’s the perfect organ donor as his invulnerable parts resist transplant rejection (art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito)

Some stories say when he’s powerless from kryptonite an ordinary bullet can kill him, such as The Reversed Heroes here (art by Dick Sprang). They’re in a minority.

Superman can smell pancakes from halfway around the world, even though that’s physically impossible (the molecules carrying the scent can’t spread that fast, no matter how sensitive his nose). Art by Bob Brown.

If something could kill him on Krypton, it will become super on Earth and affect him the same way. Presumably if someone had a Kryptonian chair, they could club him unconscious with it. Art by Al Plastino.

And due to a bizarre physiological feature, his body freaks out on his Kryptonian birthday (art by Curt Swan). This was revealed to serve the plot of one story, then promptly forgotten.

Being the big comics nerd I am, this was a lot of fun to write. Hope y’all enjoy reading it.

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For today, a quote and a cover

 

I heard the quote on Sirius’ Broadway Channel last night, from the musical [title of show] (yes, that’s the title): “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.”

As a writer that’s not a bad goal to shoot for. I’m not sure it’s a practical career goal (if the hundred people all buy my book, option B is probably more profitable) but even so, something about the sentiment clicks with me.

The cover is by Leo and Diane Dillon for Avram Davidson’s fantasy about the Roman poet Virgil, re-imagined in medieval legend as sorcerer Virgil Magus. I’m not a fan of Davidson, a stylized writer whose style I find very off-putting. This book was the best of those I read, and the cover captures its rather quirky tone. Plus it’s a neat image in its own right.

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Are monarchy and age differences becoming problematic?

The past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of grumbling that so many fantasies are still using monarchy as a backdrop. Why do writers think that’s a good thing? Why aren’t we using our talents to propose more intelligent ways to organize society, particularly now when the American system shows so much strain.

This is something specfic fans and creators have argued about for years. As Brian Aldiss said in the introduction to his Galactic Empires anthology, some people assume that writing a story in a space empire automatically endorses imperialism. But it seems like I’m spotting a lot more calls for change lately.

Maybe not; it may just be the Internet making them more visible or the random pattern of which specfic sites I visit. Then again, Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves got rave reviews because “So much of the epic fantasy field accepts the a priori legitimacy of monarchy—or the a priori legitimacy of power maintained through force—invests it with a kind of superstitious awe, that to find an epic fantasy novel willing to intelligently interrogate categories of power is a thing of joy.” I personally found zero joy in that book but I don’t think it had anything to do with the politics. Though I admit I don’t find anything problematic in using monarchy as a setting the way I’ve come in the casual, unremarked-on use of slavery. Then again, I don’t mind having monarchy questioned either (below, Bob Pepper’s cover for a book in which kings often make bad decisions, but monarchy isn’t questioned).

Then there’s age gaps, in the sense of Young Woman/Older Man. Particularly since #metoo took off I’ve seen lots of analyses of movies with big age gaps. And also a lot of people who find similar gaps in real life to be inherently squicky with a dangerous power differential.

I haven’t done any statistical analysis or opinion polling on this one either, but it does seem as if attitudes are changing. People have always mocked movies with absurd age differences, but they found them more ridiculous than creepy. And for some people, I think, it doesn’t take much of a difference. A few years ago, after Dylan Farrow restated her claim Woody Allen abused her as a child, I was reading an online discussion. A surprising number of people asserted that someone in their midtwenties hitting on/lusting after college students was creepy; thirtysomethings hitting on twentysomethings is creepy too. I can’t say I’d find either of those inherently objectionable, or indicative of an imbalanced relationship. Assuming the participants were cool with it, I don’t see a problem (of course TYG is fifteen years younger than me, so I may be biased). Hollywood age differences annoy me more, but I can let them slide if I like the movie (e.g., Marisa Tomei/Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinnie).

Which is not to say my judgment’s right.

Right or wrong, I’m curious to see if there are indeed trends developing here. Time will tell.

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Flintstones: Meet the even-more-modern Stone Age family

Reading the first volume of DC’s short-lived FLINTSTONES by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh got me thinking about how you keep an adaptation faithful (or don’t) when it comes out 50 years after the original series first aired.

The Flintstones was a hit prime-cartoon that ran from 1960 to 1966. It was openly a spin on Jackie Gleason’s hit The Honeymooners, with Fred as Jackie Gleason’s Ralph and Barney as his sidekick Norton. Only, of course, in a fictionalized “modern Stone Age.” Socially, everything is like a simplified version of 1950s America (stay at home wife, husband who works 40 hours a week, then goes down to his lodge); technologically it’s an insane steampunk version where animals serve as appliances and cars are powered by just pushing your feet through the floor to move them.

Reruns, spinoffs (Flintstone Kids) and expanded-universe stuff (comic books and DVD films such as The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones) stuck to the standard presentation both visually and (as far as I remember) in keeping the 1950sish social setting the same. Russell/Pugh give the characters a more realistic look and shoot for a more contemporary stone age setting. Wilma’s now an artist, the politicians are incompetent, Fred’s boss Mr. Slate dreams of someday being one of the 1 percent. The original satirized Beatniks; here we get an issue were supporters of traditional relationships protest this newfangled idea called marriage (the sex cave was good enough for your parents, wasn’t it?).

I like it, though apparently not enough people did (it ended with the second volume, Bedrock Bedlam). But it strikes me a fan of the show could argue that by updating it, the comic book gets it wrong. And they have a point … but then again, so do Pugh and Russell. It depends whether you define the Flintstones as a satire on contemporary life or a satire on 1950s contemporary life. Both are reasonable interpretations but which is right? Is The Flintstones contemporary or a period piece?

This is something that’s easy to deal with in theater. After a play reaches the point where it’s social attitudes are too outdated, just do it as a period piece. No Sex Please, We’re British was a fast-moving farce about porn when it hit the boards in the 1970s. The sex elements are so outdated now that the last community theater production I saw treated it as a straight 1970s period piece. That was the right call.

It’s tougher with a series though because it has to engage readers over the long haul. I think Russell and Pugh made the right call; even though we still have stay-at-home wives (and I imagine always will) the show’s patriarchal assumptions would have looked absurdly dated today.

Thinking about the TPB after I read it, I realized it departs from the original in other ways too. The social satire in the original target rock-and-roll, Kids Today, gender relations, and well, men; Fred was an arrogant, rather dim buffoon and something of a jerk. He’s the man who thinks he’s lord of his domain when he’s anything but (much like Honeymooner’s Ralph).

Fred here is much less of a jerk, which is a plus. But the social satire’s a lot more pointed. Fred and Barney are vets from a pointless war against the tree people; capitalist consumption is a new idea and not making anyone happier (of course satire on people buying stuff they don’t need goes back 90 years at least); the elected leader is a blithering idiot; the cover image above has Pebbles reading Cannibalism: the Unknown Ideal (a takeoff on an Ayn Rand title). It worked well enough for me, but again, apparently not for everyone. I wonder if it didn’t just fall between the stools: didn’t draw new fans (I’m not sure there’s much Flintstone fandom beyond my generation) and wasn’t traditional enough for the old ones. Or maybe something else.

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Witch hunters are way worse than witches

The tagline for the 2014 TV series Salem was that “There’s something worse than a witch-hunt: a witch.” Which as slacktivist Fred Clark has pointed out, is bullshit. Witchcraft and black magic don’t kill people. Witch hunters have killed hundreds, maybe thousands. And they’re still destroying lives in the modern world.

In the Satanic panic of the 1980s, innocent people went to jail for years on charges they’d abused small children in Satanic cults, operating through daycares. Part of the problem was inept therapists believed that if you demanded toddlers tell you they were abused, they’d refuse unless it was true (this is inaccurate. At that age, they’ll say whatever the grownups want to hear). And police and prosecutors who proceeded to accept this at face value, even when the tales got more outlandish (the cult killed my dog, then brought it to life!) or accused people in law-enforcement of being in on the cult. Like the investigation of the Massie rape case, the problem wasn’t just a false accusation but the police refusal to say Stop.

Author Judy Byington claims the existence of a Satanic cult indistinguishable from the lies Mike Warnke told 40 years ago. And of course, it’s now spilling into politics as conspiracy theorists Liz Crokin and Alex Jones, among others, make the same claims (which segue into paranoia about The Storm) only focused on Clinton (and whoever else is in their spotlight) as one of Satan’s agents, just as they and their listeners and Trump are in the crosshairs.

Evidence? Schmevidence. Slacktivist again writes about Alice Tallmadge, who recounts how her entire family swallowed one relative’s claims of being abused by a cult. Evidence? The complete lack of evidence just shows how the cult is so subtle and powerful it covers up everything! As Slacktivist points out, it would be easy to check whether Tallmadge’s niece had actually suffered some of these tortures, but the family didn’t.

As Clark says, some of the people promoting these theories are undoubtedly hucksters, no different from the peddlers who once offered pieces of the true cross or vials of Mary’s breast milk (yes, seriously). Some of them are gullible or religious enough to believe it; I’ve known people who could have a perfectly serious discussion about how their friend’s recent accident was obvious Satan tampering with his brake line (but his guardian angel saved him from serious injury).

 

And others make up the kitten-burning coalition: they want to believe, because if there are evil Satanic cults molesting children, committing human sacrifice and trying to take over the country, just by opposing them they prove their own virtue. Supporting Trump isn’t simply racist or knee-jerk Republican, it’s fighting to protect little children from Satan! In that context, nobody wants to worry about evidence. Evidence would spoil their fun. Or interfere with what they “know” is true.

I don’t think this is a new thing. If the people who heard Mike Warnke confess to being a Satanist priest or read his book The Satan Seller really believed him, they’d have to believe he was a willing participant in human sacrifice — a murderer. So far as I know, that never stopped him being acceptable in good Christian circles, nor did anyone suggest investigating. Five seconds research would have proven Warnke couldn’t have been a freedom rider in the late 1960s, as the Freedom Rides happened in the Kennedy years.

At some level, as Clark says, maybe they don’t believe, but they just excise those inconvenient thoughts. They’d sooner believe in a world run by Satan in which they’re champions of virtue than a world in which The Other isn’t all evil. And as the Satanic panic shows, that can have ugly consequences. A couple of times recently I’ve heard a TV show or movie say that no witches were burned at Salem — they were all hanged. No. No witches were hanged, either.

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Women heroes, pulp vigilantes, the president and Peanuts! TPBs read

BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY: Source Code by Shawna and Julie Benson, Roge Antonio and Claire Rowe is a big improvement over the previous volume as Batgirl, Huntress and Black Canary go up against a thief who steals metahuman powers, a shady eco-friendly company and Oracle’s old foe the Calculator. The banter and the art were much less annoying than V1, and overall I think they did a great job.

BOMBSHELLS: Allies by Marguerite Bennett and multiple artists is the second volume in the series (somehow I neglected to review the first volume, Enlisted), set in WW II. With the male superheroes all fighting on the front, 1940s versions of various characters (Supergirl, Batwoman, Stargirl, Mera, Wonder Woman) have been recruited by Amanda Waller to fight against the Axis. The first volume was a lot of fun, this one a little less. Partly, some key events seemed to have happened off-page, partly that the living dead Tenebrae are way too stock a foe. Still, I liked this one.

LOBSTER JOHNSON: The Pirate’s Ghost and Metal Monsters of Midtown by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Tonci Zonjic is a mixed bag. The first story arc, concerning giant robots running amok in New York, was a lot of fun. The second, in which a ghost pirate ship shows up in New York (surprisingly for the Hellboy-verse, it turns out to be a fake, like something from a Doc Savage novel) is fun, but I honestly don’t think the plot makes sense. Both stories have been added to the Hellboy Chronology, of course.

I recently reread the Bronze Age Prez series because I’d picked up the 2015-16 PREZ: Corn-Dog in Chief by Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell, which is as goofy as its predecessor but in a different way. The premise here is that Beth Ross, whose gaming skills have given her a cult status, is picked as a write-in candidate and wins her state. When the election is thrown into the House of Representatives, she obviously has no chance to win… right? Suddenly an 18-year-old girl is thrust into the White House in a corporate-controlled dystopian future (“I’m the end-of-life bear, would you like some medical marijuana?”), helped by her vice president, Rep. Rickards (an alt.version of the original Prez). I liked it, but apparently not enough people did, as DC ended it here instead of the planned twelve-issue run.

THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1967-8 by Charles Schulz doesn’t add as much new stuff as the previous volume, mostly building on ’65-6. We have more of Peppermint Patty, a lot more of Snoopy as the WW I flying ace (“I’ve always wanted to meet a blighter.”), and more of the perennial gags (the little redheaded girl, losing at baseball, trying to kick the football, Lucy’s hopeless crush on Schroeder). That’s not meant as a negative: Schulz has found his groove and the strips are still fun years later. We do get one new element, a black kid named Franklin (Brian Cronin writes about the story behind adding him), and Snoopy has a regular bird friend now, though not yet named Woodstock. Good, though I can see why some of my friends hated the increased emphasis on Snoopy.

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Time travel, Lilliput and magic: TV, a movie and a book

One of the things I love about superhero comics is that they mash up everything — superpowers, super-science, the supernatural; Greek myths and extraterrestrials. The third season of Legends of Tomorrow gets that perfectly. As witness the final episode involves the Legends, an Amazon-trained Helen of Troy, and Jonah Hex battling a demon in 1800s North Dakota.

The overall arc of the season was the Legends fighting against a resurrected Damien Dahrk and his plan to create enough anachronisms to liberate the demon Mallus from a temporal prison. That led to several fun stories, such as Helen replacing Hedy Lamarr as a sex symbol in 1930s Hollywood (Timeless did a Hedy Lamarr story too; it wasn’t as good) or Julius Caesar leading an army of drunken frat boys to conquer Aruba. We also get a good addition to the cast in Ava, a Time Bureau agent whose button-down exterior hides a lot of passion. They even pulled off a time-loop story despite how often those have been done. I’m looking forward to seeing them back for S4 (it’s been confirmed). “A dirty hat. How … romantic.”

The Fleischer Brothers’ GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1939) focuses entirely on the Lilliputian section of the story: Gulliver washes up on the shore, terrifying everyone (I began imagining the movie as one of Marvel’s old school monster stories — “Gulliver is loose once more! Nothing can save us now!”) until he proves himself a friend. But with a war under way, can he resolve everything happily? The story is slight, but the art is absolutely beautiful. I was amazed at how much detail the Fleischers put into the actual work of binding Gulliver. “I owned a boat, a beauty too/Fifty times as big as … your shoe!”

MAGIC: 1400 to 1950s edited by Noel Daniel traces stage magic from the days of the “cup and ball” trick (which predates the scope of the book by a millennium and then some), through card tricks and sleight-of-hand to the bigger and more elaborate illusions of Robert-Houdin, Harry Houdini’s escapology, PT Selbit’s saw-the-lady-in-half (the text notes that sawing tricks were old hat by then, but switching from a man to a lady made it a classic) and the demands of vaudeville, music-halls, world tours, night clubs and TV and movies (the latter two, of course, ultimately pushing magic back to the bush leagues). A coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with photos and posters of various acts, this was a good read.

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The Whisper of the Tax

So this week my writing time was distorted by having to finish the state and federal tax forms. Tuesday I went over them and caught a bunch of errors. One was from entering the same deduction twice; one was from writing down a deduction but not subtracting it from my writing income; and several were just math errors. I went over that last lot several times, just to be sure they were finally right.

(Title, by the way, borrows from Richard Condon’s terrorist thriller, The Whisper of the Axe)

After that was all done, I printed them up yesterday and mailed them off today. So they’re done!!! But that did cut into my writing time, so I missed my 1,000 words a day goal for Thursday and Friday. I had a productive week just the same.

I got out my latest Screen Rant, on superheroes and villains fans didn’t know had siblings. Swamp Thing’s brother from a dreadful mid-1970s reboot. Dr. Strange’s vampire brother. And Thomas Wayne Jr., the brother Batman didn’t know he had. I still find that slightly incredible, because unlike Dr. Strange, Swamp Thing and some of the other characters in the list, it was well established Bruce Wayne was an only child. But then World’s Finest as edited by Murray Boltinoff saw nothing wrong with claiming Superman and Batman had kids, either. Below, courtesy of Dick Dillin’s art, Batman learns the truth.

Nick Fury’s brother Jake, on the other hand, has been well established since the Silver Age, he just hovers right below the awareness of the average comics reader. And wow, he’s been really heavily retconned, as I discovered researching the article. Below, writer/artist Jim Steranko introduces him killing Nick.

I completed ten Leaf articles, and got about 6,000 words done on Undead Sexist Cliches. And I finally figured out how to fix No One Can Slay Her and finish it. I still want the writer’s group (or someone) to give it a beta reading, but I feel very pleased with it. I’d hoped to get some work in polishing Questionable Minds, but the taxes took care of that. I did give the green light to publish Atlas Shagged but it won’t be up for sale until next week.

On the downside, my mind could not seem to focus in the evening, so I got next to no reading done. I hate that. As of last night, though, I seem to be over it.

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Unsuccessful time hacks

Morning is my most productive time. A while back I thought I’d squeeze a few minutes more by postponing all my online-comic strip reading to the end of the day.

I began reading comic strips online about a decade ago. The local paper had squeezed them down so much (to fit in the crossword and jumble and thereby save space) it was quite uncomfortable to read them, even though I’d prefer hard copy. So, online it became. And once that happened, I could also see all the good strips the paper wasn’t carrying. I forget exactly which ones they were, but I know they weren’t carrying Rip Haywire when I left and that one’s a hoot.

Since then, of course, there’s been an explosion in online strips, so I read lots of them that were never in the paper (mostly, but not exclusively, specfic). So I started taking fifteen minutes in the morning before work to read as many as possible. I work through my entire roster in about ten days (I’m months or years behind on most of the online stuff so it’s not like I have to wait for them to post new strips).

But like I said, morning’s my peak time. So I decided a few months back to claim that extra quarter-hour and leave comics reading to the end of the work day.

That time hack sucked. Either the dogs demanded early walkies, or I had a last bit of work I could do, or the computer ran out of juice. One way or another, I just didn’t get around to it. And in the evening I’m either dealing with the dogs, or talking to TYG, or cooking, so I never get around to it.

So this week I pushed it back to the morning. It’s working much better for me.

Another morning problem is that if I go out bicycling I have to wait until later than when I’m exercising indoors (darkness is not the cyclist’s friend). So logically my morning stretching/breakfast/tea should be a half-hour shorter, to make up for the time I’ll take later.

I’m very bad about that. I’m more likely to look at the clock, think I have lots of time, in fact it’s amazing how much extra time I have to watch TV or read or … oh, wait, I was supposed to start work early, right? That needs to stop.

Art by North Carolina’s Dan Thompson. All rights remain with current holder. #SFWApro

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