Top Ten Movies of 2015 – and More

madmax-guitarist

Hello everyone! I got caught up in writing the first draft of my novel, currently 206 pages and counting, and my work here got a little pushed to the side, but there are now many ideas that don’t fit in my other media which I need to explore.

One of the pleasures of 2015 was writing regular film reviews for The Addison Recorder. I don’t know how many people read them, but it was wonderful engaging with cinema on such a level and feeling that engagement shape my own fictions. And with the year over, it is time to make the first of these lists I feel really accurate setting down since 2008, when I was again spending almost every week at movies, searching for something I couldn’t fully put into words that I wanted to shape me.

2015 was a topsy-turvy year for America, and I don’t want to say that cinema reacted specifically to that because films like these were developed for years, but I was moved by how many terrific films spoke to some recurrent themes: the triumph of the human spirit. The capacity to do the right things in the face of opposition. The confrontation of our ability to change.

There was an additional quality this year that was summed up by my fellow writer/artist Leigh Yenrick, who saw half the films on this list with me (and who I thank for joining me in some heady emotional waters…I owe her much more joyous pictures in the future). The themes of 2015 came across all the more because, as she put it, there were so many simple stories that were incredibly well-told. Almost any human being can relate to the visceral excitement of a car chase or the perceived comfort of everyday married life, but when the stories surrounding these are told by people who have poured thought, emotion, and the hard and necessary work of construction into them (for both the story of a film and the making of a film require juggling a Whitmanian multitude of parts), we as an audience receive the rare thrill of experiencing a new perspective, deeper understanding, and a sense that the world is not the same for us after leaving our seat, that we have new standards and expect more, from film and from life.

Introduction’s over. Some of these films are on Redbox, Netflix, and HBO GO/NOW. Some are still in theaters or will be back in time for Oscar. Let yourself have an experience. Without further ado…

Continue reading

Advertisements

Thankfulness in 2015

From Chicago to Paris to Syria to a bit of airspace, in practically every corner of the planet, there is a lot of tragedy and sorrow, so many of it seemingly needless. There is much debate, much confusion, and so many honorable voices struggling to be heard amidst an overpowering shout of ugliness. This morning, it might be reasonable to wake up and, even if you are one of those fortunate to be with a truly loving family and a table full of food, ask what there is to be thankful for in a tumultuous age.

I am the last person to deny that there are scary and threatening elements in our world and many problems that need to be solved. But I believe that we have the capability to solve anything, and that there is so much to be thankful for.

To illustrate why, I’m going to talk about two experiences I had in less than twenty-four hours when I was in New York City last month for New York Comic-Con. I’d meant to write about these a lot sooner but family visits, deadlines, and NaNoWriMo delayed me a bit. Now, I think it was providential that I can share these stories at a time when people may want or need to hear them.

Continue reading

Giant Essay

I begin this long-overdue essay on an airplane full of families, traveling from Chicago to New York clearly having left, or going towards, a spot of the same purpose, the mothers lovely and modest, the fathers wearing yarmulkes and carrying Borsalino hat boxes, the children rambunctious. It is the sort of situation that John Allison could make enterprising sport of and make it well.

John Allison is the English writer of the long-running web comic series Bad Machinery/Scary-Go-Round. In 2011, during a self-described “crisis of confidence,” Allison created a potential new series entitled Giant Days and self-published an issue. The story was a hit, two more issues followed, and in 2015 Boom! (my own publishers in the matter of full disclosure) picked Giant Days up as a six-issue miniseries. Again, response surpassed expectations and the run was doubled to twelve…which necessitated the hiring of a new artist as Allison’s collaborator, Disney storyboarder Lissa Treiman, was unable to continue due to other projects. This halfway point of the Boom! Box series seems a good point to talk about Giant Days, because I happen to think it is the finest monthly title in comics right now and moreover a book that people can learn from.

BOOMBOX_GiantDays_01_PRESS-7

Summarizing Giant Days fills me with pleasure because, while there are a few small ongoing threads (which thankfully carry over from the original self-published work, itself summarized on the first two pages of the Boom! Box #1), Allison rejects arcs in favor of complete stand-alone stories. The setting is a large university in England, and the three protagonists are young women, just past or on the verge of 18, who meet during their first week of school and become the closest of friends. Daisy Wooton is so intelligent she skipped a couple grades, but she was also raised by her grandmother in the tiniest provincial town and has a lot to learn about real life. Esther de Groot was the head girl of her public school, but her intelligence can be subsumed by her flair for drama and excitement, qualities her considerable beauty helps along. And Susan Ptolemy is the “human common sense silo,” a practical soul who got into college through extra-hard work, and who mixes a running stream of good advice with a readiness to fight and bend the rules in the name of righteousness. Their physical appearances are as different as their personalities.

All this being said, one of the joys of Giant Days is that Allison has never needed to dwell on their differences in looks, class, perceived social groups as John Hughes would have done: instead, from the first issue, he stresses what the women have in common, and how united each has strengths that make up for the others’ weaknesses and two can lift the spirits of a downtrodden third. Right now in the comics world, much is being said, and necessarily so, of the need for greater diversity, especially in the realm of female characters. While books from Ms. Marvel to Bitch Planet brilliantly rise to fill this duty, most titles are planted firmly in the realms of sci-fi and superhero. Giant Days’s setting and tone makes its depiction of female friendship and solidarity all the more relatable and inspiring.

Allison’s storytelling, in support of this, does not shy away from real issues faced by women (and humanity). The self-published run can be seen as a prologue, with plots detailing the women taking their first steps towards identities away from home and helping Esther deal with a break-up. Allison illustrated these issues himself (more on this later) and the partnership with Treiman seems to have helped free him to concentrate on tackling deeper themes. #3, one of the finest issues, follows what happens when Esther comes in third on a website’s list of “Fresh Meat: The 25 Hottest First Years” and the university does nothing against the creators, prompting Susan to lead a vengeful counterstrike. The issue is an outstanding denouncement of masculine culture and public apathy towards it, but Allison goes a step further by showing how Susan’s near-misandry can be equally unfair. Following issues find Daisy exploring her sexuality for the first time, developing a crush on a female classmate, getting her heart broken, and trying to determine who she is attracted to, a quest treated with the utmost understanding. Finally, Esther and Susan both engage in sexual relations and there is no titillation or condemnation involved. Allison’s empathetic tone makes me eager to see what subjects he will tackle in the future.

Not to say that Giant Days is serious. It’s may be the funniest comic book on the market. Allison has a magisterial gift for dialogue, timing, and one-liners, and he gives each character a distinctive voice. Moreover, he offers the women two superb foils.

Giant Days

Ed Gemmel is a nerdy spirit animal: a shy, funny, more-charming-than-he-thinks literature student who can’t work up the courage to tell Esther he loves her, and who as time goes on reveals a true depth of character and respect. The fifth central figure is a testament to a writer understanding their material. At the conclusion of the self-published stories, Allison created Eryn, who seemed poised to be a series regular. Eryn was funny but came across as much the same person as Susan while lacking Susan’s can-do attitude. For the Boom! Box continuation, Allison abandoned Eryn and replaced her with McGraw, the transfer student with a singular moustache who has a long-standing connection to Susan that gets explained issue by issue. McGraw is the booster rocket of Giant Days, a man of supremely dry wit, resourcefulness, and philosophy in contrast to the ridiculousness of Ed, but who also proves to be a soulful feminist with a chivalric devotion to Susan.

Now a word must be said about Treiman’s art. Allison’s original drawings were charming and suited to the material, but Treiman is a wonder. She builds off the fantastic strokes Allison hinted at in his art—Daisy’s yogic flying and the surreal world of the Black Metal Society—and creates a vibrant world full of every color under the sun and curvy, expressive lines which make people and landscapes want to leap off the page and into your own existence. It is art that transcends reality and simultaneously fits perfectly with the storytelling, capturing the exuberance, the sense of discovery, and yes, the giantness of being out on your own for the first time. Treiman’s art is also integral to the storytelling. Every issue begins with a single-page panel of our heroines in a particular setting, and that setting kicks them into whatever adventure they set out on. If Daisy, Esther, and Susan look comparatively small against the background, by the issue’s end they are in a new setting and looking larger, more dominating. Treiman is also good at recurring motifs in the series as a whole or in particular issues. Esther’s trademark wink is a sign of insanity or bad jokes to come. On a more poignant note, #4 involves two moments, in flashback and the present day, in which Susan and McGraw both express a longing for something from the other, and there are two panels which find them in the same pose but on opposite ends, one extending a hopefulness, the other unsure, deciding. It’s the sort of forethought a great comics artist needs to have. Treiman’s loss is going to be felt, especially since #6, her finale, had a story which finally took the women off campus and put them into a very different locale where their friendship still carries the day…it made me wonder what Treiman could have done with new settings and characters. But I am confident the series will continue in strong hands.

Because at the end of the day, all of the work is a visual translation of Allison’s unfailingly terrific writing, a counterpart to his deep, witty, and eminently empathetic storytelling that respects the importance of everyday problems and celebrates the bonds with others that help us overcome the worries we face every month, every day, every year. Giant Days is tremendous, addictive reading, and I wouldn’t trade my well-worn issues for a Harry Nilsson vinyl reissue and a Magic: The Gathering starter deck.

Photos from Paste and Smart Overcoat.

On Christian Marriage

This has been a year of weddings. Four of them, and shockingly none involving my family. I have never been to a terrible wedding—all of them have been beautiful and memorable—but the one I want to single out was unique as my first Episcopal wedding since I joined the church in 2008.

Chapel of the Transfiguration

Camp Mitchell is a summer camp the Episcopal Church runs in the middle of Arkansas, on top of a mountain named for a Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a cabin boy to explore America with her captain fiancée. He only found out when she got terminally ill. Today, Petit-Jean’s mountain is the high point of what one could describe as “the heavenly country of all the angels and saints,” looking out over a valley of lush plains, farmland, and rivers that glisten in the sun. Jane spent her youthful summers there.

Continue reading

I Can’t Get Started

I spent eighteen-plus hours of Labor Day weekend in the back seat of a car going to and from Arkansas. For a major portion of the journey I had my iPad and notebook on my lap, while one of my traveling companions had a giant artist’s sketchbook in which he wrote rough sketches of characters and dialogue punctuated by suggestive illustrations.

Both of us were preparing to tell stories.

A friend of mine said to me the other night that she found creation a daunting task because (and I agreed) every story begins with an infinite amount of possible choices and the writer has to narrow them down to the best possible box that a reader or actor or artist could lose themselves in and dissect from top to bottom. Over the years I have worked hard on my method of the work that goes into stories before writing the first draft, and since I firmly believe every new tale is better than the last, I have to think the method is working. Everyone has their own method, such as the cartoonist-in-the-margins stylings of my traveling companion, and none is better or worse than the other, but I offer this as help for those who feel that they can’t get started.

(Optional soundtrack here)

Continue reading

The Wrong Kind of Focus

Image from Dreamatico

Image from Dreamatico

My mind is an interesting one.

Right before I moved to Chicago, I spent a day with some of my best friends from college, and they told me they thought I might have some degree of Asperger’s syndrome…a suspicion my parents confirmed later on, telling me I was tested for it as a child. If this is true, it is something I welcome. My brain has intertwined tendencies, one dominating over the other depending on the day, to both focus on things and scatter itself through fields of information, and this has allowed me to absorb a wide range of knowledge AND settle down to tell long-form narratives.

My mind also gets me in trouble, in that I can be overcome with the most intense depression.

I have never been clinically diagnosed with depression. But there are times when I have what I once called manic episodes, but, not wanting to use that language, instead refer to as “the wrong kind of focus.” Something will trigger what I perceive as a problem and my mind fixates on that problem in a desire for solutions, realizes it cannot, and destroys my sense of well-being.

This misguided focus is rooted in a common lie every one of us tells ourselves, to quote Donald Miller: that life is a story about us. We can easily convince ourselves that if a person or group we are close to is angry or sad or simply having a bad day, then it has to be our fault in some way, that we offended or hurt them or let them down. For me, there is no greater fear than hurting another person, and the possibility that I did is often my greatest motivator for a poor focus.

My most recent episode was at a party with many old and new friends. I had been been enjoying a few drinks (Alcohol is definitely an aid to manic episodes as it weakens my intellectual stability.) and was in a marvelously good mood on a warm summer night. Then a person I greatly respect said one thing that snapped my brain to attention. This person clearly meant nothing personal by the remark and was in no way angry at me. But in that moment my good mood vanished and I thought of myself as a sad, worthless excuse for a human being who hurts everyone he meets.

I left the party soon afterwards because everyone else was in a great mood and I refused to let myself bring other people down. I ended up (naturally) calling my parents and sobbing for half an hour.

Twenty minutes after I was home, I was alright again, and the only thing that made me upset was that I let myself ruin a wonderful night.

That’s the last thing. This has happened to me enough to recognize the pattern over and over but while I have worked to reduce its frequency, it has never gone away. My mind will snap every month or two for a little bit under the pressures of doing so much and trying to maintain a positive attitude through it all.

I don’t think it will ever stop.

I write this because I have so many wonderful and brave friends who have shared their emotional upheaval with me and others. We all deal with our own little demons. And maybe there is someone else out there who has this same pattern of picking up the wrong kind of focus, and I want you to know you are not alone.

The Wisdom of Continually Starting (Soundtrack by Jimi Hendrix)

Yesterday at church, one of the readings was the ninth chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which describes how Wisdom builds the famous house of the seven pillars, prepares a meal, and then invites everyone, especially those who have no sense, saying “Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight.”

We are supposed to grow in wisdom with time, but what strikes me in this passage is that Wisdom has to get things ready for people to fully experience her gift, and a meal means doing this every day, over and over again. She continually restarts.

Dave Marquez, an individual whose remarkable talent is only matched by his kindness, has written some things lately that got woven into my mind with this passage. He had a long monologue/conversation on twitter on August 8th about how some artists get successful with innovative works that rise from their youthful exuberance, and others reach their height only after much work, much trial and error, and the development of craft. And on his tumblr he paid tribute to two masters, Toth and Toppi, and their brethren and the difference between efficient comics artistry and an inefficiency that somehow makes the art more beautiful; the point is that everyone succeeds with their own method, and that method comes when the initial ideas and principles set during the youthful exuberance are perfected after years of craft.

I understood his point very well. I am 30 and that is still a relatively young age for comics (although look at Noelle Stevenson schooling all of us at 23). Hitherto I have been most successful at setting forth the themes and devices I want to convey and work with for my career. Meanwhile, the writing and rewriting of multiple drafts of stories and abandonment of certain others (there is a full-length OGN I wrote called The Isabel Letters which you will never see but was so important to my current work) has made me determined to tell better stories and find the best ways to do so. I have often said that every time I think about Amelia, I focus on what I would have changed and what I wish I had done differently. After Form of a Question is released I will probably do the same thing. For my success, each completed work has to be in some way a failed experiment, and in my failures I learn how to do it better next time. Like Wisdom herself, I begin the process anew with every day, with every tale. Even this weekend, I finished a 14,500 word outline for a novel I hope will be my #NaNoWriMo project this year (unless comics comes calling…otherwise it’s the story I write next) and immediately began acquiring research materials for a new project in which I can do some things I wouldn’t be able to do in this novel. It never ends.

But youthful exuberance has its place, and my pondering both the Bible and Marquez led me to this closing thought. Like any classic rock devotee, I love and respect Jimi Hendrix as one of the greatest and most important musicians of them all. He was also a fantastic composer and that gift developed with time (and is best brought out on Gil Evans’s extraordinary big band recordings), but if you were to ask me what my favorite single record of his is, I would say his first single, “Hey Joe.”

“Hey Joe” is simple and boasts one of the more economical guitar solos of Hendrix’s career, but what attracts me to it is his young energy, enthusiasm, and above all sense of discovery…there are moments in that instrumental break and the extended fade-out over Mitch Mitchell’s clattering drums when the playing feels so loose and live, and I can hear Hendrix realizing the possibilities of what his guitar could do in the studio and how to develop his incendiary stage presence in new ways. That this culminated in the ambitious Electric Ladyland is not only a gift to us, but is also the logical conclusion. It is a work of seasoned practice and commitment to growth, rising from comparatively simpler blues and roots played with passion; the clear path of wisdom sprung from exuberance.