THE “NEW 52 PICK-UP” STORY, ISSUE NO. 1 …

Jim Lee and Geoff Johns at the August 31, 2011...
Jim Lee and Geoff Johns at the August 31, 2011 midnight signing for Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1 at Midtown Comics Times Square. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I’m a comic-book nerd.  This week marks the second anniversary of the company-wide New 52 reboot of DC Comics, which swept out the stables, so to speak, and began the old characters anew with an edgy, revised history, melding some of their Vertigo and WildStorm narratives to the one depicted in the main “Earth-1” timeline. Justice League, the “flagship” title of this reboot, assembled an all-star team of superheroes – including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Green Lantern – to thwart an alien invasion. So detailed was this origin story’s “narrative arc” that it required six monthly issues to relate the events of a single, apocalyptic night.

Fifty-one other monthly books immediately debuted; as time went on, some low-selling books were canceled to make room for new ones, totaling 52 titles per “wave”. Marvel Comics, coming off the humongous success of their super-team movie, The Avengers, have employed a similar mechanism, to restart their own line of books, starring Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk, as well as the X-Men.  DC hopes to duplicate that film’s cinematic success, commencing its own blockbusters with this summer’s Man of Steel.

Sequential art, as a dramatic-storytelling tool, dates as far as twenty-five thousand years back in time, to those early cave paintings of “Dappled horses” in Peche Merle, France. Comic-book art, the widespread modern expression of same, isn’t nearly so long in the tooth; the “superhero era” dates back to 1938’s first issue of Action Comics. I suspect the original creators didn’t foresee their titanic creations still selling into the twenty-first century, let alone making hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office! One ironic problem of keeping these caped crime-fighters relevant to audiences is their very longevity as successful franchises, but that’s why you only see one story a month; comic book time is very different from the real kind – Marvel, for example, uses what appears to be a “sliding scale” to stretch their tales over years.

The cool thing about this reboot stuff is the chance to collect some of these books from the very first issue on. An editorial decision to engage in “world-building” (sometimes in a literal sense, given the science-fiction books in these franchises) can help tie in events from one book into those of others, lending them added realism. The drag is that certain books get cancelled just as they’re getting good, while other books, while being less involving to read, persist because of their success in the marketplace, because this is still a business. As a kid, I just liked it when my heroes would mop the floor with the baddies; I still enjoy them, but I also study how these books are written and edited, how “arcs” unfold over many months – all for professional reasons, of course!  It’s light reading, but it’s heavy pop-cultural stuff, and of late, it’s a cash cow for these companies.

To be continued… in next month’s issue!

AUSTIN STORY: THE ELECTRIC VERSION, TAKE ONE…

A lot of people are calling Gary Clark, Jr. the rising star of electric blues music, and the newest future music superstar to come out of Austin, Texas.  If so, and he offers much evidence to support such claims, he joins Stevie Ray Vaughan in the royalty of electric Texas blues, a feat made more poignant by the cruel loss of S.R.V., twenty-three years ago today.

Stevie played in several Dallas-area bands, before he tried his luck down Austin’s way.  I first heard his lacerating lead guitar, lighting up the title track and several others from David Bowie’s “Let Dance” album, while I still lived out in California.  It was not the popular sound in the old neighborhood, but that just intrigued me even more; I hadn’t heard anybody play quite like that before.  It wasn’t until I moved to Austin that I started to grasp why he had left such a mark on the Live Music Capital, as the city is called.

Over and over, I played his albums with Double Trouble, a trio which included bassist Tommy Shannon, drummer Chris Layton and – later – keyboardist Reese Wynans; each time, the group’s style and firepower just floored me.  (Years later, I discovered that Stevie drew from jazz, as well as the blues – legend has it the Thin White Duke first heard Double Trouble perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival; S.R.V.’s appetite for different styles, I think, explains not only his technical sophistication, but the fluid and complex way he drew out notes, or rode them to someplace unexpected.)  Stevie had recorded an album with his previous band, the Nightcrawlers, but the record label in question declined to release that music for many years; Mr. Vaughan was ahead of his time, which is not surprising.

Turning down a chance to be his benefactor’s “hired hand” on a tour, Stevie stuck to his guns, recording “Texas Flood” for release in 1983.  More albums followed: “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” in 1985, “Soul to Soul” and “Live Alive” a year later, and “In Step” in 1989.  Addiction problems followed, and relationship problems — the usual bugaboos, it often seems, of creative spirits.  Like so many before him, I suppose Stevie had to live the blues, too, with as much authenticity as that with which he played them.  As I understand it, he moved home to Dallas, cleaned up, got a new girlfriend, and made a blues album (“Family Style”) with Jimmie, but then, as they say, Fate intervened.

Joe Louis Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan relaxi...
Joe Louis Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan relaxing at home (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following an extended blues jam, at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre, located in East Troy, Wisconsin, with Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, Albert King and Buddy Guy — the kind of show the ancient Greek gods must have heard, up on Mount Olympus — it seems Stevie Ray wanted to arrive early in Chicago, so he could phone up his new girlfriend.  So he decided to hop aboard a night-flying helicopter – and … well, instead, arrived in rock and roll heaven, or blues heaven, just thirty-five years young.

Austin, of course, continued to bustle and expand, becoming renowned for its cultural and other attractions; it went from being a “well-kept secret”, in S.R.V.’s lifetime, to an ever-expanding “hot spot” – perhaps the fastest-growing city in Texas.  For many who wish to “Keep Austin Weird”, not commercialized, this is a drawback.  Few outside of town realize that giants walked the streets there, lugging their instruments and their aspirations to Clifford Antone‘s famed nightclub, and similar venues, in years past.

THIS STORY IS (NOT REALLY) QUITE “SINISTER”

I won’t say I’ve had it rough, but I belong to an enigmatic minority group.  Many think we’re absentminded, clumsy, lack certain job skills, are more prone to illness and injury, and won’t live as long as members of the majority will (or can) do.  Some of the more charming words wielded against us include the Greek Skaios, which means “ill-omened”; the French gauche, “awkward”; even the Gaelic Ciotóg, which means “the strange one” (shame on my ancestors for that one, I guess).  When I was just a small fry, I learned that names can’t hurt me – which is good, because I also learned that I am left-handed, and that, I couldn’t change.

I’m exaggerating about the ’embattled’ part, sure; this does not rise to the level of ethnic or gender struggles.  In fact, this seems to be a good time to be a southpaw; I trust my brother Chris, also a lefty, would agree.

The bias against left-handedness isn’t as intense now as it was in, for instance, ancient Roman times, when a southpaw was “sinister” while a right-hander was a “dexter“.  Today, you might say a smooth or skillful act was “dexterous”, but a foiled effort was “maladroit”, i.e. bad-right, and where else would your “bad” right be, if not to the left of your “good” one?

It’s tough to be a southpaw at first, even in a forgiving atmosphere, discovering how much of the world is engineered to make dexters happy.  Keys for doors and car engines are designed for right-hand use, which means a lefty has to get better at right-handed manipulation, which is a good thing.  Writing by hand, of course, can be just ridiculous – on right-handed desks, in particular, it’s a fine way to get ink on oneself and, even worse, get a sore neck from having to turn sideways.  Scissors, saws and many other hand tools, automated teller machines, and loads of other things are not built to appeal to our “niche market”, but we’re nothing if not stubborn, and willing to learn.

The bright side of being a southpaw, of course, is the company one keeps.  Something about being perceived and treated as kooky outsiders seems to bring out the best in left-handed folks.  We may never hear of a brilliant left-handed saxophone player, given the current lack of left-handed saxophones, but I bet you’ve enjoyed the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel, Erroll Garner, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and Kurt Cobain. Southpaw artists:

Henry Ford
Henry Ford (Photo credit: Christopher Marks)

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Albrecht Dürer, and M. C. Escher. Lewis Carroll was left-handed; so was Mark Twain.  Ramses II, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Charlemagne and Lord Horatio Nelson (who had to switch over from the right hand he lost) were world-shaking lefty warriors; southpaw Mohandas Gandhi shook the world, too, but for peace.

Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity and motion must have sprung from his over-active right-brain, which of course governs left-sided functioning.  Left-handed entrepreneurs include Henry Ford, who mass-produced cars, and Bill Gates, who did likewise for computers.  “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Oscar de la Hoya left their mark in professional boxing; lefties Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson are two of my dad’s golf icons; Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel and Reggie Jackson are famous baseball players.  The movies made lefties Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Harpo Marx, Robert Redford, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Robert De Niro, and Whoopi Goldberg famous.  Left-handed U.S. Presidents include not only Barack Obama, but James A. Garfield, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (if memory serves), George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well.

Being a southpaw would seem to be, to say the least, a surmountable obstacle.  So: even though it’s taken up my entire evening to write this, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy International LeftHanders Day… yes, even if you’re right-handed!

A “HOWLING GOOD” STORY

I was intrigued by gray wolves as a kid; I saw them as mysterious and powerful, but not violent, the way popular media and myths have portrayed them.  In high school I put together a science fiction adventure story involving a Wolf Pack of reluctant space warriors; I’ve since written about those characters, drawn from the circle of my closest friends at that time, in several media.  My initial interest in gray wolves was about finding a cool name for my ‘team’, an adolescent’s concern – but as I grew, I wanted to learn more about the real-life animals.

There are ‘cat people’, and there are ‘dog people’; many names, including mine, appear on both membership lists.  There are also ‘wolf people’, who I’d guess are much less common – just as wolves are becoming, thanks to the recent, questionable move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species list. This should prove popular with ranchers and hunters, perhaps, but here’s the savage irony, no pun intended:

Gray wolf. Français : Loup. Nederlands: Wolf T...
Gray wolf. Français : Loup. Nederlands: Wolf Türkçe: Kurt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

it is because Canis lupus has enjoyed federal protection from culling until now that it has recovered some of its lost numbers.  In other words, the very ban on killing gray wolves that has kept humans from wiping them out has now been cited to justify threatening them anew with extinction.

That would be a tremendous loss to the Earth’s natural environment, because wolves do a lot to rein in their prey animals, who might otherwise tip over the scales.  “No wolves, no water” is a phrase I’ve read, i.e. their predatory activities perform a grisly public service, keeping prey animals from draining rivers and streams.

So yes, indeed, these untamed gray wolves are a needed part of our heritage.  We ought to look after them, before the only “wolves” we have left in nature are my fictional space heroes.  I do not want it to come to that!