Am I Blogging Now?

A blog about writing, reading, art, and history

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

The Calvin and Hobbes Generation

Calvin with his ears boxed

Calvin’s condition after refusing to yield his swing to Moe, the playground bully.

“By the end of ten years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say. It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, ten, or twenty years, the people now ‘grieving’ for Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them. I think some of the reason Calvin and Hobbes still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it. I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.”
–Bill Watterson, in a 2010 interview for The Plain Dealer

My brothers and I grew up collecting Calvin & Hobbes books. Back in elementary school and Jr. high, my friends and I would draw pictures of Calvin playing Spaceman Spiff or of Hobbes pouncing on Calvin. I even recall a conversation where we speculated over what a video game based on the comic might be like. Since high school, I’ve discovered that we weren’t as unique as we thought we were at the time. In college I had conversations with students from all over the country–as well as a few from out of the country–about growing up with Calvin, what his stories meant to us at the time, and what they still mean to us today.

I’ve yet to see a comic that is as equally relatable to both kids and adults. It was childish but still dealt with very grown-up issues. It was imaginative and whimsical, yet poignant at the same time. When the comic took a political stance, it did so without adopting a snarky attitude or pointing fingers. And aside from Moe the bully, I find all of the main characters to be relatable on multiple levels. I still love the comic and periodically pull the books off the shelf to re-read.

But I think the most important gift Mr. Watterson gave us wasn’t the comic itself, but the comic’s legacy. People who argue that comics haven’t been as good since Calvin & Hobbes ended (and I’ve talked to a lot of them) aren’t paying attention. I constantly find ways in which post-C&H comics have been influenced by Watterson’s style, approach, and attitude toward the comic medium.

Artistically, formatting constraints prior to C&H had long since forced many comics to become sadly minimalist, consisting of Xeroxed talking heads on Xeroxed backgrounds, relying mainly on dialogue to tell the joke, rather than a visual, more artistic humor. Each panel of each comic showed the characters from exactly the same angle, and often characters had the same proportions and head shapes, but with different clothes and haircuts being the only way to tell the characters apart.* Watterson was something of a revolutionary in drawing every panel of each comic freehand, changing the angle of point of view, and in making every character structurally unique. (Actually, Calvin and Suzie are probably the two characters who look most alike.) Since Calvin, many (I won’t say ‘most’) newspaper comics have become more free-from and visually interesting.

* Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at old GarfieldEek & MeekFamily Circus, and other similar comics. I mean, Jon Arbuckle and Liz the veterinarian have exactly the same head shapes. Not that these are bad comics, but they could stand for a little more artistic variety.

Car-Guy at Heart

Stingray

This might be the only car drawing I’ve ever done where I didn’t crumple it up out of frustration. I love cars, but I’m really bad at drawing them

I really wish some gaming system would launch a racing game that used nothing but classic muscle cars. If they did, I’d get it just for that reason. The Gran Turismo series for Play Station does a fair job of including classic as well as modern cars, but like other games, I feel it favors the newest and fastest, most top of the line. (Though that did give me the chance to use a ’69 Stingray to trounce on my cousin’s ’96 Corvette.) I think what the gaming world needs is something that re-creates the classic circuit races from the ’60s and ’70s. While newer, faster cars are flashy and pretty, they’ll never carry the historical significance of the ’65 Mustang or ’63 Corvette. As I think I’ve mentioned, I enjoy studying almost any area of history. Automotive history is no exception. And unlike my history books on the Punic Wars or the Crusades, my books on automotive history come with full-color photographs and charts and graphs and specifications.

Classic cars are the key thing that makes me wish I had money. I’d love to even be that guy with the old GTO or Firebird or Cougar that he babies–right now I don’t even have a garage to park it in, let alone money to buy it and baby it. While my little ’02 Mustang is a sharp ride, it’s still the base model with the 3.8 liter V-6. It’s black, which is an okay color, but there’re other colors I’d like better. But since the black paint was one of several unauthorized cosmetic alterations by a previous owner, the dealer knocked almost $2,000 off the sticker price. So I’m not really complaining. Unfortunately, as I don’t really have a collector car of any kind I don’t know that I can really call my self a “car-guy.” Maybe a “car-enthusiast” or a “car-dilettante” or even a “nominal car-guy.” (Help me out, somebody. Is there a name for poor bastards like me who enjoy classic cars for aesthetic and historical reasons, but can’t afford to buy one?)

GT-500KR

My favorite game we had for the old Play Station was always Gran Truismo 2, and of the various rides I collected, my favorite was always that Shelby GT-500. I was kind of stoked when my brothers found me this 1:24 scale die cast.

Since I can’t afford real classic cars, I feed my hunger by collecting models of them. Some are plastic 1:25 scale models I built myself, others are 1:18 or 1:24 die cast that came assembled. However, as much fun as I had customizing the ones I built, the die cast look so much nicer than my creations. I have 29 models at last count, my nine Mustangs making up the highest percentage. Sure, there are gaps in my collection: I keep hoping to find a ’67 Cougar and I don’t have any British cars to speak of. And I keep meaning to get an F-Series pickup to pull my 1:24 scale trailer–I mean, obviously I’m not going to use my ’37 and ’56 Ford pickups to haul my Chevelle SS down to the racetrack.

Coup De Ville

This ’49 Coup De Ville was the start of my collection. Ages ago, I joked to my aunt that I wanted a car for my 18th birthday. This was what she got me.

Anyway, maybe someday I’ll win the lottery or save a senator’s life or marry a sugar-momma. But until then, I’ll remain a car-guy at heart.

Armor Smithery

Corinthian Hoplite

Greek hoplite in Corinthian armor. (Cue the lame 300 references.) This was another I sketched and inked for my godson’s birthday coloring book.

One of my fantasies for some day when I have money is to own a set of armor. Has been for years, really. Back in junior high and high school, a suit of Imperial Stormtrooper armor topped the list–though these days it’s pretty far down there. Lately, historical armor takes up the highest places for kinds of armor I’d go for. Granted, I don’t know what I’d do with a set of armor–it’s not the most pragmatic of investments–but it’d be cool to have.

If I had to pick a set of armor I’d like best, I’d go with Roman Legionary armor. Preferably a set of lorica segmentata from the Trajan and Hadrian eras, but any style Roman armor would do, honestly. A set of hoplite armor could be similarly cool, but I’d rank it a bit lower just because I’d get really tired of morons shouting ‘This is SPARTA!’ when they see me. I think I’d be a bit fussier with hoplite armor, though. While bronze muscle-armor is the popular style for armor recreations, I like the linen cuirass much better. The only downside I find is that I’d have to wear sandals as part of the Greek and Roman costumes, and I don’t really care much for sandals.

Armor from Medieval or Renaissance Europe could be cool as well. If I had to pick an order to go with, I’d say Teutonic Knight, seconded by Knights Hospitaller, and Knights Templar. Chainmail in general is neat–I wore a colleague’s chain shirt in a couple of Medieval drama productions a few years ago and would wear it again given the opportunity, despite it being heavy and uncomfortable. (I found the best way to carry the stuff is to just wear it.) Full or partial plate armor would also be fun. Scale armor is similarly durable and flexible and looks cool. And, to be honest, leather and padded armors were also very common, and offered better protection than most people realize. And I could see any of it being neat to collect and wear or even mix and match.

Perhaps the most practical method, given my limited budget, might be to buy a simple half-sleeve, chainmail shirt and wear it with whatever costume I want. It could go with a tunic and pair of Medieval trousers (or even just a shirt and khakis). Or it could work with a swashbuckler or highwayman ensemble, or some manner of pirate or corsair. Though it might also be hilarious to wear it with a top hat and brass goggles and call it ‘steampunk.’ Or I could wear it with my kilt just as easily.

Siren Song, Big Band Style

Anit-Siren

Silly sketch.

This is a whimsical bit that I sketched up mostly for the heck of it. It’s one of few drawings I’ve done straight from my imagination. I did pull up Google Images for trombone pictures, just to make sure my mermaid was holding it right, but beyond that it came from my mind. It’s not one of my better sketches, but it was fun to draw. I’ve thought about drawing other mythical creatures with modern musical instruments–after all, typically such creatures are depicted playing archaic instruments such as flutes, small drums, lyres, and lutes. Mermaids in particular tend to use conch horns or clappers made from seashells. A mermaid playing a brass instrument just struck me as delightfully silly.

Note that most of the instruments played by fey creatures tend to be quiet and delicate. Since I started this post, I’ve been thinking about other mythical creatures playing louder, more modern instruments. What about, say, a satyr wailing on a tenor saxophone? Or a centaur with bagpipes? Or a dryad tearing up a drum set? Or a pixie rocking a Fender Telecaster? The possibilities are endless and silly.

A Few Random Thoughts About Grammar

GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made [writer], along the path by which he advances to distinction. –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

This is going to sound like blasphemy to some, but I have no issue with using ‘they’ as a gender-undefined singular pronoun. ‘They’ has been used as gender-neutral singular for hundreds of years–it’s only by early twentieth-century convention that this has changed. At some point around the turn of the century, the uptight, sexist, and often ethnocentric grammar experts who make these decisions decided that since ‘they’ and ‘their’ can refer to a group, we should quit using these as singular pronouns and start using ‘he’ and ‘his’ whenever the gender of the subject is unknown. Toward the middle of the century the feminist movement took offense to the use of ‘he’ and ‘his’, since the subject could very well be a woman. Rather than going back to using ‘they’ and ‘their’, however, the feminists muddied the waters further by insisting on clumsy constructions like he/she, s/he, and his/her.*

Ain’t grammar history neat?

Ain’t is another very good example of a muddied grammar rule. Most have heard the rule ‘ain’t ain’t a word,’ right? Ain’t has been used for over three hundred years and can be found often throughout Georgian, Victorian, and early-American literature. The issue is that it was considered informal by those who considered themselves of the social elite. Grammar rules are kind of like table manners in that many of them are arbitrarily dictated by the upper classes in order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes (or in this case, probably the Irish). It’s kind of like a secret club handshake–if you use the same fork to eat your salad as you do your steak or end your sentence with a preposition, you clearly don’t belong (we don’t need your kind here).

Over the last century, however, we’ve seen a surge in a class of grammarian commonly referred to as the grammar-Nazi. Many of whom seem to take a certain amount of pride in the Nazi association. This bugs me because it turns grammar knowledge into a weapon, thus making grammar discussions combative, rather than informative.** To me, this is entirely the wrong attitude to take, and I feel like it turns many people off to the joys of writing and grammar. From my experiences as a teacher and tutor of composition, I’d estimate that more than 90% of students who struggle with grammar struggle simply because they are intimidated by it–because someone, at some point, has treated them as an inferior because they struggled with a hard-to-remember, arbitrary usage rule.

I’ll leave off with a few thoughts from the indomitable Stephen Fry, who says it a lot better than I ever could, and sounds cooler doing it:

*In a recent internet discussion on the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, a user named Zillatian had this to say: “As for ‘they’, I use it all the time. Otherwise I would be using she/he/it all the time instead. Abbreviated of course to s/h/it.”

**Plus, it creates a negative stereotype of those of us who do like to write and play with language.  I can’t begin to guess the number of times someone has replied “Oh, I guess I better watch my grammar” when I tell them I’m an English major.

Various Artwork

Sluggy Freelance meets Final Fantasy

The cast of Sluggy Freelance as the Light Warriors of Final Fantasy

After my first entry, Shawna suggested I post some of my artwork to the blog for others to comment on. I’ve posted some of my stuff to my Facebook profile, so I don’t have an issue with sharing online. I also like that I have more room to talk about my stuff here than I do on Fb. I started a Deviant Art account ages ago, with the intent of posting stuff there, but I always felt self-conscious putting my pen and graphite drawings on there with all of those slickly-drawn computer-generated images. My work just felt primitive in comparison. I like the blog option better because I can post everything on my own terms and talk about it as much or as little as I choose. For the time being I’ll post here, but I may start a separate art blog in the future.

The above drawing I drew last Halloween, in the spirit of webcomic artists who like to draw their characters dressed as other characters for Halloween. The characters are the main cast of Sluggy Freelance, a long-running daily webcomic by Pete Abrams. Here I drew them dressed as the Light Warriors from Square/Enix’s Final Fantasy. Left to right: Sam as Thief; Kiki as herself; Zoe as Black Belt; Torg as Fighter; Bun-Bun as himself; Riff as Red Mage; Sasha as White Mage; and Gwynn as Black Mage. I’m currently working to get this submitted as fan art to the Sluggy Freelance fan page. (Sluggy can be read in its entirety at sluggy.com. One word of caution, it’s a daily comic that’s been running since 1997. I’ll let you do the math on how many comics that’s been.)

One important factor I learned from this was that the paper used in my sketch pad wasn’t intended for scanning onto the computer. Since then, I’ve been using actual printer paper, as it offers clearer images when scanned to a computer.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mythology

I’ve been studying Greek Mythology off and on since about the sixth grade. While I haven’t taken classes on it and only own a few mythology books, these stories remain important to me and led to my interest in Ancient Greek history, which led to my interest in Ancient Roman history. But for much of the time I’ve studied mythology, there was always something that bothered me about modern representations of ancient myths. It was something I couldn’t explain, but it was a trait that all of these representations had in common. From movies to young adult books to computer and video games, there was an inexplicable common thread they all had that I could never pin down, but that bugged me to no end because it made the stories feel wrong.

Several years ago, I finally figured out what was bugging me. It’s the fact that pretty much all of these movies, books, and games were treating these myths as ‘good versus evil’ conflicts. This vexes me because the Ancient Greeks didn’t think in terms of good versus evil–this dichotomy is largely a Judeo/Christian construct. On close analysis, none of the gods were inherently good nor evil. All of them were capable of benevolent acts of compassion and spiteful acts of disproportionate revenge. Even the Titans–who’ve become popular villains in mythology-based computer and video games the past fifteen years–were essentially trying to protect themselves from the threat that the Olympians posed to their rule.

I think the most common modern misrepresentation is when movies make Hades synonymous with Satan (I’m looking at you, Disney…). In truth, of Kronos’s three sons, Hades was probably the least ignoble. Sure, he was kind of a hard-nosed bastard to heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus when they entered his realm, but these uppity mortals were trespassing on his turf. Hades’s only truly villainous act, at least that I can find, was his abduction of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. Yes, it was against her will, certainly, but in the end he was willing to work out a compromise with the surface gods, and, to the best of my knowledge, remained faithful to her ever afterwords. How many maidens were similarly abducted by wise and benevolent Zeus? And how many of these abductees did he bother to protect from the wrath of the ever-vengeful Hera? And yet, Hades is the villain?

Being somewhat naive at the time, I had genuinely high hopes for the movie Troy when it hit theaters in 2004. Homer’s Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, and I was stoked to get to see a large-scale film representation of it. The key reason I love the Iliad is that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides of the conflict. The Trojans and the Achaean Greeks were two hot-headed powerhouses with legitimate grievances against the other. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I don’t recall that Homer tried to establish who was right or wrong in this fight. Highest among the changes that bugged me about Troy was that the Greeks were quite clearly depicted as the bad guys–as being in the wrong. Agamemnon, who was merely power-hungry and had to be talked out of withdrawing in Homer’s version, became genuinely sinister and obsessed with taking the city. Similarly, Homer portrayed Menelaus as being genuinely conflicted over whether or not to kill Helen or take her back, yet the film depicts him as resolute in breaking Helen’s neck. While the duels in Troy were well done and the battle scenes were suitably epic, the film’s constant misrepresentation of the conflict continues to color my opinion of the movie.

I’ve heard arguments that by reducing these stories to good versus evil, modern storytellers are trying to help the myths appeal to modern audiences. My response is duh, what else could they stand to gain from mutating the mythology. My issue is that–on top of disrespecting the storytelling skills of the original authors and the cultures they represented–modern writers, movie makers, etc are missing out on the opportunity to tell far more interesting, nuanced stories about heroic, tragic, ultimately human characters, be they gods or mortals.

Thracian Centaur

Another image I drew for my godson. For this one I took an Angus McBride painting of a Pict on horseback and drew him as a centaur.

Put the ‘Story’ Back in ‘History’

Image

There’s a famous quote I hate that goes something along the lines of “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I don’t recall who first said it and don’t really care enough to find out. All I know is that it’s crap. The saying brings a “for their own good” mentality to the subject, and I hate it when instructors adopt that kind of attitude about what they teach. This isn’t teaching the topic; it’s force-feeding. Force-feeding doesn’t inspire interest in a topic–it creates resentment toward it. I’m fairly convinced that most people’s disinterest in subjects such as history stems from this “for their own good” mentality.

The best example I can think of to demonstrate this mentality is the memorization of dates. Does anyone else remember being fed a constant stream of dates in their history classes? I sure do. And I remember the worst part being that our grades seemed to hinge on how well we absorbed and regurgitated these dates. I want to go on the record as saying dates are not that important in the study of history. They are meant as points of reference–nothing more. They tell us how long something took or when it happened in relation to something else. I don’t know when or why drilling students over something so relatively trivial became the norm in American academics, but I feel like it’s created a massive–and possibly irreparable–disconnect within the past several generations of students.

This strikes me as very sad, there is so much richness and depth to human history. So many fascinating figures with amazing stories. Stories that have been rendered inaccessible to the average student.

Throughout my schooling, I always felt that the history instructors I learned the most from were the ones who got up and told stories to the class. My eighth-grade teacher once told us about how his great-great-grandfather escaped a Confederate P.O.W. camp by swimming out through the camp cesspit. At BSU, my American History prof talked about his father’s WWII buddy who told him “war is the most fun you can have with your pants on… if you don’t die.” It was these anecdotes that meant the most to me in these classes. This was the kind of information my fellow students and I retained. And to really understand history this is what’s important.

*The above image is one I drew myself. It was for a coloring book, of sorts, that I drew for my godson, Paul, for his birthday. It should be full resolution, so feel free to print it off and color it yourself.

Very First Blog

Blog is kind of a neat word. I think it’d make a fun onomatopoeia for a frog belching or something along those lines.

Why start a blog? Mostly, I’m just trying something new. I’ve never kept a blog before–or really even a journal, for that matter. Growing up, I my two younger brothers had a bad habit of getting into my stuff, so it was prudent to simply not keep anything around that might be potentially incriminating in the wrong hands. Writing down my inner-most thoughts and feelings in a place where someone might conceivably find and read them without permission seemed to fall into the ‘bad idea’ category. (Not that I’ll be sharing much that qualifies as ‘inner-most’ on a public blog.)

I like to talk about things I’m interested in with willing audiences. I like taking topics apart and analyzing and over-analyzing. Over-analysis is fun! I love to go on and on all manner of topics. The trouble is that when I get long-winded about something, I worry that people assume I’m trying to show off how smart I am. (I’m fairly certain this assumption is why my brothers take immediate and profound disinterest in anything I know more about than they do.) The truth of that matter is that I tend to think out loud when I discuss something, either verbally or over the keyboard.

I haven’t picked an overall theme for this blog yet, and I’m not sure that I will. I can talk on all manner of topics: writing, literature, history, Greek Mythology, science fiction/fantasy, gaming, cars, farming, Ancient Rome, guns, the list goes on. For the time being, I prefer to keep my options open. And honestly, I could just as easily start a sub-blog if I wanted to wanted to specialize in a topic.

I have various colleagues who keep blogs that have attracted strong followings. I think my key goal is to find thoughtful, like-minded people to share my ideas with and hopefully receive useful feedback from.

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