Pretty Deadly: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios – A Book Review

This is a strange book and I mean that as a total compliment.  Strange is good.  Unique is appreciated.  Original is commendable.  Pretty Deadly is all of those things, and more.

Pretty Deadly is not a linear story.  Meaning, it doesn’t start at an origin, then progress to a conclusion.  It sort of begins in the middle of things, offers some hints as to what occurred in the past, yet doesn’t totally explain what’s occurring in the middle.  By the book’s end, you have a good idea of what happened, but not a complete one.  For some books, this would be a gross misstep, but DeConnick executes it masterfully and I trust that the writer knows exactly what she’s doing.

For example, by and large, we don’t know much about the characters.  They are explored just enough to seem round, dynamic, real, but we don’t know everything.  For a few of them, we don’t know anything.  Even so, I want to know more.  This is not a plot driven book, though it certainly has an interesting one.  This is a story about people (of sorts).

This is a rather unconventional title, and that’s why it works so well.  Death personified is a major player, but that’s not necessarily breaking new ground.  The story occurs in the Old West, but that’s not unheard of in the comic book world, either.  But the combination of the two, coupled with mysticism, swordplay, gunfights, and a mythology-in-the-making sets Pretty Deadly apart from anything else out there at the moment.

Rios’ artwork is frenetic, almost messy, yet oddly detailed.  It suits the story well.  At times it’s hard to tell what’s going on, especially during the brutal fight scenes, but I believe that’s actually a boon to this title.  Fights usually are messy and confusing, and since this story is not delivered in a neat, tidy little package, I see no reason for the art to contradict the story’s style.

The story ends on a bittersweet note, but one that certainly lays the groundwork for many interesting stories to come.  If you’re looking for something different from a comic book, something well executed and purposeful, something that will stand the test of time, I urge you to give Pretty Deadly a shot.

 

 

 

 

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke: A Graphic Novel I Feel Good About Sharing With My Daughter

I have loved comic books since the age of three.  I still remember my first comic, an issue of World’s Finest featuring Batman and Superman.  I still love comic books, but unfortunately have trouble finding appropriate ones to share with my six-year-old daughter.  You see, even though I’m now thirty-seven, most Batman and Superman comic books are still written for me.  Furthermore, the all-ages comic books released by Marvel and DC tend to be one slugfest after another.  I’m not interested in my daughter reading that sort of thing.

A few weeks back, I started hearing good things about a graphic novel series called Zita the Spacegirl.  My daughter and I love making up space stories, so we headed to the local library and checked out the first volume.  My daughter immediately loved it.

I read it to her to double-check its appropriateness, and I’m pleased to say it’s a perfect match for what my daughter wants and for what I require.  I won’t lie, I love the character as well.  In fact, after we returned that first volume to the library, we bought all three volumes for her birthday.

I love Zita the Spacegirl because while it’s appropriate for a six-year-old, it’s also full of action and real science fiction.  There are aliens, spaceships, robots, and explosions.  But there’s also a lot of positive messages in it as well, such as loyalty, doing the right thing, facing your fear, and self-reliance.

Hatke’s art, by the way, is top-notch.  Yes, it’s purposefully cartoonish, but I challenge you to find a more diverse and interesting collection of robots and aliens in any comic book.  Furthermore, his sequential storytelling is perfect. My daughter has no trouble following the progression because of Hatke’s smooth transitions from panel to panel.  Make no mistake, by the way, this book is one-step away from being a little scary.  It never quite frightens my daughter, but some of the aliens are creepy, some of the story is pretty tense, and there are moments of real danger for our characters.  Hatke knows a good story has to be appealing, and he’s made it so by getting as close to the line as he can without crossing over it.

As a final boon, if you’re familiar with my writing you know I’m always searching on my daughter’s behalf for a female character that is not a male derivative (Supergirl) and that is also not in her underwear (Wonder Woman).  In Zita, we have a girl not much older than my daughter who is tough, kind, smart, funny, brave, independent, and respectable.

I’m so happy to have found a comic book that I feel good about sharing with my daughter.

Her – A Movie Review

I’m the first to admit that the premise of Her is preposterous.  Set in the near future, a new operating system achieves artificial intelligence and will tailor itself to the owner’s needs.  This isn’t a case of one massive computer lording over humanity, this is artificial intelligence for all.  If you want to pay for the operating system, you can have your very own artificially intelligent computer.  One such owner, Theodore, falls in love with his OS, Samantha.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a desperately lonely man in the final stages of divorce.  He works, he plays video games, and then he works some more.  When he buys the artificially intelligent operating system, it is warm, funny, and exciting.  Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is a dream come true for Theodore.  She instantly becomes his best friend, but as she constantly evolves, she begins to yearn for more, and it’s not long before they say they are dating each other.

Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but Phoenix and Johansson are so earnest, so utterly believable, that you accept this development and roll with it.

And is it really so hard to believe?  You can walk into any coffee shop and see people spending more time with their phone or tablet than with an actual human being.  Her simply takes it a step further – a step that I fear is a logical progression from this moment forward.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Theodore doubts his relationship, but after a bitter conversation with his ex-wife, he eventually accepts Samantha as his true girlfriend and introduces her as such to coworkers and friends.  He takes her on vacations, on double-dates, even to family parties.  Before too long, though, Theodore realizes that he’s not the only one falling in love with his OS, and that’s when things with Samantha get very complicated, especially considering that she is always expanding, always growing, always achieving new sentience.

Her is one of those science fiction movies that at first makes you groan when you hear about it, but as you watch it, you recognize real human emotion in the characters, you witness a true – albeit unconventional – love story unfolding, and you feel for all the characters involved.  When I finished watching Her, I looked at my phone right next to me, my open laptop next to it, and I started thinking very deeply about my own relationship with technology.

That’s the power of Her.  You cannot watch it without experiencing a deep level of introspection both in regards to technology and our human relationships.  Quite subtly, Her points out a poignant transition taking place among humans and delicately asks us to consider our role in it.

The philosophical questions abound, but it raises these questions as unobtrusively as possible.  At no point does it feel forced, but when you watch a heartbroken man, a man desperate for companionship, fall for his own computer’s operating system, you can’t help but put yourself in his shoes.

The acting is superb.  Phoenix and Johansson are about as charismatic as you can get, which is funny because you only hear Johansson’s voice, and all of the supporting actors like Amy Adams and Chris Pratt are fantastic, too.  It looks completely realistic and feels like a very likely near future.  The story is so completely human.  Though it features an artificially intelligent computer, this is all about love and the human condition.

Be aware, though.  There are some really uncomfortable sex scenes.  Yes, Theodore and Samantha have sex.

 

 

Manifest Destiny: Flora & Fauna by Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts – A Book Review

It’s been a long time since I read a graphic novel that excited me as much as Manifest Destiny.  I’m going to say it now: this is a must-read book.

The premise is outrageous.  It follows Lewis and Clark’s expedition through the American frontier in 1804.  But they are not only charged with charting the unknown by President Jefferson; they are also assigned to find and eradicate any dangers to the American people—dangers pertaining to that of cryptozoology.

In this volume Lewis and Clark, as well as their crew of soldiers and paroled criminals, encounter a band of creatures similar to that of a Minotaur.  However, it’s not quite a Minotaur, which brings about some much needed levity as Lewis and Clark try to designate it.  There is also a plant that overtakes mammals and transforms them into something akin to zombies.   The forest is overrun with it, and the men cannot let it continue to thrive no matter how much danger it may pose to the crew.

Yes, this sounds ridiculous.

I’m telling you, though, it’s written so well, with just enough humor, just enough gravitas, just enough believability, that you’ll find yourself completely immersed.  The art, by the way, is absolutely stunning.  Matthew Roberts is the rare talent who can draw people, clothing, nature, and monsters in the same style and make it all look detailed, dynamic, and downright pretty.  Yes, his monsters are disgusting and scary, but artistically speaking, you can’t help but admire them as works of beauty.  Roberts’ art is amplified by Owen Gieni’s gorgeous colors.  All of this book takes place in the wilds of an untamed America, and Gieni found the perfect blend of earth tones to make each and every page pop.

I read a lot of graphic novels, and I can honestly say (again) that this is the most excited I’ve been for a new series in years and years.  If there’s any small part of you considering this book, go ahead and buy it now.  You will not be disappointed.

Oh, by the way, the breakout character of the book?  A Sacagawea you do NOT want to cross.

Overcoming Pain As a New Runner

In late April I started running consistently again after a ten-year absence.  I had several false starts during those ten years, and always gave up due primarily to knee pain and trying to do too much, too soon.

With this new start, I told myself I’d keep the minutes way down.  I started with only ten minutes, and move up five minutes with each passing month.  If that sounds ridiculously slow, it is.  But, I think it’s been a smart move because I’m still running and the pain has been manageable, even rare, between late April and now.

But I won’t lie – there has been pain.  I’d like to share with  you how I dealt with the pain and offer some solutions I discovered through trial and error.

The first major issue I struggled with were my feet.  They’d fall asleep.  Literally go numb during a run.  Keep in mind I’m probably between twenty and thirty pounds overweight, so that was a lot of pounding on some feet that hadn’t been asked to do that kind of thing in a while.  The numb feet didn’t last too long, maybe a couple of weeks.  I wasn’t too concerned about it because as soon as I would stop running, the numbness would go away.  This told me it was a running issue, not a general health issue.  I think as my lungs, heart, legs, and feet got accustomed to the running, the numbness occurred less and less.  This is where starting off with only ten minute runs proved important.  They’d go numb around the eight minute mark, and then I’d stop within two more minutes.  If I’d gone longer, there’s a good chance I would have injured myself.

Furthermore, I noticed that if I ran in the morning the numbness wasn’t as likely to happen.  I’m a teacher, so running in the morning is a lot easier during the summer months.

Finally, the way I tied my shoes played a role in the numbness.  The tighter my shoe laces, the more likely they were to go numb.  Of course, this sounds like I cut off my circulation, doesn’t it?  Now I keep my laces tight enough to keep my foot from sliding around in the shoe, but loose enough that I have virtually no slack by the time they are tied.  Again, this seems to have contributed to a solution.

The next major issue was knee pain.  It wasn’t one particular knee – they’d take turns causing me trouble.  I guess I should consider myself lucky that it’s never both knees at once.

I knew there were several things contributing to my knee pain.  The first is my weight.  Those extra pounds make the pounding on knees even more substantial.  I knew I had to cut back a little and try to lose weight from fewer calories as well as from running.  This is an ongoing process.

Secondly, I have two children.  One just turned six, the other turned two a few months ago.  I carry my two-year old quite a bit, and she weighs a little over thirty pounds.  So do the math – I’m twenty pounds overweight, she’s thirty pounds, that’s an extra fifty pounds on my knees.  I also tend to carry her on my left side, and guess what, that’s the knee that hurts more often than not.  She’s a walker now, and she’s even getting stairs down well, so I’m carrying her less and less.  I think this has helped alleviate the knee pain.

And unfortunately for my six-year-old,  I refuse to carry her anymore.  I used to carry her down the steps in the morning when she woke and then up the steps at night for bed.  It’s something I’d always done since she was a baby.  Well, she’s not a baby anymore.  I explained to her that my knees were giving me trouble and that if I stopped carrying her it would help them feel better.  She’s a sweet kid, so she understood.  She didn’t like it at first, but she understood.  Again, soon thereafter, the knee pain lessened.

And, because I have two young kids, I’m on the floor a lot.  The constant up and down is hard on the knees, so I’ve tried to be more deliberate with how I get off the floor.  I try to use better form, if that makes sense.  Also, I noticed that when I sit cross-legged, my knees tend to hurt more than when I sit with my legs stretched out in front of me.

All of these changes have contributed to my knee pain virtually going away.  Of course, I’m also getting in generally better shape as I continue running, which also helps.  Don’t underestimate the power of good form!  When I get tired and start flailing around with my arms and legs, I notice pain sets in pretty quickly.  Controlled form is part of being in shape, but is so helpful in keeping the body feeling well.

In the beginning, my calves would also get very tight.  I once more blame this primarily on the extra weight and asking them to do work they weren’t used to doing.  But, I changed a few things that have helped that calf pain virtually disappear.

The first thing I did was change how I stretched my calves before and after running.  I was standing on a step and leaning back and down with my heels to stretch them, but now I do wall stretches for them.  I place one knee and my hands against a wall, then stretch the other leg behind me with that leg’s foot flat on the ground.  You can feel the burn, for sure, and I think it suits my build better and puts less pressure on my knees.

I was also walking for five minutes before a run instead of stretching.  I read that walking before a run does practically nothing to warm you up, so I decided to give those calves a good stretch then just start running.  Once I did this, the calf pain went away.  I still make a point to walk for five minutes after a run in order to cool down, and then do all my stretches over again.  Some say that stretching before a run doesn’t do a whole lot, but it’s proved helpful to me.

I’m sure the feet, calves, and knees are all related, and it’s probably the combination of all the changes that helped all three issues, but I thought I’d share with you in case you were suffering any similar troubles.

My last issue, and by far the scariest, were heart palpitations.  When I started running, sometimes I would notice my heart fluttering a little.  I’m thirty-seven years old, and I take that kind of thing very seriously.  I had no other symptoms to indicate heart problems, so I slowed down and kept careful mental note of how I felt thereafter.  As soon as the run ended, my heart would feel fine.

Part of me attributed this to being an out of shape runner, but I eventually figured something else out that was probably causing the problem – coffee.  If I have more than one cup of coffee even a few hours before a run, I’ll notice the fluttering.  However, if I keep it to one cup of coffee and then have a glass of water instead of that second cup, there’s no fluttering.  If I know I’m running on a certain day, I limit my caffeine and it seems to be working.

Okay, I think that’s it for now.  My kids have been sick the last couple days, so I haven’t gotten in all the runs I wanted, but as I told myself when I started this new lifestyle, I’m not going to obsess about it.  I’ll run when I can run.  Thanks for stopping by, and if you see me out there, say “hi.”

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew – A Book Review

The Shadow Hero is an interesting graphic novel for several reasons.  The first is that it takes an obscure hero from the Golden Age of comic books—the Green Turtle—and gives him an origin for the first time in seventy years.  It’s also interesting because it’s largely believed that the Green Turtle is the first Asian American superhero.  Finally, it’s because Gene Luen Yang also wrote American Born Chinese, a graphic novel both incredibly funny, amazingly imaginative, and distinctively insightful.

The Shadow Hero is a fine read.  It introduces a fascinating concept in a set of spirit animals that represent China’s prosperity.  They must live in the shadow of a human, and, as you can probably guess, one of them is a tortoise.  Through a series of events, the tortoise spirit makes its way to America and ends up with nineteen-year-old Hank, the son of a grocer in Chinatown.  Hank is at first a reluctant hero, encouraged by his eccentric mother, but events unfold that lead Hank to take on the Green Turtle persona both willingly and passionately.  Though the book mixes action with comedy, the finale delivers a dangerous scenario for both our hero and the tortoise spirit.

Sonny Liew’s art and colors are engaging and progress the story well.  He’s got a great grasp on the era, and his dynamic figures blend realism with impossible physicality.  I was not previously familiar with Liew, but he impressed me very much and I look forward to learning more about him.

I’m a Gene Luen Yang fan, and I wanted to love this book, but I didn’t.  I like it very much.  It’s quite a serviceable graphic novel, but aside from the unique history of the Green Turtle, it’s pretty standard fare.

Perhaps this is unfair to Gene Luen Yang, but American Born Chinese surprised and delighted at every turn, and left me truly feeling as though the book perpetuated a change within my worldview.  The Shadow Hero is a nice super hero story, but, in the end, doesn’t transcend the genre.

A Few Pictures From “The Illustrated Journey Of An Unknown Author (Thus Far)”

On July 14, 2014, I had the honor of speaking to an audience at the Normal Public Library in Illinois.  I decided to make things interesting by not only talking about my journey as an author, but by illustrating the journey.  I’ve never before sketched in front of a large audience, but it went very well.  I had a fun time, and I think the audience did, too.

I want to thank the Normal Public Library for having me, especially Meghan Rogers who contacted me about the event.  Thanks also to the family, friends, and library patrons who gave me their time.

In case you missed it, here are a few pictures …

Scott William Foley at the Normal Public Library

Scott William Foley

With Batman

Getting Started With Batman

Drawing Nut Hut

Drawing Nut Hut

Drawing Dr Nekros

Drawing Dr. Nekros

With Warrior Angel

With Warrior Angel From Souls Triumphant

My Knee-Jerk Reaction To the New Thor

Today we learned there will be a new Thor, and this Thor is female.  My first reaction to this news is, “Thank goodness they are not calling her ‘Lady Thor’ or ‘Thorette.'”  I also thought, “Hey, she’s fully dressed – good!”

I had these initial reactions because these are two issues that bother me to no end.  I have two very young daughters, and we love super heroes.  But it irritates me that most of our super hero toys are male – Superman, Batman, Iron Man, etc.  In fact, my oldest daughter asked me when she was four if there were female super heroes besides Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl.  Of course there are, we all know there are, but I started coming up with names like Spider-Woman, Batwoman, She-Hulk, and something dawned on me.  By and large, most of our female super heroes are derivatives of a male counterpart.  Those who are original, such as Wonder Woman or Black Canary, tend to wear little clothing or fish-net stockings.  I think this is a bad message to my daughters.

I want my daughters to know that they can and should rely on themselves.  I want them to be original, innovative, and free-thinkers.  I don’t want them assuming that they should only take an existing idea and alter it.  They need to always strive to break the mold, to do things their own way, and to avoid letting gender come into the issue at all.

Marvel Comics is a corporate entity.  I’m thrilled that they’ve allowed Black Widow to shine in their cinematic universe, but in the comic book universe, there is much room for improvement.  But, because they are a corporate entity, oftentimes their books are determined by the bottom line – profit.  Why not give this new “Thor” her own identity and let her float?  Because there is a good chance she would sink.  Don’t get me wrong, I would constantly take chances on new, original characters – both male and female.  Unfortunately, I’m not in charge of Marvel, and if I was, I’d probably drive them out of business pretty quickly (or take them to soaring new heights).

You take a female character, put a very well-known brand title on her (Thor), and she will make money.  From Marvel’s perspective, they are doing something initially perceived as risky and progressive, but there’s really no risk at all.  Comic books are largely a male dominated field on both the production side of things as well as in regards to the readership.  Plus, we all know the male Thor will be back before Avengers 2 comes out.

I’m the first to admit this is all speculation.  We don’t know much of anything about the new Thor.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction and I addressed that fact in the title of this article.

But I wish I didn’t have to settle.  I wish I didn’t only feel good about the fact that they aren’t calling her “Lady Thor” and that she’s fully clothed.  I wish my daughters had heroes that matched their imagination and independence.

 

Picture taken from Women You Should Know‘s Facebook Page

Remember To Join Me At the Normal Public Library On Monday

I want to remind everyone to join me at the Normal Public Library tomorrow at 7:15 p.m.  We’ll have prizes, a presentation with sketches that will be given away, a question and answer session, and then a book signing.  Though it says it lasts until 8:00 p.m., I’m more than wiling to stay until 9:00 p.m.  I hope you see you there!

JPEG NPL FLIER

The Grand Budapest Hotel – A Movie Review

I don’t know much about the technical aspects of movies.  I don’t completely understand how movies are even made.  I do know this, though: I like weird, I like original, I like passion, I like real characters, I like visual stimuli, and I like unpredictable plots.  Because of this, I like Wes Anderson.  A lot.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has all of the above qualities.  It’s a story within a story within a story, but the third “within a story” is really the core of the film.

I won’t bother trying to explain it other than by saying it’s about a charismatic concierge who finds himself in the mix of a murder mystery.  But it’s actually about so much more than just that.  Seriously.

Though the movie is pretty typical Wes Anderson, that fact makes it no less lovable.  Nobody does Wes Anderson better than Wes Anderson, so I don’t fault him for maintaining a certain status quo.  His status quo, by the way, is much more innovative and novel than anyone else in the industry.  I think that may be why almost every new Wes Anderson movie becomes my new favorite Wes Anderson movie.

Anderson does dive into some slightly darker material with this film.  I think I’ve seen most of his work, and while I wouldn’t describe the movie as violent by any stretch of the imagination, it has a little more edge when it comes to the grotesque than is standard for him.

Also, The Grand Budapest Hotel utilizes far more star power than any of his previous films.  Look for appearances by Jude Law, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, and Owen Wilson.

Four people, though stole the show.  Ralph Fiennes delivered my favorite performance of all time by the man.  His concierge is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from Fiennes, and I’m frankly shocked he could pull of such unique comedy.  His character is notorious, tough, flamboyant, dainty, verbose, and charismatic beyond belief.  It’s his greatest stretch, and his best work.  Totally serious, by the way.

Adriene Brody played sleaze like I’ve never seen from him, either.  His part was pretty small, but he owned every scene in which he appeared.

Much like Brody, William Dafoe rocked.  I bet Dafoe didn’t have fifty total words in the movie, but he brought an extraordinary level of creepiness to his character through sheer body language and facial expressions.

Of course, I should say that Dafoe and Brody were hilarious nonetheless.  Creepy, deplorable, but hilarious.

Finally, Tony Revolori’s “Zero” cannot be resisted.  As a young man who takes his role as “lobby boy” deadly serious, I dare anyone to dislike his character.  Like Fiennes, Revolori brings an aspect of toughness to his part, but also infuses a magnetic innocence as well.

While the dialogue and visuals are in tune with Anderson techniques, I’d say The Grand Budapest Hotel is unlike his other movies due to a deeply layered plot, lots of movie stars, and probably more action than we’ve seen before.  Anderson should not be underestimated as a director (and I don’t think he is).  Beyond all the humorous pranks and visual oddities, this man can draw out fantastic performances from his actors.

This is a delightfully weird movie, and that’s why I love it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Poster