"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gawking at 'The Death of Superman'

The Death of SupermanThe Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It may be grossly unfair, on a literary level, to grade The Death of Superman as a graphic novel. More than any previous compilation-turned graphic novel, the serial nature of this publication seems explicit. That being said, DC Comics ultimately packaged and sold this multi-part story as a single work, which is how I encountered it this weekend. Special thanks to the group of local public libraries that diligently engage in inter-library loan, making it possible for me to read this work at no charge in one of its delightfully color-saturated 1993 editions.

The title of The Death of Superman is also a good summation of the plot. From the first chilling ram of super villain Doomsday’s fist against his subterranean prison wall, this entire story is all setup and execution (pun intended) of Superman’s demise. I am not cynical about this, sincerely. Comic books are forever reinventing and re-adapting their icons. Superman the icon was never in jeopardy, just this particular incarnation of him in the comic book realm. And I think periodically killing off our superheroes is a perfectly worthwhile narrative experiment.

There are a handful of highly suspenseful moments, in the context of a story whose title is a wanton spoiler. At one point, Superman has to choose between rescuing a victim trapped in a fire or completing the more tactically important task of keeping Doomsday busy. Another gripping moment, late in the story, involves Lois Lane trying to convince Superman not to kill Doomsday--because killing is not what Superman does. What a shame the authors wait until the final pages to hastily address what could have been the paramount moral question of the novel.

The creators of The Death of Superman do not spend significant time, or emphasis, on character study. If this had been a graphic novel in genesis, perhaps they would have. But this is actually a high action, multi-part story originally told in monthly comic book form. With token exceptions like those mentioned above, it is a single relentless action sequence. In this respect, I found it grandly successful. Yet, it hits with all of the intellectual nuance of the last 30 minutes of any given superhero flick. Exciting? Yes. Thought-provoking? Not especially.

The creators can’t even be bothered to supply an aftermath. Superman dies. The end. They may have supplied a proper aftermath in the monthly single magazine format, but not in the graphic novel form in which this story now exists.

Like I indicated earlier, The Death of Superman is all setup and execution of a single story beat. And the setup is lots and lots of fighting and chasing. There is a TV interview sequence spliced into the battle. It plays as overt exposition, with all of the charm of a just-the-facts inverted pyramid style. Nothing subtle or gray here.

Still I am glad I read this work. I was entertained. Superman has always been a messiah story, rightfully so. Messiahs usually die. Their mission seemingly demands it. Yet there is a risk for authors of getting lost in the spectacle of the hero’s demise. When this happens, something that could have been thoughtful winds up feeling merely sensational. In the context of a proper sendoff, that seems a missed opportunity to say the least

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Five Times a Moth

A little over a year ago, I performed at a Moth StorySLAM for the first time. Telling a true and personal story live was something I wanted to try. It was nerve-wracking. But it was the adventure I needed. Tonight was my fifth time performing. Each storytelling has included a lot of struggle and second guessing (and wishing storytelling came easier to me). Each time has been worth it.

The audiences at a Moth performance tend to be awesome and gracious. After the performance tonight I had the chance to talk with a few people about the experience. This meant, in its own way, as much as telling the story did. I'm so grateful for the people who approached me afterward and visited. It took me a good hour to wind down, and chatting with people from the audience helped. If any of them should read this, thank you. I hope we meet again in a place where great stories are told.

A photo posted by Michigan Radio (@michiganradio) on

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Salient Pessimism 7

I hate to play Devil's advocate (which is to say I love to but have a sense of diplomacy). Case in point, I have long been itching to say the following:

If your willingness to use the "born this way" argument extends only to people you like or toward whom you are sympathetic, you are shying away from science.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Welcome Eng-Fi, Thanks to 'The Martian'

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a moment in The Martian when NASA, almost out of options, goes to China and asks to borrow a rocket. Considering the non-fictional United States currently has no human-rated rocket and has been buying seats on Russian rockets for years, there is nothing farfetched about this premise. But I digress. NASA asks China to borrow a rocket they have built for a flagship science mission. As China gives its answer, their representative conveys--quite reprovingly--how the U.S. is asking to take a rocket that would have been the scientific pride of a nation and relegate it to emergency taxi. The takeaway? In order to salvage a human mission, science takes a hit.

This is a real debate ongoing in space exploration. Astronomically expensive human spaceflight, mostly just an engineering feat with political motivations, crowds out cheaper and more scientifically valuable missions. Is it worth it?

In The Martian, the answer is clearly yes. A human life is at stake--an astronaut stranded on Mars after a violent sandstorm. Put the science on hold and preserve life. Notwithstanding, it means a lot to me that author Andy Weir reserves a page of his engineering thriller to wax poignant and philosophical about larger issues of science versus politics. It elevates this novel above the level of techy procedural and provides some thematic nourishment.

Though I am a dedicated space enthusiast, I had not even put this book on my to-read list. I let it slip by like most sci-fi, especially Mars stories, which tend toward the dismal. Only when the book club I attend made it this month’s selection did I run to the bookstore and buy a copy. Our book club has a good mix of age and gender, married and single. They uniformly enjoyed this book. The intriguing problem solving that drives the plot, the likability of the protagonist, the Apollo 13 style suspense, all made for a satisfied book club. If it had been a more pretentious, dystopian sci-fi novel, even a classic, I’m not sure the response would have been so favorable.

Kudos to Mr. Weir, who has provided a wonderfully entertaining novel. We call this novel sci-fi. Yet I would argue it is more appropriate to call it engineering fiction, or eng-fi. This is not a novel of scientific discovery. It is a story about applying established knowledge. The Martian proceeds from problem to solution to subsequent problem to next solution. It has a level of techno-speak comparable to the show MythBusters. Some of the finer scientific points may go over the heads of readers like me, but the context remains clear and accessible. Save the Martian! Good read. I highly recommend it.

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