Mar 28, 2014

The Art of Interpreting Pulp Book Covers like You Have Nothing to Lose

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who read comic books, ate lots of cookies and wanted to be Dictator of the Galaxy.

Me at the age of seven.
I was precocious.

That little boy grew up, kept reading comics and eating cookies, but gave up on his childhood dreams of galactic dominance; after all, it’s 2014 and we don’t even have affordable jetpacks, let alone the interplanetary infrastructure that would give rise to a galaxy-spanning empire of absolute evil.

And you just know the first galactic empire would be founded by seriously nasty people. I mean, look at Genghis Khan or Ivan the Terrible. Look at Napoleon. Look at Ming, the Merciless!

Look at him!

Anyway, you ask, “What’s the point of all this?” 

The point, my faithful reader, is that pulp contains enormous potential when it comes to inspiration. True, potential doesn’t always lead to accomplishment, but… The freedom to create unselfconsciously, with a child’s delight in the ridiculous and unlikely, doesn’t that appeal to you?

When I was a child, “Internet” wasn’t even a word in my household, and covers provided my first encounter with a book or magazine. I don’t remember reading any book reviews between the ages of 6 and 14. So, setting aside for now the books that relatives gave me, I bought my own on the strength of a particular cover. As you may imagine, I saw little beyond the awesome.

I now see so far beyond the awesome that I’ve come full circle — well, no, not full circle. I’ve done a 359°, not a 360°. You could say I’m through the looking glass, privy to a strangeness that few can behold. 

And that strangeness is the place where stories come to life. Nothing is more personal than midwifing a story into this world; and what a messy business that can be, full of blood and guts and screaming and passing out and…

Anyway. Shall we begin our educational tour?

Mar 26, 2014

Still Looking for the Right Words to Fill a Void

I am still mourning my father. That means no written story prompt today, but I can bring you art and let pictures do some of the talking for me. Maybe I’ll throw in some music at the end.

Pendul City
by Sparth (Nicolas Bouvier)

My old man didn’t especially enjoy science fiction. He found it silly. The hardships he suffered dulled his imagination and warped his sense of humor. He started helping out with the family business when he was seven or eight. No allowance, no money for comics, no TV in the house. What do flights of fancy mean -- what does your fantasy turn to when you don't have enough to eat?

Not to the stars.

Science fiction is silly, but noble at the same time. Science fiction and fantasy as genres represent fictional spaces where authors can indulge in silliness and tell good stories all the same.

Simon Fetscher

I wish he had seen that.

He found refuge only in sleep. He’d sit down to watch a movie and doze off in twenty minutes at the most, but often complained of insomnia.


Certain contradictions did not bother him in the least. He pretended not to like cats, but every cat we ever had felt drawn to him and would nestle in his lap for hours as my father read an issue of his beloved Time magazine.

Marco Patrito

The passing of days claimed him. Where he goes next, if he goes, that I don’t know.

Mar 24, 2014

The Day I Lost my Father, and the Day He Died

I trusted him too much.

The funeral took place four days ago; he didn’t live to the age of 65. My father never got to meet any grandchildren, or —

When I was little my father told me how traffic lights worked and I marveled that he knew everything and I felt very small. It was a dark night and it rained. The red light resembled a glowing red flower, petals flowing down the windshield. We were two blocks away from home.

I got my love of books from him. He was a WWII buff and collected several volumes on the subject. I heard tell of figures like Patton and Goering at the dinner table. He was the first person who named them to me. But his intellectual appetite didn’t stop there. Photography, archaeology, cabinetmaking, landscapes, the cosmos… he hungered for a connection with the universe, with the world of ideas.

He had a hard life. Youngest of eight siblings. Grew up in Portugal under a right-wing dictatorship that glorified God, Homeland and Family. Poverty was a virtue and you bowed your head to judges and doctors and priests — you bowed your head to everyone. To hear him tell of it, there were no equals, only rivalry and submission.

Sure, in the 1950s and 60s other people had it worse. At least my father ate three times a day. One of his childhood friends had to spit on his day-old bread at school so that no one would try to take it from him.

I begged him to write a memoir because the world he grew up in is alien to me. He never got around to it. I don’t know why. He always said he didn’t know where to start and I would tell him, “Start with your earliest memory.” I would also tell him not to worry about coherence or chronology. I would edit, would help, but that did not suffice. He never got around to it.

Now I mourn two losses. Most of his memories die with him. Could it be that hard to recall the adversities of childhood in writing? The time he fought in a war nobody thought was fair or winnable?

Because I trusted him too much, I couldn’t bring myself to believe he didn’t have all the answers, didn’t possess all the secrets of the universe. I rebelled against him merely at surface level: grew my hair two feet long, wore a nose ring, got myself tattooed. Played loud music at terrifying volumes. All of these attempts to say, “I’m not like you! Not like you at all!”

You know what, I should have spent more of my energy trying to figure him out and the lessons he really wanted to impart.

I dedicate this to all the men and women who, like me, never quite understood a parent, or figured out how to make themselves understood. Despite all my father’s failings — and they were many — he only wanted me to prosper.

Worth a shot.

Mar 19, 2014

Embassy to the Hyper-Advanced Pony People of Frisland

"We will commence with a question: does steak love lettuce?"
-- Racter

This year of our Lord 1578, March or maybe June. The sun and stars move like drunkards in the sky. Maggiolo leapt out of the boat into neck-deep water, so taken was he with sights of naked youth of both sexes, beckoning to us from the white shore. Some carried large, plum-like fruits in bags that glistened in the sun. Others of the crew dropped the oars despite my oaths and intimations, following Maggiolo.

Frisland, the phantom island given currency by Mercator, among others.

Gerard de Kremer (1512-1594), aka Gerardus Mercator, was a Flemish mapmaker and the first to use the word Atlas for a collection of maps.

And he made artfully sophisticated maps.

Racter was -- purportedly -- the AI author of The Policeman's Beard is Half-Constructed, which you can read at UbuWeb.

What connection could possibly exist between Racter and Frisland? At least one: the matter of veracity, or what some people might call authenticity. Look at our species, we're hungry for stories, and framework our lives into tales that include protagonists -- you and me -- antagonists, -- the client who refuses to pay you, the boss who treats you with less respect than you deserve -- and goals such as jumping on a Black Friday deal or closing that real estate sale and get the biggest commission of your life.

Fiction weaves into our lives in more ways than we care to notice. Stories help you to believe. Santa was real to me at one point. The Easter Bunny, not so much. If I were a Dutch burgher living during the Age of Discovery I would like to believe that Frisland existed; now at the dawn of the Anthropocene, I don't know what to make of Racter, Bigfoot or Thomas Gold's claims about the origins of oil in the "deep hot biosphere."

Fox Mulder had a poster in his office that read, not I believe, but I want to believe. "Want to" makes a huge difference.

After the jump: Music for people who want to believe

Mar 14, 2014

That Wide, Wide Ocean of Love and Pillage and Hiding in Barrels for a Couple of Weeks

Engelbertha, the vikingest girl in the Viking village, decided one day to marry Vigdun; there was nothing he could do about it.

Except… turn into a hare. Nobody knew he could. The stratagem would serve him well.

But ah! Damnation! Live hares constitute a rare sight aboard your typical drekar.

Illustration by Toby Shelton

If you ever find yourself in Denmark (say, for instance, you're on the run from acolytes of the Spaghetti Monster), make sure you visit the Vikingeskibsmuseet, the Viking Ship Museum.

If you never find yourself in Denmark, well, there's probably an app for that.

Mar 12, 2014

Humperdink’s Extraordinarily Average, Nondescript, Totally Unremarkable Family

Industrial espionage was a forbidden topic at the dinner table.

Same with religion, capitalism and free initiative (except for my parents’ rabid apologias).

When I graduated from UC Berkeley, I took holy orders in the Anabaptist Temple of the Messiah.

Oh, if only I had known.

painting by Agostino Arrivabene

Fun facts:

Historically, industrial espionage goes back a couple of centuries.

Anabaptists didn't spring fully formed from an ahistorical void in the fifteen-hundreds, either. Movements such as Gerard Groote's Devotio Moderna in the 14th century had already begun to pave the way to the Reformation, with its call for rediscovering piety through intentional community.

While nobody knows who invented capitalism, capitalism as we presently know it -- some historians argue -- derives from a fourteenth-century crisis which affected not only the structure of property and ownership but also owed to demographic causes. Let us say that, roughly, you had two sides: lords and serfs. Agricultural technology was stretched to breaking point, which led to famine. Hungry people tend to not stay put and do what they're told -- if they can, they move, if not, they riot. Join war bands. Kill their own brothers and sisters. Not trying to make light of human suffering, but these circumstances make for compelling stories, no?

OK, so these weren't fun facts at all. There's an art flood after the jump.

Mar 7, 2014

Relaxing at the Facepunch Bar & Lounge

Cord Knott didn’t know he would get a complimentary face massage at his workplace that evening, just before opening hours.

Two card-carrying experts in the art of muscular rearrangement waited for Cord in the shadows beside the front door of the bar, saying nothing to each other.

by James M. Fenner

Have you ever wondered where the word 'thug' comes from?

Allegedly, the word entered English via Philip Meadows Taylor and his 1839 novel, Confessions of a Thuggee. The thuggees, half-real and half-colonial invention, practiced thievery and murder as service to Kali, the nocturnal, devouring aspect of the Hindu Goddess. Or so the legend goes. 

Further Reading

Mar 5, 2014

The Phantom Brand of Certainty

What a morning to fight the blackest child of the ancient world!

The soldier’s horse cantered on and the sun lit the forward path like a warm prayer. And the soldier ran a doubting hand over the shaft of his spear.

A girl screamed; a devil chirped like a bird.

by John Magnet Bell

   "Cappadocian", or, St. George faces the dragon. I made the figures with play dough. 
   St. George’s sword is a nail, his shield a penny, and he sports a blue jay feather on his head. 
   The dragon bears a complement of sparrows’ feet and blackbird feathers.

St. George* was born in Lydda on Roman Palestine to a Cappadocian father. Cappadocia, land of fairy chimneys and the churches of Göreme, dug out of soft rock, boasts Yılanlı Kilise, the Church of the Snake, where a painted St. George forever triumphs over the dragon.

Sant Jordi
by Bernat Martorell (d. 1452, Barcelona)

The saint has remained popular because he embodies an archetype. Not only is he Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces but also an especially electrifying version of that hero, the hunter and protector, the spear-wielder, the saintly warrior and warrior-saint.

Others have preceded George and did exactly as he does. Bellerophon slew the Chimera; Perseus killed Cetus and Medusa; Susanoo, brother to the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu, got a monstrous eight-forked snake drunk with sake and then cut it to pieces to help the poor people of Tori-kami.

Bellerophon vs. the Chimera
by orion35

I grew up on a steady fictional diet of people fighting monsters of various descriptions, and St. George formed a part of that diet. We tend to root for the underdog, as tales of struggle and victory become more compelling when the outcome is uncertain. We want heroes to prove themselves. What better way to test your heroes than to have them go up against something dark, threatening, fierce and voracious?

Andromeda Chained to a Rock
by Gustave Doré

*Or Giwargis in classical Syriac. Is that a badass name or what?

Mar 2, 2014

Wanna Write? Need Some Smashing Visuals to Get You Going? Here's an Art Flood for Ya

When it comes to art, I am a COMPLETE FANATIC. In the best possible way. I don't have a favorite period in art history; I see all of art as a continuum.

And the first books I owned -- I guess you and I have that in common -- were picture books. From dinosaurs to Hans Christian Andersen, by way of the gods and heroes of Egypt and Greece, I first fell in love with that mysterious silent friend, the book, through the magic lens of illustration.

Hercules fights the Hydra
Illustration by Giovanni Caselli for Gods, Men and Monsters of the Greek Myths by Michael Gibson

Art and books carried me to faraway lands and undiscovered planets. I could travel beyond the world of city blocks, cracked concrete, car horns and shop windows.

I read a lot of comic books as a child; couldn't get enough stories to sate my appetite. You'd often find me in the school library during recess when the other kids played games. No, I did not eschew playtime altogether, I just valued the infinite worlds of imagination a lot more. I wanted to pierce veils between my world and some latent dimension that I could not describe or fully understand.

Cover to graphic novel Welcome to Alflolol by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
One of many adventures experienced by spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline

An honest love of art cannot be contained. It overflows. It touches all the disciplines eventually, and you begin to see the traits that unite all art forms: movement, drama, conflict, suspense, tension and, above all, imagination.

The ability to make up stuff, from practical solutions nobody's ever heard of, to entire worlds filled with uncanny creatures and strange desires. The ability to criticize and subvert through storytelling. The ability to see possible futures. The ability to interpret and draw conclusions and open the mind's eye.

A panel from the sprawling saga of the Metabarons by Jodorowsky and Gimenez

Writers and visual artists need each other. Wait, allow me to revise that -- artists need each other. If you ask me, we exist in symbiosis. Nobody creates in a vacuum; we need a vibrant collective, a society of imagineers. Only a thriving artistic community can sustain your talent.

Now join me in this Sunday excursion to inner space -- are you ready for a journey of terror, magic and wonder?