Saturday, September 13, 2014

The REAL Challenge Lies In Reading This

A few days ago a friend on Facebook tagged me with the “12 Book Challenge,” asking me to list the twelve books that have had the most impact on my life.
It was something of a daunting task, as it’s difficult to pinpoint any specific book that had an impact on me; books and reading in general are what have had the most impact on me, so how do I narrow the focus?
So I had to give it some thought, and this is what I came up with, ultimately:

  1. Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (which could actually count as 12 on its own, since it consists of 12 individual comics)
  2. Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
  3. Sandman #19 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess
  4. Maus - Art Spiegelman
  5. Jack of Shadows - Roger Zelazny (Mostly because it was the first book that ever really pissed me off)
  6. Candide – Voltaire
  7. Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Miracle Monday - Elliot S! Maggin
  9. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! - Earl Mac Rauch
  10. Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud
  11. Supergods - Grant Morrison
  12. The Illuminatus! Trilogy - Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (technically three books, but I read them as one volume)

As you can see, there are lot of comics and comics-related items in there, which should hardly surprise anyone who knows me.  And it may seem like something of a shallow list, as there’s little in the way of weighty tomes on philosophy, religion, or politics in there.  “No Das Kapital,” or “The Wealth of Nations,” or “The Republic.”
*Shrug*  It’s not as though I haven’t read books of that ilk, but I have difficulty seeing any direct impact they’ve had on me or my way of thinking.   Which isn’t to say they haven’t, but I think much of the impact is more indirect, influencing me more through my actual experience in life in the world around me that has been impacted by the ideas contained therein. 
Basically, I don’t feel any sort of deep, personal connection with them the way I do with the books that made the list, and I see no ties between the books themselves and the person that I am in the way that I do with the books that did make the cut.
Of course, the follow-up question to the list is, “How have they impacted you?”  Let’s find out, shall we?

Watchmen
As someone who loves comics, it would be almost inconceivable for this to not be on the list.  I could spend countless hours writing at length about the impact that it’s had on me.  And then I could spend a whole lifetime writing about the impact that it’s had on comics and the comic book industry.
If your only exposure to Watchmen is the movie, this might be a bit of a head-scratcher for you.  At a high level, the story doesn’t seem that remarkable.  A costumed hero is murdered.  Another costumed hero investigates the murder, slowly uncovering a vast conspiracy and drawing other costumed heroes out of retirement, resulting in the final confrontation with the mastermind behind it all.
If you were to superficially examine the aspects that are most often touted as to why this is such a revolutionary work in the comic book medium, and the super-hero genre specifically, from your 2014 perspective, you probably wouldn’t be that impressed.  But in 1986, I can assure you, the manner in which the story was told was something of a revelation, bringing a level of gritty realism to the colorful costumed characters contained in the story, delving into the psychological issues that might drive someone to put on a silly costume and go out and beat up criminals at night, and what sort of off-duty behaviors they might engage in, that had rarely been seen.  For as much as the “Marvel Age” of comics added a certain depth to the previously shallow characterization found in comics – further expanded on in the “Bronze Age” of comics – little else had even come close to diving that far into the depths.
But there’s more to the story than just the story.  If you asked me, “What is it about?” I could provide the high-level summary above, but, as Moore himself put it, what it’s really about is its own structure.
It’s a multi-faceted, multi-layered work that tells a story, serves as a deconstruction of a genre and its tropes, and a powerful demonstration of the unique capabilities of the medium in which the story is told.  It does things that only comic books can do, and at the same time, without being distracting, draws attention to the fact that it’s doing things that only comic books can do.
That is a major reason why, despite being remarkably faithful to the source material, the movie was a failure.  It was an attempt at translating something that could not be translated.  (There was a way in which this could have been done; telling the same story but doing so in a way that is designed as a showcase to demonstrate the things that only film can do.  Though there were signs of attempts at doing just that, Snyder, alas, was not up to the task.  It would be interesting to see a version of the film made by someone else, someone who understands the language of film in a manner analogous to the way Moore understands the language of comics.)
And then there’s just the level of detail, the extent to which every individual element is the result of a very deliberate choice, from the typos in the supplemental materials that accompany each chapter, to the placement of graffiti in background scenes.
If you’re interested in learning more about that, there are plenty of resources available to you, or, you know, you could just read the thing yourself.
All of the above did, of course, have an impact on me, and my understanding of the art of storytelling and the sheer power of story and structure.  But what about the story itself, the more basic elements of plot and character?  Were there elements of the story itself that shaped my way of thinking, not so much as a consumer and sometimes producer of art, but as a person?
Oh.  Oh, yes.
There are far too many things I could point to, and I’ve gone on for too long already, so I will point to one particular passage.  I don’t know that you need to understand the full context of the quote – the nature of the man speaking, or the situation he found himself in – to understand why I found and continue to find the words so compelling:

Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there.  The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone.
Live our lives, lacking anything better to do.  Devise reason later.
Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion.
There is nothing else.
Existence is random.  Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.
No meaning save what we choose to impose.
This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces.  It is not God who kills the children.  Not Fate that butchers them or Destiny that feeds them to the dogs.
It’s us.
Only us.

…okay, that’s bleak and horrifying, I know, and seemingly nihilistic.  But only if you choose to view it in those terms.  When I read this, at the age of fifteen, I took a different view.
We have a choice.  We don’t live our lives according to the whims or plans of mercurial and capricious gods, we don’t have to follow a preordained path.  We can choose.  We can create our own design, find our own reasons to live.
There are people I know who would say that they can’t imagine what their lives would be like without their faith.  I can’t imagine what my life would be like with faith.
Yes, it’s scary, and often dark, and bleak, but it’s also liberating.  If it’s only us, then we can choose to live differently.  If there is nothing else, we have to choose to live differently.  We have to create our own pattern.
Unfortunately, all-too often, we continue to choose to kill the children, and butcher them, and feed them to the dogs.
But we don’t have to, and there’s no one who can tell us that we do.
So…yeah.  That’s the impact this had on me.

Lord of Light
If there’s anything that’s been published by Roger Zelazny, I’ve most likely read it.  There may be a handful of short stories here and there that I haven’t read, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
If there’s any one person who’s had the most impact on my own authorial voice (on those occasions in which I actually write), it’s Zelazny.
As a bit of trivia, the fake movie that was central to the whole plot to rescue American citizens trapped in Iran during the hostage crisis, as chronicled in the movie Argo, was an adaptation of Lord of Light.
In any case, by sheer volume alone, Zelazny has had a profound impact on my life, and given that this is my favorite of his many works, that’s enough to earn it a place on this list.
Naturally, though, there’s more to it than that.
I read this for the first time at around roughly the same time that I first read Watchmen, and there were some complementary ideas contained that have stuck with me through the years.
Part of it is about the power of ideas, and of story, and part of it is about rejecting the paths supposedly laid out for us by gods and making our own choices.
But one of the main things I took away from it – and it wasn’t so much that this served as the inspiration but more as a kind of encouragement – is a sense of irreverence, and an appreciation of the power of laughter.
It may not have been an intentional message, but a big takeaway from this book was the idea of not taking anything too seriously, even if it’s something that means a lot to you, and being willing – and sometimes required – to laugh about anything.  I don’t really have a lot of sacred cows in my life, but to the extent that I do, it’s likely that there will come a point when I will just throw up my hands and laugh about whatever situation is causing me distress in recognition of the ridiculousness of the very notion of sacredness.
Sometimes it’s a bitter, mirthless laugh, and sometimes it takes a long, long time and a lot of misery to get to that point, but it’s a laugh nonetheless.
Honestly, can you imagine anything more liberating than laughing right in God’s face?  Can you ever truly be damned if you can laugh at damnation?
…yeah, probably, but still, it’s worth a shot.
In any case, this book has, for my money, the greatest opening lines ever written:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god.  He preferred to drop the Maha- and the –atman, however, and called himself Sam.  He never claimed to be a god.  But then, he never claimed not to be a god.  Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit.  Silence, though, could.

Sandman #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
More on the recurring theme of the power of story.  There’s a single exchange that makes this award-winning story, one of the many brilliant stories that occurred in the course of 75 issues of the series – that makes this one stand out:

Auberon:  We thank you, Shaper.  But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true.  Things never happened thus.
Dream:  Oh, but it IS true.  Things need not have happened to be true.  Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

As with most things, this is a truth that can lead to either good or ill (or often a mix of both).  It’s an idea related to what Stephen Colbert dubbed “truthiness,” and a lack of appreciation for this truth drives a lot of the tension within, as an example, the White Evangelical culture in America,* with its obsession with the “inerrant” nature of the Bible, and the theological house of cards that such an insistence on events having “occurred thus” – it’s any of it isn’t true, that means that none of it is true – that results from it.
Alternatively, there are those who embrace this truth without ever realizing it, clinging to their own “facts” that align with the “truth” they have constructed for themselves (or had constructed for them), ignorant of the ways that the narrative lens through which the view the world obscures their view of life rather than bringing it into focus, or, indeed, of the fact that they are viewing life through a lens at all.
Metaphors, parables, allegories, and fictions of all stripes can contain their own kernels of truth, which means that we don’t have to rely on “mere facts” to know what is true, but by that same token, “mere facts” matter, and shadow-truths alone are insufficient.
Also, this story is one of the many in which we can see, in retrospect, the many ways in which Dream sows the seeds of his own ultimate destruction.

Maus
It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book featuring cartoon animals relating the experiences of the author’s father before, during, and after the Holocaust.
It’s also the story of the effect those experiences had on the relationship between father and son, and how the author, despite living in another country entirely, grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz.
It is, frankly, a phenomenal work, regardless of the medium.
The particular impact on me was the raw intimacy of the warts-and-all storytelling, how deeply personal and human the story is, despite, or more properly, because of the anthropomorphized animals serving as stand-ins for the real people involved.
As a storyteller, and as a person, I struggle with my own inclination to keep things to myself, to never reveal too much, to ignore or gloss over the ugly parts.  Seeing Spiegelman completely shatter any barriers between his innermost self and his readers was something of a revelation for me, and I was struck by the fact that he found a conceit – the “funny animals” – that could serve as the instrument to shatter those barriers.

Jack of Shadows
More Zelazny, which is unsurprising, I suppose.  Not much to say on this one, it’s just that it was the first time a book ever made me mad.  I read the last line, hurled the book across the room in frustration, and swore to never read anything by Zelazny again.
(That lasted about six months.)

Candide
I am, you will not be shocked to learn, not an optimist.
While I am, in many senses of the word, something of a romantic, and I have been known to be hopeful, I have no expectation of everything working out for the best.  I’m also cynical and bitter, at times, but I think that’s better than just assuming that everything will work out for the best.
Not if everything is left to its own devices, at any rate, or if we’re willing to just let the status quo stand, and give ourselves over to a kind of passive optimism.
This is not the best of all possible worlds, and just saying that it is will not make it so.
Working at it and tending the garden that is the world, however, just might make things a little better.  It’s certainly going to do a lot more than just thinking that everything will work out for the best.
So…yeah.  It wasn’t a new idea to me – it’s an idea that complements my takeaway from Watchmen – but, you know, it doesn’t hurt to have a renowned philosopher express some of the ideas kicking around in your head.
There is an extent to which giving yourself over to unbridled optimism is fundamentally dishonest.  To quote another philosopher (of sorts), “Yeah, maybe sometimes I do feel like shit.  I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit than be full of shit.”
We also have to recognize that, gods or no gods, we don’t have full control over the lives we live, and our circumstances can change – for better or worse – in an instant.  What we can control is how we react to those changes and what we do about them, and merely being positive or optimistic, is not, in and of itself, a sufficient response.

Childhood’s End
Not a lot to say, just some more ideas on the power of story, and of archetypes in particular.

Miracle Monday
This one is an oddity, and I tossed around other options before settling on this.
In 1978, to coincide with the Superman movie, a novel called “Superman:  Last Son of Krypton” was published.  Despite featuring Christopher Reeve on the cover – and some grainy, black and white stills from the movie inside – it had nothing to do with the movie.  In fact, it was specifically set within the continuity of the comics of the time.
Along came Superman II, and with it came a sequel to the novel, which, again, had no real connection to the movie beyond some character names and movie photos.
I chose this book because if there’s any one fictional character who has had the most impact on me, it’s Superman.
When most of the rest of the comic book industry proved to have learned exactly the wrong lessons from Watchmen, Alan Moore launched a mini-series called 1963, a loving – but irreverent – homage to the “Marvel Age,” and in talking about it in interviews he mentioned that, probably more than anything else, the greatest influence on his sense of morality as a child was Superman.  He presented a simple – but workable and expandable – moral code: 

  1. Don’t kill anyone
  2. Try to help people

(That first point is part of one of the many reasons I have…complicated feelings about last year’s Man of Steel)
Despite his fame, longevity, and ubiquity, not everyone holds Superman in the same esteem that I do.
He’s boring.  He’s a boy scout.  He’s too powerful.  Blah blah blah blah fucking blah.
Superman means a lot to me and this particular book is one of the many reasons that he does.
In particular, the impactful moment comes when, after suffering a defeat, Superman withdraws from Metropolis and heads to his Fortress, where he just sits and, as the author puts it, listens to the “symphony of life,” all the little sounds of the world that are open to his super-senses joined together into a single, unified song.  It gives him the boost he needs, and leads to his inevitable victory.
It’s a beautiful moment, and it so perfectly encapsulates everything I love about Superman.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension!
The novelization of a cult classic movie written by the movie’s screenwriter.
I was obsessed with this movie the year it came out, and reading the novelization was part of that obsession.
Drawing from the same pulp fiction tradition that gave birth to comics, it’s a brilliantly over-the-top take on the crazy ideas that have populated the pages of funny books throughout the decades.
As much as I love the movie, I love the novelization more, as it’s free to explore the insane mythos of the titular Scientist/Adventurer/Neurosurgeon/Rock Star without the constraints of effects budgets or run-times.
What was the impact it had on me?  It was just pure, unadulterated fun.  Sure, it helped solidify my love for ridiculously outré fare, but that already existed anyway.
Seriously.  It’s just fun.

Understanding Comics
I don’t know what to say, other than that it’s always interesting – to me – to have someone else articulate ideas that you’ve had but haven’t been able to express, and to explicitly explain things that you have tacitly, almost intuitively, known to be true.
I suppose it also ties back to the power of story, and specifically the power of comics as a medium for conveying powerful ideas through story.

Supergods
Hey, guess what?  More power of story and ideas!
From the opening paragraph:

Four miles across a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force.  Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over.  One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this megadestructive capability may, ironically save us all – but until then, it seems extravagant, somehow emblematic of the accelerated, digital hypersimulation we’ve all come to inhabit.

And yes, “accelerated, digital hypersimulation” is itself emblematic of Morrison’s writing…
In any case, the memoir of a comics icon is an entertaining read, and in the paragraphs that follow this opening he expresses something that gets to the heart of why I love Superman (and, again, the power of stories and ideas), as he discusses some of his specific fears as a child of the Cold War and the looming specter of the Bomb, and a discovery he made while reading comics:

The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb.  Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan.  The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner.  In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale.  I’d found my way into a separate universe tucked inside our own, a place where dramas spanning decades and galaxies were played out across the second dimension of newsprint pages.  Here men, women, and noble monsters dressed in flags and struck from shadows to make the world a better place.  My own world felt better already.  I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears.
Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an idea.
Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.

So…yeah.
There is also the exploration of his own creative processes – in which he manages to make ideas that I would normally find nonsensical palatable to me – which are rather illuminating.  Admittedly, I’m not going to travel the world doing all manner of exotic drugs, but there are some general concepts that I can apply to my own creative endeavors.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy
This is something I read later in life, and it’s something that didn’t exactly introduce ideas so much as crystalize ideas that I already had.
I don’t believe in Conspiracy Theories.  Are there conspiracies?  Sure, they happen all the time.  But are there major, capital C Conspiracies lurking in the shadows, underlying the façade that we think is the real world?  Yeah, probably not.
And nothing helps to make that as clear as a work that posits that all Conspiracies – even the ones that contradict each other – are true.  (Morrison, mentioned above, trod similar literary ground in his work The Invisibles.)
Why don’t I believe in Conspiracy Theories?  Really, it boils down to my understanding of human nature, best summed up in a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Beyond that, Conspiracy Theories provide an inadequate explanation for why the world is the way it is.  Frankly, there’s no need for a Conspiracy developed in some smoke-filled room by alien reptiles and Jewish bankers.  Simple collusion, cronyism, and overlapping self-interest manage to explain things quite nicely.
Ultimately, to tie everything here up quite nicely, Conspiracy Theories are an example of the power of story and ideas, and of seeking to impose a pattern where none exists, and the need we seem to have to abdicate our own responsibility for the state of the world we live in, to embrace shadow-truths, and draw comfort from the fact that someone else, anyone else, even if that someone is some wicked monster lurking in the shadows, is in charge.
Because if no one is running the place, then it’s up to us to do so, and that’s just something we’re not prepared to do.
I’ll close this out with the words of Alan Moore.


*For much, much more on this particular subject, see Slacktivist.

3 comments:

Merlin T Wizard said...

This is a very good and thoughtful self-analysis, probably well above and beyond the effort normally given to these kind of FB memes. Well done.

Jon-Paul Maki said...

Well, when you spend as much time living in your own head as I do you're bound to get a pretty good understanding of the neighborhood.

Merlin T Wizard said...

I don't think that's as universal a statement as it appears on the surface. There are plenty of people that do that and either go mad (get too good an understanding of the neighborhood?) or come to no such conclusions no matter how long they spend there.