Monday, May 28, 2012

History Hardly Seems So Simple: My Review of The Man Time Forgot

The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time MagazineThe Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine by Isaiah Wilner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"They were all under thirty with no idea of what they had yet to learn. To hell with it--they simply scrawled, smoking cigarettes, chewing gum, guffawing when they got in a a good line. They wore British tweeds to the office; the smart dressers wore derbies and carried canes. Their style of dress revealed their attitude toward reporting. In those clothes, they would never go muckraking in the streets. They viewed themselves as storytellers, not hunting down the facts but culling and arranging them, shaping the narrative, painting the big picture."

I've occasionally heard it said that you know a story has played out when you read it in Time magazine. There are, I suppose, two ways of interpreting that: (1) Time is slow, always the last to the table when news breaks; (2) Time is magisterial, always offering the last word on a subject. I don't know about the magisterial side, but whatever Time is, it isn't slow--at least if you take into consideration the manic, caffeinated editorial process described in Isaiah Wilner's The Man Time Forgot. The freneticism that went into each issue of the fledgling magazine in the 1920s is exhausting to read unless you have the metabolism and ambition of a Jazz-Age post-graduate. Hours on end, line-editing against a ticking clock to a cacophonous soundtrack of linotype and agitation, subsisting on coffee and bootleg liquor and egg sandwiches, every week Briton Hadden, Henry Luce and their team of writers, editors and "boys" and "girls" would re-present the news. The Man Time Forgot makes the provocative (and probably largely accurate) claim that this whole thing was Hadden's idea, that Luce was an early adopter and shrewd interloper, and that Time's corporate history is marred by a profound lack of appreciation and a pathetic will to power.

History hardly seems so simple, but such is the nature of Time's editorial approach, at least in the early days. Hadden's main innovation was the notion that news had become arcane, the province of only the already-informed; as a result journalism had not only betrayed its responsibility to the whole citizenry but also lost its luster. Time took the news of the week and refashioned it into epic storytelling--spartan in detail but lush with imagery, determining what one needed to know but making every detail memorable. News changed irrevocably in the aftermath of "Timestyle," what we now know as simply "style." What McDonald's was to food, Time was to news.

Perhaps that's too harsh. That's not Wilner's point in this book, in any case, but I found myself questioning the greatness of the enterprise throughout the book. Wilner himself writes in Timestyle, crafting an occasionally purplish prose and indulging the Great Man theory that makes reporting like Time's possible.

It was important for Hadden and Luce to follow the rules of the epic in how they conveyed the news. There were heroes of fixed chin and furrowed brow; there were villains of nefarious stare and wicked grin. There were bilious buffoons and fair-eyed femme fatales. The players were the thing wherein you got the gist of the story. Hadden had this idea from childhood, ostensibly, and it took fuller shape during his time at Yale, where he befriended and ultimately conspired with Luce, the lesser light, to change the way people learned what they needed to know. Luce, the son of missionaries and a light-footed,vexing aristocrat, found himself always in the shadows, nipping at the heels and riding the coattails of the expansive, burly and larger-than-life Hadden, friend to all but servant to none. It's obvious, given the pictures Wilner paints of each of these figures, who is this epic's hero and who is its villain. If you will pardon the reference to a recent pop-culture phenomenon, Hadden is Thor, and Luce is Loki.

As I said, history hardly seems so simple, and Wilner does offer the occasional nod to Luce's particular genius. Time under Hadden alone would have been a frat-boy anarchist's playful thumbing of the nose to his preferred industry, a subversive pet project that would not have survived long into Hadden's thirties (Hadden himself died at age thirty-one). It was Luce's more detached and methodical mind (as well as his Napoleonic ambition) that fueled the magazine's growth and ultimate cementing as a magazine of record. Thirty-five years later it was Luce who was able to gather in one room the Great Men and Women of American culture, honored over the decades under his editorial gaze as shapers of the century, all of whom were happy to in turn acknowledge the importance of Time as the archiver of history, the last word on every subject. But every epic needs a villain, in the mindset of Timestyle, and for Wilner Luce clearly fits the bill.

What I'm more intrigued by--and perhaps such a book has been written--is the unintended consequence of Timestyle on the American consciousness. The problem with diagnosing a chronic problem of societal ignorance is that it is sometimes hard to tell the poison from the cure. Time under Hadden's watch and successively under Luce accomplished a great thing by making a whole nation more aware of what was happening in the world, but it did so by reducing historical figures to their physical attributes and reducing conflicts from their inherent complexity to digestible levels of right and wrong. In the beginning, Time did no original reporting; it cut and pasted and aggregated and stole and plagiarized and rewrote with only passing concern for facticity. In the beginning, Time was not a sponsor of journalism but a referendum on the work of reporters around the country. Hadden wasn't a student of the Chicago Manual of Style so much as he was a disciple of the Iliad; he kept it at his desk and referred his writers to it regularly. This appeal to the epic unconsciously perpetuated the Cult of the Great Man, which ultimately contributed to our current cult of celebrity and feeds into the nagging suspicion among many that we are less informed today than ever. Long before Google made us stupid (Google it), it seems, the magisterial Time magazine was making us reductionists.

Perhaps that's too harsh an indictment. But the weaknesses I see in Time's original editorial vision, in Timestyle's editorial approach, is apparent in this book: a hagiographical treatment of the tragic-comic Thor/Hadden and a cynical send-up of the devious, swindling Loki/Luce. It's a good read for any editor, a cautionary tale of both the thirst for power and the shadow side of creativity, but I hope it's not the final word on Time's legacy.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Dave Must Be a Foodie: My Review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, MiracleAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm what you might call . . . indoorsy. That's a Jim Gaffigan line; I saw it on TV. But he's right about me; I operate on a simple premise: What if something's on TV and it's never on again?

That's a line from "The Outdoor Type" by the Lemonheads. I heard it on the radio when I was sitting around my house. But by now you get the point. I'm not the most likely person to read a three-hundred-page book about farming. But that's exactly what I did during this spring of my Year of Overdue Books. I was given Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver from an author-friend of mine several years ago; she had noticed that another author-friend of mine had given me a copy of Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and thought, Dave must be a foodie. In reality, he had given me Omnivore's Dilemma as an example of how he wanted to write. So I sort of got this book under false pretenses, and so I let it sit for a while.

In the meantime, I was also letting our garden plot sit for a while, and it wasn't very forgiving. Weeds everywhere, and not a single tomato to show for it. This year I resolved two things: to catch up on my reading and to recover our garden. So far I've accomplished goal number one; reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has been good motivation toward goal number two.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a family affair: Barbara Kingsolver writes the majority of the prose, walking us through a year of living off the food that they or their neighbors have grown. Her husband, Steven L. Hopp, writes sidebar articles about food justice; their daughter, Camille, writes reflections from young adulthood and shares seasonal family recipes. These are crops and animals that flourish in the temperate zone of southern Appalachia--asparagus in the spring, tomatoes all through the summer, potatoes in the fall, squash and whatever you've frozen all through the winter. Kingsolver writes beautifully, candidly, effectively about both the costs and the benefits of locavory (eating locally); I was almost made willing to plant asparagus after reading the first two chapters, even though my wife hates asparagus and you get nothing for your trouble for the first two years, and I'm a horrible gardener. She also makes a strong cautionary case for laying off the omnivory, citing our eating habits, and the industrial food industry that feeds us, as prime suspects in climate change and the decline of the west. It was hard to close Kingsolver's book and enjoy my daily breakfast of Peanut Butter Cheerios--Lord knows I tried.

As good as the book was, and as compelling as her case, I did find it harder to get through than Omnivore's Dilemma. I think it's a relatively simple reason, actually: Pollan's experiment in that book was more inquisitive, testing rival theories about food along the way to a final feast of food with remarkably local provenance. Kingsolver's experiment was less inquisitive and more resolute, more all-consuming. To call it an experiment is unfair to experiments; this was a family covenant made more marketable by use of the language of experimentation. Kingsolver and her family had, whether consciously or not, spent years preparing for this move across country, this decision to only eat what they could provide themselves or buy from neighbors. They had prior knowledge to draw on and established relationships to provide moral support. Me, I have a suburban home with a small plot and neighbors who couldn't care less whether I grow my green peppers or buy them off an eighteen-wheeler. I'm not predisposed to the life overhaul chronicled in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; I'm indoorsy, and I like it.

Nevertheless, I got some good ideas and some good nudging toward keeping my garden from weeding out. Further rewards will, presumably, come later this summer as my heirloom tomatoes and lettuce and whatnot start to deliver the goods. Next year I'll read something like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an author-friend gave me a copy of Year of Plenty a few weeks ago) and try to keep myself motivated to give up the couch every now and then to do my part to save the planet. Till then, happy eating!

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Before You See the Avengers (Again): An Excerpt from Comic Book Character

In my previous post, most excellent reader, I indicated that I have plans to see the blockbuster film The Avengers many, many, many more times. I doubt I'll get to it this weekend; my wife is opening her own counseling practice, and over the next few days we'll be putting the finishing touches on her office. (Do her a favor: go to her Psychology Today page and click on "like" to help her get better noticed in her community. Thanks!) But anyway, I'm only one man, and many of you don't have chores that will preclude you from seeing The Avengers again this weekend--or even for the first time. I'll be living vicariously through you, so I thought I ought to offer you something in exchange. Here's an excerpt from my book Comic Book Character, recently revised and updated, and rereleased for the Kindle. The chapter "Might Makes Right: The Justice League Meets the Avengers" is my favorite in the book, contrasting the worldviews behind the major superhero showcases of two great eras in comic book publishing and, I think, offering some insight to the way we frame our own era's understanding of virtue and heroism. So read the excerpt to get up to speed on what the Avengers are, and then buy the ebook to get up to speed on what they mean.

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The Avengers were the first “super-group” in the Marvel Comics line. That is not to say that Marvel didn’t already have teams of superheroes—after all, the Fantastic Four was Marvel’s first great success in superhero comics. But the Avengers brought together strong-willed, larger than life heroes with independent fan bases. Every reader had a favorite: the cute couple Ant-Man and Wasp; the invincible Iron Man; the unpredictable Hulk; the conveniently rediscovered Captain America; or the literal god of thunder, Thor. The lineup quickly and regularly changed, but the title served its purpose: to showcase new Marvel talents and pool the assets of “Earth’s mightiest heroes.”

From early on the Avengers made ripples, serving as a launching pad for Marvel’s first black hero, African prince Black Panther, and keeping the peace in New York and elsewhere while fighting organized networks of villains, alien races and even a white supremacist group. The group was an institution, centering in a mansion complete with butler Jarvis, establishing a foundation to cover team expenses and fund stipends for unemployed team members, expanding to the West Coast, and linking their work to the U.S. government and eventually the United Nations through official liaisons. The Avengers weren’t simply superheroes, they were high society. Any superhero who was anyone was a current or one-time member.

The Avengers turned heads over time as they took on various thorny issues. Their treatment of race was followed by uncharted ethical territory as android Vision fell in love with and ultimately married the mutant Scarlet Witch. Wonder Man discovered that he was a clone. Physically unusual heroes such as the Beast and Tigra won accolades while on duty but faced marginalization by the public when they went off the clock. Second-stringers faced layoffs by government decree. Founding member Henry Pym struggled to find his place first as Ant-Man, then as the original Giant-Man and eventually as Yellowjacket, all the while trying to undo the damage caused by his perfectly designed, artificially intelligent, amoral robot Ultron; he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown, beat his wife, betrayed his team and went to prison.

The Avengers wore their pettinesses on their sleeves, but for all the internal troubles they faced, the team—and the mansion that housed them—served as a safe retreat from the challenges of serving and protecting a fickle world that alternately trusted, revered, suspected and rejected their presence. The Avengers fought to keep a vulnerable world above water even as their leaders, in the words of the series’ editors, fought to “instill as much trust in one another as the public has in the team itself. With the abundance of alpha personalities involved, and their diverse backgrounds, this is not an easy task.”

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Avengers In Review

I remember the moment, oddly enough. I walked into the QuikTrip (it was either before or, more likely, just after our weekly Boy Scout meeting) and meandered over to the rack of comic books on the western wall. There among the various titles was Avengers #221, showing a grid of potential new members and inviting me to "PICK TWO!" I didn't know most of them, but I thought the depiction of the Invisible Girl was clever, and I thought it might be cool to have Spider-Man and Spider-Woman join the Avengers in the same issue. So I opted out of the Slurpee and Watchamacallit and instead bought myself a comic book. And then I bought, oh, about two hundred more. And then about twenty years later I asked for and was given the entire Avengers archives on CD-ROM. Oh, and my favorite chapter in my geeky homage to superheroes, Comic Book Character, is about the Avengers. So perhaps you can understand my enthusiasm over the past four years as Marvel Entertainment Group built slowly up to last weekend's release of The Avengers: The Motion Picture.

I don't recall a time when I wasn't a fan of the Avengers. They are called "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," mostly in keeping with the hubris one generally associates with comic books; they have been, in reality, a monthly showcase for any number of human frailties and faults: from alcoholism to spousal abuse, from racism to chronic despair, from petty jealousies to ultimate betrayals. I learned a lot about myself, what I ought to aspire to and what temptations I ought to actively resist, by reading their exploits. The Avengers are many things, but at their core The Avengers is the human experience writ large.

The film is, I suppose, not much different. We've been introduced to each of the key characters over the course of five prior movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man II, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. We knew their backstories coming in, but we didn't know how they were going to get along; and we certainly didn't know if one film could manage so many big personalities.

By that I don't simply mean the characters; I mean the actors as well. Some, like Samuel L. Jackson, are legendary; some, like Robert Downey Jr., are infamous. Each has played the lead in the past, so would they--let alone the characters they were taking on--play well with others?

That's why I think the superstar of The Avengers is not any of the actors themselves but the director, Joss Whedon. Whedon has built his reputation, in television and even in comics, as a master of the ensemble. He not only meshes characters well, he tells communal stories well. We saw a lot of that here: Whedon doesn't shy away from the tensions that should be expected in an assembly of flawed personalities who see the need to work together but don't yet know quite what to make of each other. Nobody owes anyone anything at the outset of The Avengers, and they go to great lengths to prove that fact to one another--and, I suppose, to themselves. Tony Stark shows off and declares himself above it all both in and out of his Iron Man armor; Thor barely deigns to interact with puny humans; Captain America rejects the obvious power differential between him and the others when a special agent advises against taking them on: "They're basically gods." "There's only one God, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that."

It takes patience and cool, benevolent manipulation on the part of the all-seeing, one-eyed Nick Fury (director of SHIELD) to gradually shape these six heroes into a true team--that and the tragic death of a beloved supporting player, a death Fury is all too willing to exploit for the greater good. Nobody's conscience is entirely clean in this film, which is as it should be: none of us makes it successfully through complex relationships without some regret and some self-justification."We could be heroes," David Bowie sings, but he also sings "You, you would be mean; and I--I'd drink all the time." We're all flawed and frail, and part of each person's heroic journey is to push through our flaws and frailties in pursuit of the good.

The latter half of the film gets a little Transformersey for my taste. I sort of wish I hadn't shelled out the extra bucks for 3D. I should really see it again to find out what I missed while I was dodging alien laser shots aimed at my head. I also find myself wanting a little more time to sort through the various relationships and figure out the individual characters a little better. The Black Widow said more than once, "I've got a lot of red on my ledger." I should really see it again to get a better sense of the debt she's carrying, and how it affects her interactions with the others. And Hawkeye--he was under Loki's spell for a good chunk of the film; I should probably see it again to parse out what's really Hawkeye and what's the influence of the film's villain. Oh, and speaking of Loki, I should probably catch it again to focus on how the brotherly relationship between Loki and Thor is carried over here from last year's film Thor. Oh, and while I'm at it, I'd love to focus in on Mark Ruffalo's portrayal not just of the Hulk but of Bruce Banner, whom he describes (in one of my favorite moments from the film) as "always angry." And then I might as well catch it one more time to see how Cap has adjusted to being awoken seventy years into the future--how he handles being the same age as his peers but from an entirely different era. Oh, and Iron Man has a really funky relationshp with SHIELD, and Fury in particular. I'd like to spend a little more time on that.

So yeah, six more times ought to do it.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

How to Pick a Comic Book: Your Helpful Guide to Free Comic Book Day

Today is Free Comic Book Day--a day, like Sweetest Day and other faux-holidays, dedicated to propping up an entire industry. People around the United States will venture into comic book stores on a whim, their faces betraying their anxiety and hope. They'll leave with at least a few free teaser comics and maybe a starter kit for HeroClix and various other sundries. Some of them may go back in a couple of weeks.

Today is also Day Two of the Avengers Movie Era (AME), and day two of life for my revised edition of Comic Book Character. So to celebrate, I offer this gift: a teaser from the book and a user-friendly guide to getting started on shopping for, and reading, a comic book.

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Comic book selection might seem to be a relatively private affair. You can, in fact, go a long way toward picking a book in private. Comic book producers are well-represented on the Internet, and at their sites you can survey character profiles, find out the current status of particular heroes and, in some cases, see samples of the characters in action, in the form of “dotcomics.” Online booksellers sell graphic novels (an extensive but self-contained comic book) and in some cases provide editorial summaries and reader reviews. Fans maintain their own sites and can tell you what you want to know about a particular character, team, title, writer or artist.

That’s all well and good, but to pick a comic thus is to prefilter a wide range of alternate selections. In contrast, some comic books can be found in libraries or in retail outlets ranging from grocery stores (where staff can offer little more than an aisle number in response to your questions) to shops devoted to comics and ancillary products. Here you can enter multiple universes and see the full cultural impact of the superhero genre. Between current issues and backlist titles, a comic book store offers near-total access to a character’s history.

In addition, comic book stores bring you into direct contact with the genre’s fiercely devoted fan base. Comic book shop regulars can offer overviews and synopses of many aspects of comic book history and culture. Storeowners can guide you to the type of art or storytelling you’re looking for or help you find a good entry point into the medium. They will often also try to convert you to their way of life: late-night role-playing games, passionate discourse over the confusing details of current plots or heated debates over the limits of a particular hero’s abilities. A trip into such a store can take much longer than you would expect, and on occasion it can overwhelm you to the point of despair.

In any event, whether in private or under the eager eyes of the comic fanboy, you’ll eventually settle on a comic to read. Now all you have to do is figure out how to read it. . . .

Comic books are not generally organized in a way that is friendly to newcomers. Most issues begin by continuing a story that was left unconcluded in the issue previous. Issues are numbered sequentially, but series often relaunch to signify an editorial shift. Long-term characters have often had their origins retold to modernize their circumstances or provide a convenient starting point for new audiences. The industry in general presumes the reader’s familiarity with the form, assuming that young readers, with more recent experiences of pictures and words working in tandem, will quickly assimilate. Nevertheless, with a little patience you can find your way through. Comic books are two art forms—sequential pictures and popular literature—working in concert. The words are a part of the pictures, and the pictures help to tell the story. The reader must be aware of both in order to fully appreciate the direction of the book.

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There. That should get you started. For a fuller introduction to the genre, download the book here.