Literature

An Interview with “The Kingdom” Creator Jason Bienvenu

the kingdom cover

Our own Gardner Mounce recently spoke with Jason Bienvenu, the creator of The Kingdoma comic about “a magical realm where animals have evolved in the absence of mankind.” You can also read Gardner’s coverage of the series here.

GARDNER MOUNCE: First, tell us a little about yourself and your background.

JASON BIENVENU: Jason Bienvenu (b. 1979). I’m an illustrator and designer born and raised in South Central Louisiana (Lafayette). I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts, with a concentration in graphic design from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I love collecting action figures, playing video games, and hanging out with my wife, Natalie, and my daughter, Elizabeth.

GM: When did you first know you wanted to write comic books?

JB: In the fall of 2011 I did a lot of animation work for an Xbox XNA game that never got produced leaving me frustrated that I had done so much work on a project that wouldn’t see the light of day. At that point I decided that I wanted to take on a project from start to finish that won’t cost me an arm and a leg; a project that I could learn as I go.

From there I began making little Post-it notes on the look of some of the characters and jotting down ideas. By the spring of 2011 I had begun what would become the first issue of The Kingdom.  I had a story arc/road map of where I wanted the series to go, but nothing set in stone. At that point I was still learning how to create my first comic and wasn’t even sure I would finish the first issue!

While struggling through the first issue, I realized how fun and rewarding it was, and my wife Natalie and I would go over dialog together and it really began to come together.  By the time I finished the first issue I told myself, “Okay, you can do this.”  So I created a Kickstarter to help fund the printing of the books and the rest is history!

GM: Which comic book creators inspire you most?

JB: When I was doing my comic research I picked up Mike Mignola’s Hellboy books and studied them and took in as much as I could from them. They are still a huge influence on me today.

But in a real face-to-face sense I would have to say my friends Kody Chamberlain of Sweets and Punks and Rob Guillory of Chew really helped me out more than I could ever convey in words. We were friends before I decided to start doing comics and I was actually shy about asking them for the longest time, but once I did they gave me really invaluable advice on everything comic wise, from the art and how to transfer line art to digital format to how to have a successful showing at comic conventions. I can’t thank them enough for that.

GM: What are your ambitions for your writing career?

JB: I know a lot of people want to work on the “big” books like Batman and Captain America, but right now for me, I have stories that I want to tell and I have several writing partners on other projects that I am super excited about, so at the end of the day, for now, I would say I want to be able to continue creating comics and would love for the work I create and will produce in the future to be published so that more readers will have the chance to enjoy it.

GM: What was the most challenging aspect of working on The Kingdom?

JB: I’d say the most challenging part of working on The Kingdom was the last two issues of the story arc. I would work my day job, then stay up until 2 a.m. working on each issue, which took about three months to finish both of them. My wife and I had just had our beautiful little girl so there was no guarantee that when I was done at 2 a.m. that I would actually get to sleep the rest of the night, ha!

GM: What was the most thrilling?

JB: I’d say the most thrilling part for me was when I received the trade paperback edition in the mail and I felt the weight of it in my hands and flipped through the pages, and just looked at what I created with the help of my wife and all the Kickstarter backers. It was one of those, “wow, you really did it, kid” type of moments.

GM: What is one unexpected thing you learned while working on The Kingdom?

JB: That I am a comic book creator! This was the first comic book I ever created and I honestly wasn’t sure if I would ever finish it, but once I got the first issue down I felt like I had found my groove and I really feel like I found out what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. That was a great feeling.

GM: Which character in The Kingdom do you most identify with?

JB: I’d say Pale. Pale is basically me, but Thane has a lot of aspects of me in him as well, ha!

GM: As the sole creator of The Kingdom, you don’t have the difficulty of explaining your story to an artist or interpreting a writer’s story. With that in mind, what is your process for creating an issue? Do you write a script first?

JB: Whenever I created the story I knew where I wanted it to go. I had a “roadmap” but I felt like the story should be very organic. I wanted to let the story unfold and I had a lot of fun surprises along the way. For instance the rat Reekey was basically only a plot device to get Pale from point A to B, but I wound up liking him so much that he became this major part of the story and I really like to work that way. Also my wife, Natalie, is listed as editor but in future prints she’ll be listed as writer, as she helped me with much of the dialog, especially between Mala and Thane, who are basically me and her.

The process: whenever I start an issue I look at my road map. Then I close my eyes and literally envision the entire issue one page at a time. As I finish a page I draw it out as a “thumbnail” sketch in my sketchpad and add dialog, like a good joke or important plot point, and continue on until that book is completely thumbnailed out. Then I move onto the dialog and finally start on the artwork itself. Once all the artwork is completed I go in and add all the word bubbles. Then I print it out and Natalie and I go over all of the dialog and make sure it all fits and sounds right and that there are no typos, etc.

GM: Do you have a day job? If so, what is it and how do you balance your day job with working on comics?

JB: I still have a day job, so I do lot of comic work on weekends and at night and during holidays, which can be really grueling and difficult at times, but also very rewarding.

GM: When writing The Kingdom, did you outline the entire plot in advance or did you create it issue by issue?

JB: Yes I outlined the entire story arc, but it was more of a “roadmap” as I knew where I wanted the story to go but I allowed for it flow and have a more organic feel, which allowed me to take what I had built up from the previous issue and incorporate it into the next.

GM: Is there a type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? (Love, action, suspense)

JB: I found from working on other comics that for me a large page of dialogue between a couple of people was difficult because as the artist I have to make several panels of people sitting on a sofa look engaging and interesting, which was really challenging but fun at the same time!

GM: What advice would you give to young writers?

JB: Never wait for permission to follow your dreams.  Once you know what you want in life, go for it. You’ll make mistakes but it’s the best way to learn and never be afraid to fail.

GM: How would you have been stereotyped in high school? Jock? Band nerd? Theater kid?

JB: I’d have to go with class clown, ha!

GM: What are you reading right now?

JB: I try not to read anything while I’m writing, and I’m working on issue eight of The Kingdom right now.  However, the last thing I read was The Hobbit, which was a Christmas gift from my wife. I would sit in bed and read one chapter at a time and just take it all in; what an amazing book!

GM: What’s next for you? Any future projects?

JB: My next project is called Vamped, about a group of nerds being introduced to the world of Vampers. It’s a dark comedy written by Donny Broussard and illustrated by me. Think Clerks meets The Lost Boys! We are three issues into a six issue story arc and have recently started work on issue four. I’m also working on a sci-fi noir with Brando Gary called Dusk, which I’ll start on when Vamped is completed this summer.

GM: Is there anything you’d like our readers to know about you or The Kingdom?

JB: This project started out as a personal challenge and turned into an inspirational project for me. Growing up with dyslexia presented its own set of challenges, so I tended to fall back on the amazing 80s era that was around when I was a kid. The same era that promoted fun and joy is what I wanted to bring back and share with you guys. I hope that this story inspires you to share in that same nostalgia and that you have enjoyed the story as much as I have enjoyed creating it.

GM: The character designs in The Kingdom are wonderful. Do you have a favorite one?

JB: Thanks! I have to say that character design is one of the aspects that I enjoy the most when creating comics.  Pale’s character design is very near and dear to my heart, even though his look evolves throughout this story arc.

I really wanted his outward appearance to suggest what was going on under the surface in his mind and heart. I also wanted the reader to worry a little that he wouldn’t wind up being the hero they thought he was.

GM: Can you describe the process of developing the design of that character?

JB: With respect to the character design of The Kingdom, I was very focused on each character’s look and feel, and the first thing I thought was “each character has to be distinct!” I wanted the reader to know who they were even if they were in total silhouette.

After I got their look and feel down, I focused on the color scheme. I found a lot of inspiration from the 1980s Masters of the Universe and Thundercat cartoons and toys. Those characters had very bold and wild color schemes that in some cases should not have worked, but they really did and it taught me a lot about my own color palette.

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: On the Importance of Pulp Fiction

astounding science fiction cover

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Remember the pulps? The old science fiction, mystery, and fantasy magazines published on cheap paper and read in the Golden Age of SF on trains, on buses, and by flashlight under blankets after bedtime? Well, they are still alive, well, and thriving. At the very least, dozens (link takes some scrolling down) are still publishing stories and paying authors. It is a vibrant, vital part of SF, but many superfans who have read every book Asimov ever wrote or won costume contests at ‘cons overlook them. There are tons of them, but two of the most famous are Analog and Clarkesworld. There are many benefits to reading these magazines.

First off, these rough, newspapery pages contain plenty of variety. Each magazine is usually filled with (shortest to longest) short stories, novelettes, and novellas, so the reader can choose how much time they want to invest and pick up the magazine for ten minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour. They are also full of informational articles that range from editorial commentary, to the state of the field today, to straight scientific fact to supplement the fiction. An article I just read in Analog explained some of the risks of climate change, and the factoid that stuck with me was that, if Greenland’s glaciers melt, the inundation of freshwater into the ocean might stop the North Atlantic Current, which currently brings warm air to Great Britain and keeps it relatively warm. Without this current, it would have a climate comparable to the Yukon. In addition to the variety of features, the collection of stories itself is extremely diverse. Just glancing at the table of contents of the November 2014 issue of Analog, there is a story about a Venusian colonist’s transport breaking and her having to survive in the high-pressure, acid-rich cloud layers of Venus while avoiding falling to the certain-death lower levels, another story about a convict with a life sentence appealing that sentence due to new immortality treatments rendering it a cruel and unusual punishment, and another whose plot concerns an AI who went on an apparent spree murdering dozens of his fellow AIs. Within that small sample, three of the eight stories on offer in the magazine, there is a story that deals with space colonization, one that deals with the social impact of longevity treatments, and one that touches on the dangers and nature of AI. That’s a broad range, and no matter what your interests, you’ll find something that interests you.

asimov

The next major reason that getting a subscription to a few of these is worthwhile is that the publishing environment fostered by the editors of these magazines fights off the bloat of success. Everyone who has read serial fantasy especially has run across this phenomenon: an author writes an amazing first novel that sells on a galactic scale. It is entertaining, the plot is tightly woven, and the characters are identifiable. The second and third entries are similar, but then the quality nosedives, and all of the sudden you are reading about characters you don’t care about in locations that bore you to tears while learning about the finer points of societal etiquette, which makes you feel like you’ve fallen into cotillion class as opposed to the rough-and-tumble who-dares-wins environment of the first book. This, friends, is because the author’s name is now more important than their work. The publisher knows that, whatever is written, it will sell a gazillion copies, so the editor backs off and the book bloats and bloats and bloats. Not so in the magazines. First, the stories average around 5,000 words, so the author has very little time in which to communicate what they need to. Characters, setting, and conflict are all usually extremely clear in the first two pages, after which the action goes gallivanting off towards resolution with nary a hesitation. Second, the editors make choices based entirely on what they think will give the readers who buy their magazine reason to buy it again: stories that entertain. If the characters are hard to identify with, if the ideas and technology explored in the story are not interesting, and if there is no satisfying plot, the editor will not buy the story and the magazine will not subject you to it. It is a hardscrabble environment where only the leanest, fittest stories survive.

clarkesworld

Let’s assume I have you convinced, and you’re raring to subscribe to a magazine or three. Where should you go? Analog Science Fiction and Fact is probably the most storied. It started life as Astounding Stories in the 1930s, and a few name changes later stands as the longest-running continuously published magazine in the genre. Its most famous editor is John W. Campbell, who is to Heinlein and Asimov what Max Perkins is to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It is old, it is established, and it is a must-have for anyone starting down this path. For a shot of the new, check out Clarkesworld Magazine. Started in 2006, it has grown quickly. It and its authors have been nominated for and won the Hugo multiple times. It has achieved a huge profile in a relatively short time mostly due to the quality of its stories, but also because of its distribution method. It exists almost entirely as an online entity, with all of its stories available for free online in text and podcast form. A physical anthology is published each year, and ebook subscriptions are available, but the free podcast is the best way to experience the magazine. I listen to podcast stories relatively frequently, but so many readers have either a voice not suited to hold attention or one made so goofy by putting on a radio announcer style that I have trouble getting into the story. Not so with Kate Baker, the reader for every Clarkesworld podcast. Her voice is clear, normal, with enough variety to hold attention but not so much you feel you’re listening to a circus impresario. I recently listened to her read “Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik, one of the most satisfying world-building stories I’ve seen this year. It’s quality, it’s free, it’s multiformat, and you can check it out now with no commitment.

The magazine market is vital to the science fiction community at large. There are the monuments of the genre, the Neuromancers, the Stranger in a Strange Lands, and the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?s, but the beating heart of SF is in these magazines, where the work of old pros and new blood meet and keep the body of SF as a whole vigorous and alive. Do your part to keep SF healthy and subscribe.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Major Issues: The Kingdom – Rise of the Ape King

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Gardner Mounce

In Major Issues, we look at one newly-released comic book each week. Updated Mondays.

The Kingdom – Rise of the Ape King
Story and Art by Jason Bienvenu
Published by Kingdom Publishing

In the afterword to The Kingdom, writer-artist Jason Bienvenu states that his goal with this project was to create a story reminiscent of the 80s cartoons he grew up with. And though you won’t find fighting robots or cats with boobs in The Kingdom, you will find a lovably familiar good vs evil story with a knack for cheesy one-liners. So in that regard, Bienvenu succeeded.

The story is archetypal and familiar: Pale, the outcast hero, rises to power in the wilderness only to come back to save the kingdom–like Luke Skywalker, Simba, and David did before him. He wears the hero of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth thousandth face. In any case, the series’ raison d’etre isn’t its story, but its art.

Character design, in particular, may be Bienvenu’s special gift. Bienvenu communicates his characters’ essences through their designs. Trepidacious, naive Pale wears showy red armor that nonetheless doesn’t fully protect him; his white mohawk and hard features reveal a youthful determination. Pale’s father, the lovable oaf, hardly wears any armor to show that he’s cocky and unconcerned. The Boar-O, a giant [mega]bear, wears nothing but an eyepatch and a metal arm–exposed, vulnerable, but fully confident. Even without backstory or dialogue, these characters are three-dimensional.

With such attention to detail, it’s frustrating that Bienvenu feels the need to over-explain the comic through dialogue and narration. The first issue is the most guilty of this, and acknowledges a lack of confidence in Bienvenu to tell a visual story. However, as the story progresses, the narration takes more of a back seat. By issue two, Bienvenu makes bolder moves in page layout, sequencing, and framing. By issue three, his confidence is perceptible. And issues three and four show Bienvenu at his most confident. The narration is minimal, the dialogue enhances rather than hinders, and the art flies off the page. Take the following splash page, for example. Among other things, Bienvenu breaks the background environment into broken panels, like cracked glass, to reflect the sudden violence of the scene.

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Speaking of environments–as a native Louisianian, Bienvenu understands how to communicate the heat and humidity of the jungle with muted greens, muddy browns, and a sun that emits waves of feverish heat. Conversely, his night scenes communicate quiet awe for a pre-electricity view of the stars. The cities of The Kingdom are designed with similar attention to detail. Each has its own style of architecture and mood. My only wish is that he would have made some of these environments splash pages for us to drool over.

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Though The Kingdom oftentimes runs through the motions of the hero myth, it never takes itself too seriously. Bienvenu set out to have fun, and he did. The story is full of wise-cracking corny stepdad jokes, but that’s sort of what makes it so fun. In any event, it puts on full display a new artistic voice who will no doubt helm exciting future projects.

Where to get it:

Comixology
Amazon

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Book Review: “Think Like a Freak” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

image source: freakonomics.com

image source: freakonomics.com

Brent Hopkins

I have rarely harped on it when writing here, (too busy raging at games and reviewing comic books) but I am a huge business and economics fan. I have my undergraduate in International Business and am currently working on a master’s degree in Human Resource Management, so something is always drawing me to this side of literature. That being said, I am no economist, but I think it is fascinating how certain things are correlated.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner came to prominence with their collaboration Freakonomics. This book and its sequel, SuperFreakonomics, used economics (though you can argue it’s a lot of sociology and criminology as well) to help explain the correlation between a myriad of things that would seem ridiculous to a normal person. This goes from abortion affecting the crime rate to teachers cheating to boost grades. There have been some issues brought up from other researchers with their methods and phrasing, but as long as you read with a reasonable mindset the books are incredibly engrossing.

This brings us to the third book, Think Like a Freak, which was released this summer. The book takes a break from telling stories about how approaching problems with a different mindset can lead to unique solutions and instead uses little tales to try and get the reader to think uniquely in various situations. The entire book comes off as almost a self-help work, but refrains from really pointing out direct flaws in people that need to be fixed. Instead, the authors explain how problems don’t always have simple solutions, but when you think like a “freak” amazing things could, not will, happen.

I am a pretty practical and positive person so it was a treat to read something that resonates with me at the age of 28. Two topics in particular stuck with me as they talked about quitting and redefining problems to help redefine solutions. They used two rather fascinating stories to draw the readers in: one focused on Takeru Kobayashi, the famous Japanese eating champion, and how he figured out how to eat hot dogs so quickly and another story about a company that invents things but often has to give up on ideas if they aren’t feasible. The line “Fail Quick and Fail Cheap” is simple but makes a lot of sense from a business mindset. These topics will make the reader step back and ask: “Could I handle doing that?” which I feel is precisely what the authors set out to do.

This book is largely about self-limitations, fear, and dealing with pride. Most of the situations brought up are not about external issues, but instead about how people get so focused on either being right or setting up artificial boundaries that they can never get to the next level. Think Like a Freak holds your hand through these issues and packs a lot of depth for such a short read.

Should You Read It?

Yes. It may not change your life, but I think it has enough depth to really be applicable to anyone’s life.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Major Issues: Wayward #1

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In Major Issues, we look at one newly-released comic book each week. Updated Mondays.

Gardner Mounce

Wayward #1
Written by Jim Zub
Art by Steve Cummings
Colors by John Rauch and Jim Zub
Letters by Marshall Dillon
Published by Image Comics 8/27/14

My high school English teacher taught me that it’s bad form to begin an essay with a quote, and that’s why I’m saving it for sentence two. Someone once said that anyone can write a first act. It’s fun and easy to come up with a group of characters and establish a conflict; it’s in act two where things get tricky. Even so, a first act can be told poorly. Wayward’s problem is that it sets up its pieces so quickly that it doesn’t seem to enjoy its own premise.

Issue one falls into the trap of trying too quickly to get to the action. It assumes readers don’t have patience for the setup and are rolling their eyes until someone draws a sword. Protagonist Rori Lane, an Irish-Japanese high school student, lands in Japan to start a new life with her mom. For some reason, her mom doesn’t pick her up from the airport, which conveniently allows Rori to discover her new superpower–the ability to see her literal future path displayed for her in a red line (exactly like Donnie Darko’s ability to see his future path in a blue line). She catches up with her mom over dinner and explores Japan a little. Three men in an alleyway accost her. She’s saved by a ninja girl. They fight them off. The guys end up being turtle monsters, she discovers she can jump buildings for some reason, etc, etc.

This would be too much for one issue anyways, but writer Jim Zub dumps additional exposition on us in gobs of narration. Comics are a combination of words and pictures, but I’d argue that they’re a visual medium first. I hold them to Alfred Hitchcock’s standard that, like film, if they are played “silently” (without narration) the story should still work. It’s the cliche: show don’t tell. Narration should never do the work that the visual element could do. Most of the narration in Wayward could have been relayed to the reader visually, but oftentimes the narration just parrots what the comic is already showing. For instance, in one scene Rori struggles to take an afternoon nap, but is unable to do so due to jet lag. There are three frames. In frame one, Rori is lying down, staring at the ceiling. The narrator says, “I wonder if my brain will stop whirling long enough to take a nap.” The second frame is the same shot, to show that time has passed. The third frame shows Rori sitting up, indicating that, no, her brain won’t stop whirling long enough for her to take a nap. The reader understands this and needs no further indication, but Zub provides two additional layers of narration. First, Rori says, “Nope!” Second, the narrator says, “I guess it’s time to go exploring!”, which is an unnecessary line since the next panel shows Rori exploring. Zub commits this crime of over explaining constantly in issue one. The overall effect is that it reads like a rough draft, like Zub is still in the process of learning what his characters want and hasn’t yet found a way to tell the story in an interesting visual way.

Artist Steve Cummings and colorist John Rauch created this comic for a niche audience: the anime-ers. Skin is translucent. Hair is green or blue. Everyone’s dressed like they’re in attendance at Anime Expo. I’m not an anime or manga fan, so the art doesn’t feel like an homage to a Japanese style so much as it feels derivative of it. However, Cummings’s perspectives are noteworthy. Wide shots distort like wide angle lenses, giving the effect that the comic is filmed. It gives issue one a slick cinematic feel that definitely catches the eye. Now, if only Zub would trust him enough to take that camera eye and show us Japan and Rori Lane’s knotty relationship to her parents rather than tell us about it.

Should You Get It?

No. Unless manga is an obsession for you, and you’ve read all the manga, and you need anything that looks like manga or anime right now.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read All Of?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read all of?

Rules are simple: how’s your judgement? When did you last dedicate a significant amount of your precious, fleeting life to something you didn’t want to finish in the first place? This week we’re talking dedication for dedication’s sake. Let’s get to it, because wasting time in a thing about wasted time is just too much.

Alex Russell

I once got State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America as a gift. Look at this damned list of some of the contributors: Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Anthony Bourdain, William T. Vollmann, S.E. Hinton, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Rick Moody, and Alexander Payne. Those people can’t make a bad book, can they? They didn’t, but they all certainly wrote some essays that appeared in a bad book. State by State is a series of 50 essays, each written by someone with a connection to that specific state. Some of them are great. Some of them are not. I was going to put in my least favorite one here but it makes me way too angry. The precious, scientific ways people write about their own states in this tome can be the worst. They are the opposite of love letters. That said, “Kansas” by Jim Lewis is fantastic, though if you Google it the first thing that comes up is an article from my college town’s newspaper about how bad it is. No one likes anything.

Gardner Mounce

I generally have a strict 50-page policy. Life is too short to read bad books and if a book can’t impress me in fifty pages then I have no qualms about ditching it. However, I did stick with all of The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. It was awful, but interesting in the awful choices it made.

Mike Hannemann

The easy direction to go is to name something forced upon you in high school, but All the King’s Men takes the cake. The book before I read was Grapes of Wrath and it was followed by Invisible Man. Both of those novels are some of my favorites of all time. Wedged in the middle was a political drama which played out exactly how you’d expect. I compare it to Dances With Wolves. You know exactly where the plot is going the minute you start reading the book. There are a few twists here and there, but it lacks originality. When the most fascinating character is a simple Irish guy who eats sugar cubes, there’s something wrong with your story. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but “noble politician becomes corrupt” isn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling. That said, I do sympathize with the Irish. And sugar cubes.

Jonathan May

There are so many contenders for this question. The worst book I’ve ever read in its entirety must be The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain called “chloroform in print.” Not to anger any Mormons out there, but damn if it isn’t the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Compared to other religious texts, the battles are lame and the language stilted. The Bhagavad-Gita this ain’t. Mostly centered in language borrowed from the Masonic texts and translations of The Bible available at the time, this product of the early American 19th century could really lose a lot of clunky verbiage and focus rather on its chronologically-challenged plot. While religious adherents may find it to be divinely inspired, I find more inspiration from even the most unreadable of Dickens’: The Tale of Two Cities, my close second-place choice. If you disagree (and I assume many will), please do yourself a favor and read The Bible, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Heart Sutra, or almost any other religious text and get back to me.

Andrew Findlay

This is difficult. For most of the past decade, if a book was terrible or even just not what I wanted to read right then and there, I just didn’t finish it. Any truly terrible books that I finished before that time are terrible enough to be supremely forgetful. It was probably one of the ranked masses of Star Wars Expanded Universe books I read in middle school, before I knew enough to be like, “This dialogue is laughable. Han wouldn’t say that. Besides, it’s nerf herder, not nerftender.” You know what, I’m willing to bet $100 that it was The Phantom Menace, released alongside the movie so George Lucas could squeeze even more blood out of his gasping, mangled franchise.

Brent Hopkins

This is assuredly not the worst book I have ever read cover to cover, but I will say it left the most vivid disappointment in me in recent years. George R.R. Martin’s 4th novel in The Song of Ice and Fire series A Feast for Crows takes the prize for me.  As has been mentioned by many other reviewers and general readers alike, this book is the equivalent of a fluff episode. Most of the characters focused on feel like the B-list of the tale, and after the massive cliffhanger at the end of the previous book you will read these pages and feel teased. The concept of splitting the books into regions as opposed to chronological order is cool and all, but it works a lot worse when all the cool kids are in one place and the wallflowers are in another. This also led to a bit of a muddling of the 5th book because many of the references are things the reader already knows, so it isn’t entirely as new as you’d hope. Knowing the answer to characters questions works sometimes, but not constantly.

Video Games as Literature: Thomas Was Alone and Sentient AI

image source: wiki

image source: wiki

Brent Hopkins

Thomas Was Alone is an indie game developed by Mike Bithell that was originally a simple flash game, but was then expanded upon to become a full release for major platforms. I had the pleasure to play this game through Steam after picking it up on sale for something like 30 cents.

The game itself is a simple platformer that asks you to take basic four-sided shapes and help them reach their portals located somewhere in the stage. This is simple enough, and the learning curve may be the best one I have seen in a puzzle platformer. I never felt the game was too easy and, on the other end of the spectrum, I never had to resort to looking at a guide to solve an unfairly complex puzzle. This all benefits the game overall since this allows a lot of focus on the story of Thomas Was Alone.

The narrative of Thomas Was Alone is by far its strong suit. Bithell manages to use the 100 levels of the main game to bestow personality onto the most basic shapes you can have. This is done through narration that either occurs at the beginning of a level or at certain trigger points in a level. The narrator is perfect at  giving each shape a special flair when they are talking  and I must admit it doesn’t hurt that it is a pleasant British one to boot (I feel like semi-snarky, British narrators are practically a must have for text and dialogue-heavy games).

Thomas is the first shape that you meet and you quickly learn that he and his other cohorts are artificial intelligences that have become sentient. Their goal is to acquire knowledge and escape the system, which in terms of the real world would mean floating around freely in the internet. This is a pretty interesting story for a rather short game (I beat it in 4.6 hours, according to Steam) but there are some flaws. The most obvious issue with the narrative is that nothing is really fleshed out. You have a team of shapes and they are very clearly unique: one can float in water, one can double-jump, and Thomas is the “Mario” of the team as the all-around shape. The personalities portrayed also help flesh out the characters, as each is a relative extreme. I found myself thinking “Orange Square is a dick but his relationship with Long Rectangle is endearing, so let’s make sure they help each other a lot.” This is a complete success in storytelling and I am happy that I found myself making these little mental decisions in much the same way I did in the game Journey.

The design decision to go level by level with snippets of the story means that the end has to come by chapter 100. This is a platformer though, so it is obvious that you can’t have the player sitting and waiting for the narrator to shut up to finish a level. I think Bithell hit a relatively sweet spot in Thomas Was Alone, but I was definitely left wanting just a bit more story by the end.

Another issue with the story is that at times it completely interrupts the gameplay, or vice versa. I found myself on more than one occasion going through a level too quickly when the narrator was far from done, so it turned into an audio novel as opposed to a game. The same thing happened when I was expecting more narration in a level and it wrapped up really quickly. It could be argued that this wanting of more storyline is a success, but it truly just felt disjointed and too noticeable.

Thomas Was Alone takes the bare minimum in terms of graphics and gameplay and gives some heart and soul to it. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses, but together they accomplish something far greater than all of their parts. The growing of the AI characters throughout reminded me of the film Her, where I could imagine this being the prequel of sorts to the story of the AI represented in that film. In both, the AI are never portrayed as malicious, but instead as beings with the ability to absorb and attain knowledge at a rate that far exceeds that of humans. This vast knowledge doesn’t lead to a Terminator type insurrection from appliances but instead shows that AI quickly pass the human emotions phase. Skip the murder everything phase and get right to wanting to be seen as equal “beings.”

I kind of like this new approach to AI that Hollywood and the gaming industry have begun to take, because it really opens up a lot of interesting thoughts about what could happen if computers grew feelings. The 80s and 90s automatically figured that nothing good could possibly come from it, but these days, as computers become as much a part of life as breathing, it is nice to see that there are more options for narratives to take than that of The Matrix and its ilk.

Thomas Was Alone is a good game, not great by any means, but well worth the price and time that it asks you to invest.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

image credit: NPR

image credit: NPR

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Normally, this feature has me rooting around in the dust heap of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughties to find something to review. I write here based on what I’ve finished reading in the past month or so, and since there is a lot more written in the past 50 years than the past one, more often than not there are a couple decades between publication of the book and the posting of the article on it. I’m excited to say that today, I bring you Ancillary Justice, published less than a year ago. I ran across it a little while ago, but the title seemed like something that would have David Caruso de-sunglassing on the cover, so I passed it by. It won the Hugo on August 17th, and the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and Nebula awards are all telling me I made a mistake. Any single one of those awards is enough to get me trust a book, and this one got all four of them. Another tidbit – at the Hugos, the entire Wheel of Time series was also on the shortlist. This beat out the Wheel of Time – not one of the books, all of them. On the one hand, that’s not surprising – I tried to read them. The first one was not that bad, but I had to put it down halfway through the second one, asking myself how many words were really necessary to describe the tapestries hanging on the chill stone of the castle hallways through which our protagonist was running for his life. Still, even if Wheel of Time is kind of bad, it occupies a gigantic cultural niche, and the power the entire series should hold over Hugo voters is impressive, but Ancillary Justice beat it, stupid name and all.

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image source: wiki

Yes Robert, it’s beautiful. Isn’t the world in peril or something?

First off, in the context of the book, the name is not that stupid. The premise of the book is as follows: a galactic empire called the Radch is a vast and expanding power, and it conquers through the use of ships and ancillaries. Ancillaries are ex-humans, drawn from the conquered populace, who are heavily modified and slaved to the ship AI, becoming appendages of the ship itself. It is effective (AI brain running targeting, hunting, thinking), it is cheap (feed them water and the minimum, no-frills nutrition, freeze them in the ship hold when they are not in use), and it is good propaganda (they are terrifying in much the same way zombies are – “that could be us” – and the enemies of the Radch call them corpse soldiers). There is a lot more going on in the plot, but to avoid spoiling it for you, I’ll just say that one of the ships, The Justice of Toren, is destroyed, and only a single ancillary escapes. Since she basically is the ship, albeit heavily reduced, she launches on a mission of vengeance (hence Ancillary Justice, slow clap).

Fairly basic plot, so what makes this such a darling of all the most famous SF awards? First off, the entire concept of ancillaries is really cool (and horrifying). The book chapters alternate between the vengeance-mission present and the pre-Toren destruction past, so we get to see the main character function as a distinct entity and as an ancillary. As an ancillary, there are 20 of her, all connected to and by the ship. A single ship possesses thousands (possibly millions) of ancillaries stored in its holds, but the active ones seem to be organized into action groups of 20. The author does a good job of recreating what it would feel like to be a 20-bodied hyperconsciousness, jumping back and forth among all the tasks (guard, administrator, detective, etc.) this group is performing simultaneously, all of them with a constant awareness in the backs of their minds of being in orbit overhead. All ancillaries are heavily modified, each implanted with advanced communications and optic suites, forcefield generators, and other technical goodies. They have, while connected, access to all the processing power and judgment of a ship AI – they are the AI. This creates an interesting problem for the main character when she is left alone – she constantly compares herself to “what [she] was,” that is, compares her existence in one tiny meatbrain to her much more powerful existence as a linked and devastating machine of war.

One thing that makes ancillaries so compelling is their believability. Sure, it seems completely out there right now, but this is the far-future. Let’s think about progress in terms of mere decades and centuries. 1914, one hundred years ago, was the first time anyone successfully completed an indirect blood transfusion, meaning that before that, for a transfusion to work, the donor had to be strapped in the hospital bed next to the recipient. Over the past century, we have developed the ability to transplant hearts, kidneys, eyes, and other organs, and in March of this year, scientists reported that they could use a blood sample from any human to create stem cells. We went, in 100 years, from just barely being able to move blood from one person to another to being able to use blood cells to regenerate any type of damaged cell in the human body. The terrifying thing is, we’re getting faster – just think of where technology was even in 2004 versus now.

The most advanced piece of consumer communications technology available in 2004.

In February, a man received a prosthetic hand that gave a sense of touch. Right now, I have a friend pursuing a biomedical engineering Ph.D, and his main job in the lab is studying monkeys who are hooked up to mechanical arms which they control with their neuronal impulses. Right now, we have man-made hands that transmit directly to nerves and mechanical arms that monkeys can control with their minds. Where will we be in 100 years? 500? 2000? Now, there is the problem of AI, which, like expedient interstellar travel, is kind of a holy grail for science. Accepting AI, it becomes completely feasible that machines and humans could be linked, and that the machine could be programmed as the dominant partner in the relationship. The possibilities are terrifying.

This is a little bit scary to watch. How much damage could that arm do?

Another point of interest in the book is that Radch society makes no real distinction between genders. Every Radch character uses “she” as the third person singular, and this creates a sense of ambiguity that emulates the ambiguity of gender in the Radch itself. It is an interesting choice, and it requires you to form your own opinions about the gender of the characters, which, in Radch society, doesn’t really matter anyway.

There are some weak points in the book. First off, the characters are a little bit flat. They are not unforgivably thin, but they could be more fleshed-out and believable. One of the main characters goes from a disloyal waste of space to an effective and dedicated companion through the mediation of one key event, and the switch was too fast for plausibility. The main character is simple, which could be forgiven due to her being the amputated consciousness of a machine, but the other characters are even less complex. They are by no means inadequate, but by comparison, I’m reading Light in August right now, in which each character has about three pages describing their life story before they actually do anything. The plotting could also be tighter. The book rides on a well put-together mystery plot which drives the reader forward, but it drags in some places, gets lost in exposition or description here and there.

Up to this point, Ann Leckie has built her career on writing and editing short stories. This is her first novel, and it is a great one. In an article of around 1400 words, I dedicate just 158 to weak points in the book. There is a lot more good here than bad. It explores the concept of identity and loss through the ancillary and the contradictions and problems inherent in empire through the history of the Radch. There are some issues, but they tumble away insignificantly in the face of the gale-force imagination with which Leckie infuses her work.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Major Issues: Supreme: Blue Rose #2

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In Major Issues, we look at one newly-released comic book each week. Now updated Mondays.

Gardner Mounce

Supreme Blue Rose #2
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Tula Lotay
Published by Image Comics
Published: 8/20/2014

Issue #2 of Supreme: Blue Rose opens on a scene that can be described as both artfully crafted and expositionally convoluted. It withholds exactly the information that would contextualize it–who are these characters and what is their purpose in the story? And, really, that’s exactly how Supreme: Blue Rose itself can be summed up so far. Warren Ellis reveals layers of the story like a magician overturning cards, but it’s two issues in and we’re just seeing the beginnings of the trick. Who knows how long it will be until he unveils what he’s up to.

The story so far: Darius Dax, a wealthy investigator of “blue rose cases”–rare events that do not typically occur in nature–hires Diane Dane, an out of work journalist, to investigate a strange event in upper New York state for an exorbitant rate. Dax plans to sell his findings to “actors” or “entities that act upon the geopolitical sphere” for even more money.

Before getting back to Diana Dane’s story in this issue, we wade through additional new subplots. Like artist Tula Lotay’s multimedia approach, there are layers upon layers of subplots. In the opening scene, an enigmatic woman leads an aged writer up a spiral staircase to [heaven?]. Following this is another installment of Professor Night, a TV show Diana Dane watches that is stuffed with non sequiturs and high-minded pronouncements. Its dark imagery is a reflection of the psyche of the Manhattan of the Supreme universe: violent and paranoid and cowed. It’s possibly an unconscious parallel version of the events of the story proper, like Tales of the Black Freighter was for Watchmen. Finally, there’s a scene in which a [mathematician] solves an equation that puts her in contact with an intelligent source from somewhere in deep spacetime.

When we catch up with Diana Dane, she’s grabbing a limo ride with a representative of Darius Dax, code name Twilight Girl Marvel. Twilight Girl Marvel explains to Diana that her position as a limo driver is a temporary reprieve from her true job as a “versioner”–someone who tests alternate versions of history and their would-have-been effects. We’re just getting back to some semblance of linear, understandable plot when suddenly Diana falls into a dream state in which she envisions an alternate history in which a North African scientific empire pioneered Mars.

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Should You Get it?

Supreme: Blue Rose is one of those puzzle-piecer stories for fans of Memento or Donnie Darko or Primer where every single frame will probably have multiple meanings. It’s for those with an allergy to exposition dumps and patronizing narrators. It’s for “smart” readers. In comic form, a story like this can be frustrating. Can you imagine watching two or three scenes of Memento at a time with a month between each installment? On the other hand, maybe it’s just convoluted for the sake of convolution. The question is: how much do you trust Warren Ellis?

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Major Issues: Shutter #5

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In Major Issues, we look at one newly-released comic book each week. Now updated Mondays.

Gardner Mounce

Shutter #5
Written by Joe Keatinge
Art by Leila del Duca, Owen Gieni
Published by Image Comics
Published: 8/13/2014

In its first five issues, Shutter has suffered from being married to its influences. Critics and readers have accused it of sharing too many similarities with Saga. There are too many analogues not to. Saga’s Lying Cat is Shutter’s Alarm Cat. Saga’s Alana is Shutter’s Kate Kristopher. Saga’s no-holds-barred world building with its television-headed technocrats and armless spiderwomen is reflected in Shutter’s ghost assassins, living-dead butlers, and cat mafias.

However, Shutter differs from Saga in a few important ways. First, Shutter is a family drama rather than a planet-hopping space opera. Sure, Shutter’s Kate Kristopher is an explorer, but our story begins after Kate’s last adventure with her father, when her father died tragically. It is the story of a grounded explorer, crippled by depression. Second, Saga’s narrator couches the story from a safe distance in the future where she can speak on the events with humor and forgiveness. Shutter has no narrator, no guiding voice to contextualize Kate’s struggle or assure the reader that, at some future time, all this will work out.

Comics are too often guilty of stripping female characters of both clothes and realistic personalities. Most women in comics are attractive, as if comic creators fear that unattractive female characters will be unpalatable to male readers–which is bullshit and insulting to both genders. Kate Kristopher is three-dimensional and independent, but, like the comic itself, is drawn too heavily from influences. She is a mixture of equal parts Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop and Saga’s Alana. She shares Kate Bishop’s off-beat humor and quirky vernacular, and Alana’s strength of character and knack of flying off the handle.

The first unique characterizing moment for Kate Kristopher happens at the end of issue 5 (no spoilers). It’s a game-changer, and comes so far out of left field that it makes you wonder how writer Joe Keatinge will handle the inevitable fallout. This is his chance to transform Kate from an amalgam of influences into a deeply flawed and unique person. But, if he fails, it will all have been for shock value.

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Should You Get It?

If you haven’t started Shutter yet, wait until the trade paperback of the first six issues hits stands. Due to the giant cliffhanger at the end of issue 5, issue 6 will show us if Keatinge has the chops to take the story in a fresh direction.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com