Thursday, December 20, 2007

Take Control of Your Online Profile

You know that your potential employers are going to Google you. Here's what you can do to present your online self in the best possible light.

Read the full article in the December 2007 issue of Today's Engineer.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm the only copywriter I know who also modeled for one of his own ads

Here are a few ads from a campaign I wrote a few years ago. In addition to developing the concept and writing the ads, I also ended up as one of the models. (I'm still not exactly sure how that happened...)


(Click through for larger versions of the images.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Friday, November 16, 2007

Publishing an Academic Book? Don't Forget the "M" Word...

How can you — the potential academic author — help to ensure your book's success? It pays to think about the marketing before you even write your first word...


Read more, in the November 2007 issue of Today's Engineer.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Cartoon

What the heck, let's reprint one of my published cartoons. This one appeared in the anthology "In a Fearful State." Enjoy.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Member Feedback Helps Add New Features to IEEE.tv

For 13 months, IEEE members had the chance to try out the test version of IEEE.tv and provide feedback on what they thought of the online television network. And the IEEE listened...

Read more in the October 2007 issue of IEEE's The Institute.

Once Again, IEEE Journals Top Annual Citations Ratings

Each June, numbers are released that could affect the careers of many researchers. The numbers are the rankings from the annual Journal Citation Reports, which note how often publications have been cited by researchers writing for other publications...

Read more in the October 2007 issue of IEEE's The Institute.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Boothbay Region Lions Club 3

Here's my third newspaper column for the Boothbay Region Lions Club, as published in the September 20, 2007 edition of the Boothbay Register.



(Click through to read this full-size.)

BONUS: I also wrote this week's column for the Boothbay Rotary Club, which can be read online here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Four Money Savers From the IEEE Financial Advantage Program

A new article, from the September 2007 issue of IEEE's member newspaper, The Institute.

Check it out here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Unleash Your Inner Innovator

Think you don't have what it takes to come up with something new and innovative? Think again. Sometimes all it takes to come up with a new idea is putting yourself in the right frame of mind.

Read more in the August 2007 issue of Today's Engineer.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ad copy: Does Your Research Need a Jump-Start?

Another one of my favorite ads, this time for the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Love that headline/image combination:

You can click the image above for a bigger version.

Engineering: A Career Guide

Experience.com has just published my eight-part Career Guide to Engineering. This was great fun, and one of my all-time favorite assignments. Here are links to the individual articles:

Friday, July 6, 2007

New York Is Top WIE Affinity Group for 2006

From the July 2007 issue of IEEE's The Institute:
A trip to a newly opened Google office, networking mixers, and a talk by a professor from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point earned New York’s Women in Engineering group the WIE Affinity Group of the Year Award for 2006.
Continue reading

Boothbay Region Lions Club 2

My second article for the Boothbay Region Lions Club, complete with photo. These are fun to write, and they serve an important need in the community. I look forward to writing more of them. (Click through for a version at a readable size.)

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Plenty Magazine: Extinction Blog entries for June

I just completed my first month writing "Extinction Blog" for the fine folks at Plenty Magazine. Here are links to the 24 stories I wrote in June:

Extinction Blog: A (re)introduction

Monkey Theft Kills Chance for Breeding Program

Climate Change Puts New Zealand's Tuatara at Risk

Does the Wolverine Need Endangered Species Protection?

Extinct Catfish Rediscovered in Suriname

Tiger Population Decline is "Catastrophic", Says WWF Scientist

CITES Criticized for Decision on Ugandan Leopards

Trade Talks Fail to Protect Two Shark Species

Orangutans vs. Logging: Habitats Could be Gone in 10 Years

Should Ivory Trade Ban Be Relaxed?

Chinese Turtle May Be Extinct in Ten Years

Global Warming Puts Peary Caribou on Canadian Endangered Species List

"Devil's Bird" Owl Nearly Extinct

U.S. Returning Seeds of Extinct Plants to Korea

Endangered but Unprotected: The Florida Bonneted Bat

Hawaii: "The Endangered Species Capital of the United States"

Vancouver Island Marmot Starts Climb from Extinction

India Hopes to Save Rare Kashmir Red Deer

Counting Down: The Last 110 Mississippi Sandhill Cranes

Dubai's Wadi Fish Threatened by Pollution, Invasive Species

Turkish Group Aims for "Zero Extinction"

Goats, Rats, Pigs and Tourists Put Galapagos at Risk

Jam Makers Hope to "Preserve" Rare Apricot from Extinction

Bald Eagle Off Endangered Species List -- But Is It Too Soon?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Boothbay Region Lions Club

I recently joined the Boothbay Region Lions Club. It's a great group, and I look forward to doing some volunteer work with and for them. This will, from time to time, involve writing their column for the local newspaper, the Boothbay Register. In fact, here's my first column. (Hey, a byline is a byline.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

IEEE 802.11: From BlackBerrys To Bunnies

The next time you place a call on your BlackBerry or play a game on your Nintendo Wii, you may have the IEEE 802.11 Working Group to thank.

Continue reading in the June 2007 issue of The Institute

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Extinction Blog: Now published by Plenty Magazine

Starting today, my environmental newswire, Extinction Blog, moves to its new publisher, Plenty Magazine. Check it out for almost-daily updates.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ad copy: web graphics

I love writing web ads. They're like haiku poems in a bright little box. Here are a few I wrote over the years for IEEE:






Internet Marathon Focuses On Women Who Would Be Engineers

Why are bright female students not choosing engineering as a career? What are some of the career opportunities available for women engineers? Can engineering be fun and creative?

These and other questions were addressed at the third annual “Global Marathon For, By and About Women in Engineering,” held on 22 and 23 March. The 24-hour event, which coincided with Women's History Month in the United States, took place online, over the phone, on video, and in person from locations around the world.

Continue reading in the May 2007 issue of The Institute

Friday, May 18, 2007

Boost Your Career by Becoming an Expert Source

From the May 2007 issue of Today's Engineer:

If you are looking to take your career to the next level, an effective way to achieve that goal is to establish yourself as an expert in your field and make yourself available to the media as an expert source.

You probably see expert sources every time you turn on the TV or read the news. Journalists interview and quote these professionals in their fields to get their perspectives on the news of the day or for inside information that is worth repeating. "You need an expert because they have the credibility you need for an article," says Belle Adler, Associate Professor at the School of Journalism at Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.). For serious subjects, she says, "you want to go to someone that can lend gravitas to the subject."


Continue reading.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

"One Parrot at a Time: Lucky Parrot Sanctuary"

Here are scans of an article I wrote last year for Companion, the newsletter for a great not-for-profit organization called 2nd Chance 4 Pets. (Click through for full-size versions.)

Ad copy: "My profession..."

I wrote all of IEEE's membership campaign material for several years. This print ad comes from the most recent campaign, which ran for the last two years.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Ad copy: "I Made It"


Out of the hundreds of advertisements I have written over the last few years, this remains one of my favorites. The copy really came together, the client was fun to work with, and the designer did a great job on the entire campaign.

Click the image to see a larger version.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "White Death"

(Another review written for Joe Bob Briggs.)

The first thing you notice when you open up the graphic novel White Death is the artwork: charcoal and chalk on gray paper, it’s more like something you’d see on a museum wall than in a comic book.

The second thing you notice is that reading this book is going to be a very emotional experience.

Writer Rob Morrison’s opening captions set the situation up as best as can be: “The Great War. The war to end war. The Italian front. The Trentino mountain range. 9000 feet about sea level. Treacherous site of hostilities between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

Enter into this armed conflict newly conscripted soldier Pietro Aquasanta. An Italian, he was living in Hungary and joined their army when Italy was still neutral in the war. When Italy began to fight and captured Aquasanta’s unit, they offered him the chance to fight for his own country. He agrees -- and within five minutes of arriving at the front, one of his old Hungarian friends is dying at the end of Aquasanta’s bayonet.

Just one of the endless horrors of war.

There are more to come.

While on reconnaissance, Aquasanta witnesses a gas attack heading towards his squad. To protect them, he throws grenades at a snow bank and sets off an avalanche. The gas attack is dispersed, the men are saved, and many Austrians are killed. The White Death.

It’s the beginning of a war of avalanches, caused by both sides. And yes, this method of warfare is historically accurate. Morrison’s introduction cites statistics that say as many as 100,000 men were killed by deliberately set avalanches on the Italian Front. It’s a horrifying way to die.

But for Aquasanta and the other men in his company, the snow is just the beginning. War is going to take them where humanity is but a whisper, but where human beings excel as killing machines.

Morrison weaves a complex, powerful tale here, based on historical fact. He sees war as a terrible “waste of life, and the corruption of youth and innocence.” He creates believable, understandable characters, and we watch them fall, live, die, laugh and harden.

Adlard’s artwork here, as mentioned earlier, take a fine arts approach, and the results are fantastic. His art is emotional and powerful, personal and inspired.

The book isn’t perfect. Perhaps because “White Death” was originally run as a serial, the pacing is sometimes a bit off in the collected edition, with scenes not always flowing together perfectly. Adlard’s art is amazing, but some of the characters look too much alike, and it’s hard to distinguish them from each other. That also interrupts the flow of the story.

But those are minor weaknesses. “White Death” is am ambitious work, the result of strong and mature creators. It’s haunting. You won’t forget it.

Three and a half stars.


Graphic Novel Review: "Murder Mysteries"

(Originally published at the Joe Bob Briggs website.)

I first read Neil Gaiman’s short story “Murder Mysteries” in his excellent collection of short stories, Smoke and Mirrors. Now, comic artist P. Craig Russell (who previously worked with Gaiman on several issues of the “Sandman” comic book) has adapted the story into a graphic novel, and brought both the beauty and horror of the story to life in one of the best comics of the last year.

In “Murder Mysteries,” an unnamed British narrator recalls a trip to Los Angeles ten years before. Trapped in a foreign city when all flights to his home country are cancelled due to English fog and snowstorms, he sits and waits. One night, he gets a call from an old “sort-of-girlfriend,” also in town. He has an odd, awkward, sexual encounter with her, and then suddenly finds himself back at his hotel. Unable to sleep, he walks, sits on a bench, and encounters an old man who bums a cigarette and then offers to tell him a story in exchange.

The story of the first murder. And so the story changes...

The old man proclaims himself to be Raguel, an angel, the Vengeance of the Lord. At the beginning of time, in the light of the Silver City of Heaven, the angel Lucifer comes to Raguel and says simply “There has been a ... a wrong thing. The first of its kind. You are needed.” The angel Carasel has been murdered, and the killer must be found.

So begins the investigation, the hunt for the killer, and the quest for Divine Retribution.

Raguel’s investigation takes him to the angels in change of the blueprints for the Universe-to-be. He meets senior designer Phanuel, who takes more credit for creation than he deserves; Saraquel, who worked with Carasel to create the concept of Love; Lucifer, the captain of the guard, who secretly listens to the voices in the darkness outside the Silver City; and Zephkiel, the grand thinker, who sits, ponders and make suggestions, while other Angels go about the physical work of creating the Universe.

The story comes out in bits and pieces: Carasel, who often got too involved in his work, was involved in a new project at the time of his murder: Death.

And then Raguel deduces who committed the first murder. His vengeance, in turn, creates changes in the order of things that only God will understand.

But that is just one murder. The title of this book is plural. An incredibly subtle revelation of the meaning of the title is a final blow that leaves echoes of dread and fear within the reader ... while also leaving room for hope. It’s an amazing story, and it’s quite possible that it works even better as a graphic novel than it did as the original story.

Russell does a masterful job with “Murder Mysteries.” His artwork is lyrical, beautiful, haunting, erotic, energetic and occasionally terrifying. As a writer, he takes Gaiman’s short story, keeps the author’s wonderful use of language, and adds a pacing to the story that transcends the original work and takes full advantage of the medium of graphic storytelling.

Dark Horse has done a wonderful job packaging this book. The hardcover is beautifully bound and printed, and at the same time, quite affordable.

Four stars.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe...

...Two Authors Gave Her Story a Whack

Lizzie Borden by Elizabeth Engstrom

The Borden Tragedy: A Treasury of Victorian Murder by Rick Geary

(Reviews first published in a few different newsletters back in 1999.)

It's amazing how different two books on the same subject can be. Novelist Elizabeth Engstrom has written an emotional, compelling look at the participants in the famous Lizzie Borden murder case, and in the process created a work of fiction so far removed from the actual events of the case as to be useless as history. Comic book artist Rick Geary, on the other hand, has provided a factual, detailed, macabre examination of the murders and the ensuing trial, but in the process has created a fairly emotionless look at two violently emotional murders.

Let's start with Engstrom's novel. First published in 1992, the centennial of the Borden murders, the back cover of LIZZIE BORDEN proclaims "Did she do it? The jury said no. Now learn the truth." But is this novel really the truth? Hardly. Engstrom's brief preface tells the reader that the novel is a work of fiction, assigning personalities to the participants in the Borden murders that otherwise would not exist in the formal trial transcripts of the case. "My purpose ... is to justify," she writes.

Engstrom manages to bring the characters of Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, her father Andrew and step-mother Abby fully to life in the pages of this novel, and attempts to use these characterizations to tell us why the murders of Andrew and Abby were committed. The characterizations are nothing short of brilliant, but they take these real people so far away from historical fact that this novel can not really serve to "justify" the murders, as she claims. She invents a near insane drinking problem for Emma, lesbian affairs for Lizzie, another affair for Andrew (which turns almost incestuous as Lizzie falls for the same woman). But to make matters worse, she creates characters for Andrew and Abby that are so fully realized, so human, and in most cases so utterly sympathetic, that she in no ways justifies their murders. And then, in a final move that takes the novel completely out of the realm of historical viability, she invents an utterly ridiculous supernatural element to explain how Lizzie could have murdered her mother and father.

LIZZIE BORDEN is not a bad book. It is a work of fiction, and stands up on its own as that fairly well. But as a real examination of the Borden murders, well, it's a bit of a crock.

Much better, though far less emotional than Engstrom's work, is Geary's THE BORDEN TRAGEDY, the third volume in his excellent "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series of graphic novels. Geary gives us the details of the case, makes no conclusions of his own (instead keeping with the theories presented in the trial and by other Bordenologists), and leaves any judgement up to the reader, all while capturing the time period of the murders brilliantly, something Engstrom never manages to do.

Unlike Engstrom's novel, which begins in 1865 and ends in 1892 with the murders, Geary's THE BORDEN TRAGEDY starts in 1892 with the murders themselves. The narrative itself is based on the recently discovered memoirs of an unidentified Fall River, Massachusetts, woman who apparently was close friends with the Bordens.

Geary's narrative lacks the emotional characterization of Engstrom's novel, but it more than makes up for it by delving into the macabre aspects of the events following the murders. We see the post-mortem performed on the Borden dining room table, as the "townspeople jockeyed for a view through the wide-open windows." We learn how Lizzie and Emma's uncle John V. Morse, whose visit with the family coincided with the murders, spent the night after the ghastly events sleeping in the very guest room where Abby Borden had been killed hours before. In fact, we see how the entire family spent the night in the house with the two bodies on a table one floor below them. We also learn that "the cleaned and blanched skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden were exhibited to the jury" in the trial almost a year later, and see graphic depictions of the huge holes left in the skulls.

Geary also takes the time to examine how the Borden Tragedy really was the Trial of the Century, showing how the murders consumed not only the tiny town of Fall River but the entire the globe. Throughout THE BORDEN TRAGEDY, Geary captures the look, feel, style and mannerisms of late nineteenth century life in an economy of words and his trademark stylish, detailed line work. In fact, this may be the best artwork Geary has produced in his over 20-year career.

THE BORDEN TRAGEDY isn't a perfect book. Its characters are presented more as ciphers than as people, characterized more through drawings of tightly set mouths than with their actions or words. But it is a stylish, informative, entertaining, and absolutely fascinating look at two murders that still fascinate the world more than one hundred years later.

LIZZIE BORDEN - One and a half stars

THE BORDEN TRAGEDY - Three stars

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fighting Foam with an Enforcer

(Much of my interest in environmental reporting stems from this early assignment, which appeared in the June 1991 issue of Governing Magazine.)

Portland, Oregon, has a special enforcer to keep the city's food sellers free from the plague of that illegal substance, polystyrene. His name is Lee Barrett, StyroCop.

Barrett is the sole guardian of Portland's year-old ban on polystyrene containers used for prepared food in restaurants and supermarkets. (Other uses of polystyrene are not prohibited.) Food sellers have had to switch to paper or non-foam plastics that, according to Catherine Fitch, policy analyst for the city's Bureau of Environmental Services, are more degradable and take up less space in landfills. She says some of the ban's goals were to cut down on plastic waste dumped in the landfills and to reduce non-biodegradable litter.

So far, there has been no appreciable reduction in landfill waste, she says. But the city is happy at this stage, she says, to replace polystyrene foam, which can pollute the air during production, with less dangerous substances.

Barrett has the somewhat awkward title of Polystyrene Foam Container Ban Inspector, but he does not actually have to inspect each of Portland's 2,300 food establishments. County health officials and citizens report businesses they suspect of illegally using polystyrene. Barrett then sends a warning letter and follows up a few weeks later with an investigation. Penalties for violation can reach $500.

There was some early resistance, Barrett says, including a lawsuit by McDonald's. But now, Fitch says, more than 99 percent of Portland food sellers are in compliance.

"There was an initial rush of businesses to be inspected," says Barrett. "But that has dropped off significantly the last five to six months. I now do less than five per month."

The ban's costs for the city are minimal. "It's a very small part of our solid waste work," says Barrett. "I don't think the city spent $10,000 enforcing it last year." Portland initially contracted with Barrett to enforce the ban, and he billed the city by the hour. Now he is a full-time staff member of the environmental agency, and enforcement is just one part of his job. The ban doesn't even have a budget for 1991, now that most Portland food sellers are foam-free.

Freebie Prosecutors are Cutting the Drug Caseload

(Here's another early one from Governing Magazine, this time from their July 1991 issue.)

Drug cases are doubling the caseload in many courts around the country. Pro bono prosecutors are providing one solution.

In Massachusetts, for example, a large law firm and the Suffolk County district attorney's office have signed an agreement that gives the county a lawyer for eight months. After the first Choate, Hall & Stewart lawyer's tour of duty with the DA is up, he will be replaced by another, and the process will continue. Most pro bono prosecutors have been borrowed less formally.

The county turned to the law firm after losing 35 out of about 130 prosecutors due to budget cuts over the last two years. A huge backlog of cases resulted. "The economic crunch put us in a position where we had to reach out,'' says Suffolk County District Attorney Newman A. Flanagan.

While the district attorney's office gets a free prosecutor for eight months, the lawyer gets some much-needed jury trial experience. And with one or two extra cases being tried every day, the backlog is shrinking.

Seattle has been using pro bono prosecutors for about 10 years, but only stepped up their use last year, according to Dan Satterberg, chief of staff of the King County prosecutor's office. He says the volunteers concentrated on misdemeanor cases at first but now spend their time on drug cases.

Satterberg says the district attorney's office runs a three-day training session twice a year for both civil lawyers and the DA's new deputies. After the program, the civilian lawyers take one or two cases to trial, which could take a few days or a few weeks. They leave with trial experience, and the DA has fewer cases to try. The program has been expanded recently, with one law firm giving the office an associate lawyer for three months.

Friday, April 13, 2007

New Ways to Leverage Your Intellectual Property

New this month in Today's Engineer.

Intellectual Property (IP), including patents, copyrights and trademarks, is often the lifeblood of today's top organizations. For example, IBM Corporation has one of the most vigorous patent filing operations in the world, and maintains an active license program for its 40,000-plus active patents. Someone else might ultimately make the product, but as the patent holder, IBM continues to make money.

But you don't need to be a huge company to take advantage of the benefits of intellectual property ownership. Your own IP may not be hard goods that you can sell, but they are investments. With the right planning and development, small businesses, sole-proprietorships, and even individuals can earn money for years based on their initial investments of time, creativity and expertise.


Read the rest here.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Personal Parking Meters Speed Up Collection


Here's an old article -- one my first professionally published pieces, from Governing Magazine, way back in 1991.

It took a few years, but these devices are pretty standard now. Funny how novel they were 17 years ago.

You should be able to click through to read a bigger version of the scanned article.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Trashed" by Derf

(Originally written for JoeBobBriggs.com)

"Trashed" is the true story of the year the author spent working on a garbage truck for minimum wage. At the time, Derf was trying to decide where his life was going after he dropped out of art school. His new job came complete with road kill, abusive bosses, white-trash neighbors, attack dogs and maggots, to mention just a few of the highlights.

And you thought you had it bad.

Derf goes into graphic detail about the life of the garbage man, and it’s both eye-opening and flat out disgusting. The heat, the mess, the smell, the slime -- you'll feel dirty just reading this book.

And yet it's funny as hell. It's slapstick, gross-out humor, full of people falling in garbage and garbage falling on people, but the timing of the gags is impeccable, and you can’t help but laugh while you squirm.

Derf's art style (which you may have seen in his syndicated comic strip, "The City") complements the story perfectly. His chaotic line work fills every inch of the frame with garbage. His characters are all extreme caricatures of emotional faces. It’s hyper-cartoonish, making things both more iconic and real to the reader despite its exaggeration.

It's unfair to completely characterize this book as just a gross-out. For one thing, I came away with a real respect for the men carting our waste around for us. This is a tough job, and I vowed never to over-stuff a garbage bag again after reading this book.

For another thing, "Trashed," at its heart, is really a coming of age story. Derf spent a terrible year on the back of a garbage truck, but he looks back at much of it with affection despite the hardships. In the beginning of the book, we meet a young man who sees himself as a loser. But when he’s quitting the job to go back to college at the end of the book, he watches his old garbage truck drive away and feels no shame: "In some perverse way," he says, "I'm indebted to that damn thing. I was such a clueless toad when I first climbed on the back...head firmly lodged up my ass...Trash...I hate to admit...made a man out of me!" He's gained direction in his life, and learned how to handle himself.

Of course, he then goes out and gets drunk, and mutters "No more trash" before throwing up on his shoes and passing out.

One more mess for good measure.

Three and a half stars.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Review: "Kolchak the Night Stalker"

(Originally published at JoeBobBriggs.com)


"Kolchak : The Night Stalker" by Jeff Rice, art Gordon Purcell and Terry Pallot


Jeff Rice, creator of the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV movies and series of the 1970s has returned to the character, adapting both his original novel and the first movie’s teleplay into a new graphic novel from Moonstone Books.

If you’ve seen the original “Night Stalker” movie, then you pretty much know the plot of this book: Carl Kolchak, reporter for the Las Vegas Daily News, investigates a series of killings where young women have been drained of their blood. He suspects a vampire did the dirty deeds, and while he’s ultimately proven to be right, Las Vegas city officials cover it all up, and his paper won’t print the story.

There are a few significant differences between this book and the movie, though. The killings and their details differ, there are some interesting “new” characters, and Kolchak’s girlfriend is quite clearly a hooker, something the producers of the 1972 movie left vague.

The graphic novel’s greatest strength is in Kolchak’s voice: Jeff Rice knows this character well, and the cadence of the newsman’s narration moves the story along as a brisk, crisp pace. Rice doesn’t do quite as well with many of the other characters, whose voices can seem wooden and lacking in personality. The pacing is sometimes off, and the transitions between a few scenes are awkward and rushed, if not just plain unclear.

Penciller Gordon Purcell and inker Terry Pallot do a serviceable job on the art. They capture series actor Darren McGavin’s features quite well as Kolchak, but his body shape seems to vary with every panel -- sometimes he’s fat, sometimes he’s lean. The art is loose, and characters often seem to lack the weight to anchor them in their surroundings. Some details are out of perspective.

The book would have benefited from an extra 20 pages. It’s too short as it is, with not enough time early on to develop the Kolchak character for the new reader, and a conclusion that is rushed and lacking in impact.

It also would have benefited from some decent editing. This book can’t decide what year it’s set in. Sometimes, it seems as if it’s set in the movie’s 1972, with Nixon-era dialogue lifted straight from the source material. Then there are characters using cordless phones and a reference to the newspaper’s website, which make the graphic novel seem like it takes place today. But then the villain, born in 1900, is described as being “over 90 years old,” placing the story in the Nineties. Someone needed to make a decision and stick with it.

Ultimately, this is a decent effort, but not quite as good as it could have been with more space and more focus.

Two stars.

Moonstone Books, 2002, $6.50

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Essential Howard the Duck"

The Essential Howard The Duck by Steve Gerber, art by Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, et al.

When Steve Gerber created the character of Howard the Duck in the seventies, it was as a throw-away character in a horror comic he was writing at the time. But Howard--a walking, talking, cigar-smoking, sarcastic duck, ripped from his own dimension and transplanted to an Earth full of "hairless apes" instead of his native fowl--proved to be so popular that he graduated to his own series, most of which is reprinted in this collection. (Much later, Howard made an ill-conceived jump to film, in one of the biggest box-office bombs in history.)

While Howard's first appearances had him fighting characters like a vampire cow and a turnip from outer space, the comic quickly became a venue for Gerber's acerbic commentary, and Howard just as quickly became Gerber's alter-ego, a smart-ass duck "trapped in a world he never made." Okay, sure, the book stars a talking duck, but this is some sharp, angry, sacred-cow-ripping satire. The comic takes on everything from religion to the oil industry, from mental health to moral censorship. Howard runs for President in 1976, and Gerber's commentary seems like it's about Bush-Gore instead of 25 years ago. He even gets away with more then than he could have today: somehow a modern story about a Presidential candidate (albeit a duck) running from assassins doesn't seem like it would make it in the politically correct 21st Century. With that exception, the topics seem just as relevant now as they were in the seventies (although Howard's human companion, Beverly Switzler, sometimes seems the product of a less enlightened time).

Most of this collection is drawn by the excellent Gene Colan, whose sweeping and fluid line art is probably best known from his other seventies title, "The Tomb of Dracula." While several other artists also contributed to the book, it's the Gerber-Colan team that really brings Howard to life. Howard's a duck, but he's a real person, pushed to the point of nervous breakdown by a world he does not understand.

Gerber left the "Howard the Duck" comic after 27 issues, in a legal dispute with Marvel Comics over the ownership of the character. This book collects Gerber's entire run on the character (with the exception of a newspaper comic strip that ran at the same time), over 500 pages of hilarious, ahead-of-its time satire, reprinted in affordable black and white. Unfortunately, as much as Gerber's wit and intelligence make this an easy book to recommend, the circumstances of his departure make a recommendation harder. He left with many, many plot threads unresolved, and this collection simply ends with the characters' lives up in the air and no hint of what was to come next. If there is ever an "Essential Howard the Duck, Volume 2," it would reprint non-Gerber work, and maybe we would find out what happened to the characters, but that doesn't help us now. After reading 500 pages, Howard is a real character whose travails in a very difficult world demand some closure, and the reader deserves a conclusion, but this book simply ends with a "next issue" blurb and we have no idea what really does come next.

Today, 20-some-odd years later, Gerber himself is working on a new "HTD" series for Marvel after resolving some of his differences, but he has said that any "Howard" story he did not write is not his Howard the Duck (case in point, the misguided movie version, which starred a duck named Howard, but not the "real" Howard the Duck). It's a testament to the writer that we care about Howard so much by the end of this book, but still, a conclusion would have been nice.

Two and a half stars.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Stormy Weather

(Originally published in 2000, but I've lost track of who published it.)


When I was a young boy, living in Buffalo, NY, a late-night storm ripped the window right out of my bedroom wall. I was directly underneath the window at the time.

Sitting through last October’s Hurricane Floyd, I couldn’t help but remember that night from so many years ago. I was in bed, the only one awake in the house, listening to the wind whistle through my window, and shivering in the cold. Finally, trying to get warm, I lifted my legs up to my chest, and put my arms around my knees. As my hands touched, the window above my bed exploded inward. Glass shattered and flew through the air, and the heavy wooden frame of the window smashed down onto the mattress where my legs had been just a second before.

The window frame probably weighed as much as I did, if not more. It hit the mattress, sending me bouncing back up into the air. I really don’t know how I managed to stay on the bed when I landed. All I do remember is staring down at the floor from the edge of the mattress, at a thousand shards of glass winking back up at me, and feeling too detached from the entire event to realize that I should have been terrified.

Meanwhile, the storm made itself at home in my bedroom. Sheets of rain poured in through the ruined window, and an angry wind whipped through the room and slammed my bedroom door shut.

It was an old house. The door was warped. I had never been able to shut it on my own.

The wind actually closed that door. And also managed to lock it.

I’m going to go on the record and say that I’m pretty sure that I never screamed. The slamming door woke my parents, and my father was able to unlock the door from the other side with a screwdriver. It seemed like it took him forever. Finally, he opened the door, put on some thick shoes, and walked in to carry me back out.

I’m writing this the day after Floyd hit New Jersey. Last night, I sat in my living room, in another old house, with the wind whistling through the windows, and the old wood rattling in the rain. Twenty-some-odd years ago, I should have been terrified. Last night, I finally was.

And I sat there for three hours anyway, the lights turned up high, my legs wrapped in a comforter, and a book in my hands. I didn’t want to be there, but at the same time, it was the best seat in the house. I was warm, I was reading a good book, and even though the windows made me very, very nervous, I was safe.

There’s no shame in being afraid to die, only in being afraid to live.

What scared you today? Go write about it. Live a little.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Golem's Mighty Swing" by James Sturm

(Originally written for JoeBobBriggs.com)

The Golem's Mighty Swing


It's the 1920s, and a barnstorming Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David is traveling from state to state, playing games with local teams and barely making it out of town with their winnings and their skins intact.

Team manager and third baseman Noah Strauss, the aging "Zion Lion," holds together a tired, rag-tag team, including his hot-headed little brother, Moishe. It's Noah's job to keep the team going through an exhausting schedule -- as the book opens, the team is playing its twentieth game in 14 days -- and to make sure they get paid. It's not always that easy. When their ancient bus breaks down one day, the team finds themselves stuck in a town where they can't pay for hotel rooms. And if they don't move on, they will miss several more well-paying games they can't afford not to play.

Enter an unscrupulous baseball promoter. He wants to make the Stars of David into a star attraction. His idea: create a Golem to stir up the crowds and increase ticket sales.

The Golem is a creature out of Jewish legend, a man made out of mud and dirt to "be a companion, a protector or a servant," says Fishkin, one of the more religious members of the team. "To give a golem life," he says, "esoteric rituals are performed, ancient incantations spoken. Only a kabbalist who has studied for ages possesses such knowledge." Not looking to perform real magic, the Stars instead get one of their team-mates, an ex-Negro League player named Henry (playing on their team as a member of the "lost tribe"), to don a costume and act the part of the Golem.

It works. But it doesn't last.

The book is a vivid portrait of racism in the early 20th Century. The abuse suffered by the Jewish team members at the hands of the local townsfolk is frightening, and the tales of Henry's days in early black teams are positively chilling. And to top it all off, I've never seen a baseball game as dramatic and full of tension as the games in this book.

Sturm tells a compelling story filled with wonderful characters. He uses a bold, simple stroke both with his words and with his artwork in this graphic novel. He effectively uses a slightly cartoony art style to tell a very serious story. It's not to be missed.

Four stars

Writers: Shut the Hell Up

(Originally published in 2000 -- long before the explosion of the blog, MySpace, YouTube, etc., etc., etc.)


Message boards and e-mail groups for writers should be a great resource. Information sharing, markets, self-promotion, a chance to talk about writing, right?

Wrong. Let’s face it, the average message board is just a chance for people to gripe, snipe, attack, gossip, and generally act like high-schoolers all over again.

So stop it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as writers, you are professionals, and you should behave as such. That means no gossip, no insults, no attacks, no hiding behind pseudonyms or funny names. That means you deal with people fairly, and then you shut the hell up.

Every time you explode on a message board and blister someone who’s offended you, or get in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out verbal war, it’s out there for everyone to see. Forever. No matter how justified you think you are, you are really just presenting yourself as an angry egomaniac. What editor would want to work with someone like that? What reader would want to read your work? You’re just damaging yourself, and you’re doing it permanently, because those messages are never going away.

Just like high school, it’s your permanent record.

So come on, let’s use those boards and e-mail groups for information and for helping each other out. Take all of the rest of that anger and energy and put it into your writing. That’s what we’re all here for after all, right?

Right?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dem's de Breaks

(Originally published in Jobs in Hell, July 2000)

When do you take a break in your writing? No, no, not what time do you get up for a drink of water, when do you break from one paragraph to another?

In reading entries for a recent short story contest, I saw paragraphs that would go on and on and on and on (and on), often for pages at a time. Ouch!

There are a few rules for knowing when to break from one paragraph to the next. Now, fiction does not have to follow the most formal of rules for writing. You can structure your words for greater effect, but if you think about these while you’re writing, it will help you to keep the flow going.

Break into another paragraph whenever you:

  • have another character speak
  • switch settings
  • establish a new idea
  • want the reader to pause
  • change the pace of the story
  • make a revelation
  • switch point-of-view
  • change emotional tone
  • feel like it

In non-fiction, paragraph structure usually follows the path of an idea: theory, supporting details, conclusion. The next paragraph would then chart the next idea. Not a bad thing to keep in mind.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Alec: How To Be An Artist" by Eddie Campbell

(Originally published in 2001 at JoeBobBriggs.com)

What is Alec: How to be an Artist? Autobiography? Fiction? Essay? History? Criticism? All of the above?

Campbell has been drawing his semi-autobiographical "Alec" strips for about two decades now. Uncomfortable with referring directly to himself, he uses the character of Alec MacGarry to tell a slightly fictionalized version of his life. These stories have followed Campbell from the British small-press comics scene of the eighties to the completion of his better-known books like "Bacchus" and "From Hell" in the nineties. The latter, drawn by Campbell and written by Alan Moore, was the basis for the recent Jack the Ripper movie.

The narrative of this book follows much the same path as Campbell's comics career. It's written in a bizarre future tense, as an unnamed narrator tells a young Alec MacGarry what the future will hold for him, and "How to successfully be an artist (not to be confused with 'becoming a successful artist')." It's an effective voice, showing wisdom, personal reflection, and a hint of regret over events and days gone by. We see Campbell (or, MacGarry) struggling in boring day jobs while he works to create his comics art, moving from place to place, and interacting with the British comics scene. We see the growing relationship with his wife-to-be Annie, and how he leaves the life he knows to live in her native Australia. We see what the fates bring to the life of an artist, and how the author will handle them with a combination of humor, self-doubt, drama and creativity.

As much as this time will be a crossroads for cartoonist MacGarry, Campbell also depicts it as a crossroads for comics in general and the development of the graphic novel. At some point the book becomes as much a history lesson and a literary criticism of the still-emerging graphic novel field as it is autobiography. He looks at the major works of the eighties, their critical and commercial success, and wonders where the field has gone from there. And he isn't very happy with the results.

Ultimately this is one of the more effective of Campbell's autobiographical strips, but perhaps the least resonant to anyone who is not already familiar with the comics market . The pages depicting his early life and his relationship with Annie sparkle with universal emotion, but the other relationships discussed have a professional distance that makes it difficult to understand their importance.

The book also suffers from an unwillingness to discuss Campbell's own work. We know that the character of Alec is struggling to be an artist, and we see some early submissions and much discussion of "From Hell," but huge chunks of his career and output are omitted. It's impossible to judge his success as an artist if we can't see what he is trying to accomplish.

On the art side, some may find Campbell's scratchy line drawings off-putting. I loved his artwork, though. His style in this book is loose as loose can be, conveying more in less lines than the work of many of the artists whose work he excerpts in his discussions of the comics medium.

Why should we care about the semi-autobiography of an artist? The book is more than just an artist looking at himself. He's looking at the process of becoming an artist, and of growing up. The book sparkles with wit and passion, and it depicts a journey of self-discovery that we can all understand.


Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001, $13.95

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Book review: BITE by Richard Laymon

(Originally published in 2000.)

I’ve been hearing about Richard Laymon for years now. He’s got quite the cult following, and many pros talk about his books with a certain reverence. But American publishers haven’t released any of his novels in this country in years, so I haven’t been able to read him.

Until now. I was excited to pick up Laymon’s BITE, previously only published in the UK, and now available in the States thanks to Leisure Books. And so, Laymon novel in hand, I started to read.

Hmmmm.....

And then, after 80 pages, I was tempted to throw the book across the room and shout “BITE sucks!”

You see, the characters in the beginning of this novel just don’t act believably, and the action is so very over the top. Cat, Sam’s former almost-girlfriend and the object of his obsessions, comes to him in the middle of the night, after a decade or so apart, reveals that she’s been living in the same town as Sam for years, and asks him to kill the vampire that attacks her many nights a month. He thinks about it for a minute, says yes, hides in her closet, and kills the vampire.

All of this happens in the first 33 pages. And I didn’t even mention the kinky sex.

But you see, the slain vampire doesn’t disappear in a puff of dust like they expected. And so, for the next 350 pages of the novel, Cat and Sam are on a quest to dispose of the body of the vampire that they just killed.

That’s when it starts getting good. And that’s when it starts getting funny. And funnier. And funnier. It’s still over the top, and it’s still unbelievable, but BITE ends up being a truly enjoyable romp of a crime novel.

It’s really an interesting concept, using the vampire not as a villain, not as a character even, but as a catalyst for the twists and turns of the plot to come. BITE is hardly your average vampire novel. For that alone, it gets my recommendation.

Maybe I didn’t understand the tone Laymon was going for in the first 80 pages. Maybe I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe those pages just didn’t work as well. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I had fun.

I still don’t like the first 80 pages, though.