Monday, January 31, 2011
Our goal on the hike was to find the summit of Buzzard's Roost, which is now the highest peak in the park, eclipsing Benn Knob which was highest before the new addition of acreage. However, with no definite route, we came up short and didn't get to see the rumored remains of an old fire tower that is supposed to be there. We'll go back and attempt it again from a different direction.
We did manage to hike about fourteen miles. Keeping up with Jack Thyen is a chore. He moves along at about a steady three miles per hour. Level hiking, downhill hiking, uphill hiking. When he hits the steepest slopes he still keeps up that pace, and it's impossible for me to hit that same stride. I'm just way too old.
Toward the middle of the hike we stumbled upon this old chimney. The southern Appalachians have thousands of these old ruins--remains of farmsteads tucked away in coves and ridges all over the mountains and valleys.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Alas, no. It was that of a very, very large wild turkey.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
However, I'm glad I have a job during this freaking hideous Bush Depression. I'd hate to be out in the Republican-ravaged economy searching for work that pays well. It ain't gonna happen.
Today I started in on a book packed with stores and essays by Charles Bukowski. I have to say--in the past twenty years or so--Bukowski is my favorite writer. As with myself, he was an employee of the US Postal Service. He served two different times in two different capacities. First he was--as I--a letter carrier. I think that lasted two and a half years before he just walked away from it. Then, years later, desperate for gainful employment and fearing that he was going to be homeless again, he landed a job as a routing clerk. He went eleven and a half years on that one.
Fortunately, he found a patron who was willing to pay him to quit the Post Office and write full time. Or just hang around and not write. It was a sweet deal. But what he did was walk away from the USPS forever and begin to write full time, producing a vast and impressive body of work. I was stunned to learn that he wrote his first novel--POST OFFICE--in nineteen days! Nineteen days! It's a true work of art and to realize that he wrote it in less than three weeks...damn.
For myself, I can't quit the USPS. For one thing, I don't have a patron. For another, I have a family and a certain lifestyle that they expect. So unlike good old Buk I can't just sign the resignation papers and walk away from that place.
But my hat's off to Buk for being able to do it. And double for the patron who allowed it to happen.
What I'm reading right now. A nice volume of uncollected prose from Bukwoski. Carole spilled some paint sample on it. It dried okay and I think I can scrape it off the cover...but you know what? I think it's appropriate, somehow. I'll leave it that way.
Friday, January 28, 2011
One aspect of the slayer that was both chilling and funny was that the robot came equipped with a video screen that showed the face of its human operator. In this case, one J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle was Peter Parker's main employer (as freelance photographer) and also Spider-Man's biggest nemesis.
I've often wondered if Stan Lee ever realized that Jameson had come to represent Lee himself. Even when I was a kid I suspected as much. Here was the no-talent, glib blowhard making his living from the efforts, sweat, and labor of men worth far more than he. It fit perfectly. Of course since most of the dialog for all of the characters came from Lee, he must have figured it out and gone along with the joke. Or at least interpreted it as a joke instead of the cruel analog of reality that it came to represent.
At any rate, the story, as written and illustrated by Spider-Man's sole creator (Steve Ditko) was a stroke of brilliance. I got a huge kick out of it as a kid and I remain amazed by the whole package as presented by Mr. Ditko.
Ditko Quote: "It just happens because I’m a cartoonist in the comic book business not a performer or personality in show business. When I do a job, it’s not my personality that I’m offering the readers, but my art work. It’s not what I’m like that counts what I did and how well it was done. I produce a product, a comic art story."
Thursday, January 27, 2011
One thing that I miss about hiking in hemlock groves is stopping to stand under middle-aged hemlocks. Hemlocks of this age form gigantic umbrellas, their limbs sweeping down to the leaf cover, offering an amazing degree of protection and safety from the elements. When I was younger, I was actually able to stand under some hemlocks and remain dry as rain pelted out of the skies.
Every year the trees produce these dainty cones. But I've never seen a sapling emerge from the litter around them.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Then, last week, my weight went up five pounds in just a few days. As usual, a diet ensued. I just can't eat like a ravenous bear during the salmon run and not expect to get really fat. Sunday was the last day of uninhibited eating for a while. Since we were visiting Carole's mom I figured I'd have a last meal before facing the starvation music.
Here's what I had:
The always wonderful grilled-cheese sandwich, home-made vegetable soup, and three glasses of sweet scuppernong grape wine.
Followed by apple pie with vanilla ice cream and two cups of really kickass coffee.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
For my part, I decided to collect the work of three particular comic book artists:
Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and Carl Barks.
Each of these fellows was crazy prolific. Kirby especially, and I've spoken before of the totally amazing body of work that man left behind. I could never hope to collect everything Kirby illustrated, so I've focused on the monster and science-fiction stories he did in the very early days of Marvel Comics. Barks worked entirely within the realm of funny animal comics, and mostly exclusively for Disney after a certain point. So the collecting of his work is actually easier to track and rather cheaper than in previous years since his star has faded in the collecting heavens (goody for me!).
As for the Ditko and Kirby science-fiction and monster comics, this was something into which a monkey-wrench was tossed when I realized something.
The early days of Marvel Comics were strange in a particular way. After the success of the new superhero titles, the editor-in-chief in those days, Stan Lee, changed all of the monster/sf books over to super-hero books. And then he did something else, the reason for which I'm not entirely sure: he continued to publish those same types of monster and science-fiction stories along with the super-hero yarns his artists were weaving for him to edit and dialog. Why was this being done?
Well, there are of course two good reasons. One was that there was a large inventory of paid-up stories that the artists had already illustrated and delivered. With the backlog of work it would have been wasteful to leave it unpublished. Thus, he made the choice of keeping the super-hero stories shorter, taking up 1/3 to 2/3 of the titles, with the remainder being filled by the inventory work that had been drawn by Ditko, Kirby, Colan, Heck, Ayers, and company.
The second reason is that perhaps Lee and Goodman were hedging their bets. Maybe the super-hero thing was just a passing fad and the fans would soon forget about Kirby's creations the Fantastic Four and the Avengers and the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men and Thor. And they'd leave Ditko's creations the Amazing Spider-Man and Dr. Strange as so much old memories. If so, it was a good idea to keep the old stand by work of monsters and space ships churning along. Just in case.
But for whatever reason, I realized that if I wanted to create anything like a complete set of the Kirby/Ditko sf/fantasy stories then I'd have to purchase many super-hero titles. In fact, I'd have to buy A LOT of them! Oy.
Strange Tales 101. This is the first issue where they decided to feature a superhero instead of the usual fare of weird tales. So they plucked the Human Torch from the pages of Fantastic Four and gave him his own mini-adventures in this title. But they still left room for a couple of fantasy yarns in each book. At least for a while, until it was obvious that super-heroes were the wave of the future for Marvel Comics (and everyone else). This is one of the nicer condition key books that I own.
This book, Strange Tales 102, is a recent acquisition. Reading the story, I had to wonder if the villain (The Wizard) was based on the physical appearance of John Carradine.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
For months, once Steve Ditko had begun to exert a growing influence over the direction of this title, the stories had become more and more adult in the angle of the trajectory of the fiction. He had begun, subtly at first, to insert a philosophical slant to the fiction. There was, of course, the general soap-opera of the comic, which made it no different from most of the other Marvel titles, but with Spider-Man there was something deeper going on.
The book had become almost a template in its use of pure, unadulterated angst. Ditko had become a master at the utilization of emotion.
Before issue #31 of the Amazing Spider-Man, Ditko had toyed with the plot device of slowly unraveling mysteries. He'd utilised various mysteries that the hero had to uncover that would run over the course of an issue or two. And he'd already established the Green Goblin as a character whose secret identity was unknown to everyone--even to the book's readers. This was a mystery that had continued for almost two years previous to issue #33 and would continue for another issue after Ditko having taken his leave of the title that he'd created.
But #31 began a truly complicated storyline that was entirely adult in execution. This was definitely a comic book of which it could be said: "not just for children". At the same time, it was also perfectly acceptable for any kid with imagination and intelligence. It was something new. No writer-artist before Steve Ditko came along had attempted or executed anything like the three-issue "Master Planner" story arc.
To encapsulate, the story involved the sudden illness of Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's Aunt May. It is revealed to a horrified Parker that his aunt is sick because of a radioactive particle lodged in her system. A particle that she contracted when Peter had volunteered to offer her blood for a needed transfusion. Therefore, the hero discovers that he is responsible for the health and (apparently) imminent death of his beloved guardian.
Parker/Spider-Man instead of throwing his hands up in despair calls in a favor from Dr. Curt Connors (cured alter-ego of a former foe) who helps Parker come up with a cure for May Parker's malady. This they do, but a certain rare isotope is needed to effect the cure. Connors is having it delivered but a gang of masked thieves intercepts the guarded container at the airport and it's left to Spider-Man to retrieve it.
Thus begins a very long and complicated storyline wherein Spider-Man discovers a new gangster in town calling himself "The Master Planner". Spider-Man literally tears the underworld apart to find the lair and identity of the Master Planner so that he can retrieve the needed isotope to save his Aunt May.
The tale was packed with emotion. And it was filled with Ditko's by now familiar philosophy concerning right and wrong and of stark decisions that one makes in the course of a life. Here was one man struggling for a thing for altruistic reasons; and another seeking after the same for reasons of personal power. Both of them selfish in a way, but one obviously right and the other completely wrong.
And the art--in my opinion the artwork unleashed in this classic comic book format by Steve Ditko was the best ever produced for a superhero tale. To my way of thinking, it has not only never been topped, it has never been equaled. Not by any comic book artist who has followed in his wake.
Before the Master Planner story arc of the Amazing Spider-Man #31 through #33, the superhero motif was one that was created completely and totally for kids. When Steve Ditko plotted, wrote, and illustrated these books, he invented the very first modern and fully adult superhero comic book. It could be argued that this was the first adult comic book story that had ever been attempted.
And this is why those three books, and especially issue #33, were the greatest superhero comic books of all time.
In the midst of issue #33 Spider-Man finds himself trapped beneath tons of machinery in the rapidly disintegrating lair of the Master Planner.
Hopelessly trapped, he knows that not even the proportional strength of a spider can extricate him from this situation. And that if he dies, his aunt dies with him.
But he convinces himself that he can do it. He forces himself to become a creature of pure logic and will power.
The moment of his freedom (physically, mentally, morally, and philosophically). Probably the single greatest panel of superhero artwork ever illustrated.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Generally when I buy a copy of a comic book for my collection, it's a "reading" copy. That is, in lower grade so that I don't have to worry about further lowering the grade when I actually handle the book and read it. There's something about reading the original publication that I like. Plus, I really dig the sensation of handling the pages and smelling the pulp.
But recently I bid on a high grade copy of the Amazing SPIDER-MAN #33. I already had a copy of the book, but I just bid on it on a lark...and for some reason (this was on Ebay) nobody else bid on the item and I ended up with it for a ridiculously low bid. So it goes.
To me, this is the single best superhero comic book ever. If there's a finer example of the breed, I have yet to read it. No other individual story comes anywhere close to this one in quality of writing and illustration. The combination of the two reached its pinnacle with this issue of the Amazing Spider-Man. Everything else has been an attempt by others to equal this single book, which is the third part of a three-issue story arc and the culmination of the work.
Friday, January 21, 2011
Thursday, January 20, 2011
I had some errands to run. So I shaved, brushed my teeth, put on fresh clothes and got ready to leave. As I was gathering up some personal items from the bedroom I took a look through the two-foot stack of books on my bedside table, checking to see what was left there to read.
And I realized that as of last night I'd finished off that stack. I said as much to Carole.
"Damn. I thought I still had some here to read," I said. "I can't believe I've read every one in this stack. Just this month!"
And then Carole asked me how many book a year I read. "Is it one a week?" she asked.
"Hell, no," I told her. "Has to be something like two or three books a week." It's not something I generally think about. Also, I'm not one of these folk who speed-read. I take it slow, page by page, word by word.
True, I do go through some dry periods, especially when I'm in the midst of writing a novel or doing research when I don't read many books. I'll switch to articles and non-fiction, but novels are sometimes out of the picture. But then I come roaring back and start reading long form fiction with a vengeance.
Just recently I went through a period of reading horror fiction. Strangely, I don't generally read much in the way of horror novels, even though that's what I tend to write. I guess it's because I don't want to be unduly influenced by what other such writers are doing. I like to play my own game that way. But looking at the stack that just went into me old brain, I noticed quite the lot of horror fiction. True, some of it was in the form of anthologies, but lots of novels there.
For the hell of it, here's the list of what was just consumed over the course of about two weeks:
FACELESS KILLERS by Henning Mankell (a thriller).
AUTUMN by David Moody (horror/zombie).
THE NEW DEAD edited by Christopher Golden (zombie anthology).
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon (alternate history thriller).
WEREWOLVES IN THEIR YOUTH by Michael Chabon (short story collection, general fiction).
PATIENT ZERO by Jonathan Maberry (horror/thriller)
WOKEN FURIES by Richard K. Morgan (hard science-fiction)
THE BOOK OF GENESIS by Robert Crumb (Biblical interpretation).
So that's eight books in the last two weeks alone. This is kind of bad, actually, since when I'm reading like this I run out of books. And not being a fan of ebooks, I find myself burning through my budget in quick order.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Just before Christmas I picked out a huge stack of fiction that I wanted to have as a gift for the holiday. One of the dozen or so books was this one, THE NEW DEAD. It's a horror anthology edited by Christopher Golden. Generally, I enjoy genre anthologies, but I'm very critical of them. I expect the stories to entertain me and to contain real quality. Often, I'm disappointed.
My own expectations are that 75% of the contents consist of excellent work. One of my old writing acquaintance I parted company with some time ago feels that if you get two good stories out of an anthology then you should be happy with the purchase. Well, I disagree with that, but I often find that many anthologies are filled with crap. One reason for this is that a lot of anthologies are sold on the basis of the names of the authors contained within the covers and not the quality of the fiction that was purchased for publication. This is a sad fact. A lot of professional writers work to build a name for themselves and then go on autopilot, churning out substandard work. In many cases a name author will get a request for a submission and the editor will accept the story, no matter how awful it might be.
So I've gotten to the point where I often expect to actively dislike about half of the contents of any given genre anthology.
What a happy surprise THE NEW DEAD was for me.
I'm sure Mr. Golden took some of these stories based solely on the author's name, but those particular folk did seem to produce good stories for this book.
One story in here that made me laugh after I'd finished it was "Shooting Pool" by Joe Lansdale. I had to laugh not because the story was funny (he can write humor, but this stark tale was definitely not funny), but because it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of this anthology: zombies. Moments after I finished the last line of Lansdale's excellent yarn I was chuckling. And the laughter came because who but a few writers have the reputation and the eggs to deliver a story to a zombie anthology that has absolutely nothing to do with zombies. "Shooting Pool" is classic Lansdale, and I loved every word of it--but it's not a zombie tale. (But I'm not complaining. I'd still buy the anthology just to add it to my Lansdale collection.)
Now, the best thing about this collection is that so many of the stories are top quality. Even though I'd gotten Carole to buy it for me, I did have a bit of fear that the anthology might be disappointing. There have been a few zombie-themed collections that were top-notch, and I was wondering how much new and fresh could be added to or said about this sub-genre of horror fiction. I need not have feared, because the writers that Golden assembled for this book really seemed to dig very deep indeed to deliver some kickass work.
When I was trying to decide what the absolute best story was, I found that it was really tough to decide. It was so tough that I decided not to decide on the very best one, but whittle it down to the best two stories. And sticking to that theme, I'll list the best by the author's last names in alphabetic order.
"Kids and Their Toys" by James A. Moore was the kind of story that is so well executed that one cringes. It basically features a group of southern kids who chance upon a newly risen zombie and who decide to trap it and keep it in a kind of clubhouse. Moore writes convincingly of the ways of male children and of the southern setting in which they move. I found nothing at all false or contrived in the way the kids acted or spoke and found myself able to believe that something like this could--and probably would--happen in a world where Romero-esque zombie walked the Earth. It's just a fantastic story.
Then David Wellington delivered "Weaponized". This story features some very upsetting zombies which are really not much like the ones we're accustomed to seeing in the movies or reading about in the proliferation of new novels and anthologies. This story is centered on zombies as military weapons. The story is told from the point of view of a female journalist embedded with US forces in some fictionalized Arab nation in which our soldiers are engaged. The place is not Afghanistan, but might as well be. I found myself again believing the situation and amazed at the polish of Wellington's fiction. Also, I'm getting the distinct impression that the author, who has made his name writing about zombies, werewolves, and vampires should take a serious stab at science fiction. He really has developed the chops to write a seriously good sf novel.
Another great turn at pure style was Stephen Bissette's "Copper". He shows here that he's as good a writer as the horror genre has to offer these days. This tale features one familiar trope of soldiers-as-zombies, but attempts to paint the photo of soldiers as victims. While I'm not so sure that I agree with the sympathies of this story, I was blown away by the singular style that Bissette wields here like a scalpel. He cuts deep and makes you bleed emotions. I hope like Hell to read more prose from Steve Bissette.
A couple of the stories explored themes that were just a bit too similar in nature to suit and this is a situation when the editor should likely have accepted the first one to come across his desk and asked the subsequent author to supply another tale. However, when dealing with writers who have reached a certain spot in their careers, I know that this is sometimes difficult if not totally impossible. These particular yarns dealt with the theme of "closure" (a term I don't like) and what's to be done with the resurrected loved ones once they come back to flesh-eating unlife.
And, sadly, a couple of the established pros decided to phone in their contributions, knowing of course that their so-called "name brand" would guarantee a place in the anthology. I won't mention these, not even the one who so enjoys mentioning his own "name brand" whenever he crows about himself.
Fortunately, these few lousy tales are far outweighed by exceedingly high quality work from the likes of Rick Hautala ("Ghost Trap"), Tim Lebbon's "In the Dust", and "Second Wind" from Mike Carey.
I have to say that I was impressed with Christopher Golden's choices of authors (mainly) and stories. This anthology hit the ball out of the park and is far more pleasing than I had any reason to expect.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Monday, January 17, 2011
We had been led to expect cold temperatures and even a good chance of snow flurries. Every weather report I'd accessed had called for the day to get no higher than 35 degrees with clouds and probable winter precipitation. So I dressed accordingly, with thermal underwear and scarf, etc. As it turned out, there was no snow at all and the skies remained mostly clear for the whole day. Also, it got rather warm--just from the feel of it, I'd say it was close to 50 degrees for most of the hike! I had to shed my gloves and scarf, earmuffs, cap. I found myself wishing that I hadn't worn the long underwear and had put on convertible pants rather than my favorite pair of hiking slacks. Oh, well.
Balanced Rock. Some time back I had my photo taken from atop this rock. Even in good conditions climbing up there is a dicey prospect. With the snow and ice it was out of the question.
We parked at the Pinch In Traihead and walked down the Kistler Highway a short distance to the Rock Jock Trailhead. I'd hiked Rock Jock before, and it's a really good trail, and one of the best for a view-heavy hike of the western rim of the gorge. It was relocated a couple of years ago when the original Rock Jock Trail was pretty much utterly destroyed in the last drought-aggravated wild fire that ravaged the south end of Linville Gorge. That fire pretty much denuded that part of the wilderness area of its tree cover and it will be many decades before those forests recover. A good portion of the hike is through trees that have been reduced to blackened coals. But shrubs and saplings are beginning to take over, so in a few years it should at least be green again.
I have yet to find any area in the East to be as rugged as Linville Gorge. And I've hiked a great deal. Not even the Whites of New England or the Longfellow Mountains of Maine seem to be as rugged as the terrain of Linville Gorge.
Fantastic view of the gorge--prominent peaks are Table Rock and Hawksbill.
More photos and details tomorrow...
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Friday, January 14, 2011
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Often, I find myself enjoying the work of someone with whom I would not want to associate on any other level. For instance, I love reading the fiction and poetry of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. But I wouldn’t have wanted to spend one minute in the company of any of those men. Kerouac was a chronic drunk and a right wing jackass. William Burroughs was a murdering drug addict, and both he and Allen Ginsberg were pedophiles.
But I admire the artwork those creeps created.
I suppose this is how people who like the poetry of Ezra Pound must feel. They admire his skill as a poet, but remind themselves constantly of what a disgusting human he was.
I consider the world of comic books and their creators to be important parts of Americana. Comic books are a uniquely American art form. Things similar to comic books appeared before America coalesced, but by and large the form is completely our own. It rose out of New York publishing and flowered in the 1930s and 1940s and continued to grow from then and survives today. It is an important literary and art form, especially for Americans.
One great creator who came out of the second or third wave of creators spawned from the comic book industry was Steve Ditko. His work began to see print in the early 1950s, well after the pioneers of comics had established themselves, but relatively early in the history of comics. From the time I was an eight-year-old reading my Marvel Comic books, I admired Mr. Ditko’s style and would scour through the stacks of comics seeking out anything that he illustrated. His work was striking, imaginative, quirky, different. I liked it then and I continue to admire it now.
Even as a child I could tell that Ditko’s comic books were different in many ways. No one else drew like Ditko. There wasn’t another artist in the field who could understand anatomy the way he did and use that knowledge to adjust the images in such a way that one immediately recognized his work simply by glancing ever so briefly at a single panel. There was only one Ditko.
And of course the crowning achievement of his career was then, and remains, the Amazing Spider-Man. There had never been anything like Spider-Man, and there really has never been anything to equal it since. Ditko covered every base when he created Peter Parker and his alter ego, the Amazing Spider-Man. Who has since come up with iconography to match that costume? Those colors? What writer/artist has conceived a hero imbued with the qualities of that fantastic kid? Why has no one ever been able to create a comic book that held the sense of tension and angst that filled the pages with such emotion?
Also, beneath the surface, Ditko was teaching his readers subtle lessons. He was telling the boys and girls who were reading this book that people had moral choices to make with almost every decision. He was trying to tell his readers that there was a right way and a wrong way and that you had to think hard to take the proper path. These were messages that stuck with me from the days when I was a child. Comics were far deeper than many in those early days would admit. If Jack Kirby was every kid’s rabbi, then Steve Ditko had become the chief philosopher of comic book fandom.
Then, later in life as I came to inspect and read of Ditko’s personal philosophies—things spelled out in no uncertain terms in his self-published comics—I discovered that his political and chief philosophical beliefs were quite the opposite of my own. I found the path that he chose to celebrate to be utterly fascist. His beliefs were (and apparently are) diametrically opposed to mine. I am not as far to the left as he is to the right, but I cannot imagine a person whose political and philosophical and moral ideas to be any more repugnant.
There’s the obvious, yes. I just like looking at what he does with two dimensional images. He achieves things with pen and ink that no other comic book artist can equal. His work is different. It is singular.
And, in the end, Steve Ditko did teach me two important lessons, philosophically, that stuck with me from the times I was a kid and which echo now that I’m an adult:
He taught me that it’s important to be self-sufficient, and that one must take responsibility for one’s actions.
Those are two very good lessons, and universal ones. Those are things that transcend politics, and even the concepts of what is “good” and what is “right”.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Next month we're heading to the West Virginia high country. If there's snow (there should be) I'll at least go sledding, and I'm going to make an effort to take a stab at cross-country skiing.
Until then, I can go through some of my old digital photos and dream about the mountains.
Summit of Mount LeConte, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, March 2005.
Giant poplar tree, Boogerman Grove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 2004.
John Rock, Pisgah National Forest, 2004. (Looking Glass Rock in the background.)
Alone at a place called Devil's Elbow, Panthertown Valley, September 2004.
Whoops! Didn't get to my spot fast enough for a self-portrait. Wonderful waterfall on the Holly River, in Holly River State Park, West Virginia.
Me, me, and me. Crowder Mountain State Park, North Carolina, 2004.
On the broad summit ridge of Stone Mountain, Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina, 2004.