Read any good movies lately?

After I bought my first iPod touch back in 2007, I downloaded an app called comiXology. At the time, there was a lot of buzz about how touch screens were going to transform how we read everything, including comic books. This was before the iPad, so all the available touch screens were still much smaller than the page of your average comic book.

ComiXology got around this impediment by showing you a “guided view” of just one panel at a time. It was sort’ve like having somebody show you a comic book through a peep hole under a magnifying glass a little bit at a time. It sounds like a horrible experience, but it’s actually pretty neat.

The effect was supposed to mimic on a small screen the eye’s natural movement across the page. “Guided view” is actually nothing at all like reading reading a comic with the unaided eye. It’s much better.

Comics and graphic novels have always been a scrolling, cinematic medium, and the “guided view” enhances these natural strengths. It enhances them so much that for me at least, being guided through a comic on a screen is as emotionally involving and exciting as watching a film. This power was always present in comics, it was just latent.

I have a habit of reading too fast when I’m looking at a printed comic. My eyes flick across the panels and pick up the words at the expense of the visuals. Until reading comics on my phone I’d never realized how much storytelling information is in the visuals alone. My experience had been like watching a movie on fast forward with dialogue cards. I was getting the gist, but missing most of the fun.

When I’m in comiXology, I take the time to appreciate the “shot composition” of each panel, and I see how it relates to the images before and after it. I’ve learned that some graphic novel artists take as much care as any cinematographer. And they take more risks, because they aren’t restrained by the high costs of making a live action film. The same goes for the storytelling in graphic novels. It’s freer and therefore riskier.

Back in 2007, the app became unavailable just a few months after it debuted. I assumed it was a casualty of the mass extinctions of new media that go along with hardware evolution. I was delighted to discover a few weeks ago that the app is still around, and their format has even been adopted by Marvel and DC for their proprietary apps.

I’m hooked into the nook ecosystem, and I’m grateful that Barnes and Noble unlocked its operating system to allow access to Google Play last year, which has let me load comiXology onto my nook HD. The nook screen is bigger than my phone’s, but I still use the guided, panel by panel view.

The native nook OS has a comixology style function, but its automated attempts to frame the panel it thinks I should see next are laughably bad. It’s yet another step in what seems like nook’s relentless campaign to put themselves out of business.

But the best digital comics reading experience I’ve had by far is the one I get when I use comiXology on my partner’s iPad. All the panels are in HD, which makes a big difference. The only drawback is that I eventually have to give the iPad back to him.

So hon, if you’re reading this, remember that I have a birthday coming up in August.

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Last night’s hallucinations

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been prone to hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations, which happen as you’re emerging from sleep or entering into it, respectively. Last night I had a particularly intense bout of them.

Just after finally falling asleep at 1:30 a.m. I was startled awake by the sound of somebody knocking loudly on the front door of the apartment. I dragged myself to the door and looked through the peephole at an empty hallway. After opening the door I looked both ways and nobody was in sight. I went back to bed thinking I must’ve misheard some noises from an adjoining apartment. But as the rest of the night bore out, the knocking was just the first experience of hearing and seeing things that weren’t there.

About an hour after the knocking, I found myself half awake and staring at the lamp in the corner of the bedroom, whose metal base was making an audible scraping noise on the wooden floor as it dragged itself toward me. When I was fully awake, I went to the corner and confirmed that the lamp had not moved an inch, despite what I had just seemed to witness.

Then, at around 3:00 a.m. I woke again to see tendrils of grey mist dripping from the blades of the ceiling fan over the bed. There is no ceiling fan in the bedroom.

At 6:00 a.m., I was furious because the marching band on the street below had chosen such an early hour to practice. And in a public place no less! Drumming, and that slightly out of tune mix of horns and woodwinds that we all know from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was clearly audible as I lay in bed. Moments later, I stood at the window peering down through the curtains at a silent and empty street.

The thing about these hallucinations is that they occur in that twilight territory between sleep and wakefulness where the mind is satisfied with dream logic. Even though I came to know it was a heavy night for hallucinations, I still believed in the ceiling fan, at least for a few moments. No past experience of hallucinations lessens the vividness and believability of the one you’re currently experiencing.

And I’ve experienced some vivid and strange ones in my life.

I was once awakened in bed in the early morning by the weight of a man leaning his solar plexus into mine. I assumed that my partner Andy had returned early from a nightshift at the hospital and was trying to wake me up in a playful way. But as the sleep cleared from my eyes I saw that the man’s skin tone was lighter than Andy’s, and that the man was naked except for a blindfold. I tried to push him away but my arms and legs would not move. The man then raised his arms and legs in the air and let out a shrill scream before vanishing. His teeth were white and pointed at the ends.

Those who know mythology and folklore will recognize the creature as a succubus, a male demon who attacks sleepers (mostly women) and sits on their chests. It’s also common for sleep paralysis and sleep-related hallucinations to occur together. Whatever the cause, I was happy that the intensity and fear had dissipated by the time I’d finished my tea later that morning.

The only time my hallucinations have ever been echoed by normal reality was once when I was staying at a hotel in Northern California. I awoke to the sight of a calico cat sitting on top of the bureau that held the television. The cat hopped down to the floor and padded over to the bed. I know it was a calico cat because I saw the pattern of its fur in the morning sunlight slanting in through the wooden Venetian blinds. I couldn’t move my arms and legs but I did feel the pressure of the cat’s paws depress the mattress as it walked towards me and then onto my chest. It sat for a moment before hopping down off the bed, walking back across the floor, and jumping up onto the bureau again where it slowly vanished into the shadows and the wood grain of the wainscoting.

Later that morning I sat in the hotel lounge with my breakfast. It was my first night in the hotel and I hadn’t been in the lounge before. At the top of a stack of children’s books left on the table by the hotel staff was one entitled, “The Calico Cat.”

Do with that what you will.

As a young child, I remember running from an ape chasing me down a hallway after a nap. I remember seeing a witch dangling from a coat hanger in my closet. I once awoke on a December night to see a luminous blue mist swirling on the front lawn of my house. Once in the bath I looked up to see a pair of tear drop shaped red eyes glowing in the fogged glass window over the toilet.

The only thing all my hypnopompic and hypnogogic visions have in common is that they have been unsettling. I have never seen an angel or a white light or felt a sense of well being. If I had to give them all a more traditional word, I’d call them hauntings. And I am certain I’ve not been haunted for the last time.

Movie Review: The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The-Wind-Rises-PosterHayao Miyazaki’s latest film is not one of the masterpieces of fantasy that he is known for, but the realistic life story of a Japanese airplane designer from boyhood in the early 1900s to the eve of World War II. Fans of his more fantastic fare will not be disappointed, though. The Wind Rises has the same languid, dreamy tone of his previous work, and provides the same sense of being immersed in another world.

The film opens in a traditional Japanese home in the countryside. Moss covered rock gardens, tatami mats and paper screens, starry skies, and country lanes enshrouded by warm summer darkness are as evocative as any of the settings in Miyazaki’s fantasy films like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. The film’s opening sequences give us a peek into the dream life and coalescing ambitions of the boy who would grow up to become Jiro Horikoshi, who designed Japan’s “Zero” fighter planes, still considered to be miracles of aeronautical engineering.

The film is full of airplanes, both real and imaginary, and Miyazaki breathes life into them by literally giving voice to them. A chorus of human voices, zipping, grumbling, and buzzing together provide a surprisingly realistic rendering of all the engine and propeller sounds in the film. The effect is like a supercharged version of children at play, providing their own sound effects to the action. This sense of wonder lifts up The Wind Rises from start to finish, even as the subject matter touches on grown up themes like love, integrity, failure, sex, and death.

Romanticizing the life of a man who built war planes for Axis Japan is a potentially offensive subject, and Miyazaki accordingly spares a few brush strokes to provide some political context for his hero. At one point, we find Horikoshi on the run from Japan’s wartime “thought police,” though we never find out why. At another point, he and a fellow engineer witness in dismay the violent arrest of a dissident while they are visiting Germany in the years leading up to 1939. Later, the same engineer remarks to Horikoshi, “We are not war mongers, we simply want to build better airplanes.” Whether these efforts alone are enough to totally disarm the film politically, the emotional interest and sheer beauty of the story overwhelm any political misgivings. It is not at all uncomfortable to spend two hours in the company of Horikoshi and his family.

Some of the emotional moments of the story fall flat, or perhaps just don’t translate well from Japanese into English. But the most powerful emotional lift in the film comes from the chance to wander for two hours in Miyazaki’s enchanted world. It is the background details that fully transport you, like the watery reflection of the penny steamer in 1920s Tokyo, the fronds of a fern dragging in a fast running mountain stream, or the loops of insects buzzing around a red paper lantern. Miyazaki’s eye for these details is genius, and to see the world through his eyes is always like seeing it for the first time.

Lent: luxurious suffering, or, what I’m giving up and why

The aim of lent is not just to make you suffer, it’s to make you suffer in a context where you can feel safe enough to learn something about yourself in the process.

Our lives are full of suffering, but unless you are a masochist and know it, that suffering is unplanned. Gleaning self-knowledge from an unplanned crisis is great, but often it’s enough just to survive. Self reflection is a luxury.

In contrast, the small deprivations that we inflict on ourselves during lent are a planned, luxurious kind of suffering where we can feel free to build in plenty of time for self-reflection. Since the suffering is optional, danger and alarm don’t cloud the mind. We can see clearly who we are when our comforts and routines are disrupted. And unless you’re taking it too far, the deprivation you’ve lined up for lent is low grade enough that you won’t be scarred by the process. It can be like practice for the real hardships of life.

This year, I’ve given up tea, which is my only source of caffeine. My tea takes up two shelves in my kitchen cabinets. My teapot and kettle are sleek, expensive, and well designed. My strainer and tea spoon are the only actual silverware (i.e. made of actual silver) that I own. The tea I have is the finest from Taiwan, Ceylon, and northern India, and the smells and colors are like a miniature bazaar that transports me to far away, magical places. So it’s not just the caffeine buzz I’m giving up but also the sensory delights of smell, taste, and color.

In the palette of suffering, I much prefer no tea to dealing with a sudden death, or a personal financial catastrophe, and like all of of my comforts, removing it hasn’t proved to be such a big deal. But I’ve been able to find out how I deal with being more groggy and confused than usual in the morning (not well, it turns out) and I’ve had to find other things to do for five or ten minutes around 4 p.m. I’ve had to find a new routine, which is probably the thing I hate doing more than anything else.

And come Easter, that first sip of Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe will be all the better.

From the annals of obscure literary delights: The Past, just as skeptical as The Present

William Caxton was the first printer in England. His editions of The Canterbury Tales and The Golden Legend were literally the first time in history those works appeared both in English and in printed type. As a clerk at the Yale British Art Center, I used to sneak some alone time with the Caxton Canterbury Tales whenever I was sent on an errand into the rare books stacks. Oh, the steamy delights of wayward English majors!

I recently picked up a copy of the Mort D’Arthur, which is Caxton’s version of the Arthur legend and also the version that inspired most of the later retellings, like The Once and Future King. In Caxton’s preface, he describes how the manuscript of the Mort D’Arthur was brought to him by some bigwigs from the court of King Edward IV. At that time, a lot of noblemen in England were bringing Caxton interesting books that they happened upon in their castles and manors and suggesting that they be printed. I get the hint from Caxton that the guys from King Edward’s court had in mind more propaganda for their king than a genuine desire to share some cool stories with the world. Edward had been overthrown and restored by then and perhaps by reviving the cult of Arthur, Edward hoped to strengthen his own authority.

At first Caxton refused to print the Mort D’Arthur for the simple reason that he didn’t believe King Arthur had ever existed. This is the 1480s, mind you. Most of us have an idea that the 1400s were nothing but a wasteland of filth and superstition compared to our own enlightened age. To refute that, I’ll let Caxton speak for himself:

“I answered that divers men hold the opinion that there was no such Arthur, and that all such books as has been made of him be feigned and fables, because that some chronicles make of him no mention, nor remember him nothing, nor of his knights.”

In other words, he refused to print something or believe something which wasn’t backed up by the historical record. This is precisely the attitude which just about everybody identifies as the correct one today, 600 years later. King Edward’s operatives, eager to engage unreason in the service of politics (yet another parallel to today) gave Caxton a list of spurious archeological clues (like Arthur’s supposed tomb at Glastonbury, still visited by tourists) which pointed to the actual existence of Arthur. They encouraged Caxton to print the legend as fact.

To placate Edward’s men, Caxton dutifully listed the evidence in his preface to the Mort D’Arthur but also added the caveat that he himself hadn’t been convinced. Caxton says that while the evidence points to some sort’ve existence for a historical King Arthur, it doesn’t mean that the stories in the legend are true. He does go on to say that the stories are pretty good, though. In other words, the same mix of skepticism and appreciation for King Arthur that we have in the 21st century was included in the preface to the very first edition of the Arthur legend ever to appear in print.

Edward Snowden follow-up: panopticons are real

In this post I talked about what I assumed had always been theoretical structures designed to create a perfect surveillance environment. But it turns out that a number have actually been built, including this one, which was a prison in Cuba. Sends chills down my spine. And here is a post on the Google blog detailing a few other panopticon prisons that were actually built, as seen on Google maps.

That last link sends even more chills down my spine, because Google is a virtual panopticon that allows us to peek at physical ones.

Why I, a 34 year old man, love middle grade fiction

An illustration from Nicobobinus

An illustration from Nicobobinus

I have been reading a lot of middle grade (MG) fiction lately, that is, books intended for kids roughly 8-12 years old. MG books are also called chapter books, because they generally have short chapters with nice, big illustrations. The idea is that readers 8-12 years old have brief attention spans, relate well to fast-paced, suspenseful stories, and need to have their imaginations bolstered by pictures. At age 34, I fit this profile a little too well.

MG is not the same as Young Adult (YA) fiction, which is written for kids 13 and over. The Harry Potter series long ago made it socially acceptable for grown-ups to read YA.

Middle grade books aren’t as universally read. The only ones I can think of that come close are The Chronicles of Narnia. With other MG classics like Winnie the PoohCharlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Charlotte’s Web, you don’t find yourself picking them up again unless you’re introducing them to a young person in your life. Unless you’re me, that is.

I can’t say why, but I’ve developed an appetite for these books recently. I’ve been hanging out in the MG section of bookstores and the New York Public Library. I realize that sounds a little creepy, but my love for these books makes me too unself-conscious (is that a word?) to care. There is just so much going on in the MG section. Not physical activity, mind you. It’s actually quieter than the rest of the book store, which is full of grown ups yakking on cell phones. In the MG section there is silence, because the level of concentration and focus that young people direct towards their books is intense. When they read, it’s like these kids go into a trance. They are beglamoured, and lost deep in other worlds.

What is going on in the MG section is the books themselves. Their covers are full of bold colors and crazy, beguiling illustrations. There are no embossed brand-name author covers or subdued designs that an adult would be unembarrassed to hold on the subway. Instead there are these little windows into other worlds: kids running down pathways to the sea, mythical beasts, ghosts, explosions, dinosaurs, magic, darkness, outer space, princes and princesses. These covers aren’t afraid to make you feel things just by looking at them, and they actually give you a hint at what the story inside is about. Unlike the covers of grown up books, MG covers don’t have anything to hide. They are for little people who don’t have the time to decode subtle social cues. What you see is what you get.

And the stories themselves are totally uninhibited flights of the imagination. Kai Meyer’s Dark Reflections series is about two young girls who help defend a magical Venice from the undead army of a resurrected Pharaoh. Lloyd Alexander’s Timecat is about a cat who leads a young boy on a multi-millennial time travel tour of how cats spread across the world from ancient Egypt. A Wrinkle in Time starts on a dark and stormy night when three witches (fates? norns?) arrive at the household of a set of siblings and whisk them away on a four book tour of other planets, other times, and other earths. Are you intrigued yet? And all of these books actually deliver on their promises, or else they’d never make it with their demanding audience. You can’t promise monsters and magic to an 11 year old and then give him metaphors. Like their covers, these books are honest. Good is good, evil is evil, magic is magic, wonders are promised and wonders are seen.

Why do I love MG fiction so much? Perhaps because I relish the art of the chapter cliffhanger, and MG books don’t disappoint in this department. I also love the power of great illustrations to fire the imagination. But most of all, I love them because it was MG books that forever hooked me on fiction. There is a long-out-of-print chapter book called Nicobobinus that my father read aloud to me when I was a boy. I reread it every year and it still thrills me. It’s about Nicobobinus (“nik-oh-bo-bean-us”), a boy who lives in Venice whose leg gets turned to gold in a marvelous, magical accident. He has to go to the land of dragons to find a cure and is assisted in his quest by his brave and brash best friend Rosie. They meet some wonderful folks along the way, including a mad abbot, a sailor who sails on waves of dirt and rocks, and a shadowy figure named Basilcat, who commands a black ship with a mind of its own. Every few pages there is an illustration by Michael Foreman, whose lush watercolors still go straight to my heart. If you ever see a copy, snap it up. It’s a lost classic.

I also love the masterpieces of middle grade horror by John Bellairs, starting with The House with the Clock in its Walls, illustrated by no less than Edward Gorey. Bellairs’ books collided with my coalescing personality just in time to turn me into an Anglophilic, ghost story loving, tea drinking, mystery loving, bookish little guy. Or perhaps they just affirmed what I was already becoming. In 1990s suburban California, I was a weird little dude much in need of some affirmation.

I cannot stress enough the power these books had over my imagination. I remember straining my eyes to finish the last pages of Bellairs’ The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull in the fading twilight of a drive with my parents, somewhere between Santa Fe and the mountains of western Colorado. I don’t think I’ve felt the same primal hunger to get to the resolution of a story with quite so much force since then, nor have I felt so totally transported by mere words.

Follow up: What were your favorite books when you were 8-12?