Bipolar disorder, mania, depression, anxiety. I'm only just discovering what those words mean for my well-being and the shattered pieces of my life. The "work in progress," it turns out, is me. Expect an exploration of my thoughts, my feelings, and my journey. And hopefully some fun stuff like my opinions on comic books, movies, and books to name a few.

Old "archive" posts remain if you want to get to know me further.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bags & Boards Extra: Sex Criminals Volume 1

Sex Criminals
Vol. 1
One Weird Trick
Matt Fraction
Chip Zdarsky
Image Comics

Basic premise of Sex Criminals: some people stop time when they orgasm.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I stumbled on Sex Criminals issue 11 as an experimental pick-up. Also, as a general matter, almost anything Matt Fraction writes will get a looksee from me. It was a good issue, and I was intrigued. The letters column itself was gold. A ten issue backlog isn’t terribly large, so I went out and picked up Sex Criminals volume one: “One Weird Trick.”

“One Weird Trick” contains issues 1-5. Covers of each of those issues (and their extra printings) are included as well as a few extras. Letter columns weren’t included, and that omission has me wanting to pick up the individual issues.

Two parallel stories are told in “One Weird Trick;” short clips of the present are interspersed among long stretches of what is essentially flashback, and by the end of the book, the flashback has caught up to the present. Suzie narrates directly. She promises sex and jokes in the story but begins with her own biography. Suzie starts the story with her father being killed at the bank he works at. Suzie’s in high school. The tragedy ends any productive relationship between Suzie and her mother. Stuck growing up more or less on her own, Suzie has to answer a lot of questions by herself. Eventually she masturbates. And time stops. And she has no idea why. Suzie tries and fails to understand what that’s all about, and it takes her a while to realize it doesn’t happen to everybody.

We skip ahead and Suzie’s an adult. She’s at a party. She meets a guy named Jon. He’s an aspiring actor. He’s well-read. He’s charming. The two of them end up sleeping together. And when Suzie orgasms and time stops, Jon’s right there with her. Suzie and Jon are surprised the other is there in the frozen time; it turns out Jon stops time also.

Jon tells Suzie about himself, informing us by extension. His story isn’t as rife with trauma but he’s experienced the same solitude, and like her he’s searching for understanding and for someone like himself.

The five issues collected within this volume deal mainly with the burgeoning relationship between Suzie and Jon. Aside from the time freezing sex, it’s pretty basic stuff. Suzie’s already told Jon that she’s a librarian; she goes on to explain that her library is in danger of being foreclosed on by a bank—coincidentally the bank her father worked for and the bank that Jon current works for. This is where Jon floats the idea that connects our long flashback to the quick scenes in the present: to save Suzie’s library the two of them stop time and rob branches of the bank foreclosing on the library in order to pay off the library’s debt. It turns out, though, that there is a kind of sex police: people who stop time and monitor the others like them. They confront Suzie and Jon in the last bank and, using sex toys, apprehend them. Suzie and Jon just barely escape.

This may be the most unorthodox story I’ve ever read in comic books. But when you remove the time stopping, the bank robbing, and the erotica employing police, the heart of Sex Criminals’ first volume is about two people going through life and searching for understanding—of themselves, of others, of the world. It’s a search that began in adolescence and continued into adulthood. While Suzie and Jon couch this search in their particularly unique terms, it’s still just about sexuality. Is there anything else in adolescence that isolates people quite so much as the thought and worry about sexuality? As discombobulating as Suzie’s and Jon’s circumstances are, the curiosity and confusion they experience is not that far afield of what everyone goes through at the same time.

The bank robbery is a fun scenario, but the charm of “One Weird Trick” is Suzie and Jon—their lives, their foibles, their troubles. Their difficulties growing up and their excitement meeting someone they each feel understands them. They spend most of a weekend together sharing intimate details with each other, warts and all. The dialogue has the gentle pace of a romantic comedy but none of the too-cute, hardly-believable, we-know-how-it will-turn-out faux heart and soul that so many of those movies possess. Fraction pulls no punches; it’s mature sexual subject matter in a frequently comedic setting, and there might be the temptation to become either too cute or too crude for the sake of a bigger laugh. To be sure it straddles an interesting line at several points, but Fraction plays it straight all the way and never loses sight of the greater honesty behind the story of human connection.

Sex Criminals met with mixed reviews at Whatever Store, my weekly comic shop, because of the art. For me, though, Zdarsky’s pencils are one of the series’ high points. The art doesn’t feel stylized. I look at the panels and see subtlety and restraint; I see everyday people in everyday settings. Even the art during the frozen moments isn’t over the top—threatening in that direction only in the attire of the self-appointed sex police. Zdarsky’s mastered these characters; the range of expression on the faces, especially Suzie’s and Jon’s, reveals mood as well as Fraction’s dialogue. It’s the borderline ordinariness of the art that matches it to the story.

Sex Criminals is definitely on my pull list for the future, and I’ll grab the second collected volume soon. Whether subsequent issues have this level of earnestness I don’t know. But this first collected volume is a fun, reflective take on the solitude and the searching that is part and parcel of the human experience. I can’t imagine anyone reading “One Weird Trick” and not seeing a little bit of him or herself in its pages.

Friday, August 28, 2015

This Week's Reading: College Tuition

College tuition reform is all the rage on the Democratic side of the presidential race. I can see why. With so many graduates saddled with thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars of student loan debt and so many current students staring that future in the eyes, it’s not only a practical matter worth discussing but also a political winner; reducing a debt burden and shifting future costs to the larger taxpaying population would be a great way to win millennial votes.

The plans range from “debt free” tuition that would determine tuition cost based on formulas similar to what FAFSA uses now (a scenario that eliminates tuition for lower income families while impacting it marginally or not at all for higher income families) to straight up free college for everyone attending a public college; these would of course be paid for through re-directed government funds or additional taxes. Supporting both plans is the argument that a broader group of people getting a college degree, especially from lower income families, is a net positive. Additionally, supporters of Sanders’ free college plan claim this will aid overall college diversity as students from higher income families will be enticed to attend public colleges rather than private because of the savings in tuition.

Proponents of greater federal aid for college tuition often point to other western democracies that offer free college tuition. What is sometimes lacking from the conversation is relative tertiary enrollment. Despite the lack of greater public funding for college, the United States sees the vast majority of its high school graduates attend college (and the attendance rates surpass many countries that offer free college tuition through taxes).

But in the United States we’ve seen a growing number of underemployed college graduates—the stories of young people earning college degrees and then working as baristas, for instance. This is a trend that shows no sign of reversing itself, so I’m forced to wonder what happens when we send the remaining 18-20% of high school graduates to college. When I was growing up, the idea behind going to college was that a bachelor’s degree would separate me from other people who had only a high school diploma. That kind of separation is still going to be necessary because skilled applicants outnumber skilled openings. The first breakdown I anticipate in this system (and one that will likely play against arguments in favor of Sanders’ plan) is an even greater emphasis on the school an applicant is matriculating from; rather than inspiring higher income students to attend public schools for free, it seems likelier that private schools would find themselves in greater demand as a way to set a graduate apart. The second breakdown will inevitably be a desire for applicants to have graduate degrees as undergraduate degrees become the new high school diploma; if these new levels of federal funding of higher education don't extend to the graduate level, young people will simply be deferring debt for a few more years. Finally, it’s important to note that missing from all of these plans is any explanation of how additional federal funding will curtail increases in college costs since up until now all evidence points to the contrary. If greater federal funding ultimately comes with strings like what programs a public college can offer and what a public college can pay administrators and professors, will this further drive demand in private schools?

I have college loans that I’ll be paying back for at least ten more years. I chose to attend a private school, and this is a burden I have because of that decision. I’d be lying if I said the basic pleasure center of my brain didn’t like these college tuition proposals. But none of them address any of the consequences that extend outward from such programs. Nor do any of them touch on the issue of high school graduation. Yes, the United States enrolls more high school graduates in college than Germany (to the tune of over 20%) even though Germany has a free tuition program. But Germany also has a high school graduation rate of 95%. We were thrilled recently when ours hit 81%. Rather than throw around sexy sounding tuition proposals to attract millennial voters, I’d love to a see a comprehensive plan that gets more students through high school and does a better job matching up educational supply with the different levels of vocational, technical, and skilled demand.

(Single subject post this week...partially because I've found recent conversations on the topic interesting and partially because nothing apocalyptic has happened in Greece. Greater variety next week I hope.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Bags & Boards: 8/26/15

Every Wednesday I pop into Whatever Store on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics; this week I battled some fantastic allergies in the process. But never fear; I read the comics and thought thoughts that I can now share with you.

East of West #20
Book of the Week
“Uh, at this point you’ve sent all of our political enemies, minor campaign donors and any supporters left who happen to be vegetarian.”
The beginning of a new story arc gave me the opportunity to try this book out. The issue is a collection moments set amidst heavy atmosphere. There is only one action piece in the book, and it’s quite short. Mostly we have a lot of dialogue, sometimes clipped and sometimes lofty depending on who’s doing the speaking, that reveals details of the sides in what appears to be a longstanding conflict. The characters aren’t just different speakers telling one long narrative; Hickman creates distinct identities in cadence and word choice. Meanwhile Dragotta’s art is superb, offering detailed landscapes and very real people. His characters aren’t variations on a theme; we get an array of body types and face structures. A lot of my enjoyment of this relatively slow issue was the satisfying ease of experiencing the art in very neat, uncluttered panels. If this issue was the beginning of a story arc, it planted kernels more than laid out a full plot. I look forward to discovering what the next issue has in store and maybe exploring some of what I’ve missed before now. A definite jumping on point, though Hickman doesn’t hand out everything you need to know on a silver platter.

Zodiac Starforce #1
This Week’s Whatever Store Recommendation
“Parties are dumb.”
In a million years I wouldn’t have picked this book up on my own, and unfortunately I can’t say as I found in it anything that would convince me to get the second issue. The high point for me is probably the art, with lines and dimensions that remind me of Archie. The color palate is bright and alive. Visually the book is vibrant and energetic. The writing I found more problematic. While Panetta’s dialogue has painted an accurate picture of teenagers (or at least most every adult’s mental picture of the teenage experience), it’s almost too spot on. Halfway through the book I grew tired of the main characters’ bickering and stopped caring about whether they got the team together in the end; I really just wanted to get past the angst of the party they were at and find my way to the book’s last panel. My gripes about the characters and their dialogue is probably a larger issue of me not enjoying the overall style and in that way isn’t really a criticism. But there’s nothing her to invite me back into this series or other series of a like style.

Civil War #3
“So many have died…what’s one more, really? Even Elektra? My wiring’s off, Hank. I need to…fix myself.”
The ugliness of war goes on and on. And on. I’ve enjoyed this series because it feels like the honest extension of what should have happened after Marvel’s Civil War several years ago. At the same time, though, it’s easy to see why that story could never have been told. While this kind of honest ugliness works and works well in the likes of DMZ, it’s not what most readers want from their superheroes. In a way that’s too bad. While the story itself is interesting, the characters Soule has created are amazing: broken, tortured, real. Peter Parker watching comrades die (and standing ready to kill) without a second thought. Tony Stark using the corpse of the Kingpin to give Doc Ock’s arms life so long as those arms churn out new technology. An old, tired Professor Xavier that can’t see through lies anymore. While Secret Wars is an effort to change and combine the Marvel multiverse, I wish this universe would continue afterward unhindered. It fascinates me.

Superman #43
“Your friend Jimmy shouldn’t be so quick to accept caramel lattes from strangers.”
In talking about the previous issue, I was somewhat unsatisfied with the abrupt way Lois discovers the secret of Superman’s identity. The payoff for that is here. The issue starts off with Lois and Superman almost getting reacquainted and an affirmation by Superman of the value of having Lois in both halves of his life since she’s decided to keep his secret. Unfortunately these tender moments are interrupted by the reveal (via a robot accidentally smuggled in within Jimmy Olsen…and subsequently puked up) that the big villain who knows Superman’s secret identity survived the massive explosion at the end of the last issue. His ultimate plan seems to be to siphon off all of Superman’s energy, a plan Superman is perfectly happy to go along with out of fear that the people closest to him will suffer if his identity is revealed. But it’s Lois who, to protect Superman and thwart the villain, reveals Superman’s secret to the world. There’s not a lot of time to reflect on this decision other than to present Superman as somewhat feckless under the circumstances: unable or unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary to defeat his adversary. More and more I also find myself enjoying Romita, Jr.’s take on Clark and Superman; we get sharper lines in the facial expressions and a harder edge where we have so often seen softness. It complements the new take on Superman that is emerging in the story.

X-Men ‘92 #3
“ *You already know if you read X-Men ’92 Chapter 2! –Jordan ‘Details’ White”
The send-up of all things 90’s continues with wild abandon. I almost cringe seeing Cable and remembering how cool I thought his character was back when he was new; it almost looks like the enormous gun he wields grows larger over the course of the issue. Also the blatant cliffhanger manipulation, not quite as common now in the era of ubiquitous trade paperbacks, actually made me laugh; the pronouncement of Xavier’s death was so big a moment on the last page of the second issue while here there’s a quick, “No, wait, he’s alive,” and our characters get on with business. Least satisfying s that there’s only one great moment of fourth wall breaking censorship here; it featured so prominently and to such humorous effect in the beginning of the mini-series that its absence actually feels as though  a plot point had been raised and then forgotten.

The Rest
Villalobos’ art seems to finally get in the Frank Quitely style in E is for Extinction #3; the results had been hit or miss in the previous issues, occasionally stumbling into a realm of adding ugly subtext to the characters. As for the story, this issue and the mini-series in general has felt like a deconstruction of Grant Morrison’s run on The All New X-Men. That could be me reading too much into it. But Emma Frost doesn’t pull any punches in dialogue, periodically coming off as bored and disinterested which doesn’t elevate the excitement and actively sabotages the end with a line that isn’t quite funny.

I find myself tiring of the quest to prove Superboy’s innocence that continues in Teen Titans #11. At least Pfeiffer took a moment to acknowledge in dialogue the stupendous overreaction that occurred in the battle in Chicago in the previous issue. But in practically the next panel the group, in a moment of overly saccharine friendship, all dive head first into a prison break (in a prison housing the worst of the worst) to find evidence to exonerate Superboy. I can’t say that I care terribly how this story arc ends other than to say I’d like to see if something better comes in its aftermath.

Civil War #3
Charles Soule: writer
Leinil Francis Yu: penciler
Gerry Alanguilan: inker
Sunny Gho: colorist
Joe Sabino: letterer
Leinil Francis Yu & Sunny Gho: cover
Marvel Comics

E is for Extinction #3
Chris Burnham & Dennis Culver: writers
Ramon Villalobos: art
Ian Herring: colors
VC’s Clayton Cowles: letters
Ian Bertram & Dave Stewart: cover
Marvel Comics

East of West #20
Jonathan Hickman: writer
Nick Dragotta: artist
Frank Martin: colors
Rus Wooton: letters
Image Comics

Superman #43
Gene Luen Yang: writer
John Romita, Jr.: penciler
Klaus Janson & Scott Hanna: inkers
Dean White, Leonard Olea, Blond: colorists
Rob Leigh: letterer
John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson, Dean White: cover
DC Comics

Teen Titans #11
Will Pfeiffer: script
Ricken: art
Dan Brown: colors
John J. Hill: letters
Bengal: cover
DC Comics

X-Men ’92 #3
Chris Sims & Chad Bowers: writers
Scott Koblish: artist
Matt Milla: colorist
VC’s Travis Lanham: letterer
Pepe Larraz & Jim Charalampidis: cover
Marvel Comics

Zodiac Starforce #1
Kevin Panetta: script
Paulina Ganucheau: art and lettering
Savanna Ganucheau: color assists
Marguerite Sauvage: cover
Dark Horse Comics

Friday, August 21, 2015

This Week's Reading: More Greek Drama, Hillary's Shrug, Who Killed Kenny, Kaepernick

The Greek story continues to fascinate me. For all the drama of the earlier negotiation deadline on this latest Greek bailout, the nuts and bolts sure did take a while to get tightened up on it. Germany’s parliament finally approved the bailout this Wednesday. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble argued Greece should get “a new start,” which is a funny thing to say since this bailout is the same kind of program that has been crushing the Greek economy…just with more strings attached. And now we have the resignation of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. I suppose the worst case scenario, especially now that Greece made their loan payment, is that an even more leftist government gets put together and the Greek government starts bucking against the terms they were forced into. The EU may not be able to force a country out of the Euro, but there has to be a better solution than continuing to throw money at Greece, not so much to fix the country but to keep the Euro from suffering a painful separation. We seem to be witnessing a live-action primer in why not to have a multi-national common currency unless the countries involve cede sovereign authority to a larger federal body--essentially turn the Eurozone into the United States of Europe. But that won't happen and in the meantime we have otherwise sovereign states that have no sovereignty over their money.

It’s been called “the shrug heard round the world.” A bit of hyperbole perhaps, but it will absolutely be .GIF fodder for a while to come. For someone who’s been hip deep in major national politics for 20 years, I continue to be amazed by Hillary Clinton’s blind spot when it comes to these emails. Whether she did anything strictly illegal is beside the point. In Bernie Sanders she’s facing a primary challenger who rails against everything establishment, and nothing feels more establishment than Hillary Clinton when answering reporters’ questions in lawyerese. The talk of the email issue being a manufacturedpartisan attack to benefit the GOP in the general election reveals still more arrogance in the assumption that Hillary will make it that far; Bernie Sanderskeeps gaining ground and packing arenas, and if anyone is going to benefit from a scandal that reminds voters how establishment Hillary Clinton is, it will be him.

Oh my God! They killed Kenny!

We’re only one pre-season game in and already there’s speculation regardingKaepernick’s future in San Francisco. I agree that this could well be a make or break season for Kaepernick and the 49ers. But I wonder if such a decision may also be a product of spillover from the Harbaugh situation. Kaepernick was Harbaugh’s man; the moment that switch was made, their futures in SF, at least short term, were tied together. With the Harbaugh relationship turning toxic and that job ending badly, I’m forced to wonder how much faith the front office has in Kaepernick. But that speculation on my part doesn't change the fact that his game must improve in any case.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bags & Boards: 8/19/15

Every Wednesday I pop into Whatever Store on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics. I read them. I share some thoughts.

Archie #1
Book of the Week
This Week’s Whatever Store Recommendation
Mark Waid writing Archie. I couldn’t resist, but then I’ll try almost anything Waid is trying his hand at. Waid imbues Archie with a lot of humanity and no small amount of naiveté; he has a strong grasp on the teenager-ness of all his characters. Staples’ art brings everyone to life; each character feels vibrant, whether they’re the focus of a panel or background. I love that Archie completely ignores the fourth wall, constantly talking to the reader in dialogue bubbles rather than narration boxes. This issue’s story, Archie’s quest for a job to pay for getting his car fixed, is a tale so ordinary that almost anyone can relate to it. This is a low-key book with its heart on its sleeve. Kind of real, but not so much that it isn’t fun.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday Round-Up: 49ers Offense, Iran Deal, Greece Bailout, Cecil Context

NFL football is back! More or less. I'm not going to lie...I view the 49ers' new coaching regime and their 2015 prospects with a great deal of skepticism. My biggest worries revolve around the offense; after two seasons where the Niners' Kaepernick-led offense looked to be developing into as big a threat as their defense--a balance often not achieved in the NFL--2014 saw anemic production and seeming regression at skill levels. And this despite bringing in a wider range of weapons. When I hear Baalke talk about prioritizing Vernon Davis, and when I see Kaepernick getting a voice in the huddle, I'm encouraged that despite Coach Tomsula's defensive background, he's not lost focus on fixing the offensive woes. Though it's worrisome to hear that so far Kaepernick's much-touted off-season workouts have translated to hit-and-miss success. (Quick note: this was prepared before Aldon Smith screwed up...again. Pretty sure its time to cut bait there.)

In a lot of ways our debate over Iran seems pointless. Europe is already embracing the end of sanctions and chomping at the bit for new business opportunities. Meanwhile President Obama is stuck making the hard sell at home. I keep envisioning a League of Nations-like scenario where the United States negotiates the deal but then isn't involved in it after the fact (likely not a concern until President Obama's successor is in office since this isn't a treaty); that scenario didn't turn out well for the League of Nations. Speaking of the president's salesmanship, I find myself comparing his rhetoric to the cowboy diplomacy leading up to Iraq--hyperbole that we now rightfully look back on and cringe at. Before it was us to the world: "Do this or it's war." Now it's our president to his citizens: "Support this deal or it's war." To say nothing of how helpful this may or may not be with Congress, it seems the wrong tack to take with an American people who seem tired of both foreign deals and military engagements that come with hazy goal posts. And all of this debate is really not helped by the fact that we already have questions about Iran's compliance with the spirit of the agreement.

Greece. So exciting and of-the-moment when they were on the verge of apocalyptic meltdown. SO uninteresting once the deal was struck. Unfortunately evidence persists that straight up austerity doesn't work as Greece's tax revenues and public spending imploded during the first six months of the year. But never fear because even more belt tightening will solve the country's problems. I continue to believe that the definition of insanity is the EU doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. As for the bailout, it's interesting that the IMF went from reluctantly going along with the new loans while saying the Greek debt was unsustainable to now wanting to see Greece "own the problem" and fully commit to the deal. I start to wonder how much of this posturing is a game of hot potato between Greece's lenders in an attempt to save the most face (Greece having already lost all of theirs). But in the end, what difference does any of the gamesmanship about the bailout matter if the banks and the economic sectors that rely on the banks continue to simply not exist as reliable entities? Bonus points to that last article for a Princess Bride reference.

Cecil the Lion has proved what a fickle mistress social media outrage is; everywhere everyone was sad, then some people were annoyed at the attention, then he was gone. I'm a big context fan, so it's interesting to read beyond the memes and find points of view ranging from condemnations of faux outrage over one animal's death but not the mistreatment of others to personal accounts from Zimbabwe natives of the potential horrors of living near lions to the somewhat justified criticism that Americans care more about a lion in Zimbabwe than all the people. As to the last point, I was reminded many times during the height of Cecil outrage that people can care about more than one thing at once. It's a curious thing, though, that our collective rage as displayed on social media can't seem to. While Cecil filled Facebook and Twitter feeds in our little corner of the western hemisphere, we suddenly had less memes and links and visible outrage for the likes of the Iran deal, the Greece bailout, the death of Sandra Bland, and the shooting of Sam DuBose. I don't know what that says, exactly, but it's an interesting phenomenon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Bags & Boards: 8/5/15

Every Wednesday I pop into Whatever Store on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics. I read them. I share some thoughts.

  Groot #3
Book of the Week
“Stop surferizing.”
“We don’t have time for one of your 40-minute space soliloquies. You do those a lot.”
A book that makes comics live up to their “funny books” moniker continues its hysterical run. This issue makes a lot of jokes at the Silver Surfer’s expense, and no one that hasn’t read Silver Surfer books can disagree with the jokes’ worthiness. The issue has a rudimentary plot that is completely superfluous to its larger themes: Friendships are important, and failure isn’t failure if you don’t let it be. So many comics are so serious these days—even the super hero ones—that it’s nice to have a lighthearted book with ideas that are no less valuable for being basic.