My 2015 in Books

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As the year draws to a close, it’s time for another post to summarize my activity in the past twelve months. As I did last year, I kept track of the books I read this year (I’ll look back on films I watched this year tomorrow). As before, I’ve only listed books I read from beginning to end (that’s why only one of the Robert E. Howard collections I wrote about in October is listed, the others having been read before). All were first-time reads (although I know I had read parts of American Humor before, but apparently not the whole thing), and I managed to keep my resolution to read more than I did last year, including some classics (hey, it turns out Moby Dick is a pretty good book!).

How does one summarize a year of reading activity? I don’t read by working through a list: I have books in mind that I want to get to, and I own a lot of books I haven’t read yet, but in general I let the last book I finished help me decide what to read next. Sometimes I continue along a certain track (several threads appeared in my reading this year, including books about the art and craft of writing; Wonder Woman and the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of her creator, psychologist and sex researcher William Moulton Marston; non-fiction on a variety of subjects; and several novels and collections of fiction).

After reading so much about Wonder Woman, the opportunity to pick up a set of reprints of her contemporary Phantom Lady made for a useful comparison. For one thing, it’s interesting to observe how much bondage and role-playing is in the wholesome Wonder Woman as opposed to the supposedly racier Phantom Lady; the difference is largely in that Moulton’s Wonder Woman presents its themes of domination and restraint from a playful perspective, and Harry G. Peter’s simple illustrations don’t draw quite as much as attention as Matt Baker’s famous “good girl” art (although in Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. makes a strong case that Baker drew much less Phantom Lady than he is usually credited with).

At other times, after spending time in a particular headspace, I’m ready for a change: I was eager to part company with “Walter,” the narrator of the Victorian sexual diary My Secret Life, after nearly 600 pages (and the original work was published in eleven volumes!). “Walter’s” escapades are by turns titillating, horrifying, and deeply sad, the book itself a mixture of Victorian letters to Penthouse, inadvertent social history, and pre-Freudian psychosexual analysis. Even abridged, it’s “everything you wanted to know about Victorian sex but were afraid to ask.”

That made Edmond Hamilton’s The Valley of Creation, a short and breezy pulp novel, a welcome palate-cleanser. I used to read such short novels frequently; although I enjoyed most of them, I also thought of them as research, fleshing out my picture of the pulp era and stocking up on plot and character formulas for future reference. I still have many on my shelves that I haven’t gotten to (many of them were boxed up until this year, when I got some new book shelves and was able to unpack them), so perhaps 2016 will be a year to renew my acquaintance with the diverse output of the pulps.

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January
Danse Macabre, Stephen King
Ghost Story, Peter Straub
On Writing, Stephen King
Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor, Blake Atwood
The Juggler, Rachilde (trans. Melanie C. Hawthorne)
Wonder Woman: the Life and Times of the Amazon Princess, Les Daniels

February
American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Constance Rourke
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore

March
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

April
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume One, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter
A Year with a Whaler, Walter Noble Burns
Wonder Woman: Feminism and Bondage in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky
Revival, Stephen King
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Two, Marston and Peter
Cities of Dreams, Stan Gooch

May
Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers

June
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed. Sean Wallace
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, John Taliaferro
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Three, Marston and Peter

July
Classic Phantom Lady Volume One, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Three, various
Ladies in Distress, Kalton C. Lahue

August
The Pentagon: A History, Steve Vogel
The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Jim Bell
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, David Tripp

September
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss
The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, Robert E. Howard

November
The Log of a Cowboy, Andy Adams
All the Wrong Questions: “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, Lemony Snicket
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

December
My Secret Life, Anonymous, ed. James Kincaid
The Valley of Creation, Edmond Hamilton

So, readers, I ask you: what did you read this year? Did you meet any reading goals, and what do you look forward to reading in the new year?

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I Stood in Line for an Hour to Watch Stephen King on Television

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Like something straight out of the hit film The Lawnmower Man, a futuristic digital simulacrum of author Stephen King manifested in one of the “overflow rooms” of the Hughes Metroplex at Wichita State University on Friday. King visited Wichita as part of the tour supporting his newest novel, Revival, and while I arrived early to hear him speak, I didn’t arrive quite early enough. The event (a reading from the new book, some prepared remarks, and a Q&A) was to start at 6 pm; having secured my ticket before they quickly sold out last month, I thought I’d head over to the Metroplex at about 5, giving myself plenty of time for travel and parking. Around 4:30, my wife noticed a Facebook post from a friend who was already there: the line was three quarters of the way around the building already. I hopped in the car and left, just barely finding a place to park. The line was fully around the building by this time (about 5), and many more people got in line after me. It took an hour for the line to wind back around, an hour of standing in near-freezing weather; at least it wasn’t raining or snowing. Quite a few people gave up and left, or didn’t bother queuing up when they saw the size of the crowd.

To make matters worse, the event was oversold: only the first 1700 ticket holders would be seated in the auditorium, and to get in the auditorium you had to have a wristband, which they started issuing at 4 pm. This information was on the event’s website, but not printed on the ticket:

Seating at the event is general admission. Once the Lowe Auditorium is full, the remaining attendees will be seated in overflow rooms with excellent, live audio / visual feed to Mr. King’s presentation.

So perhaps I was naive not to expect something like this, but based on the number of people who gave up, and the backlash mentioned in the Wichita Eagle‘s coverage of the event, I wasn’t the only one unpleasantly surprised. Needless to say, I was in the “overflow.”

But enough bitching. How was the presentation? It was fine: although King protested that he was terrified of large crowds and implied that he was at best a reluctant public speaker (supported by the fact that the Revival tour would only have six stops), he had an easy-going, conversational tone and was engaging and relaxed. A slight cold didn’t noticeably slow him down: he promised us it wasn’t ebola, and on that note observed that every time a new flu strain hit the news, sales of The Stand spiked. He sounded much like he writes, at least his non-fiction: I never once heard him use the word “fuckeroo” (although the sample he read from Revival did include “whoremaster,” another King standby).

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I’m more interested in King’s creative process than his books these days. That’s not to say I won’t read Revival, a copy of which was included with the ticket price. But even King’s diehard fans tend to take his books as they come these days, cherishing the good ones and shrugging off the disappointments as part of the cost of being a fan of this most prolific of authors. King is like a baseball player, grinding out a season’s worth of games, day in and day out, and even the Hall of Famers don’t hit home runs every time they go up to the plate.

The unevenness of King’s work has a lot to do with his intuitive approach and (reported) two thousand words a day: early on, King observed that he is “not an organized writer,” to which I responded “NO SHIT” in my notes. King said that every story begins with an image, and the process of writing is one of exploring the implications of that image and asking what happens next. He compared it to pulling a thread from a mouse hole: sometimes the thread is as short as a few pages’ worth of story, and sometimes it’s as long as a novel. And since King doesn’t know where it’s leading any more than the reader does, there’s always the possibility that the ending won’t be satisfying, or that it won’t be what he thought it would be when he began. Sometimes characters turn out to be stronger than he expected (he cited ‘Salem’s Lot, saying that his original plan was for the vampires to win), and sometimes they don’t make it. “I love a happy ending as much as anyone,” he said; “it’s just not always possible.”

I was aware of his general approach from his writing already: in addition to his memoir/handbook On Writing, King has often included writing and storytelling (and discussions of same) in his fiction, to the point that stories about writers are a significant subset of King’s work. As I wrote last summer, Misery, in addition to being a gripping story of suspense, is also something of a master class in writing as King surrogate Paul Sheldon thinks his way through the book that will preserve his life as a captive of his “biggest fan,” Annie Wilkes. Much of the imagery King uses to describe his process, such as seeing the story through a hole or window, is present in Misery and was still part of King’s discussion on Friday.

I suspect this is one reason King continues to fascinate long after his ideas are not only no longer shocking, but even familiar: his willingness to allow readers into his thought process, to show his tricks, to let them come along as if he needed their help in telling the story, is endearing. It’s also as much of a pose as that of the author who reveals nothing (such as John Irving, whom King said told him that he doesn’t begin a book until he knows what the last sentence will be, to which King responded, “Jeez Louise”), and I’m not naive enough to believe that King has completely laid it all on the table for his audience. Still, the sense that King’s personality comes through his writing is palpable, and longtime fans accept him as they accept old friends or family members, foibles and all.

One of the more interesting moments came during the Q&A: an audience member asked if King still slept with the light on, as he once claimed in an interview. King appeared to search for a memory of having said that, gave up, and finally said, “I’m a big boy now.” The audience laughed, and King segued into a bit that he had likely delivered before and clearly relished, drawing the audience into one of his stories: he pointed out that of all the people at the Metroplex, some of us had probably forgotten to lock our cars, and “anybody could climb into the back seat. And when you’re driving home and you look in the rear-view mirror”–he mimed a figure rising from the back seat–“‘objects may be closer than they appear.’ . . . But that probably won’t happen.” He continued, “And when you get home, and your house is all dark, you’ll go into the bathroom and see the shower curtain closed, and you’ll tell yourself, ‘I left it like that.’ . . . There probably won’t be anybody there.” We all laughed, and King laughed, too. “We’re all laughing,” he said, “but these things have a time release. Because some time tonight, you’re going to be alone, and it’s going to be dark, and then it won’t seem so funny.”

Art Isn’t Easy: Five Examples

Most artists like to talk about their creative work: they give interviews, write program notes, or even try to share their knowledge through teaching or writing how-to books.  It’s a different matter, however, to get across one’s ideas about the urge to make art, or the creative process itself, within an actual artwork.  To some degree, every work of art has something to say about the way it was conceived and constructed, but it’s not always obvious without knowing the artist’s work intimately and/or spending time decoding the work.  At the other extreme, not every look at an artist’s life (including many autobiographies) has anything meaningful to say about where artists get their ideas or the inner resources that they draw on to face artistic challenges.

Within the somewhat rarefied field of “artwork that says something about the creative process,” I have a few favorites that have been important to me.  Some I’ve mentioned previously in this blog; most are centered around an artist actively creating, either as biography or autobiography, yet all have qualities of fiction, even if based on a real person.  Indeed, no one’s life is a perfect vehicle for a statement about art: there are too many accidents and interruptions to line up neatly with any particular theory.  Yet, on the other hand there are often real-life coincidences and symmetries that would be too far-fetched if part of a completely fictional life.  In the spaces between mundane fact and pure fable, the writer or artist is able to express their own viewpoint.

(As an aside, I wonder if this is why there have been so few satisfactory depictions of the Beatles as characters?  There was hardly a single day of their professional career that went undocumented, and their every utterance has been recorded and examined closely.  Is there any room for them to be reconceived in a fictional context without doing violence to the record?)

Fidelity to the facts isn’t a primary concern for Amadeus, the dramatization of composer Antonio Salieri’s supposed plot to eliminate his hated rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  As much as I love Milos Forman’s 1984 film, it is in some ways too successful: like the best period films, it wraps its characters in the physical trappings of their time, drawing us in and convincing us, through dramatic means, that it must have happened just this way.  For the last thirty years, musicologists have diligently corrected the many misconceptions spawned by the film (which is not always a bad thing, if it leads to fruitful discussion and understanding the difference between art and history).

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Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, the basis of the film, is much more clearly using historical figures as an allegory for the contest of mediocrity and genius.  As for Salieri’s role in Mozart’s death (a myth that may have had its roots in Salieri’s dementia in his later years, and which before Shaffer was dramatized by Pushkin and others), it might as well be Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau: it is the mythic resonance, the archetypal conflict, that interests Shaffer, not documentary accuracy.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ve actually learned about creating art from Amadeus, but it does speak to the reality that talent is spread unevenly in the world, and that wanting to create isn’t enough.  Salieri’s desire to be a good composer, and a good man, to speak for God, isn’t enough, isn’t even relevant.  “Was Mozart good?” he asks.  “Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.”  (Again, we don’t know if the real Salieri said anything of the kind, or how he even felt about Mozart; but haven’t we all felt like the fictional Salieri at one time or another?)  On the other hand, one could take from Amadeus the lesson that even for the world’s Mozarts success isn’t guaranteed, that there will always be challenges even for the most gifted among us.

Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is one of its composer’s most direct statements about the creative process, to the point that Sondheim borrowed the title of the song “Finishing the Hat” for his collected lyrics.  The phrase has become a kind of shorthand for the endless labor and attention to detail necessary to create something out of nothing (“where there never was a hat”).  In the context of the musical, it also stands in for the real life painter George Seurat puts on hold in order to complete his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  All his subjects, and especially his model and muse, Dot, have lives and stories of their own, but to him they are largely formal elements, puzzle pieces to be fit into his great composition.

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It’s not hard to see why Sondheim identified with his fictionalized Seurat: the precision and formal clarity Seurat brought to his pointillistic canvases is a good match for Sondheim’s hyper-articulate wordplay, and the fragments of speech that Sondheim pieces into a mosaic of conversation, Robert Altman-style, is a fitting counterpart to Seurat’s modular approach to form.  Sondheim’s formidable talent for meter and rhyme elegantly sets up the Act I finale in which George marshals his subjects into the final form of his painting.  (If anyone ever tries to produce Tetris: the Musical, I can think of no other composer for the job.)

Sacrifices of a different kind are entailed in Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery.  King has never been shy about sharing his view of writing—how many of his novels are about writers, and how many of his stories feature writers’ creations and alter egos taking on lives of their own?—but Misery is probably his ultimate (fictional) statement about the work itself (I assume: I’m far from a King completist).  As his stand-in Paul Sheldon struggles to complete a novel for his captor, Annie Wilkes, King speaks directly about both the urge to escape into stories and many of the mechanical aspects of constructing and maintaining a narrative.  I was struck by the observation that “there was always a deadline,” even for books written on spec: “If a book remained roadblocked long enough, it began to decay, to fall apart; all the little tricks and illusions started to show.”  There is a time and a place for every creative work, and some can stay on the shelf longer than others; for some the phrase “strike while the iron is hot” is imperative.  One hears about novels and operas written over the course of years, even decades, but that’s never been King’s style.

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Director Edward D. Wood, Jr. has been called the “worst director of all time,” and his movies are memorably batty in conception and clumsy in execution.  I don’t think he deserves that title (there are many worse films than his, and at least Wood’s work is entertainingly bad), but it’s unlikely that Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood would have had the same combination of humor and pathos if it were about someone more accomplished.  The film takes plenty of liberties with the real Wood’s life, mostly concentrating on the making of Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space.  While Wood is the kind of outsider Burton has identified with throughout his career, it was Wood’s relationship to fading star Bela Lugosi that really attracted him to the material, reminding him of his own friendship with Vincent Price; I think it’s fair to read the movie as being more about Burton than Wood.  The movie has an optimistic tone despite the ineptitude of its title character; it’s possible that Johnny Depp’s performance is how the real-life Wood saw himself, perpetually chipper and energetic in the face of constant failure.  In any case, the goodness or badness of Plan 9 is beside the point: Ed Wood promises a look at the making of “the worst movie ever made,” but it’s really about the joys and frustrations of creating something, which is why it’s so relatable to anyone who’s tried.

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Ed Wood also shows that no matter how much you enjoy creating, it’s impossible to predict how the finished product will turn out or how it will be received.  If Wood’s work suffered from a lack of critical discernment, it’s even worse when self-criticism stops you before you’ve begun.  That’s a central theme of Lynda Barry’s “Two Questions,” a short comic strip story that appeared in McSweeney’s and has been reprinted in a few places since then.  “’Is this good?’  ‘Does this suck?’  I’m not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called ‘my work’—I just knew I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it,” begins Barry’s story.  The process by which she learns (and relearns, over and over again) to let go of those preconceptions, “to be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape,” is one that I recognize, as I recognize the paralysis of engaging in judgment too soon.  As Barry says in a note accompanying “Two Questions” in The Best American Comics 2006,  “trying to write something good before I write anything at all is like refusing to give birth unless you know for sure it is going to be a very good baby.”

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It’s probably telling that most of the works I’ve mentioned were published or released during my teenage or twenty-something years, the age at which I was most engaged with honing my own craft and wrestling with what it means to be an artist.  Which aspects of these stories affect me the most depends very much on the day and my own state of mind: sometimes I feel chained to the desk like Paul Sheldon (though not literally, thank God), praying for the tiniest bit of inspiration like Salieri or dreading the oppressing self-judgment of Lynda Barry’s two questions; other days I feel my creative juices flowing as freely as Mozart must have (my excitement tempered by the knowledge that Ed Wood probably felt the same way).  At still other times I’m preoccupied with business matters, also touched on by these works.  Perhaps that’s why I continue to return to them for inspiration and perspective: there’s an understanding born of experience in each one of them.

Do you have a favorite work of art that conveys the creative experience?  Share it in the comments!

Afterlife with Archie: “Escape from Riverdale”

“Sometimes dead is better,” witches Hilda and Zelda Spellman tell Jughead Jones after their magic is unable to save his dog Hot Dog from a fatal injury.  If only he had listened!  Struck by his obvious pain, their niece Sabrina (i.e., the Teenage Witch) uses forbidden magic from the Necronomicon to bring Hot Dog back to life.  Like the resurrections in “The Monkey’s Paw” and Pet Sematary, it doesn’t work out as planned: Hot Dog returns, but as a horrible undead monster with a bite that spreads a terrible infection.  Soon, the town of Riverdale (home of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest) is at the center of a zombie epidemic straight out of Night of the Living Dead.

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Since last fall, the first comic I read when I get it home from the store has been Afterlife with Archie, an unlikely hit from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.  The bimonthly book recently finished its first five-issue arc, “Escape from Riverdale,” and with the promise of big changes starting in the next issue, this seemed as good a time as any to examine the series (and encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a look: the first arc was just released in a collection last week).

As its name implies, Afterlife with Archie is a spin-off of Archie and the series with which it shares a universe (including Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats, and more), with the familiar kid-friendly characters run through a George Romero- and Stephen King-style wringer.  As I wrote in my series on doppelgangers and copycat characters, writers often use thinly-veiled pastiches of familiar characters when they want to explore their darker sides; however, it is increasingly common for publishers to give writers free rein with out-of-continuity or alternate-universe stories starring their name-brand characters (Marvel has had a Marvel Zombies series for several years now, as an obvious example).

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At least since the late 1980s, following the success of the dark, adult-themed comics work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it’s been known that “grim and gritty” sell.  Fashions change, but it seems like every few years there’s another round of “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” stories and another slew of comic anti-heroes committing rape, murder, or whatever transgression it takes to get the spotlight in a competitive field.  (I don’t have a problem with comics tackling adult themes, of course, but it’s often the titles that loudly insist on their “adult” status that seem the most adolescent.)  Even without resorting to graphic sex or violence, “going dark” is a giant cliché, and obviously zombies have been trendy for years now, so it would be easy to dismiss Afterlife with Archie as just another fad book.  Yet it’s become one of my favorites: what gives?

Why does Afterlife with Archie succeed where others fail?  For one thing, the affection the creators have for both the horror genre and Archie Comics is obvious and infectious.  Aguirre-Sacasa knows the characters of the Archie universe and respects them; the darkness isn’t something laid on top of the characters, it’s an artful drawing out of themes already present in their usual, more cartoonish depiction.  Archie Andrews is still good-hearted and willing to go out on a limb for his friends and family; Reggie Mantle is still a selfish snob; Betty and Veronica still fight over Archie while trying to remain “BFFs.”  Francavilla’s semi-realistic art, filled with expressionistic shadows and dramatic, off-kilter angles, is matched by dialogue that is by turns naturalistic—the teens don’t sound like overly-cool caricatures of high-schoolers—and appropriately heightened for the gothic excess of the book.  (Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge probably wouldn’t call Archie an “insolent whelp” in one of his regular appearances, but the dynamic of overbearing patriarch to a young, unwanted suitor isn’t a stretch.)

Even the more ghoulish elements are incorporated in ways that play with well-known character traits: it might seem like a cheap joke that the voracious Jughead is the first infected and becomes a flesh-devouring zombie, but it’s just as equally the kind of twist associated with the EC Comics that are another point of reference.  His first teen victim: “Big” Ethel Muggs, a character who has always made me cringe in the original comics with her slow-witted “hick” speech pattern and unrequited crush on Jughead.  (Ironically, as horrible as her death is in Afterlife, her brief appearance has more dignity than the regular version of the character has ever had.)

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Flashbacks fill in the characters’ history, making them three-dimensional: in issue no. 4, the most emotional of the five, Archie is saved from the undead Hot Dog by his own dog Vegas, and then is confronted by his own father, now an infected zombie.  In both cases, the memories of happier times are intercut with the current struggle. (It’s the rare horror comic for which you’ll need a tissue!) Memory also weighs heavily on Hiram Lodge and his butler Smithers; it’s implied that Hiram was unfaithful to Veronica’s mother, and Smithers, as a second-generation servant of the Lodge family, is a discreet repository of all the town’s secrets.  Along with the incestuous relationship of Jason and Cheryl Blossom and the down-low lesbianism of Ginger Lopez and Nancy Woods (both interpretations that are original to this series, obviously), the constant web of secrets and lies make Afterlife’s version of Riverdale resemble Peyton Place, even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  The tone is very much like a contemporary teen soap opera.

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The “Escape from Riverdale” arc ends with Archie leading the town’s survivors from the dwindling safety of Lodge Manor out of town.  Sabrina, who was banished to another dimension for her actions in the first issue, is scheduled to return to Riverdale in issue 6, presumably introducing a more cosmic angle to the ongoing horror, but who knows what other characters will show up?  Josie and the Pussycats are still out there, somewhere, so far unused, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla indulge in some deep cuts from the world of Archie: most of the weirdest Archie concepts are technically alternate universes, but so is Afterlife, and it’s clear the creative team know their stuff, so who knows? I’m hoping for Jughead’s Time Police, myself.

Or maybe they’ll take some inspiration from Spire Christian Comics (which licensed Archie characters to spread the Good News), and we’ll get the gritty reboot of The Gospel Blimp the world has been crying out for.  Or a grown-up Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika?  After the real-life horrors of that story, zombies should be no problem.

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All kidding aside, I do give Archie Comics a lot of credit for remaining a comics company first instead of a “media” company: although many of the attention-grabbing developments of recent years, such as Archie’s marriage and impending death in Life with Archie (the series which Afterlife with Archie sprang from, initially as a joke) and the introduction of openly gay character Kevin Keller, could be seen as publicity stunts, they’ve remained dedicated to a medium that the Big Two comics companies have increasingly turned into ancillaries of big budget movies and little else.  On the other hand: an Afterlife with Archie movie?  I can think of less likely properties to adapt for film.  In the mean time, I look forward to seeing what else Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla come up with.  (And I just found out that Sabrina will be appearing in another, “much darker” ongoing series following the success of Afterlife; “much darker” than what we’ve seen so far? Wow.)

Fates Worse Than Death: “What an Amazing Escape!”

Introducing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat

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Although the serials are nearly synonymous with cliffhangers—in which the tension builds to a high point before the episode ends, with a character in mortal danger or a major revelation left dangling—they didn’t invent them, and cliffhangers continue to be used on television, in comics, and even in film.  In the nineteenth-century, all kinds of writers serialized their work in popular magazines, from the authors of penny dreadfuls to Charles Dickens, and later pulp writers were similarly aware of the cliffhanger’s power to hold the reader’s interest.  Edgar Rice Burroughs not only used them between chapters, but also between books: he ended his second John Carter novel, The Gods of Mars, with Martian princess Dejah Thoris’ fate unknown, only to be revealed in the subsequent The Warlord of Mars.  (There is, of course, a similar narrative connection between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and indeed it is now common practice for the second book or film of a trilogy to end on an uncertain note.)  Any serialized medium—in which chunks of story are doled out in installments—will sooner or later take advantage of cliffhangers to keep readers or viewers hooked.

As crude a narrative device as they are, however, cliffhangers are popular because they work: already in the short time since I began this project, I’ve sat down more than once with the intention of watching one or two chapters of a serial, only to be drawn forward by curiosity and suspense, and I’ve ended up watching several more than I planned.  I can only imagine what it was like to wait a whole week to find out whether the hero would live or die (and make no mistake, in a very few cases the hero actually did die, only to be resurrected later, or for it to be revealed that someone else had taken his place).  If you were the right age or particularly attached to the characters, it was probably as intense as the wait for a new Harry Potter novel or episode of Breaking Bad in recent years.  For casual viewers, I imagine it was more like my experience of reading daily comic strips or watching soap operas: easy to forget and not think about after the fact, but when reading or watching the next installment it all comes back to me.

Serial chapters always rewound the story to a point before the cliffhanger, both providing context (for anyone who might have missed the previous chapter) and renewing the tension (for new viewers and regulars alike).  Like reading daily comics collected in book form or watching an entire season of television in one sitting, binge-watching a serial makes for an experience with built-in redundancy.  Seeing the cliffhanger and its resolution back-to-back also makes it more obvious when the filmmakers cheat (more on this in a bit).

In Paul Malmont’s The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, a fictional mystery starring several real-life science fiction and pulp authors set in 1943, there’s an amusing scene in which L. Ron Hubbard is trapped in a forgotten, gaslit aqueduct beneath the Empire State Building with a group that also includes Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Walter Gibson (author of the Shadow novels).  A self-styled man of action, Hubbard plans their escape:

Hubbard jerked a thumb back to the bigger hall.  “Why don’t we douse the flame, let the gas fill up, then ignite it with the lighter and blow the lid up there clean off?”

“Are you nuts?” the kid [Asimov] asked.  “Don’t you understand the formula for gas density? . . . It means we’d suffocate before we ever built up enough gas to do anything.”

“And even if we could survive that,” de Camp added, “a basic energy equation shows that the shock wave would kill us even before the roof collapsed on our heads.”

“Well, let’s dam up the stream and just float up and let the water pressure pop the top off!”

“Are you kidding? . . . The hypothermia would kill us.”

“Before we drowned under the ceiling.

The joke isn’t just that Hubbard (then a self-aggrandizing young writer, not yet the father of Scientology) is an ignoramus; rather, he is thinking like the kind of pulp hero he is accustomed to writing about.  Serial heroes, like their magazine counterparts, often relied on the same kind of likely-sounding but scientifically impossible solutions to get them out of jams.  In addition, well-aimed shots, conveniently dangling ropes or vines, and explosions from which the heroes were miraculously thrown clear tended to balance out the contrived death traps that threatened them.

That’s not the kind of cheat that infuriated serial audiences however; as long as the solution played fair and didn’t significantly change the cliffhanger’s setup, it didn’t matter whether it was likely or even possible.  After all, Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry were heroes precisely because they could do things ordinary people couldn’t, and if their array of talents included one-in-a-million strokes of luck, well, that’s what audiences expected from them.

The difference between realistic and fair is explicated as clearly as possible by Annie Wilkes, author Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” in Stephen King’s Misery. Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film adaptation) demands that Sheldon, her captive patient, write a novel resurrecting his beloved character Misery Chastain after he had killed her off.  She won’t accept any rewriting cheats to do so, and she uses an example from the serials to explain:

This was a no-brakes chapter.  The bad guys put Rocket Man—only it was Rocket Man in his secret identity—into a car that didn’t have any brakes, and then they welded all the doors shut, and then they started the car rolling down this twisty-turny mountain road. . . .

“And here came the car, with Rocket Man still trying to put on the brakes or bash the door open, and then . . . over it went!  It flew out into space, and then it went down.  It hit the side of the cliff about halfway down and burst into flames, and then it went into the ocean, and then this ending message came up on the screen that said NEXT WEEK CHAPTER 11, THE DRAGON FLIES. . . .

“The new episode always started with the ending of the last one.  They showed him going down the hill, they showed the cliff, they showed him banging on the car door, trying to open it.  Then, just before the car got to the edge, the door banged open and out he flew onto the road!  The car went over the cliff, and all the kids in the theater were cheering because Rocket Man got out, but I wasn’t cheering, Paul. I was mad!  I started yelling, ‘That isn’t what happened last week! . . . Are you all too stupid to remember?  Did you all get amnesia?’ . . .

“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!  It went over the edge and he was still inside!  Do you understand that?

Even allowing for the small number of serials I’ve watched so far, I’ve known that feeling: the hero didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car before it went over the cliff, or out of the building before the cockadoodie bomb went off, or didn’t switch the cockadoodie train to another set of rails before it crashed.  Some cheats were more obvious than others, and some studios were more prone to pull a fast one than others.  Cheats also became more common later in the serial era, when dumbed-down serials were aimed at supposedly gullible kids.  But there’s an Annie Wilkes in every audience, and they’re watching closely.  So I’m proposing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat, to be awarded (when deserved) to those moments where the film’s producers don’t quite play fair with the audience, rescuing the hero at the expense of the suspension of disbelief.  I believe I’ll have plenty of candidates.

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