I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Sign of the Apocalypse

I'm not sure if anyone notice earlier this month when the world was knocked slightly further atilt on its axis. Perhaps the world didn't shake for you, but it did for me.

On March 9, I walked into my local comic book shop and canceled all my subscriptions.

Now, to the non-geeks out there in the world, this is probably not a momentous statement. But I've been reading comic books faithfull for thirty years--three quarters of my life. I've been subscribing in some format or another for over half my life. I love comics, and have accumulated an enormous heap of the things, mostly gathered in neat rows of white boxes. There is no spot in my house where it is possible to sit down and not be within arm's reach of a comic book.

Several trends brought me to this place. First and foremost was economics. Comic books routinely cost about $3 a pop now. Special issues or "event" comics like the JLA/Avengers cross-over can cost $6 or $7 each. There was a time in the early nineties where I was following close to thirty titles--doing that today would cost me over $100 a month. Story lines in comics have swollen in recent years--a story arc lasting 6 issues is routine. A year is common. And DC just started a storyline reintroducing the Seven Soldiers that they proudly tout as running for 30 issues. Reading the entire story issue by issue will cost close to $100.

Which brings me to an issue of quality. I can't prejudge the Seven Soldiers storyline, but I'm skeptical that the story truly requires 30 issues to tell. One of the things I liked about comics was that they could cram in astonishing amounts of story into a tiny space. You could pick up an issue of Superman from the 1960s, for instance, and it might involve a plot that requires Superman to visit three different planets in the span of three pages--or even three panels. Now, his journey to another planet would take an entire issue, and his visit to the planet might be dragged out over three or four additional issues. I'll be blunt: My attention span isn't that long. More and more I find myself reading comics where I realize I've forgotten why the characters are doing whatever the hell they are doing. Say that Superman has flown to Planet X because it's the only source of a miracle medicine that's going to be save Pa Kent from an alien virus. Well, by the time the story line is in its fourth or fifth month, I'll have forgotten all about poor Pa Kent. So will the writer and the artist. They are now distracted by the alien world. Two issues later, Superman gets back with the medicine and gives it to Pa almost as an afterthought, and I'll be thinking, "Pa was sick? Since when?" There just aren't that many stories that are so compelling that I'll remember the beginning if I'm reaching the end six months later. (Some stories do deserve this space, however--I promise a future post touting some of the best.)

Of course, one thing driving this trend is that comic book storylines are now routinely collected into graphic novels. 6 to 8 issues of a book is about the right length to fill a graphic novel, so storylines swell to fill this length. And, you can read the story in one sitting--I can hold on to almost any premise for an hour. The economics of graphic novels make sense too. Eight issues of an individual comic book cost about $24--a lot of the graphic novels are priced at $12.95. And, the graphic novels are convenient if you want to reread a story--there are comics I'd be interested in rereading, but it would require me digging through my endless boxes to try to reassemble all the issues of the storyline. It's a hassle. Where as the graphic novel just sits neatly on the shelf, no ads, ready to go. And, while I've never considered myself a comic collector, only a comic accumulator, graphic novels, as reprints, require no special care to maintain collectability. You can read these things in the bathtub if you are so inclined. You can break the spines. It doesn't matter--you don't have the dread that the issue you are holding is going to suddenly explode in value ten years from now and you'll have reason to rue getting the pizza sauce on the cover.

It's a very, very rare monthly comic book that still puts out a self-contained issue. Every now and then, the JSA will pull it off with a spotlight issue on a single character. The Flash has some decent single issues every now and then. Tom Strong for a long time kept adventures to a single issue, although there have been more and more multipart stories there lately. Nothing else currently published springs to mind. (I'll also do a future post about single issue epics.) The concept of one issue equalling one story is all but dead in comics. This also means that it is impossible to jump into a series. If you hear buzz that a book you aren't reading has a new artist and writer and is really good, but the story is already three or four months old, it's too late. You'll be completely lost if you pick up an issue in the middle of a storyline, and if the book is "hot," back issues will cost insane amounts. And why bother hunting out back issues? In a year, you can pick up the graphic novel for less than you'd pay for a single collectable back issue.

There have been other trends in comics that have sapped my enjoyment over the years. Too much continuity--storylines that require that you know thirty years of character history in order to make sense of them. Not enough continuity--the willingness of some writers to simply throw out everything that has come before and just start fresh, changing anything they feel like. The fact that the more I enjoy a book seems to translate rather directly into that book being in ever greater danger of cancelation. The list of books I fell in love with only to see cancelled is a long one.

I feel a sense of guilt walking away from comic books. They are a struggling art form, with an aging and declining readership. They need my money. Alas, I feel they've stopped earning it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

SF versus Fantasy Celebrity Smackdown!!!

Attended Stellarcon over the weekend and it was a blast. Lord have mercy, I done got geekiness all over me, not that I wasn't reeking of it before. Under one roof we had Klingons, pirates, ewoks, nameless, shambling, unspeakable horrors. Most surreal con moment: the discussion of Joseph Cambell's heroic archetypes as they apply to Pokemon.

The geeking climax for me was the panel I led called SF vs. Fantasy Celebrity Deathmatch. I matched up ten SF characters randomly with ten fantasy characters. We ran them through a round of bouts, then had several rounds of elimination free-for-all. Gandolf versus Superman, Thor versus Hulk, Dr. Who verus Dracula, Jar Jar Binks versus Peter Pan, and so forth. Winners were decided based on arguments presented by the audience. As a judge, I found myself having to render split second judgements--could Superman's heat vision hurt Sauron? Would Pikachu's lightning slow down Shrek? Could anyone beat Cthulhu? (Yes, actually--Captain Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Carribean, being already dead and insane, was the perfect foil for the great old one.) It was late at night, so my memory's getting fuzzy--did Buffy the Vampire slayer really kill Jar Jar Binks? Or was that Peter Pan who did him in? All I know is, Jar Jar never really stood a chance. In the final round, the undefeated champions were Gandolf and Dr. Who--and, despite my loyalty to the Doctor, the consensus of the mob was that Gandolf would win. As a geek at heart, I decided the only fair way to settle the matter was with a roll of the dice--and Gandolf took home the trophy. I spent the next hour or so haunted by the final round, wondering what I could have done differently to bring the Doctor to the victory I feel sure he deserved...

Man alive, the things I get worked up about.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Vomiting poet psychopath

Tomorrow's my birthday. For the last five years or so it's turned into sort of a tradition for my friend Greg and I to hit the road and travel to Cherokee, NC, where they have a casino, and, once there, do our part to recompensate the Cherokee for the awful, awful things our ancestors did to them. Also, maybe we'll win money. In which case, screw the Cherokee.

Currently, I'm actually a fair amount ahead on my lifetime winnings at Cherokee. This is because each year, I only take $100 with me to gamble with, and for the last few years I've been lucky to walk away with more than $20 of it. But, I did win a 1250 jackpot off a quarter on a trip five years ago--so I can go back for another 8 years before I'm losing money again.

These trips also involve the annual harrassment of our friend James Rice. James is somebody we went to college with many moons ago, and he is, to be blunt, insane. Not wild party animal insane, but a much more spooky and sinister, hitchhiker-chained-up-in-the-cellar insane. He's a backwoods mountain child with a history of early childhood head trauma and, somehow appropriately, a deep love of classical poetry. He works as a guard in a juvenile detention home and has scary stories to tell that will leave you forever fearful of teenage boys, if you aren't already, which you should be, trust me. And, he has a very dangerous, bizarre, and disgusting medical condition: When he laughs too hard, he vomits. Not every time, but often enough to make Greg and me flinch when we're around him. We are, it should be noted, very funny people.

The wierdest thing about James Rice, though, is that the universe seems determined to make us be friends with him. We have three James Rice encounter stories that, were they fiction, would be completely unbelievable, yet they are, I swear, true.

Chance encounter number 1: Almost ten years back, Greg was still living in Asheville. James lived in Mars Hill, about 30 miles away. I drove up to see Greg and met him downtown. They have these granite blocks lining the sidewalks downtown, and when I parallel parked, I somehow hit one of these granite blocks in such a fashion that it knocked the valve stem off my tire and gave me a flat. So, while Greg and I are fixing the flat, who should drive by and spot us but James Rice. We acknowledged this as a coincidence, and a pleasant one, since it was good to catch up with an old friend. By itself, this is an unremarkable story. These things happen.

Chance encounter number 2: So, the first coincidental encounter, no big deal. You occassionally run into people you know. But, a few years later, Greg was on the interstate in near Marion, NC, about 50 miles from Asheville. He pulled off at the rest stop there and who should he find but: James Rice, standing in the parking lot, utterly lost. James had been trying to drive to Black Mountain, NC, and had completely missed it, and had pulled off at the rest area to try to ask directions. So, this was something of a bigger coincidence, since the encounter took place far from both of their homes. Fortunately, Greg got James turned around and heading back in the right direction. It was a wierd bit of luck for James, but, again, these things happen.

Chance encounter number 3: So, the first two encounters, Greg meets James when he wasn't thinking about him. He just turned up. But, yet another time, Greg and I had both moved from Asheville. This was around the time of my first divorce, if I remember correctly, and I was heading back to Asheville to my ex-wife's house to collect some of my stuff, and Greg was along for the ride. We spent the night at a motel in Asheville. The next morning, we're up around seven in the morning, and Greg says we should call James Rice and see if he wants to get together with us for a little while that morning. The hotel charges some outrageous amount for phone calls though, so we decide to go to the mall and use the payphones there. We get to the mall and, of course, every store in it is closed. We are the only car in the parking lot. The doors are open though, and we walk inside to look for the payphones. And, in the vast main hallway, at the far end, there is a lone figure walking toward us. We walk toward him. And, when we get close enough to see who it is, it turns out to be: Elvis Presley. Wait, no, that was a typo. It's James Rice apparently acting under the commands of whatever demons drive him to show up at the mall hours before any stores open and walk around for a while until we show up. So, again, pure chance, pure coincidence, but by now, we understand a pattern has formed. We are tied to this wierd vomiting poet psycopath--the universe will not let us avoid him, not that we were trying too.

So, off we go, flinging ourselves once more into the North Carolina mountains, land of strange odds and general wierdness, hoping that this year, we'll win the big one, a jackpot that will forever change our lives, or at least payoff a credit card. And, failing that, we will settle for the smaller goal, the hope that, perhaps, this year, we will not witness vomiting.