The Truth and Beauty – Manic Philosophy

A while ago I read Andrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing. It was a fascinating recounting of the life of a man who struggled with his family, his place in the world and his fundamental beliefs, a man who did not fully find his place in the world until the eve of his fiftieth birthday. As a result I was very interested to read Klavan’s insights into the intersection between faith and art, which he has committed to paper in his latest book, The Truth and Beauty. In the introduction to this book, Klavan states that his wife (who reads his books first) found the book interesting but wasn’t sure if it was good. He reports that his answer was, “Of course it’s a good book. I just have to cut out all the bad parts.” 

In this endeavor, he succeeded. There isn’t a bad section to this book. Unfortunately, it feels like the book itself would be stronger if he had polished up some of those bad parts to the standard of the rest and left them in, because I feel like it could really use some connective tissue in there. 

This book is divided into three general sections. First, the introduction and statement of purpose. Second, an examination of the life and times of England’s great poets. Third, a meditation on the Gospels, with occasional reference to said poets to illustrate a point. 

The core idea of this book is something I think is on point. By which I mean I agree with it 100%. Klavan is trying to grapple with the dichotomy of authenticity and performance. Human beings are not entirely authentic creatures nor are we entirely performative. We are both people pleasers and self-indulgent narcissists, we are both mold breakers and creatures of habit, we are creatures of thought and creatures of impulse. Our societies are structured to maximize natural roles and yet the iconoclast is a natural and vital role. 

There’s several solid lines of reasoning to argue Jesus Christ harmonizes these two seemingly conflicting states into a single superposition. Klavan explores a couple of them in his book and I don’t have any problem with his reasoning. 

Klavan also argues that the life and times of the English Romantic poets forced them to try and resolve this conflict as well. They had to sort out their own radical beliefs, the demands of human nature and the bedrock nature of reality. Klavan walks us through the time period and important events in the lives of the poets to make his case. I’m not an expert on these poets or the era. I can only take what Klavan presents at face value and, if it is all true, he does make an argument that the poets did find their ideas in conflict with their pursuit of art. It’s certainly compelling stuff to read. 

Finally, Klavan expounds on the beauty of the Gospels, the way they show us many people, but Christ in particular, balancing the roles of performer and authentic person. We see that only Christ balances these two things perfectly, and this is what made people react to him so strongly. 

What I find missing from all of this is a direct correlation between the Romantics and the Gospels. I understand that Wordsworth et al failed to balance the conflicts between authenticity and performance. The problem is that’s not a unique failing on their part, it is the human condition in general. Klavan speculates that their excellent art has stood the test of time because it points towards universal truths and does so beautifully, even if those artists didn’t live up to those truths and were not, themselves, beautiful. Fair enough, many such artists exist. 

I just don’t see how the two sets of observations connect. Perhaps it is best to just read The Truth and Beauty as another memoir, a recounting of the facts, ideas and poetry that passed through Klavan’s mind as he was struggling his way to deeper understanding of the Gospels. It certainly works well that way. Perhaps others will have the flash of genius moment Klavan did as they read this. I didn’t have such a moment, nor was the direction Klavan’s thoughts moved during that revelation clear to me. That was what I hoped to get from the book, but didn’t. Perhaps the fact that I’ve been enamored with a similar idea for over a decade – I did a presentation on the Parables of Jesus, Chinese wisdom literature and the unity of character and applied morals in college – has clouded my ability to take in new thoughts on the matter. That can happen to creative minds. Once we have an approach to a topic in mind taking on a new one can be difficult. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Truth and Beauty a great deal. It was interesting, humorous, informative and grappled with big ideas. But I didn’t get the insight into how two very deep subjects connect that I had hoped and if that’s what you’re really hoping for I’m not sure you will, either. If you’re okay with that, or if you’re just looking for a high level overview of the English Romantics, you may enjoy this book. And, of course, you may be able to pick up on parts of this book that I could not. But I’m not entirely sure I can recommend this book to people trying to pick up a deeper understanding of truth and beauty vis a vie the Gospels, because I didn’t find it here. It’s hard for me to parse the worth of the book in that respect, however, because I have also been caught up in the questions Klavan wrestles with for most of my life. Your mileage may vary. I would recommend reading the sample or checking your library before buying. 

I’ve been kind of hard on Klavan’s writing here. But I do think this is a good book and I hope to see more nonfiction from Klavan in the future.  

Scars: Of Rats and Men

If gratitude is the measure of a man, then J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars is a story about taking the measure of two men who are at their lowest. By men, I mean one man and one genetically modified rat. 

Our heroes are James, retied astronaut and garbage disposal man, and Max, an augmented bomb disposal rat with near human intelligence. For those of you not in the know, rats trained to find and mark land mines already exist in our world today! They do not have near human level intelligence, although I personally know many people who lack the ingenuity of the average rat, but they make up for it through a well-trained sense of smell. Max is a logical extension of this concept, a rat with the intelligence to also disarm the land mines they find and reclaim land long unusable due to the danger the landmines present. 

Or at least Max was that. When we meet him in the story, Max is retired from that line of work and now makes ends meet as James’s emotional support animal. 

James was an astronaut who towed debris out of orbit so it would no longer pose a danger to space lanes and satellites. Then he lost his leg in an accident we don’t initially know the full details of. With a prosthetic, PTSD and a host of pills to take there’s no way James is ever getting sent back into orbit again. James and Max are a pair of oddballs with long histories in interesting and dangerous careers that leave them with very strong opinions on the world and how they should live in it. 

Scars is a novella and as a result it’s difficult to discuss the plot without recapping it in its entirety. I don’t plan to do that here, you’ll have to read it if you want an idea of the story beyond what you get here. The character development is great, the characters themselves are interesting and the plot… well, it’s very simple but perfectly suited to the story. Not every narrative needs politics, romance and betrayal. The story is mostly a character study and it studies those characters quite well in the space available. 

Finney has done his research. He’s looked into the mechanics of space flight and the dangers therein. He’s a longtime rat owner and it shows, my knowledge of the temperament and behaviors of rats has expanded exponentially based entirely on reading this one story. Admittedly, I knew almost nothing before. 

There’s also a lot of interesting angles explored through the characters backgrounds, which are both similar and wildly different. Both are used to high stress and highly regimented lifestyles whereas they’ve responded to their changes in circumstances in very different ways. Psychology was clearly a part of how these characters were developed and it’s quite satisfying to see.  All that said, this is not a perfect story. 

For starters, we end with James making a resolve to change his behavior. That’s admirable and leaves a door open for further stories exploring how he acts this out but I would’ve liked a conclusion that shows us his first steps along that road. Perhaps that would have overshadowed the ending. I didn’t see the story in previous drafts and I know finding the right ending point is difficult but I was left a little unsatisfied. Given everything I know about James I’m not sure how well he can follow up his new direction. I would like to know how rocky the road would be for him, especially since we may never see him and Max again. 

Speaking of that little rat, Max is a great character but he’s a little one note. He has one major emotional beat in the story and the rest of the time he’s pretty much the same as always. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of character. I just felt like Max has the potential to be much more and it wasn’t explored as much as it could’ve been. Some of this is a choice of medium – novellas are short, they don’t dig into characters as much as novels do. Some of it is undoubtedly the author working to keep the point of his story sharp. My critiques here are more nitpicks than outright flaws, matters of taste more than errors. 

If you’re looking for a short, interesting sci-fi story delving deep into the nature of two interesting characters, I recommend to you J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars

Unexpected Fun With L. Jagi Lamplighter

If you were to walk through the forest and happen across a statue of a woman with feathered wings sitting in a clearing beside a long abandoned stone building, what would you think? Most likely you would assume you’d found an old church, long abandoned by its congregation. Perhaps you’d share a moment of comradery with the place’s guardian angel before continuing on your way. Regardless, you probably wouldn’t find that much out of place with it. 

When Rachel Griffon happens on such a scene at the beginning of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffon that’s not at all how she reacts. 

Rachel has no idea what the statue is when she discovers it and that takes some real doing since she has a flawless memory and has read every travelog, adventure tale and bestiary in her grandfather’s library. Her grandfather was one of the foremost scholars in the World of the Wise, for him to not know something takes quite a bit of doing. It is the mystery of the winged woman, along with a dozen other small things, that forms the core of Rachel’s drive through the course of the story. She wants to know the secrets of the world. Then she wants to share them, for it’s the thrill of revelation that truly fascinates her. 

As a twelve year old girl, nearly thirteen, you might expect the secrets that most interest her to be of a particularly mundane variety. However, while some mundane middle school drama afflicts Rachel, it’s not the focus of the story. The Roanoke Academy of Magical Arts has a great deal more going on in its ancient hallways than just puberty driven angst. 

Anyone remotely familiar with the Harry Potter franchise will immediately understand the core premise of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s series. Rachel Griffon is newly enrolled in magic school and in the halls of that school she will find far more of an education in far more things than she expected. The hidden wizards of her world – the Wise – live far more complicated lives than she expected. Rachel herself isn’t quite what you’d expect of a Harry Potter knockoff. 

Now before I go on let me address that obvious issue you may be raising right now. “Nate,” you say, “middlegrade fantasy is a very worn out genre. How can you expect me to get invested in yet another tale of magical teenagers going to magic school?

I understand this objection. But Lamplighter brings a sense of myth that is badly lacking from a lot of middlegrade literature. Many books written for teens try to tap into the sense, so common in young people, that the world is new and undiscovered and everything that exists just came into existence moments ago. Lamplighter, on the other hand, presents us with a world that is ancient and shaped by strange forces that have left Rachel and her friends in very unenviable postions. Yet those forces are not all hostile or malevolent. Some of them are but most of them are just consequences of big decisions made ages ago, they are signposts of a history that must be understood and lived in by our heroes if they ever hope to make anythign of themselves or their world.

It’s a much stronger approach to worldbuilding and character growth than I’ve found in most middlegrade writing, and that alone makes it worthwhile. Add in the mysteries and character dynamics that Lamplighter does so well and you have a very strong read for just about any audience.

Back to our protagonist. She’s a well bred young woman with loving parents and a noble lineage. Magic was always something she knew of, while her mother held a fondness for the mundane people – the Unwary – that helps her keep a fairly nuanced perspective on the world around her. While a flawless memory helps her with the study of magic, she’s no great talent. Many of her peers pick up their lessons faster than she does. 

Rachel doesn’t even have a grand destiny laid out before her. Some of her friends are fated for heroics, but Rachel herself isn’t one of them. If she wishes to do some great thing for the world around her she’ll have to find that work and take it on herself. 

The conflicts at Roanoke are deeply steeped in the history and lore of Lamplighter’s world. As you might expect of a story starring someone who never forgets, connecting details of past events to unravel current problems is an ongoing theme in this story. Rachel delights in gathering facts, making connections and revealing her secrets at the right moment. We delight in seeing whether she’s chosen the right moment (which she does often) or if youth and naivety have deceived her and she’s misread the situation (which isn’t rare). 

Beneath all the flashy magic spells, shadows of old evils and standard schoolyard drama, however, Rachel faces deeper issues. One touch I really liked came in the third novel. After several weeks of chaos, emotional strain and traumatic events, Rachel finds herself on the verge of a very believable mental breakdown which is resolved, as so many things in her life, by the unexpected but totally coherent application of her flawless memories. It’s hard to describe more without spoiling the moment, so I’ll leave it at that – suffice it to say this is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. 

Another interesting deep current running through Lamplighter’s novels is the twin questions of purpose and allegiance. Rachel is constantly looking at her loyalties to friends and family and comparing them to her own wants and goals. She’s a very driven character, but also a very devoted one. Reconciling her strong sense of duty to principle and loyalty to others is difficult for her. Her principles are challenged and some are worn down in ways that don’t benefit her. Five novels in and Rachel still doesn’t have a clear cut, highest standard for her life. Yet. 

But there are hints. 

One of the greatest achievements Lamplighter reaches with her series is inviting the audience to share Rachel’s delight in knowing a secret. Yes, we follow her adventures and know many of the secrets she knows. However, things go a layer deeper than that. You remember our opening thought experiment, of finding a guardian angel by a ruined church? This is a secret we know that Rachel does not

There are other hints to that secret in the early pages of the first book. Rachel owns a model of broom known as a steeplechaser. However, no one knows the meaning of the word steeple. It’s an orphaned word, like saint, so old that its meaning is lost even though people still use it. And, of course, there is the familiar. All the students at Roanoke have familiars but Rachel’s roommate brought a particularly unusual one. A lion, miniaturized for convenience. A lion that talks to a raven on the windowsill in the middle of the night. Even among the Wise, even among the enhanced creatures known as familiars, animals don’t talk

But these two do. The lion isn’t supposed to be there, the raven says. He was called, the lion explains, and where he is called no earthly power can keep him from answering. Not even in a world where knowledge of him has been locked away. 

This is the secret we know, but Rachel does not. We know the Lion of Judah and we get to watch Rachel slowly discover him in spite of the painstaking efforts made to hide him from view. In spite of the fact that the lion here is behind enemy lines. In spite of all the other things clamoring for her attention. This part of Rachel’s story is what truly gripped me as I read Lamplighter’s books. It was a brilliant idea, executed in a way that did a wonderful job of holding my attention. If watching someone discover that secret seems like a worthwhile tale to you, I would highly recommend this tale. 

The Hyperions – Visuals and Story

I’ve gotten very invested in the methods of visual storytelling in the last couple of months. This isn’t just because I love comics and the methods of telling a story there, although that’s a part of it, but also because I’m trying to develop a better understanding of integrating descriptions into prose. I’ve repeatedly received feedback in the last few months from people wanting a better idea of what things look like. I’m not the best at describing the worlds my characters inhabit or what they look like and that’s a weakness I’m trying to overcome. Part of my approach to that is analyzing the visual storytelling of others. Putting things that work into words helps me put my own thoughts into words better, and that’s a big part of why I write essays like this. Hopefully reading them helps you folks, too. 

The most visually creative film I’ve watched in recent memory is The Hyperions, directed by Jon MacDonald. The Hyperions exists in a carefully recreated world of the late 1970s and features the retired scions of a superhero program. The titular Hyperions are an interesting combination of the traditional superhero and the Power Rangers. They wear spandex costumes with capes, like Superman. But their powers come from a bulky, wrist mounted device that relies on badges and tweaks their physiology rather than genetic mutations or magic. This blending of narrative and visuals from two very different sources is common throughout The Hyperions. 

The clearest example comes through the eyes of Professor Mandelbaum. 

The Professor is a classic emotionally distant, absentminded genius who never quite connected with the kids he gave superpowers to. His focus is very much on the future and the things he hopes to create. When he’s alone with his thoughts the world around Mandelbaum becomes animated – as in, it changes from what we see to actual, hand drawn animation. MacDonald apparently did this animation himself. It’s a brilliant touch to show just how much the Professor lapses into his own thoughts and his own world when he’s alone with his thoughts. It also helps us understand why he never quite connects with any of the people he cares about. They’re literally living in different worlds. 

While Mandlebaum is clearly based on Professor Xavier, the legendary leader of the X-Men, he has a large touch of the Power Rangers and tokusatsu as well. He has a mechanically augmented parrot with enhanced intelligence, much like the sidekicks of Power Ranger team founders. He’s out of touch with the modern world, which is more like a tokusatsu leader and less like Xavier. It’s an interesting balancing act, telegraphed by a number if visual design choices in his appearance and the things he creates.

The buildings the story takes place in also offer differing insights into the characters and how they’re related. Professor Mandlebaum’s mansion is a big building that manages to be both cluttered and empty at the same time. Outside of the Professor’s rooms, the mansion is a pretty impersonal place. There’s very few human touches. Instead there’s a lot of stuff scattered about, snacks or books or whatever else the Professor thinks will hold the interest of the youngsters he’s taken in. The Professor’s rooms, on the other hand, are very snug. His favorite chairs and books are there, in a space clearly optimized to be as close to the fantasies in his head as possible. It’s a place perfect for him, but difficult for others to make sense of at first. 

In contrast, the museum where Vista and Ansel spend most of the running time is very impersonal. It chronicles the lives of the Mandelbaums through a pane of glass, as if the people it immortalizes were bugs under a lens or actors on a stage. It reinforces the sense that Vista and Ansel are long removed from their lives as superheroes whether they like it or not. The mayhem unleashed there at the end of the film is a nice touch, emphasizing how that chapter of their lives is over. 

There are other little visual touches that are quite nice. Maya’s teleportation effect is animated, rather than some kind of 3D, computer generation effect, which makes the visual feel like a touch of Professor Mandlebaum’s world made real. This emphasizes the closeness between the two on top of being a perfect visual representation of what the Professor is hoping to accomplish. The talking bird character manages to look completely organic to the world it lives in, even though it’s also clearly a puppet effect lovingly brought to life by a dedicated member of the film crew. 

On top of that, painstaking care is taken in creating a world made entirely of parts from the late 1970s (outside of the obvious additions added by the nature of the story). This added touch of realism makes the more fantastical elements feel like they could be right out of that era, as if MacDonald is simply documenting a part of the era we were unaware of until The Hyperions was released. A lot of care went into making the visuals all feel organic. 

The Hyperions isn’t the best superhero film ever created but all the attention to detail in the way it tells the story lets MacDonald reach a conclusion that is particularly poignant. The film ends on a long shot of Vista going into her father’s office, a place that has been entirely for the Professor until now, and she sees it with new eyes. At first I thought this was a strange shot to end the film on. But as I ruminated on the film I came to realize this shot shows Vista becoming a part of her adopted father’s life in a way she wasn’t before. She understands parts of him she was too young and immature to appreciate when they parted ways but which she’s come to see more clearly now that she’s a mother herself. So she can enter her father’s place and feel at ease now, where she was clearly out of place before. A well done use of visual storytelling subtle enough that I might have missed it. 

You can’t make a perfect story entirely through visuals. You need good storytelling on other fronts to round it out. By the same token, good visual storytelling is an integral part of building a well-rounded story that speaks to the audience on all levels. I can’t point to any single story, film, comic or novel, that handles all of them perfectly. We have to examine stories that handle particular aspects of story well and The Hyperions handles the visual aspects quite well. If it’s a subject that has troubled you I would recommend giving it a look.

The Shiori Experience – Sight and Sound

There’s a longstanding tradition in the visual arts of trying to represent the invisible. Naoki Urosawa draws the feet and legs of people walking to represent a sense of purpose or determination. Bill Waterson drew uneven, exclamation mark-styled lines around his characters to represent excitement, surprise or anger. Superman is depicted like a strongman flexing every muscle at once to represent his power and resolute nature. These visual representations have been borrowed by many other visual artists in other mediums precisely because they are effective in their chosen goals. 

There is one area where these attempts to depict the invisible haven’t really found traction. Many illustrators have tried to depict music and its effect on those who hear it but so far there isn’t any one standout way to do it. One artist who has portrayed music with some success is Kazuya Machida, the author and artist of The Shiori Experience

The basic premise of The Shiori Experience is quite comedic. Shiori is a school music teacher who used to idolize her older brother, who was lead guitarist in a garage band. When Shiori’s brother tries to fund the production of his own album but gets ripped off his family is left in debt and he flees overseas to America to try and make his guitar legend there. Shiori gives up her love of rock and roll because her family turns on the medium. She still loves the guitar but she loves her family to the point she won’t push them by putting her love of rock and roll in front of them constantly. Until one night, at midnight on her 27th birthday, she meets the ghost of Jimi Hendrix at a crossroads. Jimi haunts Shiori and imbues her with some of his legendary guitar skill. In exchange, she must become a musical legend before her 27th year ends or she will join the 27 Club – the group of musicians who had the potential to change music forever but died at the age of 27. 

Jimi himself is a card carrying member of the club, of course. He hasn’t given up on creating new music so he’s returned to the mortal realm to find someone willing to make a deal with him. Shiori didn’t make a deal with him but he’s there for some reason and that means she has 365 days to become a rock legend or she’s doomed. There’s a lot of odd couple vibes to The Shiori Experience on top of the usual trials of a person reigniting their passion for a skill they let fall by the wayside for years. It’s a fun tale, although heavily reliant on tropes. 

But it’s the depiction of music on the comic page that really interests me. Manga has a long standing tradition of using visual metaphors in moments of strong emotional impact – crashing waves behind triumphant warriors, blooming flowers wreathing the objects of romantic affection, that kind of thing. Some of that is used in The Shiori Experience. For example, when a guitarist haunted by the ghost of Kurt Corbain meets Shiori and Hendrix the four of them engage in a guitar duel at an underground rock venue where their clashing riffs are depicted as waves crashing into each other. 

While this is very well trod ground in action manga, The Shiori Experience puts a new spin on it. The change from depicting a simple battle to a struggle between entertainers lets Machida recontextualize the metaphor. He does this by showing the waves sweeping the audience away

Many comics and manga try to show the input of music on the audience by illustrating their emotional reaction to it through expression or perhaps actions like dancing or crying. Machida shows the audience becoming a part of the metaphor. As the music surges between the dueling guitarists the audience swirls back and forth on the dance floor, caught in the maelstrom. It’s a brilliant use of established conventions in a new context to powerful effect. 

Machida’s use of visual storytelling doesn’t end there. When Shiori takes her band to a battle of the bands each song in their set is given a full, 38-40 page chapter to show us the impact of the band’s performance on the audience. It’s a very bold move, relying on purely visual storytelling to emphasize relationships between the performers and the audience. Two of the songs in Shiori’s set are classic rock songs, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Monkee’s “Daydream Believer.” The other two are ‘original’ songs composed by Shiori and her band, songs we’ve never heard and have no canonical lyrics established in the manga. They exist only in our heads. Machida uses different approaches for each. 

The real songs are used to establish the rapport between the audience and the band, with the lyrics and the reactions to them showing how everyone in the venue is reacting in the same way. The only words in the chapters are the song lyrics – we get the rest entirely through expressions, motions and reactions. The two ‘original’ songs have no written words in their respective chapters at all. To get his point across in these chapters Machida relies even harder on visual language from action manga. 

The opening number uses what I call ‘team building’ metaphors, with the band member known as Prince (and clearly based on that Prince) leading the band in a song he composed to show off each of their strong points. As each one comes in we see the band building in a visual pyramid with the crowd surging towards the stage, reminiscent of tokusatsu costumed performers creating a dynamic pose as they make their entrances. If you’re not familiar with this style of Japanese storytelling, a small part of it has been imported under the brand Power Rangers. The language here is pretty simple: Shiori’s band is building to a high point. 

At the other end of the set, they perform “Jack In,” their other ‘original’ song. During this song Machida appropriates the visuals of ‘special attacks’ as often seen in battle manga. The audio input jack is a recurring visual metaphor in The Shiori Experience, used to symbolize the connection between Hendrix and Shiori, then later Shiori and her bandmates. But at this juncture we see audio jacks streaking from the stage and jacking into the heads and hearts of the audience as the music connects with them. 

This song is all about Shiori’s band versus the other bands they’re competing against. As the song builds to the climax of their set these audio jacks connect with the opposing band members in the audience, showing the moments they win over each of their rivals. Some are hit by the jacks right away, some even actively run into their paths while some drift around the venue until a particular moment in the music connects with then. One actively fights off connecting with the song, grabbing the jack sent his way and holding it in his hand until he relents and jacks in himself. Machida uses these metaphors because he doesn’t want this sequence to just be about the song or its effect on the audience. He wants to show the conflict between Shiori and her rivals, so he steals visuals from stories about physical conflict but adds just enough context to make it clear these are metaphors. 

It’s difficult to show something intangible in a visual medium. The Shiori Experience isn’t creating a definitive series of metaphors for music on the comic page like Superman or Waterson did. However Machida is innovating and working on the problem in ways few other artists are and that’s a great reason for anyone interested in visual storytelling to give it a look.