Sunday, February 27, 2022

I lost my cat and it was the longest three days of my life.

San Francisco has an earthquake problem.

You already know this.  The thing you might not know, unless you live on a fault line, is that most earthquakes go unnoticed.  There's plenty of loud ones that shake the walls or roll the streets, but many more little ones that cause paintings to end up very slightly askew.

A recent earthquake shifted our door frame infinitesimally and created a major problem, which is that the latch on our front door became loose and would pop open every time the elevator for our floor came to our level. 

This was only a mild annoyance at first, but the situation quickly got worse.  You see, we have a corner unit.  This is great because we don't share any walls with anyone.  One side of the unit is the balcony that overlooks the street, and on the other side, where our one neighbor should be, there's a hallway that leads outside.  This side entrance has two doors, an exterior and an interior one, and both lock.  Secure, right?  

Not when the neighbors keep propping open the doors.

This brings me to the story of the day.  On Thursday night, our front door popped open, and we woke Friday to discover our front door very slightly ajar and the cat missing.

Our cat, Mabel Syrup, is probably best described as "pathetic."  An 8-year-old indoor cat with a perchance for excessive, anxious grooming, Mabel is very pretty but not very smart.  We found her as a kitten, when she was no bigger than a soda can, and until the move, she'd lived her whole life in the same house.

 She is not what you might call "street-smart."  Or smart at all, really.

Now she was lost in an unfamiliar environment, and I had no idea where she was or when she'd be back.

If you've ever lost a pet you know just how terrifying it is not knowing what's become of them.

We immediately went on a full search worthy of "Gone Girl."  (A movie, and a book, that would have been objectively better if there were a cat instead of a bunch of boring, shallow, problematic human characters.)

I printed up about 50 fliers and determined a reasonable search radius, praying that Mabel wasn't trying to pull a Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey on us.  Information on the internet varies, but Mabel, being a spayed, middle-aged cat with a milquetoast personality seemed like she wouldn't venture further than a 3-mile radius.  Just to be sure, I drew up a map of a 4-mile radius, which included the Rose Garden, a place I was sure a cat might be interested in visiting due to the wildlife and the running water in the fountains.

Mabel loves wildlife, by which I mean indoor wildlife.

I spent the morning on Friday panicking and trudging my way around the neighborhood, putting up a flier on every corner until I ran out of tape.  I covered over ten miles in concentric circles.  I shook bowls of food and called for her; I put out notices on every platform I could find, including NextDoor, and called up Oakland Animal Services, visiting the shelter to drop off a dossier.

This is the photo we used for the posters.

Mabel became the Grand Lake neighborhood Most Wanted.

The calls rolled in.  Someone saw a cat here, someone saw a cat there.  Some of the alerts were for cats who looked nothing like her.  Others looked worrying like her.  Over the weekend I got two different calls about dead cats that I had to go check; neither was her.  Every call prompted a desperate feeling of hope and then, when the cat turned out not to be Mabel, a crushing disappointment.

Because of the excessive efforts to find her, everyone in the area became invested in the story.  

"Have you found her?  Is this her?"  I heard these questions over a dozen times.  Every call was like a 911 call that had me grabbing my jacket and racing to go see if I could nab her, only to discover it was never her to begin with.

The house felt empty.  Having lost Carlisle and Seamus in the last two years, we were down to our last dog.  Mabel had helped it feel less empty, but with her missing, we were suddenly very aware of how few pets we had compared to our previous zoo.

We also lost Winibelle the rabbit in 2019, who was one of Mabel's best friends.

Then, finally, a match!

Someone called us to inform us that there was a cat hiding under their porch that had been there over two days and seemed distressed.  They had been sliding food and water under the deck but the cat wasn't eating, just crying occasionally.

I went down to discover that this was indeed Mabel.  

Home at last!

Before we had moved, I had made sure to get Mabel and Ruby new tags on their collars that would be easily read, but the tag hadn't mattered in the end.  It was the posters that did it.  

How far had Mabel ventured?  About 400 feet, only three lots down from our building.  She hadn't ever made it to the Rose Garden.  Her Incredible Journal had terminated within calling distance, but Mabel, lacking agency and not being the brightest crayon in the shed, had opted to just give herself up to death once faced with the inhospitable elements of California in the spring.

I dragged Mabel out, filled with relief, and took her home.  I then went on a trek to pull down all the fliers and to update all of the notices.  Mabel's return was met with delight from the neighborhood, but overlooked by my building's super, who called me Sunday night to inform me, with joy, that she'd found my cat in the laundry room.  She even sent a picture of a cat that matched Mabel's description almost perfectly.

Confused, I went up to the laundry room to retrieve the second cat.  Wedged into a crevice and crying pitifully, the cat was a dead ringer for Mabel, although easily twice her size, and male.  He had no collar.  We dubbed him Chonkers and brought him up, putting up a few "found" posters, which confused everyone who had invested themselves emotionally in the Mabel Saga.

Tony's Home For Wayward Mabel Doppelgangers was short-lived.  We had Chonkers for about two days before we discovered a Lost poster for him.  His name was Banzo, a Brazilian slang term for the lazy feeling one gets after eating a lot, which suited him about as much as "Chonkers."

Chonkers was picked up by his owner and, finally, all cats were home.  

From this story I learned two things.  
First, the absolute necessity of "Lost" posters for animals.  If you are a pet owner, do yourself a favor and make a poster now instead of trying to create one when you're in a state of panic over the lost animal.  Make sure you have a current picture to put on it.  Both Banzo's owner and I used color photos, which was instrumental in having people call us to return our pets.
Second, having endured three days as a "one pet" household (no offense to our many tanks of lizards), we realized we're probably ready to begin the process of getting a new dog or cat.  We were prepared and even eager to keep Banzo if no one claimed him.  Nothing can replace Seamus, but there's room in our hearts for a new family member, and a lot of dogs out there need homes.  We're in no rush but sooner rather than later, I think we'll start looking.
It's a shame we didn't get to keep Chonkers/Banzo, since Mabel and Ruby had just started to like him.

As for the building, we put in a service request and had our door fixed to prevent this from happening again, and I personally whipped out a screwdriver Tommy Pickles-style and removed the door stop from the side entrance so that people would stop propping it open.

For the folks who "hosted" Mabel under their deck for two-and-a-half days, I made good on the poster's promise of a reward, and dropped off a bottle of Dubonnet.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Lost Relevancy of The Simpsons (And The Case For Reboots)

Sometimes I see a meme that encourages me to write a whole article.  

Recently there's been a couple of memes and Tweets floating around regarding the wealth of the Simpsons family.  

I post a lot of Simpsons .gifs on this blog, mostly just because they're so readily available and there's one for everything.  I was born in the '80s and so I got to enjoy the best age of the Simpsons at the height of its popularity.

But I haven't seen an episode in ten years.  In fact, I can recall, with crystal clarity, the last episode I saw.  

The Simpsons had already stopped being especially interesting to me, but watching it weekly was an ingrained habit at that point.  I did it without much thought or enthusiasm.  

But then, in May of 2012, I saw the 22nd episode of season 23, the infamous Lisa Goes Gaga.  That was the episode that was so bad that I was able to quit my Simpsons addiction cold turkey.  It was the lowest rated Simpsons episode to have ever aired at that time, with good reason.  It was pointless hero-worship; the episode's plot was that everyone in Springfield loves Lady Gaga.  That's pretty much it.  

 Lisa has a heartfelt discussion with Lady Gaga, becomes a fan, and there's a big song and dance number.  Seeing Lenny (Lenny!) dancing to Lady Gaga was the most gag-worthy thing I'd ever seen on the Simpsons and it was an indication to me that the show had completely lost itself.

Lisa Goes Gaga was painfully derivative of the episodes Lisa's Substitute and of Summer of 4 Ft. 2, and gave us nothing except for incredibly heavy-handed hero worship and some tame, censor-approved "edginess."  That episode, for me, was the death of the Simpsons, and every time the show gets renewed for yet another season, I wince a little.

The relevancy of the Simpsons collapsed under its own success.  And while I know everyone likes to complain about franchises being rebooted, the Simpsons is one I would love to see rebooted to make it once again culturally relevant.  I recently saw Spider-Man: No Way Home in theaters, and every single trailer was a reboot: Matrix, Batman, Top Gun.  Reboots don't have to be bad; sometimes, retelling a story through a new cultural lens can breathe life into it.  I don't dislike reboots simply for being reboots; if they're offering a fresh take using familiar characters, then they can really resonate with people and provide useful commentary on present social and political issues.

Without further ado, here's a link to an article I wrote about the lose relevancy of the Simpsons, originally published on the Grand Geek Gathering on February 17th, and my proposal for a reboot.  It ain't much but, hey, neither is the Simpsons.


Saturday, February 12, 2022

Controversial, Cancelled, and Critically Acclaimed: 8 More Graphic Novels Spiritually Similar to Maus

The following article was originally written for and published by the Grand Geek Gathering on February 9th, 2022.

In recent weeks you’ve probably heard a lot about the graphic novel Maus being banned.  In 1992, it became the first and only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.


The school board of McMinn County, Tennessee, unanimously voted on Jan. 10 to remove the book from the eighth-grade curriculum.  The decision was made due to the book’s “rough, objectionable” language and a few images of nudity (including a few panels in which Auschwitz prisoners are stripped, and one where the author finds his mother dead in a bathtub from suicide).

Maus is the story of the author’s father, Vladek Spielgelmen, a Polish Jew and a Holocaust survivor.  Framed as a series of interviews between the author, Art Spielgelman, and his father, the comic explores both Vladek’s experiences leading up to the war and his time in Auschwitz, as well as Art’s complicated relationship with him.  In this way, the story isn’t merely about the tragedy of the Holocaust for the people who endured it but about its long-reaching effects on the children of survivors.

The story of Maus’s ban went viral, due in part due to Holocaust Remembrance Day falling a mere 17 days after the decision was made to pull the book from schools.  A public outcry launched the book to Amazon’s best seller list and resulted in tens of thousands of donations of the book to libraries and book clubs.


One high school student's response to the school board regarding the removal of Maus.

On the heels of this controversy, in what was presumably a backlash to the backlash, a Tennessee church organized a book burning for popular YA titles that “promote witchcraft,” including Harry Potter and Twilight.

Now seems like a good time not only to snag a copy of Maus but to explore some other controversial titles.  While the list of banned books is long, this article will focus specifically on graphic novels, ones that I believe hold similarities to Maus that make them both controversial and culturally important.  If you haven’t already, check out the following.

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

What It’s About: Published as a serial between 1973 and 1987, Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen) is a semi-autobiographical account of a Hiroshima survivor’s experiences in 1945.

Why It’s So Controversial:  Told from the point of view of a 6-year-old boy, it’s been adapted into multiple movies (including a popular 1983 animation), but its depiction of post-war atrocities by Japanese soldiers resulted in a brief ban in some Japanese schools in 2012, which was later lifted.

Why You Should Read It: Like Maus, this book is a firsthand account of war experienced, and specifically the (literal) fallout of war as it impacted a child and a civilian.  Especially for Americans, the devastating effects of the decision to drop a nuclear weapon on Japan in 1945 should be reflected on with a critical eye.  Nakazawa’s widow, on the ban, stated: “War is brutal. [Barefoot Gen] expresses that in pictures, and I want people to keep reading it.”  It’s worth noting that this manga influenced Art Spielgelman himself.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

What It’s About: Another book focused on a child experiencing war, this graphic memoir tells of a 10-year-old girl’s coming-of-age during the Islamic revolution in Iran during the 1980s.

Why It’s So Controversial:  Persepolis has sold over two million copies worldwide, and also snagged a top spot on ALA’s list of "Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2014.”  It doesn’t shy away from topics such as the main character’s budding sexual growth, nor of violence under the fundamentalist Islamic regime of Iran in the 1980s, including such imagery as a dismembered soldier and descriptions of torture.

Why You Should Read It:  A complex depiction of cultural identity and feminism, this book challenges both Eastern and Western assumptions about freedom and expression.  Satrapi’s exploration of her own Islamic and Iranian identity isn’t black-and-white; it challenges the idea that religious expression is inherently oppressive while also condemning state-sanctioned violence in the name of religion.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

What It's About: Three interwoven stories explore cultural identity: one parable tells of the Monkey King trying to fit in with other gods, one story tells of a young immigrant boy Jin struggling to integrate, and the third follows a white American who is embarrassed by his Chinese cousin.  The three stories come together in the end (no spoilers!) and focus on the idea of accepting one's differences and embracing one's identity in the face of racial pressure to integrate.  Published quite recently, in 2006, this book is the only one on the list that is fully fictitious, but its themes and broader concepts are very much based in reality.

Why It's So Controversial: By design, Danny's Chinese cousin Chin-Kee is a massive racial stereotype (and his name is a slur).  He's meant to make the reader uncomfortable and to show how slurs and caricatures are harmful.

Why You Should Read It: This graphic novel snagged a Harvey, Eisner, and Printz Awards within a year of its publication.  It was also on Booklist's Top Ten Graphic Novels for Youth, a Time Top Ten Comic of the Year.  But perhaps most importantly, it was given the 2006/2007 Best Book Award from The Chinese American Librarians Association, who found its messages about the struggle with ethnic identity resonated very strongly with its target audience.  Seeing the world from the perspective of a non-white immigrant offers an often-overlooked viewpoint that many readers need to be exposed to.  Unrelated to the book, the author joined the board of directors of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, in 2018.  This non-profit has worked since 1986 to protect the First Amendment rights of comic book creators, which is critically important, especially as it pertains to "obscene" material.  (Note that many of the books on this list have been condemned as "obscene" or "pornographic" in an attempt to get them censured.)

Blankets by Craig Thompson

What It’s About: As long as we’re talking about religion, why not chat about Christianity?  An autobiographical tale of a boy being raised in an Evangelical Christian home and coming to terms with his spiritual identity, this work snagged multiple Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz awards.

Why It’s So Controversial:  Needless to say, it also came under fire from states in the Bible belt, which tried to ban it from libraries on account of its “pornographic” depictions of the main character’s sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter.

Why You Should Read It:  This work was read and praised by Art Spiegelmen for its unflinching personal narrative describing the ways in which the author’s fundamentalist religious upbringing resulted in harm.  It’s a first-hand account of the ways religion can be warped into something dangerous and oppressive and, like Persepolis, it centers its message on the author’s personal coming-to-terms with his own spirituality.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

What It’s About:  Another autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home spent two weeks on the New York Times’ Best Seller list.  An exploration of the author’s discovery that she was a lesbian, her coming out, and her father’s suicide (and whether these subjects are related) is explored earnestly, with commentary on gender roles, family dynamics, and mental health.

Why It’s So Controversial:  Needless to say it’s faced multiple challenges because of the subject matter concerning sexual identity, along with mature themes like the author’s father’s suicide and her own struggles with suicidal ideation.  Certainly, a parallel could be drawn between Maus’s own parental suicide themes.

Why You Should Read It: Like Persepolis and Blankets, this is a coming-of-age novel that frankly discusses a teen’s sense of fitting into a world.  To say it’s “too mature” for teenagers is to deny the fact that teenagers experience these feelings and live in the real world.  The author’s adolescence in rural Pennsylvania is not necessarily a unique situation and it’s important for our society that teens be exposed to this reality: both for those who are experiencing it themselves, so that they know that they aren’t alone, and for those who are not experiencing it, so that they can learn empathy for those who aren’t like them.

The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa

What It’s About:  The first of a trilogy (the other two being The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven), this book is another coming-of-age story of a girl turning into a woman.  The author uses his mother as the main character, and imagines her blooming womanhood in a series of discussions about sex, puberty, and relationships with her own mother, as well as through allegory in her interactions with her surroundings.

Why It’s So Controversial: This book made both the 2011 Most Frequently Challenged Books List and Booklist’s 2010 Top Graphic Novels for Youth List.  It includes depictions of nudity and sex; though often metaphorical, the presence of these “mature” themes has made the book banned in many teenage curricula for its “pornographic” nature.

Why You Should Read It: Similar to Persepolis and Fun House, The Color of Earth is an honest look at the experiences of a young woman and her growing understanding of the world around her.  A desire to “protect” young women does them the disservice of having open and necessary conversations about sexuality and self-expression, which makes them more vulnerable to abuse.  But unlike Persepolis and Fun House, The Color of Earth is not about a woman’s oppression but, instead, reads as a sensitive dialogue of a curious young woman who is given the necessary instruction and explanations of womanhood by a supportive parent, making it a refreshing take on female maturity.  This book has also received praise by Art Spiegelman.

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Nico Henrichon

What It’s About:  We turn our attention now from stories of people to stories of animals.  Pride of Baghdad is a fictionalized version of a real story.  In 2003, an American bombing of Baghdad resulted in four lions escaping the zoo; this graphic novel follows the pride of lions as they navigate through war-torn Baghdad.

Why It’s Controversial: This one-shot, published by Vertigo in 2006, won the IGN award for best original graphic novel the same year.  Its gory depictions of war and a rape scene have led to its censure.

Why You Should Read It: Its frank discussions of the tragedy and consequences of war make it a necessary read.  Each lion comes to a different conclusion about the nature of man and the consequences of war, delivering nuanced and refined opinions that challenge the reader to reconsider how they feel.

Additional Reading: Also by Brian Vaughan is Saga, a story following a pair of extraterrestrial refugees with a baby.  Saga was removed from the Apple App Store due to homosexual scenes and “anti-family values,” a curious argument when one considers that it’s literally about a family of refugees trying to navigate a war-torn environment.  Deeply allegorical, this epic sci-fi opera lives up to its name, and has, to date, won a dozen Eisners, seventeen Harveys, and the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.

Sheriff of Babylon by Tom King and Mitch Gerads

What It’s About: As long as we’re talking about war in Iraq, let’s take a moment to consider this 2015 Vertigo title.  Sheriff of Babylon is a murder mystery / noir story set in Iraq, and draws heavily from the author’s experiences in 2004, where he worked in Iraq as a counterintelligence officer for the CIA.

Why It’s So Controversial: With a lot of moral gray areas and violent imagery, it’s a good companion for Pride of Baghdad.

Why You Should Read It: Like Pride of Baghdad, this unshrinking tale gives a very real and raw depiction of war in a way that humanizes the characters and forces the reader to consider the consequences of war as it affects civilians.

One of the common features of all of these works is that, like Maus, they are either autobiographical, or based in reality (i.e., “historical fiction,”).  These are first-hand (or heavily researched) accounts of real situations or lived experience.  These are historical, living documents that focus on real characters (some more real than others, of course; American Born Chinese being an exception) that are living in the same world as us.

If children are old enough to experience war, racism, sexual abuse, family tragedies, and identity crises, then they are old enough to read about them.  By banning or censoring books deemed “too mature,” we are robbing readers of the maturity they are growing into, and holding them back from developing the empathy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge necessary to navigate these murky waters.

Ultimately, it’s true that not all books will be appropriate for all readers, but that decision should be made by the reader (or the reader’s parent), not a third-party entity, and certainly not a governmental one.

For further reading, I would like to submit a few highly controversial honorable mentions that, while purely fictitious, seem appropriate when discussing the topic of censorship:

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 

The first major deconstruction of the superhero genre that would later give rise to concepts like The Boys and Invincible, this graphic novel includes anti-Reaganist themes, commentary on power politics, and nihilistic viewpoints on the subject of “protective” elites and “nanny state” affairs.

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

A little more couched in DC lore, Kingdom Come is another exploration of divisions of power, and on the question of to what extent people should be allowed to govern themselves.  It challenges the notion of vigilantism as inherently heroic, as well as the oft-overlooked superhero trope that some people are inherently better than others, that governance is deterministic, and that egalitarianism is against the “natural order” of things.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd 

What better time is there to snag a copy of V for Vendetta?  Set in a near-future dystopia in which a fascist government has seized control of Britain, V for Vendetta follows a revolutionary as he tries to bring down the state.  Since the 2005 movie adaptation and the rise of the use of the Guy Fawkes mask by various protestors, it’s easy to forget what an incredible (and sadly predictive) book this was.  Controversial for its violence and its main character’s endorsement of anarchy, the arguments against facism and its anti-censorship, pro-free speech themes make this a timely book in a time when book burnings are happening.

Now, more than ever, it’s critical that we protect our right to access material that might be deemed shocking, offensive, or, as the Tennessee school board said, “objectionable,” particularly when that material seeks to educate people on controversial subject matter for the sake of uplifting minority rights and preventing tragedy, as so many of these titles do.  So if you’re going to grab a copy of Maus, go ahead and snag a few of these others.

And for further reading, don’t forget to check out Jeff’s Picks, a weekly series that focuses on indie comics that all too often fly under the radar.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Content Dump: Interview With A Really Cool Hawkeye Cosplayer

Last Friday I had a really fantastic interview with Trevor Newton, the Hawkeye cosplayer I met at L.A. Comic Con.

If you recall, this was the (sole) highlight of my time at L.A. Comic Con and it came at a really difficult time for me.  I had mentioned to Trevor I was an entertainment journalist and was interested in interviewing him, but then, with the move and everything else, I promptly forgot to reach out.

Later, on Facebook, I bumped into him (virtually) in a cosplay group, and he not only remembered me but asked if I was going to make good on my promise to reach out to him.  I took the invitation and we ended up talking for almost two hours.

Interviews are a love-hate format for me, because I struggle to tell another person's story in their words and to capture their voice in a way that honors them.  I was particularly stressed about this interview because of how gracious Trevor had been with his time and encouragement.  I ended up reaching out to one of my writing partners to take on the role of editor and help me polish the article up to something I wouldn't hate, and it turned out pretty good.

Despite feeling some burn-out, pushing myself to write and managing to grind out some halfway decent work leaves me feeling really fulfilled.

Shot In the Dark: Hawkeye Cosplayer Trevor Newton Stumbles Into The Spotlight