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BEWARE: Below be spoilers for the "How I Met Your Mother" series finale, which aired last night!

I am a playwright by nature and training. Hence, the stories I tell are usually finite, and hopefully the fate of my work remains largely under my own control. The same cannot be said for television or film, where production companies or networks may have sway over a final product, whether or not that means editing a film into something different than its creators intended, or prolonging the life of a television show far past the twists and turns the show was intending to take are accomplished. I don't really understand the struggles it takes to get a TV show to air, nor how to plan potentially infinite seasons. The stories I tell tend to have endings that I work towards, and I achieve them (even if the endings end up changing; they often do). So while I can't understand what Carter Bays and Craig Thomas went through in crafting nine(-ish) years of stories for "How I Met Your Mother," I feel like I got a glimpse into their creative ambitions last night during the series finale.

If I had my druthers, I would design an entire class around the narrative structure employed in "How I Met Your Mother." A random and numerous amount of episodes display strong storytelling technique. A random and numerous amount of episodes display great character work, stunning set pieces, or emotional moments. But I also think the show provides fantastic lessons about long-form storytelling that any writer could learn from -- starting with how endings function in a story intent on proving both the journey and the destination are of equal importance.

Last night's final episode was dissatisfying for a lot of people, for a number of reasons. I know many people who are extremely angry about the show's ending. I know others who were moved to tears. I remain somewhere in between these two states. I have always enjoyed this show, I've shared it with some of my closest friends. In a way, this show's ending was a final goodbye to my twenties, which ended earlier in March. So I have investment in the story, for personal as well as entertainment reasons. That doesn't mean I am immune the writers' missteps. For example, I dropped out of the show once seasons six, seven, and eight began to drag their heels on dramatic developments between the characters. I couldn't help but feel the amount of story the writers had to tell didn't gibe with having forty-some more hours of TV time.

More importantly, I began to feel the "why today" was outweighing the show's "present" events. The whole show serving as a flashback was fine, but fans were chomping at the bit to know why Future Ted was even telling the story of how he met his kids' mother. The series began with Ted declaring he'd tell his disinterested kids this story, and that was that. This simplicity is not sustainable over nine years. A couple seasons, sure, but if writers don't start answering questions that pop into viewers' heads, the audience will provide answers on their own. Most viewers I know figured the mother was dead in the future, which is exactly what we learned last night. We were told by Future Ted that the mother died, and he is telling his children their story as a look back at their meeting and life together.

Except the story wasn't about the mother. The kids (from a section filmed allllllll the way back in 2006 or 2007) speak the truth when they inform Ted that the story had little to do with their mother and everything to do with his one-time girlfriend and best friend Robin. They spur him on to start dating her, as apparently she's still been in this family's life, and Ted's life in particular. (Mind you, we're told this; we've seen none of it in an hour raging from filling in the blanks on career prospects to Barney becoming a dad and finally evolving into a non-creeper.) Ted runs to Robin's place with blue french horn he stole for her in the first episode, back when they wanted different things, twenty years before.

Again, a lot of people are mad that the "How I Met Your Mother" creative team chose to undermine its starting premise (the mother is NOT Robin, as stated at the end of the show's pilot, when Past Ted is convinced he'll marry her), only to have Robin be Ted's endgame after all. I didn't mind their winding up together as an ending, as the actors were great together, and the writers wrote some of their strongest material because of their relationship. Also, writing 101 -- if you keep telling us somebody ISN'T ENDGAME, after a while it's you protesting too much, and I know you'll prove your own point wrong after a certain amount of time. The original tagline for the show was "A love story in reverse," which I never understood until now.

That being said ... the audience is right to be upset. I respect a lot of what Bays and Thomas and the whole directing, writing, and production team have brought to the table with their series (Robin Sparkles, y'all!). And doing a finale where you kill the mother, divorce a couple who just got married last episode, and show how another couple struggles to get their careers on track is pretty courageous, for a sitcom. But winding us back to the start of the series wasn't satisfying to me, and it should have been. Because Bays and Thomas were attempting an audacious perception shift; they were trying to change the entire meaning of the story Future Ted's been telling in the last five minutes of the show.

But attempting is the key word here. It wasn't a successful shift for me. Dramatic conflict is generated by presenting the audience with two images and then bouncing them against each other, until one wins out. Perception shifts replace one way viewing of the final image with another. The point of a good perception shift is to reveal that what we learn post-shift makes more sense than what we'd been presented with before the shift. Think Oedipus learning he murdered his father and married his mother; it's surprising, but the clues tell the tale. The reason people feel robbed by Ted choosing Robin at the end of "How I Met Your Mother" is that the writers didn't give us enough information to put the pieces together ourselves. If we could track back that the reason Future Ted's spent so much time chatting with his kids about Robin is because he's trying to move on with his life after his wife's death, then we'd all be satisfied. But we only for sure learn the mother was ill in the finale, and we've never been shown the twenty years of friendship Robin and Ted fostered, so she could still be seen as a viable candidate for his heart. An entire season could have been dedicated to the Mother's relationship with Ted, rather than just Robin and Barney's wedding weekend. We could have seen twenty years in twenty-two episodes -- not in flashes and glimpses -- but in goal-driven stories that show us grief and recovery and hope. If the show was about time, and being at the right time and place to make a choice, then the creative team needed to show us that time, and give us the chance to watch action unfold. This would only support the ambition that the story the show's been telling is not the one you think it's been telling.

Good narrative structure is like a magic act. Most times it involves misdirection, a "Look over here while I stick a rabbit in this hat to wow you with at the end of the show!" But you need to do more than make us look in the other direction. You need to thread through information that will let us accept the shift, that the rabbit has been in the hat the entire act. By spending an entire season on Barney and Robin's wedding, by giving so much weight to every single hour, it became difficult to focus on what mattered and what didn't in the show. The mother was clearly of importance, but so was Ted letting go of Robin in order to pursue the mother after the wedding. The two issues were never put into direct conflict, however, so the trajectory didn't see to accommodate where we landed. That may have been the point, to watch how small moments lead to big choices, and life gets in the way and changes your plans sometimes. I guess I just wish we'd seen it all happen.

Still, I can't argue with the ambition driving the final moments of this episode. I applaud it, even if the execution was lacking for me. For what it's worth, I still felt it. And again, working out a satisfying end for a show where one of the stars wanted minimal screen time, where the show's network wanted to extend the show by a season, and where the end was filmed back in the mid-2000s ... well, that's gotta be hard. If anything, at least now I know what the writers intended the show to be. What I cherish more is the lessons I can glean from the ambition driving this whole enterprise.

"How I Met Your Mother" photo: CBS website.

 
 
I often wish I had been a better student when it came to studying science. Discovering how the world works or building a new world, to the best of one's ability, is thrilling and to the benefit all. Had my talents pointed me in another direction, I would have loved to be a marine biologist or an astronomer or a paleontologist. Sadly, my mind doesn't work the way a scientist's does; I like to think I possess the same sort of curiosity, but I am better at weaving together words than revealing or refining the building blocks of life.

I am fortunate to know a bunch of amazing scientists, however -- many in my own family, and many of them chums. Thanks to my time as an undergraduate at Beloit College, I gained close friends who are biologists and geologists, and their continuing knowledge keeps me clued into the world. Case in point: while studying theatre in Wisconsin, I played the role of an aspiring scientist in a feminist revision of Cinderella called The Ash Girl; I was actually one of the ugly step-sisters, and the tragedy of my life was that my mother cared more about me marrying for money than gaining professional fulfillment. I got swept up in the greed and received a toe amputation in return for my gold-digging. Mostly, I was playing a buffoon, but  my most telling line in the play amounted to something like, "I don't want [balls and gowns and carriages, etc.]; I only want a microscope." It was easily my biggest laugh line, but I found it showcased my character at her most honest. All she wanted was discovery and study; all she got was pain (though she received a sort of happy ending, in which Cinderella's fairy godmother sent her to the woods to collect rocks and never see anyone ever again).

As an amateur scientist in the play, I made reference to things I didn't understand, particularly pertaining to geology. I took some of my dialogue to my friends, who were more than happy to explain pronunciations and provide photographs of chalcedony (the word I butchered best) and topaz and jasmine. And when I proclaimed those rocks by name the night they attended the performance, I was never prouder of representing knowledge; honestly, it was a way to pay forward their helping me understand the world better. I don't imagine anybody went home that night and Googled chalcedony. But a girl can dream, can't she?

So what was the point of all me blathering on about my teeny tiny not real contribution to science education? I suppose I've been thinking a lot about science in relationship to narrative lately. You could say it's because I finally got around to seeing "Gravity," or because "Cosmos" has been on (and it's amazing), but I'm betting it's because I finally started reading Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark.
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Lazarus is set in the near-future in a United States divided between wealthy corporate families. Science has excelled to the point that each family has a "Lazarus" protecting them. A Lazarus is a genetically engineered human being who essentially cannot be killed, and commands each family's military. The series centers around Forever, the Lazarus for the Carlyle family. She doesn't realize she is not related to her father, brothers, or sisters, and her struggle to defend the family -- which has enslaved a large chunk of the country -- while feeling remorse for her actions provides the main conflict for the book.

It's a great read. one that Rucka doesn't clutter with a lot of world-building. Those interested in world-building can find a timeline at the end of many issues, but you get the gist of the secrets being kept from Forever just from the art and the script alone. What I find most interesting is Rucka's inclusion of scientific advances after the letters column; by doing so, he is able to draw a line between his concerns and the way our world is advancing towards the nightmare scenario he's depicting. It's pretty heady stuff, and I enjoy it quite  a bit.

Rucka seems to have found a balance I struggle with in writing about technology and science (as I often do when it comes to disability). By centering his discussion of scientific abuses and advances in the protagonist, he makes Forever into a symbol of where we could go if we twist knowledge to selfish ends. Her condition is also the lynchpin for the stakes of the series; once she discovers she is not one of the family, imagine the havoc she will wreak. He doesn't manipulate science (as is done in some moments of "Gravity") to bring about problems; he uses what we're attempting and learning to force characters to make choices. Of course, the Lazarus world is further along than we are, but by acknowledging that at the back of the book, Rucka -- to my mind -- avoids accusations of misusing science to tell a good story.

Of course, as an artist, I want to be responsible when I write about hearing implants or ADD medication. I don't want to draw false conclusions about science in practice. But I don't want to spend too much stage time explaining every single facet of a part of technology. Whatever I use needs to be valuable to the characters, as it was to that poor ugly stepsister in The Ash Girl, as it was to my geologist friends. If science is valuable to the characters, it becomes valuable to audience, and everyone's world might be expanded in the process.

Lazarus cover art: Michael Lark, artist.

 
 
Outside of Ellen's massively retweeted celebrity selfie, the most viral moment of the Oscars was probably John Travolta's flub while saying Idina Menzel's name. I suppose I could link to the occurrence, as I often link to things for extra context, but given the amount of "how Travolta would mispronounce your name, yuk yuk" generators popping up on Facebook, I feel like everyone has heard about it. Don't get me wrong, I think peeling back the veneer of celebrity perfection tends to be more helpful than harmful, but here ... I guess I wonder whether the flub doesn't deserve a little grace. Or at least a pass.

Not just because these things happen, but because John Travolta is both reported to have and not have dyslexia, and discussion of whether or not it's okay to joke about his mistake is leading to a weird Internet justification circle-jerk about him working on being better at his job, if he is in fact dyslexic. We spend a lot of time on the world wide web both celebrating and decrying political correctness, but Travolta's flub provides insight into why it's important to treat mental disorders seriously. Because if you don't, victim-blaming abounds (even if the subject in question isn't actually dyslexic).

The fact is that sometimes working on what you have to say in public won't actually counteract a mispronunciation, and this would be an easy thing for most to admit if dyslexia wasn't involved. If the Travolta who presented at the Oscars on Sunday was officially and completely known to not be dyslexic, then all the name generators in the world wouldn't seem suspect to me. As it is, they do, because highlighting a simple mistake in the face of a bloated awards show seems like easy pickings -- and because people's insistence that the mistake is on him, regardless of genetics or brain chemistry, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. People who have dyslexia or any type of learning disability (full disclosure: I have ADD) already have enough to deal with, without being told their failures are that much more weighty, because they have a disorder.

Anyway, that's just how this whole thing is striking me. It may be a personal reaction, but I find the situation annoying. Others may not see this as a travesty, and that's fine (there's certainly other things going on in the world that deserve greater attention). But can we all admit that the joke has unintended bite in its well-tended justification? If we're honest about that --  what we're saying, and why -- then we can learn something from it.
 
 
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I was elated upon finishing last week's Ms. Marvel #1, the debut of Pakistani-American superhero Kamala Khan. The book, scripted by G. Willow Wilson, with art by Adrian Alphona, and edited by personal favorite comics wrangler Sana Amanat, proved to be one of the strongest first issues I've ever read. In twenty-some pages, the creative team confidently introduced me to the characters and conflicts Kamala will be dealing with throughout her adventures, while also subtly nodding at the political and cultural identity questions that seem set to fuel her origin story.

Excited to see how comics fans across the world were reacting to the new Ms. Marvel's introduction, I took to the Internet, discovering mostly positive buzz about its YA leanings, its goofy humor, and its incisive character beats. But I found another common bit of praise, too. Something puzzling. In multiple reviews, I noticed that the emphasis was less on what makes Kamala a stand-out comics character -- being a Muslim woman of color and second-generation member of an immigrant family, for starters -- and more on what makes her universal, i.e., her writing of fan-fiction, her emulation of Captain Marvel, and her desire to be accepted by other teenagers. True, her character-DNA more easily links her to the dweeby Spider-man than some unknowable supreme being, and that's a good thing. Reinforcing the mysterious Other is the last thing Wilson and company intend to do with this book; as I see it, their mission is to tell stories about a teenager who happens to be Pakistani and Muslim, while examining how her cultural and spiritual traditions might conflict with her superheroing, even as her background is written off or stereotyped by the dominant (read: white) culture.

However, reviews continually reassuring me that Kamala's tale is relatable to readers who are not exactly like her? That's a troubling trend. Comics culture struggles with many, many things, from to racism to sexism to ableism to harassment (to name just a few syndromes). It seems to me that couching one's response to a book in relief that specifics can be transcended in favor of only the universal might create more problems than are solved. Perhaps relatability is how minds are most often changed. Perhaps in showing one person's struggles with identity, without getting into the nitty-gritty of unique experiences, somebody hesitant might pick up Ms. Marvel #2. But without championing the specifics, I wonder what that journey is worth. If you don't note Kamala's struggle to resist bacon in the book's opening pages, how can you understand her growing frustration with the obedience expected of her as a Muslim woman? If you don't recognize Kamala's rebellious streak in the dinner table scene with her father, mother, and spiritually-focused brother, how can you believe she'd wish to be part of a different, BAM-POW! culture in the book's closing pages? If you don't see how politically charged and excitingly problematic it is that she's shape-shifted into Captain Marvel (a blonde, busty white woman) by book's end, then I'm not sure this book will ever thrill or entice you.

A wise writer once told me that specifics make a story universal. Artists should resist the urge to write all things for all people, and what makes Kamala's story interesting to me is what makes her different from me. I am not a woman of color, I am not a follower of Islam, I am not a second-generation American. But I connected with Kamala's desire to be accepted for what she loves and what she believes she can achieve, if given the opportunity. Of course, getting to be Captain Marvel at the issue's cliffhanger will pose new challenges to Kamala, and I hope, lead her to reassess and appreciate her singular heritage. That seems to be where the creators are heading, as Kamala immediately regrets wishing herself in the good Captain's shoes, after a creepy unexplained fog engulfs her and gives her superpowers (comics, everybody!).

When did it become passe to want to read about someone else's experiences, and identify with those who are different because of the differences we all share? No two people are alike, and I'd never want drama or my comics to state otherwise. Between DC's recent white-washing of previously POC characters, and the engrossing discussion of race and theatre production on Howlround, I know that I, as an arts consumer and artist, must resist the urge to rely on some community-enforced code of universality in order to champion creative work. I don't have to control or caveat a narrative in order to enjoy it. No one should have to do that.

It's good to acknowledge that Ms. Marvel is smart, funny, exciting, and relatable. It's also good to acknowledge that the series' creators are giving us something we've never or rarely seen before. By celebrating the specific, we celebrate the universal. But only if we make the effort to understand the specific first.

POST-SCRIPT: I unfortunately wrote this without delving into how cool it is to see a community of people represented in superhero comics that rarely get the spotlight. Kamala, her family, and her friends Bruno and Nakia all arrive fully fleshed out, and I hope their stories soon become essential reading for some.

POST-POST-SCRIPT: All my rambling aside, track down Ms. Marvel. It is a wonderful book, a perfect example of a comic that's meant to inspire young women to examine and appreciate what makes them special. Seriously, it looks to be a great, important story, meant to appeal to non-comics readers and aficionados alike. Check it out.

Ms. Marvel sketchbook art:  Adrian Alphona, artwork.

 
 
Sooooooooooooooooo, this seems like a strange place to write about this, but I feel like my complete support of the Affordable Care Act and what it's offering Americans should be known, especially given how public it's become over the past weekend.  A while back, I was given the opportunity to speak with the Chicago Sun-Times about signing up for health insurance; provided is the profile that was written about my experience.  I can't speak for everyone, obviously, but my experience with signing up was pretty easy, despite one small bump.  It's definitely something everyone should look into, if only to see what insurance options are available.
 
 
I am honored to announce that I have had a piece published on Howlround this afternoon.  For those who don't know, Howlround is an online meeting place where artists can interact and discuss theatre and teaching practices, along with a host of others subjects.  Entitled "A Place In The Conversation: Portraying Disability Onstage," my post was adapted from a thought-piece I wrote earlier in January on this very blog, and it was a blast to work with Howlround to bring questions about putting disability onstage to a wider audience.  So, give my Howlround essay a read, and get involved in the discussion!  I'd love to read your thoughts!
 
 
It wasn't until graduate school that I really examined my disability.  Obviously, I've made allowances for my inability to hear certain things at certain times throughout my life; I've always accepted that as part of my daily routine.  And I was educated on the technicalities of my hearing loss by numerous doctors and counselors, to better explain my needs to other people; that was no biggie, either -- just part of making sure I lived life to its fullest.  But it wasn't until I got a new hearing aid in 2011 that I truly caught how little I was hearing in classes up to that winter quarter.  Not having to crane forward to listen or do so much guesswork with lip-reading gave me the luxury to relax and truly think about my hearing loss.  About my essential need for devices to help me hear.  About how my coping skills went noticed or unnoticed by those around me.   About how I felt about what I could and couldn't hear.  About how reluctant I was to think about my feelings about what I could and couldn't hear.

That last bit surprised me.  As a writer, I spend a lot of time dredging my own (and sometimes others') experience for answers to life's big questions, but giving myself time to examine my feelings about my disability, from age eight onward,  seemed daunting.  I was happy to accept I could hear better now, but when asked what I thought of my disability, or why I didn't write about it, I often passed my hearing loss off as part of my life, a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole essence of my identity.  Sure, I had memories of rough times adjusting to wearing a hearing aid, and the stress of being the constant classroom expert on hearing loss took a little getting used to; but no great shakes, these memories.  But when asked to plumb my experience of disability for narrative conflict by my advisers, why was my response immediate and dismissive?  "Not being able to hear is intrinsic for me, that's all," I'd think.  "Nobody on the outside will be interested enough to know about it."

First off, I was wrong about that.  Plenty of people were interested, and plenty of people could find parallels between a hard of hearing person's struggles and their own (without either party being reductive about it).  Second, though I may never know the why of my immediate response, I now find it telling nonetheless.  I assumed sole-ness or alone-ness in my condition.  As far back as I can remember, I was the only kid in my class with hearing loss.  This made it extra-imperative for my parents to motivate me to see my disability as a positive, as something that contributed to my work ethic and personality, as opposed to detracted from those elements of my identity.  (So, of course, I took their encouragement and turned it into a superhero.  More about that here.)  They also worked hard to make sure I never felt different from my classmates, but the honest fact of the matter is that I still was.  That's neither a positive or a negative; it's also not something I ruminated on until I began research for a play centered on family and disability and identity.

As part of my research, I educated myself on the Deaf community's relationship to technology, some of which I've used in the past -- shake-awake alarms, closed captioning systems, basic stuff.  I took the 2000 documentary "Sound And Fury" out of the Ohio University library and watched it.  I'd highly recommend tracking this movie down (as well as its sequel!), because it deftly explores the pro and con sides to using a cochlear implant, while documenting one family's debate over whether or not its Deaf members should adopt the technology.  At one point in the first "Sound and Fury," a Deaf father laments that if his daughter gets a cochlear implant, she will be neither Deaf nor hearing; she will be a third thing, with no specific culture to bind her to her family, to him.  I paused the film.  I rewound it.  I played his comments again.  I rewound the film.  I played the comments again.  I paused the film.  I began to cry.  Because I was that third thing he was talking about.  And I'd never recognized that before.  Obviously, I don't feel disconnected from my life or from my family and friends.  I relate to them as any fully hearing person would; my disability is not severe to the point of separating me from anything, but it still calls for a lot of explanation.  And I see myself in parts of the Deaf community (in the emphasis on visuals and body language), though I have no clue if I have a place there.  I am that third thing that has no prescribed place.

When describing this reaction to an adviser, he pointed out that straddling two worlds afforded me a unique perspective as an artist.  I agreed, but my epiphany also made me lonely in a weird way.  The more research I did, the more singular I felt; the more singular I felt, the more I latched on to reflections of myself in media.  (This is why I so love shows like "Switched At Birth" or books like Wonderstruck; they show me myself, and I devour their tales selfishly -- less for the ideas they impart, more for the "Yup, I've been there" feelings of relief they evoke in me.)  Two years and some change away from that fateful watching of "Sound and Fury," I still wrestle.  Examination of disability has claimed a larger and larger part of my own writing, and I find myself attracted to discourse on the subject, which further challenges me as an artist.

Take, for example, Jacqueline Lawton's recent great interview with Gift Theater co-founder and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton, as part of the Theatre Communication Group's Diversity & Inclusion blog salon.  Seriously, read the whole interview and then come back.  It is a smart, thought-provoking discussion about the types of inclusion needed within Chicago storefront theatre.  Of particular interest to me was Michael Patrick Thorton's thoughts about casting actors with disabilities:  "Maybe in addition to seeking out disablist playwrights, we should also be strongly encouraging our national playwrights to encourage casting directors to see disabled actors for non-disabled-identified roles and advocate for them to producers. To me, that’s really a critical step toward the endgame of perceptive normalcy."  In another part of the interview, Thornton talks about the foregrounding of disability in ableist storytelling, which reduces a person to simply what they lack, or what happened to them to create that lack.  There's a ton of truth to what he's saying, and writing for disabled actors without making their disability the focus of their plots is one way to create balance between character and actor.

But I wonder if there's another way to do that, too.  And it involves such a personal way of looking at things for me that I don't know if my perspective has any merit in the larger goings-on of producing theatre.  But here we have it anyway -- perhaps another necessary thing for disablist playwrights to do is to draw the audience, disabled or not, into the perspective of characters who have disabilities, and to do that in as many different ways as possible, to reach someone and communicate experience clearly and intelligently (through touch, taste, sound, or any possible sense).  For me, I find freedom in my everyday problems being examined; the actor's vocals changing as his hearing aid blinks on and off provides some of my favorite material in Tribes.  So I wonder ...  Is there a way to make disability a part of the world of one's play, without reducing it to stereotype or "triumph-over-adversity" tales?  Is there a way to make it business as usual while sharing it with someone unaware of its pitfalls and daily accommodations?  Or can it be the driving examination of the play without seeming wholly negative?  (I am trying to walk this tight-rope with a play about Joe Shuster and his diminishing sight; it's no easy task, I'm finding.)  These questions always leap to my mind in discussions about how disability is portrayed or invited onto a stage.  Because there are so many possible answers, the questions kind of haunt me.

The one thing I do know is that an individual artist's perspective (whether it be writer, director, designer, or actor) will always come into play somewhere along the line, and a choice about portraying disability will have to be made.  For me, if I could offer someone the opportunity to recognize their own experience far sooner than their late twenties (when I did), I'll be a happier playwright for it.
 
 
I am a big admirer of year-end lists.  Yet there are reasons not to be.  Lists can reduce the year's output to a simplified collection of already well-covered moments.  They can inadvertently steer a body away from searching deeper into the records of pop culture, to discover objects on one's own.  They can define taste, instead of interrogating it.  On the other hand, such lists can still introduce a person to a movie or book or play they'd never consider otherwise.  Or, lists can force one to reconsider something long filed away as inconsequential or lost.  And, let's face it, there's a lot of entertainment to be had in seeing critics praise art you already appreciate.   I guess what I'm saying is, your mileage may vary.

Me, I love lists!  So I thought I'd post one of my own on the good old blog, specifically centering around achievements in comics this year.  I spend a lot of time on this blog being critical Sarah.  I thought it might make a nice change of pace to celebrate the year 2013 in comics, through five (by my standards) noteworthy comics.  These are my choices.  What are yours?  Sound off in the comments section!

My Five Notable Comics From 2013 (Though Most Are Over A Year Old)

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I'll start with my most anticipated read of the year:  March.  I actually gave Congressman John Lewis' graphic memoir to my father for Christmas.  Largely inspired by his connection with and consumption of the 1957 comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, this book is the first of three to chronicle Lewis' life and his involvement with the Civil Rights movement.  The first volume deals with Lewis' young life, and Nate Powell's beautiful black and white art quickly draws you into Lewis' perception of the world around him.  Particularly striking are the book's opening moments, when a young Lewis preaches to the family chickens, and the closing pages, which involve a paddy wagon full of arrested individuals driving "off-screen" as they sing about overcoming great obstacles.  Lewis and co-writer Andrew Aydin intended this story to teach future generations about civil rights and the work of Dr. King, just as that 1950's book taught him.  There are many lessons throughout the book, but it never reads as dry or didactic, only engrossing and awe-inspiring.

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Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga arrived on shelves in the spring of 2012, but it's been on my mind ever since.  The story of two parents trying to raise a child in a mixed-up world might seem old hat by this point in human history, but add in intergalactic wars, ghost nannies, robot princes, and a cat who can tell when you're lying, and everything old becomes new again!  Staples' down-to-earth pencils and ink ground this space opera in human concerns, like what happens to a body after pregnancy, or how to get a job when one's entire family is on the run from two sides of the same war -- and while I don't discuss lettering much in this space, Staples' handwritten narration gives a glint of the sassy grown-up child these parents will raise.  Of course, Vaughan's signature sense of humor and heart saturates the plot, but it is his dissection of narrative as life-sustaining, and family as the forge that shapes and even melts our sensibilities, that define the book.   Released in increments to give Staples enough lead time to craft the tale well, this creator-driven work engages with its audiences' real-life concerns in a visceral, vibrant way.

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How to talk about Young Avengers?  I've read interviews where writer Kieron Gillen equates the team book with the adolescent act of starting a band.  It's also clear the entire short season of fifteen issues is meant to be a metaphor for being eighteen, for being on the cusp of adulthood, of learning one's possibilities and limitations.   Hailed by many comics sites as something new, a pop-infused story that addresses ACTUAL young people (instead of middle-aged readers who grew up with Superman and The Simpsons), this book was labelled Tumblr bait by cynics, even as optimists embrace its shirtless Noh-Varr scenes and emotional roller coasters.  What can't be disputed by anyone is the genius of the artwork -- Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton sculpt classic comics facial expressions into pop art shots, and muck about with traditional layouts, even breaking borders between panels to connect their isolated teenagers.  This book may be ending soon (I blame the need to boost Loki's age, in order to appease Tom Hiddleston fans, I suspect), but its appeal lies in its "flash-in-the-pan" nature.  The Young Avengers save the world, then go for Korean barbecue afterwards; the sad truth of adolescence is that good nights like that aren't meant to last forever.

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Astro City brought me back to reading comics on a monthly basis two years ago.  So it's only fitting that the series' return should end up on my "top of 2013" list.  Now published under Vertigo's banner, Astro City hasn't lost a step, even after vanishing for a time due to scribe Kurt Busiek's health concerns.  The new group of issues has examined both the heroes and regular citizens of the titular city, with covers from painter Alex Ross warmly inviting us into Busiek's bright world.  Interior artist Brent Anderson has made the transition from pen and paper to digital, and his work remains as clear-eyed and emotional as ever. Meanwhile, Busiek builds and builds his superheroic universe, adding in call responders to a hero hotline, a giant alien presence intent on studying humanity, and a potentially unhinged fourth wall-breaking miscreant -- while revisiting old faces, including a retired family man, a stuntwoman psychic, and our first-ever look into his Wonder Woman stand-in, Winged Victory.  At the end of each issue, a tiny street sign alerts us that we are now leaving Astro City.  When the book was on hiatus, that notice struck me as bittersweet.  Now the story continues, and I can't wait to come back.

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I've written and written and written about Daredevil.  About Mark Waid's interrogation of fear and fearlessness, of perception and obsession.  About Chris Samnee and Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin and Javier Rodriguez and their consistent, snappy artwork.  About my appreciation for a book that actually addresses disability, even if its central character is essentially sighted, given his radar sense.  So what haven't I praised about this title?  What's left to write about?  I'll tell you what's left -- lawyer and Dare-love interest Kirsten McDuffie.  She's amazing.  She's basically Lois Lane, except she was in on the secret identity thing from the get-go.  So I guess she's more like Linda Park, a woman Waid has had some experience scripting in the past.  In the latest issue of the Dare-saga, Kirsten flirted with danger by addressing New York citizens via some sort of super-microphone during a crisis.  In the process, she officially won Matt Murdock's heart, as she set everyone straight about the fear-mongering Sons of Serpents, a group of racists intent on creating mob rule in the Big Apple.  Corny, sure.  But Kirsten's heroics are just as important as Daredevil in this book; that is a refreshing change of pace for a love interest.

PSYCH!  BONUS PICK, Y'ALL!  (I SAID I'D STOP AT FIVE, YET HERE WE ARE!)

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Hawkeye is a book about what Hawkeye does when he's not being an Avenger, usually when he's hanging out with the other, cooler Hawkeye.  Also, it's about his dog Lucky, who loves pizza.  Helmed by writer Matt Fraction, artist David Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, this book has been a fan favorite for months, even as it's gotten a bit behind schedule, shipping-wise.  But it's worth the wait.  Fraction's decompression of time can be trying when read a month at a time, but his current insistence on telling street-level stories from a variety of perspectives, including Pizza Dog's, has brought a lot of enjoyment to me, personally.  Aja's work  can be sprightly and perceptive (as when Hawkeye leaps through the air naked, and a little Hawkeye mask covers his unmentionables; or when a phone conversation with Kate is split into thirty-something distinct panels).  Hollingsworth gives everything a purple tinge and a cartoony look that makes Hawkeye's world seem pretty basic, even as the writing deepens Hawkeye's descent into poor behavior.  With Clint Barton's book, come for the humor, stay for the inventiveness and emotional gut punches!

 
 
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Despite its reputation, I've never been a huge fan of The Killing Joke.  Graphic novel enthusiasts remind me it's long been considered one of the greatest Batman stories ever told, due to the Dark Knight's psychologically complex sparring matches with the Joker.  That doesn't make me like it any better.  The mental and emotional damage featured in its pages have heavily influenced twenty-plus years of Batman comics since, people point out; I acknowledge that this is true, and read a Superman book instead.  What about Chris Nolan's masterful portrayal of the chaos/order dichotomy at the heart of Batman and the Joker's battle for Gotham City in "The Dark Knight?"  I admit I like that movie a lot, even though it ends twice; I appreciate Nolan's distilling of the entire book into an intense ten-minute interrogation scene that allows the Joker and Batman time to highlight their similarities and differences.  But it still can't make me admire the source material.

Because for all its high-minded thoughts about justice and revenge and the human capacity to survive immense horrors, The Killing Joke still views the most humane character in the Bat mythos as cannon fodder.  And such a cynical mindset makes readers focus on the wrong things inside the tale itself.  Case in point: a lot has been said in recent months about Batman potentially killing the Joker at the end of the story -- giving context to the title, The Killing Joke.  I can understand Grant Morrison's need to structurally justify the story's violence with claims that author Alan Moore was not only investigating the hero and villain's relationship, he was finishing it; he was taking Batman over the edge.  Certainly, this hypothesis blew the minds of avid readers within the industry, people such as filmmaker Kevin Smith and comics legend Mark Waid.  But I couldn't get invested in that reading for two reasons.  One: the artwork and dialogue in the last pages of the book are subtle to the point of obfuscation; if Moore and artist Brian Bolland wanted us to understand a murder had been committed, and Batman had lost his mind and war on crime simultaneously (which, admittedly, is a pretty powerful ending), then they should have given us the clues we needed to finish the image in our minds.  The script itself doesn't offer much in the way of context, either.  Two: the relentless, continuing picking-apart of the hero and villain's relationship, while the point of the story, only serves to diminish examination of the tale's terrible treatment of its lone female figure, which yesterday, was revealed to be worse than previously thought.

I speak, of course, about Barbara Gordon, and her paralyzing at the hands of the Joker.  Yes, Alan Moore wrote a story about the Clown Prince of Crime psychologically torturing Batman and his colleague Commissioner Jim Gordon, but the way he chose to frame this torture through the physical violation and shooting of Barbara Gordon, then Batgirl, is the big set-piece of the story.  And it serves no purpose to change Barbara herself; the incident exists only to give stakes to Batman's run towards insanity.  Which folks admire as strong storytelling even today, even if I've heard Alan Moore himself regrets the tale, even after Brian Bolland has revealed, along with a comics researcher, that Barbara was initially supposed to be photographed fully naked, blood gushing from her lower regions in as pornographically violent a shot as I can think of.  But I ask -- what is psychologically complex about destroying a woman so that men can prove themselves able to endure witnessing it?  (Or, in the case of Morrison's take, what is complex about watching a man avenge a woman's unnecessary destruction?)

Sure, in the final printing, DC Comics toned down the violence and nudity on the page where Jim Gordon views a group of photographs, taken by the Joker, showing how much pain his daughter is in.  Kudos to them, I guess?  But there's still that nagging, well-known story that editor Len Wein gave Moore the okay to "cripple the bitch."  Discovering that Barbara's torment was initially drawn to titillate as well as horrify only gives the lie to this story, and proves how little Moore and Bolland cared about her, beyond her use as a plot device.

Some might tell me this revelation about Barbara's nude shot is irrelevant now, as it was never published in the first place.  To them I say, it's all the more relevant today, because it visually demonstrates the hugely problematic treatment of women in comics history, inside one of its most-purchased stories.  If women are to stop being victims in narratives, then books like this need to be seen for the flawed creations they are; they shouldn't be championed as innovative in all aspects, if they are simplistic in major ways.

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What's most remarkable about The Killing Joke, to me, is that Barbara survived it; in fact, she flourished in spite of its twisted humor.  Today, she is back to being Batgirl, but thanks to the initial work of comics team John Ostrander and Kim Yale, Barbara became so much more than another creature in a cowl.  She became information broker Oracle, a woman who proudly accepted her disability and the different life it led her to build.  Greatly under-appreciated Bat-journeyman Chuck Dixon never shied away from spotlighting her feelings about it, and in his 1990's run on Birds of Prey, he gave Barbara the words to burn Nightwing and Batman for thinking of her primarily as damaged goods.

Her speech (pictured above) is so powerful because it recognizes her agency, her ability to build her life -- whereas The Killing Joke left her for dead, helpless and alone.  I loved Oracle my entire childhood, and well into my adulthood; she showed readers there were many ways to be a hero, and not every hero had to jump around on rooftops to accomplish good works.  The only reason I shy away from New 52 depictions of Batgirl now are because DC feels it necessary to remind readers over and over again how seminal her torture at the hands of the Joker was; I prefer to believe Barbara's best moments came after that heinous narrative choice.  I believe her best moments came when she did good works, while disabled, maybe because of her disability, all under her own steam.

Bruce Wayne: The Road Home -- Oracle #1:  Shane Davis & Barbara Ciadro, Cover Artists.
Birds of Prey vol. 1, #8:  Chuck Dixon, Writer; Greg Land, Penciller; Drew Geraci, Inker; Gloria Vasquez, Colorist; Albert DeGuzman, Letterer.

 
 
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I don't know if it's because I've been teaching theatre history and trickle-down tradition this fall, or because I've been thinking a lot about how my generation's viewed in the media, or because of the blog posts (and one particular Howlround piece by OU colleague Ira Gamerman!!!) I've been reading, but lately I've spent a lot of time considering the concept of legacy and one's conversation with the preceding generation via art.

Whatever the igniting spark, the fire roared to life last week when I opened the latest issue of Young Avengers.  In its first few pages,  our intrepid young heroes pleaded their damned-if-you, damned-if-you-don't end run to Captain America.  His response was not "Avengers, Assemble!" -- as you can see above.  Of course, Cap's being controlled by a dimension-hopping parasite in the form of Hulking's mother (aptly named Mother), sooooo parents just not understanding is a big part of the book.  And appropriate to my ponderings about how generations communicate with one another over time (as when Renaissance artists looked to the Romans and Greeks to breed innovation in their own time).

Now some readers out there are critical of the unsubtle tone writer Kieron Gillen takes with a book about a bunch of teenage vigilantes moving from the drama of sixteen to the maturity and self-reliance of eighteen.  Most complaints I've read mock the book's chummy relationship with its fans on Tumblr (the alien Noh-varr's shirtlessness alone could launch a thousand picto-blogs), but other complaints center on the youth of the intended audience.  The book is for tweens or teens, folks argue; it's cutting-edge panel construction and kooky characters can't make up for its lack of a traditional plot and tugging at the heart-strings heroics.  But why shouldn't Young Avengers, a book about teenagers, largely for teenagers, be celebrated by the audience of young men and women who populate Tumblr?  Furthermore, does broad-based appeal outweigh an appeal to youth culture, or an appeal to something new in comics?

Personally, I think Cap's "Father Knows Best" attitude is hilarious -- particularly since his hand-waving away the threat of Mother is followed by Kate Bishop, aka the female Hawkeye, turning to her fellow teenage heroes and declaring that the world is ending, so the Young Avengers should assemble already.  Idealism versus pragmatism at its finest.  But what does all this have to do with legacy and talking to the past through art?  For me, this moment showcases Gillen's awareness of comics history.  Young Avengers, in its many "short season" stories, has always been about a bunch of aliens and young kids trying to live up the legacy set by the likes of Thor, Cap, and the rest of the Avengers.  Hence, the team being named Young Avengers.  Gillen comments on that here, with Cap's paternalism and experience actually hampering the kids' organizational efforts.  By hanging a lampshade on the older generation of heroes, he retains the sense of history that dominates and contextualizes the Marvel universe, while allowing enough room for the reader to see how Kate Bishop, Wiccan, Hulking, Loki, Miss America, Noh-varr, and various others will have to operate differently.  How will they deal with matters?  Not by reasoning with adults, or making elaborate battle plans.  They'll use magic and bickering with exes and lying to teammates.  They'll take their rightful place as heroes by acting like young adults becoming adults.  They'll take stabs at saving the world until they find a way to save it.  And I find that as innovative and impressive as the amazing layouts littering this comics run.  Certainly, Young Avengers deserves to be loved for all the traditions it will set, and others will later talk to and break.

Young Avengers #12:  Kieron Gillen, Writer; Jamie McKelvie, Penciller; Mike Norton, Jamie McKelvie, & Stephen Thompson, Inkers; Matthew Wilson, Colorist.

POST-SCRIPT:  This is an unrelated note, but its importance cannot be overstated.  It's been brought to my attention that I've tended towards abelist language in posts littered throughout my blog history, mostly terminology concerning mobility and mental illness (making pejoratives of  "crazy" and "lame," for example).  I am sad to say I used such language without thought, and will avoid all such usages in the future. I am sorry if use of such terms caused offense.