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We’re The Other Guys or Superheroes That Don’t Come from DC or Marvel

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Thirty years ago reading a comic book in the presence of your classmates in a middle school was a surefire plan to get picked on relentlessly. Now, every third movie and new television show is about one superhero or another or a team of them combined. The world has changed and now the geeks rule pop culture. So what do you read if you like being on the cutting edge of graphic novels? How do you boost your geek cred in a world where the popular people know the significance of Bobbi Morse and who Caitlin Snow really is? There are only two places left and I’m going to tell you where to find them (if you don’t already know).

Before I delve into the mines of alternative superheroes, I want to quickly mention other options. There are plenty of great graphic novels out there that don’t have anything to do with super heroes. You can find everything from mystery to fantasy to history to horror and even physics covered in books of sequential art. Our blog titled Little Known (but Amazing) Graphic Novels  covers some great options that are not as well known. By that same token, Superhero 101: Foundations in Superhero History can give you some great reading suggestions from the heroes of the distant past. In fact there are a lot of great books out there that might even be considered superhero books if I weren’t sticking with the cape and cowl set. So while Buffy and Harry Dresden and the New Types of the Gundam universe might be super powered they’ll have to stay on the shelf today.

The most common place to look for new super heroes for your reading enjoyment is …the other publishers. There are dozens of small imprints and local publishers but you don’t even have to look that hard. If you are a fan of the super hero books from Marvel and DC, but just want something new try looking at Image, Valiant, and Dark Horse. While these guys are outside of the big corporations, they’ve been around for a while and many of their books have the history and depth you are used to.

Dark Horse is the oldest, dating back to 1986, and has specialized in the types of characters that don’t fit the traditional mold of a superhero, but they do have a few exceptions in their history.

  • They had a revival of Doc Savage, a physician trained mentally and physically to superhuman levels (think Batman). There are many claims that he is the first superhero, predating certain Kryptonians by five years.
  • Ghost was another more traditional hero, she was an undead spirit who spent her afterlife righting wrongs.
  • The American was a cynical take on the patriotic type superhero.

Valiant is more traditional in its character creation. While they did some revivals back in the early nineties, like Turok and Doctor Solar, they had their own stable of superheroes.

  • X-O Manowar is a Dark Age European warrior kidnapped by aliens who stole their greatest weapon and turned it on them only to return to earth and discover that, due to time dilation, 1600 years had passed.
  • Ninjak is a superspy meets techno ninja. It sounds like cool overload, but this Joe Quesada created hero manages to pull it off.
  • Bloodshot was a nanite infected assassin who was trying to rediscover the past that was stolen from him.

Image is possibly the best known of the alternative publishers. In actuality it was a collection of creator owned studios trying to start a company where the idea men actually remained in control of their characters.  The initial line up of talent with image was legendary. Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarland, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri all had their own studios producing new characters and new stories like we’d never seen before.  Liefeld eventually left somewhat acrimoniously, Lee sold his Wildstorm Productions to DC and the modern day has seen a shift to a more diversified field of titles with things like Saga and Walking Dead (which we have at the library). While the company has seen changes to its direction since 1992, the list of superheroes they created is lengthy and many are worth a read.

  • The Savage Dragon was Erik Larsen’s childhood creation brought to the page in form he wanted. A green, scaly, fin headed humanoid with invulnerability and super strength.
  • Spawn took a deal with the devil and turned it into one of the most popular anti-heroes of the era.
  • Witchblade is a series detailing the stories of a mystical gauntlet that bonds with women and gives them the ability to fight evil.

One other place to look for stories you’ve never read is the past. Golden age comics are where it all began and while there are decades of stories out there about the heroes you already know, there are other great heroes you may not be quite so familiar with. Marvel predecessor, Timely Comics, gave the world Captain America and Namor, but they also created the original versions of the Angel, Vision, and Human Torch as well as the speedster known as the Whizzer (the Nazi-fighting Destroyer), and the Blazing Skull (the champion of Freedom). DC’s history is even deeper. Not only do they have a host of golden age superheroes you’ve never heard of, they have added those of other now defunct companies to their in-house universe. Fawcett comics gave the line Captain Marvel and the Marvel family, probably better known as Shazam.  Quality Comics published the early adventures of the hero Plastic Man as well as Will Eisner’s original Spirit.  Fox Comics (and later Charlton Comics and Americomics) created the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the Question. These are just a few of the many options from golden age.

If you’re bored with the current run of comics and tired of seeing the same old stories retold, look into the corners of the other heroes and the past and find new books to rekindle your love of heroes.

2019 New Year’s Reading Challenge

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

It’s the start of a new year. A blank slate for new beginnings and refreshing our resolutions and to do lists. That means it is also time for our 3rd annual New Year’s Reading Challenge! (Please make sure your read that in your head with the appropriate cheesy deep toned echo sound effect).

Last year, I tried to theme the options to the month or season they were in. I’m not doing that for 2019. There’s no order, very few rules and will be a challenge the whole family can participate in. There will be three challenge levels; Novice, Reader, and Book Wyrm.

The Novice Level is the simplest level with the easiest qualifications. Read twelve books and twelve periodicals at your reading level. That’s it. Just one book and one magazine or newspaper per month at the level you read comfortably. So if you’re in third grade you don’t have to try to read outside the level your teacher thinks is appropriate, but if you’re 43 let’s leave the Beverly Cleary to the youngsters. The only rule is read the whole book and the whole magazine or newspaper.

The Reader Level is more complicated it’s still 24 books and periodicals but instead of having free reign to read everything you want, this one guides you a bit. With this level you will choose twelve of the options from the list for the Book Wyrms and twelve books or periodicals of your choice. The rules are the same as the novice, read it all the way through, and it has to be at your reading level. The only new regulation here is that you can’t have more than 12 periodicals. If you want to read all books, and no periodicals, that’s fine.

Finally, it is The Book Wyrm Level (devour those books in your literary hoard!). If you’ve made it this far, you probably already planned to read at least two books a month and now you want someone to make it a little difficult.  Well, you’ve come to the right place. Below is a list of twenty-four challenges (with two bonus challenges for those of you who want to do a book every two weeks rather than two a month). These are some of my favorite selections from lists from the past, mine and otherwise. All the rules from above apply.

  1. A book that was published in 2019
  2. A book that has won a major award[i]
  3. A banned book
  4. A book that was given to you as a gift (even if you have to give it to yourself)
  5. Read a single issue of a comic book
  6. A book with a song lyric for a title
  7. A book from an author you’ve never heard of before
  8. A collection of Short stories from a single author
  9. A graphic novel that has nothing to do with superheroes or zombies
  10. A book you were supposed to read in high school or college, but didn’t
  11. The next book in a series you’ve started
  12. A collection of poetry
  13. A Classic of Genre fiction[ii]
  14. A book with a terrible cover
  15. A book set in a country that fascinates you
  16. A book you meant to read last year
  17. A collection of poetry
  18. Listen to an audio book
  19. A book you’ve checked out or bought but never read
  20. Something from a book club list, either online, on TV or in your community
  21. A book that was translated from another language
  22. Something from an author that writes in English but is not American
  23. A magazine on a subject you’ve always been interested in
  24. Read a book with somone, or a group of people

Bonus 1: Reading builds a person’s ability to empathize, read a book that tells the story from a point of view you are unfamiliar with.

Bonus 2: Do all of these challenges using making sure that each title you read starts with a different letter in the alphabet. Use this one for any book with that last letter you need.

Read and enjoy and watch this blog for potential opportunities to interact with other people in the challenge.


[i] National Book Award, Man Booker, PEN/Faulkner, Hugo, Nebula, Eisner, Rita, Edgar, Newberry, Caldecott to name a few.

[ii] Mystery, Scisnce Fiction, Romance, Adventure, Western, etc.

Little Known (but AMAZING) Graphic Novels

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Comic Books, Graphic Novels, Sequential Art; call it what you want it is still one of the hottest collections in libraries and book stores. The greatest thing is that you can find wonderful reads at your reading level and every level below you. You could probably go the other way, but some of the content of the teen and adults graphic novels are a little much for our younger readers. I am lucky enough to have a kid in the children’s section and one in the teen’s section so I get exposed to a lot of great comic books passing through our house and stuff I might of missed is thrust into my face (often literally) with an exuberant “Read this, Dad!” on a regular basis. Whether it’s collected volumes of individual issues, manga volumes from overseas, or new purpose written stories, these books are showing up in every library for every age group and here are some of the best you might miss.

In the Children’s Library:

There are a plethora of options for everyone in the children’s section. There are the standard Pokémon and superhero books and some graphic novels based on mythology that are all good, but there are also some hidden gems with the power to delight all ages.

Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet Series is a favorite for all ages. This bildungsroman tells Emily and her brother’s story as they travel worlds, fight elves and search for their mother. It is remarkably evocative and pulls no punches, despite being written with children primarily in mind. It will only take ten pages before you realize this series may require tissues.

Judd Winick’s HiLo Series was originally designed to be an all-ages comic that he could use to show kids his work. The alien boy who came to earth tale really does appeal to all ages as Winick uses his gift for storytelling to create a story for all

Scott Chantler’s The Three Thieves series is one of the best series of fantasy comics I’ve ever read. The story keeps making you think you know what’s going on only to take another unexpected twist. This comic has heart and pathos as well as action and wonderful characters.

Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale is a western fantasy meets steampunk fairytale mashup. The couple that brought you some of the outrageously popular Squirrel Girl storylines has a series of their own. Rapunzel and Jack are far more different than you’ve ever seen them before and the changes make them more interesting.

In the Teen Section:

Here we find the meat of the graphic novels. Here is most of the manga, almost all of the mainstream DC and Marvel titles, and all the avant-garde books like Maus that have hit such heights of recognition that they sometimes appear on school reading lists. It’s hard to find something that a teen hasn’t already talked up but here are a few options.

Takehiko Inoue and Vagabond tell the fictionalized tale of the life of Miyamoto Musashi. In recounting the tales of the life of one of Japan’s most famous and dangerous samurai, the series does not paint too nice a picture. The art is fantastic, the subject mythical and the story compelling.

Age of Bronze from Eric Shanower is another retelling. In this case it is a graphic version of the Trojan War. Shanower takes the tale back to its roots as sequential pictures on ancient Greek vases and fleshes out the whole story not just the small sliver we know from the Iliad. Best of all, after a long hiatus, this series is finally getting continued.

Superman: True Brit by Kim Johnson and John Cleese bring you the only superhero entry on the list. The man who created some of Monty Python’s best helps to create an Elseworlds man of steel who was brought up in England. At times you’ll think he ended up Clark Dursley.

Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes is the story of space garbage men. It tells the tale of several characters that remove space debris and their goals and personalities. While it is a near future science fiction tale, this series is really a character driven masterpiece.

In the Adult Department:

All those great graphic novels that make the New York Times Review of Books or are mentioned in The Atlantic are here.  From the classic old Peanut’s strips through the biographical Persepolis to the big publishing house critical darlings of The Sandman and Fables, they’re over with the adult books.

Blade of the Immortal just became a major, live action motion picture in the last few years but the graphic novel series by Hiroaki Samura is over 25 years old. It takes a common theme, redemption, and tells the hackneyed story in way that makes you still care how it turns out.

Brian K. Vaughn’s We Stand on Guard starts in the year 2112, 300 years after the war of 1812. It tells the story of freedom fighters taking on their technological giant oppressor and doing their best to renew their way of life. The political commentary and twist in the aggressor/defender relationship is truly spectacular.

Abe Sapien from Hellboy and BPRD is a newer edition. Mike Mignola has focused on telling the story of the aquatic amnesiac in his new collection. More than a spin off, it is rather an opportunity to expand on a fan favorite character. A green skinned, gill breathing fleshing out of a great soul.

Valerian is another one that was a movie recently. Luc Besson’s infatuation with this Franco-Belgian comic has influenced his films and caused him to adapt one of the stories into a major motion picture. Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières tell the tale of a galaxy traveling time hopping duo with interesting characterization. The European art style also provides an interesting change for those used to North American or Asian drawing techniques.

The Cartoon History of the Universe is my final entry here. Larry Gonnick uses with and silly art to guide readers on a journey through our semi-mythic prehistory and all the way to the creation of the modern world. His often overlooked works are as informative as they are entertaining.

So while these books aren’t as well known now as I might think they deserve, here’s to hoping that a few of you out there might pick up a book and take up their cause with me. I can guarantee you’ll find something on here that will amuse you.

The One and Only Flight of the Spruce Goose

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

On November 2, 1947 the Hughes H-4 Hercules drifted out of its hanger in Long Beach Harbor at the end of a tow rope pulled by a small boat. The authorities had cleared the water so the massive flying boat could do some taxi tests. Hughes, taking a break from congressional testimony over his government contracts (including the $18 million one for the H-4), decided it was time to get the massive plane out and see how she handled on the water. He invited the press and even the members of the committee he was testifying in front of. The politicos didn’t show, but the press did. The first run was a leisurely 40 knots, the second a much more brisk 90 knots. The plane lined up for a third run; Howard Hughes himself at the controls. The eight propellers spun up to speed. The plane lurched forward. Speed increased, and increased, and increased, and then it happened. The eight story tall Hercules took to the air.

To understand what a momentous event this was you need to understand three factors; the times, the plane, and the man.

The Time:

The early days of America’s involvement in the Second World War were costly, and America hadn’t even declared itself at war. Tons of ships and materials were being sent to the bottom of the Atlantic every month by German U-boats. We needed a way to move a lot of cargo weight a great distance, and to do it quickly. While the ship building industry began to ramp up production to an unequaled pace, some people looked to the skies to transport more. Seaplanes were used far more prevalently than they are now and were far from being a primarily private aviation phenomenon. Military and commercial carriers had sizable seaplanes, carrying upwards of seventy people.

The Man:

Howard Hughes was a man who thought big. He was brash and arrogant, but also pioneering and adventurous. He was born into privilege, but longed for meaning. He sought that in everything from business, to engineering, to Hollywood to flight. He had the arms of the most beautiful women in the world and the envy of the masses, but he longed for the respect of the powerful.

The Plane:

At the intersection of America’s need and Hughes’ ego was the Hercules. The largest seaplane ever built. A wooden gamble for the Hughes Aircraft Company. A five year project that cost millions of dollars, personal relationships, and congressional intervention.

The call for a new seaplane went out and amongst the bidders was an audacious project. A plane that could carry multiple tanks, hundreds of troops or huge amounts of supplies. It was so crazy it took Hughes himself to sell the project. By this time it was 1942 and the United States was no longer a sideline player in World War Two. This new design of Hughes’s could revolutionize troop deployment and materiel transport. Best of all, it would be easy on the precious commodities of metal and rubber. The Hughes H-4 Hercules would be made of wood. The press thought it was a huge mistake. The Flying Lumberyard and The Spruce Goose were the mocking names the media gave to what they saw as a colossal waste of money and time. Hughes hated the derisive nicknames, especially the Spruce Goose (especially because it was made mostly of birch).  

It wasn’t actually Hughes’s brainchild alone. Henry J. Kaiser, a builder of Liberty Ships, came up with the initial idea of a flying cargo ship.  Kaiser knew very well that he knew more about hydrodynamics than aerodynamics and that to pull off his enormous plan he would need to get an aircraft builder to help. Hughes was just the man. The problems began to pile up almost immediately. Building a plane mostly from wood solved some of the problem but there were still restrictions on strategic wartime materials like aluminum. The other problem was the partnership. Kaiser was from an industry that ran its production up to unheard of levels during the war. Hughes insisted on perfection over punctuality. The frustrations caused Kaiser to pull his support from the project and caused a rift between the two men from then on. It took sixteen months to go from approval to production start.

Five years after the initial approval, in 1947, Hughes still hadn’t gotten his magnum opus off the ground. The Senate Investigating Committee was looking into the project with a very skeptical eye. The war it was supposed to have helped fight had been over for more than two years. Hughes vowed to the committee that he would prove the plane was not a failure or he would “probably leave this country and never come back.” He left the hearings during a recess, went home and flew the plane on what was supposed to have been a taxi test. It reaches an altitude of seventy feet and was aloft for a single mile. This was all Hughes needed to feel that he had vindicated himself. The plane was moved back to its hanger, kept air ready by a crew of 300 employees, then cut to 50 in 1962 and finally just left in its hanger in 1976 after Hughes died.

The plane remains. You could go and see it in Long Beach, California for many years as it passed from one hand to the next several years until it was finally moved to its current home at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon. It’s on display for all to come and marvel at the folly and the genius and the audacity of one man’s need to be better than everybody else, and it still has the largest wingspan ever created.


Sources:

  • Biplanes, Triplanes and Seaplanes, Sharpe, Michael YA 629.13334 SHA
  • Flight 100 Years of Aviation, Grant, R.G. 629.13009 GRA
  • Howard Hughes His Life and Madness, Bartlett, Donald and Steele, James B Hughes
  • Howard Hughes The Secret Life, Higham, Charles B Hughes
  • Jane’s Encylopedia of Aviation, Taylor, Michael J. H. ed., R 629.13 JAN
  • The Timechart History of Aviation, Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 629.13009 TIM
  • Time Magazine (Vol. 50 No. 19) November 10 1947 p27
  • Hughes H-4 Hercules (Spruce Goose) at Military Factory https://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail.asp?aircraft_id=349#specs

Superhero 101 Foundations in Super Hero History

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Good morning class, and welcome to Superhero 101. With the massive surge of movies, books, and television about and starring spandex clad gladiators from the last century we cannot help but look back to the origins of the archetypal superhero. Most modern comic book enthusiasts think of comics and their associated heroes as falling into the eras of The Gold, Silver, Bronze and Modern ages, with the superhero archetype we all think of (i.e. Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America) beginning in the Golden age. While I agree with the ages and their application in the history of comics, I believe the heroes go back so much farther. I would go even as far as to say that our older heroes are still as popular now as they were in their nascent era. So let us begin learning how the heroes of humanity’s past are the heroes of today’s children.

Okay, that’s what it would say at the top of the syllabus if there was a university crazy enough to give me carte blanche to design a course of my choosing. I’m not sure what department would end up with a course like that; history, literature, and anthropology all have good claims on the subject matter. (I’d probably choose anthropology.) I started to think about this back in 2005, when another set of books came out claiming to be the next Harry Potter. It was something to do with Mount Olympus in New York and some unfortunately named kid. Percy Jackson brought Greek mythology back to the American consciousness with a vengeance. I remarked to a coworker in the children’s department that it was like someone had mixed Dauliere’s mythology with comic books, and then I realized there was nothing to mix, that the original sequential pictures were drawn on the side of black-figure pottery. The more I thought about it, the further back I could push that genesis moment in drawn super heroes, back past Homer, beyond Gilgamesh, back to the paintings in Chauvet and Lascaux and the Löwenmensch. Those giant figures on cave walls and anthropomorphized animals showed a belief in a being better than an average human, a super man.

Gilgamesh Statue at Sydney University

The real origin we can trace the ideas back is to the stories that have come down to us along with artistic renderings. Gilgamesh is probably the earliest recorded super hero. He was stronger and braver and more cunning than an average person. This was because he was two thirds god (yeah, I can’t make the math on that work either), but he wasn’t a god himself. Even the Old Testament refers to a race of giants like Goliath, that were the children of fallen angels and human women, but they were not very heroic. Yet still that was the de facto origin story for most of the Stone Age and Classical Age heroes, some combination of divine ancestors mixed with human to make for an invulnerable hero (Achilles), a super strong one (Heracles), or some mix of characteristics (Theseus, Perseus, Etc. ). There are even examples of plain guys with nothing but their physical prowess and sharp wits like Batman, oh, sorry , I mean Odysseus. The superhero of today would fit fine in ancient Greece and Rome if he just swapped his tights and alien parents for a toga or chiton and a more deified lineage.

The medieval world and its dominating monotheistic religions brought an end to all this human/deity philandering. Heroes now were men and women who were blessed by God like Robin Hood, Pwyll of Dyfed, and King Arthur or sorcerers of sketchy origin like Merlin. Real life heroes began to be magnified to supernatural proportions. Joan of Arc, El Cid, Roland, Boadicea, and Charlemagne all have fantastic elements woven into their stories. Off in the cold north of Europe the Vikings still had the demigod heroes of the early sagas, but even these saw a Christianization as people adopted the religion but didn’t want to give up their old fireside stories. Hero tales are not the sole property of the west in the middle ages.  Sinbad the mariner was sailing the Arabian Sea while the brothers of the peach orchard, Guan Yu, Liu Pei, and Zhang Fei, were fighting to unite China.

Since the Medieval era, we have been going through our past for inspiration. There have been resurgences in interest over and over in the classical mythos as well as the Arthurian legends. Scholars debate the historicity of Troy and Camelot. Writers like Tennyson and Keats borrowed the themes for new works. It wasn’t until early last century that we began something new. Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America and Wonder Woman each debuted and added new heroes to our mythology. This coincided with a rise in science fiction stories in the popular publishing world. Now we have science fiction retellings of the Odyssey, movies of Sinbad, video Games of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and graphic novels that tell the 4000 year old story of Gilgamesh and Troy. Children today are learning the same lessons as the kids of millennia past from the same characters.  We have made our own heroes but we have built them on a timeless framework that goes back to the beginning of humanity and we have brought along a best of collection of the heroes of the past.

 


Sources and Suggested Reading:

  • The History of Art by H. W. Janson (709 JAN)
  • Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by  Marc Tyler Nobleman (J 741.5 NOB)
  • D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D’Aulaire (J 292 DAU)
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh by Kent H. Dixon (892.1 DIX)
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (201.3 CAM)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guangzhong (895.13 LUO)
  • The Song of Roland by Anonymous (YA 841.1 CHA)

 

Pinocchio Syndrome: AI, Robots, and Fear

Created by Yul Jorgensen aka deviantart artist FATBM

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

I and most people in their thirties and forties grew up in an interesting time when it comes to robots and Machine intelligence. Robots are the automated devices that build our manufactured goods, the programmed tools that weld, test, and gauge everything we use. They may even for a few lucky ones have been something we got to play with as kids in school robotics labs, programming multi jointed limbs and pincer grips to move small objects from one side of the table to the other. For me, they were the first peek into Machine language. This was not, however the only way I saw robots. They were also the shining metal sidekicks, the implacable companions, and often the comic relief of some of my favorite books, movies and television shows. I could go from watching a sci-fi film on Friday to playing with an old Unimate PUMA at the local community college’s Saturday kids program the next morning. I almost didn’t see them as even similar versions of the same thing. Now that I’m an adult however I can look back and see my old Saturday morning friend was the Homo Habilis to today’s Homo Erectus. We are still in the early days of robotic evolution, but the pace is quickening and the robot who wants to be a “real boy” could be just around the corner.

IBM 7090 computer and personnel from 1961

You can’t take a look forward and appreciate the amount of journey ahead without knowing how far you’ve come. True electronic computers go back to the old vacuum tube run models that took up the same space as an entire gymnasium and were programmed with punch cards. Then came central mainframes with dumb terminals, mini systems and finally the personal computer we know and love still. In that time we migrated through magnetic tape and cartridges, through the innumerable floppy discs and hard discs to the thumb and hard drives of today. The robots have changed a bit as well. Aside from the science fiction progression we’ve seen from the Lost in Space robot to…well…um… the Lost in Space robot (1965 and 2018 respectively) there has been a huge swing from the early mechanical arms to the more modern, and yet still 18-year-old, Asimo.

Pepper is a semi-humanoid robot, manufactured by SoftBank Robotics, designed to read emotions

The future of robots is heading down two main tracks, Humaniform[1] and non-traditional robots. The Humaniform robots are learning (more on that in bit) to respond to human emotion. In some cases they are working on mimicking facial expressions with plastic and servos. It is among this variety of robot that scientists are working on human like movement. The non-traditional types are just as surprising. Military vehicle=s and drones are where the largest strides are coming from. Self-guided autonomous devices are delivering supplies and personnel. Dangerous missions are being performed with pinpoint accuracy by computers that are learning to modify their tactics. They might not look like C3P0 but the military machines are where we see science fiction meeting reality. Let’s just hope it’s more Bicentennial Man and less Skynet.

Artificial, or machine, intelligence is a different story. Until today the general maxim for working with computers is that they do not make mistakes. They do only what we have programmed them to do. Any errors are really the fault of the programmer. Going into the future we may see computers that are capable of extrapolating their own options and acting outside of initial human programming. This artificial cognition has a lot of people excited, good excited and bad excited. Advances in computing ability are allowing for computer scientists to attack the problem of A.I. in many different ways. They are approaching the problem from the angles of symbolic learning and human brain simulation among several others.  They are also using the latest tools, networks to simulate neural pathways and statistical models to build decision making. One big question in artificial intelligence is the ability of man to create a moral structure for the A.I. brain to exist within. Many do not believe we can safely create a friendly A.I. with the level of knowledge we currently possess. That might explain why fiction has a lot more HAL 9000 clones than Commander Data.

Good vs Bad… who will win?

The real future that many of us hope for is one that brings these two things, artificial intelligence and robotics, together to make a robotic being that will help us forward. Like many of the advances we have seen our imaginations are directed by the stories we hear and see and read. Advances in both fields will lead to the point where a breakthrough occurs, and it will be sooner rather than later. The only questions left to ask are will it be a benevolent discovery and are we worried about if we can rather than focusing on if we should.

[1] The terms humaniform and non-traditional are ones that I have chosen. Humaniform is a term I have lifted directly from the work of Isaac Asimov.

Further Reading (and since it’s Friday the 13th, have 13 books):

  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (F ASIMOV)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (LP F DIC)
  • Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (eBook)
  • The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia (eBook)
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (F GIB)
  • Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (F WIL)
  • “Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M. Valente (808.838762 MOR)
  • The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez (F MAR)
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (F BAC)
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons (F SIM)
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (F HEI)
  • Otherland by Tad Williams (F WIL)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (F LECKIE)

Beatlemania revisited – Fifty-five of the Fab Four

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

My boys, ages 9 and 13 love to sit down on a rainy day and watch Help!. The goofy antics of the four Liverpudlian lads have an entertainment value that transcends the decades. It’s not odd that people like the Beatles today, but it is an interesting change in the mindset of Americans. Most people do not listen to, let alone become avid fans of, the music of their grandparents. While I do enjoy big band and swing music, I would consider myself more exception than rule, even with the millennium era revival of Swing. My parents’ generation certainly did not listen to ragtime. So why do my kids, and many other of today’s children still love the Beatles? The answer is simply because they suffer from the epidemic that was called is Beatlemania.

The Fab Four started out as a fab five: John, Paul, George, Pete and Stuart, and were originally known as the Quarrymen, then Johnny and the Moondogs before moving through several variations of the name we all know and love, before settling on just The Beatles. They got their start in Liverpool, but played in Hamburg, Germany for a time before they all had to leave for one reason or another (Harrison was an unaccompanied minor, Best and McCartney were deported over an arson charge, and Lennon left of his own accord.)They played Liverpool and acted as a backing band and even returned to Hamburg before returning to England and starting to record their own music. Stuart Sutcliffe returned to his art, and the other three replaced Best with a drummer named Richard Starkey, Ringo. The rest of the story is known to music and pop culture fans the world over. They took England by storm in 1962 and 63, then America later that year followed by their first visit in 1964. It was the spark of the British Invasion, and the moving of a phenomenon from Europe to American shores. Beatlemania had made its beach head in the United States.

The outpouring of affection and devotion dedicated to the Beatles took the world by surprise. It was never observed before and really has not been repeated since. Many bands have been called the next Beatles, from the Bee Gees to Oasis to One Direction, but no one has ever lived up to the name. No one had or ever has caused wholesale hysteria among fans like the Fab Four, although Elvis had come the closest. The best explanation that anyone can seem to come up with is that the Beatles tapped into a confluence of factors that hasn’t occurred before or since. The large number of potential fans brought about by the baby boom, the safe appearance (despite the scruffy band stories we all hear their androgynous haircuts, suits, and simple movements while playing meant they were far less threatening than the overtly masculine and sexual Elvis), and the unsure world brought about by the height of the Cold War and death of President Kennedy, made teens everywhere ready to latch on to something. They fell to that with a will. Screaming, fainting, panicking and occasional rioting were more than just a trope from the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night, they were the reality of day to day life for the guys.

The lasting effect of the Beatles, in my opinion, is not the pop culture phenomenon. It is what they brought to music and more importantly musicians. Many people make fun of the Monkees as a manufactured Beatles rip off, but what many people don’t realize is that many bands were structured in the same manner. Even the Beatles were told they were going to play certain songs and not others. Rock and Roll was very much like today’s country music where songwriters made the songs that would sell and musicians played what they were told to. The Beatles began playing songs that were commercially viable. This meant basic formulaic songs and covers. As they increased in popularity, they gained more bargaining power so that by the time Help! (the album) came out, they only had one cover and were able to add more experimental songs like “I Need You”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, and “Yesterday”. The greater their popularity, the more control they had, and it’s evident as you go through Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The experimentalism of The Beatles (more often known as “The White Album”) shows the power they had been able to amass. They were the first major band to tell a big label that they would play what they liked and make it stick. This changed the way rock and roll worked from that day on. That’s not to say that the manufactured band had ended, but it meant that a band with good songwriting chops and a strong following was more important than record executives market analysis, and bands have used this to innovate ever since.

I really think that the best testament to the power of Beatlemania is that the 55 years of fanaticism it caused is only based on seven years of collaborative work. Four Generations have grown up with the Beatles’ music and they are loved by members of all of them. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and U2 have been playing together for a much longer time and released a great many more albums, but have not reached the iconic stature of the Beatles. They have changed the state of modern music for their era, but still had less impact than the Beatles. Their fans and their impact stem from the inroads made by the Beatles and, while their impact is not cheapened, it is diminished by the fact that the Beatles had already planted their flag in those lofty heights first.


Further Reading:

  • Dreaming the Beatles: A Love Story of one Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield 782.4216 SHE
  • The Beatles: All These Years by Mark Lewisohn 782.42166 LEW
  • Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World by Steven D. Stark 782.42166 STA
  • Beatles ’66 The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner LP 782.42166 TUR
  • How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler J 782.421660922 SAN
  • The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny) by Kathleen Krull  J 782.42166092

Sources:

When Ronny Met Jacksie: Narnia and Middle Earth

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

I’m definitely a fantasy genre lover. I always have been, going all the way back to when my dad first read The Hobbit to me when I was little. While I have broadened my reading horizons considerably, I still love to pick up a fantasy novel and slide into a world of warriors and dragons. As such, I have a special soft spot for the patron saints of fantasy literature; Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett, Jordan, Le Guin, White, and Rowling. These men and women carry on a tradition of storytelling that goes back to a time of oral history and fireside stories of fantastic heroes and the even more outlandish creatures that either aid them or seek to destroy them. It was very surprising to me, many years ago, to learn that two of these men, Lewis and Tolkien, not only knew one another, but were friends.

C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis, known to his family as Jack, was born in northern Ireland. His nickname actually belonged to the family dog, Jacksie, which was killed when Lewis was four. He lost his mother to cancer at age nine, and was sent to boarding school after boarding school by his father. He abandoned the Christianity of his youth and escaped into stories of fantasy. He started with anthropomorphic animals like Peter Rabbit, and then developed a fascination with Scandinavian mythology and stories followed by the same for Greece and Ireland. When he first went to Oxford, he joined the officer cadet corps and quickly found himself a second lieutenant in the Somme. In early 1918 he was wounded by a British shell that fell well short of its target, and he spent the rest of the war in England.

J.R.R. Tolkein

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had a similar childhood. His parents had moved to South Africa not long before his birth, but this quintessentially British author returned to England at age three on what was supposed to have been an extended family visit. It proved permanent when his father died in South Africa before he could join the family. Ronald, as his family referred to him, grew up in a series of homes in and around Birmingham. After his mother’s conversion to Catholicism and then death, he was raised by Father Francis Xavier Morton. After getting married and finishing his education, Tolkien found himself a second lieutenant and posted to France. By 1916 he had contracted Trench Fever, and split most of his time between infirmaries and light duty.

The Eagle and Child pub (commonly known as the Bird and Baby or simply just the Bird) in Oxford where the Inklings met informally on Tuesday mornings during term.

So we end up with two men, in the same department of a university, who experienced some of the worst the Great War had to offer, both of whom lost a parent while very young. So when these two men found themselves in Tolkien’s Coalbiters Club for people who enjoyed reading the Old Icelandic sagas, it was natural for them to gravitate towards each other, which led Tolkien to spend time with Lewis’s group, The Inklings. Opinions on how the dynamic between the two men worked varies between scholars. You find Lewis dominating The Inklings in some and Tolkien listening quietly and issuing sharp criticism in others. However, the one common theme is the interplay. These men helped each other grow as writers and world crafters. Their works went on to profoundly influence one another, to the point where Tolkien’s Numenor and a Saruman cognate ended up in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

This is not to say the two men never disagreed. Tolkien’s first proposal to Oxford was rejected and one of the votes that turned it away was Lewis’s.  According to Humphrey Carter in his book, The Inklings, Lewis’s thoughts on Tolkien were, “No Harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” Lewis also felt that Tolkien was too mired in the ancient and neglected the renaissance authors and later writers. Tolkien had his own problems with Lewis, as well. Tolkien was an inveterate opponent of allegory and felt Lewis’ Narnia books were vastly too allegorical and that they were contrived and inconsistent. It was at this time that their friendship began to cool.

Without this meeting of two eventual literary giants, we would not have those same literary giants. It was Lewis who suggested that Tolkien turn his children’s story about diminutive people fighting a dragon into what we now know as The Hobbit. Conversely, Tolkien was among the people who convinced Lewis to return to the fold of Christianity. How lucky the world is that the happy accident of their meeting came to pass and we have some of the greatest works of modern English Literature.


Sources and Suggested Reading:

  • R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship
  • Tolkien’s ‘No’ to Narnia
  • The Inklings by Humphrey Carter (823.9CAR)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Beyond the Wardrobe by E. J. Kirk (823.912 KIR)
  • R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons (823.912 PAR)
  • Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth (828.91209 GAR)
  • Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

Pulling the Digital Trigger

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

WCPLtn’s computer lab in the middle of being remodeled.

As many of you have already discovered, the Library is making a lot of changes. The computer lab is being remodeled. The carpet in many places is being replaced. Shelves are getting emptied out. There are new study carrels throughout the upstairs. These changes are all geared to give today’s library patron the best twenty-first century library experience.

Now most of these improvements have obvious reasons, but the empty shelves in our history section and the continued downsizing of our biographies might not be so apparent. Libraries around the world are seeing a huge increase in circulation as they increase their eBook holdings. Some have seen increases, year over year, of 100% or more. While our increases may have not been that significant, we have seen large gains in circulation as our eBooks catalog grows. During our Make-It-A-Million campaign we checked out 223,972 digital items. That is more than double the number of 4 years ago at 104,000+. Considering our readers’ obvious interest and the limited funding we receive, we have made the fateful decision to transition to a fully digital collection[i].

“Gasp!” I hear from the multitudes. How can you get rid of the physical books? It was a really, really easy decision. I mean, those books are really, really, REALLY heavy. In fact, they are far heavier than what we have down in fiction.  It will be a gradual change (like I said, they’re heavy. No one’s taking a load of them down stairs in a hurry), especially since none of us like to work out.  We prefer reading. The collections that receive the heaviest use will be the first to transition, hence the history and biography section shrinkage. Next will be cookbooks, followed by self-help and the political books.  Unfortunately, once the books have been removed we’re kind of stuck with digital since we will have donated all of the books to the Franklin Transit (they’re planning to add bookstores on the trolleys).  That means that the non-fiction section, which no one really cares for anyway, is the trial section. If this goes poorly, the print books will be saved in the other sections, and we’ll consider removing the digital collections for those sections. But there will be no going back for the non-fiction section. Dun dun dun…

So what are we going to do with all this space? We are constantly being asked for two things: study rooms and a coffee bar. Now that the non-fiction section is being digitized, we will finally have the space to put those rooms all over the upstairs. Plans are in the works for nine new glass enclosed rooms, lockable from the outside (and only the librarians have the keys… good luck!) and a regionally known coffee shop  will be setting up shop between the staircase and the windows overlooking the parking lot (the espresso machine is also available for checkout). There are also plans to replace the periodicals section with a newsstand run by Barnes and Noble. Apparently, they’re a little strict about paying before reading (those glass rooms can also be used as library jails).   Um, anyway…

As of right now, it is only the non-fiction and reference sections that are being migrated to digital platforms. The Children’s Section, Young Adult’s, and Fiction will remain as is until at least the end of the fiscal year in June, and then we’ll see how tired our arms are.  In fact, we will probably not change the young adult section over at all. Statistics for the last year show a significant drop in teen eBook sales and polls of those between 12 and 18 have shown a marked preference for print books. Go figure!

The library is aware that this may prove unpopular with many of our patrons, but we cannot allow progress to be stymied (eventually the goal is for the library to be manned by volunteer robots). Have no fear though; if you still want the old book feel and smell, you can still get your fix. Because we won’t have that massive amount of paper and other flammable material all over the place, candles with the new “Old book smell” scent will be placed throughout the upstairs. And the desk that was formerly known as the reference desk will now be the Library Guru desk where we will still be able to get your print media for you through interlibrary loans, although you will have to bring an offering of chocolate to speak with us. Luckily, as you are not tied to the total instant gratification that the digital generation can’t live without, the one to three weeks it takes to get the book brought in will not be an issue for you.

So I hope this has allayed any fears you may have about our changes. If you want to let us know what you think please email us at Ha.Ha.WeGotU@HappyAprilFoolsDay.bazinga.

 


Sources:

[i] In fact, this whole blog is a rather elaborate April Fool’s Day Prank. I just believe that no one actually bothers with footnotes until the end. The reason for the empty shelves in the 900s and the shrinking biography shelves is that we are making space for brand new, actual ink and paper books to keep our collection as current as possible.

Easter: Season of Bunnies and Chickens… Wait, What?

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Easter is a holiday that everyone knows is Christian, right? Or is it another pagan festival corrupted to fit the recruitment needs of the early church? Just like a paraphrase of the old Reese’s commercial, you got your pagan in my Christianity or vice versa.

Easter as the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation of man is undeniably Christian. It’s not misplaced in the year like Christmas, to help offset the yule festivities, or made up to cover an existing harvest festival like Halloween, All-Saints Day, and All Souls Day. It does have the distinction of being part of the collection of last great moveable feasts along with its associated days of Lent (and for that matter, Mardi Gras). However, it is most certainly a Christian celebration of a Christian concept. There’s no pagan influence in how we celebrate Easter, right? The answer is not so cut and dry as we would like to think. There are three elements of the traditional American Easter celebrations that strike many people as odd. The profusion of rabbits, ducks and chickens is the big one. The inclusion of decorated eggs is another. Finally we have the name. The amazing inundation of pastel colors might be a fourth reason for some of us, but I’m afraid that is an unsolvable mystery.

Colored version of the ancient Mesopotamian eight-pointed star symbol of the goddess Ishtar (Inana/Inanna), representing the planet Venus as morning or evening star

There are a number of theories you will see on the internet or hear from people about the claim that the word Easter is a corruption of the name of the goddess Ishtar, a Mesopotamian goddess of love fertility and war. You’ll hear how there were eggs full of blood smashed on her alter, rabbits regarded as her sacred animals, and how the whole thing was a sacred ceremony celebrating her aspect of the goddess of spring fertility. Almost all of this is bunk. The animal that was most often associated with her is the lion and the only real time we find that big cat in Easter mythology is as a bit of a joke in a certain English candy companies commercials. While she did have a ceremony in the spring, it had little to nothing to do with eggs and mostly involved the equinox and a concept of sacred marriage which may have been anything from a ritual conjoining of the king and the high priestess to a city-state wide activity that resulted in a lot of births nine months later.

There may actually be a goddess who gave her name to Easter. Eostre is an Anglo Saxon goddess of fertility who has cognates with remarkably similar names throughout the Germanic pagan world. Most languages use their version of the word Pesach (פֶּסַח) which means Passover. Not surprisingly, the languages that use something similar to Easter are all in the Germanic family. In fact she may have been a version of the Norse goddess Freya.

Illustration of Ēostre by Jacques Reich, originally with the caption “Eástre… see the bunny?

The Easter Bunny may come by way of Eostre as well. What little we know of her and her various incarnations from around Europe tells us that the fecund little rabbit was one of her symbols. The version we have today probably stems from the Osterhase, an egg laying rabbit native to German vernal traditions dating back to the 1500s. According to the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung,

“A legend holds that a poor woman living in Germany decorated colorful eggs for her children to find in the garden. As soon as the hidden eggs were found by the children, a large hare was seen hopping away. The children thought the hare (Hase) left the eggs.”

There is no doubt that the legendary reproductive powers of the rabbits and hares have been linked to the fertility of spring, but I’m fairly certain the eggs came from somewhere else.

The egg association may have something stemming back to a pagan root. They can’t help but give one ideas about birth and renewal. However the practice of the Easter egg as we know it relates to the fact that for many years, eggs were on the list of foods forbidden to Lenten penitents. People would celebrate the return of eggs to their diet by giving them to each other as gifts. Decorating them began to become popular as well growing in to the modern dyed egg as well as the ornate Ukrainian eggs and even the priceless Faberge eggs.

It really doesn’t matter where the symbols come from. Many people will argue back and forth for centuries to come over the origins of every little word in every liturgy in every faith the world over if you let them. The important thing is to enjoy these festivities in the manner that pleases you best!

 


Sources:

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