Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Appreciation of "Miracleman" from which probably not enough has been removed

Comic fans are a lot like movie buffs, in that a favorite pastime among the faithful has always been to lord it over less fortunate or newer aficionados who have missed the narrow window of opportunity to take in some great artist's obscure masterwork. Witness Giorgio Moroder's colorized, synth-pop infused 1984 version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," for instance, or Disney's racially suspect "Song of the South," or "Let It Be," the documentary that accidentally chronicled the Beatles' self-destruction. None of these have had a commercial release in several decades, and all appear unlikely to achieve another one, thus the attendant snobbery that goes along with knowing all of the lyrics to "Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah" from their original context (bonus points for knowing where to say "Wha' is dat bluebird?").

For fans of highbrow superhero comics (who are something of a rarefied strain these days), the cream of the contraband crop has always been "Miracleman," Alan Moore's first and biggest reinvention of the big, planet-tossing superhero. There are others, certainly - "Watchmen" has more numerous interesting characters, his run on Rob Liefeld's "Supreme" (and, to a lesser extent, Moore's own sci-fi non-super-hero "Tom Strong") is funnier and leaves you feeling better, but "Miracleman" is possessed of a kind of demonic energy that Moore only really tapped at the beginning of his career - here and in his appropriately fertile tenure on DC's "Swamp Thing." "Sandman" writer and pop lit rock star Neil Gaiman followed Moore's 16-issue run with eight of his own, which to comics fans is a little like discovering that Paul McCartney and Radiohead cut an album together. Then Eclipse comics, the publisher, went bankrupt amid a nasty divorce between its two principals (one of whom claims the other absconded with the company's money), and the series was abruptly canceled until further notice at issue #24, in the middle of Gaiman's second arc, which promised to surpass the first, which in turn had surpassed Moore's three incredible stories.

Making matters worse, or more tantalizing, at any rate, issue #25 is actually penciled and inked, and Gaiman had roughed out the plot through the end of the interrupted second story and the one he had planned to follow it. The story, in other words, is finished, but untold. Every few years, somebody else digs up another scan or two of Mark Buckingham's pencils for #25 and posts it online (sometimes without captions), and fans who really, really want to know what happens die a little bit inside.

I have all of these comic books. I have been furtively obsessed with them since a former Dark Horse Comics editor named Jerry Prosser put his collection up for sale on an internet bookstore and sent them to me for what is now a pathetically small sum (the series' 24 issues grow more and more expensive to acquire as the passing years render fans surer and surer that the legal snarl around the rights to publish reprints and the final issues of the series will never be resolved).

I was not allowed to watch PG movies as a teenager or read Stephen King, but I was allowed to read comics, and since these were the best I could find, I learned everything about them there was to learn. I can tell you why the book's name was changed from "Marvelman" when Eclipse first bought the series from its British publisher (Marvel Comics threatened to sue, which is why Moore won't work for them), I can tell you where the series stops reprinting strips from the canceled "Warrior Magazine" stories (halfway through issue #6) and picks up where they left off, and I can tell you where the trade paperbacks differ from the original Eclipse singles (imaginary scientist Guntag Borghelm's surname is misprinted "Barghelt" in the paperback edition of the first book, "A Dream of Flying," a mistake carried over from the U.K. edition but, oddly, fixed by the editor of the comics series in the U.S.).

Moore's tenure on "Miracleman" runs about as 3/4 as many pages as "Watchmen," his most popular book by far, and it is at least as good, though the artwork varies considerably in quality throughout the series. Since it originally took the form of eight-page weekly installments of "Marvelman" in "Warrior" alongside Moore's own "V for Vendetta," the first two volumes are told in short chapters, which grow to sixteen pages with issue nine and culminate in a huge, gorgeous, almost unbearably purple story about the way Miracleman has changed the world in issue 16.

Conceptually, "Miracleman" starts off about the same as a lot of Moore's superhero stories: a man learns that his colorful past is a lie, is destroyed by the knowledge, and is reborn to face a harsher world more like the one in which the reader lives. Miracleman himself, it seems, is a balding, married, middle-aged guy named Mike Moran living in Cold War-era London, who gets terrible migraines until one day he remembers a magic word that transforms him into a nearly omnipotent superhero. In researching his past, he discovers a terrible secret: through a combination of brainwashing, genetic manipulation, and reverse-engineered alien technology, Mike and five other people were turned into superheroes and kept in a trance state where they were programmed with nonsensical memories by scientists anxious to keep them under control. All of his fondly remembered Golden-Age adventures, it seems, have been lies fed to him by bureaucrats and politicians jockeying for position in the arms race.This, frankly, is sort of depressing, and closely resembles Moore's reinvention of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson's horror comic "Swamp Thing" around the same time. What's surprising is where the story goes: equipped not merely with knowledge of his past, but with an understanding of the world acquired by living in impotent drugery as Mike, Miracleman and his newfound companion, Miraclewoman, decide to take over the world, ridding it of sickness, poverty and famine and finally doing battle with Miracleman's old sidekick, Johnny Bates (aka Kid Miracleman), realized horrifyingly as a psychopath with all the powers of Superman and all the restraint of the Jeffrey Dahmer. Complicating matters, his human form is a small, frightened child.

The villains here have considerably more going on than the heroes. Perhaps the most effective surprise in the series is the revelation that Miracleman's old nemesis from his fantasies, a mad scientist improbably named Dr. Emil Gargunza, isn't a fantasy at all, but his creator, who occasionally must personally look in on his fantasies in order to calibrate them correctly. Gargunza is terrifying in his totally understandable, human evil, born of a desire to live forever he probably shares with most of the book's readership. He's given a full chapter in which to explain himself to Liz Moran, Mike's wife, as she sits captive and pregnant with a daughter into whom Gargunza plans to transfer his consciousness, blotting out her own personality and giving him unlimited power. His biography is fascinating, and while his plans are hideous, they make a certain amount of sense.

Recently, Moore has said he doesn't like his work on the title; that he's become disenchanted with superheroes in general and finds this story ugly and depressing in particular. I suppose it is, in places, but that's not the tale's uniform tone by any means. You can feel, at times, Moore's desperation to let his hero solve all the world's problems, only to be confounded by its complications. Mike and his alter ego become more and more obviously different people; Miracleman's triumphant tryst with Miraclewoman sits poorly with Liz; Liz's daughter by Miracleman is superhuman, but her instantaneous power and brilliance rob her parents of the opportunity to raise her. Moore's writing has many great strengths, but perhaps the greatest is his ability to stare down every single implication of a fantastic situation, no matter how uncomfortable or sad. It's one of the things that makes him such a tremendous writer of horror, and yet you can feel in every increasingly poetic caption how much Moore wants to write about the triumph of the human spirit, only to be discover that his main character has ceased to be human at all.

The artwork reflects this transition; Garry Leach and Alan Davis illustrate the crowded early chapters of the story, in which Moore is telling a particularly complex and interesting British spy story with some wonderful science fiction elements. It's with issue nine that the tale really takes a strange turn; faced with a wife going into labor in the aftermath of his greatest battle to date, Miracleman delivers the child amidst some extremely frank artwork and moving, nearly rhapsodic poetry in the captions about the miracle of life. As soon as he's finished, and while he's triumphantly holding his baby aloft, the minutes-old newborn says "Ma-ma." Rick Veitch illustrates this issue and the one that follows, which are twice as long as previous chapters; it's a shame he didn't get a chance to ink his own work - one gets the sense of how well he would have fared, had he been allowed to settle into the role, but he never was.In the story that follows, "Olympus," a post-apotheosis Miracleman narrates from his fortress overlooking the newly perfect world and recounts how he got there. Each story is framed by a few pages of contemplation on Miracleman's part, and it's a relief, at times, to leave behind the verbally dense musings on superheroic ennui and just take in the dialogue between the characters, but the artwork is nearly perfect. It's by John Totleben, one of Moore's collaborators on "Swamp Thing," and the book represents Totleben's longest sustained effort - just under 100 pages. Totleben has Usher Syndrome type II, a degenerative eye disease that makes drawing a long and difficult process, but the resultant pages are so intricate that they resemble woodcuts or maybe Virgil Finlay pulp covers. They're incredibly beautiful, and they give the entire story a retroactive polish that not even the wordiest word balloon can take off.

As Moore works out his hero's thorny moral problems, Totleben invites us to marvel - excuse me, miracle - at the beauty of the world the Miracles have created. The hardest issue to find in this sequence is #15, in which Kid Miracleman returns and lays waste to London. In a lot of ways, it's the visual apex of this series, as hard as Totleben tries to outdo himself on the next issue. Somehow, all that beauty and altruism doesn't ring true without a super-terrorist to give it some balance, and when our hero has to weigh the morality of killing a child against the possibility of the Kid coming back, there's a sense that Moore is interested in more than simply Thatcher-era wish fulfillment (although the page in which Miracleman gives Thatcher an earful is a great one).
The publication of Moore's "Miracleman" stories covers nearly a decade; he wrote 43 issues of "Swamp Thing," a solid 200 pages of "Captain Britain" and all of "Watchmen" while he was wrestling with what God, essentially, should do. The final Moore/Totleben issue's final image, of Miracleman presiding over the unrecognizable utopia he's made of our world as he wonders whether he's done the right thing, practically defies another writer to continue the story. Neil Gaiman continued the story. He was Moore's personal choice for the gig, so it's not as though Moore thought his work was untouchable, but Gaiman was understandably cowed. The character who gives the series its title barely makes an appearance in issues 17 through 22, yet those remain the strongest of the run. They're a sequence of circular short stories, most of which describe the brief loops of experience or emotion that make up daily life in the new Golden Age (that's the Gaiman story's title, by the way - "The Golden Age"). One simply tracks the idle gossip between teenage schoolkids, two of whom - a girl whose father was killed by Bates, and an awkward outcast whose religion worships him - are flirting. Another is told by a man who climbs Olympus (the name of Miracleman's fortress) to "pray," literally to talk to a god and ask him to cure his daughter, injured in the destruction of London. Most begin and end with the same few lines, or with the same image; one contains a children's book that gently explains the brave new world of space monsters and superbeings in euphemisms and gentle exaggerations appropriate for kids - the punchline is that the person most comforted by the book is a mother ill at ease with the loneliness found in all this new freedom.

Maybe the best story in the whole run is "Notes from Underground," in which a shy Andy Warhol, whose body has been duplicated sixteen times at his request, befriends Dr. Gargunza, brought back from the dead for study by Miracleman's alien allies. Buckingham outdoes himself on story's artwork, using the gutters of the panels to suggest a multi-canvas silkscreen on one page, drawing in chalk on a silkscreen of his own throughout several others. It's funny, poignant and even moving, giving us a picture of everyday, humdrum activity in a world that taxed even its creator's prodigious gifts of description. "The Golden Age," in a word, makes us at home in a foreign country.The next installment, "The Silver Age," is truncated less than halfway through. It, too, deals with problems of adjustment to utopia, but in a less roundabout way: Miracleman brings back his second sidekick, Young Miracleman - a gay teenager smitten with his leader and ashamed to admit it. Where the story would have gone, only Gaiman knows.

It would be wonderful to read it someday, but Marvel Comics, for whatever reason, purchased the rights to the series in 2009 and hasn't managed to work out the legal troubles around the rights to the character's adventures under Moore and Gaiman's pens in the last two years, though it has reprinted Mick Anglo's old "Marvelman" strips from the 50's - the ones Moore retconned into fever dreams. They're a little boring, frankly, and they don't sell well, but they suggest that Marvel might be on some level serious about getting the story finished. That would probably have to be a labor of love; fewer and fewer people are interested in old-fashioned superhero comics, even as more and more people flock to movies based on them. In many ways, "Miracleman" is an elegy for the genre; a mile marker signalling the end of the line. A few other great superhero books followed, no doubt, but good pulp writers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis are drawn to more obviously to straightforward science fiction, Westerns, horror, or war stories - all the genres that superhero comics stifled in the 1950's and 60's after the Kefauver commission practically outlawed them. There's been a forceful anti-superhero movement among comics creators anxious to spread their wings, but the protest threatens to grow too large and cut too deep. For writers like Gaiman and Moore, who paved the way for the new guard, superheroes were the only way to make money, and so they wrote gorgeous, layered superhero stories. It would take a lot, I'm afraid, to preserve the really wonderful stories of what comics historians have termed "The Dark Age" from the tide of history - divine intervention, let's say. Some sort of little miracle.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


This is an older interview that I did with Martin back in February for a feature on the HBO adaptation of his terrific fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire." I hadn't been assigned to review any of his books yet, but I knew I liked his writing and had read most of it since, as a 12-year-old, my friend Mark Crawford lent me a copy of a Hugo anthology that contained "Sandkings," which gave me horrible nightmares. I recommend it, and Martin's other science fiction stories unreservedly (you can pick up his big hardcover "greatest hits" collection "Dreamsongs" for a pittance these days, if you're interested). Martin was extremely pleasant and willing to talk for quite a while, which I appreciate a great deal as an interviewer. I don't always record my interviews - sometimes I just take notes - but I wanted to get this one down verbatim so I could put it up uncut for posterity. Enjoy.

Sam Thielman: So, why did "A Dance With Dragons" take longer to write than the other books in the series?
George R. R. Martin: Well, you know, that's a good question and I'm not sure I have an easy answer for that. #1, none of the books have been exactly fast, I mean, I'm a slow writer, I've always been a slow writer, and the books are huge. I mean, they're three, four, five times the size of most novels being published. And they have extremely complex interweaving storylines. I remember back when I did the first book, 'A Game of Thrones,' Asimov's Magazine wanted to publish an excerpt and I pulled out the Daenerys storyline from the first book, and they published that as an excerpt, and after I pulled out all the Daenerys chapters and put them together for Asimov's, I did a word count and discovered, technically, I had a novel, just about Daenerys.
I'm never gonna be one of those writers who has a book a year, or two books a year like some of my colleagues do. I simply can't write that fast. I do a lot of polishing and revising, and it's a big task.

SBT: You know, for a long time I didn't even know you'd written a fantasy series - I just knew "Sandkings," which I loved [Martin chuckling, apparently he gets this a lot]. One thing that struck me about the novels is that they're written with the same amount of care you put into your short stories, even though the stories are much, much smaller.
GRRM: Well, I think anything you do should be crafted with the same amount of care whether it's a short story or a giant megaseries. Obviously when I was first starting out, it was an accomplishment for me to write a short story, and then when I wrote a novelette, which is sort of a longer short story, it was a huge breakthrough and I said, 'Oh, my, I'm writing a novelette now.' I never would have dreamed what awaited me 30 or 40 years down the pike. But the stories get longer and more complex. I think they say that you like to write what you like to read. And I like to read these immersive kinds of stories with rich large casts of characters and the like."

SBT: I read, I think in "Dreamsongs," that you basically wrote ASOIAF to be unfilmable. Were you surprised when HBO optioned the books for series?
GRRM: Yes. I mean, delighted, but I was surprised. It was partly a reaction to my years in Hollywood. I was primarily in television and film for 10 years, from 1985 to 1995, so for a decade. And initially I was on the revival of 'The Twilight Zone' on CBS and then on 'Beauty and the Beast' [on ABC*]. I was a writer and producer on both those shows, and then I did five years in development, where I wrote a number of feature films and pilots for television shows that were never made. And during that period I was working in television, the one theme was that when I would hand in the first draft, the network or the producer or whoever I was working for would always say, "This is great, George, but it's too long and too expensive. We don't have the budget to make this." And so I would cut it, I would trim it, I would eliminate characters, I would make the big battle scene a duel between two people, I would make it produceable. But I kind of always loved my first drafts much more than I loved my final drafts.

My final drafts were produceable and they were generally more polished because I'd revised them the usual number of times before they actually went before the cameras. But my first drafts had lots of great stuff in them that I was subsequently required to take out in order to make a show that we could fit in the timeslot and fit within the budget.

When I returned to prose after doing all this other stuff, I said, "You know, I'm not going to worry about that anymore. I'm going to do something huge - something with a cast of thousands and gigantic battles and sets that will blow your mind." And I didn't worry about it, because when you're writing prose, you have an unlimited special effects budget. Anything you can describe, anything you can imagine, you don't have to hire actors to play these characters - someone can come on for just a moment; you can have a small character who only has a few lines in every book and yet is somehow memorable. And you don't have to worry about 'oh, how are we going to cast this?'** So I thought no one would ever produce this.

We did... when the books started coming out, and particularly when they started hitting the bestseller lists, I started getting inquiries from producers and studios and so forth, from people interested in optioning it. But mostly they wanted to make it as a feature film, particularly after the success of "Lord of the Rings," people were looking for other fantasy franchises, and I met with a few of them. But you know, I didn't think it could be done. My books are simply too big. They're much bigger than Tolkien's books; they're much more complicated than Tolkien's books, with the number of characters and the complexity of the plots. So when I met Dan and Dave and we talked about how they would do it, it was the one way I had thought from the beginning that it could be done - by somebody like HBO. It couldn't be done on a regular network, because you would run into too much trouble with the censorship. It was too-adult fare. And it couldn't be done as a feature film. But as a series of series on HBO was the one way I could see it working - we have 10 hours for this first book and not the two hours we would have for a feature film. And hopefully we'll have more series to tell the ongoing story.

SBT: Is there any fear that the television series will catch up with you while you're writing the final two books?
GRRM: [Laughs] I have a considerable head start. So I don't think they're going to catch up with me. But ask me again in five years and we'll see where both of us are. Put that in your calendar.

SBT: How involved are you in the production?
GRRM: I'm somewhat involved in the production; I have a great relationship with Dan and David and I've been to the set multiple times, I've met most of the actors and I'm writing one script per season. That's my deal. So I wrote episode 8 of this season and if we get renewed I'll write one episode of that script and so on.

SBT: Was it difficult to get back on the, uh, scriptwriting horse?***
GRRM: It was fun, actually. I was actually worried about it because it had been more than a decade since I'd done it and I thought, "Well, do I still know how to do this or have I forgotten?" But I did know how to do this again. It all came back to me. The only think that was different was that the software had changed, so I had to get used to new scriptwriting software. The ones that I had used in the old days aren't used anymore. They gave me Final Draft. I used to use WordStar and run it through Scriptor. I still use WordStar to write the novels; I haven't changed that at all. I don't like any of the new word processors.

SBT: Do you ever wish you could be more involved in the show?
GRRM: When I visit the set especially, it awakens something in me that wishes I could be more involved. I start to wish I could write three or four episodes of the script every season like Dan and David are doing - to be there every day for the producers' meetings, et cetera, but that's a full-time job and the only way I could do that would be if the books were done, because, as you know, the books take a long time. But if they don't catch up with me, and I finish the series, and they're still working on it, maybe I'll come to them and say, "Hey, I can do a few more things on the show now," and I'll be more involved. But I've got to finish this fifth book now and I've got two more to write after that.

SBT: Ever thing about doing a cameo?
GRRM: I wouldn't mind doing a cameo. I did a cameo in the pilot, but I wound up on the cutting room floor.

SBT: Have you gotten to watch it yet? HBO screened a couple of episodes for us and it was amazing.
GRRM: I haven't actually seen any finished episodes yet. I've seen scenes, I've seen all the trailers, when I was in Belfast I saw a 20-minute trailer they put together so I could see some of the scenes.

SBT: Do those scenes look the way you imagined they'd look?
GRRM: I have a very vivid picture of what it looks like in my head, because I've been working on this on and off since 1991. So things don't look exactly the way they do in my head. But, you know, it's sort of a double-take process for me. The first time I encounter anything, whether it's on the screen or on the set, it's usually me saying, "Oh, that's not right! That's not how it looks!" but then I step back and say, actually, it's pretty good the way they have it. I think that working in Hollywood for 10 years and having written so much television and film myself has given me batter perspective than a lot of novelists whose work is adapted to television and film. I know a lot of people in the science fiction and fantasy community who have a hard time dealing with something of theirs that's being changed - what do you MEAN the character has black hair? He has RED hair - And I've been on the other end of the process and I understand the realities of production. There's usually a good reason for stuff like that.

SBT: Just logistically, did you have to talk to people about what's going to happen in future books - who's going to die and who's going to surprise us by returning and so forth?
GRRM: I did do some of that, yes. David and Dan have used me for that. And that's a concern. That's one of the concerns as we go forward with the series and we do run for seven or eight seasons. Because I had never structured these books for a television series; I did not take the practical realities of that sort of thing into consideration and instead I've done what I thought was an interesting thing to do in the story, where people who are minor characters in book one assume great importance in book five. And you can do that in prose, and it's great. I like for people to reread my books and hopefully they'll discover things on rereadings that they didn't discover the first time.

SBT: How do you cast for someone who's going to have to disappear for thousands of pages?
GRRM: It's much more difficult in television, because what do you do? You need a really great actor, because he's going to have all this stuff to do in the fifth season, but in the first season he has three lines. So do you cast a major actor and pay him a ton of money to say the three lines and then say, "Five years from now, if we're still on the air, you'll have some great stuff?" That's hard to do. Or do you change actors, and suddenly you've got this guy in the fifth season who's important? Television deals with this all the time, and HBO has dealt with it on other shows. If you look at a show like "The Sopranos," you see a character like Ralphie Cifaretto who comes on in season three or something like that, and is like a major earner and captain for Tony's crew but he's never been mentioned before. Well, where did he come from? Did he transfer from the gang in Chicago? Well, no, he's been there all along, and you have to buy that. And the important characters who step up in season four or season three or season two, we'll just have to say they were there all along.

SBT: Does thinking about this kind of stuff have any effect on the way you write the books?
GRRM: The books have such momentum in my mind that so far I haven't noticed very much impact on it. I've often used the analogy of a journey; if you set out to drive from Los Angeles to New York, you probably know your destination and you know the first night you'll end up in Flagstaff and the second night you're in Kansas City, but you don't know what's around every turn. You don't know if you're going to pick up a hitchhiker or something; those are the adventures you have while making the journey. And as a writer I find certain things while making the journey. I still know my ultimate destination and I know the landmarks I'm going to reach long the way.

SBT: A friend of mine was reading the books and said something to the effect of, "These are terrific, but they can't possibly have any overarching structure, can they? They're just way too complex." And I kind of feel like we're beginning to perceive the bigger structure of these books, but reassure me - you have a plan, right?
GRRM: I mean, certainly for the major characters. Some of the minor guys we meet along the way, who knows? That's one reason it takes so long; I hope to have it all tied up fairly satisfactorily by the time I reach the end of that seventh book. There's a file on my computer, but I keep most of it in my head.

SBT: How?
My previous books were all stand-alone novels and I wrote them in one sitting, even though it took, you know, a year.

*And fwiw, anyone bitching about Martin killing your favorite television characters has had 20 years to prepare for the shock. Go back and watch "Beauty and the Beast" to remind yourself what I'm talking about.
**Except that you do now!
***This would clearly be an awesome horse to have and ranks among my worst metaphors as a writer. So proud.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


A brief warning: if you've only watched the first season of the show or read the first book or two, there are a couple of minor spoilers below. Caveat lector. No "Dance with Dragons" spoilers, of course.

I grew to resent George R. R. Martin over the course of reviewing "A Dance with Dragons." It wasn't over the terror I felt for my favorite characters in Martin's latest gorgeous, populous novel, nor was it even over the time I spent away from my increasingly annoyed wife, who kept saying things like, "Please don't read that at the table" and "Did you hear what I said?" No, it was for the damage wreaked on my already fragile back by the 10-lb manuscript, which runs to more than 1400 pages and is, somehow, still too short.

It's difficult to know what trick to use on one's friends and neighbors to force them to begin reading Martin's vast fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire," since talking about the books' events with fellow travelers through Martin's Westeros is half the fun (don't think for a moment that I'd want you to read the books in the hope that you'll enjoy them. I want you to suffer like me until the next one comes out). The titles don't inspire confidence, with the exception of "A Feast for Crows" and maybe "A Game of Thrones," which has come to adorn the HBO show based on the books. Certainly "fantasy series" isn't the sexiest phrase in the English language, nor the least likely to provoke a roll of the eyes or worse, a polite smile.

I have settled on the following method: like a drug dealer, I give the first book ("Game," buy it here, you'll like it, I promise) to a friend, entirely for free. "I've bookmarked it with the receipt," I tell this friend. "If you make it to the receipt and don't like it, just take it back to the store for something you like more."

The receipt, of course, sits, early in the novel, at the page after the first of the horrifying hairpin plot twists that most clearly distinguish "Ice and Fire" from other fantasy fare, and nobody has yet told me that he got to that place, stifled a yawn, and set out for Barnes & Noble. If it's not a series with universal appeal, what appeal it has certainly extends to my circle of friends.

Martin has taken nearly six years to turn out the fifth volume in his series, a length of time made to seem much longer for the fact that the series' moral center and its most widely beloved character, the brilliant and insolent dwarf (that is, a sufferer of the rare medical condition, not a mine-dwelling beard gardener) Tyrion Lannister, appeared nowhere in book four ("Feast"). Nor did Danaerys Targaryen, whose plot thread appears to be load-bearing. "Feast" is generally considered the weakest of the bunch, although I have a soft spot in my heart for it, given its devotion to damaged and entirely deranged points of view within its rich world.

On that point: Martin's reputation as a heartless disembowler of favorite characters is certainly earned (it's hard not to fling the third book across the room when you hit the big reversal at its halfway point, and you'll probably give "Dance" a heave, too, but both books are heavy and unlikely to fly far), but he maintains and nourishes in his readers a surprising sympathy for the maimed, the crippled, the ugly, and the unloved - a touching and frankly moral impulse that seems at odds with the books' brutal dedication to the nastier aspects of human nature, and their unsparing medieval milieu. Unlike Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or even contemporaries like Gene Wolfe and Philip Pullman, Martin takes his cues from history, not mythology or modern politics, and the five volumes (so far) of the series render in bleak detail the minutiae of living in a period approximately adjacent to War of the Roses-era England.

And because it's hard to express my affection for these books in sometimes too-distant language available to critics, I guess I might as well just come out with it: no contemporary American writer has produced a body of work I admire more than George Martin's. His novels are fucking awesome. The characters are cunningly drawn, the world is thoroughly imagined, and the plots are carefully and intelligently constructed and rewritten until they are of the highest quality. And best of all, they are surprising.

The stories - and there are many, all running simultaneously - in "A Song of Ice and Fire" are consistently, unambiguously shocking in the best possible sense, meaning that the surprises are of a piece with what we know of the characters we've come to love or despise - it's just that, somehow, Martin has laid out the story so that we're always looking left when he's about to turn right.

Reading these wonderful novels is a constant struggle to stretch our crania to contain the depth and breadth of their complexity, a race during which Martin is necessarily a few steps ahead, since he's doing the imagining first. Moreover, you can actually surprise yourself with them again, during a rereading - not because you get caught up again in the percussive action of the books' most harrowing passages, but because there are actually plot points hidden carefully in the story's darkest corners. Those paragraphs you read too quickly on your way to see whether or not your favorite character dies - read them again. You'll see people you recognize.

Which brings me to a point I'm sorry to be the first to make: George R. R. Martin is not "the American Tolkien," as all of his dust jackets proclaim him in the words of well-meaning Time Magazine critic Lev Grossman. Tolkien was not a very good writer.

He was a wonderful builder of worlds, and for that we must forgive him his prose style, but Martin is several orders of magnitude superior to Tolkien in nearly every respect - he writes intelligently about women, he delineates multiple points of view within a given conflict, he is not in love with war, and no two of his thousands of characters are easily confused with one another. Most of what Martin shares with J. R. R. Tolkien comes between his first name and his last. Any two of the "Ice and Fire" novels are, by themselves, longer than the entire "Lord of the Rings" cycle and any one of the books is three times as interesting.

This is not to call Tolkien worthless, merely to say that Martin is standing on his shoulders, and is thus taller. In addition to the older writer's gift for scope, Martin brings a gift for depth, illustrating wonderful absurdities within a given economic or political system. The Wildlings (unruly nomads beyond the Wall that marks the borders of the central kingdom of Westeros), for example, are considered uncivilized and worthless - violent, crude, and totally ineligible to be incorporated into Westerosi society. After a few characters say this, we take it as fact, until we find out the reason these people are such pariahs: they're democrats. For one man to have one vote, it seems, is totally unacceptable to the monarchial civilization at the books' core, and so the Westerosi national guard (the Night's Watch) goes to war with them in the third volume.

Another example: there's a religion (one of many) in these books so ridiculous that no one, not even its priest, a minor character named Thoros, believes in its tenets. Thoros vanishes for several hundred pages after being seen to carry through a joust a cheap sword dipped in napalm and set on fire in mimicry of a messiah he doesn't believe is coming, only to be found a book and a half later sitting sheepishly next to that messiah, watching in awe as his savior unsheathes a sword made of red flame and battles with it before his very eyes. These are the least surprising and interesting of the books' twists - I'd much rather not spoil the others for you, if you're planning on reading them, which you ought to do.

Given the level of quality here, I'm unsurprised that Martin's fans have turned on him to some extent. Devotees of "Ice & Fire," presumably unused to literature written on this level, have gone feral, taking to blogs that exist solely to harass their favorite writer into hurrying up so that he can finish the series before he dies (and are also given the time of day by, hilariously, The Wall Street Journal; presumably the WSJ ombudsman is on vacation).
This has come as a nasty shock to poor Martin himself, a very nice, married middle-aged New Jersey Native living a quiet life in New Mexico, who has been toiling in the genre fiction ghetto for several decades, where he has logged most of science fiction and fantasy's tonier prizes (his sci-fi short stories are a wonder to behold, but the medium has fallen out of favor and, by extension, print), but remained mostly untroubled by fame.

To his everlasting credit, Martin has let his perfectionism win over his vanity, and has kept "A Dance With Dragons" until it is as good as he can make it. It is pretty damn good, too. May he do
the same with "The Winds of Winter" and "A Dream of Spring," the final two installments in the series. There's something really incredible going on here - painful frankness and unstinting craftsmanship on the level of an Alfred Hitchcock or a Theodore Rousseau - that makes me happy to be alive while it's being produced. If there's a disadvantage to the books' length, it's that the series gives Martin so many opportunities to irretrievably screw up. The astonishing corollary, of course, is that he hasn't.

Next week: a Q&A with the man himself, from an interview I did for Variety back when the show was getting made.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Well, folks, it's been a nice world but it's apparently coming to an end. Thus spake nutball preacher Harold Camping (see above), and so we will all be either raptured or left behind to burn in eternal torment tomorrow. I'm looking forward to a restful night's sleep, myself, but just in case, I will be live-blogging the end of the world this evening, assuming that it will come to pass at 12:01 EST. I have a nice dinner with a couple of friends planned, will call my brother, whom I haven't spoken to in ages, and will then settle in to record the destruction of planet earth for posterity. Expect earthquakes, fires, lightning, and floods.

This is probably a good thing for Tim Pawlenty, actually, as he won't have to suffer the indignity of running an unwinnable presidential campaign (see below).

I'm going to see if I can finish this China Mieville book in the meantime. I'll see you fine folks later this evening.

6:10 p.m. Best paragraph I've read all day, from "Iron Council" (book reffed above): "Elsie remembered the air-burials she had heard of among northern tribes. Women and men of the tundra, who let their dead rest in open coffins under balloons, sent them skyward through the cold air and clouds, to drift in airstreams way above the depredations of insects or birds or rot itself, so the stratosphere over their hunt-lands was a catacomb, where explorers by dirigible encountered none but the aimless, frost-mummified dead."

We'll be seeing a lot of frost-mummified dead soon, ha, world ending and such [fill in more jokes at expense of heathens after Great Beast rises from seas]!

6:19 p.m. Will there be beards in the post-rapture world? Only this man knows for sure, and he doesn't look like he's telling. (Thank you to my aforementioned brother, Jacob Thielman, for setting me straight on this.)

11:43 p.m. Lovely dinner with the Thompsons-to-be (friends of ours who are engaged); surprisingly little discussion of the impending eschaton, almost no mention of numerology at all. Sitting on the couch with Pam watching "Viva Ned Flanders" from season 10 of "The Simpsons," which, when the world ends at midnight, is actually not something I would be ashamed to have had as my last few moments on earth.

11:45 p.m. Pausing the episode to read all of the bumper stickers on Comic Book Guy's car. "I Brake for Tribbles" - classic. Heh. Marge is buying a "Loggins & Oates" CD, and Homer is calling Ned Flanders "Churchy LaFemme," which is a joke I'm pretty sure nobody under 50 who isn't an obsessive comic strip nerd gets.

11:49 p.m. How do you suppose the world will end? Meteor? Zombies? Massive spontaneous volcano eruption? Magic? I predict magic.

11:54 p.m. You know what I really don't like? Raisins.

11:55 p.m. Interesting fact about the book of Revelation - "The Apocalypse of St. John" is actually one of a number of documents written about the end of the world during that period in history, but with special significance for Christians because of its intersection with Jewish prophecies.

11:57 p.m. I really have to pee, but I'm not going until the end of the world arrives. Don't want to miss that sort of thing.

11:58 p.m. Actually, isn't it already tomorrow in Australia? Is everyone in Brisbane dead or raptured by now?

11:59 p.m. Raisins really aren't that bad, come to think of it.

12:00 a.m. Aaaaaaaaaahh.

12:02 a.m. For what it's worth, a few news items:

9:58 a.m. Man, it's tired in here this morning. Must be the whole eschaton thing. You know what I want to do for my last day on earth? Watch "Thor." Still haven't seen that thing.

10:18 a.m. So I'm hearing that the world is not ACTUALLY supposed to end until this evening, around 6 p.m., and that it will involve earthquakes, which I think is kind of lame. I want really big fires. Like an asteroid or something. Hey, do we think Harold Camping will give everybody their money back tomorrow?



2:45 p.m. Things I Will Not Regret If the World Ends This Evening

-Happily married
-Finally got job as a professional writer I've wanted since I was six
-Wrote a play, even though nobody ever saw it
-Got to read the summer's two big SF books before world ended
-Still not estranged from siblings or parents despite best efforts
-Saw cheetah cubs in the wild once
-Eventually lost virginity
-Huge, unpaid student loans
-Insurance plan from ages 22-29: "Don't get hit by bus"
-Avoiding physician, dentist.
-Escaping the ravages of age

Things I Will Regret If the World Ends This Evening

-Having a 401(k)
-Never having seen "Thor"
-Still haven't read anything by Proust
-Only got a chapter or two into "The Brothers Karamazov" before picking up "Under the Dome" by Stephen King
-Wife not even pregnant yet
-Novel still in preliminary stages
-Picked up soundtrack to "Me, Myself and Irene" from "Free" pile on neighbor's stoop

Things I Will Regret Whether or Not the World Ends This Evening

-Picked up soundtrack to "Me, Myself and Irene" from "Free" pile on neighbor's stoop
-Watched "Hudson Hawk" like, four times
-Bought "Portal 2" before checking to see whether it would run on my computer
-Years ago, broke wind loudly and blamed it on less popular fellow 11th-grader
-Ate enough ice cream last night to have already regretted it
-Blogged and blogged and blogged, and no one cared

4:21 p.m. It begins! http://bigthink.com/ideas/38526

4:22 p.m. Books that will be the first to go on the fire if I am left behind this evening:

-All three "His Dark Materials" books and addenda by Philip Pullman
-Most of the Stephen King books, except "The Stand"
-Anything by Alan Moore
-The Book of Mormon
-"Preacher" by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
-Any "Left Behind" novels I can find

4:40 p.m. And if Tim LaHaye calls somebody a P.T. Barnum-level charlatan, you at least know that he's speaking from personal knowledge of the business.

5:40 p.m. Well, the end is night. Apparently I will be going to hell (see here), despite firm belief in a loving God who declines to communicate with the world through fools and charlatans.

5:45 p.m. I've decided to flip on "The Lord of the Rings" and read my Bible for the apocalypse. Oh, look, here's a great verse: "Immediately after the tribulation of those day the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all of the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."

Whoops, looks like you should have kept reading, Harold Camping!

"But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only."

Wow, so the name of your website is actually blasphemous, then.

You know who never lets you down? Sam Gamgee. That guy is totally great.

5:57 p.m. It's almost time! Soon, every follower of Harold Camping will feel his or her skin start to tingle like he's being beamed aboard the Starship Enterprise, and she will be whisked off to heaven to laugh at the poor SOBs who didn't listen to their loony savior - a man who exhibits several salient features of mental illness and has no formal education but nevertheless must be the only person with access to scriptural secrets that have baffled theologians for millenia!

5:58 p.m. I love Ian Holm in this movie.

5:59 p.m. Wait, who was the Antichrist? Did we ever get a ruling on that?

6:00 p.m. "A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to." Poor Harold Camping. The apocalypse has pulled a Gandalf on him.

6:07 p.m. Don't feel too sorry for him, though.

6:11 p.m. Wait, no, I was wrong. The end of the world has arrived.

Wow, the Republicans are totally screwed

Tim Pawlenty is going to announce his candidacy for president and people are acting like it's a huge deal. Good luck, charisma-free man! Seriously, who's going to run? There's a really good reason people treated The Donald like a viable candidate, and it's not because he was one.