All The Colors. All of Them.

It hit me one day when I was reading Hellboy. Holy crap, said inner-monologue me, these colors are crazy! And, truly, they were. What struck me the most was how Cameron Stewart (the colorist for most of Hellboy)’s use of “flatting”—a coloring technique that emphasizes the use of uniform colors over textures in order to highlight the lines and inkwork on a panel—let the heavy reds and deep blacks add depth and an ominous tone to the story.

Comics are all about the tonal feel of the setting and story and a large part of that, at least for me, comes from the colors. It was the deft use of heavy, flat-coloring strokes and negative space I saw in Hellboy that illuminated how much of a conscious choice colors are in a comic book.

See, the thing about colors in comic books is that we really don’t think about them. They’re there, and they make things look great, but colors can have a strong impact on how we perceive things, even with something as simple as a subconscious association to a particular emotion. If layouts are responsible for creating the narrative flow of a graphic story, then colors are about creating the tone, ambiance, and the visual language of the narrative.

Take for example Hellboy, the story of a giant red creature from hell who may or may not be the son of Satan, and who helps a US government agency combat supernatural threats. Hellboy would be a completely different story if the colors were lighter, brighter, and less oppressive. The simple change in colors would turn the dark, threatening world of Hellboy into a fun, zany story about the protagonist’s adventures through the world of the supernatural. It’s the colors which make it an incredible multifaceted story about a being from hell fighting against his true nature and the insanely horrific things he has to face as part of that world.

But the question remains: how do colors play such an integral part? I mean, we can all fill out a coloring book just the same, or fill out a paint-by-numbers, right? Isn’t it just about making sure things aren’t bland? Here’s the thing, though—it’s really not. Even black and white is a conscious choice and can be used to great effect (if you don’t believe me, look at amazing graphic novels such as Jeff Smith’s seminal Bone, or Charles Burns’ bizarre coming-of-age story Black Hole), so the argument that color is just a filler (no pun intended) falls a little flat.

Colors are the first things we see when we open the book. It gives us a boatload of information about what we’re about to read. Is it a typical superhero comic (generally shiny, bright colors); is it horror (dark, ominous reds, blacks and heavy tones); is it a period piece (faded colors and lighter color palettes)? When I started writing my own comics, I tended to focus exclusively on the writing itself since, after all, that’s the important part. However, once I started working with my artist, it became painfully clear that I can’t think of the story as just the words – it has to  include the colors, too.

Stories have a tone, and a mood, and a setting, and that needs a way to shine through in graphic form. When I work on a script, I can’t simply spell it out in writing, or else I’m just writing a novel with some nice pictures. That’s the key: it has to feel organic. Colors are that feeling, they’re what make up the medium’s visual nature. And hey, we already use colors for that in everything else. Color theory plays a major role in art across all media, from movies to paintings to sculpture. Colors drastically change how we view and understand art.

But I digress. The importance of colors became clear to me as I expanded my (now fairly sizeable) comic book collection. I didn’t really understand colors until I moved away from the vast world of superhero comics and into the cornucopia of colors and styles that showed me their importance. It started with Hellboy, really. One of the things that makes the series so great—outside of author and artist Mike Mignola’s mastery of universe-building and character development—is that the art provides such a strong balance to the narrative. Mignola’s stripped down yet-detailed illustrations use color deftly, with the flat-color technique employed by Stewart forcing the eye to focus on Mignola’s heavy and defined black inks.

However, what really stands out when you open any of the series’ volumes is its tone. You don’t have to know anything about Hellboy or the “Mignola-verse”—to use the parlance of our times—to understand that what you are about to read is firmly placed in the horror tradition of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe (two authors whose influence shine through in many of Mignola’s stories). Colorist Dave Stewart chose to go with flat colors for the story, avoiding many of the textured designs of many of the book’s contemporaries, allowing for Mignola’s (and later other artists’) pencils and inks to fill in those gaps. The result? Ominous and oppressive tones and a feeling of dread and suspense on every page.

The examples of how color has been used in comic book are endless. From Marvel’s recent surprise hit relaunch of Hawkeye to Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s bizarre alternate history The Manhattan Projects colored by the amazing Jordie Bellaire, to basically anything else she is working on these days (for my money though, I’d go with Pretty Deadly, The Autumnlands, and the recent run on Moon Knight from writer Warren Ellis and Illustrator Declan Shalvey). However, I would sit here for days listing off amazing colorists and their incredible works of art.

The point, if I may, is this: all the parts which make up a comic book would be nothing without the colors that make them so easily readable and visually stunning. Layouts might be the narrative fuel that feeds the flow of the story, but colors are the story’s heart and emotion.

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Agree to Disagree - Baphash Goes to the Movies

This Week’s Choice: Sunshine (2007)

“SHOOT THE PAYLOAD INTO THE HEART OF THE SUN!” – not actually in the movie

Every week, Baphash Editor-in-Chief Michael Harris and Managing Editor Joseph Sibony choose a movie to watch, sit down, and brawl about it. This week, Michael chose 2007's Sunshine. Joseph wrote the review, and Michael's rebuttal can be found next to it. 

THE REVIEW:
Joseph Sibony

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Sunshine (2007) is a movie I’m supposed to love. As a sci-fi nerd, and a fan of space, it should be right up my alley. Directed by the versatile Danny Boyle, and starring a great ensemble that includes Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, a pre-Captain America Chris Evans, and the inimitable Mark Strong, it also has some of the most quoted lines in my movie reference repertoire. Moreover, the movie is considered a modern sci-fi cult classic, garnering generally favorable reviews according to MetaCritic, and a 76% score on Rotten Tomatoes. 

And yet, I don’t know what it is, but much as I want to love it, all I can say after watching it for the fourth time in my life is that I kind of like it.

I grew up devouring sci-fi, whether in books, movies, TV, or videogames. I love cerebral movies and high-brow concepts, and the idea of a mission to the sun sounds like it should be badass. But unfortunately, at least for me, the movie goes from excellent sci-fi to crappy slasher film too quickly and too heavily.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sunshine is a movie about the sun dying. Literally. The plot revolves around our solar system’s star slowly dying, and the mission sent to revive it. We watch the world’s desperate last attempt - a massive spaceship carrying a nuclear bomb with “a payload the size of Manhattan” that is meant to restart the sun by creating a “star within a star.” The ship is the Icarus 2, the second such attempt, after the previous spaceship—the aptly named Icarus 1—disappeared seven years before the movie started (which means that the people on earth have been living in a frozen tundra for probably over a decade). The mission is suddenly imperiled when the aptly-er named Icarus 2 finds the Icarus 1 seemingly abandoned and drifting in the sun’s orbit, and the crew decides to investigate.

Before I get into all the reasons why Sunshine disappointed me, let me just say that it has some really big strengths. For one, the cast acts the crap out of this movie. Chris Evans is an incredibly underrated actor who continues to surprise me (this and his performance in another cult sci-fi hit, Snowpiercer (2013), cemented him as one of my favorites), Michelle Yeoh is her usual understated but excellent self, and Cliff Curtis is creepy and fantastic as the crew’s slightly disturbed psych officer. Cillian Murphy plays an excellent Cillian Murphy, and Hiroyuki Sanada—known for his work in the amazing 47 Ronin, as well as Lost—is the best damn captain a sun-bound spaceship could ask for. Additionally, the cinematography in the movie is (mostly) breath-taking. The shots of the sun, the spaceship itself, and even the interior of the Icarus are all very well done.

Now, this all sounds fantastic. And to be fair, the first act of the movie is incredibly promising. The movie touches on fascinating topics, from the effects of space on the mind, to decisions such as saving a few at the cost of the many, to the heavy burden of leadership and its wearying effects. Unfortunately, that’s all it does. The movie treats these deep topics, which would easily make excellent movies on their own, as simple window dressing for the third act.  This is one of my biggest problems with the movie. I know it’s not reasonable to hope that every sci-fi movie redefines the genre, but it can at least handle some of these incredibly nuanced and interesting subjects as more than simple plot devices.

[DISCLAIMER: I’m going to try to avoid spoilers from here on out, but if I can’t, well…you should have seen this movie nine years ago]

At some point in the second act, director Danny Boyle decides that making a great science fiction flick isn’t enough, and what the movie REALLY needs is to be Scream in space. To which I say: “ugh.” See, I can get trying to build suspense in the movie, and I get that Mark Strong’s demented captain Pinbacker has some real craziness and beliefs that would generally reinforce killing his whole crew and sabotaging any mission to try to revive the sun. However, as with the sci-fi concept, his motivations and potential depth go out the window in favor of “look! A scary-looking bad guy who wants to kill everyone in a blacked-out corridor!”

And it’s a shame. The last third of the movie is spent in blurry shots and shaky camera takes, with tense moments hidden behind pillars and near-misses. So basically, the plot of any slasher flick ever made. The worst part is, all that incredible work the movie does in setting up the third act is just discarded so easily. They misuse some great performances in their rush to kill people off and create “suspense” needed for horror, even wasting what should have been a masterful performance by Mark Strong as a seriously demented villain in benefit of cheap thrills. Even Cillian Murphy, who acts his heart out, is basically just running through the motions of avoiding the man in the mask.

When you break it down, I suppose that’s really my biggest problem with Sunshine. It tries to do too many things, and it does some of them amazingly well, but I just really hate the others. I love the sci-fi side of the movie, it’s an incredibly crafted and thought-provoking piece. I really don’t like the slasher film, with its shaky cam and shitty fabricated suspense. Somehow, Danny Boyle managed to turn what should have been one of the best sci-fi movies of the 2000s into I Know What You Did Last Summer…IN SPACE.

THE REBUTTAL:
Michael Harris

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Ok, my esteemed colleague Joseph makes some really good points here, and I’ll be the first to admit that Sunshine probably isn’t the best movie ever made. Sure, it was my pick for the first film we were to watch for Baphash. Sure, I literally tell people that “Sunshine is the best movie ever made.” And sure, I hold almost every movie I’ve seen since to the flame which is Sunshine’s essence in the world of film. But all of that has nothing to do with the issues Joseph mentioned.

Probably the biggest difference I take with Joseph is that we’re actually watching two different movies when we watch the film. The issues Joseph mentions – that it becomes a “slasher flick” too quickly, that the performances get muddled towards the end – these are definitely true, and when I watched Sunshine again this week (the first time in a long time) all of these are glaringly apparent.

Of course, I’ll take quick moment to remind Joseph that sci-fi classics like Alien and Aliens as well as things like The Host and even Attack the Block are also movies which use a sci-fi premise to bring in a monster who pursues the main characters in a potentially horror-styled fashion. I don’t think that just because Sunshine has a “surprise pursuer” means it's no longer sci-fi and, in fact, I found the surprise introduction of Mark Strong’s pursuer to be both terrifying and satisfying.

But! The point! The point is that the movie that I see when I watch Sunshine is one with an incredibly tight script. All of the exposition is blended into required conversation between characters. The previously failed attempt (the Icarus 1) gives characters a rational approach to being concerned (I mean, this is the earth's "last, best hope") and provides plausible reasons for each character to be concerned about the mission and to check and double check their responsibilities. Every issue which arises (for example, the fact they stumble on the Icarus 1 and must debate the value of searching it or avoiding it) has actually been set up by a script which leaves nothing as inconsequential. What comes off as innocuous conversation in the beginning becomes crucial to the story later on.

Add on top of this the fact that the cinematography is beautiful and that the CGI is beautifully rendered, neither too overdone nor too subtle (re: the moment when everyone gathers in the observation deck to watch Mercury passing in front of the sun), and that’s enough for me to just love the film forever.

I want to add in one final thing that I like about the film, and this is much more personal than it is the shining feature in a film I find worthy of great praise (*cough*, Joseph). More and more contemporary films seem to be vying for ensemble casts, but modern films seem to try and make every character a unique individual. Take The Avengers, for example. Tony Stark, Captain America, The Hulk, these are all unique characters to themselves acting against the unique character of the other. But this almost always makes a film feel like it’s moving too fast – that we didn’t get enough depth from one or the other (note Scarlett Johansson's completely personality-less and backstory-less character in the Avenger films). But Danny Boyle's story shaping in Sunshine should be a master class for filmmakers everywhere: when there's a group of people addressing a problem (in this case, the sun going out and leaving Earth as a frozen tundra), the ensemble should each represent an aspect of personality, forming a cohesive unit together and undermining the mission when an individual let's their hubris stand in the way of the group.

It's this, this wonderful story which is Sunshine, which pushes Sunshine over the top from an entertaining sci-fi film to a great one: it’s a really well told story. The characters, the script, the cinematography, it all comes together to tell a fun sci-fi tale in space with emotional swells in the music and larger-than-life lines (“There will be nothing to show that we were ever here, but stardust. A last man alone with god… am I that man?” – amazing).

Overall, Joseph has no idea what he’s talking about. Sunshine is a sci-fi classic for the ages, scratches and bruises and all.

A Structured Mess

There’s something about a well laid-out page in a comic book that gives me a slight nerdgasm. It’s not a specific thing, mind you. After reading comics for over a decade, simple pretty pictures or a good story don’t always do it for me; but if you add a beautiful design to bring them together, you’ve got magic on the page. Personally, my favorite layouts are complex layouts. I get easily bored by regular old squares on the page, and it can make the action feel clunky and poorly plotted. Give me a good copy of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, or Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s trippy magical masterpiece Promethea and I’ll be happier than the Joker with some gunpowder.

Prometha Issue 15, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by JH Williams III
publisher: America's Best Comics
Image courtesy of: http://www.howtolovecomics.com/2015/07/20/artist-week-13-j-h-williams-iii/

And yet, my whole world-view on layouts was recently upended. On a loose recommendation, I picked up a copy of Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda’s The Omega Men, and for the next 40 minutes proceeded to have my mind blown. Why? Outside of the wonderfully complex and layered story and the beautifully rendered illustrations, The Omega Men is one of the single greatest examples of how much a creative team can achieve with the nine panel grid – the simplest of layouts.

See, comics are only as strong as the sum of their parts. Layouts on the page have evolved from their squared origins of no-relation to the story to integral parts of the story telling itself. The foundation of the medium—how the story is given motion on the page—is THE LAYOUT.

Given how complex comic book layouts seem to universally now be, it’s easy to forget not only how simple they once were but how effective the simplicity was, too. Take the three-block layout, like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts or Bill Watterson’s seminal Calvin and Hobbes. The three blocks were perfect for a quick setup and a good punchline. Even Herge’s Tintin uses a variation of the simple nine-block layout.

But, as writers began to make stranger and more complex tales and heroes, illustrators started to manipulate the panes and, since then, the actual layout itself is as integral to the story as the actual action shots which occur within them. Comics like Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo and Matt Kindt’s epic thriller Mind MGMT quite arguably wouldn’t be as good if they were done in a simple layout form. More complex layouts generally allow for more complex stories.

For me, this brilliant use of a page’s space and a layout’s flexible lines is one of the best things about comic books. When they’re done right, layouts can radically change narratives, and can give an extra dimension to the story telling. Even better, there’s no shortage today of amazing layouts and paneling in the medium.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always this way. I have a lot of trouble reading comic books from before the late ‘90s because, in all honesty, some of the art and layouts are just SO BAD. As with any other young medium, comics went through decades of growing pains that at best produced some classic works, but at worst produced some of the most… well, painful comics I’ve ever read. If you’re looking for super-heroes with massive guns and muscles coming out of their muscles, the "Exxtreme '90s" are for you. Between the old classics and the new standards, there were a whole lot of really boring stories that kept to old conventions and stale storytelling. And personally, I’ll take a creative failure than a boring story any day.

The Omega Man Issue 3, written by Tom King and illustrated by Barnaby Bagenda (Artist)
Publisher: DC Comics
Image courtesy of:
http://comicsalliance.com/omega-men-nine-panel-grid/

While I love crazy layouts and inventive page designs, too many times I feel like throwing a book against a wall because it’s too complicated to be effective. And yet, here was me making fun of squares on pages. Outside of Watchmen—a comic considered to be the apex of the genre—standard pages didn’t really float my literary boat.

That said, I picked up The Omega Men’s first issue fully expecting to hate it for its rigid layouts and clunky looking action. And then I read it. And then my mind was fully blown.

The thing about The Omega Men is that even when it sticks to one of the most basic layout designs possible, it does it so well that you forget you’re reading a comic book. When I started reading, I was awed by how the simple paneling framed the story more like moving pictures and less like a page in a book.

What really struck me was how flexible layouts can be. While Bagenda (the artist)’s work is limited to rectangular panels, he mixes and matches them to create different flows. Some pages will feature only six panels, with one taking up the space of two or three, while others will break the page down into smaller segments of a single panel. In doing so, Bagenda and King can speed up or slow down the action depending on the story’s needs. They can also convey an incredible amount of detail, both textual and visual, because of the panel’s relatively large size.

In my mind, the most important effects of a good layout is how it makes the reader FEEL. It sounds strange, but when you look at a page before you start focusing intensely, the layout can tell you a lot about the story. In Bagenda and King’s political thriller slash space opera, the simple and sometimes rigid panels help elevate the feeling of suspense. By forcing you to focus on small details, the creators manage to control the flow of the story, giving you as much or as little information as you need to understand the story.

But what Bagenda and King managed to do then, floored me. They took a style that has been considered basic for a long time and made it work terrifically well. The art fits perfectly to the suspenseful and action-packed scripts, and the narrative flow feels more like a movie than a book. By breaking down the page so simply, they can force your eye on specific details, directing your attention like magicians.

For someone who’s been writing comics as long as I have, I actually have to admit that this is the first time I’ve seen such a simple comic layout has blown me away. After being an acolyte of the complex, I’m now inspired to try out the “plain.” It’s nice to know that even in this era of flash and glamour, the simple things can still be the best. 

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The Fire of Phoenixville, PA

There’s something a tad awkward about seeing your cousin when you grew up not really all that close with your cousins. I’m 30 now, and I’ve known my cousin since I was a small child, but I could probably count the number of times I actually remember being around her on both hands. And most of that number is from the early days of family Thanksgivings, before everyone with my last name seemed to find some belief which demanded we never see anyone ever again (for some of the younger relatives it was religion; for some of the older ones, it was dementia).

But over the recent years I’ve met my cousin again, almost now as if for the first time. The few moments we’ve had the chance to spend with one another—now as independent pseudo-adults—have led to those wonderful little moments when you realize a person you thought you know, you don’t know, and that the person who they really are has more than a few things in common with you. We both love to read and write, we both love sappy movies, and it turns out she even works at a bookstore, something which was once an early aspiration of my own.

I’m assuming (and I want to stress the assumption part) that this little revelation of mine is something people in close families feel on a regular basis. Just recently I was a guest at a friend’s family dinner for a cousin’s 21st birthday. Everyone sat around a table and joked and chided one another – reminding aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings, about fun family times, about who each person once was and who they have become. And honestly, they looked like aliens to me. “You know your cousins?” was my reaction. “I didn’t think anyone really did that…”

Still, I was pretty reluctant to accept her invitation as a place to stay in Philadelphia as I made my way south of New York. It’s not that I was concerned that she wouldn’t be who I thought she was; it was the concern that she might discover me to be someone else. My joy in being the ever-forlorn-cynic in every situation often seems to turn strangers off to me – and I assume that my long-lasting friends have learned to see it for the facade that I hope it is – and here was a stranger who happened to be family. The last thing I wanted to do was expose myself as the curmudgeon I figure most people think I am.

More honestly, I wanted beyond all else to not say anything so cynical that she might think I was criticizing her or the things she likes to do. Because she’s family, and if I was going to try and be nice to anyone, it should probably be to family.

Open-air market in Philadelphia, PA

I got to Philly late because, well, me. Luckily, she was still up and happy to see me. I was actually born in Philly but aside from that I really don’t know anything about it. It turns out my cousin lives in the oh-so-generously titled “up-and-coming” area of South Philly. I say “oh-so-generously” because any place that has a street dedicated to coffee shops, boutique restaurants, and yoga studios doesn’t really count as “up-and-coming” to me but much more of “tall-and-overtaken.” Not that this really matters, I mean, it’s just a phrase, but I suppose the vague range “up-and-coming” actually conveys can range from “this area is awful and dangerous but at least it’s cheap” to “this area was once filled with an ethno-centricity we considered vaguely threatening but we’ve priced them way the hell out of here.” South Philly seems – to me, I’ll stress – closer to the latter but still affordable enough for some.

I’ll take this moment to refer everyone back to earlier sentence of “the ever-forlorn-cynic.” And you thought I was joking.

But enough of my nagging, Philly is gorgeous. While I didn’t totally understand how it was ok for people to just park in the middle of the street, South Philly had a sensitivity to it. My cousin took me on a beautiful walk through the whole city and I couldn’t get over how nice everyone was. Philadelphia is known as “the city of brotherly love” and I could see why. Probably to a fault, actually, since every store we stopped in, every coffee shop we took a moment to look into, I had to stop and talk to everyone. “Who are you?” I’d ask. “Why are you being so nice to me? Do you always smile like that?” And they do! Everyone does always smile like that! Weird!

And so went the majority of the time I spent with my cousin: she tried to show me her favorite bookstores, her favorite areas, her favorite things about a city she loved, while I ran away from her, talked to everyone else but her, and, more often than not, got lost.

I know that this is my own personal problem. Hell, the reason I left New York was because I couldn’t figure out how to mesh with my community. I just feel so awkward, like the niceties of introduction are much more familiar to me than the intimacies of sustaining a relationship. I know how to be nice to a stranger; I don’t necessarily know how to take care of a friend. I don’t really know how to open up to a community at all, to share my doubts and fears with people who might potentially criticize me for them even though the other option is they might sympathize and let me in.

A three-story wooden phoneix lights up as it returns to ashes.

But then there was the Firebird Festival. I suppose before talking about the Firebird Festival it’s important to give my little cousin a ton of credit on something very, very specific. Aside from being one of the sweetest, most loving people I know, aside from being an incredibly hard worker and dedicated manger to her own employees, and aside from being so emotionally in-tune with herself it puts Dr. Phil to shame, aside from all of that my cousin is one of the most well-read people of all time. Specifically, she is a fantasy geek. Her apartment is stacked from floor to ceiling with books. Everything from Kushiel's Legacy to The Dark Jewels Trilogy, Game of Thrones to Song of the Lioness. Not only has she read it all, but she’s read most a few times . She keeps an index in Excel of all the books she owns and separates it by genre, author, and series. This girl, she’s amazing.

And so of course she happens to have friends in the Dagorhir community. Of course they dress up in medieval garb and learn how to fight with swords and shields, and of course they would be attending the annual Firebird Festival in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

I personally had no idea what we were doing. My cousin had explained it repeatedly but I’m often deliberately obtuse about things and because I have a hard time keeping in my head things which were told to me anything more than an hour ago. But somehow I ended up in the car being driven out of Philly to find myself in the quaint and pastoral town of Phoenixville.

Imagine if David Lynch was sane and just made movies about how great living in the ’50s was. That’s Phoenixville.

If I had been deliberately getting lost before, I was now doing it at breakneck speed. I don’t think that my cousin and I were in Phoenixville for more than ten minutes before I ducked away to take photos and stare at the incredible people.

I say incredible people because this was the beginning of the Firebird Festival. Apparently Phoenixville suffered from a long bout of “ain’t nobody want to be here-itis” but that started to turn around and in 2004 they decided to celebrate their brilliant recovery with the Firebird Festival. The festival itself is small, but incredible. The whole town comes out to march in a parade to a three-story tall phoenix made of wood. Then they burn it.

It’s awesome.

But then I met her friends and they. were. so. cool. Dressed in fur cloaks and gambesons, carrying swords and horn flasks, they seemed to appear out of thin air as a large group of marauders. One guy even had little metal hoops he used to pull his beard into a point. I swear to god this was like all of the sudden being transported into Narnia.

It turns out these were these legions of Barenheim, a certain sect of LARPers. LARPers, for those who are like me and may also have no idea what that could possibly mean, are “live action role playing” players. It’s kind of like paintball meets historical military reenactment meets Dungeon and Dragons. Dagorhir, unlike other LARP games, seems to be specifically about the more formal fighting and strategies of history as opposed to other LARP games which have more to do with magical play.

I spent the actual bird-burning part of the Firebird Festival running around taking pictures and getting lost (again), but of all the people attending, the Barenheimians stood out as regal and proud in the flame-licked night.

I talked to a few of them. I wanted to know everything I could. I wanted to know what the game was, how they played and, more specifically who they were. A few of them, consequently, sat with me for an interview. All the while my cousin stood calmly to the side, letting me burn myself out while she chatted with her own friends in the group.

A Dagorhir player gets ready for the parade.

The festival ends with the fire, and as people started heading to their cars we got invited to join the group for “after-festival drinks.” To be honest, I expected a castle. Like, really, I thought we were going to some kind of hall with a round table we would all sit around and drink out of goblets or something. But instead, I found myself in a somewhat messy house, the kind of house which says “please make yourself comfortable,” the kind where you wouldn’t want to sit on the floor as a guest but you would sleep there comfortably any day as a friend.

The living room itself was large yet crammed full of combat gear from every era: épées and crossbows, automatic airsoft rifles and pieces of other such weaponry seemingly ready to be put together again in new creative ways. There were shelves on the walls piled high with Tom Clancy novels and fantasy books, more weapons and board games stacked on top of those.

People poured in. They sat around the room and filled it to capacity. And then, the strangest thing happened. They started to relax. The costumes began to be peeled back and the conversation shifted from their epic battles into the end-of-day campfire tales people discuss about the minutiae of any fun activity. They pulled out some bottles of beer (and I think two different wheels of cheese and crackers got consumed – actually, I’m sure of it, I think sharp cheddar and smoked gouda), and just relaxed.

And that’s when my cousin caught my eye. She had been there the whole time, still chatting and quietly observing, and she caught my eye and smiled as if to tell me that she had been waiting for me to make the realization I was only just getting to: these were not heroes and warlords, just as Philadelphia was not now some faux version of the hip-yet-dangerous city it used to be. This was real. This was now. This was honest.

The party ended slowly. Some people drifted to sleep where they were sitting, others got up and said goodbye. I left when my cousin suggested and we drove quietly back to Philly in her car.

“Did you have a good time?” she asked. And I didn’t really know what to say. I had had an incredible time. I had gotten to see a fantasy so real that I believed it completely. And then I got to peek behind the curtain and see that even though the fantasy wasn’t the reality, the reality was just as good – if not better. I don’t know how my cousin found the patience to wait for me to come to this realization but bless her soul for that patience.

For my last day or so in Philly, I spent my time trying to see who she really is. We watched some of her favorite movies, like Inside Out (“I’m not crying, you’re crying”) and How to Train Your Dragon, and we talked about things in our lives. It’s hard for me to look past the “hello” moment of a relationship, it’s hard for me to sit down and see what people do when they’re doing their routine. But this was a good start.  

see the gallery:

Zen and the Art of Weird Eating

Take whatever food you picked up…
…rub it on your lips…
…and really try to understand it… 

I’m sorry, what now? Mindful eating? Just obeying him as if what he’s asking makes perfect sense? Isn’t this how cults start? It must be, right? One day you’re innocently rubbing a walnut on your lips and the next day you’re cutting ties to all your family and friends, moving to a commune, and exploring free love on acid. I’m almost positive this is how I’m going to end up finding myself 20 years down the line at rock bottom, the subject of a documentary, wishing to never see another walnut again. Or maybe not. I’m keeping an open mind.

I did choose to be here, after all. I’ve been silent for 24-hours now. I’ve been walking around avoiding eye contact with anyone who crosses my path. I’ve been staring into space, a zombie among other zombies, all seeking inner Zen. All because some guy sitting cross-legged at the front of a room said so. 

The woman directly in front of me has her eyes tightly closed together, a hand on her chest going up and down with her breath, and a grape circling around her lips. Nothing to see there. Totally every day, average stuff. See? My mind is an expansive field with no judgements. 

I’m figuring that on the one hand, it won’t hurt me to rub this walnut around my lips. I mean, not physically at least. On the other hand, if I don’t bring this walnut to my lips am I really the loser in this? I don’t want to do this. I mean, I will, but I refuse to enjoy it. I will do it because every other person in this room has given up any sense of normalcy and I’m feeling probably the strangest kind of peer pressure I’ve ever felt. In a room full of people draped in gauzy scarves rubbing food on their lips with an intensity which should be reserved for performing lifesaving brain surgery, I am the weirdo. 

Girl, pull it together. You need to get through this. You are near nirvana or at least near to pretending you know what nirvana is. 

…okay, now place the food on your tongue but don’t take a bite… 

You know what? I’m here. I’ve committed to spending three days in silent meditation. Did I expect to be asked to do this food stuff? No, most definitely not. Is it a bit outside of my comfort zone? Yes, it most definitely is. But this is why I came. To try something new. Let it happen! 

...move the food you put on your tongue around your mouth
and get to know it on an intimate level... 

Well that took a turn.

…now take one bite but don’t chew.
Let a burst of flavor engulf your mouth… 

Ok, so maybe this isn’t so bad. Actually, it’s pretty damn delicious. My taste buds are like a symphony orchestra and the walnut is the conductor. Notes I never knew existed are flooding my mouth. I’ve never paid this much attention to a single bite of food. I should start eating every meal this way! Sure, it may take me hours to finish a salad, decades to eat a burger, eons until I take the last lick of an ice cream cone, but who cares! I can chew slower than a sloth. I’ve got all the time in the world!

If a cult is my destiny then let this walnut be my entrance ticket. Tell my family I love them and I totally saw this coming.  

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Goodbye, NYC

I’ve had a hard time starting this article. I wanted to write about why I decided to leave New York, why I was “moving away” from a place rather than “move to” somewhere else in mind. I’ve tried approaching this topic from a number of perspectives but I don’t think there’s any way to write it without getting into who I am. 

To truly understand why I decided to leave New York, I need to talk about high school. 
I went to high school in a very, very small religious school. I left the junior high public school system with a class of 150 (which is a small number itself) to enroll in a private school where my graduating class would total 12 students. It was in a basement and we studied a dual curriculum: religious studies in the morning, secular studies in the afternoon. This meant a day which went from 8am until 5:30pm in a school of 60 people total. 

Sometimes, when I tell people about this, the question is “how did you survive?” And, honestly, it was easy. It was easy because there was no other choice. You didn’t really hate anyone, you didn’t really love anyone because those were who you had. In a school of 60 students, I learned that I had to simply exist with everyone else. If you’re in a small boat with someone and arguing brings water in over the edge, then survival isn’t about personal grievances becoming resolved, it’s about staying calm.

I talk to people now about their high school experiences. Mine was different on all accounts. While people I know now talk about the social hierarchies of their experiences, about parties and dating, none of that really started for me until much later. For me, high school was a revelational experience, the dawning of the conclusion that social institutions and faith are two very separate things, even if they’re sold as a package—in the beginning I was ambivalent to the administration; in the middle I believed everything they had to say; in the end, the only word I was left with to describe my experience was “hypocrisy.” 

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“Hypocrisy” is such a convenient word. It doesn’t really mean all that much or, better said, it can really mean whatever the user wants it to mean. Religion is a fun place to use the word, hypocrisy, because teaching quote/unquote “good behavior” is very different than “acting good.” My high school experience ended with a feeling of “all I’ve been taught is ‘don’t be an asshole’ and all everyone is, is an ‘asshole.’” 

I realize that this article, so far, has been a bit of bitchfest, so I want to point out while I am bitter, I’m not blind. I may not have liked my high school experience but I’ve had a wonderful life filled with opportunity. I’ve had the chance to live overseas for an extended amount of time and to travel and experience incredible cultures and communities. I don’t think the world is hypocritical, I think that certain areas can be.

And so, New York.

I moved to New York in 2012 after living abroad for three years. I moved to New York excited – New York had been the only city my family ever visited. We would go for Broadway shows, to see the store windows and lights around Christmas, we’d go to see my grandparents (who lived in Queens). New York, as far as I understood it, was the diversity of humanity contained to its own five-boroughed metropolis. Everything was available in New York; every experience, every opportunity, everything. 

In the beginning, things were good. I mean, good in the New York way. I got a job I was lukewarm about and I had a shitty apartment I loved. I would walk Manhattan top to bottom just for the sounds. It was incredible. 

But slowly, quietly even, something started to feel wrong. Or, maybe out of place. The years had passed and I had moved from Brooklyn to Harlem, I had changed from one job to another, joined some writing groups, but for some reason it felt like nothing had changed. Everyone I was meeting was having the same conversations as the last group I had met. The same insights. 

Of course I met some intensely smart and stand out individuals, but the “New York Experience” didn’t seem to be manifesting for me. I felt as if I was constantly missing the event or attraction which would be that experience. This is a vague description, I know, but it was a vague moment. That internal sensation that something was off. 

And then, a month ago, I realized what it was. The day after the election, I realized that everyone wasn’t only having the same conversation about the results as everyone else, they expected everyone to be feeling the exact same way. 

And here we are, back at oh-so-apropos word: hypocrisy. New York, in my head, was a place of diverse opinions. It was a place where all thoughts were to be welcomed with open arms. But while it still claimed the same offer, it was decidedly un-open to the idea that things don’t have to be the way “New Yorkers” think it should. It was high school all over. It was time to go.

A few weeks later I made it official. I packed my few belongings into boxes and bought a car. If New York, the cultural center-of-the-universes wasn’t what I thought it was, then perhaps nothing was the way I thought it was. I checked my bank account and decided that I could travel until the money’s gone. That it’s time to appreciate that the United States is large. That things are unique and different everywhere and that I don’t know as much as I thought I did. And I don’t, and I’m becoming ok with that. Which is a good thing. I’d hate to be some kind of hypocrite. 

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Comics = Art (?)

Me: *sitting in the staff room reading a comic book*
Co-worker: Oh, is that a comic book? 
Me: Yeah, it’s actually a—
Co-worker: That’s so cute. My son loves Captain America
Me: *awkward silence*

As an adult fan of comic books and graphic novels, I’ve had this conversation more times than I’d care to count. Comic books have come a long way since the days when Superman was throwing cars at bad guys and yet the number one question I get about comics is “aren’t those for kids?” 

Back when the medium became a thing, comics were indeed something designed and mostly marketed for kids. The pulp graphic novels such as The Phantom, The Shadow, and Doc Savage; and the Sunday strips like Archie and Family Circus were designed to appeal to the idealistic black-and-white morals that are so easy for kids to understand.

The thing is though, comic books have grown up quite a bit. Despite the ongoing debate about whether this is a good thing or bad thing, comic books today are an incredibly diverse medium which has expanded from the standard superhero fare into a vibrant and multifaceted art-form—from mainstream series like Batman, Superman, and the X-Men to creator-owned titles such as the gender-bending Sci-Fi retelling of Homer’s epic in Ody-C and the fantasy western Pretty Deadly, a story about Death’s daughter.

And yet, it seems that comic books—and the wider graphic medium as a whole—get relegated to second tier status when involved in discussions of artistic achievement and literary merit. No matter what the book is or the story being told, it would appear that accompanying words with pictures is a major taboo when vying to be considered art.

The foil to my view of comics became blindingly obvious when I sat with a friend and listened to him tell me why my preferred literary medium and one of my greatest passions was “not art.” The crux of the argument was that while, yes, comic books do display a tremendous amount of “technical” achievement, the visual medium takes away from the power of the literary devices and storytelling tools available, removing subtlety and complexity from the story.

As I sat there trying to formulate a response to his argument, it struck me: the problem comic books have in connecting with a wider audience seems to be twofold. On the one hand, the graphic medium still carries the legacy of its forefathers—funny strips and books that were originally created for children. But the other hand gets more complex; the way we view comics today is still held back by the tools we use to analyze them. Think about it. We’ve spent centuries perfecting and studying literature and art forms such as painting, sculpture, theater, and even, more recently, film. Entire fields-of-study have been created to analyze, interpret, parse, and deconstruct these art forms and we have become—at least subjectively—very good at understanding the way we understand art. The graphic medium, being a relative newcomer, hasn’t been given the chance to be really considered art because we haven’t developed a real way to study it the way fields like literary or film theory have.

It’s taken me a long time to realize why people look at me funny when debating the graphic medium’s artistic merit, but it dawned on me this past week that there were many times in my life that I, too, had the same doubts and questions about the medium as a whole and its place in the arts. In fact, one of my first problems with reading comics came with the very first one I read as an adult: Neil Gaiman’s seminal series The Sandman.

The story about the lord of dreams sprawled over ten collected editions, Gaiman’s Sandman was my gateway drug; the psychedelic and many times awe-inspiring art and layouts, the subtle coloring and abundant references to mythology and folklore were hard to get out of my head. And yet, the first time I read it, there are few things I could have remembered outside of the textual narrative. I had made the same mistake many people make when first reading comics and, though I had loved reading the book itself, I told myself the story was a bit weak and conceited. My problem? In my intense focus on the words on the page, I literally blocked out the rest of the story; when I read it again years later, I became struck by subtle details I’d missed before, like how Morpheus—the king of dreams and the protagonist—always wears clothes that match the time period and place he’s visiting or the simple visual references in every issue that ties the larger universe of Sandman together.

And there’s the problem: when we read comic books, we’re not simply looking at words on a page, or just pretty pictures, or just a beautiful layout. We are viewing a complete work which require us to examine all the parts, and then how those components interact with one another.

But back to Sandman. Even though I fell instantly in love with the story and the potential of comics, I began to realize that Gaiman’s writing maintained some of its literary roots—much like his novel American Gods, the text is littered with plays on words and verbal flourishes in his dialogue—and yet seemed on the whole more on-the-nose than his prose work. I moved on from Sandman loving the verbal part of comics, but still unaware of the wide world of, well, everything else.

The next comic I read that forced me to look away from the words on the page was Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s cyberpunk masterpiece Transmetropolitan, the story of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque reporter named Spider Jerusalem in a 23rd century megalopolis aptly named “The City.” Ironically, the story focuses on the power of words and Ellis can go on a bit with dialogues and monologues, but Robertson’s schizophrenic art and over-the-top illustration style forced me to look at the full page for the first time. Like in Issue 3, Spider is reporting on a riot that has been instigated by nefarious types, and as he’s writing his story, Darrick Roberston gives you a first person view of the chaos; the cops literally crushing a kid’s skull, a fire bomb going off. It’s impossible not to see it and the impact is immediate.

The result? I could see The City come alive, warts and all. Ellis’ writing style does away with many of the literary tools normally used in prose: the narrator is happy to remain in the background, and outside of “articles” included in the story, the plot is driven by dialogue. Even so, I could see something bigger. The metaphors had become cleverly illustrated pages, or a well-positioned panel, a forced perspective.

All of the sudden I realized that the words are not simply enough, and neither is the art. Without one, you have choppy dialogue, and without the other an oddly creepy story about a dude who walks around naked a lot and a weird looking version of New York City. But put them together, and Spider Jerusalem becomes a strangely prophetic vision of where we’re headed as a society.

I can see why it’s easy for people to dismiss graphic literature as inferior. The tools we have to analyze it tell us that it’s an incomplete medium: the writing lacks the subtlety of prose, the art is too stylized, or too simple, or too “campy,” the stories can’t possibly be that profound. But to rank graphic literature as just “literature,” or just “art,” is to misunderstand it as its own medium. The writing is subtle in different ways; the medium must use different literary devices with less real estate to work with. The art is not inferior, but must seamlessly blend action, dialogue, and visual narrative. The combination of both must be perfect, or we easily break our immersion. It’s time we give this graphic medium credit. It has survived its infancy, and as it becomes a more ingrained part of the mainstream, it demands the same respect we give its older siblings. I have a feeling I’ll keep having to defend it for some time, but I hope that everyone discovers what I’ve known for years—that comic books freaking rule!

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God Bless You, America

DECEMBER 2016

I’m having trouble falling asleep these days. I suppose we all are. I feel like everyone’s telling me I should be scared and, well, it’s working.

At the end of the day I get into bed and I catch myself staring at my door across the room for a long time. I’ll try to stop but even if I look away I can feel myself waiting. Listening. They’re right outside the door, I’m sure. I feel like they’re going to get me in my sleep, like, I’ll wake up to some Nazi standing over me with a crusader’s crucifix and whisper “we did it to your grandaddy, now we’re gonna do it to you.”

If I were younger, I think I’d be fueled by this. I think younger me might have gotten real political, real snarky, and that I would have tried to read all the articles from all the sources and been the guy who says “well I’ve read what the other side has to say and I can say with certainty that they’re still wrong.” I’d be that asshole.

But I’m not that young anymore and, to be honest, I don’t have the energy. I’d rather just focus on finding a way to fall asleep better. Anything to plug my ears, to soften the banging of drums and the knock of swords on my door. I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to convince anyone of anything. I just want to stop feeling like it’s the end of the world. Because even if it is, even if it really is the end of the world and existence as we know it, there’s no way I could ever let myself face this ending as alone and scared as I feel now. This is too cowardly a way to go out. I can’t face the ending knowing fear as my last emotion.

And I suppose that’s just the thing of it. If there’s no atheists in foxholes then everyone must be devout these days and I’ve decided that I have faith. I refuse to believe that humanity is so base that it has all led to this nadir in human history. No, life has always been difficult and it has always been a struggle but we overcome it. We persevere. We, as humanity, always have, and we have to continue. The winning doesn’t come from a single solution, it’s always come from the basics, it’s always come from facing our own fears, our own insecurities, and then working to better ourselves.

I have never been prouder to be American than I have working on this issue of Baphash’s Quarterly. Everyone else I know today hears a sneeze and screams about atrocity yet these artists and authors have humbled me. Each, in her own way, faced her own fears, loves, and pain on these pages. The last few weeks, as the issue has been completed and prepared for publication, I found myself astounded again and again by the quiet self-reflection each contributor was able to not only find, but share. 

“Here, in this supreme menace to the will, there approaches a redeeming, healing enchantress – art. She alone can turn these thoughts of repulsion at the horror and absurdity of existence into ideas compatible with life: these are the sublime.”

Nietzsche said these words. The great nihilist who saw the world as an abyss of monsters he, too, turned to art. He found beauty in the miniscule. America is sneezing and it will be those with the temperament to explore within their own psyche who will help us find the way forward. Each and every one of these artists have done this and it has been an honor and a pleasure to work with them during such difficult times. I thank them for their incredible efforts and I thank you for sharing in their work now.

God bless you, America.

Michael Harris
Editor-in-Chief
Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly

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What the F*@K is Baphash?

SEPTEMBER - NOVEMBER 2016

You know what I’m sick of? I’m sick of the bullshit that the internet has become. I’m sick of never knowing if what I’m looking at is something earnest and genuine or if it was designed to appeal to my wallet, the creative intensity of the marketing department seems to be on overdrive as I watch advertisements grow in frequency while art with integrity quietly gets left behind in the far, far distance. I’m sick of having to doubt whether a website was built with an honest agenda or if it happens to be some subsidiary of some massive conglomerate – that moment you realize that the article you just read was written by a copywriter at Nike or McDonald's, a piece of work solely designed to get you to skim quickly and click even quicker.

It strikes me that my issue, my “sickness,” isn’t something to be blamed on a single person, on a single event. No, this skim-fast/click-fast effect is simply the mode of use attributed to the internet. The speed with which things can be disseminated has overtaken in value the quality of the work we actually want to see and the worth that these pieces have to our daily life. And worth, worth is the key word. What did I really get out of that article I just read? Did I laugh? Smile? Roll my eyes? More often than not the things I see have zero worth – they’re just filler, something empty to pass empty time.

So what the F@*K is Baphash? It’s my favorite question. It’s the question I want everyone to ask. Baphash (pronounced Bah-Fah-Sh), is complete lunacy. It’s a quality space for quality work. Focusing on longform art, Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly aims to be a place for artists to share work which is too big for the “click now, ask questions later” attitude of websites and spaces. Baphash is long fiction, poetry collections, essays, photography galleries, art galleries, podcasts, and more, it is an act of passion: we share the work we love, we work with the artists to help develop creative ideas and elevate their work to its full potential. We built a space where you can come and experience works you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else online.

This is just the beginning. Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly has been met with wonderful support by artist communities and we’ll be publishing full collections every three months with articles and special publications in between.

So thanks for coming. Take your time, look around, find something you like or come back later for something new. We’ve been excited to build the space, now we hope you find the time to use it. It’s worth it, there are incredible things happening.

Michael Harris
Editor-in-Chief
Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly

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