Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Conan the Librarian?

Geek Fitness Inspiration: Literature Edition
By David Mandeix

Today I’d like to discuss the seemingly incongruous idea of nerds and fitness.

Specifically, I’d like to focus on the strange dichotomy that exists wherein nerds are not great physical specimens, but almost every character in their preferred obsession is.

Somewhere back in prehistoric times, around the origins of the term nerd (a brand that I bear proudly, by the way, and have since my youth) came the stereotype of being physically unfit. A nerd was either overweight—due to lack of physical exertion—or underweight—due to lack of physical exertion. In my own case, I landed on the heavy end of the spectrum.

And why was this? Largely because the typical physical activities associated with lean muscle and general good health hold no interest to the common nerd; at least I knew this to be the case for me. Also, those things were difficult, not very exciting, I wasn’t good at them, and I was lazy. This compounded my difficulties in socializing in general, as I shared no interest or aptitude in activities that generally made one popular (see: sports). And could you blame me? #Sorrynotsorry: I thought that lords, swords, and dragons were more exciting than watching a person hit, throw, or run with a sports-ball, and if HBO’s viewership was anything to go by, the number of people who agreed with me was on the rise.

It dawned on me one day that it was profoundly strange to admire my heroes and follow their fantastical adventures without actually having adventures of my own. If these things were so exciting to me, why wasn’t I out there doing them? Thus began a long and arduous journey that blossomed into a love of fitness and physical challenges. I submit myself and my own experiences as the case study. This is partially because I know my own story best, partially because I hope you will find it interesting, but mostly because I am in the process of inflicting my fitness mania on my long-suffering roommate Kerey (known to Nerds who Read readers as the resident expert on all things steampunk).

One day, after dragging him through a particularly tough workout, Kerey put the question to me: “What books or films inspired you to get fit?” It was a valid question; after all, it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for hard work when you’re not inspired! While there are many books and movies that have gotten me to this point, I’d like to submit to you my top five nerd-fitness motivators:

5. Altered Carbon (Richard Morgan, 2002). A neo-noir cyberpunk novel and a hell of a great read, this book’s hero (anti-hero?) drove home the need for mental toughness, personal grit, and borderline psychotic motivation during his adventures. This is the sort of thing that made me want to go back to the gym the next day, even though my body was in agony. This book will make you want to run that extra mile and do that extra rep. (Disclaimer: It will also make you want whisky and cigarettes, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad).

4. Martin the Warrior (Brian Jacques, 1993). This was the first book I remember staying up all night to read. I couldn’t put it down. I think I was in sixth grade at the time. Gripping story and indomitable heroes, in spite of all the suffering that was heaped upon them. This book probably first instilled in me the admiration of heroes that spit in death’s eye when their backs were to the wall. Also, bonus points because all of the characters are woodland creatures, and when a mouse can inspire you to be badass, that says something.

3. Gates of Fire (Steven Pressfield, 1998) is a 1998 historical novel that recounts the Battle of Thermopylae through the eyes of an auxiliary, but also chronicles the training of the Spartan warriors and their noble battle and sacrifice. In addition to coming into my possession around the same time 300 came out, it paints a vivid picture of the ruthless Spartan training regime; it’s the kind of story that makes you want to heft a spear and shield and engage in a raucous clash of arms. After reading this book, my training relied heavily on a weight vest (Forty pounds was the closest approximation I could get to a hoplite’s armor).

2. Spartacus (Starz, 2010). A spectacular premium cable series in terms of both story line, cinematography, and—let's face it—some extremely good muscle porn. It chronicles the story of the eponymous gladiator, and should have enough violence, intrigue, and historical sentence structure for any nerd. Bonus: it features excellent performances by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless. Lucy, by the way, was 42 at the time of the filming and looks absolutely stunning. The actor playing the main character was 39 and incredibly ripped. Not to mention the (now) 46 year old actor playing Crixus. Just goes to show the lasting benefits of fitness... I challenge anyone to watch this TV show and not want to work out.

1. Conan the Barbarian (books and films). The granddaddy of them all. From Robert E. Howard, to L. Sprague de Camp, to Robert Jordan (yes, in his early days!), I loved loved LOVED the Conan series. Introduced to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie at a formative moment of my youth, but forced to acknowledge that I did not possess the “strength of a great ape,” the “lithe movements of a panther,” or even “well-oiled muscles that moved like snakes under the torchlight,” I determined to acquire these things. Though at the time, my thighs were neither mighty nor steely, Conan was really what made me start putting the hours in at the gym. And is it any surprise? Eighty per cent of Conan’s problems are solved through judicious application of his barbarian physique. Sign me up for Body by Cimmeria.

There are countless other books and movies that inspired or added fuel to my fitness journey (possibly to be covered in another article), but these five make up the core of my motivation to set down the book and pick up the weight. Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t given up books. I still read nightly and use my nerdy obsessions to help drive my fitness goals. If anything, imagining that I’m scaling a Cimmerian cliff or running down a Persian scout makes the exercises a little bit easier to stomach. It is my sincere hope that they can somehow inspire other folks as well!

Photocredit: imghumour.com

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Justice League of Their Own

DC Comics: Bombshells, Volumes 1 & 2
Written by Marguerite Bennett with art by Laura Braga, Mirka Andolfo, and other contributors
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Comic books built around selling toys are nothing new, but the genesis of DC Comics’ new series Bombshells was a bit convoluted. In 2013, the company issued a run of collectible statuettes re-imagining iconic DC Heroines like Wonder Woman and Supergirl with character designs inspired by classic pin-ups and Diesel-Punk (the 1930-50’s art deco cousin of Steampunk). These character re-designs were then repurposed as “variant covers” for DC’s run of regular comics for one month (variants being covers that encourage collectors to buy multiple copies of the same comic for the special covers). Now, with Bombshells, DC is building a story around these character re-designs—the women of DC Comics fight in an alternate World War II against the Axis of Evil: Nazi Germany….AND ZOMBIES!

So can a graphic novel series set in the 1940's, seemingly designed to push collectibles and retro cheesecake, provide a good narrative and satisfy the political sensitivities of the 2010's? And what is a 1940’s take on Wonder Woman anyway, given that the character premiered in 1941?

While Wonder Woman’s origin story is almost completely unaltered (the princess of a mystical island of warrior women follows WW2 aviator Steve Trevor back to the outside world to fight the evil Nazis), her iconic outfit is merged with that of another heroine of the 1940’s war effort…Rosie the Riveter. Bombshells (helmed by a mostly female creative team) moves the heroines of the DC Universe into center stage by setting their story in a version of World War II without DC’s male superheroes in the mix. Bombshells works best when it grounds its heroines in the real world contributions of women, whether in theaters of war or on the home front. Batwoman and Batgirl are vigilantes who are also members of the women’s baseball league (immortalized in the film A League of Their Own) that moved into the Major League Baseball diamonds when the men went off to fight. Supergirl and Stargirl are members of the famous Soviet all-women’s volunteer aerial bomber squadron, the Night Witches. When she’s not sinking Nazi submarines with the aid of sea creatures, Mera the Aquawoman entertains sailors in USO-style stage shows.

The first volume is highly episodic with different narrative threads of different heroines becoming involved with the war effort, while Volume 2 draws most of the characters together to repel an undead Blitzkrieg on London. Unlike some other recent “World War II…but with superheroes” series, DC Comics Bombshells doesn’t concern itself much with period details (like the exact date or progress of the war. These details are vague at best and contradictory at worst) or with much of the historical realities of the time and place (intelligence official Amanda Waller, an African American woman, has all the authority she possesses in the modern series Suicide Squad, without any attempt to explain how that would work in segregated America). The creators aren’t worrying about explaining it so don’t think about it too hard yourself.

So how does the series hold up? Well, as far as period pieces go I wouldn’t rate it as high as DC’s Golden Age and New Frontier limited series but Bombshells did exceed my expectations.

The art is vibrant and dynamic and surprisingly very classy despite the “what if our heroines were pin-ups?” premise. I guess this would be the same very fine distinction aficionados of burlesque shows claim separates the experience from “mere strip-clubs.” Most of the costumes don’t have the “painted on” look of modern superhero spandex and the artists mostly avoid the tacky “Snake Spine” or “Escher Girl” poses that contort the female form in painful or impossible ways to present T&A. And I dare say, with the men sidelined or non-existent, the comic may pass the feminist Bechdel Test: “whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man (Wikipedia).” In this case, the only heroines who are in any way defined by relationships to a man would be Wonder Woman (who considers Steve Trevor under her protection) and Harley Quinn (whose obsession with the Joker is fairly central to her character). For others, it doesn’t matter if the men are, in the words of the 1943 hit song, either too young or too old, because they weren’t very interested in the men in the first place.

If there is one area where the-fast-and-loose-with-history attitude falls short it’s on some of the period set dressing. One of the artists (I’m not sure which, due to the large number of contributors) uses modern designs for cars, tanks, and military uniforms. This was disappointing because they put so much thought into the character designs, but then it seemed like they used the first bit of reference material that came up in Google for "Tank" or “Ambulance.” I wouldn’t consider myself even an armchair military historian but even to me the M1-Abrams tank (those used in the Gulf Wars) trundling around Germany as part of the SS Panzer division somehow distracts me from the amazon warrior ripping it apart with her bare hands. Although I must have developed a fetish for historical accuracy in my old age if it’s distracting me from all these scantily clad women tearing up the battlefield.

While this series wouldn’t go on my “must read” list, I think the right audience really can get something out of it. If my friends sending home pictures from Dragon Con over Labor Day Weekend are any indication, a fair number of female cosplayers have jumped at the chance to give a pin-up glam twist to their favorite heroines. And given the grim nature of DC’s film adaptations I’m always keen to boost anything that shows they can actually have fun with these characters.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.