The Bells of Christmas

I know I’m late.  If you want to give me an art or drawing challenge to make up for it, I’ll do it–within reason.  

There’s a Christmas carol that I think many of us have heard, but may not have thought much about.  We know it as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  If you don’t know what song I’m talking about, you can watch a performance of my favorite version of it here.

I like to know the stories of how things came to be, so let me tell you the story of this carol.

December, 1863.  The Civil War doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, but it’s been ending many lives.  It nearly ended the life of one Charles Appleton Longfellow, Union soldier and son of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  A bullet nicked his spine and passed through both his shoulders.

The poet Longfellow has brought his wounded son home, though, and while Charley will not be allowed to return to the battlefield even after his long healing, he will survive.

It is at this time, this Christmas season surrounded by war, when Longfellow first pens a poem he calls “Christmas Bells.”

The bells of Christmas are ringing, playing songs about all the things Christmas is about:  peace, love, hope, joy.  But those songs don’t match the times.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered from the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

Through the narrator of the poem, Longfellow takes readers and listeners through hope, despair, and back to hope again–because while terrible things are happening around him, God is watching, and good can triumph despite opposition.  Someday there will indeed be the peace on Earth that he wishes for.

That is a feeling that is as applicable today as it was in 1863.

I hope you all enjoy your holidays.  Merry Christmas, happy Festivus, and good wishes to all.

For more information on the song, check out this blog.

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In Other News

The Illustrators of the Future Contest sent me a shiny new sticker to share here for my recent entry into the contest.  (I haven’t heard back on that entry yet.  Wish me luck!)

In other news…

I don’t normally get much cold weather where I live, but the past few days when someone dear to me needs a ride at oh-stupid-early in the morning, I’ve had to scrape ice off my windshield.  I should probably get used to it, since my university is going to have a lot more of that icy weather.  Looking at the ice formations makes it easy to see why people claimed Jack Frost or the Snow Queen put the ice there.  The ice is like an intricate abstract painting.

Which makes it feel a little like sacrilege to scrape it off, but I do need my car.

I’ve always liked the stories that feature Jack Frost or the Snow Queen.  They’re trickster characters, sometimes the antagonists, sometimes merely mischievous allies, and always just a little more mysterious than other faeries and nature spirits.

Take the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Snow Queen.  No one ever bothered to wonder about her motivation for kidnapping a child.

She turns up in The Nutcracker too, but why she’s helping Clara and the others get to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy is never really clear–of course, that could simply be part of the limitations of the storytelling style of ballet.  No words, just movement, which makes abstract ideas such as motivation a little difficult to share.

Then there’s Jack Frost.  He shows up in a lot of Santa Claus-related stories (my favorite is Rise of the Guardians) but the character is never the same in any of those, because all that the stories really ever say is that he’s a creature of ice and puts the frost designs on houses.

I’ve researched the Jack Frost character a few times and it looks like he could originally have come from Norse mythology as some relative of the frost Jotuns.  Not Loki, though–Loki is more aligned with fire than with ice in most of the myths.

Wherever he comes from, though, this time of year I always want to write some sort of story about Jack Frost and/or the Snow Queen.  Maybe I will at some point.

In other news…

Star Wars is out!  I’ll take this opportunity to restate the fact that deliberately spoiling it is the mark of a terrible human being.

Star Wars means a lot to us geeks, and for the first time in years we can see a Star Wars film without knowing what’s going to happen.  Don’t ruin that for anyone, okay?

In other news…

The Tuesday blog post next week will be the last of the year.  For some reason I don’t want to write a blog on Christmas day, and after that I’ll be with family and trying to move to university, so I won’t have time.  We’ll return to our regularly scheduled blogs on January 5.

Best wishes!

There will be NO Spoilers!

As a lifelong Star Wars fan and all-around geek, I am exceedingly excited for the film coming out on Friday.  However, I am also dedicated to the idea of watching the film spoiler-free.

I have not been looking up information on the internet about leaked details regarding the film and its plot.  I have not been obsessively thinking about Star Wars.  I have just been doing what I do–write.  Draw.  Be awesome.  Repeat.  And also trying to get ready to move to university, but so it goes.

This blog will not have any spoilers regarding the new Star Wars film at the very least until the DVD comes out.

Let’s declare this a safe spot to talk about Star Wars without getting spoiled, shall we?  Or to not talk about it, as the case may be.

I’m talking about it, anyways.

As a kid, I ended up watching the Original Trilogy of Star Wars well over a hundred times.  I loved it.  Still do.  I also watched the prequel trilogy a lot, too, but stopped because the feeling of inevitability it gave to Anakin’s fall from grace was too depressing–not because of Jar Jar or any of the other issues the films had.

The original trilogy, though…that was good.

The idea of a farm boy becoming a hero, of an ultimate evil being defeated, of wrongdoings and redemption, of a warrior princess who kept everything running and a greedy scoundrel who started caring about others, all of that seemed right to me.  The galaxy Lucas created was one of stark darks and lights, where good and evil were distinct, usually, but sometimes someone could cross from one to the other.  In many ways, it was a myth, but told in a new medium and featuring space travel.

I do so love myths.

I’m hoping the new film keeps that feeling.  The trailers certainly look like they do.  The first moment Han appeared on the screen I thought I’d explode with excitement.

It’s so easy to mess something like this up, when it has so many hopes and expectations, but I’m hoping it turns out right.

Nearly as Good as a Black Widow Film: A Review of Black Widow: Forever Red

To the best of my ability to contain my excitement about the subject matter, this review contains no spoilers.  You’re welcome.

Once upon a time, there was a book on a shelf, and a superhero fangirl pretending to be an adult.  The book was Black Widow: Forever Red, and it told the story of Natasha Romanov.  Tells.  Present-tense.  The books’s still around–actually, it just came out recently.

And it’s awesome.

If you’re looking for a happy story, this isn’t the book for you.  Black Widow’s history is many things, but it is not happy.  But the book has hope.  Lots of it.  Hope that she can grow past all the pain of her past.  Hope for the future.

The events of the story seem to happen somewhere between the events of The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but they tie in deeply with Natasha’s history.  There was a brief (very brief, blink and you’ll miss it) hint about Natasha’s relationship with the Winter Soldier, which goes farther back than the films say it does.

It also introduces a new Marvel hero, Red Widow, who I’m going to have to look into more.  She seems awesome.  Her relationship with Romanov is fascinating.  And she’s in a comic book already.

However, the novel does not, as far as I know, stay exactly true to the Romanov backstory of any of the other Marvel universes.  And that’s okay.

The author, Margaret Stohl, isn’t just turning a comic into a YA novel.  She’s taking an opportunity to look at the character of the Black Widow with her own new way, while still staying true to the essential character.  That’s how these characters are supposed to work.  If they didn’t, Black Widow would never have progressed past the role Stan Lee wrote for her–and, as much as we all love Stan Lee, each retelling just gets better.

As for why this is a book, and not a comic or film…well.  I have some thoughts on that.

First of all, each different medium of storytelling is able to highlight different aspects of a story.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Telling this kind of story in only one or two ways can cripple it.  Black Widow deserves better.  It’s about time she got a novel.

Also, though there is increasing demand for a Black Widow film, making one about her is risky.  Not because she’s a female superhero–well, partly–but because films are so easily messed up.  If just one or two key people in the course of making it misunderstand the story and characters, it’s going to have problems.  While books have a lot of collaboration involved (Stohl had a long list of people who helped her in her acknowledgements) unless there are multiple authors writing, there’s just one person at the keyboard making the important decisions.  That one person happens to be the one who knows the characters and story best.  Well, with Romanov, there are probably some hard-core comics fans and folks at Marvel who know her better, but you get the idea.

This novel captures all the intricacies of the Black Widow character without trying to make her something pitiable, or sexualizing her, or ignoring the blend of darkness and light inside her.  I’m not sure a film could do all of that as well as the book does.

So, yes, I recommend it.  Whether you’re a superhero fan or have never heard of this character, the sheer pleasure of a story well written and a complex character represented right will be well worth your while.

Stories from Ireland

A large part of my ancestry is Irish (but nowhere near all–I’m a mutt), and so I’ve taken an interest in Irish storytelling.  When I was in high school, I asked for, and received, three books of Irish myths and folktales for a birthday.  Some of the stories featured things often associated with Ireland, like leprechauns and Saint Patrick (though never both at once).  Many did not.  Many of the stories I had never heard about, but they were beautiful.

There’s a bittersweet feeling to a lot of those stories.  Ireland has been through a lot of terrible things, and it shows in her legends.  They have a combination of joy and loss.  There are many, many sad endings.  But even those stories that end sadly have moments of great light and hope.

 I like that.  It’s important to have hope–it’s what gets us through the worst things life can offer.

I especially like the stories about faeries.

Not like Tinker Bell, or Cinderella’s fairy godmother.  The faeries of Irish myths, in all their varied forms, are far more powerful and dangerous than those.  They have no particular interest in human affairs, except when they want something from us or a human catches their eye.  They are capricious, willful, often selfish, and untamed.

Looking at them, I’m not entirely sure why I love their stories so much.  I guess it might be because in some ways they are like forces of nature, which cannot be controlled however much humanity may damage it.

And they go to Tir na nOg and leave Ireland for human habitation, for reasons of their own, and return infrequently by human terms.  They live on the edges of reality.

Last year, when I had the opportunity to dance as the Snow Queen in a local production of The Nutcracker, I tried to take inspiration from those characters, to put some of the wildness of the Irish faeries into the way I danced.  I don’t know how well I succeeded, but I enjoyed it immensely.  I’m planning to make a graphic novel of The Nutcracker sometime in the near future, because as much as I love the music and dancing, the plot and characters need fixing, and I’m taking inspiration for the character of the Snow Queen from the faeries.

That’s not the only place Irish storytelling has influenced my creative endeavors.  Those bittersweet stories, swirled with light and dark, are too fascinating to me to not influence what I make.

Hopefully I won’t get any magical backlash for that.

As promised, a December blog post with no mention of Christmas.  Except for in that last sentence.  I was thinking of saving this topic to write about closer to Saint Patrick’s Day, but I think I’m allowed to be proud of my heritage whatever time of the year it is.  🙂

Stories to Summon the Holiday Spirit

I know, I know. Christmas is a whole 21 days away; why start talking about it?

Well, Mr. Scrooge, 21 days isn’t that long a time.  And also it gets my mind off finals.  I’ve rather enjoyed this semester and don’t want it to end so quickly.

So, if you don’t feel like celebrating the holidays just yet, I have some suggestions of stories to read to help you get into the mood.

Of course there’s the story in the New Testament (or other scriptures if you’re celebrating a different religious holiday), and that always helps me feel like it’s Christmastime, and reminds me why I celebrate it.  Though the lights and the music and gifts are fun, Christmas is more.

Another story I’d recommend is “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry.  It’s a short story, won’t take long to read, but it’s sweet and it’s Christmassy and magnificent.

A fun story to read with any grade schoolers in your life would be the short chapter book When Santa Fell to Earth by Cornelia Funke (author of Inkheart).  It’s funny and cute and has fun illustrations, and submits interesting theories on how the whole Santa thing works.

Some other favorites include “A Christmas Dress For Ellen” and “A Christmas Bell for Anya,” which, despite the similar titles, aren’t at all the same story.  “The Snow Queen” doesn’t actually have anything to do with Christmas, but I’m including it because it’s an excellent story.  I also really like some poetry:  Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” of course, and Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which is now a carol.

My last story isn’t really a Christmas story, though Christmas happens during its events and plays a role in the plot.  It’s a young adult novel,  The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.  This is a book I’ve loved ever since I found a battered used copy of it at the bookstore years ago, though some people think it’s kind of creepy.  It’s about the conflict between Dark and Light (though aren’t all stories, in one way or another?) and makes use of several English legends.  I reread it every December.  Actually, I just reread it any time of the year, whenever I need a mood boost.  But especially in December.

Hope you enjoy these.  And no, not all my posts this month will be about Christmas.  Promise.

Notice anything different about today’s picture? I drew it digitally, not on paper. I’m still learning how to do it, and looking for a program I like, but I’m having a lot of fun

Art: Why Bother?

I’m not just saying drawing, I’m saying all the art forms.  Music, dance, poetry, acting, anything creative.

Why bother making or consuming art?

That’s a question I had to ask myself when I decided to pursue a career in the arts.  I always wanted to conquer the world, or at least change it, so I thought about being an engineer, a soldier, an architect, or a teacher.  Maybe even a politician.

Instead, I’m an arts student who wants to draw comics and write novels.

It’s a question I had to ask myself when I started this blog.  There are enough distracting things online that pull people’s focus away from their own lives; why add to it?

Why?

Part of it is probably inertia.  I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or telling stories.  But the real reason is different.  No, art doesn’t feed people.  It doesn’t cure disease or end war (would that it could).

The thing art does, the most important thing it does, is touch people’s minds and hearts.  Art reminds us of all the joys and sorrows of life.  It changes perceptions.  Sometimes, it gives people enough hope to keep living.

L. Ron Hubbard’s assertion that the purpose of art is communication was right.  Art is our way of telling each other that we are not alone.

That’s important.  I won’t pretend it’s the most important thing, because it’s not, but it matters, and bit by bit, it really can change the world.

That’s why, in between work, and school, and Christmas shopping, and deciding whether or not to get a social life (does it need to be fed often?  Will I have to walk it every day?), and figuring out scheduling and housing for my university transfer, I’m making art.  I’m writing a blog, and outlining a story for the Illustrators of the Future, and always, always drawing.

Maybe it won’t change the world much, but it will change it some, and that has value.