Monday, September 12, 2011

DC New 52 Review: Animal Man #1

I'll admit to not being very familiar with Animal Man. I've read some, but not all, of the Grant Morrison trades (of course, in this New 52 reboot, that shouldn't matter. You should be able to come in cold to any one of DC's new #1s and understand them), and while I enjoyed them, the character never stuck with me. It was Morrison's treatment of Animal Man that I found most interesting. In truth, I tend not to follow characters so much as creators. Animal Man himself has simply never been compelling enough for me to collect his title(s). He's a guy who can channel and harness the physical abilities of animals, right? OK, now tell me an interesting story about him. Make me care.

In a single issue, writer Jeff Lemire did just that.

Animal Man #1 opens with a brief "interview" between Lemire and his titular character, ostensibly as a way to introduce Animal Man's place in the DC New 52 status quo. Buddy Baker is a former Hollywood stuntman who, for the last three years DCST (DC Standard Time), has been moonlighting as the superhero, Animal Man. His bond with the animal kingdom, however, has opened his eyes to the way animals have been treated by mankind. Because of this insight, Baker has taken a step back from superheroics and instead has been focusing his energies on being an animal rights activist. He is also a family man, married for 10 years with two young children. How does a superhero juggle all these responsibilities? Work, family, superpowers. It's a great concept for someone of Lemire's talents and aesthetic to play around with.

I've read some of Lemire's Essex County Trilogy stories, as well as his post-apocalyptic Vertigo series, Sweet Tooth, which feels like an indie hipster take on the genre, not that there's anything wrong with that. Lemire, whose work is sometimes quirky and oftentimes dark and angsty, puts a unique, humanist spin on his otherwise fantastical stories, and when I read that he was going to be writing the new Animal Man series, I became curious. What would he do with a superhero character set in this newly rebooted DC Universe? (Yes, I know Lemire wrote some "Brightest Day" and "Flashpoint" stories, but I couldn't bring myself to care about any of that stuff, the lone exception being 100 Bullets co-creators' Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's brilliant Batman: Knight of Vengeance, which I simply thought of as an old-school "Elseworlds" story. But I digress.)

The first half of Animal Man #1 is for the most part straightforward superheroing, albeit well-done superheroing. There are some nice scenes between Buddy and his family (his daughter wants a puppy and his wife wants him to return to being a superhero because "[he] just seemed happier then." Then Buddy's son rushes in and tells his father about a hostage situation at a local hospital and we're off!

Animal Man of course averts disaster at the hospital (which is a melancholy, almost poignant sequence that really illustrates why Lemire is a great fit for this book) and then things start to get ... weird. But in a good way.

Buddy returns home from the hospital and, after nabbing "the napping ability of a cat," quickly falls asleep. We're then treated to a beautifully-illustrated, mostly black-and-white dream sequence, in which Buddy is confronted by creepy, nightmarish visions of his son and daughter, and of three "bad things that dress as hunters," twisted, mutated creatures that would appear right at home in an H.R. Giger exhibit. I was already hooked on this book after the hospital scene, but the dream and the chilling last page cliffhanger are what reeled me in. The last few pages are great setup for the larger, overarching story that Lemire is telling and he has me for the long haul. As long as Lemire's writing this book, I'm reading it.

Accompanying Lemire on this journey is artist Travel Foreman, whose work has always been hit-or-miss with me. His art always either seems to be too sketchy, too heavily inked, too blotchy. His pacing is solid and the action sequences flow well, but I'm not entirely sold on him just yet. He draws animals really nicely, though, which is a definite plus in a book called Animal Man. But it's telling, I think, that the surreal black-and-white dream sequence is the best-looking part of the book.

That being said, one week into DC's New 52 initiative, Animal Man is hands down the best title so far. It has humor, heart (almost literally) and humanity, and a big dose of creepiness. It's like Vertigo invaded the DCU, and, I hasten to add, the DCU is better for it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: Pigs #1

Co-written by former Marvel editor Nate Cosby and British expat (and Pittsburgh Steelers fan - w00t!) Ben McCool, Pigs is an espionage thriller about Cold Warriors who never stopped fighting the war. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a KGB sleeper cell was tasked to the island nation. They never left. Now it's 70 years later and the original operatives are old men and women. And so the mission falls to their children. The sleeper cell has been activated, but by whom? Why now? What is their mission? And who, or what, is the mysterious "White Russian" they're searching for?

Cosby and McCool have crafted a tightly wound, ticking-time-bomb of a story perfect for fans of historical fiction and cloak-and-dagger spy stories. Draped in the shady underbelly of Cold War history and the modern climate of fear and terror America now finds itself in, Pigs looks to be an action-packed and politically subversive story. It reminds me of Andy Diggle's woefully underappreciated The Losers, and not just because of the evocative cover art by Jock. (Future issues will feature covers by Francesco Francavilla, Amanda Connor, Humberto Ramos, Ben Templesmith and Becky Cloonan.)

The interior art is handled by comic book newcomer Breno Tamura (with the superb Christopher Sotomayor on colors), whose understated style meshes perfectly with the story's dark and realistic tone. Tamura's characters are all wonderfully unique and the story transitions smoothly from one panel to the next, which is not always an easy task with such a dialogue-heavy book. It's difficult to make two people sitting in a room having a conversation visually interesting, but Tamura pulls it off with ease. His action sequences are also engaging and full of energy.

With its alt-Earth history and intricate spy games, Pigs will have you hooked even before you reach the shocking cliffhanger. The final page is just one last tease to whet your whistle for issue 2.

Pigs #1 is published by Image Comics and will be in stores on September 14. Be sure to pester your local comic shop for a copy.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Preview: The Last of the Greats

Writer Josh Fialkov, best known for crime noir comics Tumor and Echoes, is jumping wholeheartedly into the superhero ring with his latest creator-owned title, The Last of the Greats, debuting in October from Image.

Illustrated by Brent Peeples, Greats is not your average capes and tights superhero book. In fact, labeling it a "superhero" book is probably a mistake, given that where there are heroes, you expect to find villains. Fialkov's superpowered world is not quite so black and white. The Last of the Greats is an exploration not so much of those who wield that power over us ordinary humans, but of humanity itself, and of what happens when our dependence on the Greats is exposed as the weakness it truly is.

In 1991, seven beings of immense power came to Earth in order to help us, to protect us. At first they were seen as benevolent gods, curing diseases and feeding the hungry. Humanity came to rely on the Greats and, as is so often human nature, quickly came to resent them.

We needed them. And we hated them for it.

(While the rest of the comic bears little resemblance, this initial premise flashed me back to the first couple years of The Authority, first written by Warren Ellis and then by Mark Millar, the turn-of-the-century superhuman series about superheroes determined to save humanity from itself, regardless of whether humanity actually wants to be saved.)

Cut to 20 years later. Earth is besieged by millions of unknown vessels. Six of the seven Greats are dead, murdered by those who would be saved. One Great remains, hidden away from humanity in what appears to be a giant Arctic fortress (of solitude).

Where his siblings sought to connect with us, to spread peace and harmony, the Last of the Greats chose isolation. He knew his brothers' and sisters' generosity would be spurned eventually. They were new, all-powerful, beyond our comprehension. The Last knew we would turn on them eventually. We always fear what we do not understand.

But in the face of such overwhelming odds, a group of humans, some who were seemingly handlers or ambassadors to the Greats, their most fervent advocates, sought out the Last, to beg him for the help his murdered siblings gave so readily. The conversation does not go ... smoothly. And help does not come without a price.

Joining Fialkov on this epic tale is artist Brent Peeples, whose clean, expressive artwork is a great complement to Fialkov's precise, evocative text. Each one of the Greats is distinctively rendered, as are the principal human characters. Peeples deftly conveys a wide range of emotions, everything from anger and jealousy to guilt and remorse, joy and gratitude. He can draw huge, cavernous backdrops and cityscapes as well as close ups and action sequences. His artwork will definitely be an asset to a story that's as much about ideas as it is about actions.

The first issue of The Last of the Greats sets the stage for what appears to be a wonderfully philosophical and complex series about just what it means to be human in a world given over to gods. How would you react if six Supermans came to Earth and systematically fixed everything to their liking?

There are also explosions and bloody deaths if that's more your speed.

The Last of the Greats #1 ships in October from Image. Be sure to pester your local comic shop to order you a copy.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review: Echoes

With the Echoes hardcover debuting this week at San Diego Comic-Con, it seems like a good time to post my review of Josh Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal's dark, horror-tinged thriller.

Film has long been the province for dark psychological thrillers, from Alfred Hitchcock's original classic, Psycho, to more recent fare, such as David Fincher's sublimely disturbing Se7en. And while there have been countless movies of equal or, as is more often the case, lesser quality than these, there is one realm where genuinely creepy thrillers are much less prominent: comic books.

Sure, there are horror comics full of grisly, blood-soaked death, much like the Saw and Final Destination series of movies, in which each iteration attempts to top the previous entry's imaginative killings, but these are generally death for death's sake. Murder as entertainment. Empty calories of the macabre. But far less often is there a comic book that so grips your psyche, so wreaks havoc on your sense of what's real and what's hallucination, and shakes to the core the very idea of narration that it keeps you awake at night with the lights on, unable to free yourself from the darkness you just ingested.

The bleakly addictive Echoes, masterfully crafted by writer Josh Fialkov and artist Rahsan Ekedal, is just such a comic book.

Echoes chronicles the tragic, downward spiral of Brian Cohn, husband and father-to-be, whose own father is a dying old man, a schizophrenic, who, lying in his hospital bed and wracked with Alzheimer's, seemingly confesses to being a monstrous child murderer.

Before he dies, in an apparent moment of lucidity, Brian's father desperately tells him about the box, and about the dead girls, "so many dead girls." He pleads with Brian to find the box and tells him the address, tells him the box is in the crawlspace under the house.

Understandably freaked out, Brian goes to the address his father told him. He tries to reassure himself that his father was just talking crazy, that it was the Alzheimer's or maybe his father didn't even really say any of those things. Maybe it was all in Brian's head.

You see, Brian is a diagnosed schizophrenic like his father, which immediately calls into suspicion everything we see through his eyes and hear through his ears. The conceit of an unreliable narrator has been done before, of course, but rarely has it been handled as deftly as it is here. Fialkov definitely did his homework, researching schizophrenia, its effects and its treatments in order to convey the disorder with both realism and honesty.

It must be a terrible thing, to be unable to trust the voices inside your head, to be constantly questioning the world around you, unable to differentiate between what's real and what's a chemical imbalance in your brain. Brian is constantly second-guessing himself, even when he takes his meds. He's recently been undergoing treatment in a hospital and he can't escape the fear that he'll be sent back unless he acts "normal." This is why he has to investigate his father's deathbed ramblings himself, instead of going to the police. If it turns out not to be true, that Brian simply imagined the whole thing, maybe they'll lock him away again.

What Brian finds in the crawlspace, unfortunately, is all too real.

Or is it?

That's the real beauty of Echoes. Because of Brian's disorder, it's difficult to know what's real and what he's imagining. There are moments throughout the book when you might think the whole thing is one big hallucination, that Brian is strapped to a bed in a psych ward, doped to his eyeballs. But Fialkov doesn't stoop to such a cliched, cop out plot twist.

In the crawlspace, under the house, right where his father told him it would be, Brian finds a box. And inside the box is proof that his father was telling the truth, that Brian wasn't imagining it.

And that's when Brian's life begins to fall apart.

Even during Brian's slow descent into madness, as he fights to keep the schizophrenia from overwhelming him, it doesn't come off as exploitative or cliched. Even as we start to think maybe, just maybe, Brian really is a serial kiddie killer, carrying on his demented father's work, we still feel sorry for him. To elicit sympathy for a man who may be a monster is difficult to pull off, but Fialkov manages it with ease.

Fialkov's work is heavily influenced by the noir style of storytelling, with a doomed protagonist unable to free himself from the web he finds himself caught up in, a web largely of his own making. Truly, the only thing Echoes is missing from the noir playbook is the femme fatale, the dangerous, seductive woman of mystery who lures our hero into a deadly situation. Brian is a happily married man, after all, whose caring, pregnant wife wants nothing more than for Brian to get well, take his pills and return to work so he can provide for his family.

Brian's schizophrenia, however, has other plans for him. Indeed, it is the schizophrenia that fulfills the role of femme fatale, whispering sweet nothings in Brian's ear, driving him to delve deeper into the mystery, making him question himself and, ultimately, destroying him.

Josh Fialkov's twisted tale is only half of what makes Echoes so effective. Without the haunting artwork of collaborator Rahsan Ekedal, the book wouldn't be nearly as effective.

Ekedal's art has a delicate, almost ethereal quality to it, as if Brian's world might crack and crumble to dust around him. Echoes is penciled in black and white, with a minimum of inking, more gray tones than black, which only adds to the ephemeral, ghostlike feeling that permeates the story. The uncertainty of Brian's world is beautifully rendered by Ekedal's light touch.

You can see the desperation in Brian's father's eyes as he pleads with his son to go to the house. The fear is etched on Brian's face as he clambers into the crawlspace, terrified of what he might find. And when Brian discovers a pile of old porn magazines, and thinks that they are what his father was talking about, his relief is palpable as he laughs and laughs, long and loud, sloughing off the fear like a second skin. Until the image shifts and pulls back and we see the bones piled high all around him, the dead girls his father told him about. And in an instant, Ekedal returns us to the foreboding horror we felt just a few panels earlier.

Echoes is a wonderful, must-read example of psychological horror done right, in any medium. Its slow burn of a mystery will keep you guessing 'til the very end, as you question Brian Cohn sanity right beside him, as he tries desperately to retain his already tenuous grasp on his splintering reality.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Pressing Engagement

Originally written in April 2010 for a grad school magazine writing class

I proposed to the first girl I had sex with. Or, perhaps more accurately, the first girl who had sex with me.

Now, to be clear, I didn’t propose because she had sex with me. It wasn’t some passion- or lust-fueled spur-of-the-moment post-coitus decision. In fact, I had proposed months before the actual sex had taken place. I genuinely loved this girl and wanted to spend my life with her. At least I thought I did.

My heart thudded in my chest, pounding so loudly I was certain her father and stepmother could hear it in the next room, through the thin walls of the trailer they lived in. My mouth felt dry and scratchy, as if coated with sandpaper, and my palms were slick with sweat. I was all fried nerves. I don’t remember my fumbling fingers pulling the ring from the right front pocket of my jeans, but I know I went down on one knee.

When we met, my America Online screen name was TheCrow331, so named for my favorite film of my high school years and the date its star was killed in an FX mishap toward the end of filming. Hers had something to do with angels. We quickly bonded over the gothic angst of our youth.

The film spawned a host of merchandise, from T-shirts and posters, of which I had many, to statues and jewelry, including a sterling silver ring etched with the film’s tagline: “Real love is forever.” Thirty bucks plus shipping and handling later, I held what would become her engagement ring in my hand.

She cried when I slid the already tarnished metal band over her finger, nodded her head. A skittish laugh lodged in her throat as she looked at me through tear-streaked glasses. She might have even squeaked out the word, “yes.”

She was a musician. Her plan was to major in music in college, though whether she wanted to get a degree in performance, composition or education, I can no longer remember.

When she applied to Youngstown State University so she could attend the Dana School of Music, one of the oldest music schools in the country, I applied, too. It didn’t hurt that the school offered a minor in creative writing and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be accepted by my first choice, the University of Iowa’s highly-regarded Writers’ Workshop.

But, even if Iowa had accepted me, I knew I wasn’t going there. I was following my girl to Ohio.

The first few months of our freshman year are a semi-vivid blur, like a VHS tape on fast forward, full of false starts and the premature giddiness of being on our own. We were clumsy and awkward, yet to find one another’s rhythm. But we’d get there, I thought. It just takes time.

She dropped out of the music program midway through that first year and moved back home to her mother’s. I don’t remember why, exactly. Somewhere between arriving on campus and when she left, she lost her passion. And with her abandoning me at a college I was only attending because of her, I lost mine as well.

We probably spoke every day, using those same screen names that had brought us together. But the immediacy and ease of the Internet couldn’t make up for the growing distance between us. Even our every-other-weekend visits were lackluster. We were already going through the motions like an elderly couple who have been together for 50 years.

The school year ended and, after one final, fervent night together, I moved back home.

We spoke once after that first year of college. Maybe twice. I don’t remember what about. We never did break up. We simply drifted apart, stopped talking.

She still has the ring, as far as I know.

Marvelous

Originally written in May 2010 for a grad school magazine writing class

The elevator door slides apart and I step through. The only thing that tells me I've come to the right place is the large cardboard standee for Iron Man 2 sitting in the corner of the otherwise sparse lobby. There are glass double-doors in front of me. I walk up to the door and pull the handle. It doesn't open. I notice the receptionist sitting at her desk on the other side of the door. She waves me back. I release my grip on the handle and the receptionist reaches underneath the desk. I hear a CLICK, pull open the door and step through.

I’m in New York City, my first time, standing in the 11th floor offices of Marvel Comics, which are located in an unassuming building on 5th Avenue, a few blocks from Times Square. From the outside, the building looks like any other that lines this stretch of Manhattan. I probably would have walked right past it had my cousin Adam not been with me. Adam has lived in New York for about 10 years now, and without his guidance I would have been lost as soon as I stepped off the Peter Pan bus at the Port Authority bus terminal.

I’ve come to New York, to Marvel, to interview for a summer internship position, which was the furthest thing from my mind when I applied to go to graduate school at Emerson College in Boston. Hell, it was the furthest thing from my mind up until a few months ago, when I started following one of Marvel’s editors on Twitter.

Her name is Jennifer Grünwald (@jengrunwald) and she’s worked at Marvel since 2002. She was having an “open-question-ask-me-anything” day, and I asked her how a person goes about getting a job at one of the two big comic book companies (the other being DC Comics). Within minutes, she replied, “@oyboy Well, aside from applying as one would do for any job, there's always an internship. (Which is how I got hired!).”

I hadn’t thought about interning at a comic book company while in grad school. As much as I love comic books, and I’ve collected them for about 20 years, it didn’t seem to be a realistic possibility. I had interned at a comic book company once already, in Los Angeles, while an undergrad at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. It was a small company called BOOM! Studios, and I drove across the country to work there during the summer of 2007. It was an enjoyable and educational experience. I had never seen the industry from the publishing perspective before. I was even offered a job, but I had a year left before I received my bachelor’s degree, and that was more important to me at the time.

Grünwald encouraged me to apply for an internship and see how it went from there. So I did. That was on March 18, a Thursday. I filled out the internship application over the weekend and submitted it. On Tuesday, March 23, I sent a tweet out into the ether: “Registered for the fall. Spring might be tough, but the fall should be a breeze. Still hoping for the summer internship. C'mon, @Marvel!”

Someone at Marvel was listening.

Less than an hour after sending that tweet, I received the following response from Ryan Penagos (@Agent_M), Marvel’s website editor: “@oyboy You're a Journalism student? What department did you apply to? I need a good journalism intern for Marvel.com.”

Now, I’ve had an email address for almost 20 years. I’ve been online in some form or another for more than half my life. I’m comfortable with technology in a way that used to worry my parents (especially after my father would receive a $300 bill from AOL). But even I was amazed by the rapidity of Twitter.

I quickly tapped out a response to Ryan on my phone: “@Agent_M I had applied for editorial, but I'm really open for anything. I have a big interest in the industry in general.”

From Ryan, an hour later: “@oyboy Yup, saw your application. We'll see what happens.”

Two days later, on March 25, I received an email from Sara Del Greco, Marvel’s internship coordinator. She asked me when I would be able to schedule an interview.

I was flabbergasted, nearly speechless. In the span of a week I had applied for an internship at Marvel and been asked to come in for an interview. Perhaps not all thanks to Twitter, but I know it helped. My immediate thought was, This wouldn’t have been possible five years ago. Maybe not even two years ago.

My email back to Del Greco basically consisted of, “Whenever you want me to come in for an interview, I’ll be there.” This was Marvel. The big time. I wasn’t about to let a little thing like a class schedule or the 200 miles between Boston and New York get in my way.

The first comics I read as a child were published by Marvel, though I was ignorant of the fact at the time. I was unaware of things like publishing companies and writers and artists. All I knew was the four-color images that popped off the page dazzled me. I just liked the stories. Later, when I realized this was a job, that people sat around writing these stories and drawing these pictures, I hooked. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write. And I wanted to write comics.

I’ve never been able to pinpoint what it is about comics that has fascinated me for so many years. It long ago stopped being about the requisite superhero characters. Spider-Man, Superman and Batman were fun when I was younger, but as I got older I didn’t care so much about the characters I was reading as I did about who was writing them. I became enthralled by the process and sought out examples of comic book scripts wherever I could find them. Some I found online, and later a company called Titan Books published two volumes of “Writers on Comic Scriptwriting,” featuring interviews with some of the biggest names in the industry, along with examples of their scripts. Those books became bibles to me, so much so that the spine is cracked on Volume 1 and pages have started falling out of Volume 2.

I learned that some writers write very intricate, detailed scripts, wherein they describe everything from the characters’ facial expressions to the pattern on the wallpaper. Most comic books are 22 pages. One writer, Alan Moore, often wrote 100 pages of script for every 22-page comic book. Other writers are very sparse in their descriptions, sometimes only a paragraph or two per page, entrusting the artist to lay out the pages to best tell the story. It was the process of taking pages of dialogue and description and turning them into coherent, monthly serials that enchanted me, and I wanted in on the magic.

I’ve gone to a number of universities and colleges, lived all over the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, and the one constant throughout all those years has been comic books. I’ve lugged my collection back and forth more times than I care to remember. If there was one opportunity I was going to drop everything for and jump at, it was working at Marvel or DC Comics.

And here I am, April 2, slightly more than two weeks since I first inquired through Twitter about working at Marvel, waiting for an interview. The kid I used to be, the one who sat on his bedroom floor surrounded by stacks of comic books, all perfectly enshrined in their plastic bags and cardboard backings, flipping through stories he’d read countless times before and would read countless times since, he was crazed with excitement, bouncing off the walls inside my chest.

I calmly sit in the waiting area, across from a wall display filled with new comics, the way a doctor’s office has copies of Sports Illustrated and People, and fill out the internship application paperwork. I fight to stifle a grin every time I look up and see the life-size Hulk statue glowering at me from just inside the entrance to the offices.

Unnatural

Originally written in April 2010 for a grad school magazine writing class

Last weekend I took a bus from Boston’s South Station terminal to the Port Authority in New York. During the 200-mile long, four-hour trip, I looked out the window perhaps two or three times. I can tell you more about the young boy sitting next to me than I can about anything that rushed by as the bus rumbled along the interstate.

The boy was Jewish, and had dark, curly hair. He was a Red Sox fan. He carried with him in his blue backpack a book of Garfield comic strips and a 2010 sports almanac. He ate matzo and was excited about Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s 70 stolen bases in 2009. While the Red Sox were his favorite team, he liked the Yankees, too, especially Derek Jeter. He was traveling with his father and brother to Pennsylvania.

Of the world outside the 45-foot-long bus in which I sat, I saw thin, stick-like trees alongside the interstate, still bare from winter. Some evergreens. A number of small creeks and ponds that may have had names, though I wasn’t in any position to know them. It was a bright, crisp morning, the sky cloudless and almost painfully blue. A chill in the air I thought would burn off by the afternoon. And that’s it. That’s all I can remember.

Nature is an abstraction to me. I’ve always fancied the idea of it, and liked it in a general sense. I have nothing against Nature. But when it comes to actual real-life experience, I demur. I used to tell myself it was for no reason other than lack of opportunity to be around Nature, even though I knew that wasn’t true. I’ve had plenty of chances to enjoy all that Nature has to offer, from offers to go camping with my brother and his family in the Badlands of South Dakota to all the times I’ve driven across the country.

On the last family vacation I remember with any sort of clarity, my parents piled my brother, sister and I into my father’s sedan and drove us to South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore and Deadwood, a once-bustling mining town turned old west tourist trap. We stood in silent awe of the great stone faces of presidents’ past for a few minutes, maybe as many as five or 10. We spent more time indoors, in the museum.

The last time I drove the 1,500 miles from Omaha to Los Angeles, I took pictures through the dirty, bug-smeared windows of my beat-up ’99 Dodge Avenger. I propped the camera on the steering wheel or pointed it out the window beside my head and snapped photos of cloud formations, of the wide-open prairies and cornfields of western Nebraska, of the distant mountain ranges of Colorado and the dry, arid desert of Utah and Nevada. I dubbed the collection of 107 photos, America @ 80 MPH.

Aside from pulling off the road for gas and bathroom breaks, it never once occurred to me during my eight-to-12 hour driving sessions to stop the car, to get out and walk around. I had places to go, people to see. I cared only about my destination, the journey be damned.

When I’m driving, I can only move forward. Deviating from the endless asphalt path is anathema. I don't pay attention to the Natural world around me, just the highway in front of me.

When I tell people I’m from Nebraska, their eyes light up with thoughts of vast acres of cornfields and cows, roosters crowing, signaling the start of a new day, farmers plowing fields before dawn. And this pastoral scene is true of much of the state, but not Omaha. I was raised in the suburbs of an honest-to-God city, with rush hour traffic and skyscrapers, street gangs and drug problems.

Omaha has its fair share of parks and green open spaces, and a “world famous” zoo, but mostly there are roads. Streets paved with asphalt and concrete in constant need of repair. I remember the field behind my middle school, tucked away behind West Center Street, lush and verdant, before it was bulldozed to make room for a shopping mall. And later a movie theater. And a Best Buy. And numerous other big box stores.

There was another field alongside L Street, stretching between 120th and 132nd streets, not far from my house. Driving past, it almost looked like a miniature forest. Tall oak trees bunched together, nearly 12 square blocks of grass and shade. The land was owned by some technology company that had its office park hidden away behind the trees. Then, a few years ago, the company sold the land back to the city, which promptly designed plans to rip up the trees and drown the field in acrid black tar.

Now, where the trees once stood, sit even more box stores, selling you anything and everything you could possibly desire. Nature once again forced to give way to commerce.

Of course, I never went to either of those fields before they became shopping centers.