Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022

Wow, wow, wow, I’ve had a lot going on recently, last quarter I was fretting about not having enough reading to make a post, now I have… almost too much. That is because I’ve picked up a number of epistolary substack stories being done like Dracula Daily and I took an online course on Tolkien and the Ancient World! So, for this quarter I’m going to be breaking things up a little differently as well as sticking this under a read more.

A pile of books and papers. The bottom later is the D&D books "Ghosts of Saltmarsh" and "Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft," only the titles can be seen. The middle layer is, from left to right, "A Rainbow Thread," "Jews in Old China" and "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation" volume 2. The top layer, from left to right is "Tolkien: On Fairy-stories," Deborah Sabo's article on archaeology and history in Tolkien, and "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Continue reading “Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022”

Fall 2021 Behind the Scenes Reading

Welcome to the first post of what I am calling “Behind the Scenes Reading,” where I discuss my bookshelves and what I’m reading when I’m not working on reviews for this blog. As a reminder, if you didn’t read the end-of-the-year wrap up post, this post will feature books/comics/articles I read from September through November 2021 and patrons will get a spicy little extra section of anti-recommendations. Let’s dive in:

Finished:

Franklin’s Passage by David Solway – This is a poetry collection thematically concerned with Franklin’s lost expedition. The poems are stunning and haunting and deeply impactful. I think poetry is honestly one of the best mediums to try and capture the legacy of the Franklin expedition, as there are so few concrete answers about what happened. Poetry doesn’t need answers, and can be open ended in a way that narrative fiction can’t always be. This book was very hard to get ahold of, but if you’re interested in poetry and the Franklin expedition and willing to take a gamble on a book that appears to only exist in a nebulous state of “perpetually on backorder,” you can order it directly from the publisher.

Harley Quinn The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour issues 1-3 – Tee Franklin of “Bingo Love” fame, has been writing a limited Harley/Ivy series for DC that picks up where the animated series left off, which I’ll admit I haven’t seen, but issue one of the series gives you a brief recap, so no worries there. I adore Tee Franklin’s writing and how she approaches queer relationships and when I found the first two issues at my local comic shop I was thrilled. It is ongoing, with the next issue coming out on December 14, so there’s still time to add it to your pull list.

Marauders, issues 23-25, by Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto – I’ve never really kept up with current X-Men comics cause it can just get so confusing, but I have a local comic shop now and I saw from the issue 23 preview that Banshee (my beloved dad/son) was in it, and I like the Marauders team (Kitty Pryde, Bobby Drake, St. John Allerdyce etc etc)… and issue 23 turned out to be a really good place to pick up the series actually. It gave a good summary what had been going on for mutants, and was a good quick one-shot feeling story, before it switched tune for the next two issues, which also had their own self contained arc. The last issue came out on December 1st and will certainly be appearing in the Winter 2021/2022 list.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel – A Hanukkah classic, featuring the Jewish folk character Hershel of Ostropol. This has been my favorite Hanukkah book since I was a child who didn’t even celebrate Hanukkah. Despite not being from a Jewish family my mother got me holiday books from a wide variety of cultures and “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” was always my favorite. I cannot recommend this book enough, between the wonderful story and the stunning illustrations courtesy of Trina Schart Hyman it’s just a gorgeous look at what the holiday of Hanukkah means. 

Love in the Time of Scurvy: A Terror Fanzine and Brave New Worlds: A Terror AU Fanzine – You might be asking why I’m including fanzines here, well that’s because the first is 152 pages, proper book size in my opinion; the second has four discrete volumes; and it’s not like I haven’t discussed fan works before. I have a whole post about fan content for “The Terror” already, a post about fusion fanfiction, and I’ve even reviewed published fanfiction of works in the public domain. Fanfiction isn’t a lesser form of fiction and fanart isn’t a lesser form of art, and there are a ton of incredible writers and artists in the Terror fandom and they deserve appreciation.

Extras of Love in the Time of Scurvy are still for sale (as of December 3rd). Sadly the sales for Brave New Worlds, ended on December 1st. However, there is an Ao3 collection for Brave News Worlds that has some of the fanfiction in the zine and there’s a collection for Love in the Time of Scurvy too that I’ve linked here in case sales have ended by the time this goes live. All the profits from Love in the Time of Scurvy went to the Arctic Eider Society and Brave New Worlds supported Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

In Progress: 

SM 101 by Jay Weisman – I have spent a lot of time delving into queer theory and queer history and there has always been kink and BDSM present in the background during those studies and I figured it was about time that I delved into that area properly. “SM 101” came to me as a highly recommended introductory book, and so far it has lived up to the hype.

The Wilds Beyond the Witchlight – This is the D&D campaign book for the game that I am running for a handful of local friends + my brother. This is my first time running a D&D campaign, though I have run/moderated games for other systems before, so I’m reading through the book slowly, carefully and repetitively, with “The Dungeon Master’s Guide,” “Player’s Handbook,” and “Monster Manual” at my elbow to cross check things. It’s a really exciting campaign though and takes place in the Witchlight Carnival and the Feywild, and supernatural carnival + ethereal fairy world are like… two of my favorite fantasy tropes. 

Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero, written by E. Lockhart

[Image ID. The cover of Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero. A young girl with curly brown hair stands next to a white great dane in front of the Gotham skyline in blue and orange. Up the left side of the book in large lettering is the title "Whistle" and above that sits the subtitle "A New Gotham City Hero" To the right of the subtitle the author's name is listed as "New York Times Bestselling Author, E. Lockhart." Below the title is "Illustrated by Manuel Preitano." The snapchat caption reads "The first explicitly Jewish superhero in 44 years LET'S GO." End ID]

“Whistle” is a fantastic introduction for a fantastic new superhero. It is at once a classic origin story and a breath of fresh air. Willow Zimmerman and her mother have struggled to makes ends meet as her mother’s (presumably adjunct) job as a professor doesn’t give them health insurance and she hasn’t been able to work as much because she is battling cancer. At the very beginning the mother mentions stopping treatments because of medical debt and I almost had a heart attack that she was going to hold the same narrative place as Uncle Ben. She doesn’t, but that is ultimately the catalyst for what eventually lands Willow in the annals of superherodom. 

In my personal opinion, Willow was activist minded enough that I think she would have found her way into the superhero conversation eventually. I think there’s a lot to be said for those superheroes who really do stand for community, activism and change even before they get their powers, and that’s Willow in a nutshell. She’s fighting for her community from page one. 

[Image ID: In the first panel, Willow, a teenage girl with long curly brown hair, approaches a deli counter with a friend, Garfield, a Black teenage boy. Willow says to the man behind the counter "This is my new friend Garfield. We desperately need Reubens." Transition to the second panel, Willow and Garfield are sitting at a table biting into their sandwiches. Mouths full Willow intones "Grhmmm?" and Garfield replies "Umm hmmm!" The caption reads "Show interest in a girl's activism and you've got a friend for life."

What takes her from activist to superhero, however, is one Edward Nigma, former friend of her mother’s, who offers Willow financial help when he hears that her mother is ill. Whether this was truly altruistic or if there was an ulterior motive there from the beginning isn’t entirely clear, but, regardless, Willow winds up working for Nigma as a runner for his less than legal poker games, which leads to a whole lot of guilt when she finds out who Nigma is and when Willow realizes that he and Poison Ivy are targeting her community with intent to buy up all the local property to gentrify the area. 

[Image ID: A comic panel of Willow's hands working open a puzzle box with the onomatopoeia "Twist!" The narration box reads "My mom's best childhood friend, Eddie Nachtberger, renamed himself E. Nigma in high school." The snapchat caption at the bottom of the image reads, in all caps, "Welp." End ID]

However, it was none of this that first drew me to “Whistle.” I picked it up because Willow Zimmerman is the first explicitly Jewish superhero to be created by DC in 44 years and her Judaism is important in a way that clearly impacts her worldview, something we don’t always see even with the existing Jewish heroes—I’m thinking specifically of Kitty Pryde of the X-Men whose Jewishness only recently started to play a larger role in her character again. 

The only thing that gave me a very brief moment of pause was when it was stated that Willow wasn’t particularly observant, which is a trope that is frequently used as a cop out to not have to deal with any actual aspect of Judaism, but that isn’t the case here, quite the opposite actually. Willow may not be as ritually observant as her mother, but she is still undeniably Jewish and her story deals in Jewish guilt, history and community. When she is conflicted about her work for Nigma, who gave her the money to save her mother, but is also the Riddler and involved directly with the destruction of her community, she seeks solace at her local synagogue, and it is the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, repairing the world, that influences why and how she operates as a superhero once she gains her powers. 

[Image ID: In the foreground Willow is rummaging through her dresser drawer for something to wear. Behind her, in the doorway to her room, is her mother, who looks gaunt and is wearing a headscarf indicative of chemotherapy induced hair loss. Her mother says, "I think you can lie and be a good person. You know the phrase tikkum olam?"  Willow replies, "Hebrew for world repair. Kinda like social activism." Her mother continues, "So, the key thing isn't truth or lies. It's that a person feels some responsibility for fixing what's wrong in the world." The snapchat caption is a drawn out "Yes." End ID]

This is a young adult graphic novel, but it’s very enjoyable for adult adults too and I would say probably also a decent read for kids as young as middle school. I would definitely recommend it if you need more Jewish heroes in your life. You can get it directly from DC here. 

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The Unfinished Corner written by Dani Colman

[Image ID: The cover of The Unfinished Corner, three children ages 12-13 sit atop the head of a giant lion. On the left there is boy with blond hair and glasses in a blue pullover, dress shirt and kippah, next to him is a girl with curly brown hair and pale skin in a overalls and a green shirt. She is holding a paint brush, from which Stars of David are trailing. To her right is a Black boy in a red shirt and red (possibly Spiderman themed) kippah and a girl with brown hair with blonde highlights in a black blazer. Above the image in an artsy yellow font is the title, The Unfinished Corner and the last names of the author, illustrator, colorist and letterer: Colman, Patrovicz, Cogar and Campbell. The snapchat caption reads: Everyone should go read this, it's amazing. End ID]

All of Creation had been completed except for the northern corner of the world. – Howard Schwartz, “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism”

This bit of Jewish mythology is the foundation for Dani Colman’s fantastic, heart-warming tale, “The Unfinished Corner.” On the eve of becoming a bat mizvah, Miriam, a budding artist, finds herself, her two best friends, and one frenemy, spirited away into the world of Jewish myth, where they meet angels, demons and more; grapple with history both joyous and painful; and finish the titular unfinished corner. 

There’s a lot to love about the story from the wonderful art of Rachel Petrovicz to the depth of care given each and every relationship. Something I particularly appreciated was the balance between humor and intense or heavily factual information. Avi, one of Miriam’s friends, is very well read and familiar with the Torah and its commentaries, and he acts as the encyclopedia of the group, giving necessary information to the reader while doing so, but it never stalls the story, and the footnotes (and I use that term loosely here) are brief and only give you what is needed to understand. 

It’s made clear, however, that knowledge alone isn’t enough to get them to their end destination. Miriam’s other friend, David, is a pillar of support throughout and is the only one with the ability to produce a proper shofar blast when they need it because of his years of playing the trumpet. Judith, the above mentioned frenemy, who’s only there because she was part of a group project that sorted them by last name, stands up to Azazel as they make their way toward the unfinished corner. 

These four also have very different internal feelings of what it means to be Jewish. Avi is incredibly studious and follows halakha closely; David is knowledgable about Jewish history from his travels; Judith is very comfortable in her Jewish identity, even though she doesn’t keep kosher, observe Shabbat or pray. Miriam, on the other hand, is feeling very conflicted her identity because she’s unsure of what defines her identity as hers in a way that is more than just, “I’m Jewish because my parents are.”

Their differences, however, are what enable them to overcome the challenges before them. Throughout the story their angel guide focuses on Miriam as the person of import, the artist, the only one who can finish the unfinished corner, but as Miriam goes on point out at the end, she never would have made it without her friends (and, spoiler, they are all friends by the end).

The relationships that are navigated between these four are far from the only relationships in the story, and even though they aren’t as front and center, they’re still rich and feel well rounded in an instant. You know exactly the sort of happy, teasing family dynamic that exists in Miriam’s household just from her parents’ introduction, and Asmodeus calling himself Lilith’s “house husband” is an entertaining and vivid descriptor of a whole relationship in a single statement. 

The book is labeled as juvenile fiction, but honestly, I think it would be highly enjoyable for children and adults alike. Anyone who enjoys Jewish mythology, has a complicated relationship with identity or faith, or is at a coming of age/turning point in their life, can find something in this story. Get it on Bookshop here.  

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Role Playing Games with Dreidels

Six d20 dice, with Hebrew letters, gimmel, nun, hay and shin. Three a  blue green mix with gold lettering and three white with black lettering.

Coming up on this past Hanukkah, I purchased some lovely dreidels from Ritualwell. Well, they are dreidels in the sense that they have all the proper Hebrew characters on them, but instead of the spinning top that we all know and love, they took the shape of a d20.

As a nerd, I fell in love as soon as I saw these beauties. Unfortunately, they were out of stock when I placed my order and the store said they were unlikely to arrive by Hanukkah, but then a miracle occurred and they were back in stock sooner than expected. I would be able to spend my Hanukkah playing dreidel with my roommate… using all of my other dice in place of gelt. 

After I received my purchase I was immediately struck by a thought. “In d20 form or in top form, I bet you could make a really cool role playing game using a dreidel. They’re basically just sexier d4s after all.” So off I went to search the internet for dreidel based RPGs.

From The Contemporary Quioxtist, we have a very simple easy to play game that is open ended in it’s story telling. Your character has skill ratings between 1 and 3, which dictates how many dreidel’s they will spin/dice they will roll and a pool of coins to dictate actions. The traditional rules are slightly modified to allow for game mechanics. Shin(add a coin to the pot), a total failure and you lose something; nun (you take nothing) a marginal failure, you fail, but lose nothing; hay (take half) is a moderate success; and gimmel (take everything), naturally is a complete success. 

Next, from Dan Siskin, we have “Maccabees,” a board game centered on the historic event behind Hanukkah. The goal is to lead a band of Maccabees to acquire the oil to light the hanukkiah, while fighting back the remaining foes. This one does cost money, but it certainly looks like a fun game.

Another specifically holiday themed game is “Maccabees and Menorahs.” The rules for rolling/spinning are very similar to the game by the Quioxtist, but this game includes characters created from a set of Jewish values and eight specific sessions that take you through the game, one session for each night of Hanukkah. This has the added advantage of being free and the rules are readily available online.

Image of the Macabees and Menorah's rules. Not high enough quality to read most of the text.

I’m sure there are other games that exist, but these were the first three I found in my searches. There’s also nothing to say you can’t make your own dreidel based RPG, especially if you’re like me and constantly hungry for new RPGs to try. Maybe I’ll make that a project for myself this year, design a dreidel based RPG by next Hanukkah. 

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Approaching Judaism as a Queer Trans Man

A Rainbow Thread by Noam Sienna

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with religions. One that has been inherently distrustful even before I realized I was a queer trans man. Yet something about a higher power and the magic of religion has always fascinated me. I wasn’t raised religious, except in the vague Christian-normative way most secular families are. Christmas might not have been a “religious” holiday for my family, but it’s still a religious holiday underneath. You’d be hard pressed to find a wholly secular “Christmas” holiday, though the McElroys’ Candlenights does try its best, it’s ultimately pan-religious rather than secular.

Despite the fact that I wasn’t raised religious, religion was always an option. My mom, an ex-Catholic and religious history and comparative religion double major, made it very clear that religion was an option, should I ever want to pursue it. As a result, I had Hanukkah books and Kwanza books alongside my Christmas books, ate latkes and knew how to play dreidel, but also sang Christmas carols and got a new Christmas ornament every year. I also remember spending at least one holiday with a Jewish friend when I was in kindergarten or first grade, though I could not for the life of me tell you what holiday it was.

Torah Queeries edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser and David Shneer

After briefly looking into what conversion would mean when I was in college, I didn’t actually make the decision to look into converting formally until I moved away from home. Approaching Judaism is not easy, it’s a journey, but it’s one I feel prepared to make, due to the fact I’ve made a similarly massive transition before with my gender. Just like with gender transition, converting to Judaism isn’t a massive change in my worldview, it’s just a change in how I approach the world. 

That said, just because Judaism is what feels right to me doesn’t mean that it’s still not easy to grapple with the historical stigma that chases queer and trans people wherever they go. Noam Sienna’s “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” presents an incredible historical record, but it’s also one that isn’t wholly happy. In between loving homoerotic poems and stories, you also have first hand records documenting the persecution of queer people in history. While court or arrest records are sometimes the only historical documents that remain of queer presence, it doesn’t make it any less challenging to read them, especially when they come from a religion you are looking to join.

Balancing on the Mechitza edited by Noach Dzmura

However, the way Judaism has evolved into it’s various branches means that the Judaism of then is not the Judaism of now and there is absolutely space in Judaism for queer people. This is made apparent through the existence of books like “A Rainbow Thread” and “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible,” as well as through the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which is a congregation in New York City that is explicitly for the LGBTQ community.

One other book that I have found particularly important in twining my conversion and gender together is “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community,” edited by Noach Dzmura. It’s designed with a readership of transgender people in mind and as a result is an indescribably cathartic read. Some might find the terminology dated, because the book is almost ten years old at this point and many of the authors writing are older, but that doesn’t detract from the messages that the book brings.

If you’re interested in pursuing something that isn’t Judaism. Some other books I would recommend are:

  1. “Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality & Black Magic in Brazil” by Kelley E. Hayes, which “examines the intersections of social marginality, morality, and magic in contemporary Brazil by analyzing the beliefs and religious practices related to the Afro-Brazilian spirit entity Pomba Gira.” Pomba Gira being a figure who has been linked with trans women and gay men, which if memory serves is either talked about on in the book or in the accompanying DVD, “Slaves of the Saints.” 
  2. “In from the Wilderness – Sherman: She-r-man” by David E. Weekly. “In from the Wilderness” is a memoir, that details Weekly’s life as a transgender man holding religious office in the Methodist Church. 
  3. “Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach” by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. I haven’t read this myself, but I have heard very good things about it. It seems to be a more Christian approach, but I can’t tell if it’s geared toward any one specific denomination.

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