Writing about Apes and Star Wars for Sequart!

The Fog of Ward

Not together, you understand. I mean, that’d just be weird.

Those of you who follow this space with any regularity know that the good folks over at the Sequart Organization have seen fit to invite me into their fold here and there, so that I might contribute an essay or two on various pop culture topics of interest. Last year, it was New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, edited by Joseph F. Berenato. Coming later this summer is The Sacred Scrolls: Comics on the Planet of the Apes, edited by Joe and Rich Handley.

Having not learned their lesson so far as what happens when you allow me to come over and puke in your punch bowl, Rich and Joe have taken complete leave of their senses and called upon me to contribute to not one but two more collections of Sequart essays.

(Overheard from…

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Remember…

Spock's Chair

Leonard Nimoy died today.

I see the words on my screen, but I can’t comprehend them. They seem like a fiction, and a terrible one at that. I feel like a two-bit hack for writing such unbelievable dreck.

But it’s not fiction. It’s fact. Leonard Nimoy died today.

When he was rushed to the hospital last week with chest pains, I had a feeling this day was coming. When he stayed active on Twitter, though, my hopes were bolstered. I thought maybe he was making a recovery.

I had no idea he was taking the opportunity to impart his final words to us all.

And by God, do we all have memories of him.

I’ve written before about how I got into Star Trek at an early age, due largely to my mom’s influence. I’ve long held that part of her interest in the show was due in no small part to a fangirlish crush on Leonard Nimoy. And it was the thought of seeing someone flip Spock the bird in Star Trek IV that finally convinced me to sit down and watch a Trek flick from start to finish. From there I devoured the previous movies and all of the original and animated series, and started religiously watching The Next Generation.

Then I got into the novels. I wasn’t much of a reader before then, unless you count the occasional Garfield or Peanuts book or, of course, comic books. The thought of tackling so many words on a page without a picture break was daunting — I was, after all, in the fourth grade. I started with Jean Lorrah’s The IDIC Epidemic and never looked back. I compiled a complete Trek library shortly after, and looked forward to each new novel release. Novels, technical manuals, comic books, fan club magazines… if it was Trek, I read it. I even tried my hand at my own Trek stories; besides my Ghostbusters script in second gradeTrek fanfic was the earliest stuff I wrote.

I also wrote letters. Lots and lots of letters. I started a regular correspondence with Richard Arnold, Gene Roddenberry’s assistant at Paramount’s Star Trek office. Every other month I’d send a letter with a bunch of questions about the franchise, about upcoming projects, costume suggestions, what have you, and Richard would write back each time, without fail. (Lots of things have been said about Arnold, but I’ll give him this — he always, ALWAYS took the time to write back multi-page letters to me.)

I also wrote to the cast members. I started off with DeForest Kelley — my idol at the time — and squealed with delight when he sent me his autograph not long after. Then I wrote to Nimoy. I couldn’t even begin to remember the contents of the letter, but I do know that I asked him to please send an autographed picture saying “live long and prosper.” Imagine my delight a few months later when I got a large envelope in the mail, opened it, and found this:

Spock Autograph

Over time, I had the opportunity to meet Kelley, Jimmy Doohan, George Takei and Walter Koenig (I just missed Nichelle Nichols at one con, and haven’t yet had the chance to meet William Shatner, though I have talked to his agent a few times). Though I never shook hands with Leonard Nimoy, I did have the opportunity to attend one of his “Spock vs. Q” stage shows with John DeLancie, at a convention at the Ft. Washington Expo Center in 1998. (Full disclosure: I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, because my girlfriend at the time — also a Trekkie — was a little freaked out by the fact that Gary Lockwood, a.k.a. Gary Mitchell from “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” spent the better part of the day coming on to her. I thought it was awesome, but she didn’t appreciate his advances.)

Though I never personally interacted with him, the impact that Leonard Nimoy has had on my life is unmistakable, particularly regarding my love of the written word. As I got older, my tastes naturally, eventually, expanded beyond Star Trek. Stephen King, Mario Puzo, Neil Gaiman, Tim O’Brien, Whitman, Shakespeare, Stoker, Shelley and countless others. That led to my English degree, which ultimately led to my forthcoming master’s degree. My love for Star Trek comics is directly responsible for my first published book, which has not only led to a full publishing slate for the foreseeable future but has also helped me foster professional and personal relationships with many of the comic book writers and Star Trek novelists whose works I’ve cherished since childhood.  All because of a journey began with Star Trek novels. And had it not been for my mom, I wouldn’t have gotten into the show. And had it not been for Leonard Nimoy, neither would she.

I wrote before that I write because of Harold Ramis, but I read because of Leonard Nimoy.

And now he’s gone.

Leonard Nimoy died today. Like I said, I see the words, but I don’t comprehend them. And I don’t think I’ll fully comprehend their import for a long time. My story is just one of hundreds of thousands of people who were impacted and influenced by man we never personally knew, but his work somehow touched us all. We are who we are because of Star Trek, and because of Leonard Nimoy. More so than William Shatner, more so than even Gene Roddenberry, Nimoy was the heart and soul from its earliest pilot in 1964 to its most recent screen iteration in 2013.

(A brief note about that last one: when I first saw him show up in Into Darkness, I thought it was pointless pandering; that he had no business being in that film. Strangely, when rumors started that both he and Shatner were to make cameos in the forthcoming 2016 film, I was all for it and wanted to be pandered to shamelessly. Because, really, I didn’t care if it was just three minutes of Spock eating a salad; I just wanted to see Nimoy as Spock one MORE last time.)

I would have loved to see Nimoy live to see the official 50th anniversary celebration next year. I would have loved for him to reprise Spock Prime again. I would have loved for him to keep tweeting his Spockian wisdom. I would have loved for him to keep on keepin’ on.

But he is keepin’ on, in a way. Through his acting, through his autobiographies, through his music (his album Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space is a must-have) through his poetry and his photography. Through me, and my love of reading, and my devotion to the franchise. Through you, reading this. Through all of us who feel his loss. Through all of us whose lives were affected by his presence. Through all of us who are who we are because of Star Trek and because of him.

Leonard Nimoy died today, but his legacy continues. He’s really not dead, as long as we remember him.

Live long and prosper.

Nimoy Star

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In Memoriam: I Write Because of Harold Ramis

Harold Ramis died one year ago today. In remembrance, I present a piece I wrote celebrating his influence on me. It originally appeared at Atomic Wanderers on February 26, 2014.

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Harold Ramis died the other day. I never knew the man personally, never had the privilege of meeting him, and knew nothing about his private life. I only know him through his impressive body of work, as a director, writer and actor.

And I write largely because of him.

I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw Ghostbusters. It seems like it’s always been a part of my life. I know I didn’t see it in the theaters, so logically it had to be on home video, sometime in in the first or second grade. And I don’t think I could properly impress upon you the impact that it had on my life.

It was the first film that I could quote, leading to my life-long love of cursing. (The playground aides were none to happy when my 7-year-old friends and I spouted gems like “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown!”) It was the first movie I watched over and over, repeatedly. And it was the source of the first fiction I’ve ever written.

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The above image is a picture of the script to a routine performed by Tony Ruggerio, Jim Mento and myself in the Stars of ’86 Talent Show at Hammonton Elementary School. In the interests of full disclosure, I didn’t write the whole thing myself; I was seven, after all. My mom acted as typist and had some input, but it was largely mine. It is, as far as I can remember, the very first piece of fiction I ever created.

Why Ghostbusters? Besides the fact that EVERYONE my age loved the movie – and most of us still do – there was one particular character that really resonated with me: Egon Spengler. He was really smart. He had funny hair. And he had glasses. I could totally relate. He built amazing equipment, got to shoot a laser, and chased ghosts for a living. He was living my seven-year-old dream life.

Spengler of course was played by Ramis, who also co-wrote Ghostbusters. So, not only did he play my favorite character in the film, but he also helped create the whole thing. (And, as I’ve learned later in life, was largely responsible for taking the original script and molding it into the classic film that I’ve loved for three decades.)

Writing that script woke something up in me. When we performed the routine, the reception was tremendous. People laughed where they were supposed to, and cheered where I wanted them to cheer. Something that I had written (with mom’s help, of course) had a very real, very positive effect on my entire school. Those of you who write know exactly what feeling I mean. Those of you who don’t write, well… I’m at a loss to describe it.

It’s wonderful.

It put me on the writing track when I was very young. I’ve stumbled a bit along the way, got side-tracked more than once, and have flat-out given up a few times. But I always come back to writing. Because the feeling it gives me, the satisfaction, the joy… there’s nothing like it.

It was a feeling I first had when I was seven.

Because of Ghostbusters.

Because of Harold Ramis.

ramis3

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For Your Hugo Consideration…

33full500New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, released in 2014, is an anthology of critical essays which examine various aspects of the 48-year history of Star Trek in the four-color realm. It features essays from notable Trek scribes like Robert Greenberger, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, Scott Tipton, David A. McIntee, and Hugo- and Nebula Award winner David Gerrold, as well as many others (click the link above for a complete list).

It is eligible for a Hugo Award nomination in the Best Related Work category, which states: “Any work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year, and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.”

Please consider giving it a nod.

Here’s what some people have said about it:

“There are 300 pages of thoughtful opinions and entertaining commentary on nearly fifty years of Star Trek comics.” — Mark Martinez, TrekMovie.com. (Full disclosure: Mark contributed an essay about Star Trek manga.)

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics examines the long history of Star Trek in the four-colour realm, featuring insightful essays from popular Star Trek comic scribes and novelists, as well as other experts.” — John Freeman, DownTheTubes.Net.

“But – New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics did one thing, it finally interested me in what was out there when it came to Trek comics. The book was not a gushing tribute to the wonderful comics over the years as one might have expected, but a realistic assessment of them, pointing out the flaws as well as the positive things about them.” — TrekToday.com

New Life and New Civilizations, a collection of essays on the history of Star Trek comics, is […] an essential read for fans of series. It is not however, a slavish adoration of all things Trek. Several authors are prepared to cast a very critical eye over the material. [Contributor] Cody Walker even goes so far as to call one Trek comic ‘pure blasphemy’.” — Alastair Savage, Amazing Stories Magazine

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics is most enjoyable. Definitely worth checking out.” — Comic scribe Tony Isabella

“This is a wonderful compilation of images, interviews, information, and personal observations revolving around the rich history of STAR TREK, created by Gene Roddenberry, in its various and extensive comics interpretations over the decades.” — Comic book artist Jerome K. Moore

“In a word, New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics is Awesome! It’s everything I was hoping for, and – more. This amazingly-researched, lovingly-written anthology takes us on a journey into every aspect of Star Trek comics.” — Lt. Eric Cone, VisionaryTrek.com

And, of course, there’s this NSFW guy who seems to be enjoying it, but be warned: the blog is called Naked Men Reading, and is EXACTLY what it says.

In addition, audio interviews about the book were conducted by The Geek Speak Show, VisionaryTrek’s Holodeck Podcast, and by Sean Moncrieff of NewsTalk 106-108 FM out of Dublin, Ireland.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, or even theirs. Any eligible World Science Fiction Society members interested in receiving a review PDF of the book, feel free to send me an email at jfberenato@gmail.com, or shoot me a tweet at @JFBerenato.

Thank you for your consideration!

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Encounter (Me) at Farpoint (Convention)!

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This weekend, the 22nd Annual Farpoint Convention will be held at the North Baltimore Plaza Hotel in Lutherville-Timonium, MD.

The good folks at Farpoint have been gracious enough to invite yours truly as a guest to this soiree!

I’ll be available during the following events:

Friday, February 13, 2015
10:00 p.m. – Midnight: Farpoint Book Fair, Dulaney 1-2

Saturday, February 14, 2015
12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.: Author Reading, Dulaney 1

Sunday, February 15, 2015
12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.: Panel – “Exploring Star Trek Comics”, with Keith R.A. DeCandido, Michael Jan Friedman, Steven H. Wilson, and maybe Howard Weinstein and Bob Greenberger, and myself as moderator.

I’ll have copies of New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics with me on both Friday and Saturday, as well as after the panel on Sunday (because trying to hawk them at the panel is just tacky). Be sure to stop by and say hi!

I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention that some other, far more famous people will be there too, so take a look at this handy flier:

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Hope to see you there!

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They Say I Gotta Learn, But Nobody’s Here to Teach Me

Recently, I was presented with an employment opportunity that was simply too good to pass up. Starting Monday, I will be starting my position as an adjunct professor with Salem Community College teaching two courses of developmental English…

…to inmates at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, NJ.

This is through the program known as NJ-STEP (Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison) which is designed to offer inmates the opportunity to earn either a two- or four-year degree while they serve out their sentence. Statistically speaking, inmates who take just one college course while behind bars are 46% less likely to return to prison.

I have long believed that the “corrections” part of “Department of Corrections” was vastly underutilized. Without some manner of program designed to help inmates better themselves, educate themselves, and learn how to make better choices to stay on the proper side of the law, not only are we as a society doing nothing to rehabilitate the inmates, but we are also essentially throwing humans in a cage for a pre-determined amount of time where they often learn nothing about becoming contributing members of society.

NJ-STEP is designed to change that. The United States has the largest number of incarcerated individuals of any country on the planet. Obviously, the mere existence of prisons and the threat of jail time is in and of itself not enough of a deterrent to prevent people from breaking the law. People will commit crimes. I have. You have. We either haven’t risen to the level of criminal activity to warrant prosecution or we have managed to avoid getting caught (speeding is a crime, driving without a seatbelt is a crime…) and sentenced to jail. But should we be – or, worse, should we be convicted of a crime we did not commit – I would be thankful to be in a prison that participates in STEP.

Once their sentences are served, they will have paid their debts to society. They will be free men and women, and will deserve a second chance at a legal life. STEP will help those interested parties to do so.

And I will be a part of it.

I had no idea, when I signed up for this, that I would be considered a pioneer. At the introductory luncheon yesterday, I was informed that this is the first program of its kind in our part of the state. As well, while there are several other states that have similar programs, STEP is apparently considered the best in the country and is the model to which other programs look. I am getting in on the ground floor of a movement that may very well change the way that our nation treats those prisoners who can be rehabilitated.

Our orientation yesterday was eye-opening. It was not my first time visiting a prison – our dog came from the New Leash on Life program which partners inmates with unadoptable dogs and prepares them both for civilized life – but it was my first time staying in one for an extended period.

I was not prepared for the smell, though in hindsight I should have been. There are 3400 male inmates at South Woods, in the scent is unmistakable. It smells like caged men. Picture the gymnasium after a wrestling match, and now add in the piquant odor of the locker room afterwards, and you’ve got a fraction of the olfactory assault. South Woods is not an old facility – it was built in 1997 – but it doesn’t take long, I suppose, for such a miasma to become imbued in the bricks.

Our group of twelve – three professors, our superior, two educational administrators, and seven STEP representatives – met with the Student Advisory Panel within the prison walls. Made up entirely of inmates in the program, this advisory panel did their damnedest to not only assuage our doubts and fears about working on the inside, but also to challenge any preconceived notions and prejudices we may or may not have been harboring about inmates in general.

I’m terrible with names, and could not possibly enumerate all of them here. But Jose, Geraldo, Jameel, Shane, Prince and Tim do stick out. The were welcoming, they were friendly, they were erudite (Jameel used the word “inculcate” in the normal course of conversation; who does that?)…

…they were obviously not going to be students of mine, unfortunately. They were obviously well-educated – far beyond the developmental state – and, if they were at all representative of the calibre of students, then my fears indeed are assuaged. What they lack in education they make up for in tenacity and enthusiasm. They have a drive and an eagerness to learn, because they know what’s at stake. They know that the odds are heavily stacked against them, and – statistically speaking – they are likely to return to prison if their lives do not drastically change. And they want that change. All of the prospective students do.

I am, of course, understandably nervous. I, like you, have my own preconceptions and prejudices about prisoners, due largely, no doubt, to my upbringing. But I’ve tried my damnedest to overcome a number of other prejudices to which I was exposed, so why should this be any different?

I have the opportunity to make a very real difference here. It isn’t exactly what I set out to do when I entered grad school, but that’s fine by me. Opportunities like this are rare. Opportunities to actually do good, to actively try to change the world, come along maybe once in a lifetime.

So, Monday. New job. New opportunity. New chance to make a difference.

Now I just have to learn how to teach…

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We’re Closing In…

As most of you know by now, I’m sure, I am very excited about the pending release of the first book with my name on the spine — New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics. I am pleased to announce that the book will make its world premiere during the first weekend of August here:

33full500Shore Leave 36 will take place August 1-3, 2014 at the Hunt Valley Inn in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Not only will the book make its debut there, but I have also been invited as a guest.

Me. I am a guest. An invited guest. At a sci-fi convention.

Oh, if only I could go back and tell this to my twelve-year-old self! But I digress…

I will also be moderating a panel discussing both the book and Star Trek comics in general, along with contributors Robert Greenberger, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore and others.

I am, needless to say, ridiculously excited about this.

I’m also incredibly fucking nervous. There’s a reason I chose writing over public speaking. Hopefully, my fellow panelists will take pity on me, and pick up the baton when I invariably drop it. (Also, I’m sure there’s going to be video of it somewhere when it’s all said and done, so that either my triumph or my blunders will live on the interwebz forever.)

The schedule has yet to be set so I don’t know which day or what time the panel will happen, but rest assured I’ll post it here when it does.

If you haven’t yet, you can read the official release for the book here, then go to Facebook and like the official page. You can also read two great articles by Eric “Gator One” Cone at VisionaryTrek.com here and here.

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