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Saturday, July 31, 2004

Ménagerie à trois
How to handle a 'jealous' pet
By Sandy Robins
MSNBC contributor

For Nancy Golden of Bedford, Mass., life was good. She was a successful business executive with a beautiful apartment and a doting feline soulmate named C.G., who enthusiastically welcomed her home from the office each evening and shared her bed.

And then life got even better. Golden met and married Jim Storms, the man of her dreams. But the moment they all moved in together, Golden, who now goes by her married name of Storms, found herself embroiled in an unusual ménage à trois with her husband and the cat.

C.G. would wake Jim up by screaming at him nose to nose, much like a baseball manager yelling at an umpire after a bad call against a player. She also cried constantly, refused to eat and would glare at the couple in disgust when they tried to be intimate.

“C.G. felt she was being displaced and was obviously unhappy. It was very upsetting,” recalls Storms. “ I took her to various doctors and even tried to get her a cat companion, but that didn’t work either.”

'Animals do manipulate'
Enter animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University in Grafton, Mass., and author of several books including, "If Only They Could Speak."

“Animals do manipulate,” says Dodman. “They are capable of attention-seeking behaviors, knowing the results will alter their owner’s conduct for their benefit. So it’s not unusual for a ménage à trois involving the family pet to go awry."

And pets can have a serious impact on a relationship. "Seventy percent of people asked to choose between their spouse and their dog will choose the dog," he adds.

Animal intelligence, emotions and self-awareness have always been highly controversial subjects, with many experts disagreeing over the degree to which animals can feel. Dodman firmly believes animals are thinking, attentive beings capable of complicated emotions such as jealousy and guilt.

"C.G. made it very clear that she considered Jim an intrusion," says Dodman. "She had a very pushy personality and jealously wanted Nancy’s undivided attention."

In these situations, Dodman describes his role of animal behaviorist as a combination of three things: first, a family counselor, sorting out the family dynamics that involve the pet; second, a psychologist, treating the disturbance using behavioral modification techniques; and third, a veterinary physiatrist, prescribing mood altering medication and dealing with underlying medical problems that may be fueling behavioral issues.

Prozac for pets?
While some veterinarians and behaviorists may consider the use of psychotropic drugs for animals unnecessary and trendy, Dodman believes that without these new treatments there would be an even greater number of animals relinquished to shelters and ultimately put to sleep.

“People think of Prozac as cosmetic pharmacology. I don’t give it to dogs and cats so that they are good at cocktail parties or to boost their self-esteem," says Dodman. "Drugs such as Prozac are best thought of as mood stabilizers. They can be used short term to get a pet around a sharp corner, or more or less indefinitely.”

And Prozac definitely had a positive effect on C.G. After beginning treatment with the drug, she mellowed out and became less aggressive toward Jim.

People most often to blame
The dynamic between an owner and a pet plays a key role in the development of bad behavior after the arrival of a significant other, says Dodman.

"They feed off each other in a number of ways. Storms’ own background and the fact that she was emotionally overwrought probably fueled the situation. Someone else may have told the cat to take a hike and get over it, but she got down on her hands and knees and the cat obviously enjoyed the attention," says Dodman.

New York-based psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Joel Gavriele-Gold, author of "When Pets Come Between Partners," agrees that often people are a major contributing factor to a human-pet-human triangle.

“I see this situation a lot. When pets become entangled in human relationships, invariably the animal is a catalyst for bringing out unresolved psychological issues," says Gavriele-Gold. "People tend to dump their own personal issues on their pets and the animals wind up looking as if they’re the problem when they’re not.”
Gavriele-Gold tells the story of female client who had a boa constrictor named Crunch and went through various boyfriends over the years. Often she and her boyfriend at the time would end up in the bathtub together and the snake would slither down the shower curtain, surprising the unsuspecting suitor. On more than one occasion, she was forced to call the paramedics to prevent the man from going into cardiac arrest.

“Finally,” Gavriele-Gold says, “ I got her to understand that she had a fear of commitment and this was her way of keeping a distance in her relationships. Ultimately, she met a guy who loved snakes and they rode off into the sunset together.”

A sign of deeper problems
The topic of whether a pet is the pawn or the problem in these situations was also highlighted by Dr. Phil, America’s favorite living-room therapist, late last year when a newly married couple appeared on his show claiming that the wife’s daughter was highly allergic to the new husband’s cats.

The husband said the felines had never been a problem when the couple was dating and, furthermore, he’d made every effort to contain them to a specific section of their home. The wife questioned Dr. Phil as to whether he thought she was being selfish in asking her husband to get rid of the cats.

“If it’s a health issue that puts your daughter in jeopardy, it isn’t even a close call," said Dr. Phil. "You’ve got to do something responsible with the cats. However, if you are resenting that he pampers the cats and not you, that is an emotional and not a cat issue. You’ve got to deconstruct this and find out what the real issue is.”

Often when people are starting a relationship and one demands that the cat or dog must go, this is only the beginning of issues that are going to get much worse in other parts of the relationship, says Gavriele-Gold.

While the key issues that drive personal relationships all play out in human-pet-human triangles, Gavriele-Gold says that control freaks are one of the biggest problems he encounters.

“Watch out,” he cautions, “for someone who doesn’t own a pet, or who owns one that doesn’t shed. And beware of someone who doesn’t keep plants unless they are cacti.”

Compatible pets
And what happens when two people each bring their own pets to a relationship? How do you know if they will be compatible in a joint household?

Rachael Kreisler is president and co-founder of, an Internet dating site that focuses on matching people who have pets. Kreisler’s three cats first met her future husband’s dog via Web cams set up in their respective households.

“Animals can help break the ice when trying to meet new people,” says Kreisler. “We have an initial questionnaire that allows people to outline their needs and their pet’s needs, too.”

When it comes to mixing dogs, people should evaluate the likelihood of success based on the animal's personality rather than breed, says Dodman. "There are three characteristics that determine dogs’ interactions with people and other animals: dominance, fear and their prey drive. A dog with a high score for dominance, fear and a heightened prey drive would be a very difficult pet to manage. It would be bossy, in control, frightened of everything and chasing everything in sight."

And, he says, it’s best to mix opposite sexes. “But remember that a dog incumbent in a house will need to stay in charge.”

Cats should be evaluated for their alertness, sociability and equability. “A cat that is active, very sociable and equable is a dog,” Dodman jokes.

Looking for answers
When Time magazine hailed the Bow-Lingual, the gadget that claims to translate dog barks into English, as one of the coolest inventions of 2002, many pet owners thought the device was the answer to understanding their dog’s wants and needs.

But Dr. Sophia Yin, D.V.M, who has done extensive research in acoustic communication in animals at the University of California at Davis, says that while the Bow-Lingual is fun to play with, the translations aren’t very trustworthy and many don’t make sense. So frustrated pet owners are back knocking on behaviorists’ doors for answers.

Dodman reminds owners that before they focus on their pets, they should take a look at themselves. “Sometimes in desperation an owner will joke and say, 'Perhaps I’m the one that should be taking the Prozac.' And I counter. ‘Well, maybe you should.'"

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Israeli Moviegoers Get the 'Gospel' Truth
By Sasha Levy

TEL AVIV, Israel (Hollywood Reporter) - In the land where its subject lived and died two millennia ago, Mel Gibson (news)'s "The Passion of the Christ" has yet to receive an official screening.

It's not because the Israeli censors who once banned Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" for fear of upsetting Christian sensibilities have also looked unfavorably on "Passion." Rather, it is because local distributors, fearful of offending Jewish sensitivities, have declined to pick up the film.

One distributor not normally known for being cautious, says, "No one will pick up this film because it deals with hard issues, and the distributors don't want to hurt people's feelings."

The distributor, who admits to not having seen "Passion," blames the Israeli media for perpetuating the idea that the film is anti-Semitic.

The film receives regular screenings at the Cinematheque in the Palestinian Authority (news - web sites) town of Ramallah, just a few miles from Jerusalem, and many illegal copies are available in Arab enclaves such as Jaffa and Jerusalem's Old City.

One Israeli Jew who has seen Gibson's film is Alon Garbuz, director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, who watched it on DVD.

"I don't think Mel Gibson did it on purpose, but the Jews do not behave so well in the movie," he reports, "and I can understand that the results could provoke reactions against the Jews by people who don't know history."

Recently, however, Israelis have been able to enjoy an alternative cinematic portrayal of Christ and His family, courtesy of actor-writer-producer-director Assi Dayan.

"The Gospel According to God" will do nothing to harm Dayan's reputation as an enfant terrible. It transports God and His family to modern-day Israel and follows a reluctant Jesus as he prepares for a rerun of His crucifixion and resurrection, which His wearying Father hopes will finally bring peace on Earth.

Dayan, in a rare interview, claims, "It is not supposed to be provocative. It's against us, for believing in God and His Son. It's for intelligent people. Religious people -- Christians and Jews -- would be offended," he says. Dayan himself portrays God as lonely, lovesick and very human. "I'm cheap. I was available. I was on the spot," he quips.

Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that "The Gospel According to God" is intended as a riposte to Gibson's movie. But Dayan points out, "I started the film two years ago. I had no idea of (Gibson's) film," he explains. "I am attracted to theology, which I studied at university. But I don't believe in God."

But Israelis will finally get a chance to see Gibson's version of history in September if Garbuz's efforts to screen the movie in Tel Aviv -- the most secular of Israeli cities -- are successful. Professors are lining up to take part in panel discussions on Judaism, Christianity and Islam that Garbuz is planning, together with a specially convened symposium on the "borders" of anti-Semitism -- where legitimate criticism of Jewish behavior ends and anti-Semitism begins -- that will be the context of the screening. Boxoffices have been deluged with requests for tickets.

"Interest in the film is unbelievable," says Garbuz, who has invited Gibson to attend.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

10 Dumb Moments in Sci-Fi Cinema
By Adam Berliant
MSN Entertainment

There aren't a lot of good reasons to be a science fiction freak.

Sure, the genre gets respect, not to mention box office yield, but the poor innocent fans are still depicted as lifeless, dateless, and wearing Vulcan ears.

But, and we say this with love, sci-fi fans often deserve the reputation. Once people overhear some pale guy with wizard hair explaining how a light saber simply isn't possible, as the exposed plasma from the device would irradiate every living organism with a 5-kilometer radius, what are people supposed to think? "Sexy?"

Yet, part of being a sci-fi fan is being its harshest critic, and so we can't help ourselves.

Its part of the fun to discuss what was and wasn't good science fiction. And to be clear, this has nothing to do with one's ability to enjoy a movie. Did anything in "The Fifth Element" make sense? No. Did it kick ass? Yes.

So, this list is dedicated to the sci-fi fan. It's our stab at the 10 incredibly dumb things that occurred in otherwise really successful sci-fi movies in recent times. Don't look for B-movies or classics here. This is where the blockbusters went wrong.

Imperial walkers attack the rebels
"The Empire Strikes Back"

Why it's so dumb: So, the same company that brings you the dark side of the force and the death star decides that tall, slow, off balance elephant thingies with laser beam-shooting tusks are the best way to ferret out the rebels from their underground fortress? Darth Vader may have been a patsy, but we all know he wasn't that stupid. If ever a huge planet destroying technology was the appropriate choice, this was it.
Why we don't care: Seeing the walkers come into focus in the rebel binoculars was the moment when "Star Wars" fans realized that "The Empire Strikes Back" might indeed be cooler than the original. That scene alone could be the reason we paid to see four more.

The aliens need "Signs"

Why it's so dumb: So many sci-fi fans have heard this one that it's almost bad form to mention it, but the blunder is pretty simple: Aliens navigate the vastness of space and find life on a puny planet. Then it turns out they need cornfields on that puny planet to point them to fresh meat. The only thing that made sense about the scenario is that the aliens wanted to eat Mel Gibson first.
Why we don't care: As every sci-fi fan can tell you, "I want to believe."

John Hurt feels better, so opts for breakfast

Why it's so dumb: "Oh, thank goodness the acid-blooded crab thing fell off my face. Hey, do I smell scrambled eggs?" Despite a ship full of highly-intelligent technical and science people, the crew of the Nostromo decides not to quarantine their alien-toting buddy long enough to make sure there were no problems along the lines of, say, stomach erupting alien babies.
Why we don't care: A hundred space horror movies later, including three more "Alien" flicks, a lot don't remember how terrifying "Alien" was in 1979. And while the movie was good and creepy up to this point, the "man gives birth" scene was the moment when the movie went from just scary to the scariest movie you had ever seen.

Skynet sends a new and improved Terminator
"Terminator 2: Judgement Day"

Why it's so dumb: There were at least 50 smarter, easier alternatives to whacking Sarah Conner and her unborn son other than sending back the hit-machine to the land of big hair. And after screwing up the first time, why would they try again after Sarah has had years to train both herself and her military mastermind child? How about sending a good old T-1000 back to Sarah's great, great, great grandmother's house around 1880? What would Kyle have used to fight? A musket?
Why we don't care: The relentless pursuer is a suspense theme predating the written word, and for good reason. "T2" felt like high-budget vindication for all of us who actually saw and enjoyed "The Terminator" the first time around.

Will Smith uploads a virus to save the world
"Independence Day"

Why it's so dumb: "Independence Day" had already lost all credibility when Will Smith climbed into an alien spacecraft and after a few moments, figured out how to fly the thing. But dumb turns to laugh-out-loud ludicrous when Will conquers the aliens with a floppy disk, in an absurd homage to "War of the Worlds." Will should have just stuffed a peanut butter sandwich into the disk drive. It would have had the same odds of working.
Why we don't care: Because we like absurd homages to "War of the Worlds." Part of loving sci-fi is recognizing moments that only other sci-fi fans will recognize. The only thing better would have been if Orson Welles did a voiceover for "virus uploading" rather than simply seeing the words on the screen.

Dr. Brundle tries out his fly machine
"The Fly"

Why it's so dumb: Jeff Goldblum's character is smart enough to defy physics and biology in every conceivable way, including appearing attractive to Geena Davis, but he isn't smart enough to keep his equipment free of household pests. But honestly, that's not the dumbest part. The dumbest part is that he rationalizes ever stepping into the thing. If Goldblum's "Jurassic Park" character were there, he would have said, "Don't be an idiot," and the movie would have been over.
Why we don't care: "The Fly" was a movie with the world's easiest gimmick: Watch a guy turn into a fly. There should be more movies like this. Watch a guy turn into a lobster. Watch a guy turn into an oyster. This is what science is all about.

Velociraptors come off like geniuses
"Jurassic Park"

Why it's so dumb: Jaws was a thoughtless eating machine and scared the swim trunks off of us, so why did we need dinosaurs fresh from the debate club? The book read perfectly well with the dinosaurs just being very, very hungry. The raptors, despite having acorn-sized brains, seemed to have no problem navigating a vast building they'd never been in before in order to corral Sam, Laura and the kids in the lobby. Maybe the T-Rex came in and ate them just for their severe lack of credibility.
Why we don't care: You'd be challenged to find a single person from the "Land of the Lost" generation who didn't love some part of "Jurassic Park." And besides, it was nice to see the computer generated image technology put to use in a ways other than aliens and terminators.

Agents throw punches at Neo
"The Matrix"

Why it's so dumb: Anything that happens to you in the Matrix happens to you for real, right? Thus verifying the theory that if you die in your dream, you're really dead. So why then do the Agents decide that shotguns and kung-fu are the best way to take out Neo? If the Matrix is such a savvy computer, wouldn't, "Neo is in New Jersey, good-bye New Jersey!" be a pretty obvious solution?
Why we don't care: Most sci-fi fans had read William Gibson's "Neuromancer" many years earlier, and "The Matrix" finally helped visualize what the hell was happening in that book.

Superman turns back time
"Superman: The Movie"

Why it's so dumb: This is the classic problem with any time travel plot. If Superman can turn back time, why not turn it back a few years, find Lex Luthor, and break a few fingers? Instead, Superman turns back the clock just enough to save Lois from a not-so-shallow grave.
Why we don't care: Actually, we do. This one is just too dumb.

Jodie Foster and company pass the alien MENSA test

Why it's so dumb: Intelligent creatures from across the universe go to great lengths to let humanity know they exist in an otherwise great movie called "Contact." Life from distant galaxies intelligent enough to capture our rays, translate them, then dramatically send us the blueprints for a wormhole machine, somehow found it necessary to put those blueprints on a flattened piece of origami.
Why we don't care: "Contact" was (finally) the insightful and thought provoking sci-fi movie fans had waited more than a decade for (with all due respect to "Species"). And most fans removed their Vulcan ears in honor of Carl Sagan while watching it.

Raunchy Toons for 'Father of the Pride'
Prime time show strictly for grown-ups
By Daniel Fienberg

First the good news for NBC: The network screened an early episode of the animated comedy "Father of the Pride" for television critics and the result was a room full of laughter. While some of the contingent at the Television Critics Association Press Tour showing were unamused by the mixture of "Shrek"-style visuals and adult humor, the show also swayed a legion of doubters.

Then the more ambiguous news: The television critics were laughing at a variety of sexual miscegenation that included panda-on-panda loving, several graphic (if euphemistic) discussions of lion intercourse, a healthy dose of man-chimp passion and several jokes about the shame that comes from being an elephant in love with a turkey.

Throw in a banjo-playing monkey who calls his wife a bitch and an assortment of language and images that would make an inanimate cartoon cel blush. "Father of the Pride" isn't the network television equivalent of Ralph Bakshi's "Fritz the Cat," but it left some critics wondering how many times they can fit the phrase "this show isn't intended for children" into their reviews.

DreamWorks co-founder and "Pride" executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg feels comfortable that despite extensive summer advertising that accentuates the cute animation, celebrity voices and "Shrek" connection, discerning viewers will be able to figure out the target audience for themselves.

"NBC scheduled this show at nine o'clock at night very specifically to ensure that the viewing audience, particularly parents, not be confused," Katzenberg explains. "This is not a show for children. It is an 18-49-year-old show. And I applaud NBC scheduling it at nine o'clock. There is no better signal to give to the world about what its intention is and who it is intended for."

Katzenberg, though, should be able to forgive viewers if that intention is initially hazy. Ads are already trumpeting guest appearances by the likes of Eddie Murphy's "Shrek" character Donkey and its unclear if children will be able to distinguish between a character who was designed for them on the big screen, but is suddenly off limits on television just because he won't be on before 9 p.m. ET. Similarly, the adorable image of a giant panda voiced by Lisa Kudrow is sure to amuse even the youngest of kids, while the actual character -- a needy, self-hating virgin who wonders if she'll ever be able to mate -- could lead to confusion.

The network seems to be counting on critics to pass along the word about the show's content, even as the marketing department sends out an alternative message.

"I think we live in a time in which so much information is communicated to our audiences about what we do, much of it by you," Katzenberg tells the sea of critics. "Certainly, the promos that NBC has prepared for this show, I think, very much indicate this show is for."

The show's writing staff is enjoying the opportunity to push boundaries, realizing that animated creatures can deliver a level of satire that comes across as too board with real performers. Executive producer Jonathan Groff ("Late Night with Conan O'Brien") suggests that while a live action comedy couldn't dig as deep as something like "All in the Family" used to, his show, like "The Simpsons," gets extra leeway.

"It lets us tell human stories and go further, I think, and do more with them than we could if we were just doing it with live actors," Groff explains.

"Father of the Pride" airs at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesdays this fall and now you know what that 9 p.m. slot means.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Not Funnies
By Charles McGrath

You can't pinpoint it exactly, but there was a moment when people more or less stopped reading poetry and turned instead to novels, which just a few generations earlier had been considered entertainment suitable only for idle ladies of uncertain morals. The change had surely taken hold by the heyday of Dickens and Tennyson, which was the last time a poet and a novelist went head to head on the best-seller list. Someday the novel, too, will go into decline -- if it hasn't already -- and will become, like poetry, a genre treasured and created by just a relative few. This won't happen in our lifetime, but it's not too soon to wonder what the next new thing, the new literary form, might be.

It might be comic books. Seriously. Comic books are what novels used to be -- an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal -- and if the highbrows are right, they're a form perfectly suited to our dumbed-down culture and collective attention deficit. Comics are also enjoying a renaissance and a newfound respectability right now. In fact, the fastest-growing section of your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels. It is the overcrowded space way in the back -- next to sci-fi probably, or between New Age and hobbies -- and unless your store is staffed by someone unusually devoted, this section is likely to be a mess. "Peanuts" anthologies, and fat, catalog-size collections of "Garfield" and "Broom Hilda."Shelf loads of manga -- those Japanese comic books that feature slender, wide-eyed teenage girls who seem to have a special fondness for sailor suits. Superheroes, of course, still churned out in installments by the busy factories at Marvel and D.C. Also, newer sci-fi and fantasy series like "Y: The Last Man," about literally the last man on earth (the rest died in a plague), who is now pursued by a band of killer lesbians.

You can ignore all this stuff -- though it's worth noting that manga sells like crazy, especially among women. What you're looking for is shelved upside down and sideways sometimes -- comic books of another sort, substantial single volumes (as opposed to the slender series installments), often in hard cover, with titles that sound just like the titles of "real" books: "Palestine," "Persepolis," "Blankets" (this one tips in at 582 pages, which must make it the longest single-volume comic book ever), "David Chelsea in Love," "Summer Blonde," "The Beauty Supply District," "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Some of these books have titles that have become familiar from recent movies: "Ghost World," "American Splendor," "Road to Perdition." Others, like Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" (unpaged, but a good inch and a quarter thick) and Daniel Clowes's "David Boring," have achieved cult status on many campuses.

These are the graphic novels -- the equivalent of "literary novels" in the mainstream publishing world -- and they are beginning to be taken seriously by the critical establishment. "Jimmy Corrigan" even won the 2001 Guardian Prize for best first book, a prize that in other years has gone to authors like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer and Philip Gourevitch.

The notion of telling stories with pictures goes back to the cavemen. Comic-book scholars make a big deal of Rodolphe Topffer, a 19th-century Swiss artist who drew stories in the form of satiric pictures with captions underneath. You could also make a case that Hogarth's "Harlot's Progress" and its sequel, "A Rake's Progress," were graphic novels of a sort -- stories narrated in sequential panels. But despite these lofty antecedents, the comic-book form until recently has been unable to shed a certain aura of pulpiness, cheesiness and semi-literacy. In fact, that is what a lot of cartoon artists most love about their genre.

There was a minor flowering of serious comic books in the mid-80's, with the almost simultaneous appearance of Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking "Maus"; of the "Love and Rockets" series, by two California brothers, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez; and of two exceptionally smart and ambitious superhero-based books, "Watchmen," by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," by Frank Miller. Newspapers and magazines ran articles with virtually the same headline: "Crash! Zap! Pow! Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore!" But the movement failed to take hold, in large part because there weren't enough other books on the same level.

The difference this time is that there is something like a critical mass of artists, young and old, uncovering new possibilities in this once-marginal form, and a new generation of readers, perhaps, who have grown up staring at cartoon images on their computer screens and in their video games, not to mention the savvy librarians and teachers who now cater to their interests and short attention spans. The publicity that has spilled over from movies like "Ghost World," originally a graphic novel by Dan Clowes, has certainly not hurt. And there is much better distribution of high-end comics now, thanks in part to two enterprising publishers, Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal and Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, which have managed to get their wares into traditional bookstores, not just the comics specialty shops. Some of the better-known graphic novels are published not by comics companies at all but by mainstream publishing houses -- by Pantheon, in particular -- and have put up mainstream sales numbers. "Persepolis," for example, Marjane Satrapi's charming, poignant story, drawn in small black-and-white panels that evoke Persian miniatures, about a young girl growing up in Iran and her family's suffering following the 1979 Islamic revolution, has sold 450,000 copies worldwide so far; "Jimmy Corrigan" sold 100,000 in hardback, and the newly released paperback is also moving briskly.

These are not top best-seller figures, exactly, but they are sales that any publisher would be happy with, and several are now trying to hop on the graphic-novel bandwagon. Meanwhile, McSweeney's Quarterly, a key barometer of the literary climate, especially among the young and hip, has devoted its entire new issue to comics and graphic novels, and the contents are virtually a state-of-the-art anthology, edited and designed by Chris Ware. Dave Eggers, the editor of McSweeney's, told me, "I'm just trying to show how hard it is to do this stuff well and to give it a little dignity."

The term "graphic novel" is actually a misnomer. Satrapi's "Persepolis" books (another installment is due this summer) are nonfiction, and so, for that matter, is "Maus," once you accept the conceit that human beings are played, so to speak, by cats, dogs, mice and frogs. The newest book by Chester Brown (who drew the cover for this issue of The Times Magazine) is a full-scale, 200-plus-page comic-book biography (which took five years to research and draw) of Louis Riel, who in Brown's native Canada occupies roughly the position that John Brown does here. Nor are all these books necessarily "graphic" in the sense of being realistic or explicit. (When I mentioned to a friend that I was working on an article about graphic novels, he said, hopefully, "You mean porn?")

Many practitioners of the form prefer the term "comix," with that nostalgic "x" referring to the age of the underground comics, which were sold in head shops along with bongs and cigarette papers. Scott McLoud, the author of a very helpful guide (in comic-book form) called "Understanding Comics," prefers the slightly pretentious
term "sequential art." Alan Moore, creator of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," likes "big expensive comic book"; Spiegelman is partial to "comic book that needs a bookmark."

But for want of a universally agreed-on alternative, the graphic-novel tag has stuck, and it received something like official sanction a year and a half ago when Spiegelman and Chris Oliveros, the publisher of Drawn and Quarterly, persuaded the book-industry committee that decides on subject headings to adopt a graphic-novel category with several subsections: graphic novel/literature, graphic novel/humor, graphic novel/science fiction and so on. Afterward, Spiegelman turned to Oliveros and said, "I think we've just created the state of Israel -- one great big boundary dispute in one little corner of the bookshop globe."

The center of this dispute -- the comic book with a brain -- is a somewhat arbitrary and subjective place, not unlike pornography in Justice Stewart's famous formulation (you recognize it when you see it). But a few generalities may be hazarded. First of all, the graphic novel is not just like the old Classics Illustrated series, an illustrated version of something else. It is its own thing: an integrated whole, of words and images both, where the pictures don't just depict the story; they're part of the telling.

In certain ways, graphic novels are an almost primitive medium and require a huge amount of manual labor: drawing, inking, coloring and lettering, most of it done by hand (though a few artists have begun to experiment with computer drawing). It's as if a traditional novelist took his printout and then had to copy it over, word by word, like a quill-wielding monk in a medieval monastery. For some graphic novelists, just four or five panels is a good day's work, and even a modest-size book can take years to complete.

Like a lot of graphic novelists, Marjane Satrapi begins with a prose script and then begins to sketch it out, lightly and loosely, in pencil. "When I've done that, then in my brain my book is finished," she said from Paris, where she lives now. "The problem is that only I know what it looks like. For you to see it, then I have to drudge. It's a very, very long process."

Such labor demands a certain obsessional personality and sometimes results in obsessional storytelling. What all graphic novelists aspire to, however -- whether they start with words or with an image or two -- is a sense of motion, of action unfolding in the blank spaces between their stop-action frames. They spend a lot of time thinking about how the panels are arranged and the number of panels it takes (or doesn't) to depict a given amount of narrative. Most of these effects are meant to work on us, the readers, almost subconsciously, but they require a certain effort nonetheless. You have to be able to read and look at the same time, a trick not easily mastered, especially if you're someone who is used to reading fast. Graphic novels, or the good ones anyway, are virtually unskimmable. And until you get the hang of their particular rhythm and way of storytelling, they may require more, not less, concentration than traditional books.

he graphic novel -- unlike the more traditional part of the comic-book universe now being celebrated by fiction writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem -- is a place where superheroes have for the most part been banished or where, as in "Jimmy Corrigan" and "David Boring," they exist only as wistful emblems of a lost
childhood. There is also little of that in-your-face, cinematic drawing style developed by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and other pioneers of the action comic. Most of the better graphic novelists consciously strive for a simple, pared-down style and avoid tricky angles and perspectives.

The graphic novel is a man's world, by and large, though there are several important female artists (not just Satrapi, but also Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet and Debbie Drechsler). And to a considerable extent it is a place of longing, loss, sexual frustration, loneliness and alienation -- a landscape very similar, in other words, to that of so much prose fiction.

A number of graphic novels are set in a kind of nostalgialand, like Ben Katchor's mythic, time-warped Lower East Side or the mid-50's small-town Canada of the artist who goes by the name Seth (his real name is Gregory Gallant). Many more are set in the slacker world -- the skanky Washington Heights neighborhood of Doucet's "My New York Diary," the coffee-shop Portland and East Village sublet of "David Chelsea in Love," the diners, card shops and apartment complexes of Adrian Tomine's West Coast -- where people are always hooking up and breaking up and feeling both shy and lousy. It's the pictorial equivalent of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity."

A considerable percentage of the new graphic novels are frankly autobiographical. They are about people who are, or who are trying to be, graphic novelists, and they all follow, or implicitly refer to, a kind of ur-narrative, which upon examination proves to be, with small variations, the real-life story of almost everyone who goes into this line of work.

As most graphic novelists themselves will gladly tell you, you have to be a bit of a weirdo to want to purse this odd and solitary art form. Julie Doucet, one of the most promising of the younger graphic novelists, found the life so hard that she flat out quit. "It was killing me," she said over the phone from her studio in Montreal. "Trying to make a living from it -- I could never stop, never have a break. I was doing it all the time."

For those who do stick with it, the career of the graphic novelist can seem less a choice than a compulsion. The process of becoming one goes something like this: First there's a conversion moment, which happens at a remarkably young age, usually when the artist is still in grammar school. To put it simply, he falls in love with a comic strip -- fairly often it's "Peanuts" -- and then with comics in general. Soon he's copying them, and then he's generating his own. In high school, where this artist, a nerd, most likely, and an outcast, is unrecognized for the talent he is, cartooning becomes a refuge, a way to work out revenge fantasies and occasionally even a modest claim to fame.

More of the same in college or art school -- if he even bothers with formal training. Cartooning is now an obsession, a visual diary in which the artist records every detail of his personal life, with a special emphasis on his sexual fantasies and his usually excessive masturbation, and then at some point, if he is lucky, he figures out how to turn all this rage and depression and thwarted energy, all those pages and pages of sketches and drawings, into storytelling, into a portrait of the artist as a young man. The benign version of this progress is Chester Brown's sweet and innocent-seeming novels "Playboy" and "I Never Liked You"; the dark, self-loathing, porn-addicted and parodic version is Joe Matt's "Poor Bastard," which was recently optioned by HBO.

If some of this sounds familiar, it is because it is also the story of R. Crumb, so memorably laid out in Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary, wherein we learn that Crumb grew up not just in your basic unhappy family but in a spectacularly dysfunctional one, and that as a child he was sexually aroused by Bugs Bunny. Crumb dominates the brief history of the graphic novel the way Cimabue dominates Vasari's first volume of "Lives of the Artists" -- as both an inescapable stylistic influence and a kind of moral exemplar. (Crumb is now 60 and lives in the south of France.) Almost every aspiring graphic novelist now goes through a Crumb period, and some never entirely outgrow it: the cross-hatched line and bare light bulbs; the big feet, knobby knees, hairy legs and whiskery faces; the big breasts and even bigger behinds; the flying drops of perspiration (and other bodily fluids). It's a style as recognizable in its way, and as powerful, as Goya's or Brueghel's. Equally powerful is Crumb's example as someone who takes comics seriously as a form of self-_expression and is unafraid to pour everything of himself into them. "Without Crumb, I really, honestly, think comics would have come to an end," Chris Ware says. "I think we all have his voice in our minds: 'You really want to do that? Are you sure you really want to do that?'"

The other overwhelming figure is Art Spiegelman, who to the comics world is a Michelangelo and a Medici both, an influential artist who is also an impresario and an enabler of others. As one publisher told me, "Art is just as important as he thinks he is." He, too, fits the Crumb paradigm: childhood fascination with comics (in his case with "Inside Mad," a paperback Mad Magazine anthology that he persuaded his mother to buy for him when he was 7), precocious development (as a teenager he was drawing for his weekly paper in Rego Park, Queens, and publishing his own magazine, Blase) and deep immersion in the history and lore of comics. He had another asset: a case of uncorrectable ambylopia, or lazy eye, that makes if difficult for him to see in three dimensions. ("So cartoons really did seem real to me," he says. "Maybe more real.") After dropping out of SUNY Binghamton, he went to work for the Topps bubble-gum company, of all places, which had a small art and design department. If you are a parent of a certain age -- or the offspring of such a parent -- you have Art Spiegelman to thank for Wacky Packs and the Garbage Pail Kids.

Off and on, Spiegelman was with Topps for 20 years, but all the while he was working on his own comics. He went through the obligatory Crumb phase and then, under the influence of some obscure experimental filmmakers, found himself more and more interested in formal and technical issues. His strip "Ace Hole, Midget Detective" was a noir detective parody deliberately designed to unravel; "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" was a one-page piece in which almost nothing happens. At this point, Spiegelman says, he was on a path that led to becoming a gallery artist. Instead, he changed direction and set about trying to tell a story.

The result was the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus," originally a three-page strip in a comics anthology called "Funny Aminals" (sic) but ultimately a two-volume story about Spiegelman's relationship with his father and his father's experiences at Auschwitz. "Maus" draws on a lot of Spiegelman's structural experiments and incorporates a number of subtle design elements, like having the shadow of a swastika fall almost undetectably across a page, but its great innovation -- unmatched and possibly unmatchable -- was in its combination of style and subject. Somehow the old cartoon vocabulary -- the familiar imagery of cats and mice -- made the Holocaust bearable and approachable, strange and yet familiar. It would be almost impossible to overstate the influence of "Maus" among other artists. Marjane Satrapi, for example, says that it was "Maus" that opened her eyes to the possibilities of the graphic novel -- that in effect created her as an artist -- and the same is true for many others.

Installments of "Maus" began appearing in the early 80's in a magazine owned and published by Spiegelman. This was Raw, which he founded in 1980 with his wife, Francoise Mouly (who is now the art editor of The New Yorker), and which is his other great gift to graphic novelists. Raw was originally meant to be a one-timer, a showcase for all the art that, with the collapse of underground comics a few years earlier (owing mostly to a legal crackdown on stores selling drug paraphernalia), had no other outlet. The first issue sold out, and subsequent issues kept rising "phoenixlike," Spiegelman says. "We finally decided to make it a biannual, because we weren't sure whether that meant twice a year or every other year."

Raw came out until 1991, published from Spiegelman's studio, a loft in SoHo that is also a kind of haphazard museum of comic-strip history and memorabilia, and it helped revive the careers of some older artists, veterans of the underground period, and showcased the work of many more new ones, most of whom found their calling and their inspiration from studying its pages.

Spiegelman, 56, has been such an ambassador for comics over the years -- lecturing, promoting, writing articles -- that to some extent his own productivity has suffered. His first solo comic book since "Maus," called "In the Shadow of No Towers," comes out in September, and for much of the spring he was happily working on the proofs in his cluttered and smoke-hazed studio. (Like the old-time comic-strip artists, Spiegelman is an unapologetic chain smoker, a genuine two-pack-a-day man.)

"In the Shadow" is a collection of broadsides he began publishing after the attack on the World Trade Center, just blocks away from where he lives. The broadsides are designed in the fashion of old newspaper funny pages, and they incorporate some of that old funny-page storytelling. (When Spiegelman wants to show himself and Francoise quarreling, for example, he draws it in the style of a Maggie and Jiggs strip; there are also allusions to the Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy Kat and Happy Hooligan.) An unhinged Spiegelman is a major character -- paranoid, unshaven, a butt always in his mouth -- and eventually he suffers a kind of nervous breakdown, convinced that the world is about to end any minute.

Many of these broadsides were so politically charged and so stridently opposed to the Bush administration that mainstream American papers were reluctant to print them; they appeared mostly in England and in Germany. Spiegelman has put them all together now in a big album-size book, along with several full-size reproductions of old comic-supplement pages, and the result, he says he hopes, is a kind of palimpsest in which the layers reflect and comment on each other, in which world history and personal history collide.

The book is also, inevitably, a working diagram of Spiegelman's own feverish, hyperactive imagination -- a place in which comics and reality, present and past, are all but indistinguishable. He works on two desks, side by side, one 19th-century, as he likes to say, and one 21st. The first is an old-fashioned drafting table, and the second is a computer; in between, there is a scanner. He can sketch something by hand and then refine it on the screen, or do it the other way around. By the time he is finished with a piece, he says, he can no longer tell the difference between what is computerized and what has been done by hand.

By general agreement, Chris Ware, 36, and Daniel Clowes, 43, are Spiegelman's two most important discoveries. Clowes, who fits the classic profile (broken home, comics obsession, friendless, dateless adolescence), is the author of, among other works, ''David Boring,'' an unsummarizable novel in which a dweebish guy's fetish for big-bottomed women leads to his being shot twice, and the better-known ''Ghost World,'' about two punkish high-school girls trying to cling to friendship even as the onset of sex and adult responsibility seems to drive them apart. ''Ghost World'' the graphic novel is even better than ''Ghost World'' the movie. The dialogue (the best parts of which are unprintable here) has a Salingeresque poignancy, and the artwork is washed in a bluish-green tint that suggests a TV on the blink -- exactly right for these lives in which much of the color has been drained by a crippling irony and hyper self-awareness.

Ware (abandoned by father, snubbed by classmates, discovered comics in grandmother's basement) is best known for ''Jimmy Corrigan,'' easily the most beautiful and most complicated of all the new graphic novels. The story of a sad-sack 36-year-old Chicagoan (''a lonely, emotionally impaired human castaway,'' as he calls himself) who is briefly reunited with a father he has never seen before, ''Jimmy Corrigan'' is laid out in wide, delicately colored pages in which the panels are sometimes large and painterly and sometimes resemble circuit diagrams. There are dream sequences, flashbacks (especially to the Chicago 1893 Columbian Exposition and the domed pavilions), and even home-assembly projects -- models of a farmhouse and an old-fashioned zoetrope to be cut out and pasted together. Some pages are crammed with information; in others, nothing happens except the passage of time, quietly punctuated by a little cough or a sigh.

Ware lives with his wife, a teacher, just outside Chicago in a small stucco house that is itself a little Corriganesque. There is a tiny upstairs studio overlooking the yard; in other rooms, there are a piano, some banjos, an old-fashioned Victrola and a collection of Edison cylinder recordings. (Ware is an old-music enthusiast, and in his spare time he edits and produces a magazine called The Rag-Time Ephemeralist.) I went there to see him recently, and as it happens, the artist known as Seth was visiting for the weekend from Guelph, Ontario.

They both resembled their characters a little. Ware is a taller, handsomer version of the bullet-headed Jimmy Corrigan. Seth, 41, looks like a zootier version of the fedora-wearing protagonist of his novel ''It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken,'' about a young man obsessed with old New Yorker cartoons. His hair is brilliantined and swept back; his glasses are old-fashioned black horn rims. Even though it was a warm Saturday in May, he was wearing a suit and tie, and when we went out for a late lunch, he put on a topcoat, fedora and a pair of leather gloves.

They were spending the day doing what graphic novelists apparently always do whenever they get together -- talking about graphic novels. Ware, even though he is more successful and esteemed than just about any of his peers (his work has been shown at the Whitney Biennial, and he is the subject of a scholarly monograph coming from Yale University Press this fall), occasionally sounded like Samuel Beckett's idea of a graphic novelist. ''This is just an incredibly inefficient way to tell a story,'' he said, and he explained that earlier in the week he had been working on a strip in which he had decided there could be no narration. ''It involved maybe 8 to 10 seconds of actual narrative time,'' he said. ''But it took me three days to do it, of 12 hours a day. And I'm thinking any writer would go through this passage in eight minutes of work. And I think: Why am I doing this? Is the payoff to have the illusion of something actually happening before your eyes really worth it? I find it's a constant struggle and a source of great pain for me, especially the last day when I'm inking the strip. I think, Why, why am I doing this? Whole years go by now that I can barely account for. I'm not even being facetious.''

Seth nodded and returned to an earlier theme of his -- the idea that cartooning is something the artist gets ''tricked'' into. ''I think the impulse to cartooning comes as a compensation when you're young for the fact that you're unhappy,'' he explained. ''So you start cartooning to create a fantasy world. That impulse is what makes you draw, and for me it made me draw enough that by the time I was in my 20's, I was tricked into being a cartoonist. It was too late then to start anything else.''

But maybe because they were only talking, not working, they didn't seem all that glum, and they went on enthusiastically about the subject that seems to preoccupy all graphic novelists -- their ''rhythm,'' or the way their panels work on the page.

''It's like music,'' Ware said. He explained that when he is working, he first does quick sketches of what each panel should be like. ''I never think of it as words,'' he said. ''It's individual pictures, and it feels like a memory. When I think about it, it replays itself in my mind over and over, almost like a little melody or something. As I'm working on it, I'll read through the strip hundreds of times. It's like I'm writing a piece of music, and I'll keep playing it over and over in my head. And I'll realize that that didn't sound right or that didn't feel right or that's insincere or that movement seems staged or acted somehow. So I'll have to add or subdivide or do something. And then all of a sudden, it will click, and it will seem like a real thing happening.''

''It's the medium we're stuck with,'' Seth said, ''even if it seems a completely inappropriate medium to have chosen to tell a serious story.'' He thought for a second and added, ''Though it's probably a less wildly inappropriate medium than it was 10 years ago'' -- by which he meant that now, at least, it's possible for a graphic novelist to make a living.

Joe Sacco's name came up while I was in Chicago, and Seth said: ''He's definitely an oddball cartoonist, because he has very excellent social skills. He goes out into the world and deals with people. In fact, of all the cartoonists I know, when I'm around Joe I get the least impression that he read all this junk as a kid. He seems relatively free from all that genre material.''

This is only partly true. Sacco, who is now 43 and in person much better looking than the geeky guy with the big lips and the blank eyes who is his comic-book stand-in, was born on Malta and spent the early part of his childhood in Australia. He wallowed in plenty of comics there, and when he moved to this country at the age of 12, he became an instant convert to Mad magazine. Later, he went through a serious Crumb phase, drawing strips like ''Oliver Limpdingle's Search for Love,'' which is pretty much summed up by its title. For a while, Sacco even drew romance comics.

But in high school and again in college (the University of Oregon at Eugene), he was popular, well adjusted and a good student. His passion in those days was journalism, and he settled on cartooning only after failing to find a decent job doing anything else. In the mid-80's, he worked briefly as a reporter for The Comics Journal, a magazine that covers the comics world, and that experience emboldened him to show the editor, Gary Groth, an epic Vietnam comic he had been working on. ''Gary pretty much destroyed my hopes for it,'' Sacco
says now. ''At that point, I decided I should learn how to write a one-page story.'' Eventually he had enough of them for a comic book, and they were published by Fantagraphics in a six-installment series called ''Yahoo.''

Sacco's real breakthrough came in 1988, when he accompanied some friends of his, a rock band called the Miracle Workers, on a European tour. ''In some ways, I started behaving journalistically again,'' he recalls. ''I began taking notes and writing down every word people said.'' ''In the Company of Long Hair,'' a journal of the trip in comics form that appeared as part of the ''Yahoo'' series in 1989, marked the first appearance of the familiar big-lipped Sacco figure (though in this version he still has shoulder-length locks, not the buzz cut that turns up later), who is sometimes taking part in the action but more often just observing it, and of the familiar Sacco method, which is to use a cartoon style to document something that actually happened.

He refined this technique with ''More Women, More Children, More Quickly,'' a story told from his mother's point of view about the Italian and German bombing raids on Malta during World War II that required him to interview her and to recreate historical settings and events. ''Palestine,'' Sacco's account of several trips he made to Palestinian towns and refugee camps in the West Bank, was what first brought him a wider audience and serious attention in 1995. But his masterpiece is ''Safe Area Gorazde,'' which came out in 2000 and recounts four trips Sacco made to Gorazde, a U.N.-designated safe area during the Bosnian war, where the mainly Muslim population endured three and a half years of siege by the Bosnian Serbs.

Sacco (who has done journalistic comics for this magazine) claims not to have a conscious style; his work, he says, is a ''combination of knowledge and limitation.'' But his pages have become less and less cartoonish over the years -- to the point where they now verge on a kind of realism, especially when depicting interiors and street scenes. This is partly accidental (Sacco studied mechanical drawing in school and says that he draws buildings and vehicles more easily than people) and partly the result of a reportorial passion for accuracy. Most graphic novelists keep sketchbooks; Sacco takes photographs and tape-records his interviews. His work subtly employs certain comic-book conventions -- for example, in showing emotion (facial expressions are often slightly exaggerated) or in structuring a narrative. (In a chapter of ''Safe Area Gorazde'' describing a
character's arduous trek through a forest, he deliberately draws the figure walking left -- against the traditional flow of a comics page -- to create a sense of slowness and difficulty.) At the same time, there's a documentary quality to books like ''Palestine'' and ''Safe Area Gorazde'' that is often more effective and affecting than ''real'' documentary. His scenes never seem stagy, the way filmed ''recreations'' so often do, and his people, verging ever so slightly on caricature, have an immediacy that talking heads on a screen seldom achieve.

Sacco typically spends weeks indexing and cross-referencing his notes and then writes out an entire story before starting to draw. ''I think you have to do it that way for nonfiction,'' he says. ''You have to be systematic. You can have a fictional character grow on the page and kind of lead you around, but that won't work for what I'm doing. I want to be a window on something.'' Sacco is currently working on another Palestinian project, a book about the town of Rafah, which he expects will take several years to finish, but he
thinks about someday returning to made-up stories. ''I'm not sure I'll be able to keep doing this,'' he said. ''All the traveling, all that extra work. There was a point a couple of years ago, just after 'Gorazde' came out, when if it hadn't done well, I think I might have folded. You can't eat on just good reviews. And now I sometimes ask myself, When I'm 60, do I still want to be traipsing around refugee camps?''

One solution to the drudgery of cartooning is to get others to do it for you. Companies like Marvel and D.C. essentially produce comics on an assembly line: one person thinks up the story, someone else draws it, another inks it, yet another colors it and so on. Most graphic novelists tend to be dismissive of such products, but a couple of people have emerged from the factory system and attained something like auteur status -- as writers whose comics are worth paying attention to no matter who draws them. Neil Gaiman, creator of the enormously successful ''Sandman'' series, is one such figure; another is Alan Moore, creator of ''Watchmen,'' ''From Hell'' (a story about Jack the Ripper) and ''The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.''

Moore, who is 50, looks like a comic-book character. He has a long beard, shoulder-length hair and likes to dress in black. He also dabbles a little in the occult. Moore lives alone in Northampton, England, where he was born and grew up, and is a famous recluse. ''I'm a stranger to the other end of the living room,'' he likes to say. Moore actually draws perfectly well. (His early strips, like ''Roscoe Moscow,'' a detective parody, are more than passable Crumb knockoffs.) But in the early 80's, when he was a young man struggling to support himself, a wife and a baby, he realized that he couldn't draw fast enough to keep up with his deadlines. He decided to become a writer instead and began sending out scripts on spec.

From the beginning, Moore's scripts were extraordinarily detailed, not just plot summaries but panel-by-panel blueprints, and this made the artist's job much easier. Here, for example, is the script for just a single panel from an unpublished work called ''Belly of Cloud'':


Moore is a tireless researcher; when he took over the moribund ''Swamp Thing'' series from D.C. in the early 80's, he read botany books, listened to Cajun music and studied the geography and ecology of the Louisiana bayous. Of all the graphic novelists, in fact, Moore may have the purest and most inventive literary imagination. He also writes poetry and has published a novel (the old-fashioned kind, without pictures). His ''League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,'' which is far more interesting than you would ever guess from the movie, is an extremely clever literary pastiche of Victorian England in which all the characters (even the prime minister, Plantagenet Palliser) are taken from other Victorian novels -- Bram Stoker's ''Dracula,'' H.G. Wells's ''Invisible Man,'' Stevenson's ''Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'' and Jules Verne's ''20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,'' to name just the most obvious. Right now, he is working on a pornographic graphic novel, ''Lost Girls,'' in which the main characters are the Alice of ''Through the Looking Glass,'' now known as Lady Fairchild and a laudanum-addicted lesbian; the slightly repressed Mrs. Harold Potter, nee Wendy Darling, from ''Peter Pan''; and the randy Dorothy Gale, from ''The Wizard of Oz.''

Moore was kicked out of school at 17 for using and selling LSD. ''It was a fair cop,'' he says now, meaning that he deserved to be expelled. ''The headmaster called me a moral health hazard, and he was probably right.'' But the headmaster also took steps to make sure he couldn't get into any other school, and Moore, who says he is
still ''embittered by the entire educational system,'' became a fierce and ambitious autodidact.

Part of his education was comic books, at first black-and-white English ones (which he says ''were just something we had, like rickets'') until, in the early 60's, at an open-air market, he came across full-color American comics. ''I related to them very strongly,'' he says. ''They were about America, which seemed to me to be like the future, like science fiction. Even without those fantastic characters, the whole country seemed to me an exotic landscape, like the Emerald City, and those comics lifted me right out of the streets I grew up in.''

He added: ''We all live, you know, on a kind of fictional planet -- the place we have with us ever since we started listening to stories. We spend a lot of time in these imaginary worlds, and we get to know them better than the real locations we pass on the street every day. I think they play a more important part in our shaping of the world than we realize. Hitler, for example -- we know he read a lot of Bulwer-Lytton. Osama bin Laden used to read quite a lot of Western science fiction. That's why comics feel important to me. They're immense fun as a game, but there's also something more serious going on.''

How good are graphic novels, really? Are these truly what our great-grandchildren will be reading, instead of books without pictures? Hard to say. Some of them are much better than others, obviously, but this is true of books of any kind. And the form is better-suited to certain themes and kinds of expression than others. One thing the graphic novel can do particularly well, for example, is depict the passage of time, slow or fast or both at once -- something the traditional novel can approximate only with empty space. The graphic novel can make the familiar look new. The autobiographical hero of Craig Thompson's ''Blankets,'' a guilt-ridden teenager falling in love for the first time, would be insufferably predictable in a prose narrative; here, he has an innocent sweetness.

The graphic novel is also good at depicting blankness and anomie. This is a strength of Daniel Clowes's, and also of 30-year-old Adrian Tomine, who may, incidentally, be the best prose writer of the bunch. (He became an English major at the University of California, Berkeley, because the art department had no use for representation, let alone comics.) His young people, falling in and out of relationships, paralyzed by shyness and self-consciousness, might be unendurable if depicted in prose alone. Why would we care? But in Tomine's precisely rendered drawings (which owe something to Clowes, something to the Hernandez brothers and maybe even a tiny debt to the painter Alex Katz) they take on a certain dignity and individuality.

The graphic novel is great for stories of spookiness and paranoia, as in David Mazzucchelli's graphic adaptation of Paul Auster's novella, "City of Glass," where the panels themselves become confining and claustrophobic, or in Charles Burns's creepy "Black Hole," a story about a plague spread by sexually active teenagers. ("Black Hole" is still unfinished, and some graphic artists talk about it the way people talked about "Ulysses" back when it was appearing in installments.) And of course, drawing as it does on the long tradition of comic and satiric art, the graphic novel can be very funny.

In fact, the genre's greatest strength and greatest weakness is that no matter how far the graphic novel verges toward realism, its basic idiom is always a little, well, cartoonish. Sacco's example notwithstanding, this is a medium probably not well suited to lyricism or strong emotion, and (again, Sacco excepted) the very best graphic novels don't take themselves entirely seriously. They appeal to that childish part of ourselves that delights in caricature, and they rely on the magic, familiar but always a little startling, that reliably turns some lines, dots and squiggles into a face or a figure. It's a trick of sorts, but one that never wears out.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Dear Sir: The letter is back
By Michael Kanellos

A medium of communication is rapidly gaining popularity in the upper echelons of corporate America.

It's called letter writing.

Derided as snail mail, letters appear to be making a comeback, thanks in part to spam, viruses and other plagues of computing and communications.

Aceva Technologies, which makes financial management and invoicing software for large corporations, has landed deals with various Fortune 1000 companies that began with paper correspondence, Chief Operating Officer Sanjay Srivastava said. On the other side, Sue Sadler, a director in the information technology department at Honeywell in the United States, admits she is more receptive to well-crafted letter pitches than to other types of communication.

"I get 800 e-mails a day," Sadler said.

A corporate headhunter told me that one of his favorite techniques for nabbing a new client is to write a personal, handwritten letter to the potential job candidate. More often than not, the prospective candidates at least reply.

Even Bill Clinton reportedly wrote the 900-plus-page memoir of his presidency with a pen, an idea he may have come up with when Hillary banished him to the couch during the Lewinsky scandal and he presumably didn't have access to a computer. (Who knew the White House had a den?)

The working world, of course, was supposed to graduate from paper by now, just as the clay tablet industry took a dive with the invention of papyrus. Compared with e-mail, paper harbors a lot of disadvantages. It takes up space, needs filing cabinets, rips and gets lost. Getting everyone's feedback on a proposal requires shuffling around the office with a tattered piece of paper with scrawled initials and coffee rings.

In almost any situation, creating, distributing and/or sending a paper message costs a lot more.

Free and fast communication, though, has its problems. Because the cost of e-mail is so low, spammers only need one in 1,000 recipients to respond to their pitches. Measurement site SenderBase has estimated that 665 million e-mails a day come from domains at cable giant Comcast, which has been highlighted as a source of spam. Another 2.3 billion messages daily come out of the top 10 domains. The deluge of spam has in turn led to the problem of people throwing out messages they really want.

Most important, the cultural conventions of electronic communication have yet to be established. Security leaks and embarrasing disclosures have become far more common with the growth of e-mail.

Instant messaging is even more primitive. Most users tend to think of it as "instant response," where a reply should come fast, or else.

Letter writing, though, requires skill. Aceva's Srivastava said he first studies a potential customer carefully. He then writes a letter that begins by analyzing the company's recent financial performance and goes on to identify how much more revenue it would have garnered in the most recent quarter had it installed Aceva's invoicing software.

The same principle of studying the target works in public relations pitches. If a PR agent called me up, for instance, on a story about dual universal asynchronous receiver/transmitters with inter-IC bus support, I wouldn't know what to do with it. It's a foreign language. On the other hand, if you claim your client has a novel solution for high-k gate dielectrics, I will likely exclaim, "Vile temptress! Your siren song calls me. I will take briefing."

Letter writers also have to figure out how to get the recipient to open the envelope. The corporate headhunter explained that he introduces himself through letters, as opposed to phone calls or e-mails, because a lot of executives take their mail home and read it on the weekend. This means he can sneak by the filter of the administrative assistant.

Writing correspondence in longhand further helps it stand out from the mass of mail. Executive vice presidents of marketing, after all, don't get many fan letters, so that handwritten envelope will be intriguing.

If the trend toward letter writing grows, maybe other 19th-century conventions will return. In the near future, corporations could start to place footmen in the lobby with silver trays for visitors to place their calling cards in. "Tell the Canon copier representatives to leave. I have the vapors and am not taking visitors," office jockeys may someday reply. We might even see the return of the three-martini lunch--or even lunch itself.

If you have any thoughts on the matter, do write in.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Filipino reported kidnapped in Iraq
Manila halts deployment, will decide 'shortly' on response

A man identified as Hafidh Amer, a Filipino, was shown Wednesday in this videotape from Al-Jazeera television.
NBC News and news services
Updated: 9:46 p.m. ET July 07, 2004The Philippine government will hold a cabinet meeting to decide its response to the apparent abduction of a Filipino man by gunmen in Iraq, the presidential spokesman said Thursday.

"We expect to come up with a decision very shortly," Ignacio Bunye, spokesman for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said on local television.

The statement from Arroyo came after armed Iraqi insurgents threatened to kill a Filipino hostage if his country did not withdraw from Iraq, according to a videotape broadcast on Wednesday. The Philippine government responded hours later by ordering a halt to further deployment.

Word of the apparent abduction — as well as the reported kidnapping of an Egyptian man who was not threatened with death — came as FBI agents visited the home of a U.S. Marine who vanished in Iraq more than two weeks ago, and opened a criminal investigation into the possibility that his disappearance was a hoax, defense officials told NBC News.

The videotape broadcast by Al-Jazeera, the Arabic television station that has been a frequent outlet for kidnappers' threats, showed three armed men standing behind the seated hostage. They stood before an Arabic banner behind them that read the "Iraqi Islamic Army — Khaled bin al-Waleed corps," a previously unknown group.

The name Khaled bin al-Waleed is that of one of the military commanders of Islam's prophet, Muhammad. The prophet gave al-Waleed the title "Sword of Islam."

Identity card shown
Neither Al-Jazeera nor the video identified the hostage, but the network said the group claimed that it had already killed an Iraqi security guard accompanying the man, who it said was employed by a Saudi company working with U.S. forces.

The footage shows an identity card that an Al-Jazeera staffer in Qatar later told The Associated Press belonged to the slain Iraqi guard. The card, issued by Al-Ghadeer Security Service, bore the name Hafidh Amer, identified as a security guard. The footage also showed a weapons authorization card with the same name.

Al-Jazeera said the group had offered to release the hostage if his government withdrew its troops from Iraq within 72 hours.

Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for the network, said the channel received the videotape Wednesday. It did not say how the group kidnapped Amer, nor did it give his occupation.

The Philippines has 51 soldiers, police officers and health workers in the multinational force in Iraq. In addition, about 4,100 Filipinos are working at U.S. military bases in Iraq as cooks and maintenance technicians.

Egyptian man also reportedly abducted
Earlier, Al-Jazeera showed videotape it identified as that of an Egyptian man who it said had been delivering gasoline to the U.S. military.

The unnamed group said it represented the "legitimate Iraqi resistance." Its videotape showed four armed men standing behind the seated hostage, who was identified as Sayed Mohammed Sayed al-Arabawi.

Al-Jazeera said al-Arabawi was seized while driving a gasoline truck from Saudi Arabia, but it did not give any details about the group’s demands. The Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad said it had no information about the hostage.

NBC's Paul Nasser in Tripoli, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Secrets of a low-maintenance gal
By Laura J. Schaefer

Much in the same way that a car can be high-maintenance, a significant other can be a lot of work, too. In place of a daily quart of oil, this person might need constant reassurance or all salad dressing "on the side." Being high-maintenance isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you want to get all the way across the country in the road trip of life, you're going to pick the car that can go a few days without a curling iron. Mixed metaphors aside, the point is that low-maintenance ladies have more fun. Let your inner drama queen go, and land a great guy the laid-back way:

1. Stop worrying about your hair
The simpler the style, the faster you'll be able to get out of the house and into some adventures. Grow it out and throw it into a ponytail or cut it super short and let it air dry for maximum freedom.

2. Buy some comfortable shoes
The couples that play together stay together. And to a lot of men, a respectable pair of hiking boots or golf shoes is just as alluring as a pair of precarious stilettos.

3. Learn to laugh at yourself
Being low-maintenance often means being able to bounce back quickly from life's little faux pas. A gal that can giggle at her own foibles comes across as confident, fun to be around and less likely to fall apart when someone else makes a mistake.

4. Take it easy with the special orders
Chances are, the chef might actually know more about food than you. Designing your own entrée every time you enter a restaurant and tasting multiple vintages before settling on a glass of wine isn't impressive, it's annoying.

5. Take care of your own self-esteem
Don't leave it to a man to constantly tell you how great you are. Find out on your own by tackling new challenges or learning new skills. Cultivate strong friendships and family relationships so that he never becomes your only cheerleader. You know you're gorgeous.

6. Be okay with solitude
Even the tightest couples need — and thrive on — some time apart. A low-maintenance gal is okay with the occasional guys' night out because she can't wait to spend a quiet evening in the tub with a good book.

7. Stop making your relationship the main topic of conversation
Sure, every girl wants to know where things are going and how her man is feeling, but bringing up the state of the union every week is like making him go shoe shopping with you on a regular basis.

8. Stop asking, "What are you thinking about?"
Chances are, nothing interesting. Let him keep his thoughts to himself. You'll free up your own mind for musings on the finer points of string theory .... or whatever else it is you like to ponder.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Old soldier found long lost comrade - next door

Two soldiers who thought each other had died in a bloody Second World War battle 60 years ago have discovered they are next-door neighbours.

Gilbert Fogg, 80, thought there was something familiar about his neighbour when he moved into a new retirement bungalow in Nettleham, near Lincoln.

But he couldn't believe it when he discovered the man was Tom Parker, 82, reports the Daily Mirror.

Sixty years ago they had fought shoulder-to-shoulder in some of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War.

Last time they saw each other was in a trench at the infamous battle of Anzio in Italy. Both left that battlefield on stretchers, each assuming the other was dead.

Gilbert adds: "I asked my brother, who lives here, and he knew just that he was called Tom. He didn't know the surname. But I did. It was Tom Parker. My God, it was Tom Parker! I felt like someone had punched me.

"I asked him to come in and show me how the electrics in my house worked - but that was just an excuse. I wanted to see him up close, to be sure.

"When he was in my house I looked him in the eye and said: "Tom Parker, do you know who I am?" He looked at me and said: "No." I said: "Have you ever met anyone called Gilly?"

"Well, he staggered. He put his arm up to his face and he leant on the wall. He just said: "Oh Gilly, Gilly. I thought you were bloody dead".

"He stood like that for ever such a long time. Then we started talking, and once we started, we couldn't stop."

Amsterdam too Ruud for stag night

Ruud Van Nistelrooy has snubbed a wild stag night in Amsterdam's red light district for a quiet meal with his parents.

The Dutch striker's Manchester United pals wanted to take him on a wild night out in the city, reports The Sun.

But he has turned them down and has opted instead to go for a meal with his parents and future in-laws.

Ruud, 27, ties the knot with 24-year-old Leontien Flaatf a week on Saturday in the Dutch village of Geffen.

His teammates, including Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt, wanted to take Ruud for the lads' night out next week.

A pal of 27-year old Ruud said: "All the lads wanted to see him off in the traditional way with plenty of wine, women and song. To be honest it's not really his scene."

'Worthless' painting could be worth £35m

A Norwegian art dealer who snapped up a painting because he liked the frame has been told it could be worth £35 million.

Reidar Osen bought the painting only because he wanted the frame for another picture.

He bought the portrait of a woman 23 years ago and was shocked when a visiting American art dealer noticed it and offered him millions for it.

Osen said he had always considered the painting pleasant, but "worthless" but now he's learned it could be a 400-year-old Italian masterpiece.

The US dealer says the painting is a copy of the famous female portrait Flora painted by Italian master Tizian between 1515 and 1520.

Tizian, who lived between 1488 and 1576, is considered one of the most important representatives of the Venetian Renaissance period.

First tests on the painting have shown that it is about 400 years old and Mr Osen is hoping it turns out to be a duplicate of the Flora created in Titzian's own workshop.

Jesus actor mistaken for the real deal

James Caviezel has been swamped with requests to perform miracles by Mexican fans who believe he really is Jesus Christ.

The 35-year-old actor, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, was on a one-week tour of the east Mexican state of Veracruz.

According to Mexican newspaper Reforma, dozens of residents from villages throughout the state, one of the poorest in the country, asked Caviezel to heal the sick and perform other miracles as he passed through.

The actor, who is himself a strict Catholic, said: "The belief of these people really moved me.

"It was a shock for me to see how they came up to me to ask for my help. I had to explain to them that I was only an actor, and wasn't really the son of God."

Mexico has the biggest population of Catholics in the world after Brazil and has been visited by the Pope five times.

Depression: His and Hers

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then it makes sense that their experience with depression can also be worlds apart. What are the symptoms to watch for? How can depression affect your sex life? Find out here.

Men Get Angry, Not Sad
By Gina Shaw
WebMD Feature

Call them George and Jerry. The two commuter buddies rode the train to work together in southern California for years, trading office war stories, commiserating about the stock market, and handicapping the Lakers' fortunes. They thought they knew each other. But both men were stunned one day recently when they walked into a men's support group for depression and found each other there.

"They'd traveled together on the train for years and had never spoken a word about what was going on inside," says Fredric Rabinowitz, PhD, the University of Redlands psychologist who runs the men's group. "That's what goes on for a lot of men. They tend to downplay emotional distress to anyone on the outside."

But I Don't Feel Sad

Although studies show that depression is more than twice as prevalent in women as in men, some experts feel that men with depression may be seriously underdiagnosed. Why? Their symptoms aren't necessarily what we expect. "Some of us believe that men are just showing depression differently," says Rabinowitz, who with University of Iowa psychologist Sam Cochran has written Men and Depression and Deepening Psychotherapy With Men.

A study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in March 2002 even suggests genetic differences between depression in men and women. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh identified 19 chromosomal regions linked to a type of major depressive disorder, but only three of them were significantly linked in both men and women. The other 16 were only linked to one sex.

Whatever the reason, men's symptoms of depression can be misleading, because they often don't involve crying or feeling sad. Frequently, male depression first shows up in physical symptoms, such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and sexual dysfunction. Other symptoms can include:

• Irritability, anger, and lashing out
• Substance abuse
• Inability to function at the office
• Interrupted sleep patterns

That sounds familiar to Steven Imparl. Nine years ago, the Chicago attorney and small businessman found himself increasingly moody, irritable, and unwilling to spend time with family and friends. When a therapist suggested depression, his reaction was typical: "What? Depressed? Me? No way." Despite his skepticism, Imparl agreed to try Zoloft, and after three months of medication and therapy, "I started to feel consistently better."

Anything but Depression

Now running a web-based support group for other men with depression,, Imparl talks to many men who feel exactly as he did: "Not depression. Anything but that."

He understands how they feel: Depression remains stereotyped as "not manly" in American culture, although icons such as home run king Mark McGwire talking openly about their therapy have helped reduce the stigma. "I still have trouble talking to others about it sometimes. It's perceived many times as a woman's disease, which keeps a lot of men out of treatment," Imparl says.

"The problem is that men don't come forward and discuss their depression as much as women do," says Melodie Morgan-Minott, MD, past president of the Ohio Psychiatric Association and an instructor in psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio University's College of Medicine. "Women are generally more expressive and more willing to acknowledge the suffering from depression."

That picture, however, is gradually changing. Morgan-Minott estimates that 30% of her patients are men, up from just 10% a few years ago.

Still, Rabinowitz says men have a long way to go in acknowledging depression. "A lot of men come into therapy coerced, unfortunately," he says. "A partner says, 'If you don't get help, I'm leaving.' Or the relationship has already blown up. Typically, it has to get pretty bad for a man to come in on his own."

Dangerous Denial

Reluctance to seek treatment can be dangerous, and even deadly. Men with depression commit suicide at much higher rates than women, although more women attempt it. And depression has been linked to heart problems -- men with depression are more than twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who are not depressive.

"Don't feel weak or ashamed of the condition. That's a trap we've all fallen into," says Imparl. "It holds us back from getting the help that we need. We feel like 'I should be able to do something about it.' Well, what I'm doing is taking charge of my condition. I'm seeking treatment, managing it effectively, and working with my doctor as part of a treatment team. That's doing something about it."

"When men go to therapy, they do as well as women," Rabinowitz says. "It's a safe place to be yourself. So the response rate to therapy and to medication is actually very good."

What should you do if some of the symptoms described before sound familiar, and you're concerned about depression?

• First, realize that depression is nothing to be ashamed of. It's nothing you've "done wrong." Scientists now believe that clinical depression stems from a combination of genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors, most of which you've had no control over.

• See your primary care doctor and describe your symptoms. "More and more primary care doctors are being trained to recognize symptoms of depression," says Morgan-Minott. Your doctor can either start treatment or refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist. Mention to him or her that you're wondering about depression.

• Consider both therapy and medication. "Typically men will go to their family physician privately and get an antidepressant. But without having therapy at the same time, some of the same patterns just continue," says Rabinowitz. Most current research indicates that while both antidepressant medications and therapy are effective in combating depression, the most potent treatment combines the two.

* * *

Women Face Twice the Risk as Men
By Gina Shaw
WebMD Feature

Depressed, or think you might be? You're not alone. Some 7 million women in the United States have clinical depression, according to the National Mental Health Association, and some researchers estimate that only one out of every three women with depression is properly diagnosed.

No matter where in the world they live, it appears that women are more affected by depression than men are. "In country after country, study after study, there's at least a twofold higher rate of depression in women compared to men," says Kimberly Yonkers, MD, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and director of the Premenstrual Syndrome and Peripartum Treatment Research Program at Yale. "What's more, studies on bipolar individuals indicate that men are more likely to be affected by mania and women by depression."

What's going on here? Why are so many women so depressed? Researchers theorize that women are at higher risk due to a combination of biological and genetic factors -- including the hormonal changes of menstruation, postpartum, and menopause -- as well as from the stresses from work, family responsibilities, and social roles.

The marked difference between men and women in diagnosed depression gets its start around puberty. Before adolescence, depression rates differ only slightly between boys and girls. But between the ages of 11 and 13, female rates of depression climb sharply, and by the age of 15, girls are twice as likely to have experienced a major depressive episode as boys. Female high school students have significantly higher rates of depression, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders.

But Yonkers thinks the roots of female depression can be found even earlier, traced in large part to anxiety. "The rate of anxiety in children is much higher in girls than in boys, and studies suggest that anxiety predisposes people to depression," she says. "If it's something psychosocial in how we rear our little girls, it's happening very early."

The Symptom Gender Gap

Although men and women may have many of the same symptoms when they're depressed, they're likely to perceive them differently. "Women are more likely to notice that they're more tired all the time. There may also be feelings of very low self-esteem, helplessness, and hopelessness. They may have trouble making decisions," says Melodie Morgan-Minott, MD, past president of the Ohio Psychiatric Association and an instructor in psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio University's College of Medicine.

"If a man identifies himself through his work, he'll notice it if he can't do his job properly. If he identifies himself through his sexuality, that'll come to his attention and bring him to the doctor," she tells WebMD. "Women, on the other hand, may notice that it takes them longer to get organized. Stay-at-home moms may find that the kids are getting to them more than they used to and that they don't have the patience they used to have."

Sometimes, women with depression may report a worsening of previous PMS symptoms. "In fact, it's a manifestation of depression which gets worse around the menstrual period," Morgan-Minott says. "It's also difficult when women are going through menopause, a lot of menopause symptoms and depression are confused, and depression is often intensified during menopause." Indeed, half of all women think depression is a normal part of aging and menopause -- one of a number of reasons they may not seek the treatment they need.

Other depression symptoms can include:

• A persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
• Sleeping too little, early morning awakening, or sleeping too much
• Reduced appetite and/or weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
• Restlessness, irritability
• Persistent physical symptoms that don't respond to treatment
• Thoughts of suicide or death

Although men are more reluctant to admit to depression than women, women may also feel stigmatized. Half of all women surveyed by the National Mental Health Association cite embarrassment or shame as barriers to treatment. "People still see it as some kind of weakness in moral character to be depressed, and I think that holds true for both men and women," Yonkers says.
This attitude isn't helped by the lingering perception of female depression as "just hormones." "Women previously have been dismissed as histrionic or hormonal, and now we know they're dealing with very real symptoms of depression," says Morgan-Minott.

Attributing depression to hormones has developed a negative, "anti-feminist" connotation, but it's also simple science. Depression is, at least in part, a function of brain chemistry, and fluctuations in hormone levels affect brain chemistry, although scientists are still studying exactly how that happens.

Who Gets Treated?

The good news for women is that, although they're more likely to be affected by depression than men, they're also more likely to get treated. "The detection rate is higher for women, and it's more likely that a woman with depression will leave a doctor's office with a prescription for treatment than men will," says Yonkers.

The best way to get that treatment, of course, is to seek it out. Women experiencing depressive symptoms for more than a few days should see their doctor for a referral to a mental health specialist.

"You may have an external stressor leading to depression, or you may have a genetic tendency to become depressed. You may be experiencing a change in biochemical levels such as serotonin and possibly norepinephrine," says Morgan-Minott.

She advises women to use all the therapeutic tools available to them -- medication and counseling. Most current research indicates that while both antidepressant medications and therapy are effective in combating depression, the most potent treatment combines the two.

* Originally published November 2002; Medically updated June 2004.

Tackling the topic of teen sex
Regardless of whether your kids are doing it, they need parental guidance

F.Birchman /
By Victoria Clayton


July 06, 2004Recent media reports about teen sexual activity undoubtedly have many parents concerned. Newspaper articles and TV segments have suggested that "hooking up" and having "friends with benefits" are disturbingly common behaviors among today's kids. (In case you aren't up on this terminology, "hooking up" is the new way to say "one-night stand." If the nights turn into a series but still no relationship, that's a "friend with benefits.")

Of course, sexual experimentation and sex without love aren't new. But the notion that a good many members of the barely-driving set appear to be engaging in these behaviors — and are often blasé about it — is alarming.

Experts say sexually explicit advertising and the barrage of "reality" TV shows with couples hooking up in front of millions of viewers doesn’t help, but they primarily blame the problem on the very thing you're staring at right now. Yep, the Internet.

"The Web is this generation's singles bar and discotheque, and it's open to all ages," explains Michael J. Basso, a public health advisor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and author of "The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality."

High-school students have their own versions of the dating sites so popular with adults. The sites make hook-ups fast, easy and often too tempting to resist.

A lot of hype?
Not that we should assume every kid is doing this, says Basso, who also spent eight years as a health and sexuality teacher at an inner-city Miami school. The majority of young people, he believes, are still muddling through life the old-fashioned way — finding girlfriends and boyfriends face-to-face, perhaps eventually experimenting with sex after having a relationship, really breaking up (as opposed to simply discovering you've been blocked from instant messaging someone) — and doing a swell job at it.

In fact, he says, at the same time teens are supposedly "hooking up" and having "friends with benefits" in droves, the latest data from the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggest that since 1991 the number of teens engaging in sexual intercourse has actually declined ever so slightly. So, is hooking up a real youth trend or is this a case of salacious media hype on a slow news day?

It hardly matters. The reason parents should be concerned isn't because hooking up is storming the nation. They should be concerned for the same reasons parents should've been concerned 20 or even 50 years ago, says Sheree Conrad, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

When it comes to sex, teens need — and have always needed — help from their parents. "Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents still never have a conversation with their kids about sex beyond maybe giving them information about reproductive biology," says Conrad.

But if you don't talk with your kids about it, you miss the opportunity to offer them useful information about sex as a healthy interaction between people. You also give them the implicit message that it's not OK to talk about sex. This creates apprehension, guilt and shame, according to Conrad. It also leaves them on their own, which means they may find themselves surfing the Net and getting involved in sex before they're ready.

Of course, the possible health consequences — an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy — are well documented. But there are other repercussions for your kids that aren't so obvious.

"The younger people are when they first have sex, the more likely they are to say 'it just happened' and the less likely it is to be a positive experience," explains Michael Milburn, also a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts.

Individuals whose first experience is negative report less-satisfying sex lives as adults and more cases of sexual dysfunction, according to Milburn, who is a co-author along with Conrad of "Sexual Intelligence."

Their research has also made this clear: Parents who discuss sex and set healthy relationship examples can spare their children much pain, confusion and fear.

Some other key points for parents:

Read a sex book. Adults don't like to admit they don't know enough about sex, but experts say this is often the case and it impedes their ability to speak about it with their children.

"When you don't know enough about any subject you'll lack the confidence to engage in a discussion with others," says Basso. "Getting the facts about sex, knowing the facts and being able to share them is vital. It gives you the confidence you need to initiate and engage in a discussion that you might otherwise not have had."

Books can also help guide parents on how and when to bring up sexual matters.

Discuss porn and other sexually graphic materials. More specifically, discuss the distortions of sexuality that pornography promotes, says Milburn. "This is different from just saying that pornography is 'bad.'"

Instead, talk about how pornography usually glamorizes sex or even makes it look more brutal or outrageous than it typically is. The idea is to offer your kids a reality check.

Milburn notes that one study found that individuals exposed to a high level of pornographic videos (for example, one hour a week for six weeks) were significantly less satisfied with their sexual partner's attractiveness and sexual adventurousness, less interested in being in an emotionally committed relationship, and less interested in having children.

Validate kids' feelings. As early as possible, support kids in learning to know what they think, feel and value. Kids who are smart about sex (and have healthy and fulfilling sex lives as adults) are those who have skills that apply to good human relationships in general. They're able to empathize with others and also accurately imagine the effects of their behavior on other people.

Furthermore, people well-grounded in their sexuality are those who are most aware of what they feel, says Conrad. "They don't lie to themselves, they don't pretend to feel what they don't, they're not confused."

Many parents, though, unwittingly encourage kids to be dishonest about what they feel from toddlerhood on. A classic example is a young child who says he hates his brother and wishes he were dead. "Many parents get scared and shocked," Conrad says, "and immediately respond, 'That's not true! You don't hate your brother! Go give him a hug.'" But if you'd like to raise kids who are in touch with their feelings (and eventually their sexuality), it would be wiser to communicate to your child that while he will not kill his brother it's OK to be mad. The idea is to leave room for your child to have and recognize all feelings, including negative ones.

Work on your own relationships. "We found in our research that adolescents take their cues from their parents when it comes to sex," says Conrad.

This means that if you're hooking up indiscriminately online or engaging in sex-only relationships, don't be surprised if your kids model that behavior.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Show them a loving, affectionate relationship and they're likely to seek the same for themselves.