Laci LeBlanc - Contena
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Laci LeBlanc

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How to Read Comic Books
Front Page
2 minute read

For years I obstinately eschewed comics.  They are expensive, addictive, narratively confusing, and cluttering.  They will sink you, and bury you, and give you that nourishing story you've been waiting for all your life.  Comics are for everyone.I succumbed to the comic siren call after completing Joss Whedon's television masterpiece Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  The drama ended with season 7, but for those dying for more, Dark Horse comics had it covered, publishing what would be a direct continuation of the show from season 8 until its end with season 12.  These comics were uninhibited by television budgets or network censorship or camera logistics or special effects.  In comic form, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, one of my favorite stories ever, was narratively limitless.

Buffy reeled me in because the continuity is relatively clean.  By this I mean there is a clear place to begin the story, and a more or less linear progression to its end.  If you want to dip your toe into Batman, however, such is not the case.

Continuity is an issue in longstanding comic runs and characters and even entire publishers.  I can attest that it is an issue for readers, for sure.  Batman, for example, is 80 years old, and if you hunt down his beginning, he is not your Batman you loved in the movie or tv show you just watched.  So, then what do you do?

The good news about Batman is that he has passed through the hands of many legendary authors, and therefore he has a well of exceptional stories you may plumb.  Pluck the highlights in his existence, and dig as deep as you wish.  

You may apply this to any time-honored character of your interest.  A quick search or a single Youtube video can point you exactly where you need to go without a fuss.  Or, preferably, mosey into your local comic shop and ask your trusty comic clerk.  

With well established continuity comics, namely DC and Marvel superhero comics, it is best to surrender to the story you are reading in that moment.  It is a popular practice for writers to slide in Easter eggs and references to past events, but I would encourage you to fret not if you did not catch it completely.  Enjoy it if it resonated, but gloss over if not.  And if you can't stand it, for archives this massive, there are always other sources from which you can snatch quickly: YouTube or Wiki for certain.

 I will tell you, those deep fathoms of lore will reward you for diligence.  But again, it is by no means required, nor necessary.

Comics are for everyone.  If the superhero or the giant franchise route isn't up to your taste, there are infinite indie comics to satiate and delight you.  Comics have a boldness of voice ahead of other entertainment mediums.  As an industry, it is on the forefront of our most polarizing and critical needs: representation, racism, class conflict, sexism, LGBTQ+, etc.  In spite of a dense history of censorship, comics are ahead of this race.  We live in a world of literal infinite entertainment, but comics will give you that story you needed in your heart, and then Netflix might scoop it up. Read a few pieces, find an author you enjoy, and follow their work.  This is another easy avenue to slide your way onto the comic dance floor.  You might find yourself reading some Marvel Elseworld's tale when you were accustomed to reading some creepy mythic fiction, but that reinforces this theme of indulging and surrendering to the story you read in the moment.  

The same mission can be applied to artists.  Comics and graphic novels are sequential art.  You really are buying a book fraught with art and a story to boot.  Follow your artists.  They'll show you and tell you what they are up to on Twitter.  Grab their projects too.

For so many years I shunned comics, but they smote my heart after one series.  They are powerful and shaking pieces of literature.  Take a bite of this pie.  You will find something that moves you.

Published September 13, 2020
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8 Reasons to Love Instant Ramen
5 minute read

I'm in my kitchen, my gas stove whirs and water rumbles in the pot as I pick through my pantry. I grab a bottle of this, and a jar of that. I rip the bouillon powder package open and dump it into my hot pot playground, and toss in a healthy pinch of red chili flakes for good measure. The bubbles relax as I pour in a good drink of Korean soup soy sauce. Sriracha garlic chili paste joins the party. I decided to spoon in a couple globs of miso to balance the arbitrary spiciness of today's creation. Stir, stir, stir. 

Taste. It's spicy and salty but perhaps a little weak. What more? Aha! Sesame oil. I give the broth just a tentative drip. Taste. Yes, better, yet I want more. I eye the forbidden bottle in my pantry, the most treacherous mistress: Fish sauce. But I show no fear as I pop the top and gingerly over a quavering spoon allow the funky fluid to fall. 

Taste. Yes. This will suit me for today. I unceremoniously toss in the dry noodles and prepare a hot skillet. Today I'll throw a fried egg on top, why not? As the noodles begin swimming apart I crack the egg in the buttery hot pan and have myself a good lean on my counter as I wait.

Noodles done, all springy and intact. I pour the broth and shovel the noodles into one of my cute ramen bowls that I am unreasonably proud of. I lay the fried egg onto its new soupy, steamy home. Chopped green onions sprinkle and rest on the sunny yellow yolk. I grab my chopsticks and my wooden Japanese spoon. Lunchtime. 

Welcome to a day in my world of ramen. I have such a satisfying relationship with this dish, and today I sat down and pieced out exactly why:

1. It's easy. Instant ramen is a meal in a bundle. If you can read and boil water, you can make ramen. Feeling lazy? Ramen. Need a quick belly full? Ramen. It's such a humble and unassuming meal, no fuss. It easily becomes a crave-able comfort food, and before you know it it's your go-to.

2. It's cheap. We all know ramen's broke college kid reputation. It's true. Maybe you've experienced a financial stretch and relied on that $0.17 ramen to sustain you. No shame in that! Ramen can be your savior and your sustenance for a rough patch or forever! Buy it in bulk, always have it in stock, and you'll never go hungry. Even when you graduate to the $1.00 ramen brands (I can attest that these are significantly superior in noodle quality and flavor as well as the dehydrated ingredients), your wallet and conscience remain safe. Indulge as you please.

3. It has infinite variety of flavors. There's a wide wide world of ramen out there. Ramen gifts you with a lifelong challenge and scavenger hunt. You'll hunt the most exotic varieties unavailable in the United States or the Western world. But you'll find them, somehow. You'll find your Korean hookup (okay maybe not, maybe you just have to wait, but if you do find a Korean hookup, email me!). A ramen flavor exists for every palate and every craving (save for dessert, haven't found that one yet). Chicken, shrimp, cheese, carbonara, beef, tonkotsu, shoyu, miso, chapagetti, kimchi...I could write song naming all the flavors and styles. Broth, stir fry, spicy, extra spicy. You'll never run out of new things to try. So, venture forth! May your ramen journey be great!

4. It's a gateway to familiarity with new ingredients. For many of us Westerners, Asian ingredients are mysteries. Gochu-what? Fear not! Brave new cultures and be no longer uncultivated! Become a connoisseur of ramen hacks. Drip some sesame oil in that broth. Spoon some miso in with that flavor packet. Lick some oyster sauce (okay, kidding, maybe not lick it). You'll learn that fish sauce is a dream come true or your worst nightmare. Chopped green onions are always your friend. Ginger looks like a baby tree hand but it's mushy and smells sweet and fresh. Manipulating ramen leads to an education and appreciation for the new and unfamiliar. Embrace the adventure!

5. It develops your palate. As you experiment with flavors and play with ingredients, you'll taste their nuances. Of course all home cooking practice will improve your palate and tasting skills, but there's something special about transforming hot water into an unctuous umami bomb. Tasting will be addicting and you'll become that mad creative scientist that you were always meant to be! And of course, the higher quality your palate, the more you will enjoy and appreciate ALL of your food!

6. It's as simple or as complex as you wish it to be. Ramen truly can be a bowl of noodles and hot salty chicken broth. Or, it could be a symphony of pork belly, bean sprouts, green onions, soft boiled egg, folded noodles, and kombu bathing in a rich and pure tonkotsu broth. Flexibility is a ramen virtue. Whatever your culinary needs in the moment, ramen will accommodate you. 

7. It introduces new cooking techniques. Remember that soft boiled egg I mentioned? Oh yes if you are a brave soul, the soft boiled egg is your trial. You began with boiling water, but now you are here, crafting the perfect ramen egg. If you are successful, the ramen gods will bless you. You will also learn how to cook the perfect goldilocks noodles, so they are chewy springy, not al dente or bloated and mushy, just right. Ramen's infinite possibilities lend itself to cooking or adding whatever inspires your imagination. Learn how to make some meatballs, throw them in. Garnish it with that crispy pork belly you prepped for two days. Decorate it will all those exquisitely chopped veggies your now legendary knife skills bestowed. Ramen can be the beginning of your evolution into an accomplished home cook.

8. It inspires creativity in the kitchen. Perhaps the most rewarding experience when noodling (wink) with ramen is the inspiration to create. That simple package is your blank canvas. Transform salty simplicity into an intense umami masterpiece. If you bungle it, no harm done, it was only $1.00, after all.

If you are sold by now, I've got some quick, quality, easy-to-find ramen recommendations. You won't find Maruchan or Top Ramen here; although I don't discourage playing with or partaking in these, they are so common I don't even need to talk about them. Plus, what I've got is better.

Nongshim Shin ramen is a standard brand from Korea. The "black" version is quite popular, but of course I encourage trying both. The standalone flavor satisfies me and it is the perfect flavor-price ratio. If I don't feel like fiddling around too much, and I want a warm tummy and a happy tongue for doing almost nothing, I will choose Shin. 

Jin ramen is also Korean. This one is my go-to playground ramen. It is slightly cheaper and less popular than Shin, but extremely versatile. I always have a bulk box of 20 of these lying on my kitchen floor. They're worth tripping over in the dark on the way to the bathroom.

I'm going to add Nissin because it is a respectable and cheap Japanese ramen with a healthy handful of flavors worth exploring. I would like to add more Japanese brands of instant ramen here, but they are more expensive and difficult to acquire. Japan rules the ramen kingdom and although you may go to any Seven Eleven there and pick from hundreds (and cook it in store), it's a costlier quest in the United States. (They've got instant ramen with real meat, in the package! Not fair.)

Samyang. Watch YouTube challenges? Yes, these are the spicy YouTube punish-yourself-desperately-for-content challenge ramen. Fret not however, Samyang can be eat-delicious-things-for-fun-because-you-respect-yourself challenge ramen. Flavors vary dramatically in heat. When in doubt, the cute chicken character's expression on the package will tell you the heat level. Another Korean brand, and almost all of their varieties are stir fried. So, cook the noodles, drain the water, pour the sauce, and do not touch your eyes! (Or your clothes, these sauces stain hardcore.) 

Excited yet? Or, at least, hungry? Or most importantly, inspired?

Published September 17, 2020
The Spider in My Shower
2 minute read

A most impressive creature has taken abode in my shower. A spider. I harbor no fear for her, in fact, she has become a benign companion in my most intimate moments. She knows my secrets. She suffers my songs. She hears my fears and burdens and sometimes even my pain. 

She dwells in the sill of the murky window cut out of the top left corner of the shower. She peacefully rests above me as I bathe and muse and mull over my life. I am careful not to fling water or splash on her magnificent web, for I am her guest. I often stand in the steam and observe her for many moments. She climbs her delicate structures with a stress-free leisure, and I envy her. I see her deft and dexterous legs fiddling and plucking and I wonder what spider business she is up to. Does she ponder me as well? Or does she correctly regard me as the miserable giant visitor ever in need of a scour? 

In the beginning I deemed her Shelob, completely for my convenience assuming she was female. I know not of her species, and in my efforts to discover her, I have found no precise assignment. In the weeks of our acquaintance she has grown, and it has been my pleasure to see her thrive and weave a palace. Again, I envy her. What arachnid anxieties could plague her in her thick, silken kingdom on the windowsill? She, an independent, masterly, self-made queen; and I, a naked and pitiful specimen, panicking and wet. 

Shelob and I have an impossible trust. I care not whether she could harm me, for she is a gracious empress and peaceful thing. I turn my back to her with confidence, rinsing my hair and scrubbing unmentionables. She does what I have christened "spider-tidying", and I imagine her humming or whistling, if she were a mythical spider of the humming or whistling variety. As I am raving she calmly creates a new wing of her castle, or performs a crafty repair. She sculpts her survival-art while I scald away shame. 

As she has grown more impressive I gave her a more striking name: Ungoliant, a name belonging to the ancient, god-like spider of Arda in Tolkien's mythos. This is also an ironic name, for my shower Ungoliant is no malignant evil terror, but a benign and gentle confidant. When it is time to wash, I find myself glad to see her still there as my naked mortality shuffles into the blazing water. I have never thought to remove her from her perfect home. She belongs there, her only price for living enduring my private meditations and reveries and grief. 

She seems a sturdy spider, yet I wonder how long she will live. How long will this friendship last? Shall I one day find her expired and curled in her own castle? And should that day come, do I leave her to rest in her silken tomb? 

Such a tranquil and magnificent creature is she, going about all her "spider-tidying" without fuss and cultivating a garden of life lines. Perhaps I owe myself my own "spider-tidying". Spinning my own livelihood without becoming tangled, braiding my own support net as I hang suspended over the human-life perils below. The very words I write weave my own threads of life with hers. The spider in my shower.

Published September 19, 2020