Friday, October 31, 2008

Correcting Popular Song Lyrics

I just wanted to take a moment and, as a public service, correct certain mistaken impressions members of the public might have gotten as a result of listening to popular songs on the radio. This is a minor but significant service I have chosen to perform from time to time, simply because radio remains the third or maybe fourth most popular medium of communication out there. (It definitely beats out carrier pigeons, at any rate.)

Today, I'd like to correct a misapprehension caused by lyrics in Natasha Bedingfield's song, "Unwritten", in which she sings, "Feel the rain on your skin/No one else can feel it for you..."

This is technically incorrect. A person with expert skills in butchery and tanning could, in fact, flay off a piece of your skin that would be extremely thin and, after tanning, quite supple. They could then find a sufficiently powerful rainstorm that the impact of the raindrops could be felt directly through the piece of thin leather. Naturally, this would wreck the material, so it could only be done once per piece of your skin that they felt the rain on, but they could nonetheless feel it for you.

Hopefully, this information arrives in time to be helpful.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Blackhawks

(or "The Theme Team")

In a way, it's a little surprising that we've gotten this far into this series of columns and never once touched on super-hero teams designed around an organizing theme; then again, that's partly my fault. The Blackhawks' "international team" motif was re-used pretty much wholesale when Professor X organized the "all-new, all-different" X-Men, and I didn't think to mention it then because there were so many other things going on. But the Blackhawks pretty much were their international gimmick; it was the one constant in their transformation from World War II patriotic heroes to post-war "science heroes" to hideously embarrassing superheroes to obscurity. So let's take a moment and look at the gimmick in action, shall we?

First, we need to understand that "international" is just one of many organizing themes available to a writer when creating a themed super-team. Writers are just as likely to choose colors (Power Rangers, although most Power Rangers teams are likely to also be of different nationalities), elements (Captain Planet), or animals (Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, a collection I'm still waiting for, DC trade paperback department!) The idea is the same in all cases, though; when coming up with a new superhero team from scratch, it helps writers if they can come up with just one idea, the organizing theme, and then develop that idea to its logical conclusion instead of having to come up with a whole new concept for every superhero on the team and then explain why they all came together.

So you can start with the idea of "fighter pilots from all nations", and then just slot in the French One (Andre), the Norwegian One (Olaf), the Eye-Blisteringly Racist Chinese One (Chop Chop), and so on until you've got a full team. Which brings up the reason why you don't see the "international" theme much anymore...during less progressive eras, simply the idea of people from different ethnic backgrounds working together as more or less equals (shamefully much less, in the case of Chop Chop) counted as being "ahead of the curve", but as time has passed, the very stereotyping that labels these characters as international has become less acceptable. (I'd be surprised, for example, if the upcoming Star Trek movie dwelled quite so much on Sulu's Japanese heritage, Chekhov's Russian pride, and Scotty's, well...Scottishness.)

This isn't to say it's totally gone--'Stormwatch', for example, is a UN-based team that has members of all different nationalities--but for the most part, you don't see many new superheroic teams based around the concept of "heroes from all nations". (Of course, the old ones are still around--the Global Guardians still pop up from time to time, and it's not like you don't still see just about every member of the Claremont/Wein/Cockrum X-Men still with the team.) But even if one option has been closed off, there are still a lot of themes out there to turn into superheroes (and supervillains--the Royal Flush Gang, anyone?) And since it remains an easy option for writers who need to come up with an idea quick, we'll probably see every single one of them.

But we might not see the Blackhawks themselves anytime soon. They really were a product of their time.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Essential Halloween Viewing

So we're just about a week out from Halloween...and please don't come to my house trick-or-treating, as we're not giving out candy this year. Please don't blame me for that, though. I love to stay at home, with a bowl of candy by the door for the kids and a horror movie in the DVD player for the times between knocks on the door...but I'll be at work, and my room-mates have expressed a preference to instead hang out in the basement and play video games. Spoilsports.

But the question is, what horror movie would go into that DVD player if I wasn't stuck at work? I'm going to take a moment to suggest some personal favorites. Obviously, these are my own choices based on my own tastes in horror. I look for a fast pace--movies like 'Halloween' or 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre', where it takes a half hour to get to the first real scare, just bore me. I don't get hung up on wanting tons of plot, but I don't like movies that have plot holes so glaring I can't ignore them even if I try. And genre-blending films score bonus points. So with that in mind, here are my picks...and I'd be interested in hearing other suggestions (hint, hint, I've got a luvverly comments section just waiting for you to fill it up...)

1. The Evil Dead Trilogy. Honestly, I can't choose just one of these three. They're all brilliant, each in their own way. In terms of pure horror, the first one is probably the most effective; Raimi studied dozens of horror movies, figuring out how to make the leanest, meanest, most terrifying thriller he could, and it pays off. The second one is probably the best of the three, and the most influential--Raimi's use of motion in his direction and the way he mixed genres together show up in practically every modern movie, not just the horror flicks. And 'Army of Darkness' has all the best lines.

2. Slither. A vastly underrated horror flick that is, quite honestly, the best horror film of the last decade. (If not longer.) It's smart, it's funny, every actor in it gives a terrific performance that really lends believability to the whole story, it moves like a freight train, and it has the best gag reel of any movie you'll ever see. If you call yourself a horror fan and you don't have this DVD on your shelf, you should be ashamed.

3. The Holy Trilogy. Of course, by now it's "The Holy Pentalogy", but Romero fans tend to have Views on 'Land' and 'Diary'. (For the record, I love 'Land' unabashedly and in some ways, it's my favorite just for the upbeat ending...and 'Diary', while uneven as all hell, is tremendously entertaining at times and has the most badass deaf Amish farmer ever. Oh, and the most badass drama teacher, too.) But when zombie fans talk Romero, they mean 'Night', 'Dawn', and 'Day of the Dead'. Romero's not a perfect film-maker--he wears his politics on his sleeve, and his characters have a tendency to speechify instead of talking. But his movies have a sense of realism to them that makes the horror hard to shake. You feel like you're watching a documentary, and the effect haunts you long after the credits roll.

4. Flight of the Living Dead. This one is not a Romero movie--it's a straight-to-DVD slice of beautiful cheese. I'm not going to defend it as a quality movie, but it's wonderfully entertaining; the movie unapologetically loads up a plane full of stereotypes and then gets straight to the zombie action. Half the fun is predicting who's going to be zombie chow and in what order. Will it be the Pilot Who's On His Last Flight Before Retirement? Will the Golfer Who's Obviously Supposed To Be Tiger Woods get to use that putter on a zombie? Just how will the Amoral Scientist Who's Responsible For It All get his comeuppance? A wonderful guilty pleasure.

5. Jason X. And speaking of guilty pleasures...this one is one of those movies that nobody went to see because they knew it must be bad, but us secret fans know that it's the best of all the 'Friday the 13th' movies. It's got some great one-liners, and the "holodeck" sequence is the apotheosis of the entire series. (In order to distract Jason, the good guys program in a Crystal Lake simulation, complete with holographic teenagers who say, "Hey, do you want a beer? Or do you wanna smoke some pot? Or we can have premarital sex! We love premarital sex!" Instant win.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Shi

(or "Beyond Revenge")

Hey, kids! Comics!

Billy Tucci's 'Shi' comes out of a very different era in comics than most of the ones I've discussed in this column before; the 1990s really saw the dawning of an era where comics were selling more to adults than kids, particularly independent comics. And one of the chief appeals to these adults buying comics was that they could get plenty of sex and violence in their stories; the "bad girl comic", traditionally featuring a scantily-clad butt-kicking female lead character, became a staple of 90s comics. Which isn't to say that 'Shi' is an attempt to exploit those trends, but it is worth remembering them (along with the obsession with Japanese martial arts that reached its heights in the late 80s, but that retained plenty of devotees years later. 'Shi' is as much a part of the "ninja craze" as Elektra, Ronin, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)

Shi also follows a much grander and more ancient storytelling tradition, that of the "revenge story". Everyone from Shakespeare to Shane Black has tried their hand at telling the story of a person who's lost everything they have due to the actions of another--everything, that is, except their life and their desire to avenge their loss. This is part of why 'Shi' feels so cinematic; the modern action movie uses the revenge plot with an almost-obsessive frequency, and so 'Shi' feels like it could sit right next to 'Desperado' or 'Hard To Kill' on the video-store shelves.

Which is a problem, because while revenge stories frequently make good stories (witness 'Hamlet'), but they almost always make lousy storytelling engines. (Yes, I hadn't forgotten the subject of the column. I was getting to it.) The hero of a revenge story is always single-mindedly devoted to the elimination of the architect(s) of their tragedy. Once that architect is destroyed, they have nothing left to fight for. Sometimes, they're able to then go back and rebuild their lives (as in 'Desperado'), sometimes their need for revenge consumes them (as in 'Moby Dick'...or 'The Crow'.) But if you want a sequel, a "what comes next" after the event they've been devoted to their entire life happens...well, that gets tricky.

Sometimes, writers just pull out a "man behind the curtain." We've all seen this one. "Oh, the guy who killed your Uncle Ben was really working for the Kingpin, he's responsible for all the crime in the city." (That's the Ultimate Spider-Man version.) Sometimes, they pull a "bait and switch." "Oh, the guy you thought killed your Uncle Ben wasn't really the guy who did it, he was just the accomplice. The real killer is this guy!" (That's the movie version.) And sometimes, they just decide to portray the hero as learning that there's more than just revenge to fight for. "Because with great power must come...great responsibility." (That's the other, much better movie version. Yes, I went there.)

At first, 'Shi' looks like it's going to have a lot of trouble transforming itself from a story to a storytelling engine. The title character doesn't just have trouble figuring out what she's going to do after she kills Arashi, the murderer of her father and brother, she has trouble figuring out if she's going to be able to go through with it at all--she's a devout Christian as well as a sohei warrior-monk, and she feels kind of guilty about carving a bloody path through New York City's criminal underworld. (Wow, a hero who feels guilty about killing. If you ever wanted to know what set 'Shi' apart from other 90s comics, there it is.) If she can't be motivated to take down Arashi, how can she ever wind up sustaining a series?

Ultimately, it's at the end of the first volume of 'The Definitive Shi' that you start to get the answers. Not the end of the story; while I won't spoil things for anyone who decides to read it, I will say that it's hard to find a truly novel twist on the revenge story after all these years. (Well-executed, but not novel.) No, it's the text pieces that follow the story that give you a hint of how you can turn a revenge story into an open-ended storytelling engine.

Each text piece is a short vignette from Shi's teenage years, when she was training with her sohei grandfather, learning from her missionary mother, and generally growing up. They show a glimpse of a character who's not consumed by revenge, one who studies art and has crushes and gets into snowball fights. The Shi of 'Senryaku' (the comic that collected these text pieces) is shaped by tragedy, but not defined by it. She's someone you could picture doing other things besides getting revenge, and that's the key element you need to have before you can turn a single story into an open-ended series.

Unfortunately, there has been no second volume of 'The Definitive Shi', possibly due to poor reception of the black-and-white translation of its color art. (It does wind up looking more than a little murky in black and white.) That's a real shame, because it's not until the very end of the first book that the potential of the character really begins to open up.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Brief Observation

No Storytelling Engine this week (on Monday, I was still in Atlanta, GA watching my flight get delayed, and things only got more fun from there) but I will blog a little, just to make a brief observation which some might claim has some connection to the current political process.

To wit, nobody who calls themselves a "maverick" is ever actually a maverick. Real mavericks don't call themselves mavericks, because they don't give a damn about what you think of them. They just go out and do things, and let other people worry about labels. A guy (or a gal, or a two-person combination of a guy and a gal whose names happen to fit conveniently on a yard sign) who says, "I'm a maverick" (or "we're mavericks", repeatedly in a vice-presidential debate for example) is desperately courting your opinion. And if he's that desperate for your approval, he's probably going to be desperate for someone else's. (Like, say, hypothetically speaking, a Republican President or a bunch of racist right-wing voters.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Out Of Town

Just wanted to drop a note to say I'll be out of town all next week and don't know how often I'll have Net access, so this blog might be fairly quiet for a bit.

Thanks for your patience!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Authenticity and the "Darkening" Of DC

So we've all heard about 'The Dark Knight', right? Grossed something like $500 million, critical and financial success, absolute blockbuster to end all blockbusters and DC's first real success in the movies since...well, arguably since 1989, when 'Batman' launched with a different Batman and a different Joker and a different director. Certainly, the biggest success DC has had since Marvel started absolutely cleaning up with their string of well-received hits. (And, okay, 'Elektra'.)

But the thing is, I think DC is taking away the wrong lesson from this. They're talking about how this proves "dark" superheroes sell, and how they're going to be doing more dark stories in their next several movies, and how this validates Dan DiDio's tenure at DC where he made a conscious decision to aim for a more "adult" audience. (Which has been a bit of a controversial point over the last few years, with both sides pulling out sales charts that support their case, and goalposts moving back and forth, and all the general fun you get from Internet debates. But I digress.)

Because I don't think that 'The Dark Knight' succeeded because it was "dark", I think it succeeded because it was real. It was heart-felt, to use an older term. Christopher Nolan felt genuinely, personally touched by some of the Batman stories he'd read (most obviously "The Killing Joke") and he told a Batman story that meant something to him, and that intensity, that depth of feeling resonated with his audience. The audience was willing to follow him to a very dark place for that story, because that's where the story led.

It's that last point that's key--"that's where that story led". The darkness in 'The Dark Knight' wasn't forced, it wasn't there for its own was there because Christopher Nolan told a story of moral ambiguity, of the specter of mindless chaos in a world still reeling from the 'War On Terror' (and no, Bush isn't Batman. Bush is Harvey Dent. But I digress again.) Nolan didn't tack on a sad ending and he didn't tack on a happy ending. He followed the story through to the ending it had to have.

Audiences can always smell when they're being manipulated, and just as surely, they can smell when they're not. Everyone who watched '28 Days Later', whether they loved the movie or hated it, all hated the ending, precisely because it pandered. The writers looked at the ending they had to have, with Selena and Hannah about to become the unwilling mothers of a new society while Jim was left to die, and it scared them, so they copped out. Even before they tacked on the uber-happy ending where Jim survived being gut-shot in the middle of nowhere, they backed away from the truth of what things were, and the audience knew it.

And DC has been doing just the opposite. They've been tacking on death and rape, blood and gore and misery and discord not because they're where the story has to lead, but because they think it sells. (And they're not the only ones--in fact, the single worst offender in this regard in the last decade has to be Penance, whose character can be summed up as "Dark Speedball". Does anyone think this was a deeply heart-felt change for this character?)

In the end, things have to be real. The audience will follow you if they're real, whether through darkness or light. We don't want sad endings or happy endings, we want true endings. We want our happiness to be earned, our sadness to feel honest. We want to be moved, not pandered to. And if DC can't understand that, then its next "dark" movie is going to feel more like 'Superman Returns' than 'The Dark Knight'...and it'll probably do the same kind of box office.