Monday, April 30, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos

(or: "The Play's The Thing")

When we talk about assembling a storytelling engine, it's always illuminating to look at the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Because frankly, these guys were two of the best there ever were, and probably the best there ever will be. They had to come up with title after title, tossing together protagonists and supporting cast members and settings and goals and styles and villains and getting it all to work on very short notice, and they did such a good job that fifty years later, we're looking at a massive blockbuster movie designed around not just adapting individual stories of theirs, but the entire storytelling engine of the Avengers, complete with five movies of set-up.

So if you were to ask the question, "Where to start setting up a continuing series? How do you go about setting up a coherent fictional universe that will generate plot ideas easily for a writer?" ...well, Stan and Jack are the guys to go to. And when they went ahead and started writing 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos', all they really had to work with was the title. (Which, according to Stan Lee's recounting, was part of a bet to see if Stan and Jack could get any title to sell, no matter how stupid it sounded.) So where did they go from there?

The military aspects of the title led them to a war comic; back in the 1960s, war comics were still extremely popular, with many of the creative staff at both Marvel and DC being vets themselves and more than a little familiar with the last war. As previously mentioned in this series, World War II offered a wide variety of diverse fighting environments, a ready-made set of villains, and a historical backdrop that created easy inspirations for a comic about a squad of fighting men. But as previously mentioned, war comics at the time were extremely popular. Comics about a squad of fighting men littered the shelves. So how to set up a storytelling engine that offered inspiration, while still being different from everything else on the market?

Lee and Kirby began with tone. They decided to create a war series similar in tone to what they were already doing with their superhero comics, with larger-than-life heroes and villains fighting larger-than-life battles. This style, which has sometimes been described as "widescreen" or "cinematic" (although both definitions post-date Lee and Kirby's work, which was nothing like the war movies of the time and didn't make much use of the massive splash pages now associated with "widescreen" comics) relies on the understanding that it differs deliberately and vastly from a real-life depiction of war. Nobody involved in the series really thought that it was as easy as the series depicts it to sneak into Axis territory, snatch Hitler from under the noses of the German High Command, and spirit him back to Britain (as actually happened in one issue, although it turned out to be a double of the Nazi leader.) Likewise, nobody really assumed the series to be accurately depicting the final fate of Lord Haw-Haw (we hope.) 'Fury' takes place in an alternate universe where Allied super-commandos easily trounced hapless Germans on their way to achieving the impossible, time and time again.

This difference in tone is crucial. It guides all the later decisions made on the book; the personalities of the commandos have to be more colorful in order to make them fit into a larger-than-life world. Fury can't simply have a tough, strong corporal (like 'Sgt. Rock' and his corporal, Bulldozer.) He has to have a former circus strongman who can single-handedly whip six men in unarmed combat. He doesn't just have a solider who likes to whistle (like Canary, in Easy Company.) He gets a full-fledged jazz musician who plays solos on the bugle during combat. This over-the-top philosophy even extends to the villains of the book; it'd be absurd to imagine a group of "evil opposites" that return to challenge Easy Company, but the Howling Commandos face off against the Blitzkrieg Squad three times over the course of the series. And somehow, it doesn't seem out of place, even though two groups of hardened soldiers are fighting each other in a military engagement repeatedly with no casualties on either side. We are not dealing with reality in 'Sgt. Fury'.

This almost risks closing off opportunities for drama; after all, in a larger-than-life world where larger-than-life characters easily defeat hordes of dimwitted, gullible, cowardly foes, it'd be easy to assume that the heroes never risk anything. And without risk, it's difficult to sustain the kind of excitement necessary for great adventures. But 'Fury' takes care of this early, by demonstrating that the volume of all the elements of the story are equally loud; characters die in dramatic fashion, and revenge is taken in equally dramatic fashion. (He says vaguely, not wanting to spoil some of the better stories in the book.) Nobody is immune to death or sorrow; they just feel it on a larger, more operatic scale than in your traditional war story.

The result is miniature epic after miniature epic, as the Howlers fling themselves into battle after battle that would chew up lesser soldiers and come out with one dramatic triumph after another. It's nothing like the kind of war comics that other people wrote or drew back in the 60s; but then again, nobody else was publishing a title like 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos'.

Guess Stan Lee won that bet.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Yum! Babies!

For those of you who have never seen an episode of the series "Sweet Genius", context will be provided at the bottom of the post. For those of you who are already familiar with it, we were watching last week when one of the cooks said, narrating his own actions, "So I popped those babies in the pot and got 'em cooking..."

And my roommate said, "Oh, god! He's cooking babies!"

I replied, "Actually, on this show, it's not too unreasonable." I went into my 'Chef Ron' impression, which is much better in text than in real life. "Mmm, yes! Zis baby is delicious! Crisp skin, tender flesh...I am transported!" I paused, imagining Chef Ron's expression hardening. "However." Another pause, a signature of his judging style. "You did not use fresh babies for zis dish. Zis...zis baby is almost a year old. Really more of a toddler. I am...disappointed."

(For those of you who don't have the context to understand why this feels totally appropriate, "Sweet Genius" is a show running on the Food Network. It's a cooking competition show a la "Cupcake Wars", "Chopped", or "Top Chef", but with two significant differences: One, the show is exclusively dessert-centered, and two, the series is absolutely insane. They tried for a sort of "Willy Wonka" eccentric genius aesthetic, but the host, chef Ron Ben-Israel, gives off more of a Blofeldian vibe, leading you to imagine that at any moment, losing contestants will find themselves plunging through a trapdoor into a piranha tank at the press of a single button. Chef Ron's habit of praising people effusively, then pausing menacingly and cutting apart their flaws doesn't help, although they did get rid of the GLaDOS-esque voiceovers for Season Two.)

The show is worth watching. And once you do, I hope that you, like me, can picture him discussing the culinary merits of fresh babies.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

SRSLY?

I had something different in mind for this post, but I really just want to make everyone aware of one thing right at this moment: Apparently, Blogger no longer supports Internet Explorer. If I want to use Blogger and actually be able to do things like tag posts, change fonts, or put in links, I have to use a different browser...and while Blogger isn't suggesting I change to any specific different browser, why hey! They're a Google-owned product that just happens to work really well in Google Chrome!

The problem is, of course, that I'm not in a location where I can just download Google Chrome. I'm blogging this on my break at work, and I don't think that my helpdesk would take it kindly if I asked them if I could download a new browser for blogging at work. I'm somewhat upset that Google deliberately made changes to their entirely functional blogging software that they knew would break it if it was used on anyone else's products but their own, purely as a strong-arm tactic to get people to switch to their browser. It seems like a striking violation of their "Don't be evil" mission statement, and I want people to know about it. Normal blogging service, or something like it, will resume tomorrow.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: The Shining

No, not that 'Shining'. The other 'Shining'. The 1997 TV miniseries that Stephen King made because he didn't feel that Kubrick did justice to his source material. Remember that one? With Rebecca de Mornay and one of 'My Two Dads'?

Yeah, it didn't exactly eclipse the Kubrick version, did it? Which is, in theory, odd, because King kind of had a point about the movie. Kubrick strips out a lot of the fascinating material about the hotel's history, removes most of Jack's backstory and makes him a cartoonish brute instead of the richly nuanced tragic character of the novel, and reduces the apocalyptic ending to "Jack Nicholson freezes to death in a hedge maze while wearing one of the most embarrassing facial expressions known to man." It doesn't feel like it'd be that hard to do a better job of adapting the book, especially when given the extra time needed both to fill in the extra plot details and allow the tension to build like it did in the book.

But that doesn't take into account the enormous talent of Stanley Kubrick. For all that the novel works brilliantly, it works the same way that all of King's prose works--as an introspective character study. King is brilliant at getting inside his characters' heads, which is why his stories are so damned hard to adapt. Very little of what goes on is expressed through the dialogue, or even the events; it's all about the way people think. Kubrick was one of the few people who could let that out through tiny, almost unnoticed nuances of facial expression and body language (witness Wendy Torrance's explanation of Danny's old injury to the doctor, which has at least three layers of meaning to it from both actresses) and through spectacular camerawork that made otherwise boring infodump scenes watchable as pieces of sheer visual poetry.

For something like the remake to work, you would need a director as talented as Kubrick, or at least nearly as talented as Kubrick, but one whose vision was more in line with King's. Frank Darabont, who's directed several great King adaptations, would have been an excellent choice...so would Sam Raimi, who actually makes a cameo in the miniseries as a gas station attendant. But instead we got Mick Garris, a director mainly known for some 'Amazing Stories' episodes and the equally uninspired mini-series adaptation of 'The Stand'. It's probably a little unfair to say that King bet on the wrong horse here, but it's hard not to notice how little passion Garris gets out of any of the actors here.

And without that level of intensity and commitment in the performances, and without Kubrick's flair for the visuals, it's hard not to notice how damn slow and talky this story is. It really is a story about three people in a hotel having long conversations with each other, and Garris' direction leeches what drama there is out of that. He's not helped by King's teleplay, which makes all of the unspoken subtext into explicit text ("Listen to yourself! You sound just like your dad!") But he also doesn't do much to make the intense moments genuinely intense.

The actors try gamely. Steven Weber is better at playing Jack when he's being a sympathetic father, but he falls back on his sitcom habits when he's trying to play a crazy monster. The net result is something like watching Fred Flintstone devolve into madness. Rebecca de Mornay works hard at her role, but she's saddled with most of the worst dialogue. And Courtland Mead...well, let's just say that it's hard to find genuinely great child actors, and that you'd need one to play this part, and leave it at that.

There are other things I could question--the odd emphasis on AA that wasn't in the book, the decision to render the hedge animals in unconvincing CGI, the decision to make the whole thing as a broadcast television miniseries when one of King's greatest strengths as a writer is the way he turns profanity into an almost mellifluous poetry...but really, I don't think that Garris could have done any better with a better screenplay or better actors. There is, I maintain, a genuinely great version of 'The Shining' yet to be made that bears no resemblance to Kubrick's version...but this is not it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Let's Get This Straight

Earlier today, io9 wrote this article about how self-hating fans cause problems for the very genre fiction they love by criticizing things just to show that they don't have a knee-jerk love of genre works (or to keep "outsiders" from joining their exclusive geek fraternity.) Which is a pretty good message, all told (if for no other reason than I didn't choose "fraternity" by accident--many of the "outsiders" that geeks are trying to keep away are actually insiders that don't happen to be white guys...) But there is one thing I want to make perfectly clear.

I don't hate the 'Transformers' movies out of hipsterism, pretension, or some desire to convince people that I'm more erudite and learned than I actually am. I hate the 'Transformers' movies because they are ineptly executed, dimwitted, sexist, lazy, incompetent crimes against eyeballs, and I am utterly sick of being told every time I mention this, "Oh, you just don't like 'popcorn movies'."

No. I love 'popcorn movies'. 'Jaws', 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'Star Wars', the 1999 version of 'The Mummy', 'Iron Man', 'X-Men', 'Spider-Man' and even 'The Rock' are all perfectly silly, perfectly unpretentious pieces of enjoyable entertainment that I can sit down and watch time and time again, and they're only the tip of the iceberg. I did not dislike 'Transformers' because I'm a snob. I disliked it because Michael Bay can't hold a camera steady, because Shia LeBeouf grates on the nerves like biting down on tinfoil, because every shot of every female character either zoomed in on their butts or down their cleavage and yet the film tried to pretend it wasn't sexist because it had women who could fix cars, and because it was a goddamn movie about alien robots that turn into cars and Michael Bay couldn't even make that worth spending a couple of hours watching.

Also, I am annoyed by the perpetual and snide observation, "Well, you say you don't like them, but the sequels keep making money," as though the person has some sort of secret footage of me buying a ticket for the sequels while wearing an unconvincing wig. I didn't see any of the 'Transformers' sequels. You know why? Because they looked even worse than the first one, and it's been a long time since I willingly paid money for a movie that looked like it wasn't worth watching from the trailers.

I understand that there are reflexive hipsters out there who will hate anything that is popular. But please don't assume I'm one of them just because the thing I hate happens to be popular.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Is River Song Sexist?

Actually, I'm not even sure if "sexist" is the right word here. The predominant criticism of River Song isn't so much that she's sexist, although you do get a good few people in there engaging in the popular pastime of "faux-feminist slut-shaming"; it's that she's nothing but a gigantic Mary-Sue that Moffat has inserted into the story. According to this contingent, Moffat is making all the plots revolve around River Song, to the point where she's better than the Doctor at everything and all the important plot points involve her.

To some extent, this is simply a case of not knowing what words mean. A "Mary Sue" is a somewhat vague term, but is generally taken to be an overly idealized, absurdly talented, one-dimensional author surrogate, who is improbably lucky and succeeds where the main character fails, and who is the center of the story even in a canon that has not previously included her. That's the basic definition, as crowdsourced by the Internet.

Now let's look at River song. Since her first appearance, she's been in nine episodes. Out of 37. (Technically ten, if you want to count her cameo at the end of "Closing Time".) If this is a series that "revolves around" her, it's in a very eccentric orbit to say the least. Yes, she features prominently in the Silence arc. That's because the Silence's plan was to use her to kill the Doctor. She failed at that pretty much completely...which pretty much takes care of "improbably lucky and succeeds where the main character fails", too. The only thing she really succeeded at was at getting electrocuted better than the Doctor.

Is she more talented than the Doctor? Many people point to the fact that she can fly the TARDIS better than he can...which would be a totally excellent argument to make if it wasn't a 49-year-long running gag that for all the Doctor's Time Lord training and experience, he's actually a lousy pilot who can't get the TARDIS where he wants it to go better than one in three tries. It's the same joke they did when Romana joined the cast, and that was quite literally before lots of current fans were born.

Overly idealized, one-dimensional author surrogate? Um...unless there's something fairly important about Steven Moffat we don't know, I don't think that he really wants to be a sexy woman who shoots well, rides horses and has hallucinogenic lipstick. He wrote her as a love interest for the Doctor, yes, and he assumed that any love interest for the Doctor has to be something more than a simpering damsel in distress for him to rescue...which is a GOOD THING...but he definitely worked hard to make her more than one-dimensional. Her backstory is interesting, complicated, and paints her as more than a little damaged. Idealized, she ain't.

Which ultimately leaves us with, "She seems to know more than the Doctor. She seems to be as good at things as him. She's talented, and that makes her threatening." Which is, when you break it down, kind of a sexist argument for disliking a character. Not that this is anything new; pretty much any talented female character in fiction is going to get tagged with "Mary Sue" at some point, because women who are good at things and are admired within the story for it are always Mary Sues. (Somehow, Captain Kirk is never considered to be a Mary Sue.) Some people will always seek to tear down any female character who seems skilled and competent, because they view this as exclusively the purview of male characters. They might dress that up as concern, but it's fundamentally a sexist point of view.

Oh, plus she is naked in some scenes and thus has lady parts that she displays without shame, which makes her a Bad Person. (See previous essay.)

So is River Song sexist? Weeeeeeelll....maybe a little. Because while the Doctor's story definitely doesn't revolve around her, it's become increasingly clear that her story revolves around the Doctor. She didn't become an archaeologist because she was interested in old things, as we originally thought; she became an archaeologist to track down the Doctor. She loves the Doctor, she goes to jail for the Doctor, she occasionally attempts to kill the Doctor...there's very little in River Song's story that she does simply because she wants to. It's hard not to argue that this is a somewhat sexist angle on her character, and that she was more interesting before she became the Doctor's "bespoke assassin". Does that make her "sexist"? Probably not by itself. But it's certainly problematic.

But unfortunately, as with Amy Pond, the most sexist thing about River Song is the ways that people find to complain about her.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Is "Artron Energy"?

Frequently in Doctor Who, both in the new series and the old, there's mention of something called "artron energy", a form of energy that saturates time-travelers, in particular the Doctor but also Amy Pond, Rose Tyler, River Song, and at one point Mickey. It seems to be something that can be harnessed for power, something that has harmless (or possibly benevolent) mutagenic effects, and something that (possibly) provides resistance to strange temporal effects. But what is it, and where does it come from? Usually, people just assume that it's a form of background radiation from the Time Vortex. But because I'm more pathetically geeky than that, I'm going to suggest a stranger alternative.

The key is in the phrase occasionally used to describe the Doctor, "Complex Space-Time Event". Presumably, this differentiates him from a simple space-time event, which gives us a hint as to the nature of a CSTE. Because a simple space-time event is one that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you were to be able to draw an outline of it in four-dimensional space, it would have a single continuous shape; even though it moves through three-dimensional space, it is always connected in four-dimensional space. (If I move ten feet to the left, and you could see through time, you would see me as sort of a weird John-shaped tunnel through time.)

Think of it like a stylus moving on a seismometer. The stylus moves up and down erratically, but the line is always contiguous, and always moving forward. That's a simple space-time event. Always contiguous, always in one direction.

But the Doctor doesn't. He can, for lack of a better analogy, lift his stylus up and move it back to an earlier point on the paper. The shape of the Doctor in space-time is not one long line winding its way through three dimensions, it's a series of apparently unconnected shapes in various parts of the graph. He cannot be described with the normal geometry of space-time. He is, in short, a Complex Space-Time Event.

It's my suggestion that the act of traveling in time, moving in ways that are discontiguous, builds up a "charge" almost like shuffling across a carpet builds up static. (At this point in the explanation, my lovely wife reminded me of the exchange from the series itself: "Is that really how it works?" "No! But if that makes sense to you...") Normally, it evens out because you're properly in synch with space time. But Complex Space-Time Events don't dissipate the charge normally, they build it up...and that's artron energy.

Make sense? No? Good. At least I got it off my chest.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Is Amy Pond Sexist?

It may be shocking for you to hear, but...well, some people don't like Amy Pond. (Yes, I know. Take as much time as you need to wrap your head around that idea and then join me at the next sentence.) Despite being a great companion, possibly the best so far in the new Doctor Who series (and cue flamewars in three, two, one...) some people really can't stand her. They say that she's just one more example of why they consider Moffat to be a sexist writer. Amy Pond, according to them, is a stereotypical female character of the worst order, a misogynist caricature of real women that Moffat created as an object of fanboy lust, nothing more.

Is it true? Let's look at Amy. She's clearly not a passive character, which is always one of the big red flags for sexism. Amy makes her own decision to travel in the TARDIS, and she is determined not to give up on it; she's been inadvertently gaslighted for most of her life, being told that the Doctor was just an imaginary friend that it's past time for her to give up on, but she hasn't stopped believing in him for a moment. (And she's avoided winding up in a mental institution despite all that, which indicates that she's socially and emotionally well-adjusted despite dealing with issues that would have sent a lot of people into a rubber room.) She acts as more than just a passenger in the TARDIS, making decisions on matters from space whale survival to whether her husband will get to travel along.

And speaking of her husband...anyone who is trying to claim that Amy is sexist will have to deal with "Mrs. Pond". Amy is very clearly the decision-maker in that relationship, and it is not depicted as dysfunctional or shameful. Rory is not henpecked, he is in awe of his wife's determination and he respects her decision-making ability. While he is always there to reinforce her when she needs it, he does not try to enforce a patriarchal authority over her, because he loves her for who she is and that includes her forcefulness. Amy and Rory's relationship is just about the least sexist, most well-adjusted relationship in any genre series ever.

And Moffat has never put Amy into sexual peril; unlike, say, Peri, the villains do not lust after her body and want to keep her as a trophy bride. Amy gets put into her share of danger, just like the Doctor and the other companions, but it's not represented as specifically due to her gender. (Arguably, she is not a capable fighter, which is apparently a prerequisite for "strong female characters" these days, but neither is anyone else in the series, with the possible exceptions of Ian, Leela, and River Song.)

No, the main reason I think people call Amy "sexist" is...well...not to put to fine a point on it, but she has sex. And she enjoys it. Amy has been known to talk about sex, to ogle men she finds attractive, to ogle women she finds attractive, and to even have enough of a hint of kinkiness to enjoy dressing up in costumes. In short, Amy Pond has genitals and isn't ashamed to say she enjoys using them. To some people, this immediately makes her a terrible slut unworthy of inclusion in the same genre as decent women.

Think I'm exaggerating? Go look at the recaps on TV Without Pity. (Can't link to the site from work, but you should be able to find it with the help of Google.) Until his head exploded from having to talk about women who actually admit to enjoying orgasms, Jacob the recapper inserted constant comments about how Amy's career as a kiss-o-gram showed how damaged she was as a person, and how the Doctor wrecked her by coming into her life and leaving and now all she does is have emotionless flings in order to make money. As a KISS-O-GRAM. God alone knows what he would have said if she'd thrown hugs into the deal.

There is, at heart, a fundamental belief that women who have sex for anything other than procreational purposes are bad. This has been dressed up in countless other beliefs over the eons, and the claim that feminists should be prudes is just one more disguise for it. This doesn't mean that there's no such thing as exploitative sexualization or titillation; of course there is. But a female character shouldn't have to wear a burqa in order to be free of criticism for her feminist credibility, and it's frustrating to see people try to pass off their slut shaming as feminism.

And that doesn't even get into River Song...

Sunday, April 01, 2012

In Loving Memory

I took my girl to a fancy ball;
It was a social hop.
We waited till the folks got out,
And the music it did stop.
Then to a restaurant we went,
The best one on the street.
She said she wasn't hungry
But this is what she ate.

A dozen raw, a plate of slaw,
A chicken and a roast,
Some applesauce and asparagus,
And soft-shell crabs on toast.
A big box stew, and crackers too;
Her appetite was immense!
When she called for pie,
I thought I'd die,
For I had but fifty cents.

She said she wasn't hungry
And didn't care to eat,
But I've money in my clothes
To bet she can't be beat.
She took it in so cozy,
She had an awful tank.
She said she wasn't thirsty
But this is what she drank.
A whisky skin, a glass of gin,
Which made me shake with fear,
A ginger pop, with rum on top,
A schooner then of beer,
A glass of ale, a gin cocktail.
She should have had more sense.
When she called for more
I fell on the floor
For I had but fifty cents.

Of course I wasn't hungry
And didn't care to eat,
Expecting every moment
To be kicked into the street.
She said she'd fetch her family round,
And some night we'd have fun
But when I gave the man the fifty cents,
This is what he done:
He tore my clothes,
He smashed my nose,
He hit me on the jaw,
He gave me a prize
Of a pair of black eyes
And with me swept the floor.
He took me where my pants hung loose,
And threw me over the fence.
Now take my advice, don't try it twice
If you've got but fifty cents.

My grandfather recited this poem more times than I could count, to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He passed on today at the age of 92, surrounded by loving family. He will always be missed, but never forgotten.