Friday, June 29, 2012

I Miss Giant Bugs Even More Now That I Have Them

A couple of years ago, I commented on how the Golden Age of Giant Bug Movies was a thing of the past, a relic of a period where special effects didn't have to be believable and process shots of real bugs close up were just fine in the minds of moviegoers who hadn't been exposed to Lucas-level effects magic. But I added the caveat that with the cheapness and ease of use of CGI, we were approaching an era where big-bug movies were cheap and easy to do once more. Many of my commenters pointed out that ScyFyieh (or however they're spelling it these days) is doing just that, with films like 'MegaShark Vs. Giant Octopus', 'Giant Shark Vs. MegaOctopus', and 'OctoShark vs. MegaGiant'. (Or something like that. The titles kind of blur together after a while.) I've since watched a couple of these...

...and I gotta say, the people who make them really don't understand how to make a bad movie.

I know, you wouldn't think of a bad movie as something that takes any particular talent to make, would you? I mean, that's what makes it bad. Lack of talent. But that's exactly the problem with these bad movies. They're not made by talentless people trying hard to make the best movie they can possibly make. They're made by people of modest talent who have decided that there's more money to be made by making a bad movie that they hope people will watch because it's campy, than in trying to make a good movie on a limited budget. Basically, they're bunting.

Take 'Arachnoquake'. It's not the craziest of B-movie ideas; an earthquake in New Orleans unleashes hordes of giant subterranean spiders. You could, theoretically, make a good disaster/horror movie out of that. (Not High Art, or anything, but good.) But when you make them telepathic fire-breathing spiders that can walk on water and have radar senses, you're clearly not even trying. You're just chucking any old thing onto the screen in the hopes that people will say, "Oh, wow! A movie called 'Arachnoquake'! It's bound to be so bad it's good!"

But it's not. It's charmless. The actors are all reasonably talented (with the obvious exception of Edward Furlong), speaking dialogue that was written to sound bad coming out of their mouths. They all cope in various different ways, but it doesn't have any of the silly joy that you get from watching an obvious amateur act to the best of their abilities (like, say, anyone in an Ed Wood movie.) The CGI, while well-executed, feels sterile and uninteresting. Watching the old giant bug movies, you wondered as a kid how they did it. Then as an adult, you wondered how they thought anyone would believe it. A CGI spider just feels like a cartoon with delusions of grandeur.

A truly great bad movie is one that swings for the fences. It's a movie that leaves you with no doubt that this is the best possible movie these people could make, and frequently leaves you admiring their effort even as you chuckle at the gap between their desire and their ability. The new bug movies are made by people who just don't care. And if they don't care, why should anyone else?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Storytelling Engines: The Rawhide Kid

(or "Don't Stop Me If You've Heard This One")

Sometimes, people talk about how there are only thirty actual stories out there. Most of the differences we see are actually cosmetic, changes in setting or gender or name that don't really disguise the fact that this story is about Two Star-Crossed Lovers, or A Boy Who Becomes A Man. Depending on who you talk to, the number goes down even further (I've heard as few as seven.)

Certainly, the story of the Rawhide Kid feels like it's been written countless times. Even if you throw out all the changes in time and place and just look at other Westerns, it's still a pretty common yarn. It's the tale of a Boy on the Edge of Manhood, one who Learns How To Fight But Also When Not To Fight, from a Grizzled Old Mentor Who Is Slain Through Treachery. The Kid goes on to Avenge His Mentor's Death, but then is Mistaken For An Outlaw and Goes On The Lam, Doing Good Deeds While Outrunning The Law. And of course, he Never Starts A Fight, but he's Always Quick To Finish One because He Lives In A Lawless World Where Good Men Must Stand Up For The Helpless. (I'd include links to the appropriate pages on TVTropes.com, but I'd like you to someday finish reading this column.) Oh, and of course, His Reputation Means That Everyone Wants To Prove Themselves Against Him, one of the all-time classic Western tropes.

The storytelling engine is about as familiar as they come...but the reason it's familiar is because it's so tremendously useful that it gets used again and again. The Western setting is reused because it was a period filled with tremendous amounts of interesting and dramatic conflict; settlers fought natives, farmers fought ranchers, outlaws fought lawmen, miners fought claim-jumpers, humans fought nature, inventors fought the limits of human technology, and all with a sweep and scale that ranged over thousands of miles and several decades. There's enough interesting things happening during this time to support just about any number of potential sub-genres (as demonstrated by steampunk Westerns, zombie Westerns, alien Westerns, and in the case of Jonah Hex, all of the above at once.)

The Rawhide Kid becomes the character he is because of the usefulness of his storytelling engine. Characters that are too prone to violence become unsympathetic, while those that can't use it tend to have a hard time supporting a continuing series set in the Wild West. So the Kid becomes a reluctant, but amazingly talented gunfighter. Having him move around a lot means that you can involve him in all of the various Western sub-genres, not just a particular one, and having him be an outlaw simultaneously helps generate and sustain conflict (because anytime the law shows up, there's a chance he could be arrested, and so he can't always go to the sherriff when there's trouble) and also provides you with a rationale for his constant travels. (Which in turn provides you with another story-generating element, the Girl Who Falls In Love With The Kid But He Must Always Be Moving On. Mind you, over the course of this series the Kid moves on so many times with such speed and so little remorse, it's no wonder a later writer decided he was gay.)

Having a mentor provides you with a backstory, having him dead prevents you from having to worry about him dominating the story. (After all, if the hero is only beginning his journey, it follows his mentor would be more talented. It's never a good thing when the main character is outclassed by his supporting cast.) Every element of the Rawhide Kid's storytelling engine has had its rough edges and problems worn away by countless writers until it all fits together seamlessly. When you look at it like that, it's no wonder it crops up so often. After all, every change you would try to make to this to avoid the "same old story"...results in no story worth telling.

Friday, June 22, 2012

My Joker

I've had this mental image of the Joker in my head for years, as part of a vague set of ideas for a reboot of the character. In my mind, Bruce Wayne is touring Arkham (pretending that it's a mad whim, the sort of morbid curiosity of the idle and politically-connected rich) and they show him the cell. In it, there's a man with chalk-white flesh and bright green hair, laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing...

"Who's he?" Bruce asks.

"We don't know his name. We found him five years ago, sitting just like this in a fast-food restaurant, dressed up like their mascot."

"Why didn't you clean him up?"

"We tried. That's not make-up. His actual skin is like that. Hair, too. Toxicology shows it to be some sort of chemical dye, the same sort of thing we found in the victims."

"Victims?"

"Everyone else in the building was dead. We think he was handing out poisoned food, pretending it was free samples. We may never know for sure."

"Haven't you asked him?"

"He hasn't stopped laughing. He doesn't talk, he doesn't sleep, we acutally have to force-feed him. He just keeps laughing like that. We can't put any prisoners in this row, they go nuts." Pause. "More nuts."

Bruce looks at the man in the cell, trying to see through those eyes for a moment to understand the madness within...and then shakes himself free of it. The tour moves on.

That'd actually be the last you see of the Joker for a while. Maybe twenty issues, maybe twenty-five. Batman goes on, fights other bad guys...and then at the end of a storyline, after the main action is done, the scene cuts to Arkham. The panels form a long "tracking shot" down the hallways, following a trail of laughter sound effects to its source: The man in the cell. He's laughing, and laughing, and laughing, and laughing...

And slowly, the laughs become giggles. The giggles become chuckles. The chuckles subside into that last little, "heh, heh, heh...whoo," that comes at the end of a long fit of giggles. And the Joker wipes a tear of laughter from his eye.

"Well," he says, "that was fun. I wonder what I should do next?"

Monday, June 18, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Ghosts

(or "The Purest Example")

For a long time now, I've been using the 'Showcase Presents'/'Essential'/(insert company-specific name here) lines of big, thick digest collections to research these columns. Being able to view some twenty issues at a time of a comic gives me a larger perspective on the series, allowing me to focus on the overall picture and not on a single story. As such, I've tried to do a column on every single digest collection that I've been able to find, even things like anthology series and handbooks and complete histories of the Marvel universe. And for all of them, I've tried to find something that tied them together, an actual collection of ideas and recurring elements that made it a storytelling engine and not just a bunch of stories.

But I think that "Ghosts" stretches that idea to its utmost. It's an anthology, so there are no recurring characters or locations. There are no framing sequences to be had; there's nothing that really ties the various anthology stories together besides a few introductory captions that it's hard not to hear in the voice of Criswell from 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' ("the man who lived in that house had died, twenty years ago. NOW DO YOU BELIEVE IN GHOSTS?") Even the anthology has such a loose linking concept as to be almost useless for creating a unified theme. (The title pretty much says it all. "Ghosts". That's right, it's a whole series about stamp collecting.) Ultimately, there is so little help given to the writer in generating ideas that this is, if not a series without a storytelling engine at all, at least one with as minimal an engine as you're going to get.

And yes, it does show. Without a strong and well-defined linking theme, or a framing sequence to provide a sense of tone, or recurring people, places and things to spark inspiration in the writers' minds, all we're left with is whatever ghost stories the writer could dredge out of their imagination that month. And coming up with three or four ghost stories a month would tax just about anybody's imagination before too long. Within a hundred pages or so, you start feeling like you've read every issue once or twice before, because in a very real sense, you have. This isn't a slight on any of the writers involved, either. I'm sure that it'd be hard for me to come up with three brand-new, clever ghost stories month in, month out for the 112 issues that the series ran. Small wonder that they started ringing in old reliable DC stars of the supernatural like the Spectre and Doctor Thirteen towards the end, just to keep the well from running completely dry. Because although those two don't fit that well together, and although neither one of them is among DC's more popular mystic heroes, they at least have the advantage of bringing a storytelling engine along with them. And for a continuing series, a storytelling engine makes a writer's life a lot easier.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Apologies for the Delay

Got hit with a nasty flu bug--no trip to the hospital or anything, but I haven't felt up to blogging this week. Normal service should resume on Monday.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review: Touched by an Angel

...the Doctor Who novel. Not the long-running, inspirational TV series. I've never actually seen an episode of the show, but I guess it was sort of like 'Highway to Heaven', only with less Michael Landon and more women. Which, y'know, if you like that sort of thing, I guess? Anyhow, this is about the other kind of Angel. The kind that you should never look away from. Not even for a second.

Honestly, if you're going to do a Weeping Angel time-travel head-trip story, there really is no better person to go to than to Jonathan Morris. He's one of the remaining genuinely great Doctor Who authors who hasn't made the jump to television, and his debut novel, 'Festival of Death', is probably the only Doctor Who story to out wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey Moffat himself. Combining him with the Weeping Angels is an absolutely natural pairing.

And he doesn't disappoint. The basic premise of the novel is pretty much in line with the sort of thing you'd expect from a Weeping Angel story, while at the same time providing an inventive enough twist; Mark, a depressed widower, receives a message from his own past self explaining how he can save his wife, one which leads him into an encounter with Weeping Angels and sends him back in time so that he can follow his future self's instructions. It's sort of a remix of the two basic ideas of 'Blink', a not-unheard of but well-executed version of the time travel paradox story.

And Morris continues the 'Blink' house mix idea a fair distance into the novel; we get the Eleventh Doctor's take on the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey detector ("boils eggs; that's not a bug, it's a feature"), we get some cunning interactions between the past and future Marks as the Doctor, Amy and Rory struggle to prevent history from being changed...it's nothing especially inventive, but Morris has great prose and the plot unfolds entertainingly...

And then Morris rings in the clever twist, which I'm far too nice to spoil, and it becomes obvious that he's been working hard at letting us think that this is a clever-but-unambitious time-travel head-trip story so that we don't see the twist coming. And then things get seriously clever, and Rory wears a fez. And about the ending I shall say no more, except to suggest that this one is well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Storytelling Engines: The Spectre

(or "Shall Not The Judge Of All The Earth Do Right?")

Very few characters have gone through the kind of transformation that the Spectre has gone through over the decades, even before the total revamp of the character in 1999. Actually, the "total revamp" of the character in 1999 was a significantly smaller reworking of the character than the one that had been slowly and gradually performed over the course of the stories that make up 'Showcase Presents: The Spectre' (and slightly beyond, through to John Ostrander's iconic 80s series which has not been collected.) The Spectre's human host changes from Jim Corrigan to Hal Jordan, but his mission as the vengeance of the Lord remains the same...a mission notably absent from the character as first created.

Originally, the character was a fairly standard "avenging ghost" superhero, one with ill-defined and nebulous powers (in his early Silver Age stories, which were written by noted polymath and parapsychology enthusiast Gardner Fox, you see lots of discussions about "ectoplasmic energy" and "negative soul-force", which all seem to boil down to "The Spectre is exactly powerful enough to beat a bad guy by the end of the issue, no more and no less".) The usual stories involved him finding some sort of supernatural evil that he couldn't defeat...for some reason...until he did some inexplicable thing that sounded like someone was regurgitating random bits of jargon that Madame Blavatsky made up, at which point they instantly fell to his awesome powers. (In that respect, it's a lot like Fox's run on 'Green Lantern', except with fewer mentions of the color yellow.)

And like Green Lantern, this poses a lot of problems when it comes to making up ideas for stories. If your hero can do anything, why is there ever a reason for a story to start? If your hero can do anything except when he can't, how can you possibly do a consistent series with them where one story follows on from the next? Limitations are an absolute necessity for good drama, and having to come up with them on the fly on an issue-by-issue basis is utterly exhausting. A good storytelling should be the opposite of exhausting; it should supply you with ideas instead of forcing you to come up with more of your own. A set of clearly defined rules that limits the Spectre's powers and forces him to actually battle bad guys is a necessity.

Or...is it? (Insert musical sting here.) When Michael Fleisher revived the book again as a series of back-up stories, he went with the opposite approach; he removed the Spectre's limits altogether. Fleisher's Spectre had no difficulty fighting, defeating, and even brutally murdering his opponents; the question that defined his drama was no longer, "Can he stop the bad guy?" but instead, "Is it right for him to do what he does?" In this fashion, he removed the question of power and its limits from the equation. The Spectre was now a metaphysical drama, in which Jim Corrigan dealt with questions of whether a man who had come back from the grave could call himself "alive", and a reporter questioned the inherent justice of a universe where a chalk-white figure in a Speedo could turn a man into a tree and then run him through the sawmill. From there, it's a relatively short trip to the iconic spirit of vengeance that Ostrander wrote about and everyone since has made use of.

Obviously, this opens up different opportunities than the Silver Age version of the character; it's not likely that Gardner Fox could have found an audience for a Dostoyevskian exploration of morality as related through the spectral messenger of a vengeful God, even if he could get it past the Comics Code. But it is a character that generates lots of interesting story ideas, because the questions that we ask in 'The Spectre' as it is currently conceived are as old as humanity itself. As long as people do evil and the universe doesn't seem to care, there's a place for the post-Fleisher version of the Spectre, no matter who his host is. And with a new DC Universe, there's bound to be a new Spectre just around the corner.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

My Invention Idea

My idea is simple, yet revolutionary. It comes in three steps.

1) Add a laser distance meter to the front bumper of every car, which is continually taking measurements of how car away the thing in front of you is.

2) Combine it with a computer that calculates the speed at which you are approaching the thing in front of you to work out a safe following distance for your current speed.

3) Hook that up to a set of speakers in the car that would play an annoying sound, which gradually increases in volume as you exceed the safe following distance (ie, as you get too close to the car in front of you.) My original plan was to put in a governor on the accelerator linked to the computer which would automatically cut out the gas as you got too close, but this seems like a better way of doing it.

Since I'm aware this wouldn't be the most popular invention...ironically, it'd be least popular among the people who need it most...I'm tempted to add 4) Design the whole thing so that it gives you a mild-but-painful electrical shock if you try to tamper with it.

Now granted, this isn't a multi-million dollar invention, because I'm pretty sure that nobody thinks of it as a quality-of-life improvement for their driving experience to have loud, annoying noises playing in their cars. But I'm also pretty sure that nobody enjoys having someone less than two feet from their rear bumper when driving at highway speeds, either, so it's just possible that we could get the government to mandate something like this in the same way they require seat belts and airbags. In a way, it makes even more sense; we're willing to spend millions to make cars more survivable in the event of a crash, so why wouldn't we spend about $150 to try to prevent the single most preventable accident there is?

I know, there's probably some crazy reason why it would be a bad idea. But given the amount of absolutely terrible driving I've seen in the last two days, just let me have my dream, okay?