Friday, March 27, 2009

Coming Soon To A Theater Near You!

(Cue Ominous Music.)

She gave him the egg for safe-keeping...

(Lightning and thunder flashes. A feathered hand holds out a large white egg, in the middle of a thunderstorm.)

But when he found out what she wanted it for, all he could do...was run.

(Cut to montage of travel from jungle to ocean to city.)

Now, he must escape his captors, evade a madwoman, and find some way to hatch...


HORTON: I said what I meant, and I meant what I said, and an elephant is faithful--

MAYZIE (cocking gun): Until he is DEAD!

This summer...




HORTON: Hey. It can't be any worse than "The Cat In the Hat".

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Discworld

(or "The Amazing Transforming Meta-Engine!")

"The Colour of Magic", the first Discworld novel, is far from author Terry Pratchett's best work. In fact, it could be the weakest of all the Discworld stories; it's essentially a rambling, shaggy-dog tale of an almost terminally naive tourist wandering through a stereotypical fantasy kingdom, upsetting numerous apple-carts with the way he treats the life-and-death struggles of its heroes and villains as entertainment. That's not to say that it doesn't have its good bits; it is, after all, Terry Pratchett we're talking about here. But it's not particularly focused, and it's not very subtle in its satire of the fantasy genre.

Which is why it's also the clearest example of just how the Discworld storytelling engine works.

The parodic characters that appear in "Colour" are pretty broadly sketched, and easily recognizable as cousins to their non-humorous counterparts--Hrun is Conan, Bravd and the Weasel are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and Bel-Shamharoth is Cthulhu with the serial numbers filed off. This means that it's easy to recognize the book as what it is, a commentary on the tropes of fantasy novels (general and specific.) Pratchett is writing metafiction, drawing inspiration from his predecessors even as he satirizes the conventions of the genre.

To which all Pratchett fans say, "Duh!" But Pratchett continues this trend for quite some time, even as he gets better at disguising it and more creative in his satire. Cohen, for example, is as much a Conan parody as Hrun, but instead of simply being another big dumb barbarian, he's a fully realized and poignant character with real depth. But he's still a parody of a fantasy trope, just as Granny Weatherwax satirizes the conventions both of the "young apprentice" genre of fantasy novels and the traditional notions of "wicked witches" from fairy tales and popular culture. Even as the cast of the series expands (Lawrence Watt-Evans identifies eight separate sub-series in his book "The Turtle Moves"), the metafiction aspect remains a constant.

But significantly, starting roughly around the time of "Wyrd Sisters", he's no longer just satirizing fantasy, he's drawing on reality for inspiration as well. Hwel, the dwarvish playwright, is used as a lens to look at Shakespeare and the theater in general (and cinema as well, in a few memorable gags.) The Ephebian philosophers in "Pyramids" twist and warp the ancient Greeks (to delightful effect.) Pratchett is still writing satire, but he's gradually moving away from metafiction into satire of the real world. "Moving Pictures" and "Soul Music" are the most obvious and direct examples of this, but all the Discworld novels take on the flavor of a world we recognize.

But the real world is decidedly unlike fantasy kingdoms in one major aspect. (At least one major aspect, that is. Obviously, the real world doesn't have vampires, werewolves, dwarves, trolls, and magic...although curiously, this is where magic, in the showy flashy sense, really starts to vanish from the series.) A fantasy story is usually about the restoration of the old order--once there was a long, static period when things were good, things are now changing and that's bad, the hero brings back the true king or the magic talisman or whatever, and the change is undone. Let me just re-emphasize that bit. The change is undone.

In "Moving Pictures" and "Soul Music", that's exactly what happens. With a magical zap, the wild ideas that infested the Discworld are forced out, and everyone feels slightly sheepish and wonders why they were so obsessed with the clicks or Music With Rocks In. (It's significant that the danger in "Moving Pictures" is that the Discworld is such a thin construct that it could be torn apart if people stop believing in it. Too much reality makes the cracks in the fantasy show.) Pratchett is using the Discworld to comment on reality, but the Disc itself is still recognizably a fantasy world. (In the sense of being static and unchanging, that is. It's always a recognizably fantasy world in the sense that it's flat and carried on the backs of four elephants which are, in turn, carried on the back of a giant turtle.)

But reality, that has a way of changing constantly. Sometimes for the worse, but sometimes for the better. While people might like to remember a long, static period when things were good (and write that nostalgia into fantasy stories which then become meat for satirists), the fact is that the past wasn't as static as you remember, and probably not as good, either. A series that's genuinely satirizing the real world, instead of just borrowing elements of it, is going to have to change.

And so, the storytelling engine of the Discworld, the elements of it that help Pratchett come up with story ideas, that has to become about change instead of stagnation. The first novel that undeniably ends with the world in a different place than it began is "Small Gods", a novel that uses the Church of Om to comment on the ways that religion has modernized to fit into a newer, more enlightened secular world. In addition to being frankly brilliant, it is a novel that doesn't retreat from the ideas it expresses. The Omnian Church after "Small Gods" is a different church, inspiring different ideas in later novels.

But "Small Gods" also takes place some distance away from the main events of the Discworld. It's a big shift, but it's one that's easy to ignore when it doesn't affect Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Rincewind or even Death to any significant degree. No, the novel that definitively states, "The world is changing and this is now the well from which inspiration is drawn," is "The Truth".

Watt-Evans dismisses "The Truth" pretty casually in "The Turtle Moves", lumping it in the same pile as "Moving Pictures" and "Soul Music" (with "newspapers" taking the place of "movies" and "rock music".) With all due respect to an author whose work I enjoy, this misses the biggest point of the book--this isn't a wild idea, summoned by magic and prone to rip a hole in the fabric of the Discworld. This is a printing press, made by mundane hands and inspired by good old-fashioned intelligence. (Pratchett even comments on his own tendencies at one point, as the Patrician asks a series of weary questions in an effort to make sure that the whole enterprise isn't going to destroy the world.) The notion of change, of modernization really crystalizes here and becomes the engine for the series at just about every point after that.

Unfortunately, Terry Pratchett's tragic diagnosis of Alzheimer's means that the Discworld series will be winding down soon. Although he is continuing to write for as long as he can, the disease will eventually take its toll, and I think I speak for just about all fans of the series when I fervently hope that nobody will attempt to fill his shoes just for the sake of keeping the franchise going. So after perhaps forty novels, a half dozen short stories, and numerous ancillary books and other materials, the Discworld's story will end. But that body of work is a testament to just how well the Discworld's storytelling engine works, as one of the best satirists in literature today turned his observations on the world into stories time and time again.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's Time To Charge the Rings Up...

So we're now approaching "The Blackest Night", the final war between the various Lantern Corps of the emotional spectrum. Green, Red, Blue, Black, Orange, Violet, Yellow, and Indigo will all slug it out for the fate of the DC Universe! But obviously, they'll need reinforcements. After all, the more ring-bearers the better. So I'm coming to the aid of the Corps as well as the writers of the mega-event by suggesting some additional characters who could participate in the battle to end all battles, some well-known mainstays who could really stoke the fans' excitement and get them talking.

For the Red Lanterns, the color of "rage", the obvious choice is Animal. Sure, Kermit the Frog has his occasional outbursts of temper, but how can even Atrocitus compare to a barely-contained beast whose fury is such that he only bowls overhand? If anything, Animal could wind up leading the Red Lantern Corps.

And who better to join the Orange Lanterns ("avarice") than Oscar the Grouch? He wouldn't be a leader, but his fervent passion for scavenging the unwanted relics of modern society would give him a power that would endure while other members of that Corps were defeated. Others might covet money, wealth, gold or gems...but how do you stop someone who can even want an old torn sneaker with that same degree of intensity? Oscar could be the Orange Lanterns' secret weapon.

An important thing to keep in mind, when picking someone to join the Yellow Lantern Corps, is that you're looking for someone who inflicts fear, not someone who is fearful themselves. With that in mind, I'd suggest Statler and Waldorf. These two are well-known for being able to reduce full-grown bears to quivering, whimpering bundles of nerves with nothing more than their acid wit. Imagine what they could do to Kyle Rayner? ("I hear he designed that costume himself!" "Sure! Nobody else would admit to it!")

And of course, who knows better than Kermit the Frog that it's not that easy to be a Green Lantern? He's had experience managing large numbers of strange-looking creatures with diverse temperaments and getting them to work together, and he knows sinister secrets about the emotional spectrum that the Guardians might be hiding from others. ("Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to we've been told and some choose to believe it, I know they're wrong, wait and see...")

It's almost hard to choose a single member for the Blue Lanterns, the color of hope. After all, there are a lot of very optimistic characters out there to choose from. But I'd have to say that Gonzo the Great best symbolizes the hope that characterizes the Blue Lantern Corps--after all, he sincerely believes that someday, people will watch him eating a rubber tire to the music of "Flight of the Bumblebee" and call it Art. That takes a lot of hope.

This could have the potential to create some serious drama and conflict in the story, because the Indigo Lanterns of compassion have chosen Camilla the Chicken to aid them in this epic conflict. With her constant selfless concern for Gonzo's well-being, her loyalties will be torn to the breaking point. (I'm expecting that this will be the moment that all the fans remember.)

And of course, Star Sapphire's irrational obsession with Hal Jordan is nothing next to Miss Piggy and her love of Kermit. This makes her the perfect choice for the Violet Lantern Corps, who use the power of love to fuel their rings. And unlike that wussy Carol Ferris, Miss Piggy's fully capable of defending herself even without a ring. Hiiii-yaa!

Which just leaves the Black Lanterns, the Corps of death. Several prominent deceased DC characters have already been revealed to be Black Lanterns, such as the Martian Manhunter and the Earth-2 Superman, but their terror pales next to that of Uncle Deadly, the sinister Muppet inspired by none other than Vincent Price himself. The Uncle Deadly/Mogo fight is going to be one that fans are talking about for ages.

In fact, if DC takes my advice, I think fans will be talking about this whole crossover for ages.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Invisible Man"

(or "Like '100 Bullets', But Without The Bullets")

The problem with creating an open-ended series from H.G. Wells' classic novel, 'The Invisible Man', is fairly obvious when you read it; not to spoil the big surprise, but the title character winds up dead by the end of the story. This makes it a little bit tricky to continue telling tales about him (a common theme among Universal's horror films, as we've seen in the past. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon all met similar fates.)

But, as with those other monsters, that didn't stop Universal from deciding to make a sequel to a profitable film. It fell to Lester Cole, Curt Siodmak, and Joe May to find a way to turn the one-off story into a storytelling engine, and they found a doozy. Sure, Jack Griffin, the inventor of the invisibility formula, might have gone mad from the side effects of his creation. Yes, he was shot and killed in order to end his reign of terror. But that's the end of Griffin, not the end of the formula.

The invisibility formula becomes the new center of the sequels that followed the continuity of the original film (which wasn't all of them. "The Invisible Woman" is a screwball comedy with a nutty professor, and "The Invisible Man's Revenge" follows a different scientist with his own formula, which he tests on someone who was pretty insane to start with.) Griffin's brother, Frank, duplicates his brother's research...but runs into the same stumbling block his brother did. There's no way to reverse the formula, and no way to cure the side effect of progressive megalomania. But for a few people who have access to the formula, the power is is the price.

So the question in the sequels becomes, "What would drive someone to use such a formula?" In "The Invisible Man Returns", it's a question of necessity; the main character has been sentenced to hang for a murder he didn't commit, and has to use the formula to clear his name and find the real killer (while scientist Frank Griffin frantically searches for a cure.) In "Invisible Agent", it's an issue of patriotism; Griffin's grandson (the movie seems confused on which Griffin it is--they suggest Jack, but Frank makes more sense) uses the formula to become the ultimate Allied spy, able to walk through the streets of Berlin and steal vital secrets right out from under the Nazis...until his paranoia turns him against his German contacts. It's worth mentioning that both movies do invent a cure, in the form of massive blood transfusions--when the character you're following is more sympathetic than the original glory-hungry Jack Griffin, it's nice to be able to give them a happy ending.

Universal's sequels trailed off after that, but the "invisibility formula" MacGuffin can easily provide more seeds for stories in the hands of an intelligent writer. Giving a power that carries a price to a desperate man or woman isn't just a good way to start a story, it's a resonant one; we've all felt the touch of obsession and its dangers to some degree or another, and whether the protagonist manages to pull back from the brink of madness or falls into its depths, their struggle reminds us of the risks of giving everything up for a single cause.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Top Five Movies Due For a Remake

This post is actually coming to you from sunny Texas (OK, rainy Texas, but it beats single-digit Minnesota temperatures.) And I'm stuck for an idea, I'm wasting time that could be spent watching my niece be goofy, and it's only my superhuman dedication to my reading audience that keeps me from just skipping this week. (The smart-alecks among you may point out that I'm "superhumanly" posting this two days late. That's not the point, people, stay focused.)

So I'm just going for the easy post this week: Given that Hollywood seems to be remaking just about everything, why don't we use that power for good and direct them to some movies that need a little remake love? Here's five movies that need to be remade today, and why.

5. The Last Starfighter. This one had it all--a brilliant high concept, action a-plenty, heroes fighting it out for the future of the human race, and some classic one-liners ("What do we do now?" "Die.") But unfortunately, they decided to go with CGI graphics when those were still in their gestation, let alone their infancy, they had a slightly-below-par budget for the flick, and as a result, I don't think it was realized quite as well as it should be. Admittedly, a remake would lose Robert Preston's wonderful performance, but it's not like it erases the original from the shelves.

4. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. No, seriously. Ben Edlund agrees with me, and he made "The Tick"! It's a fun, goofy idea for a kid's movie, with Martians trying to kidnap Santa Claus to make the Martian children happy, but it suffers from several poor performances and the lowest production values of any movie in history. (Seriously, Ed Wood spent more money on his films.) Imagine for about five seconds what Pixar could do with this, and you'll agree it belongs here.

3. The Lost World. Not the "Jurassic Park" sequel, although given how bad that turned out, they could probably stand to take another whack at it. No, I mean the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "hidden valley of dinosaurs" classic, done with reimagined special effects, a huge budget, and not necessarily a slavish devotion to the original like "King Kong" had.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front. This is pretty much here as a representative of all those great classic "should be made into a movie once for every generation, as a lens through which we can examine ourselves" books. The story is about World War I, but so timeless that it always seems to be about the current war, and it'd be nice to see a lavishly produced version by someone like Spielberg. (Think "Saving Private Ryan" in WWI...)

1. The Universal Horror films. I've been going on about this at length for some time now (and I'm not done--next week is "The Invisible Man"), but seriously, these could be evergreen franchises for Universal if they only took the time and effort to develop them. These could be like the James Bond movies, vehicles for unlimited numbers of popular sequels, so long as Universal doesn't make the mistake it did last time of diluting the brand with low-quality, shoddy sequels that they figured would sell simply on the strength of the title. A slick, unpretentious, exciting remake of "Dracula" is always going to work, whether today, tomorrow, or a hundred years from now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Sherlock Holmes

(or "The Ultimate Success")

I'm currently in the midst of reading Kelly Hale's fascinating (and undeservedly obscure) novel, "Erasing Sherlock", and it occurs to me that a large part of the reason it works so well is that the phenomenon it describes feels so real. The book, for those who haven't read it, is about a time-traveling historian who insinuates herself into the life of Holmes as a maid, in order to observe the Great Detective first-hand and discover details of his life, methods and motivations that Watson never wrote down. (Naturally, from there things Go Horribly Wrong, but I'll leave it to you to find out how. Amazon's still got it for sale...) The reason this feels so real is that large numbers of people do involve themselves in "The Great Game" of treating Watson's writings as actual accounts of a real person, analyzing and studying them with an almost obsessive fervor to learn everything they can about Sherlock Holmes...despite the fact that not only was Holmes not real, neither was Watson.

So what exactly is it that makes the Holmes canon such a magnificent storytelling engine that not only could it generate four novels and fifty-six short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not only could it generate hosts of additional novels, short stories, TV shows and movies by authors like Kelly Hale, not only could it inspire fictional detectives like "Monk" and "House", but it could actually inspire people to treat it as though it was a genuinely non-fictional story about real people?

For starters, there's the character of Holmes himself. Doyle imbued the man with a brilliant complexity that lends astonishing verisimilitude to the stories. Holmes doesn't feel like a fictional character (and according to Doyle, was based on an actual person to some degree); he's mercurial, contradictory, displaying a full range of the moods and feelings that real human beings display (for better or worse, sometimes.) He's not exactly charming; in fact, you could make a good case that you wouldn't want to get stuck on a long train ride with the man. But he is fascinating, which is absolutely key for any character that the audience is going to be following for any length of time.

But don't underestimate the importance of Watson. For all that Holmes is the central character, Watson is as key to the series as the companion is to 'Doctor Who'. (Which reminds me, as long as I'm plugging non-canonical Holmes, if you can track down the sadly out-of-print 'All-Consuming Fire', by Andy Lane, you'll get an excellent Holmes/Doctor team-up.) Watson fulfills Holmes' emotional need to explain his brilliant deductions, but more than that, he provides a mechanism to get those deductions from Holmes' mind to the audience in a naturalistic way. A Holmes story without Watson would consist of Holmes grabbing a random man and saying, "He did it!" And where would be the fun in that?

But the final element, and the one that works the hardest to make the Holmes canon seem not just believable but actually real, is the world he operates in. Doyle set the series in what was, for him, the modern day, and grounded it in the familiar world around him. But Doyle's great gift was in bringing those details to life in ways that made them accessible even to someone who didn't live in Victorian London. To a reader picking up the Holmes series a hundred years later, Doyle paints a vivid picture of a time and place that we know to have been real, then inserts his fictional creations into them so seamlessly that it's almost impossible to find the gap. We can believe in a police plodder like Inspector Lestrade, or a matronly boarding-house owner like Mrs. Hudson, or the thousands of tiny details on everything from slum life to hansom cabs to politics that form the world Holmes operates in.

Because of that, it's small wonder that Holmes seems to have taken on a life of his own. Even when his own creator decided to kill him off once and for all, Holmes managed to survive because the audience wouldn't let him be dead. How real is he? He's got a survival instinct, that's how real he is.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Personal Favorites: Flash #50

Today, I just wanted to take a moment to talk about something I love; don't think of it as a formal review, so much as me talking about something awesome and saying, "Isn't that COOL!" like a six-year-old. Because let's face it, sometimes we all need to let out our inner six-year-old. This does mean there'll be spoilers, BTW, so if you just want to experience the issue unspoiled first and then come here and reminisce about it with me, I'd advise running to a comics shop and finding the back issue before reading this.

The subject of my gushing adoration is Flash #50, published in May of 1991, written by the wonderful (and woefully underused these days) William Messner-Loebs, penciled by the talented Greg LaRocque and inked by the equally talented Jose Marzan Jr, with Tim Harkins providing the lettering and Glenn Whitmore handling the coloring, and the underappreciated Brian Augustyn taking care of editing duties.

To fully appreciate this story, you have to understand that Messner-Loebs had been building up to it for a while. Vandal Savage, immortal super-villain, had returned, and he was well and truly making Wally West's life a living hell. He'd kidnapped Wally's friends and family, turned a Russian super-speedster into his drug-addicted slave and dubbed her "Lady Flash", feeding her a super-speed drug called "Velocity 9" to make her as fast as the Flash, and finally set a trap for Wally out in the desert. Actually, it was more sort of a dare than a trap. At the end of Flash #49, Vandal Savage displayed his latest gizmo, a kinetic absorption platform. Standing on it sucked away the Flash's super-speed, leaving him no faster than a normal man. The dare was this: Vandal Savage would let the Flash's loved ones go if he just went and stood on that platform. After that, if he could get back off of it before Vandal Savage could shoot him, he could do whatever he wanted.

So the Flash stepped onto the platform...and Vandal Savage shot him in the chest. (Best. Cliffhanger. Ever.)

We open the issue with Wally bleeding out in the desert sands, as Vandal Savage (true to his word) returns Wally's loved ones to safety. But Messner-Loebs has been setting this up for a while, and one of the things he set up was that the machine intellect Kilg%re, a former-enemy-turned-enlightened-being, promised Wally one big favor. Turns out that favor was a nanite colony in his body that would give him a one-time instant heal from any injury, no matter how apparently fatal. Nice deal, really, and Wally returns to life feeling just fine (albeit slightly freaked out at watching machines erupt out of his chest and fix his wounds.) In fact, he's feeling better than ever--his near-death experience has finally liberated him from his fears of being in Barry Allen's shadow as the Flash.

Meanwhile, Vandal Savage is using Lady Flash to clear out his competitors in the drug trade. He's planning, in his own way, to be altruistic--he's going to corner the drug market, then flood it with tainted product and end the drug problem by killing all the addicts. (He's got a bit of an issue with drugs, since an accident with Velocity 9 is burning up his immortality.) He is, to say the least, confident with the Flash out of the way.

Now is where things kick into gear. Wally goes to STAR Labs and gets a slick new costume (Lady Flash has his old one), and then uses a hologram generator to contact Vandal Savage, telling him that he's not dead, and that he's coming for him at noon tomorrow. "Why did you do that?" one of Flash's allies asked. "You lost the advantage of surprise!"

"I replaced it with something better," Wally says in the second-best line of the issue. "Fear."

Noon tomorrow, and Savage thinks he's ready for the showdown. He's got his desert mansion ringed with the speed-sapping devices, he's got armed gunmen, he's got Lady Flash hopped up on V-9 and ready to fight. Whatever's coming, he can handle it.

He's wrong. The Flash races across the desert so fast the sand is melting to glass under his feet, sending up plumes of liquified sand behind him as he runs. He slams into the speed-sappers at Mach Ungodly, instantly overloading their capacity to absorb energy and causing them all to go up in a massive explosion that knocks half the gunmen out of commission with its shockwave and leaves the whole place a blinding mix of smoke, flames, and blowing sand. In the ensuing eyeblink, the rest of the gunmen go down. It's just the Flash, Savage, and Lady Flash.

Gun out, Savage snarls defiance, ordering Lady Flash to kill him. But she refuses--she's fallen so low, but deep down, she wants to live up to the costume she wears. She wants to be a hero, and the first step is breaking her shameful subservience to Savage. She finds within her a nobility of spirit that she'd lost, and refuses to fight.

Savage is furious. He empties his entire pistol into her at point-blank range, less than an inch away from her skin. They both look down at the same time...but her skin is unmarked. "How--" Savage gasps. "Even with your speed, you could not have--"

From his position twenty feet away, the Flash opens his hand. Six bullets fall out onto the dust. "I caught them," he says, in the best line of the issue. "I could have caught them from fifty feet away, a hundred yards away, two miles away." He starts walking, slowly and confidently, towards Savage. "People always told me that I could be just as fast as Barry, if only I believed it. They're right." He grabs the barrel of the gun, and brings Savage's arm up to point the pistol at his own head. "Care to try another six shots? I've reloaded the gun for you."

That moment is immortalized in my mind, even eighteen years later.

Savage gives up on victory at that point and tries to flee, only to be stopped by his old foe the Immortal Man (whose own powers are in flux, thanks to his connection with Savage--he looks about twelve at the moment.) Their mixed-up powers react on contact with each other, and the explosion leaves neither of them to be seen...but Wally's stopped his drug trade and broken his empire, while finally casting off his self-doubts and becoming the hero he was meant to be.

Many people point to Mark Waid's run on the series as the point where Wally became a legitimate Flash, but I think it began here--certainly, Messner-Loebs seemed to feel he'd done enough, as he left the series a few issues later (although as with any writer's departure, it could have been involuntary.) But I think that this issue capped off a stellar run by a great writer, and it remains a favorite of mine to this day. If you can track it down in back issue boxes, it's well worth reading. (Okay, so there's a bit of "review-ness" to this. But only a bit.)