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Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Jerks

Posted by Matt on November 16, 2011

What of separating the artist from their work? Is it ideal to not let the personality of the creator affect your judgement of their creation, or vice versa? Is it a simple line, or are there gray areas?

Just skimming the surface of the idea, it would seem to be a good path to take. There are going to be times when the person behind the pen/camera/computer/microphone is a colossal prick; you never really know what you’re going to get with them creative types. But if they are really good at what they do, and could put out something that is interesting and enjoyable even if they disagree with you/are a moron (because both can happen, people. It is possible for an opinion to wrong), it should not be an obstacle in enjoying it. And the reverse is also true: there’s no really point in judging someone based solely on their work. A shitty director could be a really nice person in real life, just simply inept at their craft. So the oversimplified answer to the question is yes, you should separate the artist from the work.

The more nuanced and worthwhile answer is…a little more complicated. I truly believe that any worthwhile art is going to reflect something about the artist, consciously or not. And it should be so; a creation not imbued with some aspect of the people behind it is simply a factory-churned non-entity, a product in the worst sense, and not worth discussing at all. Our own personalities are informed by our experiences, so why shouldn’t the products of our mental labour? Why shouldn’t our art be considered an extension of our personalities? It’s not like we simply decide to draw/write/photograph/film/sing/play for no reason: we each have our own motivations and goals for doing the things we do. Sometimes they are rational, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they are discernible, sometimes they aren’t. Art is a product of humanity, not something that just bubbles into existence, and that is a major reason why it’s fascinating.

So I think separating the work from the jerk often dulls the work, taking away the human element that is essential. So then, what happens when you find those mythical beasts, the unpalatable creators? Certainly, if we are to believe that the art is always an extension of the creator, what are we to do then? Well, on a basic craft level, it is still entirely possible to appreciate the technical skill of a director or artist, even if it is used for apparently ill ends. If the personality of the creator is evident in the work, and sometimes it is only faintly so, then we can say that we are judging the work based on the work, so the argument doesn’t really enter the equation. Of course, it is very possible to be a great artist who soaks his or her work with horrific hatred. It is then that it becomes a true personal judgement call: whether the craft can overcome the ugliness, or whether that ugliness can make the work more interesting as you try to determine where the artist is coming from, is up to you. It can enhance the work, but it is entirely understandable if it also deters you from it.

Where this argument most often comes up is when the artist works on something that is completely unrelated to their more controversial personality traits. Science Fiction and Fantasy are the primary ones, as the invented nature of the genres means that modern politics and ethics are not entirely blatant, although there are plenty of times where they are. It is also an issue when dealing with most artists before the 20th century. So we know that Lovecraft was a racist, Heinlein a closet fascist, Ditko a Objectivist, and Sim a misogynist. We also know that most the authors of the classics were any combination of racist, misogynist, authoritarian, and classist. (I’ve also seen it pop up in concerns to religious/non-religious differences. For example: can an atheist read a book by a fervent Christian and not object to it, and vice versa?) At times, this can make their work daunting to take in without violent retching, even when they’re dealing with space men from Mars or flowery poems about nature. At the same time, these disagreeable philosophies can still be an interesting part of the work, something for the astute reader to pick apart to see where they were coming from. Again, it’s entirely a personal judgement call, but I think in the grand majority of these cases, one should not try to completely remove the author from the reading. I think something is lost in there if one does, even if that something is terrible.

In the end, one must recognize that our reaction to the creator, and to associate their work with them even when the connection isn’t obvious, is an entirely human thing to do. What one does with that is entirely up to each individual. To completely remove that association is to remove the human element of the art, in my mind. Maybe to some that’s a good way to keep enjoying the art. But I wouldn’t want to have to remove anything to enjoy it. What’s in the art and entertainment, good and bad, is what makes it interesting.

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Posted by Matt on October 29, 2011

From my rather limited knowledge of the actual media involved:

The more I think about these days, the more I come to like the character of Superman. I have often heard people argue that he is “boring” for one reason or another; he’s too powerful, he’s too nice, etc. This may come from the many cases where the potential of Superman were squandered by lazy or small-minded creators; it may also come from a rather skewed sense of what constitutes an “interesting” character, one that has somehow had it been hammered into their skull that nice guys aren’t real, and that purplish angst and brooding and suffering are the signs of a developed personality. Of course, if you have ever talked to another human being in your life, you know that’s shit.

The most recent observation I’ve had about Superman’s character is one that not only makes him stand out among the legions of copycat superheroes (well, that might be going too far; Superman started the genre and all the associated elements, but it’s a pretty broad category), and one that has appeal to me and my own writing tics: Superman is one of the few characters I know of that chose his or her life, rather than having it imposed on them by events beyond their control. Now, you could argue that the cataclysmic event that put Superman on Earth was beyond his control, which is true. But for the most part, the destruction of Krypton has very little bearing on Superman/Clark Kent’s choices in life, a few plotlines involving bottled cities and the like excepted, and feels more like a convenient excuse to give him superpowers. For the most part, though, it went like this: Clark Kent found out he had superpowers, and decided to use them to help people. It’s simple. But it’s also effective.

Compare to that to most other comic superheroes: Batman has dead parents (and the absurdity of the whole origin story is often underplayed because of bat-favouritism, especially when you pile up all the Bruce Wayne exploits they’ve revealed over the years; it’s silly enough that a kid with dead parents decides to punch gangsters in a bat costume, but he also decided to become a word-class chemist and get ninja training in the Himalayas?), the Hulk and Fantastic Four are all blasted by made-up radiation (and the event being beyond Bruce Banner’s control is integral to the Hulk character, it must be said), the X-Men are all born in a world that hates them (turning what seems like every non-mutant person into a mini-Torquemada, a rather hilarious bit of melodrama), Iron Man got shrapnel in the heart, Thor is banished to earth for being a dick, etc. The closest thing to Superman’s situation in another comic character is probably Spider-Man; but even then, his powers are from an accident, and his decision to fight crime needs to be prompted by personal tragedy. All of them, to varying degrees, do what they do because of something that happened to them. It doesn’t feel like it was their decision.

That’s not the case for Superman. Despite being an alien, it’s only the powers he successfully keeps secret that separates him from normal people. There’s no prejudice keeping him down, no dead relatives inspiring him to do one thing or another (well, at leas that WAS the case), not even a big monstrous threat that needs smiting (initially). He simply made a rational decision (or at least as rational as it can be coming with a bright red cape and underpants) to become a vigilante hero using his powers (and also a journalist, something that a lot of people seem to overlook – he’s fighting the good fight on two fronts). This, to me, is rather refreshing. I think we need to appreciate it in these simple stories when they actually show someone actually being proactive and taking what they’re given and going with it, which is surprisingly rare.

Of course, that “simplicity” may be part of the reason people call Superman boring. But to me, it just opens up possibilities – and that’s one of the things I decided I like about Superman, the sheer number of possibilities. A character with that level of power, that kind of background, that kind of mindset? You could do anything with that. When it comes to these long-lived media properties, that’s a real boon, isn’t it?

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Monster is just another name for life

Posted by Matt on October 2, 2011

It’s back to class, which means back to actually reading books on a regular basis. I like reading books, even if it’s for reasons other than my own curiosity or enjoyment. It’s good to be exposed to material that you might not have checked out otherwise, which is why I really do enjoy these English courses. I think I might take them for the rest of my life.

But here’s what I’m getting at:

One of my recent reads was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I had read Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, so I have material for comparison, I guess. Oryx is certainly more sci-fi, in that old-fashioned sense where morals are explicit and technology dooms us all. That’s not to simplify the book, it’s certainly not another wailing lament of what a mess we’ve made. Atwood’s way too smart for that. It’s running with far sillier concepts than Handmaid’s Tale (it’s hard not to chortle at least once with names like Pigoon, Rakunk, Wolvog, and the like being constantly tossed about), but that is certainly a side-effect of the subject matter. You get silly names when you’re dealing with gene-slicing and corporate culture, but not when you’re talking about theocracy, you know?

It also amazes me that an 80-year-old woman can write material that reminds me of…well, me, and other people like me. You know, the kids of today. She’s pretty up with the youth culture.

It’s the aforementioned genetic science stuff that makes me a bit…apprehensive. I find the satire of corporate culture funny and fascinating, and it is often grappling with the same ideas I have found very interesting (the segregation between the ‘corporate citizens’ and the people in the cities is an idea I’ve had before, and it’s an idea that looks increasingly plausible). In a way, I want to simply dismiss the problems with the science aspect of the novel by saying it’s a byproduct of the corporate stuff. Essentially, that this is not so much a screed against genetic engineering entirely, but against the possibilities of genetic engineering under the control of for-profit entities. The relationship between science and commerce is a tricky thing. For every new thing we discover, there’s a capitalist asshole who’ll exploit it for money. As the novel itself points out, the scientists under the illusion that these discoveries help people will often ignore how the byproducts of their work are used to bilk the desperate. As a primary example, we know of many cases where advances in agriculture are almost immediately co-opted by evil corporations like Monsanto (and while the ‘evil corporation’ pejorative is a cliche for aimlessly angry youth and aging hippies, if you do any reading about what Monsanto has done in the past, you’d agree with me that those guys are fucked up) and turned into copyright so they can drain farmers for upkeep and sue if their hybrid seeds accidentally land on another’s guy land, if that guy actually owns his own land instead of tending official Monsanto Land.

Yes, that’s what I’d like to believe, just to make my brain happy. But I can’t. I know I need to face these criticisms head on.

I don’t think Atwood is anti-science. And make no mistake: the irrational fear of what can come about from genetic engineering is anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-discovery. The “Frankenfood” meme comes from people who seem to forget that all agriculture is based around altering plants and animals to our liking, with the only difference being that corn and dairy cows were bred into existence eons ago by simple farming folk, and the stuff today is being done by guys in lab coats, who they have been trained to dislike because they do…stuff. The creation of these animals are often based on real ideas being tossed around, but they are exaggerated. The thing is, things like man-animal hybrids aren’t real, and have no scientific reason to ever be real. Getting a skin graft from a pig is not the same thing.

A lot of people, including possibly Atwood, seem to have this invisible line between what is natural and what is artificial. Nature is sacred, even if you take spirituality out of the equation. You can learn and tinker with only so much in the ‘natural’ world before you’ve gone too far. Making life in a test tube is going too far.

Here’s the thing: those lines? They don’t exist. They’re made up. Because the brain we’ve evolved with lets us do stuff like that.

This is not to say that humans cannot fuck up with environment with their meddling. They most certainly can. But that shouldn’t be used against learning how the our biology and the biology of the things all around us works, and using that knowledge to benefit us. Nothing we do is entirely separate from the natural world, and testing out new ideas shouldn’t be seen in a negative light automatically. The same rational minds that genetically engineers corn will know that introducing a new species into the ecosystem can cause major damage if it’s not contained, and will attempt to connect it. We even see that in the novel, albeit it ends badly anyway.

I’m tired of the cliche of the cold, calculating scientist, screwing with shit in his or her lab, reveling in their god role. In the context of Oryx and Crake, this can be seen as a product of the corporate environment, where the goal in science is not for human advancement, but in creating products. This is an issue that we all have to deal with; but more often than not, it’s simply used as a justification for bludgeoning real science if it makes people uncomfortable. It switches the target, and let’s the real crooks get away. So while people hack away at the ethical/moral issues of genetic engineering, that issue of corporate control (which is brought up as an argument and subsequently dropped, or bundled into the case against the science itself, as if they will always be one and the same) gets away with minor cuts and bruises. Once again, one of the things I like about this novel is that it doesn’t immediately drop the criticisms of the corporate mindset just so we can gasp at how awful the very idea of genetically engineering animals is; both are targeted equally, each on their own terms.

But it doesn’t explain away all the attacks on genetic engineering. It seems to, what with the companies all mainly being about selling things like specially grown fried chicken (yes, that old urban legend), or creating vanity products and services. But as much as those are justly ridiculed, we are never presented with a positive alternative. The organ transplant pigs are not seen as any more beneficial, and the fact that they, as mentioned before, get out into the wild and wreck shit (alongside all the other silly names in the book), just seems to reinforce the idea that it’s all bad, even when it’s not immediately recognizable as a useless corporate product (even if it actually is, as it shows). I don’t think I should expect there to be a “well, that’s no good, but this is an okay application!” segment of the book, that would break up the narrative and muddy the point. But it brings that apprehensiveness back, because…well, I just don’t really think that genetically modifying plants and animals (human and non-human) is an inherently bad as this book seems to position it as.

The character of Crake interests me. Crake is, in my mind, a perfect example of a Aspergers supervillain. Now, “supervillain” may be a going a bit too far, even calling him a villain or antagonist in general is wrong, but the guy does kill everyone on earth except the protagonist, so we’re in the same ballpark at least. It’s a character type I myself have tried to work with, and both arise out of that previously mentioned scientist stereotype, but with less of the cold logic and Hollywood insanity, and more general social ineptitude and that very real kind of mania that this type of person can have. To a degree, both the protagonist and Crake share a lack of self-awareness that seem to come with the culture of the novel. They watch porn (including pedo stuff, which brings Oryx into the story) and what essentially amounts of to a combination of reality TV and shock sites, with little to no emotional impact, except at points where the mania seeps in. But the protagonist grows up to be rather petulant, idealistic in a sense but self-absorbed, Crake only goes further into the obsessiveness, eventually making his own race of humans, for no reason other than because he can. There are shines of other motivations in his character, an attempt to always be control being the main one, but it still seems to be simply part of that very specific, very modern-feeling kind of psychopathy. He’s not simply a mad scientist, he’s a guy who became a prodigy and can never stop doing what he’s good at. The urge to create overtakes everything else. It’s a condition that neatly fits into both scientific and corporate environments. I find it to be an interesting bit of characterization.

But that just leads back to the question of scientific ethics: if Crake is the best of the best in his field, what does that say about his field? As I said, I don’t think Atwood is trying to oversimplify things, “these guys are all bad!” or anything like that, but there’s not a whole lot of sympathy shown for them. All the geneticists are either entirely deluded and compromised (like the protagonist’s dad), scheming assholes, or genocidal nerds like Crake. The protagonist, who does not become a geneticist but is raised by them, ends up playing false prophet to a group of naive human spin-offs. In fact, about the only half-decent person in the book is Oryx, but she’s so fucked up mentally that you never really notice. All this seems to show that the view one could gleam from the book is a little more nuanced than simply “you guys are fucking with nature! stop it!”; there are people in the book, people whose actions and reactions are very human. It’s some musty old sensationalist story of science gone wrong. It does attempt to really get into these issues, not simply declare them off-limits.

But no matter how much I want to praise Atwood for her ideas, I just can’t shake the feeling that this delves into anti-science territory. I personally don’t think we should limit what we can learn about and how, even though we should be careful with it. So I have some trouble coming to terms with what this book might be trying to tell me. It’s one of those very difficult matters in art, where something seems to be on the razor’s edge between critical analysis and screeching propaganda. It’s definitely a good piece of dystopic fiction; but I still need to determine what people are taking from it, and whether or not that’s a good thing.

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This is indeed a disturbing universe

Posted by Matt on September 15, 2011

One of those curious features seemingly exclusive to genre entertainment is the idea of the shared universe (and the related concept of continuity), exemplified by Marvel and DC’s years of comic book world building. As far as I know, which admittedly is rather limited in many areas, they are the most successful examples of this concept; the expanded universes of popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which are fairly vast, feel more like throngs of officially sanctioned fan fiction that are tossed aside by the folks behind the “real” product. This is likely a byproduct of those two franchises coming from more expensive mediums and being “expanded” by books, comics, and video games, which will always feel disconnected from the central parts of the lines. No, Marvel and DC’s comics have always been comics and only follow the lead of other comics, so they really come together as a whole.

There is certainly an appeal to the concept of the shared universe. There is the idea that it makes each story feel part of a greater whole, even though that really only exists in concept and not really in practice. Although I find the idea of superheroes as the new mythology to be misguided at best, laughable at my most cynical, there are parallels to be drawn there. For me personally, I kind of like the idea of all these disparate characters and ideas just existing in the same space. It feels…like breaking the rules, I guess? Wizards and space aliens and robots and modern street toughs just shouldn’t all converge like that due to some unwritten rules of fiction, and so knowing that they can and will is a delight. For silly people with silly imaginations like me, that is.

But you can’t simply have these characters and stories be able to come over for a visit, oh no. There needs to be synchronization. Giving other creators the ability to compromise the integrity of another creator’s story is bad for everyone. This hasn’t stopped them from doing this (see: New X-Men), but again, in THEORY, the idea is to make sure all the stories “count” (by which I mean their individual meaning, as little as it may be at times, should be respected by the other creators), and that means some content policing if one is to be part of the universe of stories. That is where continuity comes in. Removed from the imaginary context of these stories, it doesn’t seem particularly necessary – why should it matter how one thing is references or one character is described, as long as it serves the story at that moment? The individual stories are rarely ever harmed by a lack of line-wide continuity. But, considering that a lot of these publishers may want you, the reader of Book A, to think about picking up Book B, making sure those books don’t explicitly contradict each other and confuse you is a reasonable goal. Continuity can be both a hindrance and a help, depending on when and how it is applied.

Continuity can be limiting on some of the stories possible within that line’s sphere of influence, especially in the case of often well-deserved satire. The people upstairs have been known to tolerate such things at times, but push it too far and they may fight back. Things like that, however, are simply the sacrifice one must make when taking part in a grand project like this.

The fictional universe is at its best when all that policing is done by genuinely creative people, all who respect each other’s work, and who take part in the concept to essentially help each other out creatively. To riff and homage each other, essentially. A real communal atmosphere, and one that seems to be sadly absent from most examples of universe-building.

It wasn’t always that way. It’s hard for me to say that the environment was really less corporate in the past, I really have nothing to back that up. But I think the thought processes behind it were different. In the 60s, when Gardner Fox created the JLA and Earth-2 and all the other things, he was paying homage to the comics created by him and many others during the 40s. When Stan Lee (or whoever actually came up with the idea, it’s really hard to tell with early Marvel for someone less studied in the history and evidence like myself) had his characters meet up, it was because the idea of these costumed people filling the streets of Manhattan, and little nods like Spider-Man trying to get a job with the Fantastic Four were amusing.

The creator’s ideal in the fictional universe and the goal of those who take part in it should be that of a toy box: you have freedom to use the toys already in there in whatever way you want (just don’t break them), but the expectation is that for every toy you take out, you add one for someone else to play with. Take a penny, leave a penny. Contribute to the greater whole, etc., etc. It makes more a greater creative environment, where you know that not only will the others respect your contributions, but they are willing to further them and give you more story opportunities.

Where the problems creep in is when the contributors to the shared universe become too reliant on the elements introduced by their predecessors or contemporaries, warping a story into a arcane, spot-the-reference bit of purposeless fan wanking. If bits of continuity are used for their own sake, rather than to enhance the current story (or even another one), they make readers feel like they should be either paying more attention (for all the wrong reasons) or buying the other books (for all the wrong reasons). The latter is something economically desirable for the publisher, sure, but how likely will it be that they’ll create a sustainable number of obsessives? These things should be able to stand on their own, and can possibly be enhanced by taking part in the wider context of the shared universe; they shouldn’t need to be decoded. Which is not to say that obscure fan service is always a bad thing; it can be a great deal a fun for folks in the know. But it needs to be earned, and it can’t make the thing unreadable to a whole segment of the audience.

So, I’m a little wary of this approach. On one hand, it can lead to some great stuff, where talented folks can work on each other’s ideas and make them even better; plus, it can be kind of fun. On the other hand, it can also be terribly limiting. The appeal is definitely there, which is why the comics have been able to implement it rather successfully over the last few decades. But it’s not easy to create, and definitely not easy to maintain. I would say it’s a high risk, high reward idea, but is the reward really all that high? It seems more like high risk for a unique reward, one that is rarely seen and a little spectacular when done right. That sounds a lot like genre fiction in general, really.

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The Legendary Hero is No More

Posted by Matt on August 23, 2011

Dear Mr. Morrison (or Grant, if you prefer),

I was a late bloomer, if you will, when it came to comics. I didn’t grow up with the modern mythos, the adventures of Marvel and DC’s line-up with costumed crime-fighters, like you and so many other people did. What I knew about them was gleaned from the licensed products: the television shows, the toys, and everything else. I didn’t know about all the things, great things, those comics contained.

I was given a huge load of comics in high school. Quite the variety, really. Classic Lee/Romita Spider-Man, Watchmen, Claremont/Byrne X-Men, Gaiman’s Sandman, at least one example of Kyle Baker…works both classic and modern. But none, none, affected me quite as much as your with Richard Case (and numerous other great artists!) on Doom Patrol.

When I first picked up Doom Patrol, I was taken in by the weirdness of the characters, the Scissormen, the Brotherhood of Dada, Danny the Street, et al. What delightful fun, I thought. My appreciation of your work only grew the more I read; it opened my imagination to all the possibilities comics had, the limitless number of images, the infusion of Burroughs, the rebellion against a world determined homogenize everything, and the way it can make you connect with its characters. Your characters were people I cared about, people whose adventures I wanted to read about. All of these things culminated in your last issue in that series, which is one the most sad, beautiful things I have ever read.

Doom Patrol, more than any other, has come to be my personal high-water mark for comics. It is the thing that inspires me the most. Part of my motivation for attempting a career as a writer is to give other people the kind of joy you gave me in those comics, and all the subsequent series of yours that I’ve read. I just want to thank you for that.

With that, I come to my main reason for writing this: I think we’re finished as artist and audience.

I haven’t read any of your recent Batman work (although I have read Arkham Asylum and Batman: Gothic, both of which I enjoyed), or Final Crisis for that matter; I’m simply not interested. I could gather in your early work that you really do love DC Comics and it’s characters; they seem to be as near and dear to you as your comics have been to me. You’ve probably dreamed for years of becoming the architect of some of the world’s best known fictional characters. I do not begrudge you for this; I simply skip that part of your output that does not interest me, and wait for the next Seaguy.

No, that’s not my problem. What my problem happens to be is the side of you that these last few years have brought out in you. This is has been especially troubling in the last few months, as you have been interviewed about your autobiography (which I have not yet read, and with all that has gone on, may never read now). To be honest, in a lot of these interviews, you’re come off as full of shit.

Let’s take your recent Rolling Stone interview, for example. Specifically, your controversial statement about Chris Ware. Now, I’m not a Ware reader (not out of indifference or antipathy, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet), and to be fair, I think you sort of have a point. I think the critical corners in the comics world have spent far too much time setting up the world as the superhero crowd-pleasers at Marvel/DC with versus the lonely white boy stories told by Ware and others, as if those are our only two choices. They’re not, and the sooner we exit that dichotomy, the better off we’ll be.

No, where I have a problem is your calling them out on being “privileged American college kids”, and that this comes from your “Scottish working class” background. Maybe that would actually have been true when you were writing Zenith, or Doom Patrol, or The Invisibles, or maybe even New X-Men. But not now. Not when you own a house in Hollywood, get preferential treatment from a large corporation to keep their multimillion dollar trademarks in circulation, and get paid god knows how much to write movies about aliens fighting dinosaurs. You have no fucking right to criticize anyone else for being “privileged”.

Then there’s your statements about Siegel & Shuster in your book. You know, the guys who created the character you seem to think is so important, and are going to be writing about starting next month. You apparently don’t think their side of the story is very important, and that the half-century struggle for proper recognition and compensation for creating one of the best known fictional characters of the 20th and 21st centuries is trivial. Despite your attempts to convince everyone that superheroes are the modern mythology, you can’t make us overlook that Superman, Batman, and the rest were created by very specific people, and are now the property of another group of people who see them simply as a brand for them to sell. You can’t make them go away. The creator rights battle is a major part of the history of the so-called supergods, and I think people are beginning to realize that they may be the most important part.

You know, I don’t like to armchair analyze other people’s motivations, I really don’t, but all these things: the dismissal of people like Ware who aren’t big fans of superheroes, the dismissal of critical circles like The Comics Journal, the dismissal of the creators of the characters you write for, the dismissal of Alan Moore because he realized what a raw deal the superhero industry is and makes sure everyone knows it…it really sounds like your are trying to protect yourself from all the people that make you feel guilty for wanting so bad to be where you are today, the guy who gets to direct a superhero universe (under the auspices of the money men at Warner Bros). You probably need to make sure Alan Moore and all those other voices never get to you, because if they ever do, you’ll realize that, not long ago, you were one of them. Fighting corporate tyranny and it’s sadistic enslavement of imagination. You were once the solution to the problem. Now, you’re the problem’s willing servant.

But again, good for you for getting to live out your dream. I hope you enjoy it. I know I will continue to read and enjoy Doom Patrol, Animal Man, We3, The Filth, and all the rest. But I just don’t think I can take anything you write from now on seriously. Not like I used to. You’ve been compromised by the allure of the corporate superhero.

Thank you so much for all you’ve given me.

Now take your Batman comics and go to hell, old man.

Additional reading:

Dan Nadel at The Comics Journal
David Brothers at 4thletter!
Abhay on the Siegel & Shuster Thing
Comics Commentary

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Which can be misconstrued as saying The Dark Half is the scariest story ever

Posted by Matt on August 18, 2011

I find disorders like paranoid schizophrenia and depression to be among the scariest things in the world. There is something to the idea of a thing that only affects you (in a way) and can’t be turned off. Like a deformity, a curse, something that follows you everywhere, can’t be satisfied, can’t be quieted; it’s as permanent as every other sensation. The only short term solution often involves forcing your personality to change, whether it be through changing your life patterns or taking drugs. Sometimes, these things will eventually rid you of the problem. Other times, it can return, even worse than before. In either case, once you’ve suffered something like this once, you will always remember it, and you’ll be stuck with a lingering fear that it could return. That can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t know if it’s just a hypersensitivity to noise or something else, but sometimes I think I hear noises. Whispers. I know they’re not really there, but sometimes it just feels like I can’t make them stop. I’ve lived like this for most of my life. It’s not that bad, really. But it makes me wonder. It makes me wonder what it would be like if those noises I can easily dismiss were a lot louder, a lot harder to ignore. Omnipresent. I wonder what it would be like if I couldn’t use my rationality to rid myself of the fear that creeps in. Then, I wonder what would it be like if this was a regular occurrence, and if there was no easy way I could deal with it, other than a major medical intervention. This scares me more than anything else.

What’s worse is that there is no single cause to these disorders. Certain events can trigger them, but there’s no germ, no force we can blame our problems on. Sometimes, they simply happen, even to people we don’t expect. To people who didn’t expect it themselves. It is simply something that happens to us, a fact of the chemical interactions that make up our thoughts. I guess saying “what’s worse” at the beginning of the paragraph was sort of hyperbolic. It’s not something that I find to be that frightening, or that puts me into a state of “oh woe is the chaos of nature” nihilism. It’s simply…a fact. Something that’s good to know. A point of interest. Not that knowing will render the problem null if and when it ever shows up, although I think a greater understanding will make sure the proper steps are taken as quickly as possible.

It is a topic I come back to. I mean, it’s horrible, and something I’d probably do anything to avoid. But as creative type, I like looking at these things that scare me, and trying to understand why for me personally, why it might be the same for other people, and as many other angles as possible. It’s a good way to get ideas for stories and characterization. It may also help with my mental health, but why should that ever be a priority?

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The People Will Know When You Have Failed Them

Posted by Matt on August 16, 2011

With it looking like I have failed to become a student of journalism, why not talk about journalism some more?

The more I think about it, the more I think that journalism is a fucking science. The ADHD news cycle has moved past it already, but there was a good month there where tabloids were being scrutinized for their shitty tactics and scary level of political influence in the UK. In Greater Canadian Motherland, we have no such problem, despite Quebecor’s ubiquity on the newstands of the nations (and yes, I see as many people picking up the Winnipeg Sun as the actual[ly kind of mediocre] newspapers). It has been kind of interesting/amusing to see Sun News end up as the failure pile in a sadness bowl it is, desperate for anyone to pay attention to it. So much for Fox News North, you conspiracy nuts.

I’d like to think most people who buy tabloids know that they’re paying for screeching paranoia for people who want to be outraged all the fucking time, and that it’s really only for entertainment purposes (shitty entertainment, but when has that ever been an issue for most?) That’s way too optimistic of me. Chances are the people picking up the Sun think they’re getting the same level of quality information as readers of the Free Press. But that’s probably because they see the news, in all its forms, as a form of entertainment. Through the fault of the press, who have on a whole dumbed themselves down to reach some mythical rich idiot demographic that keeps getting distracted by shiny rocks or something, and/or the people themselves, who just don’t fucking care, the idea of the news has been distorted into either something you gloss over before you look at the TV listings, or a thing you read to have all your previously held opinions validated.

It shouldn’t be either. For the most part, good journalism is essentially politically neutral (although not really, because most politics involves molding reality in the minds of the people who let you do stuff, and unfortunately truth and information often gets in the way of that). I mean, facts well told may be unpalatable to one person who overly identifies with a political mindset, but facts hold no biases and are equal opportunity. As long as the information is accurate and provided within the proper context, we can be sure that decisions are informed, even when they completely disregard the facts for wild fantasy.

The idea that it has to be either shrieking or bone-dry is a false one. There is style in news reporting, and it involves skillfully and clearly conveying all the vital information of a story. It can be informative and entertaining you know, unless you can only be entertained by bright colours and movement. There is no hope for you then.

Now down to the science part, which is hilarious considering how badly reporters often mangle stories from the world of science (documented pretty frequently by Ben Goldacre). Journalism has what should be a scientific model system built in: science papers have peer review, newspapers (presumably) have editors and/or fact checkers. Now, editors aren’t going to make your reporting go from shit to gold, and poor/manipulative writing can still creep through. Even so, there’s still a level of assurance that a second opinion is being brought in, so we don’t just get straight prose goop from the reporter’s notepad to your table.

Whether or not the editors are doing their job is another issue entirely.

There’s also the issue of transparency. Science has built-in transparency: all published papers are easily accessible, and references and details about experiments are required. Reporting can’t quite have the same level of transparency, what with confidentiality of certain sources imperative. That gets into a whole ethics battle that will likely rage between journalists forever.

This means the comparison isn’t 100% perfect, of course. But in a very broad sense, science and journalism are still pretty close: both are based on reporting real, tangible information, require truthfulness and clarity on the side of the reporter, and need to pass a review process, where hopefully the information is confirmed as legitimate before being released for mass consumption. Both should be readable by everyone, and both are essential to understanding the world and making sure we don’t screw it up further. The dubious examples of both should be easily identifiable for most, and they should be criticized for it. No one should be ‘tricked’ into reading a tabloid, they should be able to detect the sensationalist shit just from the headline.

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Posted by Matt on July 29, 2011

I try to avoid watching newer episodes of The Simpsons. It’s not simply that I don’t find them funny anymore, although they aren’t. I have a much stronger reaction to them than I should, really. They are more mediocre than outright offensively terrible. But this is The Simpsons, and The Simpsons means a lot to me. So to see something under the name of one of my dearest pieces of entertainment, featuring characters who have provided with me so much over the years, spout out easy jokes and go for whiz-bang technical stuff and overly complicated plotting over any real heart or humour…it’s like the uncanny valley. It makes me feel ill.

I think a couple months ago, I saw most of two episodes. One of them had Werner Herzog as the guest star, which should be right up my alley, but it just didn’t click. For one, Herzog wasn’t really playing a character (although he is one of the few celebrity guests nowadays who wasn’t playing himself), but rather a vehicle for Wernzer Herzog to say things on The Simpsons. That isn’t terrible in itself, but it shows a real lack of thought behind the whole thing. Aside from that, there was a plot about Lisa inventing some sort of medication that made things placid, and giving it to all the established elderly characters on the show so they’d be less grumpy. Then their eyeballs pop out of their sockets, and we get some speech about how being grumpy is a natural and good and etc. Nothing about any of this is inherently funny or insightful or whatever. It just sort of…happens. I’d say the premise is too outlandish for the show, but I since some of my favourite episodes feature outlandish plots (“Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”, for example”), I really can’t use that as a major negative. The difference is that where in episodes like “Deep Space Homer”, the ridiculousness of the plot was a major vehicle for jokes and character moments, something like this episode doesn’t really have much of either. I guess the writers just thought it was a funny visual? It isn’t, but that’s the best explanation I can think of for it.

Now, none of what I saw in that episode was truly awful, and considering the obnoxious stupidity of some of the show’s brethren on Fox Sunday nights (The Cleveland Show, for the love of god), it’s almost a palate cleanser. But it’s still incredibly middle-of-the-road material, only slightly more sophisticated than the average syndicated sitcom. And really, that’s the level I put The Simpsons and Family Guy (a show that, while never to everyone’s tastes, could have at least been considered inventive some years ago, before falling into a predictable and sometimes smug routine), basically animated counterparts to King of Queens and the like. The only reason I care about this at all is because, at one point, I liked these shows. In the case of The Simpsons, I loved it, internalized it, and still watch the good episodes whenever I get a chance, and still laugh at them. It could be an easily ignored program if it didn’t seem like a mediocre puppeteer controlling the corpse of something once great. So I avoid it not just because it’s no good, but because it’s no good and it was once the greatest and that makes me cringe.

Part of what helps ease the pain of the loss of The Simpsons (and really, can you consider getting 8 years of some of the funniest material ever that can be rewatched infinitely a loss? Most good shows can only dream of having that level of consistency for that long) is that since the show went south, others have picked up the ball and ran with it. Comedy both animated and live action have been influenced by the show as much as I have, and they not only aspire to reach the levels it did at its peak, but to do it in their own way. Considering the level of impact The Simpson had, you could probably connect it to all modern comedies in some way, but the best of the disciples are the ones who are so good, the influence is subtle.

To use some of my current favourites as examples, the whip-smart dialog of The Venture Brothers can be attributed to the Simpsons influence, but it’s also a show with its own ideas, a real desire to create characters, and not just shapes with names that jokes are attributed to. Not to mention the action and real dark satire of how the promise of the future in the boys adventure fiction the show skewers has been fucked up royally; stuff that the more sitcom-y Simpsons wouldn’t dream of doing. Even something like Adventure Time, which is part of a wave of childrens’ cartoons that aim to bring back the animator-driven format of old that the writer-driven model represented by The Simpsons seemed to antagonize, has taken the show’s cue when it comes to its dialog-based jokes and attention to detail (both AT and the earlier Simpsons seasons understand the sheer comic potential of facial exaggeration, for example). Even if I hadn’t heard Pen Ward explain how much he looks up to The Simpsons, I can still tell that Finn and Jake fighting Why-Wolves and George Takei Heart wouldn’t be possible in a world without Flaming Moe’s and GABBO GABBO GABBO.

So yeah, seeing The Simpsons flail about is sad, I don’t mourn it. Because even when the show no longer worth watching, I know that it’s existence made it possible for many shows that are worth watching to enter the game, and then try to one-up the senile master. That’s what creating entertainment should be about, shouldn’t it? Showing how much we, the creators, have loved something by trying to surpass it, to DESTROY it. What better way to know you have been a major part of someone’s life, than seeing a bunch of upstart punks beat you at the game you invented.

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Stuff Read

Posted by Matt on July 15, 2011

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World: A Short History of Modern Delusions,
by Francis Wheen

When I decided to read Francis Wheen’s polemic against irrationality, I made the (understandable) error in thinking the majority of the book would sock the major players in the world of quackery and supernatural bollocks, something that I read on a regular basis and quite enjoy. That’s not to say the gang wasn’t all there: Wheen went after homeopathy, UFO conspiracy theorists, creationism, astrology, motivational speakers, and false prophets both ancient and modern in good order. But all these things, all relatively easy targets as widespread as they are, were simply the symptoms of something greater, Wheen says, and repeatedly traces it back to one decade: the 1980s. I think you know where this is going.

The thesis of the book seems to be that the 1980s, and the election of the Iron Lady in Britain and the Gipper in the US, ushered in a new era, a “counter-enlightenment”, whose primary goal was to undo the scientific rationalism that began to spread with the work of the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and the American founding fathers. The search for truth those great thinkers advocated was derided as the source of the world’s woes, and various forms of political and economic mysticism were invoked to get the world back on track. Wheen tracks the movement to every aspect of life: the massive deregulation of businesses and the subsequent overzealous businessmen who rose and fell in the manic trends (which we’ve seen even more of since the book was published), America’s search for a new post-Cold War archenemy (which was, apparently, Japan for a very short while), the takeover of academia by post-structuralist and postmodern thinkers who take healthy skepticism of authority to unheard levels by rejecting reality itself, and the massive outbreak of overemotional hysteria that reached its apex with the death of Princess Diana in 1997. What all these have in common, Wheen argues, is that they all derive from an ideology that rejects every advance made by Enlightenment 200 years earlier, putting emotion and belief ahead of thought and understanding. Even worse, he writes, the people who should be fighting back, the so-called progressive thinkers, have succumbed to the same illness, firmly planting themselves in their own opposition ideology of anti-Western fervor that they rarely see the forest for the trees.

It’s a powerful, eye-opening argument, and one that Wheen does an excellent job supporting. That the stories of dot-com era businessmen putting all their money in websites that literally make no money somehow end up being more damning of the deficiencies of the modern world than stories of fear-stricken dunderheads making preparations for California-destroying earthquakes caused by a rare planetary alignment is definitely a point in the book’s favour. Of course, we would all think to point and laugh at the latter and wonder what’s wrong with people, but to consider that the former and latter (and many more instances of both institutional and cultural insanity) derive from the same sweeping epidemic of anti-inquiry? That’s frightening.

So, a book that would initially seem to be an amusing look at snake-oil salesman and their marks (and Wheen’s style is definitely still quite amusing, even as he dives into the bleakness of the situation) turns into an examination of a world that has turned its back on critical thinking, and won’t stop it’s retreat to the dark ages even as it’s endeavors fail again and again. It was a bit of a surprise for me, but that only made the read more rewarding. The connections between all these irrational things hold up, and creates a disturbing realization of just how embedded these inanities are in our culture.

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Wizards and Goblins I Have Not Known

Posted by Matt on July 12, 2011

With all the noise being made about HBO’s A Game of Thrones, George R.R. “Fatboy” Martin’s newest book in the original series, and the incoming overextended Hobbit movie, we’ve all been getting a massive dose of high fantasy lately. Here’s a secret: a don’t really like high fantasy. At all. this and this will give you a good idea why. But there’s more.

I, for one, find the Medieval Euro-centric concepts of these stories to be pretty dull on their own. Being a white, middle class North American all my life, I’ve had the real and imaginative histories of Western Europe drilled into my brain pretty thoroughly. I’m tired of it, really, especially when the authors have no innovative takes on the hoary old cliches at all. And really, there’s so many neat histories and myths found around the world, I think it would be worth more time seeking those out than hearing about kings and dragons again.

Like O’Neil, I am also unceasingly skeptical of authority, especially arbitrary authority as represented by the monarchies and upper classes that have spent the better part of human existence oppressing 98% of the population. Once you exit adolescence, I think the fantasy of ‘good’ kings should be long gone. Most high fantasy is inherently nostalgic, whether it be for the times of kings and nobles, or for the uncomplicated country living idolized by Tolkein’s Hobbits. But nostalgia in both instances is ignorance of history, a callback to times that didn’t exist. We may pretend that the British Royals are anything other than vestigial entities in a political realm that completely ignores them in every way that counts. Yet, I still see a defence of the Royals in local newspaper columns almost every Victoria Day. “It’s a tradition!” they cry out, as if traditions have ever had a particularly good track record. “It’s what keeps us connected to our unique heritage!”, which only reminds us that our heritage different levels of inherited authority figures sending each other out to take and enslave. But reality is no deterrent to the nostalgic set, and therein lies an appealing factor in high fantasy, a reminder of simpler times that didn’t actually exist. Even the more complicated political worlds of Martin’s books can’t escape it, especially when little to no attention is paid to the people under the warring noble factions.

Then there’s the length. I have always considered brevity a virtue, so if you’re story requires several 500-1000 page books to tell in its entirety, I get the impression that it’s getting bogged down by something. Worldbuilding is probably my least favourite literary trend, as it attempts to wring out a sense of importance and ‘epicness’ from the blandest of tales, and usually hinders plot and characterization. You want a big fucking universe? Write a fucking encyclopedia for it; don’t distract me while I’m trying to enjoy your yarn.

And that’s why I don’t like high fantasy.

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