Saturday, November 26, 2011

In which Your Obedient Serpent seeks to subvert the corporate agenda

One of the comic-related blogs that I peruse regularly is also art-related: Superhero of the Month. They have a pretty straightforward shtick: each month, they pick a superhero, and invite the art community to reinterpret that character with new costume designs and, occasionally, revamped backgrounds. The contest is usually sponsored by some comic book shop, and the prizes tend to be graphic novels featuring the character in question.

It's a concept that's produced some really impressive and thoughtful looks at iconic characters, and it's one that depends heavily on fair use, remix culture, and the principles of the transformative works movement.

So what in the world possessed them to shill for a copyright-maximalist marketeer and his hollow, vapid t-shirt logo "superhero"?

Here's the guy who's the subject of the December 2011 contest: NOTES (or possibly N.O.T.E.S.), flagshill for the innovatively-named Superhero EnterprisesTM.

"NOTES" is our most powerful science fiction superhero and a highly-skilled leader in music technology, whose mission is to enhance and transform the experience of making and editing electronic music.

"N.O.T.E.S." distinctively offers solution(s) to the global fight against illicit downloading and counterfeiting, as the consequences of digital piracy online and in the streets....have continued to threaten the U.S. economy, jeopardize public safety, and undermine the livelihood of our domestic entertainment industries.

Comic book superheroes are supposed to provide role models that are potentially used by children in developing self images. N.O.T.E.S. symbolizes these qualities of high moral character, courage, generosity, and honor of a noble spirit.

That's right, kids: he fights those eeeeeeeevil downloaders! He's a valiant defender of the profit margin and traditional distribution models!

The blog also offers a link to the eventless "origin story" for NOTES, in which Our Hero defeats a couple of shoplifters with ... um ... look, all snarkiness aside, but it really reads like his music is so crappy that they go into convulsions. There may be more pages that haven't been posted yet; it certainly reads that way, and the "origin" offers no explanation as to how he got these powers of amazing musical dysentery.

I've perused the rest of the site, and it just gets worse. The fake street 'tide, the obvious memetic targeting toward the metaculturally naive—he's like Joe Camel for anti-downloading. There's nothing about actual story here; he's Pure Product, No By-Product. Sure, Marvel-Disney and DC-Warner exploit their properties mercilessly these days, and yes, Joe and Jerry's concept sketches included sketches of product labels adorned with their mythical muscleman, but NOTES is designed to be merchandised first and foremost. They come right out and say it: he was the logo for their music production company first, then they decided to spin him off into a "superhero". He got t-shirts and sneakers (and an art contest!) before his first comic was ever released. They describe him themselves as "the trendiest superhero in the universe."

Higher praise no mutant could ask.

And what fabulous prizes await the artists who can best capture this Champion of Commercialism?

1st Place: Opportunity to write/illustrate a two-page short story featuring NOTES to be featured on Superhero Enterprises' Tumblr and DeviantArt pages, and a NOTES T-shirt.

Semantic Analysis: Draw us free art to make our IP look cool and popular, and we'll let you do more free art to promote our brand!

Your Obedient Serpent was sore tempted to post a comment along these lines on the SotM blog announcement, but honestly, that's flat-out trolling—especially since the comment list on every SotM entry is headed with a "don't be rude" disclaimer.

I should note, however, that the contest parameters themselves state: "What we'll be looking for is an illustration that best exemplifies what you believe NOTES stands for."

Oh my. Do be careful what you wish for.

My medium of choice, alas, is prose, and thus not appropriate for the contest.

I think it would be a fine thing, however, if the more artistically-inclined provided the blog with entries that showed exactly what they believe NOTES stands for.

As Uncle Howard used to say ... Do Not Call Up What You Cannot Put Down.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

In Which No Evil Shall Escape Your Obedient Serpent's Sight

You know what?

I don't care if it's been over-hyped.

I don't care if parts of the previews might look a little iffy.

I don't care if Ryan Reynolds is playing Hal as a flippant jackass; this is, after all, Hal Frakking Jordan.

Deep down inside, all I care about is that the superhero who's been my very favorite since I was six years old had made it to the big screen in a sweeping special-effects epic.

I realized yesterday that, for the first time in more years than I can remember, I am genuinely excited to the point of impatience for a new movie, a new superhero movie.

It doesn't matter if it's good, bad, or indifferent.

Friday night, I'm taking my six-year-old self to see Green Lantern, and it will be awesome.

Cross-posted to "On The Other Claw ...".

Sunday, June 05, 2011

In which Your Obedient Serpent must issue a retraction.

Oh, jeez.

io9 just published a column looking at the History of the X-Men, and how it becomes even more absurd when you compress it into the decade-and-a-half or so of Marvel's sliding timescale.

When I read the opening line, I was excited: someone invoked the Marvel 1:3 time ratio!

I know I read about that in a Stan's Soapbox from the '60s -- but I've never found any other official reference or verification from the House of Ideas; just that one, off-hand blurb, offered in the blurry sans-serif type of Stan the Man's stentorian prose. When the whole run of those columns was republished, once online and once in trade paperback from Marvel itself, I tried and tried to find that specific entry, to no avail.

It must have been in a letter column or something. I know I saw it.

But, lo! thought I, here's someone else referring to the same thing, as if they'd found the factoid from an authoritative source! Did they see the same Soapbox or lettercol that I did, in a dusty tome of ancient lore? Did Stan or some other Marvel exec ever repeat the proclamation? I hope the article doesn't just mention it in passing and breeze on by. I'll be really happy if they give a ref ...

... oh. Oh, my stars and garters.

The reference the article gives is to the Comic Book Time page on the TV Tropes Wiki:

In a "Stan's Soapbox" in the mid-1960s, Stan Lee stated that, as a general rule of thumb, they were trying to keep the then-new Marvel Universe on a one-to-three timeline - every three years that passed in the real world would be a year of Comic Book Time. Deliberately or otherwise, Marvel actually managed to stick pretty close to that right up until the early 1990s when, during one of the X-Men's 30th Anniversary comics, Professor Xavier mused about the things he'd been doing for the past 10 years - starting with the founding of the X-Men.

I know that TV Tropes passage well.

I wrote it.

... I think I need to do some editing. I am certain that I read that blurb about the 1:3 ratio in an old Marvel comic, but I'm no longer certain where.

One shouldn't leave dubious source material scattered 'round the net.

If you can't cite a source, you're just making it up.

Cross-posted to "On the Other Claw ..."

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Some of this stuff is just for me.

... If I say "Morrison's Quintum is one of Kirby's Hairies, all grown up", will anyone get that but me?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Blah Blah Blah hollywood Wah Wah Wah

"Hollywood Is Lazy, Unoriginal and Risk-Averse", whines yet another critic.

These columns crop up all the time, and nine out of ten of them give the impression that this is some horrible slide into the abyss from some mythical golden age.

The irony, of course, is that they been appearing since the film industry began.1

These guys forget2 that, as I've mentioned before, the classic John Huston/Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon was the third film version of the story in the span of a decade, and they were all adapted from a formulaic, low-brow pulp novel.

The smart, arty flicks that this particular critic extols have never been a major component of the studios' output. "Risky" movies have always been "risky". The shitstorm that Welles had to wade through to make Citizen Kane is as epic and as well-known as the movie itself.

When Harris holds up "movies based on comic books" as one of his keynote symptoms of this "new" plague of creative barrenness, I wonder if he's including movies like A History of Violence and Shutter Island?3

Really, it comes down to this:
  • Hollywood is afraid to make risky movies because movies are expensive.
  • "Risky", by definition, means "might tank in the box office and lose skillions."
  • This has always been true. The only difference is in the number of zeroes represented by "skillions".
  • DUH.

For every Citizen Kane, there is a Waterworld.4

I should really sit down and write an Onion-style opinion piece lamenting how derivative and unoriginal film critics have become, how they rehash the same column over and over because it's guaranteed to get attention, and how shopworn remakes like "The Day Movies Died" will never be as good as timeless classics like 1963's "Christ, Yet Another Giant Lizard Flick".

Or maybe I already have.

1 Really, they predate the film industry. I've heard both some damned funny riffs and serious laments about the stage equivalent of the "generic formulaic blockbuster" in the eras of Gilbert & Sullivan, grand opera, and Elizabethan theater. Frankly, what I've read about the works of Aristophanes suggests that a good bit of his oeuvre involved similar digs at his predecessors and contemporaries.
2 I'm being generous here. It would be unseemly to suggest that someone who presents himself as a professional film critic would simply be unschooled in the basic facts of the history of the medium.
3Inexcusable Cheap Shot: while Blaming EverythingTM on Hollywood's desire for "known Brands", Mr. Harris says, Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it's a good brand.) Just because a lousy movie is made doesn't mean the source material is lousy.
4...and an Ishtar, a Cutthroat Island, a Mr. Bug Goes to Town....

Monday, January 31, 2011

Writer's Wreference: Mary Who?

This is a link to someone else being smart:

Don’t worry guys, everything isn’t a Mary Sue, by Kelly "Coelasquid" Turnbull.

Kelly is a professional animator who also does the invariably-entertaining webcomic, Manly Guys Doing Manly Things. This essay not only deconstructs the currently-hip notion that any protagonist who bears any resemblance to the author is a "Mary Sue", it also discusses at length how to use Maslow's Hierarchy as a tool to write convincing characters and conflicts.

I thought it needed sharing -- and preserving for future reference.

Cross-Posted to LiveJournal: Mary Who?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Steaming Up Some Punks

Charles Stross explains why he's burned out on "Steampunk".

It boils down to "90% of Steampunk is crud", of course, and over at Futurismic, Paul Raven's commentary applies the inevitable and immortal coda to that clause.

I enjoyed both articles, and my superficial summary should not be construed as a dismissal; both Stross and Raven do provide some analysis of why Sturgeon's Ratio arises.*

Personally, I think that Stross's issues arise because, as a writer, he sees "Steampunk" primarily as a literary movement. In contrast, Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing tends to approach it more as a design aesthetic, applying the craftsmanship, materials and visual motifs of a bygone era to both wardrobe and cutting-edge technology.

I lean toward Doctorow's view: the current "Steampunk Movement" is connected to the Maker Movement. Steampunk's central defining elements are artifacts that imply a backstory. The literature that actually provides a backstory is a secondary effect. Science fiction writers and fans do love to follow such implications reductio ad asburdum, sometimes to good effect—but they often stretch a simple premise to its breaking point.

However, none of that is the main thrust of this post.

You see, inevitably, when discussions of this currently-trendy subgenre arise, there's always someone who fixates on the word used to describe it, insisting that it's neither "steam" (being more often wood, brass, and high-voltage Teslary) nor "punk".**

After reading this tedious protest one too many times, I hereby affix thumb to nose.

Steampunk is Punk because, as a design aesthetic, it's rebelling against mass production and homogenization by reintroducing the idea of hand-crafted artistry to technological artifacts.

Steampunk is STEAM because of a literary device known as synecdoche, in which part of something is used to refer to the whole thing. "Steam" is a concise shorthand for "Victorian Era Technology", because it was, in fact, the dominant and most distinctive technology of the era. Tesla and Edison, fine; Nemo's electric batteries, fine; Cavorite, if you must -- but it was the steam locomotive and the steam engine that reshaped the human landscape. Moreover, it's a technology that has by and large fallen out of use in the present day; by contrast, things like electricity are far more prevalent now than they were then.

Of course, once you discover that the original meaning of "punk" is neither "mohawked rocker" nor "small-time hood", but "prostitute" ... well, then, the whole "transformation of the subgenre into the current trendy cash cow for skeevy publishers looking to milk a quick buck" just makes it all the more appropriate. As Mr. Raven points out, the same thing happened to both the "rock" and the "cyber" variations on the theme.

*A quick look around suggests that the "second artist effect" that Unca Charlie cites may in fact be a new and elegant coinage for a principle that has been stammered about in genre analysis circles for decades. Has anyone else heard that turn of phrase ere now?

**No, it's not just you. Or you. Or any of the many of you who think this is personally aimed in your direction.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Wait, New York is a real city?

Bully the Little Stuffed Bull lives in New York City, and his recent post about Doctor Strange mentions that real New Yorkers never call for a cab to the airport: they either hail one in the street, or call a "car service".

That got me thinking about the Fictionopolis, and the conceit shared by publishers and many fans that Marvel Comics are more "realistic" for eschewing such constructs.

Perhaps Marvel New York had some verisimilitude back when Stan and Jack and most of the rest of the Marvel creators actually lived in NYC, or were at least from there, tapping into its rhythms, into the lyric cant and jargon of its inhabitants. Once the House of Ideas started casting its net wider, however, employing writers and artists from across the country and the world, it became as much a fiction as Metropolis or Gotham.

Here's a secret: even in the '60s, it never did feel any more authentic to a kid growing up in Southern California. East Coast cities in general, and New York specifically, are entirely different from their West Coast counterparts. The New York of comics and movies and television might as well have been Metropolis.

Or Bespin.

Or Minas Tirith.

Of course, on the other claw, I never thought twice about the palm trees and brush-covered hills surrounding the low-lying sprawl of Adam West's "Gotham". After all, that was what the Real World looked like, right? Native Californians never notice California Doubling until we travel outside the bounds of the Bear Flag Republic: the world on TV looks like the world around us. It never occurs to us that Angela Lansbury's Maine has a whole lot of chaparral scrub along its Mendocino cliffs.

I can understand how Marvel must feel to Easterners and New Yorkers, though -- or how it must have felt at one time. One of my favorite comics as a hatchling in the '70s was Marvel's Werewolf by Night. I enjoyed all of the horror-themed heroes of that era, but Jack Russell's adventures had a special appeal, because it wasn't set in that mythical, far-off land of New York. Jack hailed from Los Angeles, and the wide, open streets, the palm trees, and LAX's iconic Theme Building often graced its pages. The sun-drenched daylight scenes contrasted not only with the moody, broody moonlit nights in which Jack's alter-ego played, but with that strange and claustrophobic city crammed full of capes and costumes, mansions and Baxter Buildings, in which Bakshi's animated Spider-Man could swing and swing for hours without ever running out of Thoroughly Useful Vertical.

As an adult living in San Jose, New York City is still an alien world to me. A couple of years ago, I was watching CSI: New York, and found my attention caught by one of those sweeping camera pans across the Manhattan cityscape. For the first time, I really looked. at what I was seeing, and realized that I simply had no touchstone for it. San Francisco is a tiny peninsula with a distinctive skyline, but most of the tallest buildings are along one of two streets. Oakland and San Diego each have a tight, localized cluster of tallish buildings. Los Angeles has a larger one, rising up out of nowhere in the middle of the eternal suburban plain, but they were largely erected after my move North.

And San Jose? San Jose is cute. It has a burst of the Tall, right there where the freeways meet, no more than half a dozen buildings that are only considered "skyscrapers" by the truncated standards of a seismically active region. It looks like Town, as in "goin' to Town", the local civic center of a far-flung rural community.

Which is exactly what it was, right up to the middle of the last century.

Those sweeping camera pans, though ... New York goes on for blocks and blocks, for miles and miles, with a density that is flat-out incomprehensible for someone from the Sprawlwest. The buildings I consider "tall" are medium-sized in that urbscape. I finally caught a glimpse of the urban archetype that inspired Asimov's Caves of Steel, of planet-wide cities, of the Human Hive.

I was ... intimidated.

It's an appropriate setting for the larger-than-life conflicts of the Pantheon of the Twentieth Century, most assuredly.

But it's still not real to me.

Not yet.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Breeding Contempt

Over at Mighty God King, MGK just posited that Deathstroke the Terminator was a much better character back when "[h]e showed up every once in a while, was incomparably badass, and then disappeared for a bit."

I submit that, with a few rare exceptions, this is true of every supervillain out there.

This kind of overexposure doesn't just diminish the villains, it diminishes their heroic counterparts, as well.

It's a subset of Follow The Leader that I call the The Show Biz Bugs Syndrome: "It'th a great trick, but you can only do it wunth!"

When Frank Miller made the Kingpin a fixture in Daredevil, it gave Matt Murdock a focus and a direction that previous writers had failed to instill.

When John Byrne reinvented Lex Luthor as the Corrupt Corporate Executive, it just made Superman look ineffectual. By the definition of Luthor's new persona, Superman was not allowed to beat him. Ever.

By far, the hero who's suffered the worst of this has been the Batman. In the last decade or two, adversaries who once appeared every few years have become members of the supporting cast, crime bosses in Gotham who get more monthly panel time than Jim Gordon or Alfred.

And, as a result, as Batman's wealth and technology and planning ability has increased to ridiculous levels, he's become pretty much useless. except when he's fighting other heroes. The argument that "Batman should just kill the Joker" didn't have as much impact when the Joker got tossed into Arkham (or jail) and we didn't see him again for a couple of years.

For all the silliness of the "Sci Fi Batman" of the late '50s and early '60s, he was far, far more effective than the Grim And Gritty Vigilante of the post-Miller days. When he put someone away, they stayed away, and often even served their full sentence (as I mentioned in passing in Fine Feathered Felony the other day). Late Golden Age Gotham was often touted as a model city for law enforcement, and civilian characters would, on occasion, mention that they'd moved there because it was so safe, thanks to The Batman.

The writers of the Golden Age and Silver Age knew that there were only so many good stories you could tell with a given antagonist, and used them sparingly. There were also much more willing to whip up a new adversary and, well, "throw it against the wall to see what sticks." There's more reluctance to devise new foes in this day and age (Grant Morrison being a notable exception), and I think that, too, is a detriment to both characters and creators.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Fine Feathered Felony

As I've mentioned elsewhere, my favorite Batman adversary is The Penguin.

The depictions we've seen in recent years, alas, don't quite get him.

I don't disapprove of the depiction of Oswald as smart, savvy crime boss, pulling strings behind the scenes while he poses as a Legitimate Businessman; the role suits him like a well-tailored tuxedo. Unfortunately, as the Batman titles move away from Theme Villains who treat Crime as Performance Art, there's a tendency to sweep that period under the rug entirely. Cobblepot is now a Clever, Devious Gangster, and one gets the impression that he has always been a Clever, Devious Gangster.

Fiction, however, suffers no lack of Clever, Devious Gangsters, nor does Real Life. Everyone knows they're Connected. Everyone knows they've got their Fingers in the Pies. Nobody can get any hard evidence, or pierce their thin veneer of Legitimate Business to bring their nefarious deeds to light.

It's a complex and multifaceted character archetype, admittedly, but it's a common one—and if there's one thing that Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot strives never to be, it's common.

Without her career as Batgirl behind her, Oracle is just another hacker. Without his career as a Theme Villain, Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot is just another Made Man, differing from Rupert Thorne or Tony Zucco only in his nom de guerre—and his real-life peers include such notables as "Baby Face" Nelson.

To me, the Theme Villain and the Clever Devious Gangster are two sides of the same Penguin coin.

Golden Age Oswald had one of the best origins in comics: he got no respect because he was, frankly, a funny-looking little fat guy with mildly eccentric habits. He deliberately constructed the Penguin persona, exploiting and accentuating his comical appearance, encouraging people to underestimate him.

He pulled off big, flashy, ridiculous stunt crimes, deliberately provoking
the local costumed vigilante, because that's how it's done in Gotham.

And it worked.

He made his rep as the one Flashy Theme Villain who was Smarter Than He Was Crazy.

When he walked into a room, people no longer thought, "what a funny little man!"

They thought, Holy crap, it's the Penguin! Get in the car!"

His "Crime as Performance Art" routine paid off. He got respect.

And he parleyed that into the criminal empire we see today, in the Aluminum Age.

Now, there's a unique character.

I'd love to see a Penguin graphic novel that shows his evolution from Performance Artist Gimmick Villain to Criminal Mastermind. He slowly and quietly builds up his organization—and every time the Bat starts getting too close to his real operations, he puts on the tux and the top hat, grabs a bumbershooter, and pulls off some big, flashy, incredibly distracting Stunt Crime.

He's thwarted, captured, tossed into prison, and uses his prison time to make more contacts and connections. He serves a short sentence, since he studiously avoids injuring or killing anyone in his big stunt crimes, and might even get time shaved off his sentence for "good behavior": he keeps his prominent nose clean when he's inside.

Eventually, he "goes straight", opening the Iceberg Lounge and putting himself on display as Supervillain Chic. He writes his memoirs, and does the talk show circuit, openly talking about his "misspent youth", freely admitting that his "Fine Feathered Felony" was, in essence, a publicity stunt to garner the respect and recognition that he so craved. He's witty and charming and funny and a great draw.

And in the background, though layers of front companies, bribes, and shady connections, he runs a good chunk of the Gotham City underground.

*Aren't these Thornes and the Zuccos of the world the ones that the Batman is supposed to focus on? Isn't he the Great Detective who can get the goods when nobody else can? They used to be disposable mooks, soundly defeated and sent up the river; nowadays, they seem even more untouchable in Gotham than their real-world counterparts. I need to do a post about the "Batman is Useless" trope, and how it really only emerged Post-Silver Age.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Release the Hoard Potato!!

Last Saturday, my wife and I saw the new version of Clash of the Titans. We both enjoyed it: it was fun and exciting, and we both appreciated the nods to Harryhausen's original.

That said, the Fire of my Heart still liked the original more.

Heretic that I am, I prefer the remake.

I've heard a few people ask why they felt a need to remake the original. It's a question that comes up whenever a remake of anything hits the screen, but one questioner asked a much more cogent version: why, of all of Harryhausen's films, would they remake that one?

Answer: Because it's the one that needed it the most.

Please understand: when Clash came out in 1981, I was a 17-year-old Dungeons & Dragons player who'd grown up on Bulfinch's Mythology and Harryhausen's classics. I was the target market for that movie.

I liked it. I enjoyed it a great deal.

But it didn't quite click.

The original Clash of the Titans didn't quite know what it wanted to be. It was Harryhausen's last film, and the only film he made in the post-Star Wars era. Hollywood still hadn't quite figured out the transformation of High Adventure SF/Fantasy from B Movie to Blockbuster. Clash demonstrated that, even when you throw a Star Wars-sized budget, big names like Lawrence Olivier, and a blatant R2-D2 clone at a B movie, it remains a B movie in its heart and soul.*

As I said, Your Teenaged Serpent enjoyed and appreciated the art of the "B" in those bygone days. Broadcast TV was full of them, and I didn't watch Movie Macabre just because of Cassandra Peterson's wardrobe

When I went to see Clash, though, I confess I was hoping for something more—and last weekend, I finally got it.

The remake is the movie I wanted to see when I was 17.

*It wasn't the first movie to demonstrate this, and it was far from the last.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Here Come Blackest Night Spoilers!

The climax of Blackest Night #7 made perfect sense to Your Obedient Serpent.

Sure, everyone's been anticipating that BN would climax with some kind of "White Lantern" moment, but most everyone -- including Your Obedient Serpent -- has assumed Geoff was grooming Happy Hal for the role, what with his sampling ring after ring.

Of course, each successive sampling demonstrated that Hal simply wasn't SUITED to wielding anything but Will. His big moment of Avarice? Two hamburgers. His greatest Hope? "I hope you'll stop asking me." Carol's whole arc in Blackest Night has been the essentially unrequited nature of her love for Hal.

Hal's got drive and focus and determination, but he doesn't have a lot of passion. He's just too narcissistic. And Johns has been highlighting that by having him Taste the Rainbow.

At the same time Johns has been distracting us by decorating Hal's digits with different neon colors, though, he's been establishing those passions as part and parcel of Sinestro's character. Fear and Will were always there, but we've also seen his lost and secret Love, his Rage at the Guardians, his Hope for a "better", more orderly world, and his Compassion for those who suffer because of "chaos".

And he Wants. He Craves. He Covets. He wants the respect and honor that was once his, and is now Hal's. He wants Power. He wants to be the Greatest Of All Lanterns -- and this, too, has been part of his for as long as Fear and Will.

Hal is simply too pure. He's a Green Laser, a single frequency of Ego and Drive and Will.

Sinestro can wield the White, and should, because, of all the ringslingers we've met, he and he alone has mastered all of the emotional spectrum.

Though Guy has almost as strong a claim, come to think of it.