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.