Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Excuses, Excuses...

So Sunday afternoon I get home from a baby shower* with the coming week largely clear of obligations, professional and personal. "All right!" I think. "I can use this week to catch up and get get ahead on my webcomics!" So I sit down and pencil this week's Freak U. and Lemuria, going great guns, all fired up to keep the pace going for the next few days...and by the time evening falls, I'm feeling an ominous tickle in my throat...

Monday morning I awaken to find myself buried under a pile of bricks. On closer inspection, the bricks turn out to be mucus, and Monday turns out to be Wednesday. Possibly time travel was involved. As far as I can remember.

At any rate, the biohazard seems to have receded to the point today where I can actually accomplish something beyond turning over frequently enough not to get bedsores. (OK, I exaggerate--I was briefly online, but I wasn't up to doing much of anything that didn't involve pressing a button or two.)

I mention all this because, despite the inauspicious start, I still have a fair amount of free time this week, and I'm hoping to use it so that you guys don't have to see anymore non-updated strips. Famous last words, I know...

Just so as not to leave this post as a bunch of whinging, here's a bit of linkblogging. The website Comics Alliance has made the wise move of employing comics blogger extraordinaire Chris Sims, and he, along with main editor Laura Hudson and...other guy Caleb Goellner, have been providing the vital public service of mocking some of the more idiotic and poorly-researched coverage of comics that have been popping up in the mainstream media of late. First they took on this eye-gougingly smarmy and cliche-packed CNN article, and now they've tackled a less absurd but still fairly dumb article about Mark Millar.

Oh, and speaking of ambitious plans of my own and entertaining comics blogging, I have a rather epic post about Tintin that should be going up in the next day or two. Yeah, Tintin. Can you stand the excitement?

*It's now pretty much normal for men to go to baby showers, right? I mean, I'm aware that's not how it was done, traditionally, but that tradition seems to have existed primarily because society wanted to keep baby-rearing squarely the responsibility of the ladies, which makes it pointless and outdated. And I've been to several amongst my baby-having friends. I'm not part of some cutting-edge progressive commune (contrary to what Americans seem to think of Canada) so I have to assume this is basically normal amongst my generation now.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Oh, Right, Valentine's Day.

About all that means for me right now is that I get to post joke Valentines from around the web.

(Click on the images to see more from each site)

Happy corporate-sponsored commercial exploitation of people's emotions, everyone!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies Definitely Summed Up Canada

Badly organized, filled with technical glitches, everyone having fun regardless.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pop Goes the Drama

Andrew Hickey is a fine fellow who blogs about comics…or used to. He’s observed, lately, that there’s a bit of a malaise in the world of genre storytelling as a whole; everything seems to be, in his words, “soap opera” or (more rarely, in my opinion) detached idea-based fiction with a lack of real human interest. He’s issued a call for more “drama” or “pop-drama”, in his words, which essentially means “more stories about interesting characters which are also about something”. I’m not quite doing justice to what he means, so go read the post.

I may have more to say about this later—in fact, I may actually be working with Andrew at some point—but for now I wanted to riff on the idea he suggests down at the bottom there—the idea of posting proposals for revitalizing various pop-culture franchises. It’s actually very similar to what Chris Bird is doing with his ”I should write Dr. Strange” posts, but with the more unlikely premise that I’d be handed the keys to a major series of movies, TV show, or whatever.

The character I've decided to tackle: Doc Savage.

Now, I admit that my knowledge of Doc is a little shaky--I've read the first few stories and I know the basic history of the character (and of course, Wikipedia is my friend), but I don't claim to be an expert in the various details of Doc's adventures, or have an abiding passion for the character. Still, I think I know enough to be able to attempt this.

For those of you who don't know...and can't be bothered with the Wikipedia link...Doc is a character who hails from the pulp novels, and is in many ways one of the predecessors of the superhero. Like Superman, he's a paragon, an embodiment of human perfection, devoted unfailingly to justice and goodness (and he has the first name "Clark" and a Fortress of Solitude--yes, really). Like Batman, he's scoured the globe, devoting his life to self-perfection; even more so than Bats, in fact, as he's pretty much the best of the best of the best at everything. And I do mean everything. Doc has a band of erstwhile companions who are the most respected experts in their fields--an engineer, a chemist, a geologist, a lawyer and an electrical expert--and it's stated on a number of occasions that he's better than all of them.

Yes, Doc is considered to be the pinnacle of human perfection, having been raised since birth by a rather mysterious cabal of scientists assembled by his father (who, as the first story opens, has just died). Doc also has vast wealth, attained by his (re)discovery of a vast treasure trove of gold in a lost valley, guarded by an lost tribe of ancient Mayans. Who are oddly agreeable to letting this American tromp in and make off with their vast wealth. (It has something to do with an agreement they made with Doc's father, who arrived there years before, just as Doc was being born. But really it has more to do with the book having been written in 1933.)

In addition to being the world's greatest scientist and inventor and all-round expert on everything, Doc is in physically perfect condition, knows dozens of martial arts and modes of hand-to-hand combat, and has some other odd quirks that make him seem somewhat inhuman. His physical appearance, for instance, is described as being "bronze"--not just tan, but as looking exactly like a bronze statue. He also apparently produces a weird, high-pitched noise in times of stress that has a "calming" effect on those around him, as well as providing a rallying call.

People have attempted to adapt Doc into movie form, and he occasionally makes a brief appearance in comics (just in the past few months, he's crossed over with Batman as an attempt to launch a new line of pulp stories at DC) but I think it's pretty obvious why the character hasn't really found a foothold the way that, say, Tarzan or Zorro has. He's too perfect. In fact, it gets a little creepy when you consider that he's essentially a walking experiment to produce an "ubermensch" type, an idea that...well, let's just say that however well it went over in the mid 30s, by the end of the next decade people had lost their enthusiasm for it. (There are even creepier ideas at play in some of the stories--in one, Doc apparently isolates the gland that causes "criminal behaviour" and operates on criminals, transforming them into model citizens. Gosh, that couldn't possibly go wrong!)

Even putting that aside, Doc comes off as an utterly paternalistic and smug figure, inhuman and unlikeable. We simply can't relate to a guy who's that perfect, and who smacks of authorial fiat besides. But that's the essence of the character--to graft on some human weakness would be a betrayal of the whole concept. How do you deal with that?

Alan Moore, as many know, essentially remade Doc Savage as Tom Strong, and found an interesting hook--focusing on the psychology of the man who'd been treated as an experiment for his entire life, who could do almost anything when it related to pure talent but struggled to understand his own humanity. But Moore had the luxury of an all-new character, one whose backstory he could shape in whatever direction he wanted.

My own suggestion for reworking Doc is very simple: make him African-American.

This is actually something I've been chewing over for years--the fact that there's a distinct lack of truly iconic black (or any other minority, really) adventure heroes. I mean, yes, there are action-adventure stories and movies and comics starring black protagonists, but none of them have that kind of iconic central figure who stands astride the narrative, your Indiana Joneses and James Bonds and whatnot.

Furthermore, Doc being black creates a whole new social context, even if it's never overtly referenced in the story. Suddenly the motives for having his father push him into this rather harsh lifestyle are a little more understandable (even if we still don't fully condone it). Doc becomes the Jesse Owens or Tiger Woods of adventure heroes, a guy with something to prove just by existing. And of course, the underlying politics of this previously simplistic story suddenly get rather complex and certainly very relevant in the age of Obama (I'm also assuming that these would be set in the present day, rather than the 30s). What's great, though, is that this doesn't change anything about the actual stories you can tell with Doc. He can still fight giant spiders and men from the earth's core, solve mysteries and invent incredible new surgical procedures. The subtext springs into being, fully formed, from the new element of Doc's race. And suddenly a relic of the past becomes a hero for the future.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lost in the Woods

The final season of Lost starts tonight, in case you've been living in a cave on Mars with your eyes closed and your fingers jammed in your ears. This is a show that ABC believes, and possibly correctly, can compete with the Olympics for ratings. This is a show that caused President Obama to move his state of the union speech because he didn't want to pre-empt it. It's a popular show, is what I'm saying.

I'm almost perfectly on the fence as to whether the creators are going to stick the landing. Lost has gone over the course of its run from "a show that is clearly carefully planned and on rails" to "a show where the writers are clearly just making shit up as they go along, and barely keeping track of their own continuity". And the thing is, it's gone back and forth between these two states multiple times. If you'd asked me after the incredibly tight, Brian K. Vaughn-shaped 4th season, I would have said the show was in good hands and likely to satisfy with its ending. Halfway through the wheel-spinning 5th season, I was seriously starting to doubt this. Especially after the crucial "Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" episode ended up being a gigantic waste of time with no character logic whatsoever. But then, last year's season finale was genuinely intriguing, actually answered some questions, and opened the door for some very interesting developments in the coming season--and I have no idea where they're going from here.

Right now Lost is like Schrodinger's Cat, trapped in a perfect state between a tightly told, perfectly executed mystery with a satisfying conclusion...and an incoherent failure. As long as we don't open the box, it could go either way.

Tonight we crack the lid...

Five SF Misconceptions Set Straight

5. Star Wars is set in the future, not the past. This has been confusing people for years. The fact that the movie starts with "A long time ago..." plus the fact that it came out in the 70s, when people took Erich Von Daniken seriously, had everyone assuming that this was intended as an "Ancient Astronauts" kind of thing, and that we were seeing events that somehow took place before recorded history. In another galaxy. In fact, one of Star Wars' biggest imitators, Battlestar Galactica (the original), made the "humans came from the stars" an explicit part of their storyline, which helped cement this whole idea further in people's minds, to the point where no one questions it now.

Certainly, the fact that Lucas was going for a mythical, fairy-tale feel with Star Wars makes this idea seem a little more plausible. And Star Wars throws a lot of confusing stuff at you right at the start, so "this is all happening in the past somehow" seems like just one more gnat to swallow. But what a lot of people don't realize is that "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" was a last-minute addition to the movie. Even the original novelization, by Lucas himself, began with the more ambiguous "another galaxy, another time". It's pretty clear he was trying to evoke old-fashioned campfire mythology without explicitly contradicting the idea that this was taking place amongst a typical star-spanning future civilization, one clearly evoked by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Frank Herbert's Dune, from which Lucas borrows liberally in his world-building. (And it's worth noting that both of those stories take place in a future so distant that Earth has been either forgotten or relegated to the status of insignificant backwater, one which no one bothers to mention.)

But wait, you say, back up--regardless of Lucas's original intentions, the movie DOES open with that line establishing the story as existing in the past, so all this is moot, right? I mean, I'm pretty sure "Sith" wasn't intended as meaning "evil jedi" originally (Darth Vader simply had "Sith lord" as a title, and he happened to be a jedi who had gone evil--but that's two different things) but the Prequels have established it otherwise. But no: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" isn't intended from OUR perspective. It's from the perspective of some other chroniclers in the far, far distant future (and possibly another galaxy). Lucas even mentions these guys repeatedly in the early drafts and concept notes: they're called The Whills, as in The Journal of the Whills. Which is what the entire Star Wars series is--a record of future history. Given how badly Lucas has jumped the shark, I doubt we're ever going to return to this concept, but it's out there, and nothing we've seen has ever contradicted it.

And speaking of Lucas jumping the shark--

4. Midichlorians are not the same thing as The Force. I'm not trying to defend the Star Wars prequels in any way, shape or form, but one of the biggest complaints about The Phantom Menace--that it reduces the force to a biological condition--simply isn't accurate. The midichlorians are LINKED to the force, yes, but people seem to have leapt to the conclusion that these little guys are what gives you the ability to use The Force. And the higher your midichlorian count, the stronger your force powers.

Even though this is explicitly contradicted by the dialogue.

The discussion is pretty straightforward. Anakin's midichlorian count is revealed to be absurdly high, "higher even than Master Yoda's". "What does that mean?" asks Obi-Wan. "I don't know," says Qui-Gon.

So if Midichlorians gave you super-force powers, why would they be acting so confused? It would mean something pretty straightforward: that Anakin is the super-Force messiah and they should all be bowing down to him. But in fact the Jedi seem to treat Anakin's midichlorian count as a weird, vaguely interesting anomaly, nothing more. It doesn't even justify training him as a Jedi, apparently. And--somewhat more crucial--does Anakin ever display a mastery of the Force higher than Yoda's? No he does not. Hell, Obi-Wan kicks his ass. Anakin's high midichlorian count is a weird fluke, not the end-all and be-all of Jedidom, and the Force remains a mystical anomaly.

Man, I feel nerdy. Let's move on to something more straightforward.

3. The new Star Trek did not "erase" all the other ones from continuity. Ah, that's...better?

For some reason this was a huge complaint around the interwebs back when we were all convinced the new Star Trek was going to suck, and even after we all saw and enjoyed it there were still people moaning a little about how everything Star Trek has been wiped from continuity "except Enterprise" (usually accompanied by moans of despair).

This appears to be a hangover from Crisis on Infinite Earths. Lord knows Trek fans and superhero fans can give each other a run for their money in the OCD trivia sweepstakes. And the desire to have a single "continuity" seems to be inescapable, even when so much time and effort could be spared by simply acknowledging the presence of a new timeline and chilling the fuck out. But if you won't accept that, how about the fact that it's fucking Star Trek and alternate timelines have been part of the show's mythology since 1966?!? I mean, did Eric Bana wipe the "Mirror universe" from continuity as well? No? Then shut up.

Fortunately people seem to be accepting this one--I'm told the new Star Trek online game is set in the old, nerdy continuity. So the idea seems to be that the new movies will be an effecitve in-continuity reboot for mainstream audiences, but the hardcore will still have their Star Trek Classic(tm) with all the old baggage. Makes sense to me.

2. Deckard is not a replicant. Yes, I know this is contradicted by Ridley Scott himself. He was taking the piss, guys. Deckard being a replicant makes no sense, plot-wise or thematically, and the idea is based entirely on that one weird line in which the number of escaped replicants is miscounted (which, incidentally, was corrected in the director's cut) and a few strange arguments about the unicorn dream sequence. Anyway, this one's been thoroughly dismantled by Scott "El Santo" Ashlin at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, so just click on the link and save us all some time. But not before I talk about:

1. Pretty much everything about the second Matrix movie. Now this is a movie I do think gets unfairly maligned--the third movie has a lot more problems, but even so, it's got a lot of value in it as well. The main reason I like the second movie is that it actually expands, thematically, on the first in a way that most sequels don't bother with...and I absolutely love that they're willing to twist the premise of the first around the way they do. That said, there are some awkward bits from a story perspective, but a lot of the issues people have can be corrected (though sometimes a bit of fanwank is needed.)

Why doesn't Neo just fly away during the Burly Brawl? Because, if you notice, Neo can't just leap into the air; he needs to bend down and build up power first. The pile of Smiths assaulting him makes that impossible until he's cleared a space.

Why is Smith alive again at all? Because his experience with Neo--his "merging" with him at the end--made him capable of thinking outside the box in a way that the other programs can't, and part of that newfound realization--Neo "setting him free" as he puts it--is that you can't really "kill" a computer program. He became spiritually self-aware, and reconstituted himself. Essentially, it's what Neo did at the end of the first movie. This is why he quickly starts taking over the Matrix--without needing to abide by the rules, he's become essentially unstoppable.

Why does Neo defy the Architect, dooming the human race? It's not so much that he dooms anybody as that he rejects the choice he's offered. The whole series up until that point has been leading to this, thematically: Neo's made a big deal of his own freedom of choice up until now, but at this point, choice is being used as a method of control. Neo's basically exercising the only freedom left to him--the freedom to opt out, even if it means disaster. But he also believes that he can make his own rules, and doesn't have to accept the Architect's pronouncement of how things will play out. Very buddhist.

Oh, and why can Neo control the machines in the real world now? Because he's been to The Source. I'm amazed at how many people miss this bit. He's developed a link with the machines, one that they all seem to share--he's infected their code the way Smith has infected the Matrix. This is a big part of why the machines let Neo solve their problems in the final movie--they realize they're at a bit of a stalemate. They've got Neo wrecking their shit from without, and Smith taking over the Matrix from within. Chaos has corrupted the system.

If it helps, though, I still agree the rave scene was silly.