What Life (the movie) Teaches you about Writing

What Life (the movie) Teaches you about Writing

My roommate and I watched Life last night. We’re geeks and sci-fi fans and like to watch bad movies with a few drinks. It’s fun to make up your own plots. Our version of Life involved shoving in as many Alien references as possible. Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely an android the real question was whether he was a kindly Bishop or murderous Ash? We also naturally assumed that Calvin was the Jason Voorhees of his species. It was fun, but after the movie ended we kept on talking about it and I noticed that we got increasingly frustrated and wondered why?

After doing our own version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a couple of years, we discovered that bad movies can broken down into three categories: boring, dumb or frustrating. Some can even be all three, (looking at you Suicide Squad). Dumb movies tend to be the most enjoyable, you understand what you’re getting into and you can just sit back and laugh. Boring are the worst, because boring. And frustrating are the most interesting, because they suggest maybe a good or at least decent movie was lurking just below the surface.

Life was probably never going to be a good movie, but it could have easily been a decent one. Life is a film you’ve seen before, part Gravity, but mostly parts Alien. The film is about a research team on the International Space Station that collect a satellite with Martian samples on it. One of those samples contains microscope life, which they name Calvin. Eventually Calvin grows big and starts murdering everyone and it’s a race to keep him from getting to earth, where one assumes he will slowly, but inevitably, murder every individual on the planet.

Life’s not boring, it’s well made, everyone puts in a solid performance. Like the best monster movies the humans are competent. The crew of the International space station feel like a bunch of smart engineers and scientists reacting as coolly as they can to everything going wrong. The premise of discovering alien life that is the best at killing us is so overplayed at this point that I doubt Life could have done anything interesting with it, but even cliched it could have been alright.

The problem with Life rests solely on the tentacles of it’s lead, Calvin. Calvin is a decently designed monster. He goes through some Alien style transformations and moves in appropriately creepy way. But he’s the Mary Sue of monsters. He’s the best at everything. He’s smarter, faster, stronger than the humans he’s attacking even when he’s just the size of a star fish. He’s neigh invincible, does just fine in the vacuum of space and immediately understands how to use tools and escape every trap the crew puts him in. And Calvin’s biggest flaw is that he breaks his own rules.

In his video take down of ‘The Death and Return of Superman’ Max Landis asks ‘how do you kill a vampire?’ The answer is whatever way the writer wants. You are the god of the fiction you create. If you decide vampires die from peanut allergies rather than stakes and garlic, you can do that. But if you then show one of your vampires enjoying a Payday without any problems, that can’t be a throw away scene. You need to explain the rule breaking, it needs to work with the rest of your world.

In Life rules for Calvin are stated just so that he can break them or ignore them entirely. The biologist who studied Calvin, before he went all Hannibal Lecter, is constantly saying things like ‘Calvin is carbon based so he burns’, and yet he’s immediately immune to fire. ‘Calvin can’t survive long in the vacuum of space’, he survives long enough to drown an astronaut and still scamper around the exterior of the ISS without any problem. ‘Calvin needs oxygen to breathe’, when they shut off the oxygen Calvin is never evidently hampered by this and goes about killing at least three people without missing a beat.

Calvin’ doesn’t hate people he needs kill us to survive’, maybe this one is true because he says ‘kill’ not ‘eat’. Early on we see Calvin consume a rat, like all of it, bones, organs, flesh. But when Calvin starts killing people he only east a little of their insides before running off to go kill someone else. Remember that astronaut that drowned? The biologist said Calvin knew what he was doing when he cracked the tubes in her suit. He doesn’t eat any of her.

Good monsters are powerful, but with rules and weakness that give their human victims a fighting chance. Vampires can fly, hypnotize people, are super fast and strong, but trap them in a peanut factory and their done for. The Xenomorphs from Aliens have acid blood, and razor sharp tails but go down with a plasma round to the face.

Rules are vitally important for monster stories, because these stories are like a game. The humans are on one team and the monster is on the other. The humans slowly discover the monster’s weakness and try to use that against it to either escape or trap the creature. While the monster is shown to be tough and clever by figuring out ways to escape the traps and hunt down the humans. It’s about an ebb and flow, slow escalation, the humans discover the rules and use them to their advantage thinking they’re safe, the monster then outsmarts the rules.

As the writer you can break your own rules, but that will make the audience feel like your cheating. The game is over, the humans aren’t playing against a monster they’re stuck at that stage in a video game where you’re supposed to lose the boss battle. You need to play your own game, think within in your own rules. You can introduce new rules and changes, but keep a consistency. A monster that over comes every barrier isn’t scary, it’s boring and frustrating.

In Aliens there’s a scene were a set of auto turrets take out scores of the alien xenomporhs. The humans think they’re safe because they know the Xenomorph’s weakness to plasma rounds to the face. The Xenomorphs prove how clever they are, by crawling along the ceiling and under the floorboards to get at the humans. They followed the rules established for them and thought around them, making them all the more dangerous and keeping the tension going.

If the same scene happened in Life Calvin would have just discovered a sudden immunity to bullets. Sometimes to make a monster truly frightening you need to show it losing.

Three Reasons the Cowboy Bebop Live-Action TV Show Might Actually Work

Three Reasons the Cowboy Bebop Live-Action TV Show Might Actually Work

Cowboy Bebop was my first anime (and you never forget your first). I stayed up late and sneaked downstairs to watch it on Adult Swim. It was violent, sexy and effortlessly cool; a jolt that opened me up to a whole new media. Sixteen years after it originally aired in the U.S, it still hasn’t lost its shine, which might explain why it’s getting its own live action American remark.

Considering Hollywood’s track record at adapting Anime classics there’s reasons to skeptical. But given both what Cowboy Bebop was and the new era we’re living in, there’s also reasons to hope. Here’s three reasons it might succeed.

Adaptation vs. Remake

The press release announcing the live-action show called it a remake, but if they want to succeed they need to view it as an adaptation. It’s an important distinction. Successful adaptations are about acknowledging the strengths and differences of the media you’re working with. And the strengths and weakness of your source material. A good adaptation is not just a solid TV show or movie it’s also a good edit of the original work.

American Gods might be my favorite novel of all time, so I was both excited and anxious when it was announced as a TV show. But everyone from the leads, to the show runner was a dream team and novelist Neil Gaiman was heavily involved with the project. This has created a show that is both faithful and different to the source material.

It updates characters that were going to need it like Technology Boy and Media and it expanded on the roles of characters who were interesting, but didn’t get much page time like McSweeny and Salim. It also changed Laura Moon, giving her a more complex and flushed out backstory, which helped make an already quotable character better.

Cowboy Bebop was an excellent show, but it was also brief, only 26 half hour episodes and a movie. You could make the argument that’s one of the reasons the show was legendary, it didn’t get in its own way. But a good adaptation should try to explore Bebop’s universe more, expand on the rival bounty hunters, corporations and crime syndicates that show up. By necessity a good show would almost have to.

The twenty-five-minute run time of a Cowboy Bebop episode would be hard to replicate in live action. It’s almost certainly going to be an hour long and probably won’t have the budget to consistently pull off the spaceship dog-fights or massive explosions that peppered Bebop episodes. So, it’ll need to go in a different direction to capture the show’s feel and universe. Same too with the costumes. Spike’s would probably look okay in a live action show, but Jet and Faye’s might need some work.

A good adaptation will acknowledge these limitations and differences and create something new with Cowboy Bebop, which would be a lot better than trying to recreate a classic, something that is pretty much impossible. And there’s reasons to believe that on TV, in this day and age, American creators can do what Hollywood has so often failed at.

We’re living in a Golden Age of TV

Do I really need to list all the incredible shows we have right now? Or all the movie stars and directors who are making twelve episode streaming series? While the big screen is dominated by franchise films, TV has exploded with nuanced, creative, and excellent programming. It’s an arms race right now between the streaming services, the premium channels like HBO, and old media trying hold on to relevance. This has meant that TV producers are willing to give creators more control and take more chances. And with this creative leeway and without the expectations of a big movie budget, a Cowboy Bebop live action show might be able to escape the curse of the poor American anime adaptation.

It’s also about god damn time that this golden age of TV has produced a decent space show. Yes, there’s a new Star Trek series on the way and I’m sure some reading this is will say, ‘but Matt what about the ‘Expanse’?’ But considering all the incredible Game of Thrones inspired ‘grim dark’ historical fiction TV we have it’s weird space operas haven’t taken off yet. And the Expanse is decent, but come on it’s really up there with a West World or GoT? Where’s my space fairing show on the level of Stranger Things or Jessica Jones?

It’s time for this era to get its own Firefly and a well-done Cowboy Bebop adaptation could fill that void.

Cowboy Bebop is  Already One Part 90s Action Flick

One of the reasons Cowboy Bebop took off in the US is because it was both different from what Western audience were use too while also having a lot of western allusions. The bounty hunters are called ‘cowboys’, in one episode a NASA shuttle gets tuned up and there’s a reference to the Red Soxs (Boston represent!). One Spike’s comedic rivals rides a horse with a cowboy hat.

One part of the mix that makes Cowboy Bebop so awesome is a love of 80s and 90s action movies. I mean just look at the intro to the Cowboy Bebop Movie; tell me that’s not an animated New York circa 98? The opening episode is basically set in the American southwest with characters that would have fit in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. The characters too fill archetypal action movie roles. Spike is anti-hero with a troubled past, Jet’s a ‘too old for this shit’ former cop, Faye’s a Noir ‘woman that looks like trouble’ and Ed and Ein are….okay, doesn’t all fit, but you get the idea.

The entire Cowboy Bebop universe is wrapped in that grungy, space junk look that was made popular by Alien. A whole episode is even an alien parody where a ‘creature’ runs lose on the ship and Spike has to hunt it down. This 80s-90s love makes translating Cowboy Bebop easier. Creators can go back and look at these already live action influence for way to do Bebop right.

Now all that said it’s still going to be difficult to pull off a solid Cowboy Bebop adaptation. The show had one element that makes it almost impossible to do. It was cool. From the music to the fight scenes, to the noir dialogue, Cowboy Bebop is just plain cool. And cool is something no can force, it must be discovered. Here’s hoping Christopher Yost and Cowboy Bebop adaptation can find their own way to be cool.

Wonder Woman Reactions

Wonder Woman Reactions

***Heads up Spoilers!***

I like super heroes. You may have noticed this, (here, and here) so of course I ran out this weekend to see Wonder Woman. As you probably already know, it’s a damn good film, its not perfect though. And I’m still wrestling with how groundbreaking it was or wasn’t for the super hero genre. But it was a solid origin story. It was fun and funny and did way more right than the few missteps it took. And it was the first super hero movie in a long time that I found inspiring, though the reason I found it inspiring is a mix bag.

Like women in modern society ‘Wonder Woman’ the film had insane, unfair, and neigh impossible expectations thrusted upon it. It was directed by a woman and had a female star which was pressure enough for an action movie without it alos being the first female led super hero film in this new super hero Renaissance. Studio execs have long used poorly done female super hero movies, like Halle Barry’s infamous ‘Catwoman’, as an excuse not to bring more female characters to the screen. And yet, like women do every day, Wonder Woman donned her armor, grabbed her lasso and not only met those expectations, but rose above them.

The undeniable way in which ‘Wonder Woman’ was groundbreaking was that it stared Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is not just a ‘female super hero’, she is THE female super hero. She is considered the first and is by far the most iconic. Even people who don’t know anything about comics, know and love her, and that’s despite the fact she’s never had a big studio movie before and her TV show ended in 1979.

By design Wonder Woman is feminist. She lives on Themyscrira a mythical island home to the Amazons, an enlightened race of female warriors, designed by the gods to make mankind better. This narrative is kept in full for the movie. Director Patty Jenkins nails the Amazonians. They feel powerful and competent. During their brief battle scene they leap from cliffs firing arrows, sweep spears across the battlefield from horseback and bash heads in. They’re not invincible they die, but that just makes them feel more remarkable.

The Amazons are special without feeling special. They’re played straight, another mythical race like the Asgardians of Thor. They have a purpose, social order and disputes as well as being proud warriors. They just all happen to be women. No Amazonian comments on this, even when Steve Trevor shows up, he’s not treated with suspicion because he’s a man but because he’s an outsider and the island is hidden for a reason.

I loved all that, it was so placidly, perfectly normal. It made complete sense for the Amazonians from story perspective. And yet it is so rare to see a single female warrior treated like an everyday fighter in mainstream pop culture, let alone a whole race of them. Usually female fighters are sexy fem fettles, or characters that act so ‘strong and bad ass’ that they feel self-conscious, like they’re making up for something or some male character will point out that they’re a girl, saying something like ‘you fight well for a woman’. None of that happen to the Amazonians.

This sense of female empowerment through just treating characters like normal people continued with Wonder Woman. Diana is naïve without being dumb. She’s been raised all her life to believe in a noble mission and simplistic truth. Mankind is inherently good. Ares clouds mankind’s thoughts and makes them fight and it’s up to the Amazonians to stop Ares and guide people back to that goodness.

When Diana sees people suffering she wants to help and it feels earnest. She’s not doing this to redeem herself or because of dead parents, but because she truly feels what these soldiers are doing is wrong and she should stop it. When she steps out into no man’s land in complete battle regala it feels earned and awesome. As she slids, strifes and bashes her with through German soldiers, her war drum pounding theme song plays and it’s impossible not feel something.

Diana is assisted in her journey by Steve Trevor, who in the comics is her token love interest. Trevor is from the same ilk as Thor’s Jane Foster and Iron Man’s Pepper Pots, an automatic girlfriend/boyfriend that the hero just sort of has. Few in this crowd rise to the level of independent character like Louis Lane or Mary Jane Watson. And before this movie I would have never guessed that Steve Trevor would be one of them.

The few times I bumped into Trevor before this movie he was a total cad, like in the 2009 ‘Wonder Woman’ animated film. He was constantly ogling Diana and there was a lot of unnecessary ‘Man are from Mars and Woman are from Venus’ crap going on. If you were to have told me that Chris Pine, who played a pretty cad like Captain Kirk, was going to pull off a nuanced Steve Trevor I wouldn’t have believed it, but he does.

Pine gives perhaps his best performance in this movie. His Steve Trevor treats Diana as a bit of an eccentric, but also as an equal and someone deserving his respect. Yes, he comments on the fact that she’s attractive, because she is, but so are most super heroes. Marvel makes sure to work in a shirtless beefcake scene in every film and DC took note. Trevor shows the most skin in ‘Wonder Woman’. But beyond that Steve Trevor’s story is perfectly blended with Diana. Trevor doesn’t feel like an added love interest that the writers don’t know what to do with so they give him some random job in the plot.

Trevor and Diana profit from each other both in the story and from a storytelling point of view. Trevor’s arc isn’t treated as subservient to Diana’s and when he decides to sacrifice himself it isn’t for her. He flies off with the deadly gas because it’s the right thing to do and that has a bigger impact on Wonder Woman and then any ‘fridging’ (killing off the love interest, often girlfriend, to give the hero added motivation) would have had.

‘Wonder Woman’ succeeds were most super hero films do and it also flatters where most do too. It’s third act is a mess. It has some good ideas, but everything happens too quickly, while at the same time dragging the final fight on way too long. The three villains in the film are its hammiest aspects. Ares is a decent foil, but he’s not given enough time to develop. Dr. Poison has a great look like most villains, but outside of being a plot device, doesn’t get to do much. And the less send about the proto-nazi Ludendorff the better.

Wonder Woman also faces some problems going forward. Her biggest weakness is that she’s part of DC’s grim dark cinematic universe. Since she popped up in ‘Batman V Superman’ Diana has been the best thing about this universe. But she might be forced to pull a lot of dead weight in her upcoming sequels, especially if ‘Justice League’ doesn’t work out.

I also have mix feelings about Diana sticking around in man’s world post ‘Wonder Woman’. I loved her working at the Louvre, but she’s pretty anti-war, and yet has been around since World War I and decided not to stop the Nazis, Pol Pot or any number of atrocities? If that’s an unfairly serious question to ask of super hero, then how about why didn’t she do anything about the near destruction the planet during ‘Man of Steal’?

Marvel plans all its films out way in advance and has a defined timeline which lets them avoid problems like this. Thor and Hulk didn’t get involved in Civil War because they were off planet, Iron Man didn’t call the avengers for help against the Mandarin because he was self conscious (not all the reasons given are solid, but at least they have them). It’s true a line or two of dialogue could try to tie this up, but it still means that Wonder Woman is a century old god rather than a peer of Batman and Superman like she’s usually portrayed.

My final concern has less to do with the DC movies and more with Wonder Woman in general. Her rouges gallery isn’t particularly strong and her main villain is a character called ‘Cheetah’. Cheetah is a cat-lady, like a were-cheetah? Given the power level that Wonder Woman displayed at the end of her film, I doubt any cat lady could take her. This is a uniquely DC problem as their character’s powers tend to be far more unchained then Marvel’s. Thor might be a god too, but remove him from his hammer and he’s much more manageable.

But after seeing ‘Wonder Woman’ Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have my full confidence. I’m excited to see what they have in store for the iconic character. And I hope that ‘Wonder Woman’ lifts up not only DC’s movies, but Marvel’s too. There are many amazing female super heroes that deserve the level of care and respect Wonder Woman was given on the big screen. Let see who’s next!

Secret Empire: So is Captain America a Nazi now?

Secret Empire: So is Captain America a Nazi now?

Marvel’s annual comic event this year, ‘Secret Empire’, has created a lot of controversy. You can find a…strong opinion on it here. Polygon also has a more complete explainer, though it’s no less bias: here. Since I’m a person on the internet that reads comics, I have opinions of my own on Secret Empire. And as a writer with an average of three whole page views per post I am duty bound to share those opinions.

The whole story and controversy of Secret Empire started when the Red Skull used the cosmic cube to alter reality. He turned Captain America into a Hydra sleeper agent, one who believed he had always been part of Hydra. The changed Cap hatches a complicated plan that ends with him in control of both Hydra and the Untied States with all his former super hero allies trapped or defeated. As Secret Empire begins Captain America becomes the thing he’s always fought against, the fascist leader of Hydra.

You can understand why this would upset people. Taking a beloved symbol of America and revealing that he’s secretly been a fascist sleeper agent says something about the U.S. Also the event shares the same name of a 1970s Captain America story arc which highly suggests that Richard Nixon was really a super villain. The event seems tailored made to piss off the political right, but they’re not the ones who are mad, or if they are they’re being drowned out by the left. I don’t really get the outrage though, there’s always been something kind of fascist about Captain America.

Now, before you send hate mail to a complete nobody on the internet, let me explain. I love Captain America. Ed Brubaker’s run was incredible and his death of Captain America issue was tragic and damn near perfect. Chris Evan’s Captain America is everything I ever wanted the character to be. But still, Captain America is a blue eye, blonde, super solider in the most powerful military on the planet. And he solves problems by punching people in the face.

There are some fascist undertones in all that and saying so used to not be so controversial, (look for Michael Chabon at the 19 minute mark here). Past Captain American writers have explored this conflict by pitting  cap against more hardline or disturbed versions of himself like U.S. Agent, or the insane Captain America from the 50s, or that random time in the 90s or 00s when the Navy made an evil Captain America. These struggles represent the conflict inherent to the character, the shadow of authoritarianism lurking in his make up. Now the conflict is more personal with an evil Steve Rogers pitted against Sam Wilson’s Captain America.

The argument that this all offensive though, is less on Captain America acting fascist and more on him being the head of Hydra. As the book riot article states:

“Captain America, a hero created by two Jewish men on the eve of World War II to fight Nazis, is revealed to be an agent of Hydra, a terrorist organization which essentially serves as Nazi proxies in Marvel Comics”

So, Captain America is the head of Hydra, are Hydra Nazis? Short answer: no, but there’s an * there. Let’s talk about Hydra.

A lot of the internet is arguing that Hydra is a metaphor for Nazis. And Hydra was…kinda. The 1940s Captain America comics had no problem with Cap fighting actual Nazis with swastikas and all, (as well as fanged and bucked tooth Japanese soldiers, do you want unpack that part of the character’s legacy?). Hydra was Nazis in an insultingly cartoonish way that was all about mad scientists and death machines not about war atrocities and holocausts. And they didn’t stay Nazis for long.

Hydra has existed in print for over 50 years. They are Marvel comics chief ‘bad guy organization’ and main rival to Shield. They have been a stand in for every single ‘evil henchmen’ organization in pop culture. They were ‘Spectre’ to Nick Fury’s James bond in the 60s. They were ‘COBRA’ to the Avenger’s G.I Joe in the 80s (and probably a source of inspiration for Hasbro’s COBRA as well)

If Hydra was a metaphor for Nazis, they’ve also been a metaphor for every group or nation that America has feared in the past half century. There are multiple ‘red scare’ style stories of Hydra infiltrating the American government. And since the early 2000s comics have featured Hydra suicide bombers that scream ‘Hail Hydra!’ before blowing themselves up (yes, it’s uncomfortable.)

Having been around forever in comics Hydra has also been responsible for creating a ton of characters, none of which people have called Nazis in the past. For example, would someone really call Deadpool’s comic sidekick ‘Bob from Hydra’ a Nazi? No, Bob is a joke about how cartoony and weird henchmen are. And he’s from Hydra because that’s where the majority of Marvel’s henchmen come from.

Barron Zemo started out as a member of Hydra and then became an anti-hero, then a member again, and then left and then came back; rinse and repeat depending on the writer. When reading Fabian Nicieza’s run on Thunderbolts with a heroic Barron Zemo were readers rooting for a former Nazi who was destined to become a Nazi again? No, they were reading the adventures of reformed villain who was going to break bad again. Or how about Wolverine? He dated Viper, a high ranking Hydra agent, and killed a bunch of people for Hydra. Nobody thought he was involved with Nazis during those stories.

The book riot article even suggests:

“Perhaps worst of all, Marvel decides to drum up excitement over Secret Empire with a “fun” marketing campaign wherein comic book store employees wear exclusive Hydra shirts. Because who doesn’t love being blindsided by low-key Nazi cosplay on a Wednesday afternoon?”

To equate wearing a Hydra t-shirt to ‘low-key Nazi cosplay’ is downright insulting.

When ‘Winter Solider’ came out and people bought Hydra t-shirts and passed around ‘Hail Hydra’ memes where they sending out coded Nazi propaganda? If someone cosplays as ‘Bob from Hydra’ is it a hate crime, the same as wearing a Nazi officer’s uniform? Saying Hydra and the Nazis are the same thing is either turning Nazis into a jokey caricature of stock bad guys or it’s making thousands of comics, decades of storytelling, into questionable Nazi literature.

In another baffling move this controversy also involves Magneto, who showed up on a variant cover. The idea is that since Hydra are Nazis, saying that Magneto would join up with them is super offensive because he’s Jewish and a holocaust survivor. (It’s worth pointing out that Variant covers rarely have anything to do with the actual story in the book) But joining Hydra would be one of the least offensive things Magneto has done.

My dad is Jewish and grew up around holocaust survivors and he hates Magneto. He finds the character to be extremely offensive. And there’s a lot of reasons to agree with that. Did you see the second X-men movie? The one where at the end Magneto targets all humans to suddenly die? That’s genocide, and he’s been trying to do stuff like that for decades. He’s blown up cities, switched magnet poles, and kills a lot of people. The guy is a holocaust survivor that decides that genocide is good thing, that is an extremely controversial character. And yet people are trying to defend him against becoming a Nazi thanks to a variant cover for a book he has yet to show up in?

Now I’m not trying to say that people should be outraged over Magneto and call him an anti-semitic character. I have Jewish cousins who love him. And I think he’s been a tragic anti-hero as well as a complex, if not vicious, villain. But his history is complicated and at times problematic, which is true of a lot of stuff in Marvel’s fifty year history. Those controversial elements can help characters grow and evolve when a writer explores them and tries to confront them. And I think, in some ways, that’s what Nick Spencer is trying to do in Secret Empire.

But I do get some of the criticism of the event. I find Spencer prickly on twitter and thought his ‘Bombshell’ jab was immature. Also Marvel releasing an ‘apology’ while still asking people to buy the book, seems like a move designed to tick everyone off. And it’s hard to be sympathetic to Marvel when they keep releasing events like this that could cost you hundreds of dollars to follow in its entirety (seriously, five books for a single issue?!).

Even so I find the outrage in the Book Riot piece to be disingenuous and reaching. And I also can’t help but, feel disappointed by it. I remember outbursts like this over Miles Morales, over Thor becoming a woman, or that time Captain America dared to get political and add a minor arc about the T-party. The people mad right now, probably supported those other moves. Now they think a story about a hero becoming the thing he fought against is anti-semitic and are demanding the same thing that purists of the past called for, for the characters to return to what they were.

Super hero comics will always snap back to the ‘norm’ like rubber-bands. Captain America won’t stay evil, just as he didn’t stay Nomad and didn’t stay dead. But by demanding that he always be the thing he was originally convinced as, without any critical look at him as a character, prevents him from growing, from continuing to be relevant or challenging the darker themes that make up his history.

I read issue 0 (I hate how they do that) and issue 1 of Secret Empire. It’s a decent event comic, a bit stuffed and some off characterization, but it’s not ‘immoral’. I didn’t like ‘Morning Glories’, but people shouldn’t be burning Nick Spencer’s work. His story about a fascist takeover of America, thanks to a nostalgic icon that represents America’s fabled ‘great’ past, is supposed to be disturbing. It’s not in support of Nazis or fascism. If you want to rally against a comic book writer who creates pro-fascist work, take your anger out on Frank Miller.

A Novel Process

A Novel Process

I started this blog writing about being a failed novelist,( Here.) And I’m proud to say that I’m still very much one. I’m currently working on my next possibly failed project ‘Ghets’ and thought it might be insightful, or at least interesting, to talk a little bit about my novel writing process.

I just got done with my rough draft of Ghets. It took me almost fifteen months from February 15th 2016-April 8th 2017 and clocks in at 162,040 words. Fifteen months is a long time and novel drafts usually don’t take me so long. Dex’s four drafts were each about nine months, but Dex largely took place in the modern world and didn’t require much world building. Ghets takes place in its own world, so there were pauses to settle on cultures and creatures.

When I started writing, rough drafts like ‘Ghets’ were torture. I’d begin with energy and optimism. There’s a thrill in creating something new, like beginning a journey, you have no idea where you’re going. But that’s also its biggest challenge. I’d hit a stride and quickly make it through the first third of the story. But when it was time to shift from the first to the second act I would hit problems.

I would have forgotten to write a vital scene or would realize too late that the surprise I was setting up all first act wasn’t going to work. Like many creators, I suffered from perfectionism. I would go back and add those scenes or fix the surprise and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. You’re there to throw down all your ideas about the story and keep going. You realize that you need an extra scene to explain something? Pretend you wrote it. You decide your villain should be someone else? He was never the villain, it was always the new guy. The subplot about opening a café isn’t working? Forget it, it didn’t happen, keep writing.

The idea is to run, to not let missed chapters or poor writing stop you. You’re going to be editing this thing for at least the next year you can worry about your mistakes then. Besides you might end up deleting half the story, or going in a completely new direction, don’t get attached. It’s hard a lesson to learn, but it’s vital one.

If you want to be good at anything, then you must first accept that you’re going to be bad at it. No one begins great and very few of us end up great. You must be willing to make mistakes and fail. Writing a rough draft is a great way to do that.

Think of rough drafts like a marathon, how quickly can you make it to the end, while still hitting all your story beats and getting out all the scenes you wanted? It takes grit, but with enough perseverance you’ll get it done. The real complicated stuff happens next.

After I complete the rough draft I reread it. It’s a painful process because now I’m being critical and looking for what doesn’t work. What characters are unnecessary, annoying or otherwise problematic? What scenes are confusing? Where do I lost the thread? I try to nail down themes, figure out with the story is about. I also do my first outline at this point.

When I start a rough draft I have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m ending. (Always know your endings!) But the parts in between are murky. Once the rough draft is done and I have those parts fleshed out I start to rearrange and evaluate them. Some writers are more orderly, with outlines from the start. But I don’t like things to be too neat going in. I want to surprise myself.

After the reread and outline is done I start the real work and rewrite. This is my new obstacle, were my perfectionism now shows itself. I want to do too much, add too many scenes or do too much editing. The second draft isn’t supposed to be perfect either. It’s just supposed to make your novel workable.

If you were to read ‘Ghets’ right now large portions of it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a ton of locations or characters with place holders for names. There’s scenes and character arcs that get completely abandoned and one of the villains changes his name mid book. My second draft is meant to clean that gunk up so that someone who isn’t me can actually read the story and give their input.

A second draft shouldn’t be polished, just have the main plot and characters largely formed with as little chaff as possible. The idea is to invite other people to read and have them give big picture critiques. Point out if your plot has too many holes or what they think of your main character. The second draft should have the form of the story, but still some of that nebulousness rough draft in it. Your story might need a major edit, one you can’t see. If enough readers come to you and tell you they love the end of the book but it was slog to get there. You’re going to have a lot you’ll need to cut or change.

After I gather all those critiques I try to digest them. I target the parts that most people hated or found confusing because if just one person hates a story then ‘that’s just like your opinion man’, but if most people do, you’ve got some sort of problem on your hands. I do another reread, or two, chopping off as much as I can and then start draft three.

Draft three is much closer to the finished story. You’ve hopefully fixed most of your plot holes (you’ll never get them all) and have characters that all work and who you understand. Your story should be ‘readable’ at this point. I don’t mean that every sentence is polished and perfect, but that people can read and comprehend what you’re looking to be comprehended.

At this point I hit my beta-readers up for more insights and more granular critiques. After I have that it’s on to draft four which will hopefully be the draft I seek an agent or a publisher for. Even draft four won’t be the end. I’ll still be rereading and editing, chipping away at this or that until I publish it. Or I never stop pecking at it, and leave it to wither out of exhaustion, because art is never finished it’s only abandon.

Either way this has been my process for my last couple of projects. I’ve heard every novel is different and they feel that way. Every writer is different too, some people publish two novels in about the span it takes me to eek out one rough draft (it’s impressive). Regardless, expect to see more posts about Ghets in the future as well as a call for beta-readers in the next 6-9 months!

Batman in the Age of Trump

Batman in the Age of Trump

I’ve been on a recent Batman kick rewatching the old Michael Keaton movies, replaying Arkham Knight and Telltale’s excellent ‘Batman’ video game series. As I revisited Batman and his origins in 2016, new, troubling themes started to emerge. This was the story of billionaire reshaping the world to match his own imagine of justice. I couldn’t help asking, what does Batman mean in the age of Donald Trump?

The internet is about 90% ‘What does Donald Trump mean?’ think pieces right now, so I can understand if you groaned a little at that question, but super heroes aren’t as trivial as we like to think. They are modern-day myths and like all myths they tell us about who we are, what we think is heroic or villainous and what values are worth fighting for.

There are many themes within Batman’s mythos and that help explain Trump’s appeal. But the one that I think is the most important is their shared super power. Both Batman and Donald Trump are billionaires (maybe). On the campaign trial, there were plenty of interviews with Trump supporters who were decent, rational people who when asked why they were supporting Donald Trump said ‘He’s a successful businessman, he’ll be good for the economy, he’ll fix things.’

We tend to think billionaires are not like us. How can they be? They have billions, they must be the smartest, most dedicated people alive to earn that type of money. They know things that we don’t, because if we knew the things they did or were capable of the feats of will, self-discipline and risk taking that they are, then we’d be billionaires too. They’re just something ‘special’ about them, like super heroes.

In the comics billionaires are super heroes. Next to scientists, and maybe reporters, billionaires are the most common alter ego for super heroes (side note, I also can’t think of a single super hero billionaire who is ‘self-made’, they all inherit their fortune). But no comic book billionaire is quite like Bruce Wayne.

Tony Stark might be a brilliant engineer, but he’s also cocky alcoholic. His vices are so bad that he’s had to give up being iron man because of them and has lost his company through his hubris on multiple occasions. Also in the comics, and now in the movies, whenever Tony is given anything close to federal power he royally messes up. He’s locked up his friends or put them on lists and accidentally given military power over to super villains. Tony Stark would not make a good President.

Bruce Wayne on the other hand is perfect. He’s a genius with super human will which allows him to become the best at everything he does: the world’s greatest detective, master martial artist; a guy that’s able to beat up superman repeatedly as well as outsmart and defeat the likes of Darkseid, an intergalactic tyrant and space god. He’s got a tool for every job, knows everything, and is prepared for any possible outcome.

Can you think of better poster child for ideal of meritocracy than Batman? He’s the most American superhero out there that doesn’t start his name with ‘Captain’, because say what you will about other rich people, Bruce Wayne deserves his money. Deserves it, because like Trump, he didn’t earn it, he inherited it. And as Trump supporters felt America desperately needed a man like Donald, Gotham desperately needs Batman.

In Batman comics Gotham is a city overrun by criminals, with a dismal economy and a corrupt political climate that can only be described as ‘swampish’. In every origin when Batman arrives all that changes. Wayne industries comes in and creates jobs fixing the economy. Batman takes out the mob leaders and exposes politicians, wiping away corruption and decreasing crime (at least initially; there always must be crime or there would be no Batman). Gotham is safer, richer and better with Batman in charge.

And make no mistake, Batman is in charge. Super hero comics by no means represent realistic politics. Shield, for instance, is an international police agency which has authority everywhere and yet it’s never clear who they answer to or how they get their funding. But even by comic’s standards Gotham is some bizarre libertarian city-state, with Batman/Bruce Wayne as it’s Solider-CEO.

In the comics, games, and movies Wayne Enterprises controls just about every major function in Gotham. All utilities are run through Wayne tower. The Wayne’s built the public monorail transportation for the city. Wayne tech systems act as the communication providers for the police, the banks, and city hall. As CEO Bruce Wayne has access to every communication and record that goes through that system. I can’t imagine that would be legal anywhere else in the U.S.

And yet in Batman comics this clearly corrupt system is for the collective good. There is no conflict of interest between Bruce Wayne’s monopoly on every industry in Gotham and Batman’s extra-legal actives in policing the city, because they both serve the same interests, that of Gotham’s. The fact that Gotham’s interests are indeterminable from Bruce Wayne’s, doesn’t matter. Gotham is after all Batman’s city, he says so himself.

And Batman’s city is Batman’s, not the mob’s, not the dangerous ‘others’ that threaten the power of the status quo. While Batman main adversaries don’t come from the minority groups that Trump targeted on the campaign trail, his rouge’s gallery is still full of people labeled as freaks, the insane, and the other. People on the fringes of society not in the mainstream.

Killer Croc has a fatal skin condition not a trust fund. The Joker is dangerous, but he’s anarchist who will burn money rather than horde it. Even the Penguin who dresses like an early twentieth century aristocrat only turns to crime after the elite of Gotham kick him out.

Batman enforces Penguin’s place on the outside by repeatedly beating the crap out of him. And yet there’s no way the pudgy penguin can physically match him. In fact Batman spends most of his time punching down; how exactly are the likes of Scarecrow, Riddler or the Ventriloquist going to fight Batman on equal footing? At times it can seem like he’s bully, a charge also labeled at Trump.

The parallels between Trump and Wayne are there. A billionaire who says he’s the best at everything, bends the law, using fear and violence against the poor to protect the majority. A political force who’s best interests are also the best interest of his fellow citizens. They share that collective myth.

But myths are both inherently political and infinitely interpretable. The best ones can change and shift with the time and finding new ways to grow. Batman himself has been everything from a brooding, mostly silent vigilante, to a campy, colorful detective, to an arrogant, silly Lego cartoon. All of those interpretations are equally Batman.

And writes have picked up on Batman’s generally pro-rich and pro-establishment themes before and twisted them. Frank Millar famously has Batman terrorize rich mobsters and business elites of Gotham during a dinner party telling them their time has ended. Scott Synder and Greg Capullo created ‘the Court of Owls’. A network of oligarchs who controlled Gotham from the shadows before Batman showed up. He then works to overthrow them and restore Gotham to the people.

Bruce Wayne himself is presented as being a businessman in name only. He’s never interested in wealth for himself, but rather as a tool to help the disenfranchised. Multiple Batman stories show him either ignoring his family’s business altogether or creating international charities, building orphanages or schools. He’s presented as the type of billionaire we all hope the wealthy really are.

And yet to me the answer to what should be down with Batman post-2016 has already been answered. In nearly every retelling of Batman’s origins there’s always one clear fact: Batman’s parents Maratha and Thomas Wayne are saints. In Batman Begins for example, they are the only good people with power in the whole city. Their charity even goes so far as to thwart Ra’s al Ghul’s plans to destroy the city.

This always struck me as odd. How do the Waynes become so central to Gotham while at the same time keeping themselves clean from the corruption that seeps into every part of the city? In telltale’s retelling they don’t.

In the Telltale’s ‘Batman’ game, Bruce is forced to revisit his past and realizes that hero worship of his father blinded him to his dad’s connection to organize crime. Thomas Wayne is a ruthless businessman who gains his fortune by working with the mob and corrupt politicians; even going so far as use his medical credentials to get sane people committed to Arkham against their will. He does this to both his enemies and anyone who refuses to sell him their property.

This completely changes Batman’s struggle, rather than avenging his murdered parents he’s now trying to undo the damage that his family inflicted on the city he loves. There is guilt and confusion and the world is full of more greys than simply a fight against crime. This new moral ambiguity put’s Batman’s billionaire dollar super power in the forefront.

As Alfred says of Batman’s parents in Episode Two of Tellatle’s game, “The truth is they were billionaires, Bruce. You don’t amass that kind of wealth without making certain moral compromises. It’s just not possible, that kind of money taints you.” Post 2016 Batman’s super power is as much a curse as it is a gift.

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Image from abcnews.go.com

I’m writing this blog primarily to focus on storytelling; to dissect the mechanics different mediums and genres use to tell their stories. But before getting into that, let’s talk about why we tell stories in the first place. Yes, stories are fun, but they’re much more than the anecdotes you trade at parties or the plot to an entertaining film. They’re central to how we view the world. Take this election cycle for instance, you’ll often hear pundits discuss ‘controlling the narrative’, how our two political parties are fighting over which ‘story’ most Americans believe.

‘Narrative’ in politics is often presented as something other than fact; the ‘spinning’ of events to appear the way a politician wants them to vs the way they really are. But the truth is that everyone does this all the time in their own private lives. And I don’t mean actively ‘spin’ events your way, necessarily, but try to understand things through a narrative rather than facts.

I mean look back at own life, what do you see? Is it just a dry list of sense data, accumulated over a marked numbered of years? No, it’s a story. It has plots and characters and themes. There are days and nights you value more than others, like the night of your first kiss, or the day you received a cancer diagnose. You see these moments as defining you, as causing you to change your actions or values, as being different than the rest of your life.

And yet the most important day of your life had just as many hours as the least. And to an outside observer those two days could look identical. Even in the moment, a life defining event might have meant nothing to you. But when you looked back and organized your story, shaping the the events in your mind, you started to see the value and meaning within them.

This happens to us on a cultural scale too. Nations don’t just come into being by a bunch of people living on a land or moving to a new one. They rise up from epic origin stories, full of national heroes like Liu Bei or Aeneas or even George Washington. And beyond that there are creation myths found in every culture in human history, stories that tell us how the earth was made and why. We do this because we seek understanding and we find that within the narrative.

It’s the reason Jesus spoke in parables, and Plato wrote his philosophy down as series of dialogues. Stories are communication, the best way for humans to remember and process information. That’s not to say that facts and numbers aren’t important. Science and math definitely matter and should probably matter more. But fact is supposed to be like numbers, a hard immobile object that merely exist, having no value outside of context. The narrative is meant to be that context, to let us know what it all means.

But that’s not to say there aren’t inherent problems with processing information this way. As Stalin once pointed out: ‘The death of one man is tragedy, the death of millions, a statistic’ (and he definitely and killed enough people to know what he was talking about). We relate to the story of one person, while the lives of millions is too much for us to process.

And that’s not the only cognitive dissonance narratives cause. We often value two opposing stories as equal because they repeated from the same sources (looking at you global warming) and there’s also things like identity politics, were we hold onto a narrative because we believe it defines us even if it’s been proven inaccurate or damning, (Dinosaurs being taken out by ‘The biblical flood’, or the Southern fascination with the old confederacy are a couple examples)

So in the end does our narrative understanding of the world help us or hurt us? Well, probably neither, but it also doesn’t matter, because narratives are human. Stories are just how we understand and communicate and that’s not going to change. So when you understand how stories work, you start to understand how we work. And that’s true even of fun things like super hero origin stories or how video games use gameplay to convey themes, and I’m not just saying that so you’ll stick around for the next post.