Pilot for The Tick

We watched the pilot of The Tick on Amazon yesterday. Boy, was it dark. Funny, but very dark.

That darkness is there in the original Ben Edlund comics. The very first issue shows the Tick in a straightjacket in a padded room. It is entirely possible the entire comic series is a delusion in his brain. The comic was quickly taken over by the brilliant, skewering superhero parody that perhaps found its fullest expression in the animated series. After all these years, it feels a bit strange to see something that goes back to the source material and focuses on an aspect that was downplayed previously. If they make more, I’ll watch it, because it looks like it’s going to go in interesting new directions.

One of the things that struck me, is that some of the Tick’s lines of dialogue are the exact same lines that Ben Edlund has be repackaging and reselling for nearly 30 years! That’s kind of crazy, and kind of brilliant, if you can pull it off.

Seven Samurai and Genre Expectations

I watched Seven Samurai last night for the first time. It is, of course, masterfully done. The visuals are so rich and the story is so well-told.

We watched it on Hulu, where it’s part of the Criterion Collection. So after the feature they had a short documentary about the film, its inspirations, its impact on the genre, and its context in Japanese history. Although I had know that it was one of those “masterpiece films” that everybody talks about, I hadn’t realized that it came out only a few years after the end of the American Occupation and how that informed what was going on in the film. Kurosawa was not just making a brilliant genre picture, he was taking bits and pieces of samurai genre conventions and remixing them in a way that applied to the new reality of post-war, post-occupation Japan. There are no questions of loyalty to one’s lord in this story; the samurai are hired by the common people, collectively. While the samurai do display stereotypical traits drawn from the genre, they are each an individual. The end shows the villagers victorious, and the samurai as dying off, with no place in society. To say these things less than a decade after the Japanese militarists had used ideas of bushido to rally the people to greater sacrifice in a losing war was, and still is, powerful stuff.

I’ve been thinking along similar lines myself about this sword-and-sorcery fiction I’ve been writing. There are so many horrible genre conventions in sword-and-sorcery, from “might makes right” to issues of gender to legitimate authority deriving from birth. But I feel there is also power in the genre, and virtue can be found there. A world so big and vast that you will only ever scratch the surface of it, no matter how much you study; and yet, still being able to have an impact. The idea that your future is in your own hands. The idea that individual actions are the root of positive change. I’d like to remix sword-and-sorcery into something relevant for the 21st century, much like Kurosawa did for samurai film.

Anyway, yeah, a really great film. Got me thinking.

Rereading Dictionary of Mu

I’m rereading +Judd Karlman’s Dictionary of Mu. I can probably count on my fingers the RPG setting books I actually like, and this one stands head and shoulders above them all.

At its root, I’d say the best thing about the Dictionary is that it has a point, and it drives that point home like an obsidian blade to the heart. The setting is about something, and it uses every trick at its disposal to get your players to engage with those core themes: “How does the past constrain the future?” “We may not choose how we find the world, but by our actions, we choose how we leave it.” “What is the point of hope in a flawed world?”

The writing is more enthralling than anything called a “dictionary” has a right to be. Oghma, son of Oghma, has not just one voice, but several. He is the devoted scribe dutifully cataloging the world of Marr’d as he finds it. He is also the incisive and judgmental critic who comments on the proceedings in the margins. He is also a self-deprecating, world-weary soul who must have seen every dream slaughtered before his eyes, except that his words might spark the hope of a better world.

The book overflows with mood, and attitude, and abundant grist for the plot mill. It deftly avoids metaplot through the alphabetical organization, and the fact that every major NPC is a potential PC. Everyone has their own story—no one is too big, or too small, to be the protagonist of their own tale. I’d like a lot more setting books if just that single innovation were to spread like the powerful, infected blood of the Jarl of Spiders. When the future of the red planet is in the hands of your players, how can they help but engage with its themes?

I should point out that the dictionary itself is made into a living document. The setting-specific rules require that as play continues, the players must write new entries for the dictionary, merging the stories they spark at the table with the very verses that inspired it.

The breadth of influence is another tactic used to draw players to engage with the premise. Among planets, only Earth has a longer bibliography, and the dictionary draws on a stunning amount of it. Burroughs’ Barsoom is just the beginning. Tidbits are pulled from scientific facts, David Bowie songs, the stories of the Bible, mythologized history of Genghis Khan, rumors of ancient Egyptian astronauts, and more. And yet, all of it is presented with a spin—the proper twist to make it fit in the brutal, desparate, dying world of Marr’d. And that spin is part of the whole point of the thing. Because if some guy named Judd can take the Bible and spin it into this blood-pumping, heavy metal album cover, sword-and-sorcery explosion, then how can you and your players shrink from the challenge of putting your own spin on Marr’d? It’s your story. Go play it.

I can’t stop writing about the genius of this book without mentioning how it looks. The illustrations by +Jennifer Rogers and the layout by +Luke Crane are phenomenal. We often hear about how pictures can tell a story, and so rarely do we see it in RPG books. No one poses on Marr’d. Every drawing looks like it was lifted from a pulp magazine, illustrating a scene in a developing short story. Characters are defined by action, urging the players to follow suit.

Distressed layout is hard. I typeset books for a living and I can’t imagine laying out this beast. The background texture is vivid enough to make it look like it was actually dug from the crimson sands, while still being light enough to avoid obscuring any text. The fonts are easily read, but full of character. Oghma’s scrawl is always at odd angles. This works together with the rule about writing your own dictionary entries. They will look like they belong in the book, because they do—it has already been scribbled in!

Books this good cannot be complimented enough.

Thoughts on the failure of John Carter

Originally posted over on G+, but also here in case I want to refer back to it:
?+Epidiah Ravachol was speculating on why John Carter has not done so at the box office. The discussion has just crystalized my own ideas on the subject.
My own first reaction to the movie was “I really enjoyed this, but it’s too geeky for most people to like.” By “geeky” I mean that it has a high barrier of entry. It takes some work to wrap your head around it. It’s super-hard to get the broad movie-going public to identify with, and enjoy, a story set in a world that never has and never will exist. The three huge exceptions, that thread the needle, are Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Avatar. Here’s why all of them have easier points of entry than John Carter.
CHARACTER: Luke Skywalker is presented as a farm boy with big dreams. People know what that is. Hobbits aren’t humans, but they are presented very much as a stand-in for human children. Jake Sully is a wounded warrior who wants to walk again. That “frustrated desire in the real world that is fulfilled in the fantasy world” is a big red carpet of identification.
John Carter is a Civil War officer. The Civil War is a hundred years deeper in history than it was in ERB’s day. In the movie version, he lost his wife and daughter, but we don’t know that until halfway through the movie. He’s harder for a 21st century audience to identify with.
SITUATION: Luke wants to go on an adventure against the Empire, that is very, very bad. Frodo has a big responsibility thrust upon him. If he doesn’t do it, no one will, and everyone will suffer. The big, faceless company is trying to steal the land from the Na’vi. Jake is the only one who can help them. Everyone’s dreamed of adventure, everyone’s had responsibilities thrust upon them. Everyone’s been screwed over by corporations.
John Carter is transported to a strange world where there are many different groups of people, all wanting different things. He wants to go home, even though his life at home sucks. I just don’t see much that resonates with common experience.
SETTING: Star Wars’ setting is not Earth, but Lucas’ greatest accomplishment is using visual cues to subtly communicate to the audience just what their expectations should be. “These guys where full face helmets and their officers look like Nazis. They’re evil.” “This place is filled with all kind of weird looking things you never imagined. It’s a seedy bar.” The setting is made visually digestible.
Middle Earth is also broken down into easily digestible chunks. Jackson gives us all those closeups of the ring, looming twenty feet tall on the screen, to show us how important it is. He spends lots and lots of time slowly introducing us to the more exotic elements of Middle Earth, like Moria and Mordor.
Avatar has the most accessible setting of them. It has Marines and corporate suits and scientists going native (with the same actress that played Jane Goodall!). The bizarre elements of Pandora are introduced slowly and one at a time.
Barsoom does not easily map to anything we already know. You can easily enough say that the Tharks are like Native Americans and Zodenga is the industrialized northern US, with Helium being the noble, aristocratic Confederacy. But you have to squint to see it, and there are no visual clues to tell us this. The red martians all dress like ancient Greek warriors with only a little strip of blue or red cloth to tell them apart. Stanton spent a lot of effort to make sure we knew who was a Thern in disguise, but not enough showing us who the bad guys were.
High barrier to entry on all three fronts = not many people are going to get over that barrier and enjoy the movie and recommend it to their friends.

Sidekicks these days!

I recently watched the DC animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood. It’s a six year story, but still a warning is warranted: Spoilers throughout this piece, so consider yourself warned.

I was particularly struck by the parallels between this and the Captain America: Return of the Winter Soldier story. Both Cap and Batman are human-power-level characters. Both date from the Golden Age. Both have a long, mixed history with sidekicks. And they both stayed dead for longer than any superhero character has any right to.

Both Jason Todd’s return as the Red Hood, and Bucky Barnes’ comeback as the Winter Soldier parallel their respective mentors in interesting ways. They become the dark mirror of the men in whose shadow they were raised.

Bruce Wayne suffers the trauma of watching his parents murdered in front of him, and builds himself into a terrifying persona that strikes fear into the underworld. Jason Todd suffers the trauma of being beaten to death by the Joker, and when brought back, builds himself a terrifying persona that cuts a swath of fear, death and destruction through the underworld.

Steve Rogers undergoes a secret government procedure to enhance his physical abilities. Frozen in ice for decades, he survives into the present day, still fighting the enemies of his government. Bucky Barnes, rescued from the ice by a Soviet submarine, is subjected to a secret government procedure to enhance his physical abilities. Frozen in hibernation, he survives to the present day, activated only to serve the lethal needs of the government that has brainwashed him.

Both revamped sidekicks use lots of guns, weapons that their bosses refuse to touch. Both take their mission to extremes where their mentor will not tread. Batman will not voluntarily kill his enemies. The Red Hood murders dozens of criminals when it suits his needs. Captain America serves the American dream first, the American government second. He will question orders and refuse those he finds immoral. The Winter Soldier is an unquestioning, unthinking assassin.

If Batman and Captain America are legacies of comics’ Golden Age, the Red Hood and the Winter Soldier show what those same concepts would have been, had they been created with a 1990s sensibility. Guns, leather, murder. What does it say about the way comic readers perceive the world?

Or am I reading too much into this? Were they simply brought back as anti-heroes for the dramatic purpose of allowing their mentors to fight them, and then the added horror of discovering their true identities? Or as dramatic illustrations of the road not taken?

Thoughts on Old and New Styles in Comics

I’ve been unhappy with superhero comics for a number of years. Part of it is due to a lack of a browse-able comic book store in the area. As titles I liked came to an end, I wasn’t able to find new things to like. Every now and then, I’d pick up the odd issue of something or other, and feel disappointed when I was done reading it. Surely the “good stuff” in superheroes couldn’t have been all used up before the mid-90s?

So, I subscribed to Marvel’s online digital comics site. For $10/month, you can read as many comics as you want. They don’t have everything they ever published online, but they do have hundreds (maybe thousands) of issues. It’s only a few days, and the little poking around I’ve done has shed some light on why I’ve been disappointed all this time.

I read Uncanny X-men #136-137 (climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga) from 1980 and Captain America #1-14 from 2005. Wow, what a difference!

Pacing

Modern comics are really written with the graphic novel in mind. They take a slow, cinematic style to build up mood, and put in a mystery that isn’t addressed for a half-dozen issues. A mystery at the heart of the plot, mind you! I mean, I’d say that 6 issues of a modern comic equal the plot of 2 or 3 of the comics I grew up with. It’s strange. There are fewer costumed goons knocking over banks and jewelery stores, but somehow there’s more meaningless fights.

Thought Balloons

And the thought balloons are almost entirely missing. I know that they’re usually rendered as captions these days, and I don’t mind that. But there are so very few of them! They’re almost entirely contained in quiet, introspective scenes where the hero is reflecting on the battle to come, or the villain is plotting.

I suppose the idea of more modern style is that the pictures are supposed to give context of what’s happening in the fight scene, and we’re supposed to understand the hero’s predicament from that. In the older comics, the thought balloons and word balloons would often reiterate what was going on in the panel. They often illustrate that inner self-talk that everyone does everyday.

A modern comic might show a villain punching the hero through a wall. It might take several panels, possibly an entire page for the attempted dodge, punch catching the gut, hero flying through air, going through wall, wall collapsing, hero pulling himself from rubble. The older style might show the same thing in a single panel, with a thought balloon like: “He’s so quick! Caught me nappin’ and this wall’s paid the price! Gotta keep on my toes.”

Coloring

Modern coloring techniques have completely redefined the look of comic pages. The strong, clear black lines of the flat-color era are gone. Since computerized coloring allows so many shades and textures, it seems like the colorist does much of the job that the penciller and inker used to do. The colors are so muted, but uses a lot more single-color saturation, where a dozen different shades and tints of one color are used, often to convey mood. The older style had a more limited pallette of colors, and had to use contrast to make things stand out from their background.

Detail

The new coloring techniques have opened up the way for greater “realism” in illustration styles, as well. Captain America has pretty much always worn an armored shirt as part of his costume. In the older comics, this would be show by a few half-circles scattered here and there on his torso. The actual outline of his chest and arms remained that of a naked human body, colored red, white, and blue to differentiate it from all the other characters with the same sillouette. Now, Cap’s scale mail shirt is illustrated in each and every panel, with every single scale deliniated. The outline of his upper body shows the ridges that the scales make. His cowl has two seams that run down the back, where it used to be illustrated as smooth. Seams on a superhero costume!

And the facial expressions! With the subtleties of modern coloring and the larger panels, newer comics can show greater subtlety of facial expression then the older line drawings. I guess this is also a reason for the demise of the thought balloon.

There are fewer panels per page, but each panel is rendered in greater detail. Part of it is probably due to a greater availability of reference images to artists via the Internet. Part of the Captain America storyline was set in Philadelphia, a city I’m familiar with. I was expecting that the only thing that would let us know it was Philly was a caption, some dialog, and maybe a sketch of Independence Hall in the background. Boy, was I wrong! The sequence starts out with a jet coming in low over the Philly skyline, and it’s actually the Philly skyline! The buildings whose names I don’t know, but whose outline I’ve seen every time I head into the city are right there, drawn in every detail.

Conclusions

It’s kind of strange that as most other types of media are speeding up (compare a fight scene in an action movie from 1980 to 2010), comics are slowing down. I can see how the change in technology has made this possible. At this point it’s primarily an interesting observation, and a warning to myself. Don’t expect as much from a single issue. The trade paperback is the unit of story these days, not the issue. I wonder if telling the same story within a larger page count is a symptom of the influence of manga upon American mainstream comics?

Of course, my sample size is extremely limited. I’m going to be reading more. Are there other comics I’m missing that buck this trend?

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Curio Theatre

In Shakespeare’s day, people would describe going to “hear” a play, a sign of the primacy of spoken language in the Elizabethan perception of the world. However, the Curio Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night was certainly a play to be seen.

Set. The theater itself is in a huge, beautiful old church. There’s about a hundred seats curtained off into a black box theater with a massive pipe organ as backdrop. The marble columns and clever use of scaffolding, including a fireman-style pole, created a lovely vertical thrust in a visually striking multi-level set.

Costumes. Of course, the defining visual mark of this production were the striking steampunk costumes. They provided visual interest throughout, and reinforce the martial orientation of the male characters. Goggles, a gilded gear-encrusted headdress, and glowing brooches constantly remind the audience to let go their own inhibitions and embrace the madness of the plays heart. Best of all was the clock face set into Malvolio’s top hat.

Performances. Good performances throughout. Viola was charismatic and competent, even when caught up in forces beyond her control (such as her love for Orsino). Her love was a bit of a stretch to believe as an early scene with Orsino describing his love of Olivia was cut. Olivia’s transition from cold and aloof to smitten was a joy to watch.

The stage business was particularly strong in the scenes of Malvolio reading the forged letter, and the cringing duel of Viola and Sir Andrew. My sides ached from laughter.

What was new? In the previous productions of Twelfth Night I’ve seen, Malvolio has been cast as one of the actors with the most stage presence. His inflated sense of self-importance, and facility for self-deception overshadow the callous, manipulative trick that Sir Toby and company play on him. In the other productions, Malvolio is a pompous, petty tyrant whose own ambitions lead to his humbling. In this production, the actor playing Sir Toby had more stage presence. Not that Malvolio’s actor gave a poor performance, it’s just that Sir Toby’s actor’s performance was so big that–even when he didn’t have any lines–the audience’s attention was drawn to him.

This mixture of talents threw the heart of the play into stark relief for me. The alternate title of Twelfth Night is What You Will, alluding to the antic chaos of the Elizabethan holiday. I’ve already seen how thoroughly this play depicts the faces of frivolity and merry-making, but I hadn’t quite perceived the depth of amorality at the root of it. Sir Toby the constant reveler has Malvolio locked up for the sake of a joke. Sir Toby the smiling back-slapper does his level best to get his buddy Sir Andrew slaughtered to avoid paying off his drinking debts. Sir Toby will let nothing stand in the way of a good time, and that makes him a frightening specter indeed.

I’m so glad I got the chance to see this production. If you have the opportunity, check it out.