Thursday, June 30, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Ironman

Most superheroes are presented as physical weaklings who become strong, and often American stereotypes to boot. They gain powers, they gain a motive, they fight bad guys, they get a costume, they fight bad guys, roll credits. Tony Stark, on the other hand … well, we can't deny he's an American stereotype, but he's about as far from the squeaky-cleanness of Clark Kent as it's possible to get. He's a hard-drinking, hard-partying, irresponsible, womanizing weapons manufacturer. He should be unlikeable. He shouldn't be someone we look up to. And yet…

I think it was a smart decision to humble Tony at the very start of the film. Afghani insurgents blow him up and capture him for nefarious purposes, and thus allow Tony to see his all-American Patriotic Weapons in enemy hands. That would break most people, and depending on how you read the film it may break Tony too. Suddenly Tony's brought down to the level of the common man and given a choice—give in to the insurgents' demands, or invent something that would allow him to escape. And that's where we see his strength. Tony Stark presents as a playboy, but he's got principles that he stands by, and he stands up to authority, both classic superhero traits. (Of course, Tony stands up to positive authority too….)

Some superheroes fight individual villains with individual motives—the Green Goblin wants Spider-Man humbled and killed, Kraven wants to prove his prowess as a hunter, Doc Oc wants to continue his experiments and get revenge. Some superheroes fight individual villains with larger, more widespread motives—the Joker wants ultimate control of Gotham's underworld, Loki wants control of Asgard and to prove his worth, Lex Luthor wants money. And then some superheroes fight individual villains who are representative of larger forces, and that's Ironman, at least in the first movie. He's a weapons manufacturer who fights terrorism and a corporate American who fights corporate America. In this era of wars and politics and Americans shouting their own praises and a lot of the world (Americans included) upset with the wars, politics, and shouting, Tony Stark is somebody we can get behind.

Of course, that's not the only reason why I like Tony Stark. I also like him for his crazy, manic Tony Stark logic (Insurgents still have my weapons, so I'm going to build a supersonic metal suit with an EMP and a flamethrower), his ability to fast-talk everyone around him, and the chemistry he has with Pepper Potts. More on that in a sec. Also, since I might as well admit to being occasionally shallow, Robert Downey Junior takes off his shirt a couple times.

Earlier this week I had a conversation on Twitter with @AmaliaTd and @SuSmithJosephy about superheroines as treated by Hollywood, specifically the fact that no matter how awesome they are in print, they're weakened on film and turned into damsels in distress more often than not. Ironman's the rare beast where strong women get to be secondary characters and do stuff in their own right. Pepper Potts, Tony's personal assistant, while admittedly the only woman in most of the film, gets things done, outmaneuvers Tony on several occasions, doesn't take his BS, deals out snark of her own, and has an important role in the climax. In a sense you could say she saves Tony's life. And then Tony doesn't win her heart at the end, not quite. Admirable, in a Hollywood film. I seem to remember the same strong women thing going on in Ironman 2, but since I've still only seen it once, I'll hold off on commenting.

Ironman also feels like the most science fictional superhero 'verse I've encountered so far. Most superhero worlds have some aspect of science fiction to them (mostly mutated DNA and advanced technology), but Ironman takes things a step further. Tony Stark's a genius inventor, after all. He has a robotic house, several lab robots, several Ironman suits, holographic blueprint programs, and of course, he also as the arc reactors. A lot of the stuff is, if not possible today, nearly possible, and that manages to make the film simultaneously "gosh wow cool future!" and grounded in reality. I've seen similar technology on Youtube.

(Yes, I know that Tony Stark's world is also the world of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, all of which definitely have science fiction elements, but somehow, even with the Marvel Studios continuity, Tony's Malibu home seems more advanced and real than anywhere else except maybe Asgard.)

I'm not as hooked on Ironman/Tony Stark as a character as I am some of the other Marvel characters—I'm not very likely to pick up an Ironman anthology this year—but I've yet to watch the film without getting a splitting grin within a couple minutes. And I have hopes that the humor, pacing, and characterization in Ironman find their way to The Avengers, because they'd make that movie awesome. Since Joss Whedon's helming, I may actually get my wish. Also, I really do need to acquire Ironman 2….

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tolkien and Me

The first novel I remember being read as a bedtime story was The Hobbit.

The first novel I remember reading was The Hobbit. I finished it, then turned back to "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." I still have that edition. It's well-worn.

The Lord of the Rings was also a bedtime story. I can still remember the tune Dad sang for Tom Bombadil's song, though I think the elvish songs were read as poetry. I'm not sure I understand everything in the book, but I certainly enjoyed it.

I have an unused Tolkien diary from 1995 illustrated and signed by John Howe. That isn't as impressive as it sounds. Howe went to high school with my dad.

Dad had a bunch of Tolkien art that used to be calendars back in the 1970s. Some of the images were as I pictured the scenes. Many weren't. I'm not a fan of the Hildebrandts. I'm only somewhat a fan of Nasmith.

I have seen the Bass-Rankin Hobbit twice.

One summer—I think I was twelve—my family roadtripped across the Prairies to rendezvous with family in Winnipeg. As one does when one is a writer, Dad scheduled readings in bookstores in most of the cities en route. In the McNally-Robinson in Saskatoon, I found a fairly cheap boxed set of The Lord of the Rings, and begged money off my mom to buy it. Guess what I read for the rest of the trip?

In grade ten, I spent a glorious lunch period clustered around a table in the library, debating with the other kids who ate lunch in the library which hobbit in that promotional photo was Frodo. I'm pretty sure I was arguing for Dominic Monaghan. Several subsequent lunch hours were spent talking Tolkien.

In December 2001, my whole family drove into town to see Fellowship of the Ring in the big, fancy, first-run theatre. (I say big and fancy because it had carpet and five screens, and because we'd recently moved from a different town, which had a single-screen, second-run theatre. Ah, city living!) Even Mom and my sister enjoyed it, though neither of them were big fans of the book and Mom kept asking who the people were. We repeated this ceremony for the next two films.

The first half of my first year of university coincided with the hyping up of Return of the King. I spent much more time online looking at production diaries and movie rumors than I probably should've, and also managed to discover internet fandom at the same time, though I didn't realize it was a Big Thing until several years later. To prepare for Return of the King, I also rewatched the other two films and reread the novels, on top of my assigned reading list. It's entirely possible my roommate thought I was insane.

I own the theatrical editions. I own the extended editions. I have watched each at least twice, including all the extras. I'm slightly ashamed to say I've only listened to the actor commentaries, and not the post-production and art design ones. The extended editions are by far the best, and I agree with many fans that what Peter Jackson changed in The Two Towers was upsetting, disappointing, and unnecessary. I have seen at least three documentaries on Tolkien and his works, and one documentary on John Howe.

To date, I have made three abortive attempts to read The Silmarillion.

I need to reread The Hobbit before the movie comes out. I should probably also reread LOTR because it's been a few years.

And none of that, not as a kind of weird little girl and not as a bigger teenage fan, not as an adult who's been tracking The Hobbit's progress via the internet, has excited me as much as this photo:

(Entertainment Weekly)

We have a Bilbo! Yay! This movie cannot get here fast enough.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Things What I've Been Doing

I know I've been absent a bit lately, both here and on Twitter. (Okay, fine, one "missed day" of blogging isn't exactly absent, but it feels like it to me.) My excuse? I've been busy, and I haven't had a lot of ideas for blog posts. I should probably do another Year of the Superhero post soon—either for Green Lantern, when I see it, or something I've previously seen.

What I have been busy with? Well, in the last few weeks I have…

  1. Seen X-Men: First Class. It was fun, and gave some interesting backstory to the previous movies, and showed a whole other side of Professor X. I don't regret watching it by any means, but neither do I feel the urge to blog about it at length. There isn't much in it, thematically or character-wise, that didn't crop up in the original trilogy.
  2. Seen Wicked, which was also fun and which I also didn't regret seeing, but I'd been expecting something more, based on the fandom. I thought the book was kind of meh when I read it a few years ago, but it tells a better story and you get a better sense of the characters. The musical felt like they'd condensed the plot down to the bare minimum and lost a lot of the characterization at the same time. I'm not sure I would've followed the musical well if I didn't already know the story. Also, perhaps I'm spoiled because I grew up with Rogers and Hammerstein, Disney, and various other "classic" musicals, but I was expecting more to be going on with the minor characters than there was. More story.
  3. Edited for money. Twice! Dad had a manuscript of poems that needed to be … typeset … I think it was, but the publisher didn't have time to copyedit, so guess who got to do that? It was always amaze me, I think, that experienced writers can still make simple punctuation errors. Also, a family friend puts together the company magazine each year, and in the name of nepotism, I do most of the line-editing. We're right in the thick of things now, which is why I have…
  4. Not done a lot of writing. Also, I'm stuck. If anyone has suggestions for what a young man would do to a friend he's mad at, because the friend put him in a very uncomfortable situation by promising it wouldn't be uncomfortable? He's not the sort for lots of physical violence (he might punch the guy once), but everything else I can think of is coded as female or childish. Sigh.
  5. Watched episodes of House and Sanctuary. Since editing mode generally means I'm not in writing mode, and since I've had a blargh over the weekend, I've been watching TV by computer until I'm wound down enough after work to sleep. Not much to say on this point beyond that, except that watching House while eating isn't an inspired idea.
  6. Unpacked boxes. Turns out that 6 years is about how long my parents are willing to store their kids' stuff. A couple weeks ago Dad drove 10 boxes down to me, and I've been picking away at them, getting everything sorted out. This has been an exercise in both Mess (piles of packing paper everywhere) and Nostalgia ("Hey, forgot I had that!"). A lot of this stuff is going to be boxed back up, but I need to see what all I have before that happens. Hence the continuing piles of paper and the stacks of empty boxes.
  7. Read my 24th book of the year. Just wanted to say that. Also, acquired two more, because my bookshelves aren't quite overflowing yet.
  8. Gained a backlog of blogposts. If you've posted in the last couple weeks, I probably haven't read it yet. I'm working through the list, though.
So that's been my life. What's new with yours? Anything exciting?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Accuracy and Continuity

I'm reading a book right now. (I know, this isn't news.) It's hard sci-fi, but the sort I like, which means the scientific details and speculation don't revolve around computers and spaceships. I'm enjoying it. It's fun. I may have stayed up too late last night to keep reading. However, there's one minor aspect of the story that bugs me whenever it shows up, and which pulls me out of the story as a result.

Let's say you've got an alien. It's humanoid, but because of the shape of its vocal tract, it can't produce one of the sounds found in English. You make a point of telling your readers this, with demonstrations. Yet a couple chapters further on, you have dialogue in which this alien is producing that sound, and you introduce an alien character whose name, in her own language (i.e., not English), has the sound as well. Um. I know linguistics isn't the author's speciality, but really, a little bit of thought on the part of the author or their editor should have caught that.

This is why accuracy and continuity (and research) are good things.* I'm willing to forgive a lot of things as a reader, and I'm willing to forgive this in the long run because it's a minor detail and I'm liking the book, but huge errors and glaring lacks of research are never fun. I don't like dropping out of the story like that. I expect authors to know at least as much as I do, especially since they research and all. I'd imagine I'm not alone in this—which is why writers should research and check for continuity even for small things. I would've caught the speech sound thing, so why couldn't they?**

I know facts get missed, research gets dropped due to time constraints, and authors think, "Nobody'll notice!" when in fact, someone always does. I am as guilty of that as the next writer, and am sure I'll be getting all sorts of … interesting fanmail when I'm finally published. If I want to be absolutely perfect on every front, I will never finish researching, let alone writing. At some point I'll have to start fudging things. (Let's not get into my angst over that, except to say yes, I'm angsting, and there's an interview I need to do that I'm terrified about.) But I still maintain that small details aren't hard to verify, and large details should be verified as much as possible—but who wants interesting fanmail?

* Not to say that the author in question didn't do research because man, did he!
** There are some who'd say I have high expectations. Me? High expectations? Never! Perish the thought.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Sense of Place

I wrote this post for two reasons. I went home last week*, and I've been reading. Home's kind of a fluid concept, you see. It's my apartment, my neighbourhood, my city, my home region, and my parents' house, which is what I mean in this case. My family's moved six times that I remember, though the last two houses I haven't lived in as much as visited occasionally. I'm most strongly bonded to the Cariboo, because that's where I spent the greater part of my childhood. It's cattle country, forest country, gold rush country, small-town Canada. I could wax poetic, but I won't unless I'm begged to in the comments. Point is, when I'm asked where I'm from, I don't say "Vancouver" and I don't say "Keremeos", I say "Williams Lake" because that's where I graduated from, and when I'm seized with homesickness or want to show off my roots to my friends, I pull up pictures of grasslands, snow, fir and spruce forests, and rodeos.

How does this tie into reading? "Home" is a setting. It's important to every character. And the location they're in now is also important, but in a slightly different way. "Home" shapes a person, defines their values and outlook and attitudes. The current setting may do the same, especially if it doubles as "home", but it provides a lot more too—dangers, hangouts, classes, ambience. You know, those background things that contribute to the story.

I could veer off now and talk about how where a character's from shapes who they are and how they'll approach the current setting and situation, but that's a big and messy topic. Maybe I'll tackle it later, maybe I won't. Instead, I want to talk about the three degrees of setting that I've noticed: background, descriptive, and realized.

Background setting is the sort you barely notice. Sometimes it's a sign that a writer isn't trying or is just starting out. Sometimes it's not something that's necessary to the scene/chapter/book. For instance, "I turned left into an alley" may not need a lot of description because most people have seen an alley before. Same with "We landed at JFK, found our luggage, and hailed a taxi" and "My jerk of an ex was at the laundromat when I got there." The crowds at the airport and the color of the walls would slow the transition down, and the smell of soap may not even register to someone focussed on another person.

Setting becomes a kind of shorthand in those instances, and that's cool. But when a writer says, "This book is set in New York" but doesn't give any sort of local flavor, doesn't recognize that the city has a culture (or twenty), that's also background setting. At a story level, merely giving a nod to setting isn't good. Readers can't picture everything, and if a setting just gets lip service, there's a good chance the writer didn't research—which means there'll be mistakes. Imagine a NYC where everyone drives everywhere, has the same accent, has the same fashion sense, is middle-class, and can afford a large apartment… Yeah.

Descriptive setting is one level above that, and is, at least in the sorts of books I read, the most common. There's a sentence or two about every location, and information about the larger setting (city, country, era) worked in in small chunks. I get a sense that the writer's done the research, and I have enough info to picture a scene in my head. I also get character information out of the descriptions—how someone decorates their apartment or describes a setting tells volumes.

On the scene level, we're talking about things like "The kitchen was bright and sunny. Two green enamel pots sat on the wood-burning stove, and a pie was cooling on the lace-trimmed window ledge." and "Rain poured down on the city of Ithyra, funneling off the photovoltaic roofs and forcing the cars to ground level. The climate controller was unaccountably offline and nobody knew why." These kinds of descriptions set the mood for the scene, and prime readers for what's coming. You wouldn't expect the kitchen scene to include ninjas or gun battles, and you wouldn't expect a heartwarming story in the Intrepid British Youngster vein to take place in Ithyra.** 

On a book level, all those smaller descriptions add up to say, "This book is set in Place and Time and the writer knows what they're doing. They've even done research and stuff. Can't you picture this place?" but that's about as far as they go. Books where descriptive setting is the upper limit are great fun. They're interesting and educational. You can't entirely drop the plot into a different setting and have it work. But at the same time, descriptive setting books don't transport me.

Realized setting transports me. It's one of those "I know it when I see it" things, unfortunately, but basically, all the descriptive setting stuff blends with the story and the characters and the dialogue to give the reader a sense of actually being in Place and Time. It's inconceivable that the story could be anywhere else. It takes an incredible amount of work to pull off, but it's so very, very worth it. I'm talking about books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray, and Tolkien (to name some well-known examples), which leave me in a puddle of writerly goo gibbering about wanting to write like that when I grow up. And I do want to, really, that would be fantastic—but I'm not there yet, so I'm forgoing examples. To give some would probably mean writing an entire book anyway, due to the nature to realized settings, and … yeah, working on that. Someday.

Note that I'm not talking only about fiction, though that's where setting's most obvious. I've read memoirs and event histories where descriptive setting is all that's needed, and I've read memoirs and event histories where I'm in that place while the action is happening. It's pretty cool, getting a sense of what it was like living there and then. And I've also read non-fiction that's about facts and arguments rather than stories (a socioeconomic book comes to mind), and setting doesn't factor into those much at all. It all depends on subject matter and context—but if you're telling a story and you're not doing anything with setting, you should get on that. It's important.

* Hence the lack of posts, if anyone was wondering.
** Though more power to you if you pull that off. Intrepid Youngster sci-fi would rock.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Amazing Spider-Man

A couple weeks ago I signed a copy of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 out of the public library. Reading it was an interesting experience. I’m mainly familiar with superheroes through movies, after all, with a smattering of TV shows and fanworks filling in gaps. This means that Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman is the baseline for my understanding of the character, and that I’ve always accepted the sequence of events in the movies as the way those events happened in the comics. So yeah, the comics opened my eyes.

A few things struck me right off. Where I jumped into the story in Vol. 2, Spider-Man had already been around for a while, and his powers, hangups, origins, and several major recurring villains had already been established—so I don’t know for sure how close the film stuck to the canon origin story. I can tell you that while the Green Goblin’s origins translate to the silver screen well, they appear much, much later in the comics than his introduction as a villain. I was almost done with the omnibus (so, about 2-3 years into the run) when I learned them. Doc Oc’s origins appear to be in Vol. 1, as do the Sandman’s. Venom and the Hobgoblin don’t feature this early in the comic canon, so I can’t comment there.

Everyone’s character, just about, is recognizable between the comics and the films, the exceptions being Harry Osborne, who’s introduced in the comics as a jerk and a bully; Gwen Stacy, who wants to like Peter but keeps getting mad over accidental brushoffs; and Mary Jane Watson, who the comics have a classic 60s party girl who says things like ‘groovy’ and ‘daddy-o’ and the films have as a determined yet vulnerable girl from an abusive home. Are the film characterizations from one of the Spider-Man reboots? Or are they unique to the movies?

I mentioned in my discussion of the Spiderman movies that one of the things I like best about Spider-Man is how he never seems to catch a break. That’s in the comics too, of course. It’s too intrinsic to his character not to be. But comic-Peter seems to have it rougher, in that there’s more time to spend on his lack of money and social problems, and easier, in that film-Peter always seems to need money while comic-Peter only needs to worry about funds when it’s important to the plot, and never seems to need to scrounge for cash for his web slingers, tracking devices, or costume materials. For that matter, the bad guys rarely worry about money in either medium, even when the plot involves a heist. However, that’s kind of expected of comic book baddies, I think. It’s certainly part of the quirky charm of the medium.

Speaking of quirky charms, I want to talk about the dialogue for a sec, the witty banter especially. There’s an awful lot of it. It can go on for pages at a time and generally includes bad puns—and yet it gets across a fair bit of characterization all the same. There’s a sense of bravado in Spider-Man’s quips, as though it’s his defense mechanism and if he stops quipping, he won’t be able to enter a fight or handle himself while he’s in one. There are enough ‘hey, that gadget was expensive!” lines from him to reenforce his poverty. We also get a sense of his intelligence, through some of the things he references. The villains’ quips tend to be a bit more bombastic and grandstanding—”Now I have you! You won’t get away! Today, I finally defeat Spider-Man!”—but still, there’s enough variation between the different villains to get a sense of their character. (I’m ignoring the dated language, since that’s not relevant to the plot of the comics at all, but it certainly lends something to the reading experience as well.)

I talked to a comic-reading friend when I was just about done the omnibus and mentioned how the quips, while cool, where kind of wearing. She said, “You know there’s so many of them between Stan Lee had to hit a certain word count to get cheaper shipping, right?” Funny how a small thing like that can have such a big influence on how people perceive superhero universes, isn’t it? I can’t imagine a world where no superhero has a witty comeback and no villain monologues.

I also noticed during my reading of the comics that they are an incredibly male medium, or at least they were during the 60s when these issues were first printed. On one side, there are the fights and explosions and action. On another, there are Peter Parker’s girl problems and string of girlfriends/love interests. On a third, there’s his general geekiness which I imagine was designed to make him an everyman, and which probably had an effect on why geeks in particular like comics and superheroes. There’s also a fair bit of morality slathered throughout the comics—Peter’s the man of the house and it’s his duty to care for his elderly aunt; he’s a good boy so calls home when he’s running late; he knows how to treat a lady—and a fair bit of ribbing and self-referential moments from Stan Lee and the other creators.* Stuff like, “In case you were worried this wasn’t a Spider-Man comic after all” and “Chee! Why do they always have to shoot at me?” I see that as a guy-to-guy thing, not a guy-to-girl or girl-to-girl.

I’d also imagine that if a woman’d written Spider-Man in this era, there’d be a lot more empowered female characters and fewer female stereotypes. Of the three young women/girlfriends we meet during Vol. 2, one is a secretary, one is a wealthy college girl and model, and one is an aspiring actress. Betty-the-secretary and Gwen-the-student both seem to define themselves in relationship to the men around them. Mary Jane was only introduced in the last couple issues of the volume, so I can’t say if she’s the same, but my guess is she is. There are notably no female villains, nor are there female henchmen. The only other major recurring woman in Spider-Man is Aunt May, who’s frail and needing care, and is otherwise a pretty standard mother-figure. She often comes across as clingy, to the point of delusion at a few points. How can she not see that her college-aged nephew doesn’t need to be coddled as if he were six? But hey, her interactions with Peter provide him with some good angst, so I’m willing to go with it.

One last thing: the formulaic structures of these comics is deceptive. I tend to think of superhero comics as consisting of “bad guy shows up, hero fights him, hero loses, hero rallies, hero wins” and being stand-alones. You can pick up any issue and nothing would’ve changed from the last time you did. And this is partly true, at least with Spider-Man. You’ll get that formula, guaranteed. But there’s also other stuff going on, that’s set up issues before it goes anywhere, or which continues over several issues. For instance, in Vol. 2, which is about 20 issues, Peter’s relationship with Betty falls apart as she starts seeing someone else; he pines for Betty then gets a new girlfriend; Aunt May falls ill but Peter doesn’t find out for several issues; we meet Mary Jane months before Peter does, in teasing glimpses; and characters who turn out be connected initially seem not to be. It’s pretty cool, really, and speaks to a greater amount of planning than I’d given Stan and co. credit for. I should’ve expected this. I knew about the plot arcs going in and any writer worth their salt is going to build a world that allows for a lot of complexity, including relationships that can come out of the woodwork to spice up the story and multi-issue threads to keep readers coming back. It’s one thing to know this; it’s another to see it.

Reading these issues of Amazing Spider-Man has left me with a new appreciation of the movies (what changed, what stayed the same) and a desire to read a more modern comic omnibus, probably Marvel but not more Spider-Man. I want to see how things changed as the second and third generations of comic book writers rose through the ranks. How do they handle the plot arcs differently? Are the issues less episodic than they were? What are people doing these days to make the witty banter less campy? Perhaps DC’s announcement to restart all their series at #1 will be an opportunity to see that. Jumping in at the start of a reboot sounds infinitely easier than jumping in partway through an established series. I hate playing catchup when I don’t have to.

Thoughts, anyone? Suggestions?

* Yes, this is a polygon.