Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Originality Is a Lie

Yesterday someone told me there was never anything new on TV and justified the statement by listing shows similar to or which may have influenced a show which shall remain nameless, but which is currently airing and which I'm enjoying. I both agree and don't agree with their statement, but refrained from saying anything to their face about it. I save my best arguments for the blogosphere. Aren't you lucky?

You see, there are only so many stories out there. Every show is going to fit into one of those basic plots. And TVTropes has pretty much proven that there is no truly original idea. Somebody will have used that character, that situation, that trait before you, and hundreds of people will use it after you. It is impossible to be truly unique, especially since art is never created in a vacuum. Also, if you look through TVTropes for any length of time, you realize that some of these ideas go back to the start of recorded history, and probably further back than that. They've obviously stuck around because they strike a chord with people. Why shouldn't we expect people to still use the ideas today? They've been proven to work.

Like I said, though, I do agree with the "nothing new" statement to a degree. There are an awful lot of crime dramas, and a fair number of legal dramas and medical dramas, on air right now—enough that my reaction to green-lit show announcements is occasionally "oh no, not another one". Even sci-fi/fantasy shows seem to be borrowing from those subsets (Torchwood, Eureka, Alphas, Warehouse 13, Supernatural, Haven, and the upcoming Grimm). Would it hurt the networks, or the cable channels, to give us more shows without an episodic mystery underpinning? And networks do have a habit of copying from each other, which is why we have so many crime-medical-legal dramas, and why there's about to be a show about 1960s stewardesses after the success of a show about 1960s advertising executives.

However, I don't write off shows (or films, or books) because I've seen the core plot, or tropes, or formula before. I expect them. I expect that the first film about any given superhero will be an origin story. I except that any team of crime solvers will have a comic relief character, a strict boss, a tough-but-fair type, and a hero. I expect sitcoms to be about slightly dysfunctional groups of people stuck living or working together. I write off shows for lack of originality, or rather, I watch shows that display originality. Supernatural's kind of like Buffy and kind of like X-Files and kind of like horror movies, but it's also about family and "home", and it has different takes on monsters and an interesting take on religion. Bones is kind of like CSI with more skeletons, but it's focused on the lab people, not the detectives. Basically, I want to see people take the tropes and plots we've seen again and again, and do something different.

Interestingly, I've seen this "nothing new" argument leveled at TV and movies far more often than I've seen it leveled at books, though the backlash against repetitive stories occurs with both. I know from #ufchat on Twitter (admittedly a very small sample) that people get tired of the same mysteries with the same romances and same monsters. Anything different gets praised or at least mentioned. The publishing industry and reviewers will quite often point out the "different" parts of stories, as will I at my dayjob—and negative reviews are frequently "it's just like X". This happens again and again in film and TV reviews too.

I'm not sure which of my conclusions is more accurate. Does the ratio of books to shows lower the proportion of negative to positive feedback for books vs. TV? Or are readers less vocal about their dislikes compared to watchers? Are there fewer book reviewers compared to TV reviewers? Is it a mix of all these?

I'd like to see less backlash against "unoriginal" work, period. Everyone inspires everyone else and everything gets reused. We need to accept that and appreciate the ways creators do new things with old material—because, voice of experience here, that's really hard.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Musical Interlude

I'm not up to doing an awesome written post today, or a mediocre one even, so instead I'm embedding some awesome music videos. Listen to the first three, watch the last two, and have a great weekend!

 And for the visuals as well:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Our Gods Wear Spandex

I'm not just reading superhero fiction and watching superhero movies this year. Admittedly, that's the bulk of my research*, but when I come across a non-fiction work that interests me, I'll pick it up. Case in point: Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles.

Knowles' thesis is that superheroes are now what gods were then. They're fantastically powerful, they save us in times of peril**, and they are "worshipped" by their fans. He gives a lot of information about comic book history and the parallels and influences withs gods, mysticism, and the occult that crop up within it. I buy the thesis, because yeah, I see the parallels, and I think I've run into this idea before. I don't always buy that the support evidence supports the thesis, though, and there were some moments where my Inner Feminist™and Slightly Outer Fangirl™ went rawr. So I'm kind of conflicted about whether I liked the book or not.

The book starts with chronologies of super-beings and evolved humans, detectives, and religious and occult groups (Masons, Rosicrucians, spiritualists, etc.), all of which served as prototypes in some way or other for important comic book tropes. We wouldn't have had Batman without Sherlock Holmes, and wouldn't have had the Asian Guru of All Power and Wisdom™without the Victorian New Agers. There's also biographies of important Victorians and Edwardians involved in the occult (Aleister Crowley, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) with relevant links to comics. 

Then Knowles starts charting the history of the pulps and then comic books, pointing to the first characters who could be called 'super' and noting the prototypes for later, actual superheroes. He mentions the strange and surreal plots, mystic elements, actual appearances by gods, and more that I've already sadly forgotten, and does a pretty good job of tying it back into the chronologies I just mentioned. The rest of the book is basically Knowles leading us from the Golden Age through to 2007, when the book was published, with discussions of landmark works and creators. He mentions occult and religious influences whenever applicable: Horus links to the Falcon, Superman gets his power from the sun like Ra, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and Batman, Wolverine, and Hellboy conform to what Knowles calls the Golem Archetype. 

Unfortunately, there are problems with the text. Most importantly from a scholarly standpoint, Knowles seems to be trying too hard to prove his thesis. A lot of the links with the occult he lists are credible and work in his favour, but others seem to be pushing the connection with the occult a little far. Knowles mentions creators with interests in myths and magic and says that they deliberately put occult themes in their work, whereas I'm more willing to believe that those themes slipped in subliminally or in a kind of "oh crap, how do we explain this?" manner. (I don't deny there was an influence, though.) And he also says things like "Superhero Name was also the nickname of So-And-So Unrelated Creator", which I see as trivia and coincidence and not supporting anything. A lot of Knowles' arguments are based on his own research and opinions, by the way. He rarely quotes another scholarly source and I don't think he ever provides counter-arguments.

The next problem I have is with the book's reading of female heroes. Knowles took a moment in the history of occultism chapter to talk about initiation rituals involving bondage. When he gets to the chapter on female superheroes, he makes a point of mentioning their revealing outfits and how erotic it is to see them get tied up all the time, and links this back to those bondage rituals. Can't a girl get tied up without connotations? I've seen readings of Wonder Woman that have her as a feminist icon until the 60s and 70s tamed her. Knowles has the opposite reading, that she wasn't a proper female role model until she left her powers and lived as a human. The same kind of reading is placed on other female heroes, notably Elektra, who he tears apart for being masculine, dominant, and assertive. Oh, and of course there are a couple mentions that most comics fans are male, with the implication that the female fans don't really count because they're an extreme minority. Feminist SMASH!

Last problem: The Slightly Outer Fangirl™. She was happy to see Knowles say things like, "fans identify with Spider-Man because he's like them—scrawny, nerdy, socially awkward, and dealing with bullies all the time"***, largely because that's why she identifies with Spider-Man. She was slightly unhappy that he seems to think that socially awkward is the only way for a comics fan to be. And then (for a relative meaning of then, because I think this happened first) he says that cosplayers are acting out of the same impulse as Ancient Greeks**** when they dressed up as gods, i.e. that cosplayers are worshipping the characters they dress as; and that cosplay comes from comics fandom. One, I think "honouring" or "sharing love" are better verbs than "worshipping". Two, I always thought cosplay started in, or at least became a Thing in, Japan because of manga—which do count comic books, in a way, but Knowles never mentions them. Three, cosplay's evolved way past superhero costumes, and I'm pretty sure it had done so long before 2007. Do we then say that people who dress as Link, the Doctor, Susan Sto-Helit, or Severus Snape worship those characters? I suspect Knowles would say, "But they're superheroes, see, look look, totally counts!"

The fact that Knowles stretches credibility with a few of his occult link-ins stretches the credibility of all the links for me. If he can't be bothered to try to appear unbiased and/or scholarly about his thesis, then I'm inclined to see that as him pushing an opinion rather than presenting an argument. And if he's going to impose his (older) (male) viewpoint on comics and fandom, I'm going to question his opinions, being, as I am, younger and female. 

All that aside, the bulk of Our Gods Wear Spandex is interesting and informative, and can be read as an overview or a launching point for further research. (It's not exhaustive and not meant to be.) Knowles has a number of intriguing ideas and makes a number of connections that I hadn't thought of. I see the history of comics more clearly now, will be reading them with a more informed eye, and don't regret reading the book. At the same time, though, I am approaching the information Knowles lays out with a skeptical eye because a scholar to my standards he is not. I advise anyone picking this book up to do the same.

* I love that I get to call it that.
** Superheroes get more popular during times of national crisis like war.
*** I paraphrase. The book is no longer on me.
**** I think it was the Greeks?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Links and Science!

You may have noticed that I didn't blog this week. That's because every time I sat down to start a post, the post I promised Science in My Fiction was more demanding than anything I had planned. It's on the science in Cowboys and Aliens, or more specifically, the lack of thought-out science. It's up now, which I hope will make up somewhat for the lack of posts, and allow me to write a post or two for next week. Go read it!

And since we're talking science today, here are some links I've collected lately:

Dolphins are the first mammals to sense electricity.

Glimpses of Roman culture, via Pompeii. If you're a Pompeii nut, you've probably heard most or all of this. If you're not, read on!

Map of all the water in the solar system.

Electronic circuits skin

And more links, this time with a comic book theme!

First Avengers concept art

Timeline of the Marvel movieverse

What comics could learn from superhero movies

How much does it cost to run a science lab?