Category Archives: Books

Try Them and You May, I Say

Dear Senator Cruz,

I enjoyed your courageous Senate speech on the importance of Senator Ted Cruz. I was particularly interested in the part where you read Green Eggs and Ham, and stated that it was analogous to the healthcare debate, saying Americans "did not like Obamacare in a box, with a fox, in a house, with a mouse."

Senator, I have two questions.

The first is, is your copy of Green Eggs and Ham missing the last few pages, or did you legitimately miss the point of a book that is easily understood by a typical four-year-old?

And, as a followup: do you next intend to quote 1984 in support of the NSA's domestic surveillance program, or are you more interested in citing Soylent Green as a great agribusiness innovation that will create jobs and feed the hungry?


The Propaganda Schlock of Starship Troopers

The last time I saw Starship Troopers was on VHS. I'd have been about 15, so you can forgive me if what I remember most about it is Denise Richards's titties. Which should give you some idea of just how well I remember it, because Denise Richards's titties are not actually in the movie. (Denise Richards's titties are actually important to the theme of the movie. I will be getting back to them in a moment.)

I also remember the film getting pretty mixed reviews on release — it's quite clearly a big dumb action movie, with extra big and extra dumb, but there was also a vocal contingent of critics lauding it as a brilliantly subersive piece of satire of wartime propaganda. In the years since, it's become a cult hit among people who enjoy it for both — because it manages a pretty interesting tightrope walk of playing itself totally straight while also being a wicked piece of satire.

More specifically, Starship Troopers the movie is a parody of Starship Troopers the book.

Well, maybe "parody" is a little strong — again, it plays itself far too seriously to be considered a comedy per se. But it's certainly a movie about crazy, over-the-top wartime propaganda — and the novel is crazy wartime propaganda (or, almost — it was too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam).

Heinlein's an interesting dude, and Starship Troopers fills an interesting place in his oeuvre. For a guy who's typically identified as a libertarian, he sure has some weird ideas about only allowing soldiers to vote, and how public floggings are the best tool for disciplining them. With an extra bonus chapter where he really goes off the rails with that public flogging thing and rants about how anyone who doesn't spank their children is stupid.

Starship Troopers the movie gets how ridiculous the book is, ratchets its ridiculousness up to 11, and plays it completely straight.

And while the homages to WWII-vintage propaganda films are great, what it gets most about the nature of wartime propaganda is the dehumanization. Not only Heinlein's choice to very literally dehumanize the enemy by making them giant bugs, but the heroes are dehumanized, too — and here's where I get back to Denise Richards's titties.

Because the coed shower scene is disquieting.

It goes beyond the obvious ideas of discipline and respect in a coed military and straight on into having a bunch of men fail to even notice Denise Richards as female. And when the Main Guy finally does go for a perfunctory roll in the hay with her, it's all just rote, mechanical "this is happening because it's a movie and the leads have to hook up" stuff.

All in all? Well, to make another Spinal Tap reference, there's a fine line between stupid and clever, and Starship Troopers walks it. It's a winking, biting homage to the source material, that looks and feels like it's a dumb movie made by people who just don't get it. (And it could be both — there are a whole lot of people involved in making a movie.)

Its cult status is well-deserved — and even if its comedy is intentional, it seems unintentional enough that it's perfect fodder for Rifftrax.

Which is what I'm headed to see right now, as I write this, though by the time you read it I should already be home. Maybe I'll share more tomorrow!


Formula

I watched Life of Pi tonight.

At one point, I turned to my wife and said, "In the formula, that's what's know as the All Is Lost Moment. Guess that means we're in Act 3 now."

I read an article recently called Save the Movie!, by Peter Suderman of Slate. It's about Save the Cat!, the 2005 screenwriting book by Blake Snyder which defined the formula that seemingly every successful American film since has followed, on down to explaining why Joker and Khan both have such a penchant for gloating at their captors from jail cells.

I really enjoyed Life of Pi. I think it's a great film. But it came with plenty of déjà vu. Hell, it wasn't even the only 2013 film that featured an orphan, a storm, lifeboats, a confrontation with terrifying beasts, and magical realism, and received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

But formula's not bad, not inherently. Particularly in a story like Life of Pi which is itself about storytelling.

I don't have any problem with Joseph Campbell, either. Well, I mean, his writing gets pretty didactic, but he was a man who loved stories and loved taking them apart and seeing what made them tick and what the great ones had in common.

I do hate the extent to which his work was taken as an instruction manual instead of simple academic deconstruction, though. Which is pretty much how I feel about Watchmen (and how, not for nothin', Alan Moore himself feels about Watchmen) — a perfectly good, interesting, insightful work that far too many people decided was a mathematical formula.

Which I suppose leads into some sort of irritating movie reviewer's wordplay about Pi. Fill that in for yourself, I guess.


Occupy Comics

While I was partial to the DeMatteis/Cavallaro piece in #1, the piece of the Occupy Comics anthology that everybody seems to be talking about is Alan Moore's (prose) history of the American comics industry. And that's plenty understandable. Moore's Dry British Wit is at its best here, with his faux-fair-and-balanced choice of words (where he repeatedly points out that original DC publisher Harry Donenfeld was merely an alleged mobster).

A lot of this is ground that's been tread many a time before, notably but not exclusively in Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones and The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu (Amazon wishes me to note that those are affiliate links and I get a kickback from them, whereas I wish Amazon to note that Gerard Jones's name is not actually Gerald). But Moore brings his own entertaining little flourishes:

The Comics Code itself, a long standards and practice document, is interesting mainly for the eccentricity of its demands (the living dead and treating divorce humorously are both seen as equally offensive, with this stipulation aimed presumably at titles such as Zombie Alimony Funnies, which I've just invented so please don't write in), and for the curious specificity of language in which those demands are framed. For instance, in the Code's insistence that no comic book should have the words 'Horror' or 'Terror' as a prominent part of its title, it is difficult not to suspect that this is legislation which has been designed expressly to put E.C. publications out of business. The one way in which the Code could have accomplished this more blatantly is if they'd added words like 'Vault' or 'Mad' to the above forbidden list.

It's a good story, and it's well-told. And it leaves me curious as to whether and when Moore will collect it in book form.


Marvel's Statement of Purpose

I'm in the home stretch of Sean Howe's excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and this quote from the beginning of chapter 17, I think, sums up what's wrong with the company in a nutshell:

The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and USA Today all chimed in about Liefeld, Lee, McFarlane, and the other renegade artists who were standing up to big business. In response, Marvel president Terry Stewart made a statement that "the importance of the creative people is still secondary to the (comic book) characters," a stance that hardly discouraged Marvel's new image as a corporate overlord.

(Brackets in original.)

How comes back to this point in chapter 19:

In June 1994, Frank Miller paid tribute to Jack Kirby, delivering a keynote speech at an industry seminar in Baltimore. [...]

Marvel Comics is trying to sell you all on the notion that characters are the only important component of its comics. As if nobody had to create these characters, as if the audience is so brain-dead they can't tell a good job from a bad one. You can almost forgive them this, since their characters aren't leaving in droves like the talent is. For me it's a bit of a relief to finally see the old "work-made-for-hire talent don't matter" mentality put to the test. We've all seen the results, and they don't even seem to be rearranging the deck chairs.

Creators who complained about defections to Image and other companies, he continued, were "like galley slaves complaining that the boat is leaking." The age of company-owned superhero universes — the Jack Kirby age — was over. "It's gone supernova and burned itself out, and begun a slow steady collapse into a black hole. We couldn't feed off the genius of Jack Kirby forever. The King is dead, and he has no successor. We will not see his like again. No single artist can replace him. No art form can be expected to be gifted with more than one talent as brilliant as his. It's a scary time because change is always scary. But all the pieces are in place for a new proud era, a new age of comics. Nothing's standing in our way, nothing too big and awful, nothing except some old bad habits and our own fears, and we won't let that stop us."

The crowd rose to its feet.

(Ellipsis mine.)

Miller was right in some ways and wrong in others.

The bottom fell out of the market soon after, for both Marvel and Image. Jim Lee is now one of the Editors in Chief at DC; McFarlane and Liefeld have become punchlines (and so, for that matter, has Miller). Post-bankruptcy Marvel has done a pretty damn good job feeding off the genius of Jack Kirby — in films. As for the comics, well, they're selling decently enough but are, at this point, largely the R&D branch for upcoming Disney movies.

Marvel still believes the creative people are secondary (and that's giving them the benefit of the doubt). Marvel is wrong.

Yes, Iron Man is more popular now than he was during Jack Kirby or Don Heck's lifetime. That's not just because Iron Man's a great character — though I happen to think he is –, it's because of Robert Downey Jr, and Jon Favreau, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges.

When you think the characters are primary and the creative people secondary, you get a film like Daredevil. Or, at best, Fantastic Four. Compare the numbers — and you'll forgive me from switching over to DC for this, but they've got a much longer history of film franchises — compare the numbers from Batman and Robin to the numbers from The Dark Knight, or the numbers from Superman Returns to the numbers from Man of Steel, and tell me that the characters are more important than the creative people.

And that, of course, is just looking at it from a mercenary standpoint — because really, that's what Marvel as a company cares about. That's not even getting into quality. My unsurprising opinion is that you're a lot likelier to get a high-quality film or comic when you've got high-quality creative people working on it.

And Marvel's policy of treating its characters as primary and their creators as secondary has resulted in fewer and fewer original characters added to its stable. Sure, lots of creative people still love to play in Marvel's sandbox — and then save their original ideas for creator-owned work.

Take a look at the characters who've starred in films or TV shows over the past couple of decades. Superman and Batman are from the 1930's. Green Arrow and Captain America are from the 1940's. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers are from the 1960's. The X-Men are also from the 1960's, though their most popular character, Wolverine, is from the 1970's. Blade, Ghost Rider, and Swamp Thing are from the 1970's too (and so is Howard the Duck, if you really want to bring that up). The New Teen Titans, Elektra, the Tick, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Mystery Men are from the 1980's. Static, Spawn, Hellboy, and the Men in Black are from the 1990's. The Walking Dead started in 2003, Kick-Ass in 2008.

It's not an exhaustive list (see Nat Gertler for that), but it's an eye-opening one. Marvel and DC have a strong library of characters — from decades ago. Most of the successful new characters, though, are creator-owned.

But hey — Disney's biggest franchises are already from the 1920's to the 1950's (and many of them are based on public-domain material that's a lot older than that). Disney doesn't need to create new product. When the copyrights to the first Mickey Mouse cartoons come close to expiring, Disney can bribe Congress to extend them. If Disney needs to add new material to its portfolio, it can buy a company like Pixar or Marvel.

And as Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and, to a lesser extent, Viacom's purchase of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows, even the most successful creator-owners eventually want to retire and are willing to part with their works.

Star Wars — hm. Maybe I have found an example where the characters are more important than the creator.

Course, that's just because he was ripping off Jack Kirby.


The Talking Asshole

Zappa reads from Naked Lunch, 1978.


"The Writing is On the Wall" is a Biblical Reference

Here's what Orson Scott Card said to EW the other day about his well-known political advocacy against gay rights:

Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

Ken White at Popehat assumes that paragraph two means Card doesn't understand what the Windsor ruling entails, but that's not how I read it. I read this as Card simply realizing that Windsor is the latest in a long list of signs that make it clear that his side will lose, gay marriage will come to be not only legal in all 50 states but commonplace, and it's going to happen sooner, not later.

On some level, that's kinda heartwarming to see, a guy acknowledging he's on the losing side of history and asking that we don't judge him too harshly.

I mean, you know, in kind of a bullshit crybaby "Who's the real bigot here" way. ("Who's the real bigot here, the man who says all gay people are pedophiles and expends a significant amount of his personal wealth on trying to prevent them from receiving equal treatment under the law, or the people who call him names and boycott his work?" It's you, Orson. It's still you.)

But you know what? I'll take it. Card is swallowing his pride here and acknowledging that he's lost. No sense kicking him when he's down; it may not be an apology but it's still the closest he's ever come to one.

Tell you what, Mr. Card — if you put your money where your mouth is and step down from the NOM board, and pledge that you'll stop donating to anti-gay causes, I'll go see Ender's Game.

The book was pretty great.


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Spoilers

There's recent research indicating that people who know spoilers ahead of time actually enjoy them more than people who are surprised — that anticipation increases satisfaction.

This was — and here's where I start to get a little pretentious — this was the view of the ancient Greeks at the very dawn of theater.

(Did I just spell "theater" with an "-er"? Guess I'm not being that pretentious.)

When I was a freshman in high school, we read Oedipus Rex in English class with my favorite teacher. He told us the twists upfront: that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. Of course, the whole play is a mystery about Oedipus slowly piecing together the clues toward that ending.

One of my classmates indignantly asked the teacher why he told us the ending before we read it. The teacher responded, "Because the audience in those days would have already known too."

Sophocles, I think it's safe to say, understood storytelling. He understood suspense. And he understood that it's entirely possible to build suspense even if the audience knows what's going to happen.

And at this point I offer a Warning: The rest of this post is written around major spoilers for both Game of Thrones the TV series and Song of Ice and Fire the book series. Including bits that haven't been on the show yet.

Of course, if you believe what I've just said in the preceding paragraphs, you'll keep on reading anyway, spoilers or no.

I've spent the last week and a half or so catching up on Game of Thrones. But I already knew, with a couple of exceptions, what was going to happen, as I'm already all caught up on the books.

So I knew about the Red Wedding. I knew what was going to happen. I anticipated it.

And it was still affecting as hell.

Whether it was more enjoyable than the first time, more enjoyable than reading it — well, that's an interesting question.

I will say that there was a lot less confusion in watching it as a foregone conclusion.

The big bits in the books, the shocking parts, the stabby parts — I find that I wound up going back and rereading them, several times, to make sure I'd really read what I'd just read. Ned's death, the Red Wedding — and here's the part where I get into stuff that hasn't happened on the show yet, so this is your final warning –, Joffrey's death, Jon's stabbing — my reaction to those was, as much as anything, Wait, what? I had to go back, read it again. Particularly with Joffrey's death — I had a feeling that the other three examples I've just given might happen; certainly there was plenty of foreshadowing that something bad was going to happen — but Joffrey's death caught me completely by surprise. (Perhaps because it's also the only major twist in the series that gives readers something they want instead of hurting them.)

Watching it on TV, knowing what was going to happen — it increased the air of foreboding, the grim knowledge that the outcome was inevitable. I clenched my teeth, clutched the arm of the couch, and caught every single little bit of foreshadowing as it built.

And speaking of Joffrey's assassination, every bit of foreshadowing lands harder knowing that it's coming. Margaery Tyrell and the Queen of Thorns feigning friendship to Sansa is that much more cruel, knowing that they're not merely pumping her for information but setting her up to take the fall for his murder.

Then again, I also paid special attention to every change, every surprise, every moment that wasn't in the books. Robb's wife being stabbed repeatedly right in the belly — Jesus Christ, that may have even topped the book for gruesomeness. Grey Wind dying in a cage instead of putting up a fight. Catelyn killing Lord Frey's wife instead of a handicapped grandson. Roose Bolton being the one to kill Robb himself, rather than just sitting back and watching. Every alteration was that much stronger for being unexpected — and I think the biggest question in my head right now is how Shae's story is going to turn out, since it clearly won't be the same way as in the book. (Though, on the other hand, it could simply be the obvious — Tywin finds out about her and makes good on his threat. Which unfortunately would leave us without the last interesting little twist we learn about Tywin, but I think that ship's already sailed.)

It is, as you'd reasonably expect, hard to quantify something like enjoyment. But I think good stories are ones that don't rest entirely on twists and can still be enjoyed even if you know what's going to happen. Indeed, I'd sussed out who Jon Snow's real parents were by the end of the first book, but that hasn't decreased my anticipation for the big reveal when it comes.


The Zappas on Video Games

The benefits of being a pack rat:

Sharkey posted this on his blog in…according to the date stamp, November of 2002.

I remembered it a couple days ago and I thought, you know what? I bet I don't even have to dig through old hard drives to find it. I bet my obsessive process of backing up data and copying it over from old computer to new has survived two new computers, four different Linux distributions, and I don't even know how the hell many hard drives. (I am, after all, the guy who corrupted his hard drive when he installed Windows 98 and recovered the data in 2008.)

Anyhow, I was right. Sitting right here on my current computer, after all those moves.

(And then I get to thinking, "Wait…I've only gotten two new computers in the last decade?" But then I remember no, there's also the Mac Mini I used to have hooked up to my TV and now use as a backup server, the Win7 desktop I currently have hooked up to my TV, my laptop, my phone, my tablet, and assorted old towers that have managed to pile up in my office and get used occasionally for various purposes. Plus my wife's desktop and two laptops.)

You know, just the other day my coworkers were talking about Hoarders, and I commented that the nice thing about being a digital packrat is that the data I've been holding on to for decades doesn't take up a hell of a lot of space. My comic collection, on the other hand…

Anyhow, not the point. The point is, here's Innerview: The Zappas on Video Games, by Merl H Reagle, JoyStik, January 1983. Scanned by, and from the personal collection of, Scott Sharkey, and preserved through over a decade's worth of computer migrations by packrat Thaddeus R R Boyd.

Innerview, Page 1Innerview, Page 2

Interesting, but not altogether surprising, that games were already being scapegoated by politicians and the media for juvenile delinquency as far back as 1983.

I also love the story of Frank recording the noise in an airport arcade and then listening to it on the plane. I think he also tells the story in The Real Frank Zappa Book — that or I've been misremembering where I read it for the past decade.

(Christ. An interview from 30 years ago which I've been copying from hard drive to hard drive for one-third of that time…)


Kirby on Work-for-Hire

One of the most common facts Kirby critics cite — well, the ones who actually have a basic understanding of the facts of the case, anyway — is that he sided with Marvel when Joe Simon attempted to recapture the rights to Captain America in 1966.

I'm reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe. It's an excellent book, and recommended.

And I just came across the exact wording of Kirby's statement on the subject. It appears on page 77 of Howe's book, and he cites a post on 20th Century Danny Boy, which has a scan of the statement.

It reads, in part:

I felt that whatever I did for Timely belonged to Timely as was the practice in those days. When I left Timely, all of my work was left with them.

Kirby certainly seems to be suggesting that the work he and Simon did for Timely in the 1940's was work-for-hire and not spec work. As such, that does seem to undercut any later claims he or his family might make that he believed he and Simon created Captain America independently and had a right to terminate the transfer of copyright.

Critics of the Kirby Estate's legal maneuverings over the past few years cite that this shows that Jack knew his work in the 1960's was work-for-hire, too.

But does it?

Because from where I'm sitting, it seems to indicate exactly the opposite.

Kirby says, "I felt that whatever I did for Timely belonged to Timely as was the practice in those days." Why the past tense? If Kirby believed that the work he was doing in the 1960's was work-for-hire, that it was owned by Marvel, and that he had no stake in it — why would he refer to that arrangement as what "was the practice in those days", decades earlier? Why wouldn't he use the present tense? Why wouldn't he indicate that this was still the practice at the time he was writing that statement, if he believed that to be the case?

Kirby's words in this document clearly imply that he believes the work-for-hire arrangement is a thing of the past, and not a standard agreement at the time he wrote the statement in 1966.