Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Politics of Batman: Are Superheroes Inherently Right-Wing?

I recently lent a friend at work my copy of the Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's seminal Batman story that launched decades of grim and gritty superhero stories and revitalized the genre. After he gave it back, I decided to have a look at it myself - I've been reading some more recent Batman stories, particularly the Grant Morrison run that started in 2006 and culminated in Batman Incorporated, so I wanted to go back to an old favorite.

Now, the narrative is that Miller's gone pretty clearly right-wing since then. He denounced the Occupy Movement in 2011, for instance, calling them "louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid self-righteousness". He then brought in the War on Terror, suggesting that America's enemies were getting a "dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh" at the sight of people demanding accountability from the folks who'd wrecked the world economy (disclosure: one of my sisters marched in the initial wave of Occupy Wall Street, and was arrested on completely frivolous grounds).

He then released Holy Terror, a story that began as Holy Terror, Batman, but took him about five years to write, during which he decided to have his own original hero running around rooftops, beating up Muslim terrorists and generally advancing racist stereotypes of Middle Easterners. I haven't read it, but the consensus seems to be that it's a pretty awful story.

What's interesting, though, is that this side of Frank Miller has been around for quite a while. We just never noticed because, at the time, all of pop culture was reflecting the idea that society was going to hell in a handbasket. DKR came out in 1986, and Robocop 2, for which he wrote an early draft, came out in 1990. Media at the time was full of portrayals of cities turning into war zones, police being unable to stop the flow of drugs into the streets, and law-abiding normal (ie, white) families being subject to rape, robbery, murder, etc at complete random.

I'm not arguing that American cities weren't awful, of course. I wasn't around then, but I'm aware that New York in the 70s and 80s was pretty dangerous and sleazy, and that some cities were worse (East St Louis was the basis for Hub City in Denny O'Neil's acclaimed run on The Question - incidentally, created by the well-known Objectivist Steve Ditko).

But it does seem that a lot of the people writing these urban types of comics swallowed some sort of Kool-Aid and filled their stories with a sort of perpetual left-wing straw man - a big part of chapter 1 of DKR involves leftwing people calling Batman a fascist and arguing against his methods. We as readers are meant, instead, to root for him because he gets results and he's sick of standing by and letting Gotham City go to hell.

Batman in particular can seem like a law-and-order right-winger's dream. He's meant to be this avenging angel, taking on crime that the police are too corrupt or ineffective (because of pesky rules) to tackle. This portrayal, however, ignores the fact that initial versions back in the 40s were more of a masked adventurer type, like the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro. That then turned into the crazy psychedelia of the 60s, of which the Adam West TV show is the best example. While the back story remains the same - parents killed by mugger, young Bruce swears revenge, etc - the execution isn't nearly as dark or tortured.

On his more recent run, Grant Morrison tried to re-introduce some of the earlier playfulness of the 1940s-60s Batman, while at the same time having Bruce Wayne form a foundation to help tackle the root causes of crime. It's telling that Batman as written by Morrison (whose parents were anti-nuclear campaigners in Scotland) spends more time going after people like Ra's al Ghul or the Joker, than common street criminals.

Similarly, Superman started life as a sort of proto-Occupy figure, bringing slum lords and corrupt billionaires to justice in the 30s and 40s, before being coopted for propaganda purposes during World War II. Morrison also tried to incorporate that into his own reboot of Superman in 2011, as part of the New 52. But the intervening decades did leave Superman as more of a fusty, establishment-type figure, prompting former Punisher writer Steven Grant to wonder whether Superman would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr at Selma, or if he'd have been holding one of the firehoses instead.

The simple answer is that these characters are mirrors for the creators' own preoccupations. Your definition of truth, justice and the American way may differ from mine; likewise, you may prefer stories where Batman beats up street criminals to ones where he tackles international baddies like Ra's. I just think it's a shame if we let a single, narrow definition of Batman (ie, Frank Miller's right-wing and slightly racist one) stand as the definitive statement on a character that could be a lot more interesting.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Progress Report on the Novel

I've been back on the novel writing for a month, and thought I'd share some reflections on how the story's going, as well as stuff I've learned in the doing.

First is to take stock of where I am, which I'm pretty happy with. I set myself a goal of between 27,000 and 30,000 words for April, which I scraped through with a last push between Sunday and Thursday of last week. It helped that I started a few days early, back in March, but I don't want to dismiss the effort that I put in - I didn't miss a single day between 29 March and 15 April (something I can't say about May so far...). In total I missed just six days of writing throughout the month, generally as a result of tiredness or poor time management (see, for an example of the latter, last week's blog).

On the plus side, most days I added about a thousand words to the manuscript. My best day was 11 April, when I knocked out 1,886 words. I wasn't able to hit these giddy heights every day, but even when I targeted a shorter writing time, I managed only three days where I was under 500 words. And the important thing is that I sat down on those days to do it.

As far as learnings, I took a new approach with this one. Whereas for previous novels I broke it all down into chapters at the start, this time I approached it more like I would a movie treatment, by dividing it into acts and inserting plot points to make transitions between the acts. It's made the manuscript look a little unwieldy, but I can admit that not worrying about chapter breaks for this draft means that I can simply tell the story as it comes. This is a suggestion I've adapted from both Terry Pratchett and Shelly King, who I heard give a talk at a local bookstore in March.

Another tactic that I used for the previous book has come in handy this time around. Following Rachel Aaron's suggestion on her own blog, whenever I sit down to write, I spend five minutes writing out what I intend to get done. As soon as the five minutes are done, I get to putting it down into past tense, third person narrative with dialogue and what-have-you. What I found interesting is that on one day I thought I didn't have time for this, so I tried to just sit down and write, but found that my brain wouldn't spit anything out. I ended up taking a couple of minutes to do it after all, and the words came a lot easier after I did.

I suppose the reason it works, as Aaron says, is that in those first five minutes you've figured out a lot of the beats and the back-and-forth of the scene, which means you can just get on with it. If you don't do it, you're spending a lot more time thinking about what comes next, determining whether or not it works, and deleting or back-tracking more than you need to. When I first came across her advice two years ago, it helped me knock out around a thousand words in an hour, which I consider to be pretty excellent going for nights when I've been to the gym, made dinner and only then sat down to write.

As far as what I'm actually writing, I'm not worrying about that overly much at this point. I try not to edit too much as I go along, especially in a first draft, although when something's been really glaring I've put in a marker to remind myself for when I start on the first round of revisions. I can say, though, that I'm quite happy with some of the character work that's been developing - that'll probably change after I've put the manuscript away for a while, but for now I'll take whatever wins I can.

And looking to the future, I'm aiming for 27-30 thousand words again. I'd also like to maintain a streak like last month's, although I'll have to be careful not to fall into the trap of letting myself do less than a thousand every night. The plan is to have the entire first draft done by the end of June (or thereabouts), so I've got my work cut out for me.

But on the other hand, I'm reminded of one of those motivational slogans the sales team in my old job had on their white board: If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a thousand words to write.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Not Up for Whatever: Why I'm Done Saying Yes

You know what? I'm done with "yes to life". It's time for some "no".

This was brought home to me kind of forcefully this weekend, as I ended up having a couple drinks too many after work, which led to crashing at a coworker's house (after having more drinks), sleeping on a couch impregnated with dog hairs and curled up so I wouldn't kick another coworker in the head, and listening to a third coworker, who'd drawn the short straw and ended up on the floor, alternately talking in his sleep ("That's up to you, Francesco" was uttered at one point) and snoring like a drain.

And when they finally woke up, a couple of hours after I did (I caught up on email, social media and Premier League scores, as well as listening to someone upstairs having sex), I had to get dropped off at the office so I could pick up my car and drive home. Which is when I was finally able to take a shower, brush my teeth, etc etc etc.

I'm done.

There's a lot to be said for spontaneity, and Bud Light appears to have built an entire ad campaign around the concept of "being up for whatever". Totally admirable. We're urged to say yes to everything that comes our way, because that's how we end up with stories to tell over a beer years later, or with notches on our bedpost, or whatever. If we just say yes to everything, the thinking goes, we won't die alone and unhappy in our miserable little hovels.

But this obscures the fact that, at least for me, being up for whatever has pretty much always ended up with sleeping on someone's couch (or floor), vomiting my guts out somewhere unpleasant or seeing the person I'm into go off with someone that she's into. Or some combination of the above.

On the other hand, if on Friday I'd just stopped at a beer (and a tequila, because come on, I'm not made of stone here), I could have made my way home relatively early, had ramen from the place next door to my house (instead of half a posh corndog and a couple handfuls of not particularly distinguished popcorn), done some writing, messaged someone I'm chatting to on OKCupid, and watched Netflix.

Instead I got my illusions about someone I'm kind of into at the office pretty fairly punctured, declined the offer of a line of cocaine (because even when I'm up for anything, I'm not fucking around with a drug I've never taken before just as I'm about to go to bed), and had to deal with the guilt of staking out my spot on the couch instead of the floor. As well as the concomitant paranoia throughout the night that if I got up to pee I'd lost my spot on the couch.

I guess it's good to have my illusions punctured about the person I fancied, but I'll be honest, there's really no good takeaway from that night. Except perhaps this blog.

Other times I've "just said yes" and "gone with the flow", I ended up getting swindled in Malaysia, or chatting to Colombian strippers in Austria. That may sound exotic, but at some point, like when you're ridiculously drunk, you just want it to end so you can go home and sleep in a proper bed.

So yeah, done. D-U-N. No more "crazy nights", no more going with the flow, and especially no more descending on some unsuspecting person's house and drinking all their booze. No more being paranoid that at some point I'm going to be woken up by the two people sleeping in the living room with me are going to give each other handjobs.

I'm still willing to be spontaneous (spontaneous trips to Singapore or even just down a street I've never been down have proven fun), but I just need to read situations (and people) better. And I urge you to join me in throwing off the tyranny of "yes" and "whatever". It may result in fewer crazy nights, but you'll feel a lot better for having slept well and gone to the gym.

And then I won't feel so jealous of the people whose crazy nights do turn out fun. Win-win. Fuck you, "Yes Man", the 2008 movie starring Jim Carrey.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Training Smarter vs Training Harder

Slightly quick one this week, because I'm typing this out on my work computer after-hours - my home phone line decided to die this weekend, taking my DSL with it. But I'm not here to focus on the negatives.

I ran my fastest 10k ever on Saturday, breaking my previous record by about a minute to do it in 53 minutes and 4 seconds. It was kind of a relief, to be honest, because my running experiences last year weren't awesome. After having (finally) broken the 2-hour barrier for half-marathons in 2013, not being able to repeat that feat, much less break my record, was pretty discouraging.

And particularly when I considered how hard I'd worked - my second run took place in November, and I started training for it in July. I even logged over 86 miles of running in October, as I built up to it... only to discover that I hadn't trained for hill running. At all. Fu. Cking. Balls.

So I made a couple of changes to my routine for this run, with a focus on improving my endurance (I'd noticed that my pace tailed off sharply in the second half of a run). Given that a 10k's a little under 50% of a half-marathon, I was able to do three runs a week without spending too ridiculously much time on it, and gradually got my distances and speed up to the levels I wanted.

And the funniest part is that I did it all without a trainer.

I don't want to bash trainers here, because I only managed my previous personal bests because I was working with someone who really knew what she was doing. But it just underscores how important it is to work with a good trainer - I worked with three last year, one of them for about my entire training regime for the second run, and ended up getting pretty lackluster results.

The difference this year, I guess, is that I took more responsibility for directing my own training and got serious about fixing my specific shortcomings (core strength, endurance). Which, I guess, just illustrates the point that you can have the best equipment and support ever, but it's just a prop - you have to do the work, and figure out what works best for you.

Note, by the way, that this doesn't even necessarily mean longer hours - by the end of November, I was at the gym or on a run five or six times a week, whereas this year I stuck with four workouts a week, and didn't run at all in the week leading up to Saturday.

This is all transferable, of course, to setting goals elsewhere in life. Figure out what's holding you back, and then figure out how to get past it; working harder doesn't always beat working smarter (cliche, I know); and when things don't go as planned, give yourself a break and learn from the setback.

The other important thing is, when you do reach your goal, allow yourself that moment of feeling awesome, before targeting the next goal. But don't forget to get back to work.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

True Detective: True Blood for Grownups

I just finished watching HBO's True Detective yesterday, thanks to my mom having Comcast On-Demand. Given that I caught the first episode sometime last year, and watched the remaining seven in 2015, it's taken me less time to finish than Breaking Bad or the Newsroom.

I have a tendency to check out the first episode of something, and then not revisit it for a good long while. It's not always because of the show's quality (or lack thereof) - it's simply that sometimes I don't have an easy way to follow up with something. For example, I think it was about 3 years between when I watched the first episode of the Walking Dead, and when I saw the remaining 5 episodes of Season 1.

Anyway, with True Detective I hustled a bit more - and I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be pretty good. Not great - not the Wire or the West Wing - but a good way to spend eight hours.

Possibly what caught my imagination first was the show's visuals, and sense of place. The creators seem to really like bird's eye view shots of cars, the size of ants, driving through the highways laid down onto the bayous. I suppose it's to show the scale of the landscape, to emphasize how easy it is to disappear into those bayous, and to hint at what might be lurking there.

The opening title sequence is a good demonstrator of the creators' level of attention to visual detail. Like the True Blood title sequence, its themes are sex and death, two mainstays of Southern Gothic, and there are a lot of images in common, like strippers and desolate houses in the middle of nowhere. For True Detective, some of these thematic images are overlaid onto the silhouettes of the actors, giving a curious double-take effect, where you think you're seeing one image and then the other comes into focus. Given that a lot of the show deals in memory and how stories are distorted over time, this is pretty appropriate.

Within the show, beyond the helicopter shots depicting miles and miles of bayou, the cinematography travels from the tidy home of Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) to the rougher environs of Rust Cohle's (Matthew McConaughey) home and the back country whorehouses, ruined churches and overgrown forts where the rest of the action takes place.

Another thematic point related to the landscape shots is how the landscape is continuously fighting back against the people's encroachment. The killer's home, when we see it at the end, is off in the middle of nowhere, choked by overgrowth; the devastation of the regular hurricanes that pound the Gulf Coast also provides an opportunity for the local flora to reclaim human construction.

As far as the acting, McConaughey and Harrelson make a great uneasy partnership, even if they're sometimes a bit on-the-nose (Harrelson) or almost comically gnomic (McConaughey). Michelle Monaghan is, I'll agree, a bit underused as Harrelson's long-suffering wife who has to deal with his infidelities and drinking. To be honest, I don't think I'd have appreciated the performances as much if I hadn't read the AV Club's episode recaps explaining how this show is also a sort of rebuttal to the misbehaving anti-heroes of shows like Breaking Bad or the Sopranos.

In those shows, the main characters are men who go off the rails and learn to take what they want without bothering with consequences, or have always lived outside the law. True Detective takes the question of whether it takes a bad man to keep the other bad men from disrupting society, and unlike Breaking Bad or the Sopranos, doesn't make excuses or applaud them. Both Hart and Cohle's lives are train wrecks, even if Cohle claims to see the invisible rules keeping a more conventional man like Hart in his place, even as Hart rampages through life fucking women he shouldn't and drinking too much.

A final point is the imagery relating to the King in Yellow, by Robert W Chambers. There are hints and references to a yellow king, and to a place called Carcosa, throughout the show, although they aren't explicitly supernatural like the source material, which was an influence on HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. I have to confess to being a little disappointed that they didn't go in that direction, in the end, although I appreciate how difficult it is to depict that on screen and make it work. That said, the only other work I've read that referenced Chambers's work, The Feaster from the Stars by Alan Baker, earned such a bad review from me that I eventually felt bad and took it down from this blog. So maybe keeping it mundane (and equally creep) was the right choice.

So, to sum up, True Detective is a well-done slice of Southern Gothic, in the same vein (no pun intended) as True Blood, but without the supernatural or the soap opera. And now that I've seen it, I can go check out that trailer for Season 2.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Getting Back Into Novel-Writing

Tomorrow, a couple of days earlier than scheduled, I'm embarking on a big new project - my first new novel in four years. I've set myself the goal of writing it in three months, for a total of around 90,000 words, which comes down to 30,000 words per month and 1,000 per day.

I'm feeling a certain amount of trepidation with this, as it'll be my fourth novel (more if you count the ones I started but never finished), and the first I attempt to write in such a short time. Those other books all ended up being trunk novels, although I'm reusing some characters and settings from the very first one, The Golden Circle, which I started writing in the fall of 2001, when I was fresh out of college, newly living in London and aiming to write my own answer to the Lord of the Rings.

This book won't be another attempt at that rather lofty goal, of course. In fact, I'm going for something a little easier and breezier, more swords and sorcery than epic fantasy. I'm also thinking of having it be the first in a wider series, but I haven't spent much time thinking about the next books, as I'd really like to get through this one first.

Another reason for my trepidation is the above-mentioned goal. I've never written a draft of a book that quickly, but I recently read Stephen King's On Writing, and he recommended banging them out as fast as you can, so that you can't second-guess yourself or spend too much time waffling on. It sounds like fun, to be honest, and I've scheduled all my other writing projects in such a way that for April, May and June I should (hopefully) be able to concentrate on it alone.

The other thing I'm trying out with this book is a slightly new approach to plotting. I've spoken here before about story structure, particularly the three-act structure favored by Hollywood films, and this book represents a lot of what I have hopefully learned from books like Syd Field's Screenplay and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. I'm not following the structure slavishly, but I'm at least giving it a backbone, to try and hold everything together. So far, so good.

I've even written an 8-page treatment, of sorts, similar to the 20-page outlines I've been doing for the movie ideas I've come up with. It isn't even broken up into chapters or sections, as I usually do, in favor of trying to get everything down and then worrying about the rest when I start on the edits.

It's fair to ask if I'm going to meet that deadline I've set for myself, of 90,000 words on June 30th, but it's probably not that important in the grand scheme of things. I will, of course, set aside an hour a day to crank out my thousand words, and hopefully this goal hanging over me will keep me focused when I'd rather be watching superhero cartoons on Netflix. But I'm letting myself off the hook if once or twice I miss a weekly word count or something like that (I'm trying to balance this writing business in with work, dating and fitness too, you know).

As far as working on other stuff, I expect I'll find some time for some vague plotting and odds and ends, as well as blogging, of course. But I don't plan on cranking out any movie treatments or anything too sizable until July at the earliest.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Green Lantern: The DCAU show that wasn't

I was going to write something about the pervasive influence of the Silver Age on comics, but for whatever reason I couldn't get it to work, so instead I'm going to go with a positive this week and talk about Green Lantern: The Animated Series.

I've been seeing it hanging around on Netflix since I signed up, and I was a bit suspicious, since it looked CGI and for whatever reason, it reminded me of that awful Ryan Reynolds movie (which I haven't even seen, but it seems to have replaced Daredevil as one of the worst superhero movies ever).

On the other hand, after finishing Justice League and its sequel, Justice League Unlimited, I was in the mood for something in the same vein. Those two shows were so well-done that I felt I wasn't quite done with superheroes. Young Justice didn't really hit the spot, though, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, while charming, felt a little light. And then I started on Green Lantern.

There's a reason they say not to judge a book by its cover.

Now, it is all-CGI, which gives everything a weird, plasticky look, but for all that, the action sequences are really good. Moreover, the animators did a good job of making every Lantern's constructs distinct and inventive - John Stewart in the JL shows seemed to only shoot lasers and make bubbles, whereas here you get big green hands, baseball mitts, hammers... It sounds a bit silly, but that's one of the things you go to Green Lantern for.

Then there's the stories, which really are resonant and grown-up enough to appeal to kids as well as parents. The first half of the show's single season was taken up by a single storyline involving the Red Lanterns, who are seeking revenge on the Green Lantern Corps and its Guardians, whom they blame for the destruction of their home sector. The second half, which I haven't quite finished yet, deals with the return of the Manhunters, the robot police force that's responsible for that destruction.

Amid all of that have been themes like the futility of revenge, the destructiveness of emotions like rage, and how authority figures shouldn't automatically get our trust. There's been an interesting subplot for two characters who are (or were) falling in love, and the show has been up front about certain characters being killed, right from the very first scene.

The thematic similarities with the DCAU shows is not entirely an accident, as Bruce Timm executive produced Green Lantern too, which also means he brought the character designs from the earlier shows. If the voices aren't as distinguished as in JL/JLU (they didn't bring back Andrea Romano to do voice casting), then they certainly aren't bad, with talents like Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) and Josh Keaton (Spectacular Spider-Man), among others, lending their pipes.

Another thing I like about the show is that it's made sense of a lot of the plots of the comics from the last 20 years or so for me. I stopped reading Green Lantern in the 90s because I found the Ron Marz/Darryl Banks run, which introduced Kyle Rayner, kind of boring. And every time I've glanced through issues in comics shops I've found new stuff to confuse me - there were now Lanterns Corps of many colors! Hal Jordan was back! The Guardians and Kilowog weren't dead anymore!

There was also a big crossover event called Blackest Night at one point, where you got the Black Lantern Corps, an excuse to bring back dead characters as zombies. Not really my speed, man. So it's nice to see the various colors (Green, Red, Blue and Purple, in the form of the Star Sapphires) woven organically into a single story that stands on its own while also paying homage to the comics.

It's just a shame there's so little of it. I'm aware that animated shows typically have a shorter lifespan than live-action, but with 5 episodes to go (out of 26), I'm wishing there was more for me to get stuck into. Hal Jordan has been running around as Green Lantern for over 50 years, and even ignoring the worst silliness of the Silver Age, there are plenty of stories the creators could have lifted for the TV show.

But them's the breaks - it came out too close to the movie, which spawned disappointing toy sales, and that's apparently what killed it. Still, I'm glad that DC managed another good show featuring one of my favorite characters. It'll probably only ever be a footnote in the history of DC animated shows, but well worth tracking down once it disappears from Netflix at the end of March.