Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mass Effect and the Curse of Becoming the New Star Wars

I just finished the Mass Effect trilogy last weekend, amid reports that the next game in the series has finally been given a name (along with almost exactly nothing else). It's fair to say that as I played through Mass Effect 3, it started to consume my life, much like a Reaper consuming a planet's population (now there's an in-joke for you). Also, let me just warn you up top:

It also goes without saying that this is his favorite blog.

To give you an idea, I took the better part of a year to finish Mass Effect 1, as I was doing my usual thing of getting bored and switching out to catch up with other games. I did something similar when I started Mass Effect 2, but only had a single break, after which I powered through the rest of the game and started immediately on part 3, which I played without a single break. Probably the last game I played so single-mindedly was on the NES.

Part of the reason for this fanaticism is clearly the story. Over the three installments you guide your character, Commander Shepard, from life as an ordinary soldier to the person who saves the galaxy from the Reaper threat. At the start you choose how Shepard looks and what his skills and abilities are (I played as a dude, so I'll be referring to Shep as "he" from here on), and then you choose how he reacts to people and situations.

This all involves you more heavily than the so-called sandbox games, like Skyrim or GTA, especially because choices made in one game eventually impact later games - not to the point of keeping you from winning at the end of ME3, but they do affect who's on your team or available to help with the final battle.

One point that Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon made on their Indoor Kids podcasts relating to Mass Effect is that the combat is actually pretty bad compared to, say, Gears of War, but that the main draw is the story. While I've never played Gears, I can see what they mean - and frankly, the fact that the story's such a big part of the game makes up for it. I don't remember all the times it kept me from diving for cover (possibly because there were so many that they blur together after a while), but I do recall the feelings of WTF when I was forced to send one of two characters to their deaths, or when I found myself choosing whether the Quarians or the Geth should survive.

I believe the Indoor Kids also said something to the effect that Mass Effect was effectively this generation's Star Wars, which I find compelling but not necessarily accurate. I could quibble and say that it's more Babylon 5, but really I just don't think it has the cultural reach of Star Wars or Star Trek. Video games are still a niche pursuit, at least at the level of blockbuster games like Mass Effect - they might make jokes about the ending on shows like HBO's Silicon Valley, but I'd say it's still too left-field for something like the Big Bang Theory.

Yet it does hold up with something like the Hyperion series, by Dan Simmons (as the guest on those Indoor Kids episodes, Nick Ahrens, said). Like any good novel, the Mass Effect games present you with a wider world and the rules under which it operates - you can make certain choices (like who to sacrifice at the end of ME1, or with whom to pursue a relationship), but at the end you've gone through a set number of plot points. And like a novel, there are loads of other, smaller stories spider-webbing out of the main narrative, but here you can choose to pursue or ignore them.

Now, when Kumail and Emily said that Mass Effect was like Star Wars (again, assuming it was them who said it), what I suspect they meant is that the game had the same emotional resonance as when Luke blows up the Death Star or rescues Darth Vader's humanity. I mentioned my WTF feelings when sending people to their deaths - I also found myself heartbroken at plot points like Mordin, my Salarian scientist from ME2, sacrificing his life to propagate the cure for the Krogan genophage in ME3, resolving a giant plot thread from way back in ME1.

Because there was time to range around the ship between missions, you'd get to chat to crewmates, and learn that, for instance, Mordin was fond of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. That's one example, but the point is that Mass Effect went out of its way to flesh its characters out, which I've seen little of in the other games I've been playing lately.

As for the ending, I have to say that I'm not that disappointed. I think the extended endings were better, and Bioware should have added those in from the start, but overall I think they had the concept right. There was a sense that all your choices over three games had led to this point - control the Reapers, destroy them or live with them. As I chose my course, I had the same doubt that assailed me whenever there was a big choice, but I also had the precedent of all my previous choices - in the end I chose destruction, knowing that it would also mean the death of my synthetic crewmate, EDI, who had also powered my ship. And while that was sad, it also felt like I had to be loyal to the Shepard character as I'd developed him - the way others played would likely have led them to other choices, and perhaps that's why the game's ending was so controversial.

In any case, I've given myself a break from all the feels, but I expect that at some point soon I'll be trying again - seeing the effects of different choices and character configurations. Which is another feature of the great SF stories, whatever their medium - wanting to experience them again.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Bygone World of Britpop

2015 is turning out to be a big year for anniversaries. The one most in my mind on January 1st was Back to the Future Part II, which was set in 1985 and 2015 (and I feel it's a shame I'm not visiting Vietnam this year to commemorate that poster in the background of one of the shots).

But more recently I read something that reminded me of a more personal anniversary. 2015 marks two decades since the apex of the Britpop movement of music, which was so important to me as a teenager. December 26th will also mark the twentieth anniversary of my first time stepping on British soil (at least outside Heathrow), which was accompanied by a frenetic CD-buying expedition to pick up the exciting new albums by Blur (The Great Escape), Pulp (Different Class) and... er... Menswear. Guess they can't all be winners.

So when I realized that, I decided to reread The Last Party, John Harris's account of the Britpop years, informed by his own experiences in the thick of it, when he was a music journalist. But the interesting thing is, as I read, it occurred to me that not only was I reading a chronicle of a bygone time, I was also reading an artifact of that bygone time's last gasp.

I got the book in 2004, toward the end of my first stint living in Britain. Despite the fact that we were then almost a decade removed from Britpop's glory years, it didn't feel like 1995 was that remote. For a couple of years, for instance, I'd revived the old Blur v Oasis debate with my flatmate Ian, who claimed to be northern (despite being from Telford, in the Midlands), so he was an Oasis partisan. My next flatmate, Dave, was a few years older and had the original LP singles off Suede's first album, which I remember handling with the due reverence the one time he brought them out to show off.

More importantly, 2004 was before YouTube and Facebook, and before iTunes had effectively killed physical music sales and the album as artistic statement. As such, it was also the year I bought the most CDs I've ever bought before or since - 48, to be precise. I once held the lofty ambition of averaging a new CD each week, but I don't think I ever achieved it. More to the point, I spent 2014 (and all of 2015 so far) without buying any new music, so it's unlikely I ever will hit that magical number of 52.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that 2004 had more in common with 1995 than it does with 2015. Listening to Radio One on Sunday mornings with the paper, poring over the Observer Music Monthly's list of the 100 best British albums of all time, seeking out those British albums whenever I went to Camden Town or Oxford Street... these are all activities that I had long ceased to participate in by the time my second stint in Britain came to an end two years ago (although I do still have a look at that Observer list from time to time).

The way The Last Party talks about the music industry, it's clear that those dynamics were effectively still valid - guitar bands could still storm the charts, and it mattered when they released an album, rather than a bunch of singles. And it was possible for mainstream British culture (which I guess means white people) to coalesce around this shared musical heritage that drew on familiar sources like the Beatles and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

In fact, 2004 and 2005 were effectively the second wave of Britpop, when a bunch of bands (eg Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, the Futureheads) drew inspiration from the likes of Blur and Pulp to once again emphasize the importance of Britishness in their music.

Now it's hard to see anything like that happening again. I mentioned in that previous blog that most of those bands from 2004-05 failed to live up to early promise. At the same time, the indie network that made possible the rise from nowhere of Blur and Oasis is long gone - and nobody's willing to throw stupid money at guitar bands because there isn't any money left to throw.

What's equally disappointing is that even if such bands could break through, there are no places for someone like me to encounter them, at least here on the West Coast. I first heard Pulp's single Underwear on Live 105's Import Cafe, and sat wide-eyed watching MTV videos of Common People and Blur's Country House. Now Live 105's new music is all shoved into the Sunday evening ghetto, and MTV realized long ago that nobody watches music videos.

Britain is also, I think, a very different country than it was eleven years ago. Back then you could talk about Suede's inspirations, which were the crumbling parts of the country ignored by over a decade of Thatcherism, and people knew what you were talking about. Now Britain's back in the hands of the Tories, and will be for at least another five years, and those old politics are coming back. It may be more inclusive of people of color or of the LGBTQ community, but Maggie Thatcher's spiteful treatment of the poor is back with a vengeance, thanks to David Cameron and George Osborne's austerity politics.

The difference between now and the 80s, though, is that 30 years ago there was a welfare system that budding musicians could sign onto. Without glorifying dole culture, it is worth noting that a lot of the music that came out in the 90s had passed through life on welfare - these were effectively marginalized people. Now it's hard to see where the next Pulp or Oasis will come from - the next version of Blur should be okay, because they represented a very middle class type of Britishness that was the opposite, in many ways, of the bands from the north.

But who knows - maybe in a couple of years another Labour leader will come along who, like Tony Blair, headed up a band in college. And if he or she draws from this decade's dubstep, rather than guitar-based music, maybe it'll be the key to breaking British music out of its current doldrums.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Charleston: Take it Down

John Stewart may have gotten the most attention for his monologue the day of the shooting at AME Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this week, but his colleague Larry Wilmore, on the Nightly Show, had the best response:

Going straight after the limp-wristed and offensive coverage from Fox, in which they tried to spin it as an attack on Christians rather than on African-Americans, Wilmore put together a panel to try and make sense of the killer's motives and of why it seems to be so hard for the American right to take responsibility for its extremist wing.

The main thing, of course, is the fact that the Confederate Flag still flies over South Carolina and other parts of the South - the same flag (along with that of Rhodesia) that the shooter had sewn onto a jacket to show how serious he was about fomenting race war. A couple of Republican figures have come out and said the flag shouldn't fly over the state house - Mitt Romney, most notably, has been saying since 2008 that he doesn't recognize that flag. This is a nice step up from Jeb Bush, who called for it to be taken down but has hedged disgracefully about whether the shooting in Charleston counted as racially motivated.

Which is, of course, the point that nobody seems willing to acknowledge. In addition to the fact that it stands for racism and the degradation of an entire race - a degradation, moreover, that still echoes today, as we can tell from all the shootings of unarmed black men by police in the last year - that flag is a flag of treason. Most of the generals and politicians who supported the South during the Civil War were either executed as traitors or exiled, and the fact that it's inexplicably considered a cultural symbol should hold no water: just burn the fucking thing.

I'm reluctant to invoke Godwin's Law here, but no state in Germany is interested in flying the swastika, no matter how conservative they may be. There may be Germans who consider it a "cultural symbol", but those people are neo-Nazis, and are so far out of the mainstream discussion that they may as well not even exist.

So why do American Southerners cling to the Confederate flag, and why do the rest of us let them do it? You can bleat about states' rights all along, but the whole fucking point of the Civil War, beyond slavery, was that we aren't a collection of mini-nations with their own rules - there's a law of the land, which is applicable from Maine to Florida to California, and it trumps the laws of the states. To pretend otherwise is an insult to the nine victims at Emanuel Church, as well as to all the others who died trying to achieve civil rights throughout American history.

And it's not a free speech issue, either. There's a shibboleth among white right-wingers that minorities and the poor are only interested in having their rights recognized, and don't face up to their responsibilities. I'd like to submit that it's the most vocal members of the Tea Party and other hard-right groups who ignore their own responsibilities - in claiming that they aren't being heard, they forget that the speech they're trying to protect is in many cases hateful and degrading to other Americans. Nobody wants to hear that speech - and if they do, they're not the people you should be courting.

The first thing we learned in our media law class back in journalism school was that the First Amendment isn't an indiscriminate permission to say whatever you want. There are limits to what can be said, and we need to highlight these lines much better, because as long as the bloviating windbags of the hard-right continue to spew their hatred with impunity, the killing won't stop.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Champions League 2015: Cruel Old Game, Mk II

This year the Champions League final closed off the European football season, falling a bit later than usual. The competitors were Barcelona and Juventus (which happens to be my team), and it came out 3-1 to Barcelona, who were heavily favored to win it. 

The scoreline notwithstanding, it was an entertaining enough game - Barcelona scored with pretty much its first attack of the game, on 4 minutes, and this spurred Juve to mount attack after attack, until they finally drew level on 55 minutes. But of course, that woke up Barça, and they scored a further three (of which one was disallowed for coming off Neymar's hand rather than his head).

This is why I chose to reuse the title from last year's write-up. Then, it was cruel because Atletico Madrid had scored early and been in control for most of the game, only to concede at the last minute and go into extra time, which is when Real Madrid pulled out all the stops and won 4-1. This year, the cruelty comes from a slightly different source, namely the way that Juve had hopes of actually winning, only for those hopes to be dashed late on in the second half.

I'm fond of trotting out the old Yogi Berra adage, "That's why they play the games" when Italian teams are involved, typically because they're so easy to write off. The national team frequently starts tournaments off quite badly, but if they get to the knockout stages they always seem to beat Germany. At club level, Italy may have lost its fourth Champions League place to Germany, but Juve managed to hold on over two legs against Real Madrid, who've been having a stormer of a domestic season, with Cristiano Ronaldo keeping pace with Lionel Messi as they both break records left and right.

All of which is to say that while I expected Barcelona to win, I wasn't willing to rule Juve out completely. Which was probably why losing by that scoreline was so disappointing.

And now, the stats

There were some other good talking points from the match, of course. First is my annual (and somewhat desperate) search for patterns into whether a given country is dominating European football. Last year saw off my previous year's claim of Germany starting to come into its own; I was hesitant to claim an impending era of Spanish dominance, because I suggested that Barcelona was on the wane.

That was, of course, before Messi, Neymar and Suarez scored around 120 goals altogether this season. I should probably be more careful about making predictions like that, but where's the fun in that?

So yeah, roll on more Spanish teams to win the Champions League next year - Barça's losing two influential players in Xavi and Dani Alves, but that front line isn't going anywhere, since they're young and versatile (unless Suarez decides to go full Dracula again). And while it's likely that Ronaldo's going to slow down as he gets older, it's hard to see him falling so completely off the pace in the season to come - with an archenemy like Barcelona and Messi, I fully expect Ronaldo to keep banging them in, and possibly for Real to win La Liga.

I was, however, pretty accurate in my assessments of English chances in this year's tournament. None of the four teams made much of an impact, and Liverpool's exit in the group stage underlined how bad their season's been. I suspect Manchester United may do slightly better in the year to come, as Louis van Gaal seems to have spurred them on to greater things despite a pretty slow start to the season; along with Chelsea, I wouldn't be surprised if they got to the knockout stages, but I'm wondering if English teams have the skill (and more importantly, interest) in going much further next time.

On the question of Germany vs Italy, I don't think Serie A will be dislodging the Bundesliga from the Number 3 spot for a while. Sure, Juve got to the final, whereas Bayern only made it to the semis, and more German teams made it out of the group stage than Italian teams (in fact, Juve dispatched one of them on its way up). And equally, there were two Italian teams in the Europa League semi-finals, but neither made it all the way. Sevilla aside, I suspect it's hard to build dominance in that tournament, given that the Thursday games make it harder to recover for the weekends and the domestic leagues.

What would be fun is if some team from outside the top 4 countries made it through, but that probably won't happen again for a long time. In fact, it's been 11 years, when Porto beat Monaco. As I mentioned elsewhere, money has a gravitational pull, and as good as the second tier gets, they'll still always be feeder leagues for Spain, England and Germany - and this is likely to be Italy's fate for the next couple of years.

And the elephant in the room

Oh, and I might as well throw in some discussion of what's happening over at FIFA, right? It's certainly been a fun week - bunch of arrests, Sepp Blatter gets re-elected as president, then he resigns two days later when his aide Jerome Valcke gets caught pocketing $10 million or so.

My favorite aspect of this has been the role of the US in chasing these folks down. As a number of outlets have noted, the fact that the US doesn't care as much about soccer means its law enforcement officials don't have to worry about looking like spoilsports and can just throw everybody in jail. My only regret is that the Department of Justice hasn't been quite so dogged in its pursuit of corruption in the banking industry - maybe European authorities can return the favor by arresting everybody at Goldman Sachs?

Which isn't to trivialize the current investigation of FIFA, by the way. The Economist pointed out that corruption in sports isn't as benign as a lot of observers would like to have us believe - there are actual criminal networks involved, so cleaning up the sport will turn out to be worthwhile. If the US can, for example, clear out the match-fixing rings operating in Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia, then I think we can all agree it'll be a good thing.

But will anything change? I'm going for a cautious yes, simply because FIFA will now have to make decisions with the knowledge that the US is paying attention. Maybe it's too much to hope that World Cups won't come with such enormous price tags in the future, but at any rate cleaning up the sport may make it easier for countries that aren't kleptocracies to host the tournament.

And as far as Russia and Qatar hosting the next two World Cups, I hope both are stripped. Qatar's obvious, because it's roughly the size of a bathtub and has no soccer culture to speak of. The fact that it was even in the running to host a World Cup on its own should have been a red flag.

Russia's more difficult, but the fact is that, between their complete lack of cooperation in the investigation (hard drives conveniently wiped and documents conveniently being shredded) and the fact that they're throwing their weight around in an unseemly manner, they're not in any position to host an international tournament. And the fact that Putin's come out in support of Blatter should be a final indication that these people aren't to be trusted (if, y'know, invading neighbors and shooting down civilian passenger planes wasn't enough for you).

I just think it's a shame that it's taken this long for FIFA's sponsors to speak up. While some question the figure of 1,200 deaths among workers building stadia in Qatar, the fact that the debate has gotten to this level should have prompted some action from the likes of Visa and Coca-Cola long before now. Same with Russia's appalling record on human rights (particularly for journalists and the LGBTQ community) and its destabilization of Ukraine - it's hard to see how the sponsors were okay with that, but not with Sepp Blatter's worldwide bribe network.

Still, at least now the sponsors are involved, and that was the only thing that would make FIFA pay attention. It'll be interesting who comes in to replace Blatter, and whether they'll also be resigning in disgrace a few years from now.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Second Progress Report on the Novel: Life Gets in the Way

Hmm. Turns out I was a bit ambitious in the last post talking about this - instead of maintaining the average daily word count between 500-1,000 words, in May I dropped off a bit and stuck mainly around 500 words whenever I sat down to write. I also didn't replicate the 3-week streak I managed last month, although I did manage an 11-day streak, so I won't complain too much.

The more frustrating thing is that the story is starting to wind down toward the end, but I'm still barely halfway to the word count I'd set myself. This is less banal than it seems, since a lot of publishers have rather strict limits at around 80-90 thousand words, and I don't want to have to (eventually) shop around a novella - because does anybody even publish those anymore?

I have some thoughts for expanding the story, of course - certain characters that I've introduced who could have their roles fleshed out a bit more (I don't dare cut them at this point), and I might be able to add some more descriptions of people and places. If I do that, I'll have to make sure I don't waffle on too much, and that I do heed Elmore Leonard's advice to not write the boring parts that everybody skips over.

As far as why the word counts went down and the streaks got shorter, I'm trying to figure out what happened. Surely some of my other life stuff interfered, as there were a few nights that I was up in San Francisco for work or for fun, and my birthday was this month, too.

I also suspect that intensity is easy to maintain at the start of a long project, when you're excited about it, and at the end, when you're finally tying everything together again. Or to put it another way, I don't know if I like the second act as much as the first or third.

This doesn't refer specifically to my own work, by the way. I find that the start of a novel, movie or TV show always seems to grab me more, and then in Act 2 things settle down a bit until the end. I'm curious if this is down to attention spans, or the particular work I'm reading at the time. I know that in my case, there are some good set pieces in Act 2, but a lot of the other stuff has been glossed over quicker than I expected when I outlined the story; and there's also quite a lot of new stuff that wasn't in the outline (not that this is a problem, because I enjoyed writing it).

It's maybe a bit sad, but I think I'm going to have to refer back to Save the Cat to flesh stuff out. I do know of a couple of authors back in London who use it to make sure their stories are flowing well enough, so there is some applicability to novel-writing. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine George RR Martin needing to refer to Save the Cat for his own books.

Of course, he had to start somewhere, too...

Anyway, on to Month 3 and the end of the story. And I shouldn't stress too much anyway - this is the first/rough draft, so I won't have to worry about too much other stuff until I start on the revisions.

Just need to ignore Stephen King's advice that the second draft should always be 10% shorter than the first...

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Avengers: Age of Crossovers

Thanks to the Memorial Day weekend, I got let out of work early on Friday, so I decided to use that time to its best advantage and go watch a 2-hour movie in a darkened cinema. My choice was Avengers: Age of Ultron, since it's the oldest release on my current shortlist of movies I want to catch (Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland being the others), and because it was starting at the perfect time for me to make my way over from work and find a seat.

I don't know if I've mentioned, but the first Avengers movie, from 2012? I quite liked it. All the Marvel movies had been building up to that, from the first Iron Man back in 2008 with its Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury cameo, so it was great to finally see the characters together and kicking ass.

It helped that I generally liked the movies preceding it - Iron Man remains my favorite of the Marvel movies, and Captain America was also a pretty fun romp. I never got to see either Thor film, but I'm assured that they aren't bad either.

That said, I think there have been a number of diminishing returns since then, as some franchises have taken stumbles (Iron Man 2 was pretty awful), or just weren't very good to begin with (I hated Guardians of the Galaxy). I also gave up on Agents of SHIELD after the end of season 1, since the acting and storylines weren't really doing anything for me.

Age of Ultron wasn't too bad, but neither was it a particular high point. There were nice touches, like the relationship angst between the Black Widow and the Hulk, or the scenes with Hawkeye's family, which did a good job of grounding the team with some humanity. I also enjoyed the hammer scene at the start, including the look on Thor's face when Captain America almost budges Mjolnir and comes close to ruling over Asgard.

It also had a reasonable plotline running through it, with Ultron trying to destroy humanity (will he never learn?), and Iron Man's fear of failure after the previous movie spurring him to create Ultron in the first place.

The only problem is that too much of it felt like putting the pieces on the board for the next movie. Some of it made some slight sense in the context of previous films, like one of the Infinity Gems popping up, but other parts were just shoehorned in to tie in to movies that aren't coming out for another two years.

The main offender is this scene toward the end, where Thor runs off with Stellan Skarsgard, before the climactic battle, to wade around in some underground pool. He takes off his shirt, waves his hammer around, lightning strikes, and then he makes his way back to the fight against Ultron, with no obvious answer for why that scene is in the film.

As near as I can tell, that (and the weird dream sequence with Idris Elba) is only there to set up Thor: Ragnarok, which doesn't come out until July 2017. And there's more stuff setting up the next double-part Avengers movie, Infinity War, which is scheduled to hit cinemas in 2018 and 2019. I'd say more, but spoilers, so...

Anyway, my point is that we're getting perilously close to comic-book-levels of continuity here, and I don't think that's a good thing. Marvel and DC, having decided that their characters would all interact within their respective universes, have since had to make retcons and reboots part of their strategy, just to help keep everything straight (or to present a monthly comic for new readers that looks superficially like the movies).

The problem is that this then turns continuity from a neat thing (hey, Batman's hanging out with Superman!) into an end in itself. We're quickly getting to the point where stuff actively doesn't make sense in Age of Ultron if you haven't seen any of the characters' solo movies. Also, I'm curious why only one dude from the current season of Agents of SHIELD got a cameo, but none of the others - not that this makes me curious enough to check out the series again.

I rather suspect that Marvel's shot itself in the foot with this Marvel Cinematic Universe business. They got everybody all worked up last year when they revealed what the next movies would be, all the way through to 2019. But now they have to stick with that, and set up loads of stuff along with it. So in Age of Ultron we get mentions of Wakanda and Ulysses Klaw, but no Black Panther - what's the point? Why can't that stuff get the attention it deserves in the Black Panther movie, which doesn't even come out until 2018? Who's going to remember all this crap?

And because nobody can succeed in Hollywood without everyone else ripping them off, now DC and Warner Brothers have started using individual superheroes' franchises as backdoor pilots to set up their own shared universe. So the upcoming Superman vs Batman movie keeps getting characters added to it (Wonder Woman and Aquaman so far, possibly also Cyborg), to better set up the upcoming Justice League movie.

Marvel may not have much of a TV presence to worry about, but DC does, in the shape of its rather well-received (and entertaining) CW shows, Arrow and the Flash. Apparently Warners is looking at putting out a Flash movie to tie in with Justice League, but it won't have anything to do with the TV show. That's kind of a fuck-you to Grant Gustin, who plays the Flash, and to fans like me.

What both Marvel and DC seem to have forgotten, drunk with power on the returns from a bunch of movies that, let's be honest, have varied widely in quality, is that doing shared universes for the sake of shared universes is what's killing comics. Nobody wants to pick up the monthly books, because they don't want to have to deal with decades of backstory. If the studios expect movie audiences, who aren't used to this sort of crap, to keep up, then I think it's going to blow up in their faces.

OK, let me qualify - I'm sure they'll get asses in seats (including mine), but I think that the novelty is going to wear off soon, particularly as actors age and stories get ever creakier with continuity. And we're diving deeper and deeper into those universes, dredging up characters that may get me excited, but not necessarily anybody who doesn't know the comics as well as me.

Let's let the movies get back to telling one story, and leave the crossovers as nice treats for the fans, rather than stuffing them with crap that won't pay off for years and years.

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.