Month: February 2013

Godmother Death – A Disney Proposal

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Disney this week.

I’m a sucker for the Disney Renaissance. For those not schooled in Disney lore, that’s the period between ’89 and ’99 when Disney’s conventional animation had its last twilight blooming before computer animation effectively eclipsed it forever. Aladdin is the first movie I can remember seeing at the cinema, and when the magic carpet flew overhead escaping the Cave of Wonders, I was basically hooked for life. It was years before I came to understand the mix of fairy tales, crisp animation and Broadway style song-story structure was put together from a variety of sources and very much a product of its time, but the Disney film, the classic Disney film, remains to me as unique, essential and indelible as any other part of the popular culture.

A few years ago, Disney released The Princess and the Frog, which against all odds, banked relatively well and suitably scored with critics despite using the up until recently thought deceased conventional animation – but more critically than that, the classic Disney story structure. That film was enough to spawn reworkings in the Disney Animation arm of the company, away from the juggernaut that is the (admittedly phenomenal) Pixar. Tangled, a hybrid of computerised and traditional techniques (with music by the common thread of the best Disney movies: Alan Menken!) was box office gold, and Disney is due to follow this year with an adaptation of The Snow Queen, entitled Frozen.

One of the things I’m interested in (if both you and I keep up with this blog, it’ll become apparent that when it comes to narrative I’m pretty much interested in everything) is fairy tales. Disney’s Renaissance model was pretty much about the adaptation, with poetic license, of a known through semi-known story into a Broadway format.

This is all preamble, though it should give you some background to understand the metric that I’m working with when I say: I had an idea today. One of those moments that stops you and makes you say “Y’know, I think this’d be a great X”. In this case, a great Disney film.

Powerless, of course, to make Disney films, I include a brief treatment here for the entertainment and edification of the public. Please reblog, etc, as you like:

“Godfather Death” is a classic German fairytale. It makes it into the Brothers Grimm and has an Aarne-Thompson type. Anyone who watched the seminal “Storyteller” by Jim Henson will recognise elements adapted into the Emmy-winning “Soldier and Death” (separately put one of my favourite moments in television of all time).

The essence of the story is this: a poor man with twelve children approaches Death to be the Godfather of one of them. Death agrees, and when the child comes of age, as godparents in fairy tales are wont to do, gives the child a gift, the ability to see death, and the essence of a magical herb that will cure the illness of people whose time is not yet up. The child becomes a famous physician, and is eventually called for by an aged king. Death appears at the head of the King’s bed, showing that he’s going to die, but the physician takes pity on him and tricks Death into appearing at the wrong end of the bed, so the King can be cured with the herbs. Death is angry, and warns his godchild, but doesn’t punish them.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the King has a daughter, and she gets sick too. She and the physician fall in love, he tries the trick again. Death is pretty pissed and hauls the godson into his chamber, where the candles of life are kept. Death shows the godson that his candle is about to run out.

The German version has two endings:

1) The physician pleads with his godfather to light a new candle for him, so that he may live a happy life as king and husband to the beautiful princess. Death reconsiders, and gathers a new candle to pass the flame of his godchild.

2) Everything in (1) but just as Death is going to light the new candle, Death takes his revenge on the physician by letting the flame of the first candle fall. As soon as the candle extinguishes, the physician falls to the ground, dead.

The End

Pretty grim stuff (you see what I did there), but it has a message for der kinder about Death always getting its due in the end. Pretty par for the course for the classic Grimm fairy tales.

The fairy tale, however, is also popular in Mexico, and there’s a twist in their version of the tale. Godfather Death, there, is Godmother Death.

The story goes much the same way: Death is chosen to be the godparent of a child. Godmother Death, instead of being tricked by the plucky physician turned suitor, attempts to ward her ward away from his love interest without explaining why. When the physician demands an explanation, Godmother Death takes him and shows him that his lady love’s candle is about to burn out. At first, he insists that it will not matter to him, but then tries to use the magic Death taught him to extend her life. Death shows a cruel sort of mercy to her godchild: she extinguishes his candle at the same time as his love’s.

Still, I think, too dark for Disney, but contained within it is a story, aesthetic and message that fall pretty neatly within the Disney themes. It needs to retain its message about the need to accept Death, whilst still allowing a sufficiently upbeat ending to sell to the family market. What the story needs is a villain other than (though in addition to) hubris and hurt pride. I propose that it could easily be given one.

The pitch is this:

One dark and stormy night in turn of the century Mexico, a young couple alight on the doorstep of a wealthy man’s villa. They are poor, but he invites them in, and offers them the right to stay. They have a meal and retire to bed. During the night, the husband and wife hear a cry, and trace it through a series of secret passages in the villa. It’s Death, a comely looking woman trapped inside a magic circle. She begs them to free her from the glass case. Their host, she explains, is a magician, hoping to steal the secrets  of Death.

The magician, Dr Esqueleto, comes upon them, enraged! They were to be his latest experiments in conquering Death. At the critical moment, the husband and wife tip over the glass case, and Death is freed! Unwilling to face death, even with his magic, Esqueleto escapes in a puff of necromantic smoke. Death is overjoyed and being freed, and offers a reward to the happy couple: she will be the child’s godmother.

TITLES

Carlotta, the daughter, is growing up. Godmother Death visits regularly, and has promised to take charge of her education. She will be trained to be Death’s Assistant. Death shows her the secret entry to her house (a glittering cavern filled with candles representing the lives of everyone in the world), how to locate it, and teaches Carlotta that everything has a time to be born and a time to die – a more poignant but detailed echo of the Circle of Life.

Carlotta spends some time learning to be Death’s assistant, but ultimately decides she doesn’t want the job. She doesn’t like ushering things into death, and decides instead she wants to work in the “grey places” and become a Doctor. She and Death have an awkward parting, but the skills Death has taught her make her an amazing physician, thanks to her special knowledge of how and when people are going to die.

As Carlotta becomes a more and more successful doctor, she attracts further public attention. Close to being overwhelmed, she seizes on a new mentor, the kindly Doctor Mortiz! But who is Doctor Mortiz really? Why, it’s Doctor Esqueleto, determined to uncover the secret of how this girl understands the secrets of Death.

When the visiting son of the King of Spain falls ill, Carlotta and Mortiz are requested to attend him. Nursing him, Carlotta falls in love with the young prince, but it becomes apparent to both her and Mortiz there is nothing she can do. Desperate, she calls on Godmother Death to help. Godmother Death appears, but tells Carlotta that she cannot give the Prince any more life. Carlotta offers to share her life with the Prince. Even though Death is upset a this, and tells Carlotta she will die much faster, she agrees to the exchange. Death does not tell Carlotta how long her candle will now burn for. Doctor Esqueleto, hidden, sees Godmother Death appears and realises this is his opportunity!

The prince recovers, and he and Carlotta are to be married, but Carlotta realises that neither she nor the Prince will have long. She resolves to be happy that they have the time they have together. Doctor “Mortiz” however, comes to her in the role of the guide and loving mentor. He says that he figured out that Carlotta has traded some of her life-force for the Prince, though he claims not to know how. Mortiz says he is old, and offers to give up his life in exchange for more life for Carlotta and her Prince. He would rather they be happy than have remaining years in an old enfeebled body. Carlotta is reluctant, but Mortiz is able to convince her to at least talk to Death, and see what can be done about the situation.

Carlotta takes Mortiz to Death’s cave, but as she’s not expecting them, Esqueleto springs his trap. Suprising Death, he imprisons her again, and claims with access to the candles, he can keep his own burning forever. He immediately extends it by another hundred years, which he claims will be “long enough for now” and that he has ample time to claim Death’s secrets. The Prince is alerted by Carlotta’s loyal animal companion (a Disney mainstay, which will be linked with Carlotta throughout the film – I’m thinking a donkey which the Prince initially disdains to ride) and rides blindfold to Death’s cave in order to find Carlotta.

The Prince arrives and attempts to fight Esqueleto, but with the immortality he now wields and his magic, the fiendish Doctor looks set to finish the prince almost instantly. Carlotta, at the last moment, threatens to knock down all the candles on Death’s personal altar, which now include Esqueleto’s, but also the Prince and Carlotta’s. Better that they die than Esqueleto be allowed to misuse the power of Death. Esqueleto leaps to save his candle, but in doing so he disrupts the magic circle in which he has trapped death.

Death, having escaped, again defeats Esqueleto, but he cackles and demonstrates that his time is not up! His candle is long and still burning, and Death won’t kill out of time. Death agrees, but reminds Mortiz that time can be bargained away, and that she’ll hold him to his promise. She gives half his life to the Prince and half to Carlotta, and Dr Esqueleto falls to the ground/fades away/rapidly ages to dust. Carlotta and Death reconcile, a valuable lesson having been learned, and Carlotta goes to attend her wedding. Her Godmother secretly observes from the audience, satisfied.

This is all a VERY rough outline, but I think that the bare bones of something cool are in there.

Imagine the (admittedly skeletal plot) bolstered by up tempo Latin musical numbers and a soulful Spanish guitar score! Imagine Godmother Death with an aesthetic after a La Calavera Catrina, and a Dia De Muertos style theme for her realm and works! We’d have the first properly Latina Disney Princess, and be able to do this with an all-Latin cast. America Ferrera as Carlotta! Maria Canals Barrera as Godmother Death! Hector Elizondo as Mortiz/Esqueleto! Diego Boneta as the Prince!

A Disney movie that returns to the tradition of a simple set of thoughts, wrapped in an adventure, wrapped in a Broadway musical. Though there are some themes in there that are a little weighty, there’s nothing more intrinsically confronting about death than “The Circle of Life” or as necessarily worrying for small kids as The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s “Hellfire” number (the best thing in the movie). It’s all a thought experiment, of course, I’m not a screenwriter, have no power to influence Disney, and I imagine could be outclassed by the professionals at every turn. Still, I liked the idea enough that I wanted to share it – and that, after all, is what this blog is for.

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A New Orc State of Mind

So, noodling around on Twitter today to amuse myself I started the #DNDSongs hashtag. Beginning with the idea that had started the whole mess (‘I Had 99 Goblins But A Lich Ate One’), I spent a good deal of time interacting with the Twitter crowd to create song titles, largely based on fairly naff Dungeons and Dragons specific puns. A lot of people came up with some good stuff (if you dig that kind of thing) and it’s worth checking out the hashtag if you’re capable and so inclined.
 
William Mollinari (@WJMollinari) came up with the title of “A New Orc State of Mind” however, and I found it so compelling I ended up writing the whole thing. Reproduced now, for posterity, below:
 
A New Orc State Of Mind
 
Some orcs like to get away
Find a siege to lay
Or burn down a wood
Pick a fight with a rival clan
Or a force of good
But I’m takin’ a Hell Hound
Down the dungeon’s steep decline
I’m in a new orc state of mind.
 
Mmmhmmn
 
I’ve served under evil stars
Seen the battle scars
On their skins of green
Been down in the caverns
Tortured by pit fiends
But I know what I’m needin’
And I don’t want to waste more time
I’m in a new orc state of mind.
 
It was so easy living day by day
Out of touch with the goblinoid crew
But now I need a little
Meat to taste
A true orc thrives
On flesh to chew
 
It comes down to brutality
And that’s fine with me
‘Cause I’m so inclined
Don’t care ’cause I’m Chao-
-tic Evil aligned
I don’t need any reasons
To torture what I find
I’m in a new orc state of mind
 
Oh yeah
 
It was so easy living day by day
Out of touch with the goblinoid crew
But now I need a little
Meat to taste
A true orc thrives
On flesh to chew
 
Whoaa-oooh
 
It comes down to brutality
And that’s fine with me
‘Cause I’m so inclined
Don’t care ’cause I’m Chao-
Tic Evil aligned
I don’t need any reasons
To torture what I find
I’m in a new orc state of mind
 
I’m just takin’ a Hell Hound
down the dungeon’s steep decline
‘Cause I’m in a…
I’m in a new orc…
State of…
MIND!
 
Yeah, yeah.
 
There you have it. Somewhat tempted, but have refrained from, recording a vocal version. A slightly more serious, though still musically inclined blog post, to come soon.

Comic Book Gender Studies Course Goes Global

Professor Christy Blanch of Ball State University in the US is launching an online course, open to the public and free of charge, in gender studies and comic books.

The course description involves an examination of “how comic books can be used to explore questions of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles”.

I, sadly, may not have an opportunity to take part in this: I have a full-time job, another time consuming writing gig, plus various other projects – and live lectures may not fit the buttoned down timeframe in which I now live if they’re coming from Indiana.

What I can say, however, is that this was drawn to my attention through Mark Waid (read his pitch at http://markwaid.com/guest-posts/so-im-asking-for-your-help/) one of the leading lights in redefining comics for access to the public and trying to open the doors of an increasingly insular medium. He’s also going to be lectured for this thing along with Gail Simone, Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Snyder, Terry Moore and others.

If you know comics, I don’t need to describe to you these people and their work. They’re the very best. Additionally, thanks to the 21st Century (re,re,re,re,re,re) and the magic of social media I’ve had the opportunity to interact in a minor way with some of them and can tell you they’re as informed, articulate and warm as their work is brilliant. One of the first things I ever did in taking a more active role in social media was ask Gail Simone a question that I had been wondering about for years (in addition to Jen Van Meter and others) involving their use, as women writing superhero comics, of feminist theories of conflict resolution.

I didn’t notice it until I could draw the parallels, but ethic of care rather than ethic of justice principles seemed to guide Gail’s heroes in a close reading. They seemed to operate on a relational axis, motivated by understanding and individual moral choices. I think, often, that superheroes generally expound moral values by (literally) beating down those who hold opposing values. Adversarial system, all the way, making your arguments by defeating and beating down the other arguments. Whereas Gail’s heroes seem to concentrate less on the destruction of evil, and more on the promotion of individual personal good.

It’s certainly valid to say on paper that say, Superman inspires individual reformation, but in terms of show not tell we mainly see him taking down bad folks, or inspiring people secondhand (e.g. by his example), rather than by an active application of ethic of care principles.

Some casual examples:

  • Ryan Choi, the Atom, for example, aids a semi-supervillain with Alzheimers, lets Alien Invaders live in his apartment, despite frequent cries of “Death or Submission”; and, most importantly, defends Giganta, continues to date her, and gets her to skew towards going straight.
  • Wonder Woman comforts a weeping Captain Nazi, names her nameless traitorous enemy on their epic quest, redeems assailant gorillas into her closest allies, and well, in a hundred other ways demonstrates ethic of care principles. Indeed, Wonder Woman often articulates them.
  • Batgirl encounters a teenage car thief named Ricky, and after he’s severely injured in an arrest becomes a mentor/confidante/friend/possible romantic link. There’s none of Batman’s harsh remonstrances with Catwoman for engaging in a life of crime, but instead a tender study in relational ethics.

In noting this pattern, I couldn’t help but realise how neatly it mapped to Carol Gilligan’s “In A Different Voice” and the dispute resolution work of Carrie Menkel-Meadow. The meat of that theory is that women have a fundamentally different approach to conflict resolution than men, based not on a hierarchy of values, but on relational ethics.

Once I’d thought about that, I wanted to find out whether or not Gail had considered it, and whether or not other female comic book writers I knew were consciously or subconsciously operating in accordance with it’s terms. So I asked, and they answered me.

The ideas, which deal with gender essentialism, are pretty divisive. Given that the internet is “tone neutral”, it can often give rise to misunderstandings, particularly when you’re being digitally solicited by some random stranger. But not only did they take the time to answer me fully in a medium not really designed for long form responses, I could genuinely sense they cared about the question. (FYI, for those who did answer me, the answer appeared to be yes, it was both a conscious choice, and a reflection of subconscious inclinations in that direction anyway).

These were short conversations, but I still felt like I gained a real insight. I can’t imagine the value of a proper live-interview course to that effect. I urge you, if you’ve got any interest in this area, at least consider signing up. I still might try and find the time to do it, and if I don’t, I’ll be very envious of those who did.

Find out more by jumping on here: https://www.canvas.net/courses/gender-through-comic-books

Australians in Comics, A Primer

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Australian superheroes this week, along with Westerns and various other bits and bobs. For those who hoped that this would be about either (a) the tradition of homegrown Aussie superheroes (Crimson Comet and the Southern Squadron, anyone? [I didn’t say it was a PROUD tradition]) or (b) the far-flung Aussies who now make it their business to run the gaudy and captivating world of comic books. I’m talking, primarily, about those ‘mainstream’ American comics that feature Aussie characters, where they go right, and where they go wrong.  This is what I ended up with. Please note, that this list isn’t based on a particular set of researches, just my own memories and some mild internet trawling, so if I’ve missed someone, please tell me so. First commenter will win some form of valueless no-prize prize!

Before we begin, some facts/misconceptions about Australia that need to be dealt with:

  1. 89% of our population is urbanised. That’s 14% more urbanisation than in the US. We live in big, fancy cities.
  2. We have the highest rate of tertiary graduates in the OECD. We’re not, primarily “ocker”, and don’t feel compelled to correct most people about the size of their knives.
  3. 12% of the population are Asian Australians – six times the total of our aboriginal population. An Australian is twice as likely to be ethnically Chinese as they are to be aboriginal.
  4. There are a LOT of deadly animals here, but given Point 1, above, they’re pretty rarely seen in the average Aussie’s life. This means we’re not all reckless Steve Irwin wrangler types. Hell, I don’t even drink beer.

Please keep these facts in mind when we’re talking about portrayal, accuracy and representation. Without further ado: onto the bit!

1. The X-Men

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Gateway, Lifeguard, Barnacle, Red Lotus and Slipstream are all X-Men of relative standing. None have ever made the core “A-Team” (like say, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Banshee, Wolverine), but Gateway, Lifeguard and Slipstream are all a big enough deal to make it onto Wikipedia with pictures. Brian Michael Bendis has just introduced the new X-Man Eva Bell, who seems to be running on a team with Cyclops, Emma Frost and Magneto, essential X-folk all.

Bad luck for Barnacle, whom we don’t see much of, but at least barnacles get everywhere, and there’s nothing stereotypical about an Australian hero in a hard shell. Gateway is an Australian aborigine, about which I’m a little divided – representation of a person of colour in superhero comics is always good, but representing that person of colour as a silent, non-speaking, wilderness dwelling “shaman” figure wise in ancient lore carries with it other, less positive connotations.

Like new X-Man Eva Bell, Lifeguard and Slipstream are both from Surfers Paradise, Australia (which SOUNDS like a beachside town, but is in fact a thriving suburb of a city of 600,000 people). Slipstream is a teleporting surfer, and Lifeguard, is well, the ultimate lifeguard. So you can see how their mutant powers and themes aren’t just one-note variations on their location at all. Slipstream lost his powers in M-Day, but Lifeguard’s still alive and kicking, and apparently tapped as a low-level X-Man into the future. Good for her.

Red Lotus was also a member of the X-Treme X-Men, and does fall within the 12% Asian Australian demographic I mentioned above. He unfortunately also represents that demographic by being the heir to a Triad gang with a very Sax Rohmer-y codename. Still, given so many X-Men have criminal pasts and there’s nothing inherently negative about the Lotus, maybe that’s not as bad as it could be. He did actually team up with a number of C-List X-Men and become involved in multiple stories, so that’s a proper service record.

Pyro_(St._John_Allerdyce)

In addition to the cited X-Men, no summation of the role of Aussies in the X-Universe would be complete without Pyro, a villain turned anti-hero turned hero. They may of made him American in the movies and British in the ’90s cartoon, but that’s skipping over the critical point that his profile is high enough to make it into the movies and the ’90s cartoon. That’s no small feat, unequaled by any of the heroic X-Men. Pyro is pretty much the KING of Aussie portrayals in the pure superhero world – he’s a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, fought the Avengers, caught the Legacy Virus, and CONVERTED SENATOR ROBERT KELLY INTO AN IDEAL OF PEACEFUL HUMAN/MUTANT COOPERATION BY SAVING HIS LIFE. If, like me, villainous Kelly is an archetypal part of your vision of the X-Universe, that’s a massive change to wreak. Pyro also gets a nice power, control over fire, and a name that’s linked to that power. He’s not linked to some external perspective of “Australian-ness” beyond the fact that he’s Australian.

Eva Bell looks like she’ll fall into this latter category (I’m hopeful) but it may still be too soon to tell. So far, she seems like a pretty prototypical teen, which given that it’s Bendis writing her is a good sign. She seems to be acquiring the name of “Tempus”, which relating to her time-stopping powers removes her solidly from the “regional character needs regional code name” listings.

Why so many X-Men? A lot of it has to do with the status of the X-Men as a global phenomenon. Being outside of the usual superhero milieu, they’re often portrayed without the trappings of superhero-dom – dedicated cities to protect, supercriminal nemeses, etc, etc. They can literally show up anywhere doing anything.

As the cultural parallel of the X-Men expanded to encompass a representation of the generally disenfranchised (and away from the strict civil rights movement reflection of its early years), it became important that the X-Men were both seen to be the prime exemplars of this new worldwide culture, but also that they could rely alternatively on support or criticism from unexpected quarters, no matter where they might be.

It’s somewhat notable that the X-Men don’t choose their destinies. Even for Marvel heroes, there tends to be much less “and now, I shall become a SUPERHERO” speechifying in their makeup.

The trend in American comics tends to be for the base unit of the superhero to be American, with other countries having nationally themed superhero representatives of that country rather than just having their own superheroes. There’s an element of branding about international heroes that the X-Men simply don’t need. They get everywhere.

2. Captain Boomerang

220px-CB_117

Aside from the X-Men, this is, to my mind, the big one. The portrayal of Australians in American superhero comics that supersedes all others. Why? Well, his name is CAPTAIN BOOMERANG so he’s got an almost necessarily Australian pedigree, but he also dates from smack in the middle of the Silver Age, when most ethnicities in comics were summarised by the moustache given to the character and some reductive form of declamation. That being said, John Ostrander did some significant work towards authenticity (he famously got all his slang right, but was told by an Aussie friend that, whilst accurate, it shouldn’t be used in every single sentence) and “Digger” is allowed both some degree of nuance (menace, joke, coward, opportunist and conflicted about all of the above) and a wider cultural context in which to be interpreted (the Suicide Squad actually visit Australia, where, despite a little bit of grating Crocodile Dundee-ism, we come off pretty well. Part of that Crocodile Dundeeism becomes excusable when you find out that Ostrander went to the trouble of adding in the note that Digger is from Korumburra, which makes his “country bumpkin” demeanour a little more explicable. Notable also is the fact that he’s only half-Australian – I can’t decide if that’s a plus or a minus.

3. Boomerang

2271845-boomerangcol_1_sm_large

He’s an Australian Major League Baseball Player, which is pretty out there, but does show a certain degree of cultural diversity. Like Captain Boomerang, he has specialised Boomerangs, but unlike Digger, he’s a pretty competent and fierce opponent. Whilst less high profile than his Captain counterpart, Boomerang still remains a notable Marvel figure, with a slew of appearances including right up to last month’s Superior Spider-Man. He (haha) plays in the big leagues, even if they don’t entirely respect him. Aside from gaining the name “Outback” in the Fifty States Initiative, he’s a pretty solid representative of Alice Springs and there aren’t a lot of reasons for complaint. Except for the whole ruthless super-villain thing.

4. Dark Ranger

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I’m pretty fond of Dark Ranger II. An aboriginal tattoo artist by day and urban crimefighter by Melbourne night is a pretty good mix (the city notoriously has had some notable gangland wars and killings, but is also wealthy, sophisticated, etc). Grant Morrison went to the trouble to do some research for Batman Incorporated, so his principal adventure features Batman Park (named after significant historical figure John Batman who also lends his name to a wide variety of Australian places and things to weird effect for the comics fan) and depicts fairly accurately big parts of the city. Dark Ranger I (aka The Ranger) we know little about, beyond that he seems to skew less towards the joke end of the Club of Heroes.

5. Colleen Franklin

Colleen_Franklin

Nick Spencer did a phenomenal job with another (half-)Australian, Colleen Franklin, the control figure from his short lived revival of the Thunder Agents. The portrayal was so naturalistic and removed from stereotype that I didn’t notice she was Australian until I did, at which point it became obvious that she had been so all along. So, many marks in your favour, Nick.

6. Mammoth

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Mammoth is pretty much one-note, but at least mammoths aren’t notably Australian and he hasn’t ended up with a marsupial codename or some such. He also gets some motivation out of his relationship with his sister, which makes him more than a one note Aussie gimmick.

7. Astro City

[NOT PICTURED]

Kurt Busiek did well with introducing a team of Aussie superheroes who fought off the Enelsians in Astro City. I asked Kurt the other day if we were going to see them again, and I got a somewhat coy “Anything’s possible.” There were, IIRC, four of them: Barrier, Bullroarer, Kookaburra and the Colonial. If Barrier isn’t a reference to the Great Barrier Reef, then it might rank up there with Pyro and Gateway as a name that any comic book character might be proud to bear, and Astro City gets extra points for giving almost ALL characters from regions other than Astro City a “locally themed” nickname, and providing a reason for doing so: most heroes live in Astro City and otherwise really are regional specialties. Besides, Astro City lovingly lampoons as much as it homages comics history as a whole, which means that we see a lot of less fortunate tropes with the edges gently sanded away and explained.

8. Tasmanian Devil

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Tasmanian Devil I’ve notably left underrepresented as I don’t know him terribly well. I understand he’s a vanguard for LGBTQ representation in superhero comics and a well-respected character to boot. So, all in all, that’s pretty good, even if he’s always going to share associations with the Warner Bros. cartoon.

How does that break down? Well, of the 17 characters listed here, 7 are X-Men. Three are villains, two of those villains with a special theme surrounding boomerangs. Four of them (let’s be generous to Barrier) have non-parochial super-IDs.

I think we’ve come off pretty well, representation-wise, but its by no means the best effort. I can’t complain, because we’ve done better than everyone except the British and the Canadians, and as the prominent native-English speaking, shared historical nations with America, the home of superhero comics. People are starting to sit up and take notice.

I’m not going to nitpick things about Australia, like the proper title of the Australian Federal Police or the fact (and this is important for almost anywhere else in the world) that we drive on the other side of the road to America, but I do think its worth considering Australia in more than a second-hand context as we turn up in more and more comics. Thankfully, we have a pretty thriving comics community, so the easiest thing to do to consider integration would be to ask someone.

Legend is about abstinence

Watched Legend tonight as there was an absentee from my regular Sunday night gaming group. Had not considered before, but fundamentally I think the movie is about (and works a lot more strongly when you consider it about) teen abstinence in American culture. It’s fundamentally a work on American socio-sexual mores and within that context it works properly.

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These notes are drawn from the Director’s Cut, but on reflection of this it may be entirely possible that the theatrical cut’s ’80’s synth-pop soundtrack (Tangerine Dream!) would fit the oeuvre even better. Consider:

The film opens with the thoughts of the Lord of Darkness, a resonant, mellifluous, voice who claims that to rule forever, he must destroy the unicorns of the forest, and that ‘innocence’ is the key. Unicorns, it must be remembered, are the archetypal mythological representation of virginity. Throughout the film, the Lord of Darkness is reflected both as a character (discussed later) and a theme, the dark desires that “rule the night” and “work in dreams”.

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We then immediately cut to two teenagers. Lily is an archetypal “good-girl”, a princess, dressed in white, singing sweetly. The first time we see her though, it is established that she is mischievous and prone to the pursuit of pleasure (she plays a prank on a maternal figure where she dirties sheets of all things) and relatively speaking, a lover of the physical senses (as she half-borrows half-steals food from a laden table). She is welcomed into an archetypal family home (note no king or palace is ever seen), where her mother figure discusses with her developing adolescence, and the need to find a responsible sweetheart.

We then cut to Jack. A scruffy, wild, man-boy (in no pants!), shown to have a sensitive soul as he communes with the forest creatures. He is unsophisticated, almost childlike, but he also has a kind of rough-spun “woodland (street) smarts”. Your prototypical vision of the average teen.

The pair are quickly established to be young lovers, engaged in a flirtatious game of cat and mouse. But today is a special day. Jack has something he wants to show Lily – something very special that requires that she trust him. She follows him further into the forest, where Jack offers to share with her something special and unique. He takes her to observe the unicorns.

Lily is captivated. Excited. Despite Jack’s decision to take her there, he is quickly overcome with concern and remorse. This was something sacred, and though he meant to share it with Lily, he understands that it isn’t right. Lily has no such compunction. She, over his protests, needs to go further. She goes all the way, and touches the unicorn. The beast reacts with fury, and she suffers a moment of fear and pain, but then she is happy. She has touched the beast.

Then it dies. The Lord of Darkness’ minions (freakish, hideous goblins) kill the unicorn. Symbolically, her innocence, her virginity is lost. She and Jack are parted, and the land itself changes, becoming a world of darkness and winter. The Lord of Darkness is rampant.

Lily attempts to return to the familial homestead we first saw her encounter, but the family is now frozen away from her. The consequences are too great. She is pursued by the ecstatic goblins, who despoil the house around her and from which she attempts to hide in the domestic environment with no success. The physical embodiment of her sins shadow her.

Jack awakes elsewhere and encounters his friends. Like Jack, they are man-children, Puck-ish figures caught in a perpetual adolescence (Gump is played by a pre-adolescent boy with an artificially deepened voice, the others are wizened gnomes with the childlike behaviours of children). They ask Jack about the apparent change to him and the world. Jack, embarrassed, attempts to demur but with no success. Gump, the defacto leader of Jack’s peer group, susses out what has occurred. Jack has “killed the unicorn” with Lily. Jack protests that he meant no harm by doing so, and that it was the work of a moment’s mistaken impulse. Gump informs him that despite all of this, what’s done is done.

Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. The land is cursed. Lily is spirited away by her “goblins” to the castle of the Lord of Darkness. The film is not subtle about either her transformation or his role as the personification of lust. An abstract dance sequence causes Lily,  despite her fear, to become lost in a hollow ecstasy, and her white dress is transformed into a black gown, open to the waist, matched by black lipstick and dominatrix hair. Seeing her like this, the Lord of Darkness comes forth, filled with desire.

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Darkness says that Lily’s sin of “slaying the unicorn” makes them a match. That Lily wanted the loss of her innocence, and now that the Lord of Darkness is here, they can be together. Lily is told by him to forget Jack, and to be his “forever”. They will kill the second unicorn of the pair. Darkness, as much as he is a totemic stand-in for lust, also functions as the purveyor of that in the teenage world. He is an older man, dangerous, demanding that Lily “join with him” and further despoil her innocence. He speaks initially calmly, seductively, but then flies into a temper when Lily refuses to comply. (He’s also possessed of a MASSIVE set of horns in a metaphor that would make Freud drop his cigar).

Lily feigns a desire to slaughter the other unicorn, in a manner more debased than her initial accidental involvement of the killing. Our hero, Jack, now armed with shining golden weapons of purity, follows her into the Lord of Darkness’ domain to bring her out and return the land to normal. 

What are the challenges Jack faces along the way? A hideous, predatory, older hag attempts to literally consume him, until via flattery he is able to distract her and make an escape, and a young, innocent seeming female fairy demands his romantic attentions in return for his life, by turns attempting to distract him from, and to assume the guise and role of Lily in attempt to gain from him what she desires. Both of these women, the crone and the coquette, are presented as challenges that Jack must resist to avoid being swayed from his path of “redemption”.

Jack makes his way through the Lord of Darkness’ keep, until he finds Lily and Darkness seemingly about to kill the second unicorn. Jack’s friend Gump advises him to “kill Lily, and forget her”, that the unicorn, innocence, is more important. In a pretty rampant bit of Garden of Eden paralleling, Jack is explicitly told that his purity is important, and that Lily has clearly lost her purity forever.

Despite this, Jack declares that he trusts Lily, and his faith is rewarded when she turns her back on the Lord of Darkness and tries to help the unicorn be free of him. Jack fights the Lord of Darkness, and with the help of his friends turns the purifying light of day on him, weakening him. Even as Jack moves to slay him, the Lord of Darkness torments the hero that the Lord of Darkness is inside everyone, and can never truly be banished. That Jack and Darkness are brothers “under the skin”. The Lord of Darkness then falls away into eternal night.

Despite the absence of Darkness himself, Lily remains under her spell. Her innocence is not cured simply by the removal of the seducer figure. She is still presented as “cursed”. Jack is only able to help Lily with the presentation of a ring that she earlier produced in the film and labelled as representative of her marrying. Jack finds the ring and puts it on her finger, symbolically wedding the pair.

Only through this wedding can the sin of the “killing of the unicorn” be undone. The land returns to it’s innocent presentation of a flowery spring morning. Lily, once again in a white dress, and Jack set out to face the future.

You can’t make this stuff up. I can’t imagine that it’s accidental. I say this as someone who likes Legend (in a flawed kind of way), and doesn’t agree with pre-marital abstinence as representative of purity, or that sex opens the gateway to the horny devil of irresponsible carnal lusts. That being said, I can see it as being the exact kind of message that an ’80’s fantasy film intended to have, and looking at it in that light I was surprised at how on the nose it was, and how unusual it was for a fantasy film of the era to have an explicitly “socially conscious” message. Check it out again if you care to, and see if you agree.

Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock and the Pursuit of Vision

Oh, a brief note on the appearance/theme of this blog: “Vertigo”, designed after Saul Bass. Not my design by any means, but instead developed by Matthew Buchanan (links at the bottom of the page).

Vertigo is one of my all-time favourite films. Last year, for the first time ever, it officially ousted Citizen Kane (which I also love, don’t get me wrong) at the top of the Sight and Sound best films of all time list, as voted by directors. What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Essentially nothing, other than to confirm that they’re both excellent films. You can find that out by watching them, and the determination that one is “better” than the other, though by consensus, is so subjective as to render the idea moot.

This is not saying I’m opposed to criticism, which I’m not: I believe in the ability to assess quality beyond individual enjoyment. At the VERY top end, however, you’re discussing very marginal assessments of the fractions which distinguish individual works of genius.

What I did find very interesting is that Vertigo tops the list as voted by critics, not directors. That struck me as odd as, more than Citizen Kane, Vertigo is about the directorial/authorial role, the pursuit of the perfected image in the face of all odds. Both “Kane” and “Vertigo” utilise and to an extent invent new directorial tricks: camera angles and shots, composition and frameworks, etc, etc. Whilst Kane is fundamentally a story of isolation and personal ambition, Vertigo is about the dangers of delving too deeply into a personal vision.

Not unusually for Hitchcock, the film is a suspense thriller about an icily beautiful blonde (more has been written on Hitchcock’s proclivities in this regard than I can go into here), but within that context, it’s a film about a pursuit of the desired image. Jimmy Stewart, usually one of the nicest guys in any picture, obsessively attempts to craft a human being into his image of what she should be. It’s (for those who haven’t seen it), suitably creepy but it also comments on the degree to which the obsessed party will strive to make his dream a reality, regardless of the cost. The film inherently links the director’s desire to capture the image with the desire to work one’s will on the world, and to an extent, the desire to rule the world within the frame. For Hitchcock, that’s a sexual act (spend some time looking at Hitchcock’s relationships with women if you’re keen for a psychological critical approach to some of the great films of the 20th century). Companion pieces might be the excellent ‘Shadow of the Vampire’, where the obsession with the image is presented as a reaction to the death-urge and immortality (Eros and Thanatos, indeed), or George R. R. Martin’s brutally self-reflective (and less shrouded in metaphor than the films mentioned herein) ‘Portraits of His Children’.

Hitch is definitely talking about the darker side of himself here. He knows how things are supposed to look, and supposed to be, and the initial consent of the participants strictly starts to crumble under the strain of trying to force the shape of things to match the life of the mind. Stewart plays the part in a manner subtle and thundering by turns, making a lot from glances and eye movements.

I’ve avoided discussing the plot and twists within the film, out of a fear of spoilers, but if you care about the drive of composition, of the desire of the author to play God with their creations, look at it soon.

Saul Bass’ abstract imagery is perfect to reflect these themes. The cartoons provide the effect of distance to give the viewer a sense of the role outside the frame, of the cardboard cutouts that are driven by the authorial voice into their place in the world. At the same time, Bass’ fonts and linework are jagged, and ever so slightly twisted, imbuing them with a crazed tension.

Saul Bass and Hitchcock both did other items of brilliance, but this is what I think of when I think of both of them. Had to choose this theme in their honour.

Inaugural

“…to the best of my ability, so help me Grodd.”

So, apropos of nothing, it’s time to start keeping a proper notation site. Notionally, I do not “blog” and have not done so since my moody teen years but a more active engagement with social media of late has left me with the desire to have a place to store longer thoughts.

Something where I can ramble. Where my thoughts aren’t confined to 140 characters. It may be that I post some stuff which is posted elsewhere, or recycle old material. I may wander into short fiction or back into commentary, or vent about things that are bothering me.

Bothering me in media, that is. It’ll be pretty rare that elements of my personal life drop into this – private stuff I attempt to keep private for self-explanatory reasons. I’ll talk about comics a lot. TV shows and movies as I catch them. Fantasy, roleplaying and associated thoughts.

Still, anticipate reviews and discussions, word-collage and self-promotion. I’m effectively, of course, talking to no-one now. Though public, this isn’t publicised, and at this point I don’t anticipate anyone’s listening.

If that changes, here is where we get started.