Archive for August, 2011
Well, we East Coasters survived the violent wobble of an earthquake and the vicious drizzle of a hurricane, and now I must inform you of the third calamity that will come in threes to you this week: no chapter on Sunday. I’ll be at a reunion and out of internet range. Accordingly, Soap and Water chapter 14, which is now posted on Red Lemonade, is about twice as long as your usual chapter. If I was going to be around this weekend I’d have broken it up, but I’m not so I’m giving it to you all at once.
Don’t forget to mark your calendars for Sunday, September 25, when I will be reading at KGB along with a few other Red Lemonade authors. Your readership and comments made that happen, and I’m so very grateful.
Of course, I’m also grateful for the improvements you’re helping me make. Revisions of chapters 11 and 12 are in the works. At some point soon I hope to make up my mind what to do about chapter 1. I didn’t necessarily intend to dive back into editing the book when I started this, but it’s very satisfying. Keep on commenting!
E-reader versions are on the Soap and Water page, as always.
Soap and Water chapter 13 is now posted on Red Lemonade. This is a slightly longer chapter than usual. Sometimes that happens too.
Thank you to all who keep commenting. I started this hoping to increase the book’s visibility a little and maybe get some new readers. What I didn’t expect was that in the process I’d get far more thorough editing than I’d ever gotten on it before. I’ve already rewritten the first chapter (poll closing soon!) based on your comments, and will probably rewrite it some more, plus I’m currently rewriting chapters 11 and 12 based on still more comments. I’d hoped you could help me get my book read. I never really expected how much you all would help me make it a better book. I thank you sincerely.
As always, e-reader versions are on the Soap and Water page.
Soap and Water chapter 12 is now posted to Red Lemonade. Many thanks to all of you who continue to read and comment even through the August doldrums. I’m really grateful for it.
So far opinion is about evenly divided on which version of chapter 1 you like better. I think I’ll leave the poll open for another week and then retreat to chew over all you’ve given me as suggestions there.
E-reader-friendly versions on the Soap and Water page.
Sometimes it’s perfectly okay to take an idea off the shelf, give it a slight twist, and execute it very well. The super-intelligent-animals-at-war-with-their-creators concept has been done in a bunch of ways already, including this summer’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I hear is good.
In nearly all of these stories, the superintelligent animals become essentially people in furry costumes, meaning that boosted intelligence = more like humans. Grant Morrison’s WE3 is one of the few sustained attempts I know of to do the hyperintelligent-animal thing while at the same time resisting anthropomorphism. WE3, originally published in three issues back in 2005 – 2006, was just reissued in a single deluxe hardcover by Vertigo.
This resistance starts with the character design itself. The three heroes are a militarized dog, cat, and rabbit, and in his notes at the end Morrison explains that while he originally envisioned them in armor that stood them up like humans, eventually he gave artist Frank Quitely free rein to draw armor that fit their real bodies. Quitely drew them in overlapping plates like the hide of a flea or a pangolin, making them look like little tanks with animal heads.
Then, in the action sequence that opens the book and in many of those that follow, Quitely takes care to show us action from the animals’ point of view. We see scenes from dog’s eye level or cat’s eye level rather than from the usual human vantage, strung together with a kind of flipbook rapidity that feels nonhuman.
Above all, though, Morrison doesn’t make his animals all that smart. Sure, they’re way smarter than your average dog, cat, or bunny, and the computers wired to their brains make them capable of rudimentary speech. It’s no better than crude pidgin, though, and the concepts they express with it are simple: “bad dog,” “home,” “protect,” etc. When the government inevitably tries to have the three prototype animals killed, they don’t understand what’s happening. They remain instinct-driven, reactive, so wholly out of their depth that they lack even a concept for “betrayal.” Their inventor understands and tries to give them a fighting chance at survival, so they do fight, with the unapologetic total violence of animals. But they do so without strategy or purpose.
Eventually we come to realize that what Morrison has written isn’t a Rise of the Planet of the Apes story, it’s the original King Kong. King Kong is supposed to break your heart. So is WE3.
PDF preview here.
So, August 22 happened.
I did credit the source in my interview, but it, along with my other two, more emotionally trenchant pieces of advice were edited out, fair enough. I first gleaned this from either the novelization of Summer of ’42 or its sequel, the novelization of Class of ’44. Neither is text-searchable on Amazon or Google Books, sadly.
Take it away, Frank.
Soap and Water chapter 11 is now posted at Red Lemonade. This one was inspired by Petronius’s Satyricon, which I’d read for a class many years ago and never forgotten.
Thank you to all who continue to read and comment! And thanks to those who have weighed in on which version of Chapter 1 they like better.
E-reader-friendly versions are on the Soap and Water page here, as always.
Having gained a certain amount of recognition with the relatively straight noir of Stray Bullets, David Lapham seems determined to drive his audiences crazy. I happened to love the surrealism of Young Liars, and I even enjoyed the bonkers post-apocalyptic world of Sparta USA. But for most comic book readers both were far too weird.
With Caligula, his new title from Avatar, I think he might believe he’s toned down the nuttiness to appeal to a wider audience. Lapham starts issue #1 with a simple revenge tale: a boy’s family is slaughtered by Caligula and his retinue, and the boy vows to kill all those responsible. He works his way through a couple of them, has sex with a guard to gain entrance to the emperor’s palace, and finally gets his chance alone with Caligula himself, stabbing him straight through the skull, from crown to throat.
The truth is, though, that when weird writers try to write something mainstream they often end up writing something that’s just as weird as their usual, only in a different way. I remember when my college writing professor John Crowley tried to write a bestseller. The result was The Translator, a book I absolutely love that was in some ways every bit as weird and hard to categorize as his other, more openly genre-bending stuff.
See, Caligula doesn’t die at the end of #1. He’s barely even fazed. In #2 he makes the boy one of his household slaves and forces him to undergo all sorts of humiliations—among other things, he straps him to the front of a chariot for a deadly race and allows a horse to rape him. Increasingly desperate attempts on Caligula’s life make it clear that he is the demigod he proclaims himself to be, or at least the tool of a demon passing itself off as a horse.
Caligula has long been a symbol of the complete moral decay of a society, and Lapham makes use of that symbol to the fullest. The emperor buys his power by giving the people a Coliseum full of the most depraved, bloody spectacles he can imagine, and needs to top himself again and again as audiences grow jaded. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Lapham is aiming at America with that part.
What he’s driving at with the rest—the demon-horse and the emperor who can’t be killed—I guess we’ll have to wait and find out. I’m just glad he’s back and doing his thing.
Soap and Water chapter 10 is now posted on Red Lemonade. It’s super-short. Sometimes that happens!
Thanks to everybody who keeps reading, commenting, Facebook-liking and Tweeting. You guys are making this exercise worthwhile.
When you can, don’t forget to vote on which version of chapter 1 you like better. And thanks, of course, to those who’ve already voted.
Kindle, iPod, Nook, and other e-reader versions are on the Soap and Water page, as always.
I’ve been carrying around an idea for a feature for a long time – it’s a superhero comedy of remarriage, a/k/a “what the world needs now.” With my writing partner on vacation, I thought the dog days would be great to dive in and start drafting. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been able to suss out its bones. The hours I’ve devoted to it have put me in touch with a lot of the characters in very useful ways, but mostly I’ve been too daunted by the next level of detail – the outline – to even keep myself in the chair working.
I watched Kick-Ass last week (Big Josh: it doesn’t suck), but left it out of my Monday Movies gig because I was short on time and I had this exercise in mind. A screenwriter’s “beat sheet” is a list of significant moments – less detail than a list of scenes, more detail than three-act structure. I’ve been in screenwriting classes where we were asked to do ten-point beat sheets. Screenwriter Blake Snyder, known for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot but better known for his screenwriting manual Save The Cat!, compiled a fifteen-point beat sheet, believing that the exact same beats should fall not only in the same order but arriving at roughly predictable page numbers of a screenplay. (For better or worse, his work has moved from observation to prescription.)
Below the fold, I’ll read the Kick-Ass screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (downloadable via Simply Scripts) and see how it matches up to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, a/k/a the BS2. Each beat says what page Snyder believes you should find it on in parentheses next to it, and I’ll indicate in my discussion where it actually falls. The rule of thumb for translating screenplay pages to screen minutes is 1 page = 1 minute and I’ll indicate how far apart the film and the screenplay get.
(I’m not going on record saying that this or all movies should follow the BS2 exactly — I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons of Scott Myers’s Narrative Throughline and Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey as well, both of which could be used to look at the structure of this and many other movies. I have not been trying to internalize this horse pill. Also if you have my copy of The Writer’s Journey I’d like it back.)
Back when he crapped all over comic book movies Josh K-Sky and (and I, in the comments) neglected to mention A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s brooding gangster film. I only recently got around to reading the graphic novel by John Wagner (recently reissued by Vertigo), and it’s one of many examples of what was apparently once called Bluestone’s Law (after pioneering film critic George Bluestone): only bad books make good movies; good books make bad movies.
In general, Bluestone’s Law as I understand it secondhand is based on the idea that deviation from the original is more respected when the original is not beloved. We’ve largely gotten past that whole problem of “deviation” when it comes to novels, but we haven’t with comics, and I think it might be instructive to consider why.
Most people, I think, still see comics and movies as really pretty similar. Comics are the closest one can get to a movie on the page, goes the subconscious expectation. Both tell stories with dialogue supported by visual depictions of action, and comic book authors have adopted many visual storytelling tricks from movies. Comic book scripts and movie scripts even look a lot alike, and many TV screenwriters have dabbled in comic book writing.
The fact that their comics have not generally been very good should give a hint, though, that the visual support to dialogue works pretty differently in movies and in comics.
Art in comics must be very simple. It has to convey an action in a space maybe two inches tall by two inches wide. Artists will pack only as much into those small spaces as can be intelligible.
But within those limitations it can be extremely evocative. It activates the imagination when done well, leading us right into the “vivid and continuous dream” that John Gardner names as the action of all good fiction. We see movement and emotion in our heads.
Because that movement and emotion is linked to specific visual cues, however, we believe mistakenly that it’s all there on the page. Beloved comics get transferred to the screen by directors who want nothing more than to reproduce what everyone loved so much in print, and they sit there, visually dead.
When comics do work on the big screen it’s usually because directors find ways to make them look great there. Vince Locke’s art in A History of Violence the book is forgettable, so Cronenberg was free to go his own way. Harvey Pekar works with different artists in every story, so Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were similarly free in American Splendor.
Which brings me to James Gunn’s Super, just out on DVD, and its contrast with last year’s Kick-Ass. Like Kick-Ass, Super is based on the idea of an ordinary guy dressing up as a superhero.* Unlike Kick-Ass it was not preceded by a comic, and when I try to imagine it as a comic I can’t see it translating well.
Rainn Wilson plays The Crimson Bolt, aka Frank D’Arbo, a guy who finds himself adrift when his wife abandons him and returns to heroin. A vision from God and some late-night Christian superhero TV convince him to become a costumed hero, and when he visits a comic book store to do research on heroes without superpowers he accidentally picks up Ellen Page as a sidekick, Boltie. Because he doesn’t have powers he settles on hitting his villains with a wrench. Or shooting them when necessary.
All the way to the bloody climax Gunn rides the line between comedy and despair. He lets the actors play their roles with absolute seriousness, and doesn’t ever try to undercut how messed-up and deluded Frank is supposed to be. He and Boltie are crazy people, and when he bashes a guy in the head for cutting in line at the movies, it’s appropriately horrifying.
In the same moment, though, the violence is undercut by a slapstick visual tone. Not Three Stooges slapstick where the violence doesn’t hurt, Troma slapstick, where the gore is extreme and doesn’t feel quite real.
That specific tone simply wouldn’t work in a comic. I’ve tried to imagine some of the most arresting images in Super as comic panels, and I think they’d either be unleavened horror, or else that nasty, mean-spirited visual slapstick that characterizes most of Mark Millar’s work (including Kick-Ass) and Garth Ennis titles like Crossed. There simply isn’t enough space in a panel for most artists to enact that uncomfortable middle ground where Super lives. All of which means that while Super may be a far better movie than Kick-Ass, I’m not sure it’d be half as good a comic.
*It’s weird that in neither of these movies do the protagonists bother to learn about the Real-Life Superhero movement. The Kick-Ass 2 comic book series offers something along these lines, but in this day and age it’s hard to fathom anyone doing non-Internet-based research, as Rainn Wilson’s character does in Super, and when they did wouldn’t they immediately stumble on the RLS phenomenon? Plus both movies assume RLS’s would be vigilantes, whereas in truth they seem to be motivated more by an endearing concept of heroism. Less crimefighting, more soup-kitchen fundraising.