Monday, 31 October 2016

Deconstructing the Comic

A few months ago I was working on a jigsaw puzzle.  It was a real humdinger of a puzzle (one gets to use words like 'humdinger' when referencing jigsaws).  The image was of St Paul's Cathedral in London--a grey building against a greying sky on a stone street.   It was February in Vancouver and raining and so the whole ode to the colour grey seemed rather fitting, but it didn't make the puzzle any easier to complete.  As my friend and I chatted and chipped away at it over Old Fashioneds and a charcuterie plate, we found ourselves seemingly at a dead end despite the fact that approximately a third of the puzzle remained in pieces.  The trouble--we discovered-- was that multiple pieces fit snuggly in numerous places (and the colour scheme seemed to suit as well) and sooner or later we found ourselves at an unworkable impasse where none of the remaining pieces seemed to have a place.  

There was nothing to be done but pull apart our finished work and try again.   How depressing.  How discouraging.  If it weren't for the Old Fashioneds and a can-do attitude we might simply have tossed the whole thing in the trash and moved on with our lives.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective on jigsaw puzzles) we took apart the sky and started again.  We didn't know where our mistakes were and so we had to be sure to go back far enough to remove the roots of our errors, not merely the most recent ones.  

Poor Holger Danske has languished for a good long while.  One could say he's even been slumbering as is his wont.  A couple of months ago I stumbled across a comic industry graphic novel grant and suggested to Cody that perhaps we should shake the dust from our Sleeping Viking and try again.  The whole project needed overhauling, though, in order to fit the guidelines and so recently I began what I thought would be a matter of condensing our miniseries into a graphic novel format.  Our version clocked in at 248 pages total, while the grant was requiring graphic novels between 64-100 pages.  As I hacked and slashed with abandon to our manuscript, I realized that it was like the grey puzzle all over again.  The pieces fit where we had placed them; they even matched the surrounding colour scheme, but they weren't in the right places.  

There is nothing like a whole lot of time and distance to make you unsentimental about your narrative choices.  The false trails and dead ends were a lot easier to see once I was willing to take the whole thing apart and start again looking at the individual characters and plot points; ready to jettison anything and everything that didn't serve the plot.  And, it turns out, a lot needed to go so that better ideas could take their places.

What was amazing with the jigsaw has been true of the comic as well.  Deconstructing the many hours of work that had already been completed was daunting and felt incredibly wasteful, but the rebuilding came together with greater alacrity than I could have dreamed.  The grey sky that had taken hours to go nowhere suddenly snapped into place without difficulty.  When I have edited the series previously, I had been reticent to make changes to the parts that Cody had already completed the art.  I have no such qualms these days.  The rewrite is always stronger than the first draft.  I assume the same principle holds true across mediums; not to mention the fact that he always wants to redraw everything anyway.

(Remember these guys?  No? Yeah.  Me neither.)

Friday, 12 June 2015

Avengers: Age of Unfulfilling Motivation

Is it just me, or did Ultron's motivation for destroying the earth strike anyone else as just a bit tinny?  A bit silly? A bit… I don't know… like Marvel is running out of ideas?  Because it seems to me that when the whole WORLD is always what's at stake, it sort of feels like nothing is really at stake.  Not to quote murderous dictators too often or anything, but I can't help but draw a parallel to Stalin's, "A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic" line. As in, the stakes are so big that you know there is no chance that the heroes won't manage to pull victory from the strong metal jaw of James Spader's A.I, who just so happens to know how to make a homemade meteor to obliterate all life on good ol' Terra Firma.  I found myself kind of indifferent to the plight of my dear terrestrial orb. Six billion deaths is one honey of a ho hum statistic. So, one of the Avengers will probably have to take one for the team, so to speak, but we can be reassured by the fact that comics--like soap operas-- are in the no-narrative-consequence-is-ever-final business.

Besides, if we all go the way of the dinosaurs,  what would happen to the Marvel movie franchise? The much vaunted MCU would be a smoking crater.  So we know that nothing is going to happen.  And, when you know nothing is going to happen, it makes for a boring movie.  No matter how many CGI evil robots fly at our heroes, we know that somehow they will find a universal kill switch or possibly unknowingly cause an individual to evolve who will inexplicably manage to save, oh, everything.

"Gee, whatever shall we do? Ultron has escaped over the internet. He can go anywhere. Do anything. We'll never stop him now!"

"Don't worry. We've got a red Paul Bettany cookin'. That should do it."

Everything about Ultron is a Macguffin. He is only the way that he is because the plot needs him to be, not because there is anything true about his motivation.  Why? Because he's about as threatening as a toaster.  Sure, the odd one can burn your house down, but no one wonders about a malfunctioning toaster's vendetta against the human race.

Also, can we just pause here a moment to reflect on the fact that Joss Whedon wants those of us who regularly have to update the software on all our electronic devices to believe that computers are going to spontaneously get smarter rather than fubar-ed.  This artificial intelligence bogeyman is a joke.  Hmm, how shall we defeat this murderous robot? Oh, I don't know, let's just wait until he needs to update his operating system and then not do it.  Or, even if we do the update, he won't work well enough to rip off the final sequence from Superman Returns, so I think we're good.

And that is another problem with Avengers: Age of Unfulfilling Movie Experiences, it seems like we've seen it all before.  When the Black Widow races through Seoul on a motorbike, I feel like I watched Rachel Weisz and Hawkeye in that same sequence in The Bourne Legacy.  The untrustworthy robots converging remind me of iRobot.  Pop culture is cannibalizing itself.

My other frustration is that I'm beginning to wonder if Joss Whedon could write a believable woman to save his life.  (Or the planet's life, as the case may be.)  I appreciate the fact that he wants to demonstrate that women are strong and necessary and all that good stuff.  Kudos, Mr. Whedon. I appreciate your support.  However, a strong woman doesn't look or act like a strong man.  Her strength is not measured in the how closely she aligns to the men.  Sure, we all love the idea of some thug underestimating a girl and then being surprised when she takes him to pieces all Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style, it's very satisfying, but that really isn't the inherent strength of femininity. Those scenes are satisfying because they are out of the ordinary.  No one is that amazed when a strong guy fights off evil doer. Glad, sure. Amazed and satisfied, less so.

If your strong women only ever act like strong men do, then really, aren't you sending the message that femininity has no inherent strength?  The character of the Black Widow was far more compelling in The Winter Soldier.  Her brains made her an asset to Steve, not her braun-y motorcycle moves.  She anticipated the attack through the car roof and threw herself in harms way to protect her friend.  She taught the guy garbed in the flag to blend in--to slip through the tightening net of danger--rather than fight at an inopportune time.  She was more than useful. She was necessary and she had an interesting personality.  Not so much, this time around.  She picks up Cap's shield at one point. And she talks about the sun getting real low while slow motion high-fiving the rage monster.  That's something, I guess.  Maybe it would have been more compelling if there had been even the slightest whiff of chemistry between the two.  Are we seriously supposed to buy this love story with the Hulk? I give it a single movie.

Also, I'm pretty sure that a strong woman would have moved past the fact that she didn't have a period by now.  Disappointed when she lay awake at night, sure, I'll by that.  But discombobulated by the memory of something she already knew about--a choice she made--to the extent that she has to hang out in someone else's bathrobe and plan to run away while the whole planet hangs in the balance?

A strong woman wouldn't have been taken out of play so easily.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Star Spangled Man with a Plan

Captain America: The Winter Soldier premieres today but I went to the midnight opening at 8:30 last night.  I know.  I was confused as well.  I thought midnight was 12:00 am but I've been wrong about time before, so I just showed up when Cody told me to.
There are a number of reasons why this movie might be my new favourite of the Marvel releases.

First, Captain America is already my favourite of the superheroes.  He isn't angst-y like Wolverine.  He doesn't always have to have the last word.  I can't tell you how pleased I was in the film last night when he did not deliver the obvious smart ass retort to the bad guy he had just had to lay low.  How refreshing.  How un-Tony Stark or 007.  Steve Rogers doesn't speak Elizabethan like Thor.  He's your average guy with above average abilities who believes in doing what's right no matter the personal cost.  Don't get me wrong, I like those other characters, too.  But after a couple of hours they sort become like those friends you have on Facebook who are always emoting all over your feed.  You like them, but they keep trying to convince you that you don't.  Cap is refreshing in a world of egos and dry one-liners.

 Second, Chris Evans.  (Ladies, am I right? amirite? I probably should have mentioned this one first.)

Thirdly, while I still really enjoy the first film Captain America: The First Avenger and more recently, The Avengers, there are just a couple of plot issues that I can't quite ignore upon reviewing.  For example, in Captain America, after Cap goes in to rescue the remaining soldiers of his friend's unit--Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell stand around camp and say that the aerial reconnaissance has picked up nothing and Steve Rogers is probably dead.  Within about 30 seconds, Steve and a hundred guys march into camp with Hydra tanks.  Maybe they should have had Captain America analyzing the recon--perhaps the war might have ended sooner.  Also, why wasn't there anyone standing guard at the camp? This is in the middle of the war, after all.  Didn't they notice the enemy tanks approaching?   Never mind that. "Let's hear it for Captain America!" Cue the swelling music.  Also, why did he have to force the plane down into the arctic?  Was the bomb about to go off? Why couldn't he land it?  I never quite understood that.  Granted, I didn't really notice it on the first time round, so if you aren't in the habit of watching movies over and over again, you'll probably be fine with it.

My issue with The Avengers film is more with seeing a bit too much of the workings.  The curtain is flaring about and the wizard Joss Whedon can be seeing pulling the levers and pushing the buttons.  His style and sense of humour is very recognizable to those of us familiar with his work.  I still like the film, but I think getting a little more input on the script might have been a good idea because I know that in terms of our Holger Danske comic, it is immensely beneficial to have Cody's input in the story development.  It keeps me from dusting off all of my old chestnuts and putting them in.  I am also generally not a fan of having the same individual who wrote the script direct the movie.  It makes it harder to look at the script objectively about what works and what doesn't.  I think it was a weakness with the Lord of the Rings movies, too. That being said, I still really enjoy The Avengers (and Captain America and The Lord of the Rings).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn't seem to have these same issues.  It is about freedom without being preachy.  It doesn't try and tie in with current politics and potentially alienate viewers. The film also succeeds in winning me over to Scarlett Johansson's version of the Black Widow; something that none of the previous films featuring have accomplished.  She actually seems to have a character who contributes this time around; instead of just looking solemn in leather and repeating the refrain of 'red in her ledger'.  I liked her.  I also enjoyed the introduction of the Falcon and the expansion of Nick Fury's role.   Sure, there may come a time after The Winter Soldier comes out on DVD and I've watched it several times when I feel lonely, that I might begin to notice the enemy tanks approaching the camp, or the wizard manning the smoke and mirrors.  But for now, it is a fun ride.  It is everything you hope for in a superhero movie.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

When 'Good Enough' isn't Good Enough

Struck suddenly the other night with a burst of inspiration (and stomach flu--but never mind about that) I began reworking the opening of Holger Danske: The Graphic Novel.  It seems appropriate that a graphic novel would have a fairly different tone than a series--and, frankly, I think it is one that I am more comfortable with.  A series needs to have built in stopping points. Each issue needs to advance a wider story arc while telling a smaller story within.  I think our story works as a series, but I think it will be better without losing the momentum on the wider story.  Plot driven stories are all about momentum and serialized stories are often lacking in it.  It is the nature of the medium.  A series must follow rabbit trails and tangents while the larger story unfolds in the background in order to carry a smaller story in the immediate.  But there is always a somewhat frustrating sense that the larger story might never be resolved--or, that like that old fable, perhaps the Emperor has no clothes and the plenitudinous build up of a larger conflict is all smoke and no fire.  Television shows often suffer from this fate.  Lots of talk.  Lots of build up.  Lots of talking to the Smoking Man in the shadows--but no satisfying narrative resolution.

And so, despite the inevitable delay, I am pleased to make the changes because I think it will result in a tighter story.  The new opening has a decidedly different approach, in which an intangible whiff of mysticism begins to permeate the reality of Man the Rational Monster.  It feels like digging deeper into the psyche of the story which can only be a good thing for this project--despite the scary places it might take me.  I certainly didn't set out to write horror, but when you find it in the human heart, it is simply no good to pretend it isn't there.   Telling a story is a bit like an archeological dig.  You go deeper and uncover some half buried structure, some truth about human nature.  You brush it out carefully and begin to see how it informs everything and that you wrote it already without even really comprehending it on a conscious level.  It reveals that truth wears a mystical garment--written in your mind and written on the page without intention.

This is the sort of thing that gets me excited about telling stories.  Before I had ever written one, I used to wonder how an author managed to weave so many interesting themes into the narrative.  How did they manage to control each thread to direct it into its place in the tapestry?  How did they keep it from becoming a unintelligible snarl? The answer turns out to be a lot of hard work.  But it is the hard work of delicately brushing out the hidden details that only emerge after many drafts and countless rounds of editing.   That being the case, I suppose I am glad that Holger Danske hasn't been published in some earlier iteration. Sure, the story may have worked--it might even have been pretty good.  But according to someone smart, good is the enemy of great.  So, it's great that our story never went anywhere while it was good.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

*The Word You're Looking For is "Irrespective"*

I'm finally doing it.  I'm working on Holger Danske again after a long hiatus.  (I am not querying either, praise the Lord.  I can only take so much of that and I'm all full up right now.)

I am revamping all the scripts so that instead of a six issue miniseries, we will have one graphic novel instead (current page count 219!)  It won't be that bloated when I am finished with it.

I don't know whether changing the format will solve our pitching problems or not. I have come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter.  Tailoring your project to fit the current sensibilities of the publishing industry is like target practice with a gun that doesn't shoot straight.   It won't matter how much you line up, the bullet goes off sideways--the target ever illusive.

So that brings us back around to where we started all those years ago with Holger Danske. Creating a story that we like. We do what we want, *irregardless* of what the professionals like or don't like.  The only people we owe a good story to is ourselves.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

This Title is Five Words.

I think everyone who writes should try their hand at writing comics.  While some readers might disregard this as easy writing for children or emotionally stunted 30-something males, I would like to see them try to tell a cogent story within the sticky parameters of 25 words per thought bubble and 50 words per panel--all within the industry standard 22 page issue.  Develop characters.  Hint at backstory.  Foreshadow future events.  Create emotional connections to dynamic characters that didn't exist before you put pen to paper.  Novels typically run 70-100 thousand words.  I'm not saying those are a walk in the park to write either, but at least there is lots of room to work.

I recently edited a PhD thesis for a friend of mine who favoured long sentences that would have made even a Victorian writer raise a sooty brow.  It is harder to be concise than long winded.  Comics, by their very structure, force the issue so that every word counts.  Unnecessary dialogue or narration block the art and weigh down the pacing of what is generally an action-oriented story.  These things always walk a fine line though, because while brevity may be the soul of wit, you can also cut so much that the story ceases to make sense. I know I have occasionally read comic books where I found that to be the case.

Ever since I got the feedback from the Top Cow fellow about tightening dialogue further so that nothing extraneous weighs down the story, I have been toying with the notion of going back over the Holger scripts to see if there is anything that I can tighten the screws on.   The thought makes me nervous though, because --while I can bear the idea of a rewrite--I hate the idea of Cody having to redraw any of issue #1.  However, if the submission/rejection process has taught me anything, it is that excellence is a matter of practice, repetition and perseverance more than raw talent or a lucky break.  Those with an overabundance of talent (or, lots of fortuitous encounters) rarely have to improve on what they have already.  Even more hobbling, they haven't learned to persevere through difficulty or rejection and therefore never attempt what doesn't come easy.  So, perhaps I should revel in the idea of a redraw because it will serve to enhance Cody's talent, develop his perseverance et cetera, et cetera.  Or, at the very least, --if rewriting doesn't prompt redrawing-- I might get some good out of it.  Practice, if not resulting in perfection, results in a better outcome; a faster output and less emotional attachment to the product of your labours (which will be of monumental importance when you get to the rejection stage of the game.)

So, whatever you are working on: work more.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Send Thank You Notes.

I'm back.  I have returned to posting after temporarily fighting off the nefarious duo of Ambivalence and Malaise, and now take this quiet moment to post in order to encourage and uplift all those who yearn to hold the crisp, published pages of HOLGER DANSKE: THE ONSLAUGHT in their eager little fingers.

First off, there are no Holger Danske related updates to relate.  Why? Well, let's get to that in a later post so we don't lose momentum like a comic book project going nowhere fast...

On the upside, Cody and I have finally cracked the published world with the advent of THE ENERGY TRADER which was published on November 8th by Cloudscape Comics in their e-anthology EPIC CANADIANA.  It is available for purchase on their website as a downloadable PDF. It retails for $2.95 and Cody and I even get a kickback!  That is something to smile about--though, I haven't gone out and bought an island in anticipation of selling the film rights just yet.  I can't speak for Cody, though.  He's reckless like that.

Another positive bit of news is that I finally received the feedback we were promised for our story that we submitted to Top Cow Comics talent hunt last year.  Obviously, we didn't win a chance to write or draw for Top Cow, however, the experience was useful nonetheless.  Unfortunately, the feedback was only on the story and not the art which I assure you, was up to Cody's usual perfectionistic standards.   The critique was the first of its kind that I have ever received on any work that I have submitted anywhere.  The conscientious reviewer at Top Cow gave praise and suggestions for improvement and said that our action beats were excellent and that our characterizations of their established characters were spot on.  He suggested tightening dialogue further, meaning that everything that doesn't directly move the plot forward should go.  Always a tricky balance to strike but especially true in the case of comic books where brevity is the soul of 22 page story arcs.  He also said that we had talent and that we would be a major contender in their contest this year.

Alas. We aren't participating this year.  However, it is nice to know that we aren't missing the mark by a mile but by inches.  The problem is, a miss by inches is still a miss.  But we aren't completely crazy in pursuing this--apparently, we just need to be rejected a few more times in order to refine our craft.  (Or, maybe we'll have it down for next time. That would be amazing.)

(I sent a thank you email for his feedback and heard back immediately.  He was just saying thanks for my thanks--completely unnecessary!  I need to find a way to harness that sort of responsiveness for queries. )