Category: Story Pile

Here’s where you’ll find the blog entries that are about examining – specifically – TV, movies, and other forms of participatory media that interest me. This is the space you’re going to find talk of characters in TV shows, or specific moments in greater narratives, or why you might want to watch a particular show or why I love – or hate! – a particular movie.

My Two Pennies, Part III

Marshal McLuahn as any Canadian will tell you, codified the idea that the medium is the message; that modes of communication are greater than the ideas that we communicate with them, changing infrastructure around them. Consider this:

One of these is edited in some fairly inconsequential ways. One of them is the original. Any serious scrutiny will tell which is which. But could you, without the comparison, tell easily what was ‘wrong’ with the strip?

The comic panel is a visual medium that allows us to convey a wealth of information through single slices of momentary time, instances where we do not see animation but its cessation. A panel invites scrutiny and we construct time through the transition of panels.

A man opens a door, a wide panel showing much of the street; a narrow panel, showing little, focusing our attention. The second space becomes smaller, threatening, and the man becomes less distinct. We observe him then we become the observor he approaches.

Narrower still. A frame within a frame. We are observing the man moving away from us, within the building now (look at the stairs), a neighbour peeking out. He is not unnoticed. He is not unfeared – even as we know nothing about him from this. I am not, I want to underscore, saying that Penny Arcade needs to be Watchmen. But Watchmen has in it valuable lessons about how comics work, what comic panels do and how you can use them. Moore famously wrote entire pages of description about world, setting, tone and the space of each panel so that Gibson had the tools to actualise the right visual atmosphere.

Here now is literally every single thing that needs to be provided to convey to an artist the information in the PA strip:

here is that exact same idea:

Now here’s the funny thing. Penny Arcade know that this is a bad way to do comics. compare and contrast, 2000 to 2012

The first one is just the same joke held for three panels; effort was done to re-draw them but they only show a degree of animation, the enthusiasm for the Hat Of Money that, y’know, we’re all learning, I’m not going to complain and the line was pretty funny at the time.

The second one is, like the first, basically a monologue, but they use the cinematic space of the comic panel to do something. You get an implementation of the art: Setting, diner, public space.

Tycho’s haunted expression, closing in on the face.

That near-reverential moment where he closes his eyes

and struggles to vocalise what he has learned,

what he has experienced.

What this has made of him,

what he has become.

It’s a poop joke.

Now here’s a similar application of the idea: The camera conveys that this conversation is slow and peaceful, that there is a pastoral gentleness to this comic. It’s not funny but it is warm and nice and I don’t hate it.

Maybe this was just a lazy day. Maybe this was just one day where they decided they wanted to spend 68 words (not even nice) to make a 10 word joke. A 10 word joke they’d made before! It’s like the most basic of gamer jokes, following only after That Person Didn’t Understand Our Jargon, Therefore We Must Overreact Massively. This strip is just Genesis Does What Nintendon’t for arseholes who don’t like Polygon.

I don’t know what comparisons YOU want to make about Penny Arcade, but here’s mine:

They’re Garfield.

The comic as a medium is visual. You can do talking-head dialogue if you want, and lords knows a couple of millionaires are entitled to phone it in on a day to day basis. It’s only poor people who get graded on the quality of their work.

The strange thing is, that as a projection of its author, of the things that I feel this comic is trying to do, I feel this comic very deeply. I feel it because I know I want to do the same thing. I know that I love the feeling of a rolling avalanche of Oh BURN! of mocking someone over and over, with multiple hilarious off-the-cuff comparisons. You start with something small and dismissive, then you double down and then you double down again and again when the sheer depth and quantity of your endless riffing becomes, itself, a source of comedy. It’s an amazing moment!

Then imagine going home, sitting down, working all day on that rolling avalanche of burn, coming up with your list, then getting an artist to make a visual for it for which you had NO ACTUAL NEED, and put it before your audience

And it’s this.

L’esprit de l’escalier mécanique.

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My Two Pennies, Part II

Last time, I took this Penny Arcade strip and explored how it conveyed its message, and what it was trying to say.  We wound up at this:  

Here’s that panel with like, the miscellaneous random crap and a bunch of weirdly unnecessary face lines cleaned up just because I find that strikingly different.

Penny Arcade as a brand is estimated at being worth $37,900,000. They do not, I am absolutely sure, care a whit about what I have to say about their work, unless I somehow catch one of them on a randomly spiteful day, which I am pretty confident I won’t. Plus they have the raftload of excuses – this is how they do things, this is their art style, this isn’t made for critics, they don’t care, they’re extremely not mad – that anyone can use when their webcomic is mocked.

The amazing thing about this clearly great, great comic, is that there’s so many ways it can be used to tell the exact same story, the ways it reinforces and multiples upon its own intricate, endlessly deep thesis.  Such a confidence and absoluteness in its message, so coherent and deliberate in its overwhelming reassessment of its meaning, it is the only work that knows itself, that knows what it is for, what it means to say. As art, it proves to us that it is real – and we, ephemeral.

When I am gone, this art will remain, perfect, unchanging, a message unto eternity, perfect in its affirmation of what it, more than anything else, knows to be true:

it’s like you get three individual comics at once! Then, wrapping it up, you’re presented with one big comic that is itself, made up of three individual comics each saying exactly the same thing of its own opinion. It is postmodern in that it challenges the assumption that a comic need have a structure, that comedy need be funny, that there needs to be anything else in life but spite and disdain for the other, and that you can use a position of media prominence to do nothing but snipe needlessly at things you assert that don’t really care about.

It is a russian nesting doll made of Pickle Ricks.

Which is a thing that exists.

Thankfully, we will always have the branding we can wear, with which we will adorn ourselves and show that we, more than anyone else, care about this art. Oh, how we care.

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My Two Pennies, Part I

I see some people are having a hard time interpreting this Penny Arcade comic, and so I figured I’d try and help you out here. I am, after all, an academic, exactly the kind of person that Penny Arcade love to bash for our difficulty understanding their intricate, street-level Derridan medium, so I figured it was best to conduct some study and provide a clear, explored version of their original text for other people to consume.

I hope this deciphers this intricate political statement and is worth the years of study. It’s a difficult puzzle to solve, and you can see here how they’ve cleverly used the rhetorical device of repeating themselves three times to ensure that we clearly understand their joke. Now, conventionally, comedy would dictate that you don’t belabour your joke – that you make your point, deliver the joke sharp and smart (like a ‘punch’ line, as it were), but the Penny Arcade magnates are proud and above such things. They instead opt for this very advanced form of comedy where they restate their joke repeatedly.

Some people have argued the original third panel was actually mocking the idea of people caring about politics, which is kind of true, but only in that it’s meant to be mocking Polygon for its daring to care about this as it relates to clearly ridiculous things. That is, they believe that the source, Polygon, is wasting its effort and energy on things it shouldn’t be doing. Like this.

Now, when I see things like this, I think we all recognise that the true greatest genius of 90s comics, and genesis of most webcomic as a genre was the work of Gary Larson in the newspaper single-panel comic The Far Side.

Of course, Larson was a believer in, and advocate for active minimalism in comedy.

It stands to reason when you’re working for an editor and need to turn around your comics quickly for quick redraws and re-works, you might favour a style that’s very clean, and avoids excessive extra lines or notes, and makes the small space you have maximally expressive.

As you refine the process, you realise how little of what you need is useful. You start to appreciate how much you can express with a small number of narrative and visual tools. The chaff you thought was essential melts away and you’re left looking at what you’ve chosen to present, and how, in its purest form.

Anyway, I think we’ve all learned something today.

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Minna No Boku No Hero Academia

Curious what you think of the permeability of shonen anime into the general consciousness, as seen in Everyone Making BNHA OCs. – Casey

First things first shonen anime is and has been part of the general consciousness for about thirty years now. My dad knows who Tobor the 8 Man was even if he didn’t, at the time know it was Anime, and Astro Boy is an institution world-wide. What’s more Goku, from Dragonball Z has the cultural cachet of Superman, which puts their general awareness in public attention around about the same level of, literally, Jesus Christ.

That said, there is something interesting about Boku No Hero Academia, a name that I feel it’d be a bit tired to make fun of at this point, and how it relates to Everyone Making BNHA OCs. Specifically, the thing that’s interesting isn’t that Everyone Is Making BNHA OCs…

… its that people feel okay talking abouti making BNHA OCs.

OCs are a really interestingly contentious part of culture. For a start, all creative characters both have them and don’t – the nature of all creative culture as a gigantic remix machine where things we experience become part of the things we create and how it’s all part of this greater framework generation and what we see as originality is really a shift in perspectives or a paradigmatic repositioning and oh god you’re falling asleep – but the other thing is, OCs are seen almost inextricably as embarassing. We use the joke ‘OC, do not steal’ as an inherent joke to describe something people shouldn’t care about, where the speaker is meant to care very much. The Sonic OC is a whole psychosexual bazaar at this point, something most people observe from the outside and awkwardly step around.

Fanart is an interesting mill of media where people often have very one-sided relationships with the work; they do not care about the artist and their opinions or input as much as they care about the other media work the artist invokes. Artists can use fanart as a stepping stone but there is a lot more fanart that goes nowhere than anything else, and the nature of the decontextualising internet means it’s often appreciated by people who have basically no connection to the artist, because they have connection to the media it flows from. Typically speaking, fanart is not a space to get creative – if there’s a character in a lineup from a show that didn’t come from the show, people will almost always see them as not appropriate.

Yet, BNHA has this strange phenomenon where people aren’t just making OCs for it, they’re also comfortable labelling them as such, sharing them, and then, within the framework of the series, using those characters to make fanart of the series. Here, check out this character, who I’m using to show off the way that powers in this really weird and interesting and cool universe could work out!

I don’t think BNHA is uniquely suited for this; you could have seen the same thing back in Ranma 1/2’s heyday, where characters all had ridiculous martial arts and possibly their own ridiculous magical spring. Heck, there was a ten year long roleplay thread on a newsgroup called GRIT that was just about people’s Ranma 1/2 OCs (at first – it spiralled off, as anything would).

What I find more interesting – what I find exciting – is that we’re at a point now where showing off your BNHA OC isn’t seen as inherently ridiculous. We’re reaching a place where when people say I care about this thing, and here is my inclusion in it, nobody says get that out of here. There is a welcoming in this concept space, and…

well, I find that exciting. I wonder how much stuff I’d love better, how much better I’d be at some things if I didn’t feel I was constantly being told I wasn’t good enough.

Yes Minister

I feel old.

I’ve taken in my efforts to stave off this feeling, but it’s undeniable. I feel old, even though I know full well that ‘millenial’ talk is targeted at me. Part of why is because the things of my youth are not the things of other people’s youth. I was raised on The Goon Show and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and obscure Christian media. My media background was ultimately not for me – it was for my father.

Lots of it went over my head. The Goon Show had overtones of sex farce and tons of racy humour that I completely missed. I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again built on a host of tropey fantasy and panto skit comedy that I totally missed, and I only now realise what a slide whistle means.

One series of my father’s loves, which was contemporary to my birth, and therefore, completely beyond me until, well, now, is Yes Minister.

It’s fascinating actually in that it has a lot in common with Seinfeld. While the point of Seinfeld was that it was a show about nothing1., with stories that showed people spending huge amounts of effort on tiny nothings, the thrust of Yes Minister was inverted. Episodes of Yes Minister are spent ranging across spaces of days at a time, with enormous outcomes on the line, in which almost nothing ever gets to happen. But while Seinfeld’s narrative structure is bent to the frantic expenditure of energy achieving nothing, the narrative of Yes Minister is the frantic expenditure of energy achieving nothing.

It’s that kind of word play is throughout the series.

It’s also a show where instantaneous communication as we have it now would totally desolate some plots.

One of the challenges of making a sit-com is that it’s meant to be a situation comedy, a comedy that exists, as it were, in situ, in its own place. The dialogue therefore is trying to serve both comedy, with timing and wordplay, and also be some form of naturalistic. You can look at the comedy of say, Everybody Loves Raymond or Big Bang Theory with gigantic, stratified pauses between people talking to allow for reactions, which well, we’ll pretend that’s actually about the jokes being funny rather than signalling that they are meant to be. Anyway, the point is that it’s very difficult to make dialogue serve both funny and natural.

Yes Minister achieves this by having the comedy in dialogue mostly derive from the three voices in almost every given room be either deliberately obfuscating and smug, well-intentioned and prone to blurting, and wavering between the three the voice of Jim Hacker trying desperately to be funny and score a point of the others as a way to signify his own intelligence. This is a series of people being witty at one another, and in the context of the space they’re in, this is naturalistic dialogue. They want to show they’re smarter and funnier than one another.

The really interesting thing to me, now, about Yes Minister, watching it in hindsight isn’t so much that it’s funny – it is, it’s very funny, if you like a particular kind of playfully cynical word play and manipulation – or even that, it’s about how much of the narrative is things that we are dealing with now.

British Government is a fascinating warren of discretions and traditions and importantly deliberate vaguearies, and Yes Minister is set in a time when the EU is about to come into being and the Cold War was still quite cold. Countries in Africa were escaping colonial power. There’s a recognition that America is both powerful and blisteringly foolish as a global power, and there’s a reasonable expectation that the government is spending much of its time trying to move things around and that a lot of what’s going on is actually in service of nothing.

There is a fascinating intricacy to it all where largely, the sheer scope of British bureaucracy is presented as both a problem and a result. The size of government and the people involved in it, the story tells you, are related. You can’t ask for more work without asking for more people to do them. There’s talk about the UK’s role in the then-nascent EU, which was explicitly framed in terms of the very cultural reasons the UK saw the EU as an opportunity to join – or rather the EEC, at the time.

It’s all so interesting to me because it carries within it some very real but very cynical truths about the way things happened. Things that I like, things I believe in, could almost always be viewed in terms of short-term pettiness and spite. And it serves as a counterpoint to The West Wing, which was as much fanfiction of how America could have been in the late 90s as it shows an England of the early 80s.

What brought me to check this out again?

It was this quote:

Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.

Jim Hacker: Don’t tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country. The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don’t care *who* runs the country – as long as she’s got big tits.


1. I personally don’t buy this. Seinfeld seems to really be a show about how it’s totally okay to be a self-obssessed prick.

Gargoyles

There are two ways to approach this introduction; there’s the good, virtuous, but also incredibly self-aggrandising way, where I talk about how the root of all humanity and empathy is an ability to connect things to one another through human interfaces that we would not have otherwise thought to do, and that drawing connections others haven’t seen is what we call genius. Then there’s the meanspirited way which is pointing out that being able to point out how two seemingly unrelated pieces of media are connected is basically the academic equivalent of popping a wheelie and demanding people be impressed.

Anyway, nobody made Gargoyles.

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Transformers: The Movie

To some people, the best Christmas movie is Die Hard. To some, it’s Gremlins. To me it’s The Transformers Movie.

But you might point out that the reason those movies are held up as Christmas movies is because Christmas plays into them! And, wittily, they might say, there is something essentially Christmas-toned about them which will allow you to watch them on a technicality on your Christmas weekend, as if you need to cheat the rules to enjoy your own time off, or the smugness makes the experience sweeter. You might want to make a point of the use of Christmas as a central plot element in Gremlins and that’s great, but that’s not why The Transformers Movie is a Christmas movie to me.

The Transformers Movie is a Christmas movie for me, because it, to me, feels like Christmas.

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Star Trek Discovery

Courtesy of my weird childhood, I never really was a Star Wars person or a Star Trek person. My sister and mother watched Star Trek on VHS rental when I was older, but there never really was any sense to me that these shows were a thing to watch. They were just a show on the television sometimes. Heck, I didn’t realise there was an actual arc to these shows – they weren’t like my continuity-driven, beloved and intellectual Robotech.

(Give me a break)

Point is, I’ve never been a Star Trek person. It’s not my thing, it’s never been my thing, and aside from being aware of the term ‘trekkie’ I never really got how or why the series actually played into this subculture. It was a show, it happened to other people, they loved it, and they maybe got a bit weird about it, but I got a bit weird about Transformers, so I wasn’t one to judge.

With all that in mind, when I saw people talking about Star Trek: Discovery, and complaining about it on all sorts of levels (it’s being distributed weirdly), and finding out that here, in Australia I can just watch it on Netflix, I popped open Netflix and had a shot.

And,

well.

Hey, wow, Star Trek is pretty cool!!

This series starts with – and some mild spoilers here, just structural ones – with a really interesting premise to me. Our protagonist isn’t a leader or a powerhouse or a figure of authority who makes final calls, but is instead someone in the midsection of hierarchy; she has to make decisions as best she can based on what’s going on around her, but doesn’t have the latitude to make a lot of free-wheeling, cowboy-captain style solutions, or back up her position authoritively in a negotiation of rules. There’s also her history, and the way her upbringing created a really interesting tension that highlights something cool to me about the universe she’s part of.

I don’t rightly know if Discovery is a good or a bad series, but I know I’m enjoying it three episodes in, and it even did something I found weirdly comforting. Episode 3 introduced a ‘science’ thing that I think is going to show up and be important to the rest of the story. It’s also total nonsense, which actually works for me, because it indicates that this isn’t going to be a series about establishing hard science fiction rules, and instead wants to talk about concepts and ideology that are more about where we are now, and use a framing device of a future that we want to get to.

The main character, Michael, is a mess of elements in conflict, and I like the ways I see the storytelling signalling it. First of all, there’s just the very basic conflict of her name. Normally when we go to the future in stories, we tend to treat elements of culture as reasonably static – look at how the original Star Trek didn’t really feature a lot of trans or queer characters; it looked forward to the question of race but that was a conversation that was already happening.

Michael’s name could be seen as queer-signaling but I don’t think it is. I think it’s taking the much simpler route of making us look at her and feel dissonance. We go ‘that’s a boy’s name’ in our culture (which, yes, is silly, but it’s definitely how the name is coded and don’t pretend that that reaction is unusual). That’s one point of contention – a now, versus a then. There’s her backstory of pure logic contrasting with an impetus of emotional perspective. There’s the tension of being a central character in a wide-open space while being beholden to the orders and mandates of the control structure around her. This leads to actions that are,

I find this really interesting!

I’m actually a bit sad hearing now,now the series is underway and going on, to see people around me talking about how it’s not that good or offering a sort of conciliatory well if the third episode is where it started tone or trying to fix a series that’s, what, three episodes long at the time of writing?

It’s a bit sad, to me. It’s weird, too – because to me, this isn’t a series trying to live up to a huge reputation. I don’t have a feel of what Star Trek should be, or how it’s meant to work? I just have, well, no real opinion. This is a pretty interesting science-fiction series, which frames itself as having a long history that we can discover, a huge infrastructure so the stories aren’t about how to get into space, and a canvas that features an enormous potential war on the horizon and a central character whose main story seems to be about an interesting contest between a logical and emotional contest.

That all seems, to me, to be pretty cool.

BraveStarr!

BraveStarr, with its internal capital and double-r, is the story of a lone Native-American lawman from (maybe) the planet of New Texas, with his small coalition of friends, opposing an outlaw gang headed up by Tex Hex, who’s best described as a sort of Zombie Cyborg Cowboy. The fearsome crew of idiots and screwball villains wielding big boxy space-guns spent their time ‘terrorising’ the citizens of Fort Kerium, which is a giant mechanised city (buy all our playsets and toooys) made to protect the Prarie People and their Kerium mines.

I feel that when it came to these 80s Merchandise shows, you’d often have details about the creators seep into the work. Part of what made M*A*S*K so remarkable was that there was so little there there, a story that just sort of farted out. If you looked at shows like GI Joe or Silverhawks, there was always a tiny drop of something going on there, an ideology you could point to and use to inform the work at large. It isn’t just something that a work is trying to say: creative people’s values and ideas become part of their work even subconsciously.

These subconscious biases are to me more interesting than a lot of intended messages: Especially when you’re dealing with media primarily designed for fast, forgettable consumption, the pulp of an era, people often don’t have the time to make media that has A Message. Bravestarr was a series that wanted to be a western, with a cool Native American protagonist who channelled nature spirits, espoused environmental and social consciousness, and protected the poor Prarie People of New Texas. That is to say, this story is about a Native American Cop protecting the Colonial invaders while they exploited the small, hairy subhumans who can’t talk properly.

There’s a historical context here – and like it or not, thirty years ago is actually history. Not that the atrocities against Native Americans or the racism in media isn’t longer lasting than that, but the 80s as a creative period were a time when those symptoms of oppression and marginalisation were being expressed differently to now. Now, you present a Native American character poorly and there’ll be an angry online presence making its feelings known. That’s not to say that this tension gets things fixed, but there’s a reaction. There’s an easily recognised, publically searchable, clear reaction to this kind of thing, the sort of thing that results in a Criticisms And Controversies entry on a Wikipedia page.

For these works of the 1980s, though, we didn’t have that. It took a surprising amount of effort for fans to have a direct impact on shows and that effort was mostly isolated to people with the free time to do it. Even the classic Women In Refrigerators was an early internet list, and the 90s Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team still relied on people sending actual physical letters to comic creators. What’s more those were both very entrenched fans working hard – not the pre-teen Bravestarr ‘fans’ who probably were also equally entrenched in six other franchises that gave them reasonably similar or comparable toys.

There’s your historical context: Complaints about Bravestarr were not widespread, not because they weren’t legitimate or real, but because nobody with media platform space was asking questions and nobody was writing down the answers. This is not the same thing as being uncontroversial. It means that we weren’t listening.

At the same time, the 80s were definitely into that period of Native American presence in media (that some say ended with Disney’s Pocohontas) that treated them as just important enough to be magically otherised and also probably not actually whole people.

BraveStarr is noteworthy because Marshall Bravestarr himself is a Native American, or is ‘meant to be’ a Native American. We see glimpses of his childhood, moments where he was living in a situation best called Cartoon Tribal. We hear the story of Shaman the Shaman, who quotes some very Not-Native-American lessons translated backwards (‘to truly understand someone, one must walk a mile in his moccasins’). There’s a clear desire to have some sort of connection to Native American culture, but either by being too cautious to identify anything (unlikely) or genuinely believing that most Native American culture was airy-fairy and indefinite, it very much comes across as being ‘Native American’ culture, like a big broad sticker you can put on things.

Ultimately, BraveStarr earns itself a very white You Tried sticker from another white person. Someone involved in this production wanted to do something with the idea, wanted their silly space cowboy show informed by westerns they liked and space-faring science fiction they liked and also to include an oddball cast of alien-looking villains that included at least one Australian shape-shifting dingo. It’s fascinating that this series tried to do something, that it tried something, but it tried really stupidly.

It serves as an example of how you made an effort isn’t always a good enough excuse to be satisfied with a result.

 

Korra: The Darkest Shadow

How do you follow up success?

How do you follow up runaway successes?

How do you follow up literally the greatest example of its genre of all time?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is, broadly speaking, the greatest piece of long-form western animated storytelling  that exists. When you take into account its competitors, they’re usually storytelling forms that have different demands, but when viewed in terms of just itself – continuity-driven human drama stories told using animation – there just isn’t anything that touches it. I say that as someone who really dislikes some elements of Avatar and its coding, who thinks there’s waste in that otherwise dense series. I like Avatar less than I recognise its overall quality and its excellence as a story.

It sort of follows sadly then that Korra, a story I like better, is much worse made.

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