Category: TV

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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My Guild Leader Is A Demon

First up, some disclosure: This series, My Guild Leader Is A Demon is made by a friend of mine, 0xabad1dea. While I know I’m in the dedication of one of her books, I don’t think I’ve had any influence or involvement in this project, and I’ve not been paid for this piece.

There is potential that she might implement/reject some ideas I mention here, as the series is ongoing, but as far as I know, no such thing is expected to happen. Basically, if I say something here and it winds up being true in this series, assume 0xabad1dea was going to do it anyway.


My Guild Leader Is A Demon is a web-series/kinetic novel. There’s some consideration on my part as to whether to treat kinetic novels – storytelling which has no major interaction beyond ‘keep going’ – as a series or a videogame. In this case, 0xabad1dea has taken a full play of the game and put it up on Youtube, where you can watch it as a single video. Continue reading

Miraculous: Rescuing Cats

There’s this book, called Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald, which I haven’t read, but I have heard summarised, and that right there is kind of a punchline in and of itself. The book has a bunch of stuff in it (including gender-coding storytelling tools, so I dunno, nevermind). In that book he outlines the idea that a lot of work is put into characterising and presenting certain characters in movies that fail at making those characters resonant because there’s something wrong or missing there.

The example given is the idea of rescuing a cat from a tree, something Superman does. Anyone unfamiliar with this scene idea or story beat probably doesn’t read this blog, but assuming otherwise, the idea is that a Superman story takes some time early on, before the story has ramped up and tension is high, to show Superman rescuing a cat stuck in a tree and return it to the people who are afraid. It’s a simple, small exchange, and one that most Superman movies have left out.

I think about this moment a lot, and here’s what’s had me thinking about it lately:



In Miraculous, there’s a moment where Marinette, as Ladybug, goes into a room to hide when she transforms. The door is ajar, and she left it that way, so it’s not like looking in the open door requires an action. If you were outside, and the light caught your eye, there’s a deniability to looking. Adrien, as Cat Noir, is outside and is in a position to look.

Now to be clear, there is no actual need for Adrien to be there. The story has been resolved and it’s an established point that Cat Noir often leaves the scene of an incident quickly so he, too, can transform back into Adrien and hide his identity. If the story wanted, he would not even be here.

Adrien approaches the door where Marinette is changing, and closes it.

The story doesn’t need to do this. There’s no unending question of why he was or wasn’t doing something in that room at the same time, no plot hole introduced by his presence or absence there. There’s nothing that needs explaining here. There’s no reason for this scene – except to show you something of who Adrien is, and what he’d do when confronted with an opportunity to learn something about Ladybug she’s not willingly letting him know.

M*A*S*K – A Platonic Ideal

There was this comedy web cartoon called Cheat Commandos, whose tagline was Buy All Our Playsets And Toys! If you’re at all a fan of this era of tv, and I guess somehow I am, you might be inclined to remember this as being connected to the GI Joe cartoons of the time – which Cheat Commandos very clearly connects to. The toy lineup for GI Joe was ubiquitous, too, row upon row of them in the toy stores or the aisles of supermarkets, little toys designed to make kids happy and also extract their pocket money. This was the Reagan Era of media, the period when advertising directly to children was deemed Okay Now.GI Joe wasn’t actually a brand made for this – that’s a toy line that existed since the fifties, a venerable senior of the merchandise wars. When deregulation hit the toy media market, it wasn’t GI Joe that shifted over first. Heck, it wasn’t first out of the gates; the very first media like that was stuff like The Gummi Bears, which happened because Disney could make a TV show that fast to try and sell plush toys (I understand).

We all know, now there’s a sort of template for all these shows from Dino Riders to Inhumanoids to Zoids’ first appearance to the Street Sharks to the X-Men cartoons that they were all more or less the same basic idea to try and sell you a toy lineup. Yet when you go back and look at those series and really consider what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do as the way they fill time selling you a toy, there’s almost always something interesting to talk about. It can be a queer reading or elevating pulp media with surprising value to it or attacks or critique for racism or transphobia or –

There’s almost always something there.

Moviebob recently stated in Really That Good that the Transformers movie being good may have been an accident but its accidental existence doesn’t change the fact the movie is good. Looking back on Silverhawks and Thundercats shows some drop of something that’s there, worth talking about, worth revisiting.

That’s why going back and rewatching M*A*S*K has been astounding. There’s almost nothing in M*A*S*K to talk about! If you want to remark on anything in this series it has to be the naked emptiness of it, the way its enormous cast of characters had three and a half personalities between them. Or maybe the way its racial diversity is somehow more represented by white guys doing accents. You could try and build something out of the way that several of the characters are the same basic person, or the way the series gave its most boring, easiest voices multiple new masks and vehicles.

I think the one thing in M*A*S*K that really stands out to me as interesting, the one thing this series does that’s kind of cool is when the M*A*S*K signal calls, every member of the squad is shown interrupting whatever they’re doing, no matter what, and bailing. This gives a chance to show that the character is a character, who has something going on – like you see Bruce bailing on a meeting with other inventors, or Alex rushing a pet feeding. That’s almost all you get to demonstrate anything about the characters, though because after that point, they are nothing.

M*A*S*K doesn’t have characters, it has the accents Doug Stone can pull off.

What I’m saying is, when people joke about a TV Show, from the 1980s and early 90s with interchangeable, underdeveloped nothing characters who existed to only advertise and encourage the sales of toys to children, they’re almost certainly talking about M*A*S*K.

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, Pt 2. – Marinette

Here’s an idea, he says, missing PBS Idea Channel So Much Already, Miraculous is a superhero story of a different type because it is girly.

Don’t get at me on this one. We exist in a world with a culturally-accepted, defined and utilised gender binary, and all the Gender Is Fake, and Girly is Fake comments you can throw out there won’t change the fact that it’s part of how we do exist, and in that existing, there is definitely such a thing as girly stuff. And Miraculous Ladybug is very girly.

Girly is in this case a shorthand aesthetic for the things we already signpost as of or relating to girls. It’s in part an aesthetic, choices full of pinks, bright colours, pastels and broadly emotionally approachable signals. In a lot of media these are things that are also coded as being frivolous, or unimportant, or inherently comical. In Season 1 of Ladybug, Marinette is shown focusing on a fashion show, a school play, a babysitting job, and a literal popularity contest, which are all things I’m fairly sure Spider-Man has made fun of caring about.

They are serious though, and Marinette takes them seriously. Taking these things seriously involves looking – seriously – at why we don’t, about what about them makes them Not Serious. Why is babysitting silly? Why is fashion silly? What makes them somehow less worthy a subject for a teen superhero to care about than, say, a chemistry experiment or a baseball game?

Sexism, yes, but think about the specifics. Why shouldn’t these things matter? Why not? When you start to remember these things are competitions or challenges with their own stakes, and the story takes them seriously, they’re just as rich a vein of fodder for the story as anything else. Since they’re inherently low-stakes problems in universe, though, these aren’t spaces you can have things like Out of Control Lab Accidents that make people into monsters, or introduce gunshot-level threats. The problems in Miraculous have to be superhero-worthy while having roots in these very mundane activities we entrust to children, without the framing of being Eventually Important versions of Important Things that we normally code as for boys.

Know what definitely is a real thing that can feel worthy of a threat in those situations? Human emotions. Distress and sadness and anxiety and all these problems that we struggle with as adults, and maybe don’t even successfully handle. When you look at the problems that come up in the first season you have problems like being ignored by your parents when you were right, not being respected by your peers, being given conflicting information when you’re too young to understand it and being rejected and spurned by someone who you realise was much worse a person than you ever imagined. These emotional states are then, through the narrative tool of Hawkmoth (Papillon in the French, which makes me giggle), transformed into open, obvious metaphors for being stuck on that emotional problem.

There’s also how it informs the tension of the story’s protagonists: Adrien and Marinette are both characters who have Got It for each other, but this tension is not arbitary. Adrien is a good looking boy – both in universe, and also in his design. The story doesn’t present a Very Average looking boy as being handsome, and there are boys around him who are also less pretty, showing the story is actually making him exceptional. The boys are presented as needing to be visually interesting, and they are, rather than being more or less templates of one another.

When the time comes, however, that Marinette takes action – as Ladybug, mind you, since this is clearly part of her contention as a superhero – none of the negative traits we associate with Girly are a problem. Marinette is not shown being paralysed by emotions, or wrapped up in indecision. There is a confidence to her actions that typically would be coded as Not-Girly – but this is  story that is so happily and wholly Girly it serves more to ask the question Why Would This Be Out of Type? Ladybug’s behaviour is unlike Marinette’s, but that’s because Marinette isn’t confident – not because she’s a girl.

Let’s take this one to a point of demonstration. In episode 6, the villain, Mr Pigeon, has a whistle that lets him control flocks of pigeons. Oh and spoilers I guess. Point is, in this episode, there’s a moment where three people lunge for it and their hands hit it in a stack – Cat Noir’s hand, then Mr Pigeon’s hand, then Marinette’s hand. And without thinking about it, without a moment of ‘ahah!’ or looking to the characters’ faces or whatever, bam, she just smashes downwards and breaks the object at the bottom of the stack.

Marinette’s problem-solving, the power of getting one Lucky solution in the right time and place, is really excellent as it shows her being thoughtful and confident, quick-thinking and decisive. The story will present her with Oven Mitts and say fix the problem, hero, and she will come up with the solution in some of the most wonderfully silly point-and-click adventure moments in media.

Miraculous is a girly superhero show. It’s about a girl, it’s about the things a girl cares about, and it wants to talk to girls in the storytelling tools of girls. And it’s absolutely great.

 

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, Pt 1. – The Gush

Holy crap oh my goodness this show is so good people. I’d normally like, try and structure this whole thing somewhat and there will be time for that but for now, I’m just going to gush about some things in this series I really hecking like.

Here’s a thing! Ladybugs are a symbol of luck. I didn’t know that going in, and for a little while I was confused as to why they chose the two characters they had – the black cat and the ladybug and I just didn’t quite get why. Then when you find that ladybugs are good luck, the imagery and meme of the black cat as bad luck and – and that’s good use of imagery and concept space! That gives you space to look at the two characters, gives you a nice, simple place to start from! It anchors characters to existing media spaces and it gives them distinct, interesting visual theming!

That means that when they work together in the same space, despite the fact the two characters are basically the same style of fighter, and move more or less the same way you’re never left confused as to which one you’re seeing in a moment of action because one is bright honking red and the other is black, but neither of their costumes seem to be of a different type to the other!

Also if luck is the thing that defines the two characters it means your solutions to problems can be extremely outlandish or one-time! A character who relies on luck as a theme means that if she only gets a thing to work once that’s enough, unlike characters like Batman who rely on being heavily prepared! This means things can be both more thematically interesting and varied while also showing off the character’s quick wits!

Oh and the enemies! All the enemies are empowered by the real villain when they demonstrate a moment of emotional distress that the can’t handle or process properly – which is to say, this is a series where the big conflict point is processing your emotions properly. Nobody’s sadness or anger is shown as being illegitimate, and nobody’s emotions are used to excuse or justify the things they do – because the villain is using magical powers to take control of them, there’s no need to do that.

This is great because it means you can treat emotional duress as important and worth respecting, you can show characters repeatedly resisting it or engaging with it to show their growth as people, and you can even show how some people’s processing can be inhibited or expressed. Then you get the added dimension that both adults and children fall prey to this power set, for a variety of different reasons – some are meanspirited and cruel, but many of them are frustrated or misunderstood! This means there are stories about handling emotions as a child and as an adult and at no point does the story just say ‘well suck it up.’

So you have these characters who are directly expressing rudimentary metaphors about emotional processing in a way that involves actual cool looking fights with some dynamic, interestingly chosen characters who fight and think and are cool at things, and then the aftermath is about watching the protagonists grow in light of the things they now understand about the emotional process their friends went through, and there’s no guilt or rancor about the times they were turned. There is a legitimate recognition that someone else preyed on their emotional state and ‘made’ them into villains, and that those moments of distress or anger or rage don’t represent who they truly are!

This is romantic storytelling at its most primal, not romance-as-interaction, where people are smoochin’ and doin’ smooches and that’s all the stories are moving about, but romance where human emotion are the driving forces of the universe, where the story is always moving in ways to make human emotion run against other human emotion! Coincidence transpires – and it’s fine, because the story isn’t about the realism of events – and then that brings people’s emotions to bear against one another!

Things don’t need explaining, they need understanding.

Plus it’s funny. It’s funny in a way that doesn’t treat its viewers – who are kids – like idiots. It doesn’t pitch its comedy low, and that means it projects a sense of respect for its viewers. They show things only a few moments, and don’t need to over-explain it – basically it’s like an exact, functional opposite to Suicide Squad, which overstates everything and is also grim and dark and grungy for no good reason.

I have more, but I kind of want to save more in-depth conversation about it until I’ve rewatched some of it, but also to do a bit more of an in-depth read on Marinette as a character and what choosing her has done for this series as a superhero story.

God it’s a good time to like superheroes.

Donald Duck, The Dork Deputy Dad

What follows here mentions some themes in the 2017 Ducktales reboot. Not an actual spoiler of details in the series, just a mention of some of the themes that come out in the first two episodes. If you think you need to go in cold to the first episodes of a tv series about talking ducks, well, okay. Just so you know.

Donald Duck’s a dork.

Really, Donald Duck is an older generation of media, the same generational space as Mickey Mouse. I’m sure animation historians will be able to point to the specific gaps in between first appearances, or the evolution of a character over time, but the experience I’ve always had of Donald Duck is that he’s something old. There’s something of an older time, a time when cartoons were about… something else. It wasn’t like he really belonged in Ducktales either, which as a kid, still felt old to me – perhaps because I didn’t see it until it’d already existed for quite a few years, perhaps because it still centered Donald as important. Somewhat. Sort of.

In the new Ducktales reboot, though, they’ve done something magical by leaning in to this dorkiness. Donald Duck is boring, and unimpressive, and not cool. Who else is boring, and unimpressive, and not-cool, to most kids the age of the triplets?

Your parents.

Ducktales touches on a really weird space, a space between the places I’m at: The children are at a point where they don’t like their parent figures, and don’t see them as people. The parents are at a point where they can’t really see the kids as people, either.

Now, Donald isn’t a parent. It’s worse than that. He’s not the kids’ parents: he’s a person those kids have to respect, because their parent told them to, but he doesn’t have the authority despite the hard work he does to provide for and care for the kids. What’s more, Donald has a hard time communicating in the most pure way with the kids. They don’t have to like him – they like each other, they have one another as friends, they can conspire and confide with one another.

I didn’t like Donald Duck. Yet here, as the series seems to set up the idea of these kids discovering that their uncle is a person, a person like themselves, a person who’s done things, tried things, a person who has achieved and adventured and still has plenty of fun left to have in him?

I really am cheering for the guy.

Luke Cage

First of all, I am legitimately not, in any way, an expert on the greater contextual and cultural significance of Luke Cage, the series, as it pertains to blackness in America. I am no expert, nor am I even in a position to be an expert. If you’d like to read a take about blackness in Luke Cage and its first four episodes, check out these pieces on Women Write About Comics: They are better informed and better aware than anything I have to say. They do touch on something that I see in the other Marvel series, but we’ll get onto that when we get there.

I’m not only not black, I’m not only not black but in a culture that has dominated and oppressed black people. I’m not only not black and part of a culture that dominated and oppressed black people, I’m not even in the right culture that’s dominated and oppressed the black people that Luke Cage is all about. I am, simply put, nobody on that topic. Go read those posts, they taught me stuff, and crystallised some realisations. I do not think Luke Cage is a work that should be looked to as an example of How To Write Blackness.

As best I can see, Luke Cage is a work of media that wants its blackness to be palatable to whiteness and is willing to simplify things to do that. I don’t hold it against anyone in the show on that front, I just see that as a byproduct of being made by businesses that ultimately don’t want to piss off white people too much. Yet, that’s not a perspective I’d have come to on my own.

Nonetheless, no work is a single expression; while the greater throughline and message of Luke Cage can ring hollow, while it is a show that has as said, forgotten the face of its father there are still things, I’d say smaller things, in this series that I think are good ideas, good things for storytellers to reach out and learn from. Telling stories is hard, telling great stories is incredibly hard – you take whatever tools you can get from whatever source you can get ’em.

However, that stuff is more… fiddly. So let’s put it after a jump.


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Daredevil — Season 2: This Got Silly

Season 1 of Daredevil was a fairly tight, coherent narrative that had a great big mystery to establish, and a story point it wanted to build to. There was the twin arcs together of Wilson Fisk ascending to his status as the Kingpin, and Matt Murdock becoming the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Good work, rounded well, mesh ’em together and you have a solid structure to fill in with incidents and plans and ideas and stuff.

Season 2 did not have any such singular narrative and instead spent all its energy on world-building and narrative construction that was going to matter later. It wanted you to know about Elektra, about Frank Castle, and about yes, finalising the book-keeping of the ascent of Wilson Fisk. There was also some attempt to make the Hand more prominent, to put Madame Gao in position, and to tie up and resolve the question of Nobu, as a character.

What you get as a result is a TV series that has a lot to get done, but almost nothing to say. Instead, the show tries to give you a whirlwind tour of important things while giving you almost nothing to make them hold together?

As with last time, no plot synopsis; no episode by episode rundown. What I’m going to talk about are things the series tried to do, to give you both a potentially interesting insight into the series, maybe a hit of media analysis, or just a way to continue experiencing something you already like. I guess you could also frame this as is there stuff in this that’s enjoyable, if I bother to think about it?

So, content warning about the violence and child death in the series and also spoilers after this cut.
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