Hey, who likes Superheroes? And flags?
Well do I have a post for you!
Hey, who likes Superheroes? And flags?
Well do I have a post for you!
I have a love-hate relationship with Blacklist, the NBC tv series that basically exists because James Spader is a charismatic man who looks good in a variety of neat hats. It isn’t a good series. Not really. I don’t think you’ll lose anything by being spoilered on plot points from late in the series, but I also don’t think you should be sinking hours and hours of your life into watching this show to keep up with what I’m talking about.
Still, it briefly opened the window for a queer angle that would have been amazing and exciting and then it didn’t do it, which feels like an enormous own goal. But I need you to understand what I’m talking about, so let’s put that in your hand, and you can meet me after the cut, if you want to.
Spoiler warning for the general plot and some specific details about Raymond Reddington’s identity in The Blacklist, and also some cissexism and transphobia from a show I don’t think that much of.
At its core, Atomic Blonde is an excitingly familiar type of movie. It’s one of those Sunset Noir stories I like, with contrast-driven high-society low-life all outlined in the bright nimbus of neon colours. Where much of Sunset Noir works around the tension between the extreme wealth owned by powerful criminals, existing in spaces without what we think of as a normal safety net, a society that doesn’t have the protections of society, Atomic Blonde uses that contrast to show us a spy thriller, set in Berlin, 1989, a week before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Okay, I’m going to spend June trying to talk about Queer Media, but then, what does that mean?
This month, our shirt design is something I made as a single badge for an article, and thought was so neat, I decided to make it into a shirt.
Here’s the design:
And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:
And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:
And here, amazingly, is this shirt being modelled in black by Sasha L H, who bought it because I told her not to, and vol took a picture of it and it’s really cool like holy heck.
This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. If you like the look, I can see about making the individual badges into stickers.
Hey, you notice how much of the internet is lists? Ever wonder why?
Lists are really easy to get into reading. People can tell – usually – that a list numbering system clearly indicates a form of escalation, it’ll always be easy to collect things with a common theme that causes people to wonder how you link things together, and it creates natural break points for readers to stop reading.
People intuitively seek sequences, and so if you present them with the knowledge they’re going to experience a sequence, they kind of mentally ‘sign on’ for it and they sort of get locked in to engaging with it. It’s a great way to connect an audience to your work.
As long as Buzzfeed and other major news sources are using this model to get people to pay attention to stuff, and operating with my idea that getting writing is important and it’s worth doing, the listicle is going to be here, and while there may be some case to be made about them simplifying media forms, I don’t see why people with barriers to creativity should be the ones told they need to give up on the most accessible and popular forms as if it’s somehow their job to drive the form of all online journalism forwards with the weight of their very souls.
When you make a list, everything in the list is in the list. This means the list forms its own context, and each thing in the list can inform everything else in the list. Which means that if you present five list items about (say), the best octopuses, you’re knowingly just comparing the octopuses in the list. That means it’s easier for you to organise your thoughts, and you can put the list objects in direct contention with one another.
Ordering a list is pretty arbitary. Sometimes you’ll track a number value, like ‘biggest failures’ or ‘largest sheep by volume’ and then you can just order the list by that, but a lot of the rest of the time, you have to order your points in your list. With a lot of these topics, there are some things that are fun and some things that are interesting, but crucially, there’s going to be something in the list that’s the least good, or the sort of thing that feels like a total bummer.
The list format lets you build to these things, when they are important, but they also let you structure your story in such a way that the whole article doesn’t just fizzle out on a depressing, end note. Then when you move on to the last entry, it gets to be funny, lift the mood, and maybe be the natural crescendo of the article. It even gets to be the easiest part of the article, because at that point you’ve got all that other work laid out!
Have I done anything super weird lately? This seems a perfectly fine time to do something super weird.
Okay, so Bigfoot is pretty weird right?
Now there are three paths to go with talking about Bigfoot, around me, with one route – the easy route – talking about Bigfoot Fucker fiction, you know, the people who find Bigfoots sexy and sell stories about it on Amazon, because when the gates are left open, you get literally anything walking in (and that’s a good thing). Then there’s the next route, where we talk about the intersection of fundamentalist American Christian faiths and how the Mormons think Cain is real, and Bigfoot, and chugging around America looking for people to give weird salamander-ass visions to.
Those are both weird topics but I try not to point out things that Mormons believe because to most Mormons, it is not in any way meaningful to their doctrine, and it’s a bit meanspirited to point out goofy things in a church’s books when the better conversation is about the things that church is doing right now. Besides, there’s honestly something kinda charming about goofy doctrine.
What I want to talk about when it comes to Bigfoot specifically – the modern, American derivation of similar myths of Sasquatch and Yeti – and the supposed place the character occupies in the public lexicon, is that Bigfoot is a kind of cultural pareidolia, an attempt to fill what looks like a somewhat obvious blank spot in the list of Things That Exist.
Bigfoot seems to me to be a compelling myth not because of what it is but because it’s easy to conceive of where the thing should exist. It’s a fascinating creature because in our hierarchy of humans and animals, it’s one of the most obvious options for a really-humany-animaly thing. We know animals exist, and we know there are, well, gorillas that are ‘not humans, definitely animals’ and there are animals that are more animal than that, and
What’s more, Bigfoot is a kind of myth struck from its original source. The idea of the Bigfoot isn’t actually the same myth as the Sasquatch from which it supposedly derives; it’s a story of a thing in English, and the mystery of it is almost always framed through European lenses like modern science and discovery of the ancient, undiscovered land. It’s a lot like the way that Africa and the idea of mysterious tribes of magical gorillas got treated back in the 1890s, by the Burroughs/Lovecraft/Howard crowd of authors.
Basically, I guess, Bigfoot is a colonised myth.
I’m going to do a thing this month, where the Story Piles are going to also be themselves, small piles. Each Story Pile this month is going to be, rather than a deep dive on one thing, a handful of quick comments or impressions on some media I have opinions on but somehow didn’t find find so interesting I had a whole longer article about it.
This feels a bit like an expression of defeat for me, where I have long since held the opinion that anything is interesting, that anyone can write about anything in a way that makes it interesting, it’s just a matter of finding the ways to connect it to the audience. Making them into a sort of general potpourri is giving up on opportunities to maybe, one day, later, coming back to these story pile pieces with a good angle on a fresh take.
Yet I’ve had some of these ideas sitting in the wings for a while, and I’ve honestly forgotten about a bunch of them. To clear my plate like this is an act of catharsis, a form of release. If I can spend a whole month talking about Voltron, because I wanted that space for the many things in it, I can spend a whole month skipping clean over things that were Good But Not Great, or Meh But Not Grandly So, or maybe Good But You Don’t Need Me Saying It.
Thanks to services like Netflix and Stan, I can just compile lists of things I’ve watched, and then come back to see that list later. This is a fun exercise in recontextualisation, because it will sometimes show me things I watched very close to one another and how one led me to the other. It shows me what I started but didn’t finish. And most interestingly, it shows me the things I forgot I saw until I looked at the list.
It’s kind of sad but as a young man I really had no idea what people did to make conversation. My earliest fumbling attempts to talk to people about things are these cringe-inducing things where as an adult I either waited for them to test me on subjects I understood from school, or, worse, tried to tell them about a thing from church that they had to know.
I was really obnoxious.
Anyway, one of the things I learned people talk about, is media they like. And that meant I had to try and share the things that resonated with me, and inevitably, the one thing in this vein that didn’t wind up bringing more shame on me was the work of Terry Pratchett. The problem with recommending Terry Pratchett is that Discworld, his largest body of work, is 47 books long, the ones at the start are kind of ‘wrong’ at representing the brilliance of the later books, but the later books make reference to a world that the earlier ones define, expanding on the complicated world that even Terry was kinda winging it through. No matter how excellent Discworld is, it’s not a book you can give someone, it’s a homework assignment. There isn’t a really simple, singular work to hand someone and say ‘this is a way to enjoy this author and learn if you like work they do,’ not in the Discworld books.
How wonderful then, is it to have the book Nation to share.
I considered doing something special for April on this month of trying to express more of me. At the same time, I just couldn’t think of anything that worked – not really. That stuff doesn’t happen under pressure for me, and for a bunch of my shirts (like Ray of Tsunshine) where I want a copy immediately after making it.
Instead, then, something else. Someone else.
This week would have been the fifteenth anniversary of City of Heroes. I’ve already made shirts that celebrate the universities across Paragon City. If you know that setting, you’ll know that there’s a bias, where four of the Universities were in hero zones, and one in villain zones.
I always found the culture of City of Villains interesting – literally the culture. If you never knew the setting, there was one area, the Etoile, which was known as the ‘City of Villains.’ It was overseen by a corrupt superstate, and had all these different zones with really specific cultural notes. Mercy Island was plagued by poisoned water and a snake cult; Port Oakes organised crime and ghost pirates (seriously). Cap Au was a super-science city with a demon in the reactor powering it up. Sharkhead was a steelworks where the literal ghost of an unjustly slain labor unionist rose up to kill guards. Saint Martial was a casino town, with the wealthiest of jerks in charge.
And, well, based on a conversation with a friend, Jeb Wrench, about the nature of sports in poor communities near America, with limited space, we came to the conclusion that the kids of the Etoile probably play basketball. Where there is play, there is organised play. Where there is organised play, there will, eventually, be branding – even if it’s a bit cheap, a bit weak. And thus… we get this.
There was also Grandville, Nerva, and Bloody Bay but those are tricky and I’m already making five shirts here, dangit.
Hey, you know the Exodus of the Israelites? I have this thing about that and poop-
(Hang on, is it Passover today? It is? Uhhh… Maybe read this next week)
I so rarely get to enjoy having something I think of as great being one of my favourites.
I’ll often review work that I think of as being excellent, or important, or meaningful, and often with a lens that I try to position outside myself. I am after all, not a particularly useful or meaningful lens for other people to use, and that can often mean that work resonating with me is often a sign that it shouldn’t resonate with anyone else.
I don’t think anyone else was a screaming, terrified mess during The Little Mermaid, for example.
Imagine then my joy at finding a good anime – I know! – that means something to me – oh my goodness – and is actually good in general!
Baccano is a light novel series by Ryōgo Narita that was subsequently turned into an anime, and that anime is one of my three favourite anime series of all time. Set – mostly – in 1930s Prohibition-era America, Baccano! is told as a series of disconnected, out-of-order scenelets that keep three time periods going, and in each of those stories, sometimes two or three or even five stories going on all at once.
There’s a rollicking pace to Baccano! which splits its time lines across multiple light novel stories transpiring at the same time, almost all designed that knowing the end of one of the three stories will illuminate all of them, and therefore, rather than tell you in chronological order (which would probably still be plenty of fun) it instead ping-pongs you from moment to moment when characters are largely aware of things differently to you.
I need a term for something, so let’s invent it.
The term is going to use some language to represent a thing, and that language is going to need some history. That history is going to need some context, and some caveats, some asterisks, etcetera. Also, some of what I’m going to talk about can be seen as a polite disagreement with Ian Danskin’s videos on The Death of Guybrush Threepwood, essays from 2015.
Way to strike while the iron is gone.
What I want to talk about today is a particular family of games, or what we might know as a genre of games. Genre’s a beast of a thing to nail down, and I’ve said so in the past – it’s a well-established canard that ‘JRPG’ and ‘FPS’ are both genres even though one is defined by a country of origin and the other by a camera angle. Still, genre’s the term we have, so genre is what we must use, I guess, I’m only trying to invent one thing at a time here.
There is a type of game, and we don’t have a good term for it, right now, or at least, I haven’t seen one. I can’t tell you what I mean by naming the term we use for it, because if I do that you’ll immediately think of those games and only those games that are closest to it, and we want to keep our minds open here. We want to maximise the coverage of this terminology.
Young Justice is a 2010 animated TV show made by a collection of animators, artists, storytellers and writers that we tend to front with Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman, for the Cartoon Network and at this point it seems that it’s something of a meme about just how very, very good it is. Talking to you about it like it’s some forgotten gem that is actually secretly amazing and great and you’d never have heard of it feels a bit silly. This show is on Netflix, it’s widely distributed and available and you, dear reader, almost definitely can check it out.
I’m not going to tell you anything you didn’t already know or couldn’t find out on your own and I get all itchy and awkward when I think that I’m putting on airs of liking something more obscure than it really is. After all, people like me grew up acting like we were the oppressed minority because we didn’t like what ‘the man’ put on radio, and instead listened to the things that were put on another, slightly different radio station, showing that we were, in fact, rebellious and different.
This self-feeding dialogue that there’s something countercultural about buying things from a slightly different multinational corporation always makes me uncomfortable about acting as if talking about a tv show or videogame is in any way illuminating of some obscure classic or enlightening you about some sort of fascinating garbage. I try to be as direct and honest as possible about my personal reactions to these things. With that in mind, I think Young Justice is really great. It’s got one great season and one kind of awkward season; as with almost all 2000s era animation it could have afforded a better budget and more chances to plan. You know, the Korra problem – if it’d been better made it’d be a better show.
Nonetheless, Young Justice is a story set in the DC universe, with its superhero crew, that doesn’t need any other series as context, explains itself directly, gives fresh takes on a bunch of the characters if you already know them, and it’s basically one of the best ways to enjoy something that’s about the DC Superhero Universe without being mired down in ten miles of lore.
But we’re doing something a little different this time. I don’t want to talk about this series as much as I want to talk about something in this series, and I want to talk about the challenges of talking about it.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be heavy, this is just a lot of preamble for a lot of gushing.
But because this is different and because it’s nonstandard, I have a sort of special request. If you’re a woman interested in comics and superheroes, or if you’ve had The Genders, if you’re nonbinary, and if you’ve been on the fence about watching this show, wondering about whether or not there’s anything you want to see in it, I would ask you to check it out and come tell me what you thought about it.
Because there’s something I see in this, and I’ve seen someone else see it, but now I want to see who else sees it.
Okay, good? Good.
Hey, you know those Light Novel covers I make?
I started making them as a joke, and that joke showed a receptive audience. Since they were so easy joke for me to make, and making them helped to inspire the creation of the kind of Light Novel they suggested, I figured it might not be a bad place for you to start on that kind of thing if you want.
Here’s a breakdown of what goes into the making of this cover:
As a boy of my age I feel it seems only natural that I would be a fan of Transformers, one of the franchises from my youth that somehow managed to be acceptable in a landscape of anti-fun fundamentalism. Perhaps it was something about the fact that they were all robots-that-turned-into-things, or maybe the fact that the toys were honestly really expensive for my childhood experience, but somehow, I was able to get into Transformers, in the fashion of someone who read all the lore he could find in the dollar shops and salvo stores.
The actual TV show was screened at times I missed, and the movie was important to my upbringing, but it wasn’t really until I hit adulthood that I was able to watch the TV series that Transformers had as their extended commercials. This meant that I got to see the best one.
Transformers Animated was the last pre-Bayformers animated series, and there was, at the time, some rumbling that the series got kicked in the neck because it was trying to clear toy shelf space for the movie tie-ins. This is probably nonsense, but it still helped to fuel some resentment towards the (actually also quite bad) live-action movies. And that’s a shame, because my first feeling about Transformers Animated when I bring it to mind should not be, if I had my preferences, any kind of spite or sadness about it.
It should be joy, joy at this wonderful, fun series.
Transformers Animated had a teen sidekick, people of colour, a technofuturist vision of Detroit, shapeshifting superheroes, at least one examination of war crimes and the loss of identity, and the best Grimlock ever put to Transformers media. It’s a punchline for its art style and that’s a damn shame because it’s absolutely excellent.
It’s easy to make bigger things into smaller things.
Sometimes when I talk about a movie or a book or a tv series I’ll do it in a way that makes the content of that thing pretty insignificant to some other point I want to make. You don’t learn a damn thing about how to play Hyrule Warriors from me, but if you read the book you know some fundamental postmodern theory. In that, a big idea is crunched down into a smaller thing.
This has presented an awesome and dreadful problem for writing about two things I wanted to write about this month. First, the Animorphs series, a set of 64 books published over 7 years, and which mean an awful lot to me. It would be hard, if not impossible, for me to write an article about that series without discarding the enormity of what that series means to me. Animorphs is, to me, a very important series of books, and the importance of them involves a lot of quietly glossing over, let’s say, weaker bits, and the Very Different Time.
But if Animorphs is too big to talk about in one article, there is a vastness to the impact on my life of the work of Terry Pratchett. It is an embarassment perhaps to those of you who believe people shouldn’t be getting valuable life lessons from young readers’ books about gnomes and wizards, but I owe an enormous amount of my actual human character, the metaphors for my own existing to the work of this man. Do I discuss every book, one by one? That’s too much for a month – hell, the task of rereading every Pratchett book over the course of a year asks for a book a week, which is a pretty heavy task.
I could have filled this month with my favourite Pratchett books. With weeks of discussion of the Animorphs. But even then, doing that would feel, in a weird way, like a waste. They deserve more and better. They deserve to be enjoyed and approached without being a way to understand me. These works are, in my mind, a sort of holy writ: Not because they were rendered by the divine, but because they were so clearly not, and they gave me tools I needed to make me.
We’ll talk about some Pratchett stuff this month. I couldn’t not. But narrowing it down to two Pratchett books to talk about would be a hard task, to give you perspective on this.
Funny-odd not funny-haha but maybe funny-snort-through-the-nose-at-the-momentary-irony is that the role of someone who shows you the big things in small things is sort of the purpose of this blog. There are so many huge interesting things out there and so often we hide them from ourselves and think they have no relevance or interest to our lives. It is not even that I am capable of doing this to everything, or that I should be your font for all lineages of the vast, it’s just that I love to do it, love to show the vast in the small like it’s a kind of personal magical trick.
And when I sit down and seriously talk to myself about the excellent, the truly wonderful work that I love so much I cannot help but share it, I find myself lost.
There is simply too much that is too good.
This started with a friend of mine: abadidea. She’s been interested in the speedrunning community for a few years now, and as of this year, after AGDQ, she’s been putting effort into becoming a speedrunning commentator. The place she’s started is with the Mystery Funhouse Tournament channel, which if you’re not familiar, is a place that does blind speedruns of short games.
The Mystery Funhouse does a lot of different kinds of content; there are speed-run races of big games that are too big to fit in spaces like GDQ or normal Hotfix tournaments. There are blind speedruns of indie games, and there are to-a-goal speedruns of extremely difficult-to-speedrun games as well.
Now this is a bit more General Twitch than I normally recommend! But thanks to having a friend on commentary, I can feel a little more reassured that this place isn’t going to drop the occasional Heated Gamer Moment. It’s interesting stuff to watch, open for public submissions, and a good way to get into Speed Running in a position where the community are engaged and the stakes could not be lower.
Check it out!
I like this metaphor.
I’ve always liked invisible inks. As a young boy, my culture came through 1950s annuals and second-hand-store copies of adventure stories, where rather than having ‘arts and crafts’ techniques there were things like ‘be an international spy.’ This taught me knots (which I’ve largely forgotten but for a few handy ones) and cryptography (which I’ve largely forgotten but for a few entertaining ones) and because if you’re being a spy, you need some invisible ink.
And there were techniques about writing in lemon juice and writing in water and writing in dissolved metals and things that were, at some point in the 1950s, household items, and inevitably those instructions let me craft messages to put on paper, completely ignoring that as a child, in my tiny closed environment, there was literally nothing I could write on a piece of paper that the people around me would be interested in reading, let alone anything I needed to keep secret. Maybe they’d find one of my pieces of paper with moist lines of probably-dried-fluid on them, and decide it was time to get to the bottom of the kind of secrets a nine year old who literally never went anywhere but church or a small wooden box at school.
A friend did a writing course, just after the end of City of Heroes. There, he read the book Invisible Ink and took notes, sharing them with me, because I didn’t have a copy for the book. Since then, I’ve used the term invisible ink to refer to story elements that the story puts forwards, in ways that the audience can experience, but without ever needing to state.
Sometimes, you’ll see people confused by a story, because the story assumed you’d know something that the story never told you. That can sometimes be a sign of a disjointed story, and it’s worth considering why that happened. Sometimes, though, sometimes, it’s a sign that the audience can’t see the invisible ink. Why does this super queer text read obviously queer to queer people, and not to het people? Why does this Australian character enrage Australian audiences when they seem fine to Americans? What’s the appeal of Kath and Kim and why did it fail?
I think about this, because one, I think that the invisible ink we leave behind is more interesting than our deliberate choices. Two, and perhaps more damningly, is because I remember being without any of the way to see these invisible inks. Imagine getting into culture in the year 2001 without any idea at all about the common metaphors of film.
I’ve had to do a lot to construct myself, and a lot to understand invisible ink.
A measure, to some extent, of the quality of a work is the degree to which the moments that matter to that story stay with you. This isn’t my observation; it was first brought to my attention by Cracked when they asked a character (and by proxy the audience) if they could name a single line from the 2009 movie Avatar. Most people I’ve asked can’t, and this doesn’t seem to be atypical.
But this month, I’d like to look at some things that matter to me – in some cases, a lot – and rather than run down a bad (garbage, awful, not good, not interesting, waste of money) movie like Avatar for its failings, I instead want to speak to a movie for its virtues, and a movie that has given me a quote that I can bring to mind easily, and love deeply.
Let’s talk about Lilo & Stitch, a Disney family movie – that is, the best Disney family movie. Spoilers ahoy!
We do this these days, right?
We talk about our D&D Characters?
I am a firm believer in the idea that when you present a character to the players at the table, they need a handle on the character. They need to be able to grasp the character quickly so it’s often best to start with a basic archetype or story point. You want to occupy the space in the story, you don’t want to have to explain that place you want in the story.
Oh, yes really.
We’re doing this.
Touhou Project, Touhou, or Project Shrine Maiden, or whatever you want to call it, is a set of characters coexisting in a somewhat loosely aligned storytelling space first originated from the work of Team Shanghai Alice, which is to say, the entire staff of Team Shanghai Alice, which is to say, one person, ZUN, who has made (at least) 27 Touhou games since 1996. While the conventional vision of these games is bullet hells, and ZUN’s work definitely features that, there are Touhou games that ZUN didn’t make, and these include puzzle platformers, dungeon crawlers, RPGs, even a one-on-one fighting game.
The Guinness Book of Records, as of 2010, has instituted Touhou Project as “the most prolific fan-made shooter series,” which I think is a really stupid description because it suggests that ZUN is somehow a fan and not a creator in their own right, but it’s not wrong because a large body of the work that ‘is Touhou’ is not made by ZUN, and that collected third party stuff includes professional products.
This is extremely weird: It’s weird because conventionally, the vision of how work like this gets made has a certain degree of ownership and permission.
You can’t just make a Touhou game, I assume, you have to ask if you can.
At least, that’s how it works in the places I’m used to working.
Starting in November 2017, I decided that, with enough attempts made to explore methods of how, that I would start uploading videos to Youtube. I decided to build on my then-recently-finished Honours thesis as an experiment in seeing what I could create that could suit a rapid-fire fast-talking Youtube content form, and as a direct result, my first video series, Making Fun was made.
It’s been a bit over a full year now, and I thought I’d spend some time to look at these videos and see what I thought of them, what lessons I had learned, and what lessons I would recommend.
Conventionally, I open discussion of media for the Story Pile in a pattern. It’s literally a template – I have it laid out in front of me right now. Here, the segment is titled introduction and that’s where I put something that snappily sets the tone for the whole thing, but,
Just how do you introduce this? There’s the technical – Bleach (2018) is a live-action movie based on the anime Bleach, based on the manga Bleach. Great, that’s a start. It’s also really useless.
There are, right now, five basic ways to know of Bleach, a sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Weebs. You have the absolute bottom tier, where you have no idea what Bleach is. You are the majority of the world, blissfully safe and ignorant of this strange story. This is the outer realms.
Then there are those who know Bleach primarily as a punchline. Then there are those who know it, and who wish to tell themselves – falsley – that Bleach is good, has always been good, and any complaints from people disliking it is a sign of an inadequate anime fan. Then, there are those who know Bleach, who were there for Bleach, who were part of Bleach and when Bleach failed them, they were angry. They speak of Bleach as if it was never good, and they are mad.
Finally, there is the top tier. Those of us who know Bleach, and know how Bleach is bad. We know that Bleach failed, but know that at the same time, Bleach was failed.
If you’d told me that Netflix were putting together a Castlevania series by Warren Ellis and it was an Anime I’d have to have assumed you were working through some sort of nerdy fanboy madlibs, like the output of a twitter robot designed to generate quote-tweets from people inclined to go ‘omg that’d be great.’
It’s such a confluence of edginess; the game is not obscure, but it’s sub-mainstream enough to seem a little edgy. Netflix are by no means a small production house, but Netflix original animation is certainly not on the level of houses like Disney. Making an anime as a specific, separate genre of thing, is also, again, not actually not-mainstream, but seems non-mainstream. And then you throw in Warren Ellis, a man who’s produced tons of comic books and the licenses for tons of movies, and even a TV series, a man who has been kind of all about being the not-the-mainstream version of mainstream comics for large chunks of his career.
Warren Ellis is almost perfectly positioned as everyone’s second favourite comic book author; excellent and creative, but also so aggressively Very Online that you could be forgiven for thinking he’d sprung from the fever dreams of the internet itself. Ridiculous and posturing, energetic and digital, he’s also somehow managed a career as long as his without actually massively embarassing himself on issues that comic book authors didn’t seem to realise mastter that much. There’s no lingering false vision of his work like Mark Waid has, no uncomfortable sensuality of magic that Grant Morrison has, and unlike Akira Yoshida, Ellis exists.
He is the Patrick Swayze of comic book authors; great but so often overshadowed by excellence. You need to know comics to know Ellis and you need to know why Ellis hates comics to love them like he does. Ellis is a great big pink sparkly mullet of an author in an industry peopled by people trying to get themselves taken Very Seriously when they write about the spangly man in the cape with the funny knickers.
This set of factors, coupled with people talking about how brief the first season of Castlevania was pushed me away from it – it seemed that three episodes of NES-era narrative via Ellis might be the perfectly sized dose to completely blow the minds of people who had no real familiarity with any of these factors, that the sheer surprise of the series would set people off, have them curious for more, without it actually being in any way a necessarily good or enjoyable experience for those of us who knows what it’s like to wait six months for a comic issue that’s been A Bit Delayed.
Then I watched it, and…
Oh boy, is this the Good Shit.
One of the most dangerous things to fundamentalism is a desire to be good.
This post was in part spurred by relistening to the absolutely dreadful Camp Kookawacka Woods by Patch the Pirate, a subject so dreadful I feel a bit like I should do a rewatch podcast just so I can impress upon people just how utterly yikesy the whole franchise is at its core. Listening to it, though, with Fox, I had to let her know that some of the songs (that were performed pretty well) were hymns, and some of the songs were based on old campfire songs, and some of the songs were rip-offs of pop songs, and how the whole thing was just so cheap and hacky.
This is a pattern.
If you’ve ever gone looking for what I call Christian Replacement Media, you might have noticed that it’s kind of bad? Not necessarily remarkably bad, no glorious-trainwreck The Room style hubristic excess, it’s just that the best of these movies tends to crest a Pretty Alright level. Probably the best Christian Media Escapee band is Five Iron Frenzy, which is to say that the entire right-wing music machine was able to produce a single good ska band of leftists, which considering the number of times they’re rolling that dice is not a great average. The movies, the branding, the graphic design, almost everything you see in the Christian Replacement Sphere is a slightly shit version of whatever it’s replicating.
Oh, they’re often expensive. Yet even the things that are expensive in this space tend to be gaudy, or overpaid for. When it comes to art and media these stories are almost always just slightly inferior, confusingly weak versions of things that aren’t actually that hard to get right. There are bestselling Christian authors whose work crests the quality of maybe a decent fanfiction.
This is weird though! It’s not like being in the Christian cultural space asks you to be bad. Assuming a random selection of the Christian media space is an equally random selection of the culture of the world, you have to assume that a certain percentage of them are just going to pick up decent artists.
I have a theory.
No, wait, I have a hypothesis.
The hypothesis is built out of my experience, and the experience of a few ex-fundie friends. We’ve talked about it, about the things that pulled us away from the faith, and how those things that pulled us off the path were not the fun, excellent temptations we were warned against, but inevitably, a drive to be good at something. I didn’t learn my eschatology and biblical foundational theory because I wanted to prove it wrong. I learned it, because I wanted to be able to prove it right. Nonbelievers would come at me with arguments, I was told, and so I wanted to understand those arguments so I could show how they were wrong. One of my friends wanted to do excellent work rendering graphics for their church, and so they wanted to study how graphics worked and how to convince people with the icon rendered in front of them. Another was driven by a desire to Make Computers Work.
None of us set out to fall.
The basic idea is this: To be good at something requires context and practice. Gaining either of these things inevitably exposes you to the ways in which fundamentalist church spaces fail.
It’s not that church seeks out awful artists. It’s that the modern American church is a sorting algorithm that wants to throw out the good artists in the name of keeping the people who are content to be average at things. Oh, they may want the numinous and the excellent, but if you ask a preacher to choose between a ‘faithful’ artist vs a ‘troubled’ one, they’re going to plomp for the pious one every time.
Plus, the faithful don’t tend to charge what they’re worth.
In most editions of D&D, there’s this system for magic that treats all magic as a sequence of ‘spells.’ In 3rd edition, the idea was that a wizard would have a certain number of spell ‘slots’ available, and each day they would choose the spells to put in those slots. This is known as Vancian Magic. Contrary to what some folk think, this magic system was not made to be a game system, but it just happens to work really effectively as a game system.
Originally devised by Hugo Award winner and joyous sailboy Jack Vance for his Dying Earth series, this system tends to be tied to spellbooks. The wizard encodes most of a magical spell at the start of the day, using a spellbook to handle all the complex work and memorisation, and completes the magic spell at a later point. It’s an interesting idea, and it sort of feels like electrical engineering played a part in its conception.
Vancian magic tends to be entwined with books. If you look for the phrase ‘fantasy art wizard’ on google, you’ll find that almost all your most prominent hits are going to feature some kind of bookshelf, library, or spellbook. There’s a historical trend for this, of course; in our stories about power, power tends to be about the things we regard as powerful. In the days of history that fantasy wants to use as its framing, books have a power to them, because the people with power were also the people who had books. Often for no related reason.
I’ve talked about this, but it still carries out – these days, intellectuals want to be framed in front of books. People arrange their bookshelves to bear in mind not convenience or access but rather the image of what that bookshelf says about who they are. The gamer of youtube puts himself in front of a bookshelf (a place of power) and fills it with the signs of his gamer power (usually consumable merchandise or purchases that show his good taste).
There’s something else about how Vancian magic travels, though. See, if the wizard does the spell in the spellbook, in the morning, why can they do things later that complete that spell, in a different location? Why does that power move from place to place?
The idea is that power can travel, which may seem weird to bring to attention, but it kind of is because it’s not travelling in anything. The wizard isn’t making potions that have the power and then using them (though they can – and that wizard tends to get called an alchemist). The wizard isn’t putting the magic in something. Is the power in the wizard? That doesn’t seem right either, does it – if the power was in the wizard, why wouldn’t they just call it up on the spot (like sorcerers do).
I think that the magic being able to travel, as the wizard moves, is kind of an unconscious representation of ideas like ether, which you could consider as a kind of pre-internet idea of wifi. It’s not just the idea of a universal binding force, or an energy that flows through everything – I mean, that’s an idea that sounds almost like eastern mysticism when you say it like that, isn’t it? Monks do that! Druids kind of do that. The wizard interacts with it in a way that’s about a triumph of knowledge, of being smart.
Look at the base assumptions of work. Think about why things are chosen to be the way they are. There are often interesting ideas waiting to be considered there.