As my month-long meditation on Voltron: Legendary Defenders slowly unspools, I’m reflecting on the kind of criticism that spurred me to write about it in the first place. It was all of a particular genre, a check-list and key-word driven style of critical engagement that I have long since had a beef with. I’ve taken to referring to it as TVtropes Critique.
Let’s talk about love for a moment.
Content warning; I’m going to mention some bad people, bad actions and some church stuff.
Anonymous Asked: How do I deal with jealousy regarding other people’s happiness? It always feels like everyone around me is happier, more alive, and generally *living* better than I do. I know being the bitter Old Man staring between the blinds at the happy kids on the street isn’t good for me or anyone, but I can’t shake these feelings off.
Marshall Rosenberg expressed once, “At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.” I don’t recommend Rosenberg for all your life, but he’s got a good handle on a theory of how a lot of toxic masculinity disconnects us from our feelings. And I mean, look at the guy:
Okay so here’s the sequence of events. This is a story I shared on my CuriousCat a while back, but that site is kind of a pain in the butt to search through if you’re not directly checking. Consider this more archiving.
When I got onto the internet, I bounced around trying to find places to be, mostly Christian Network places and Christian IRC channels and Local Christian websites (augh). Eventually, I found through newsgroups, the alt.fan.eddings group dedicated to the fantasy novels of David Eddings. I had read some David Eddings because a friend in church had already vetted it and thought I might like it.
Anyway, in the Eddings fangroup, almost everyone, except gilmae, had handles based on the characters from the books, and when I arrived and hung out there, I didn’t have ‘a name’ yet. Also, this was back when you didn’t release your real name or real information on the internet, a thing I was … stunningly responsible about, now I think about it? Wow, hang on that’s weird. Anyway, point is, to fit in, the group discussed, in newsgroup posts, what my handle should be.
All they knew about me was that I was fourteen, and they… weren’t, and the only Eddings character who existed who was both male and young was ‘Talen,’ a thief who in the first books was like, ten, and in the second was fourteen. He was also often referred to as ‘Boy’ and they liked that. Anyway, so that’s where Talen came from, and it wasn’t usually taken anywhere on the internet, so I used it as I went around.
Eventually I hit on places where it was taken, particularly the Wizards of the Coast forums, where I needed something to add to the name to make it usable, but also where I really, really didn’t want to be that dickhole with numbers after his name, or something that would date it immediately like MewTwoCrusher (sorry MewTwoCrusher, I didn’t realise how long-term important Pokemon would be), and I wound up smacking on the surname ‘Mist.’ I’d like to say there was some story behind that but I really think it was just… kinda cool. I want to say this relates to a period in an #animorphs channel on the Chee Database, but I’m not sure and it may relate to a grand project to re-fanfic the entirety of Final Fantasy 6 (yes really).
Anyway, fasterforward to another forum, another shakeup, and I’ve been dating this stack of hairy trolls named Fox Lee for about two years, and this time, rather than ‘Talen Mist’ I used ‘Talen Lee’ instead. She’d recently asked me to marry her (we wouldn’t for another few years), and I thought it was, because it was something that mattered to me, worth making into part of my identity, because… I’m a huge dork and I didn’t expect to ever break up with Fox, which okay, turns out to have been a safe bet.
Anyway, at that point I had ‘Talen Lee’ and it is mostly never taken anywhere. But even more interesting is that it flies under ‘real name detector’ because it’s just real enough. It is an Asian name, which I am occasionally selfconscious about?
So there you go. That’s your lot. My name is shaped by my past, in a way the name I was given never was.
If someone is using your preferences to attack you, then they’re just being an asshole. If they’re using media you like as a way to belittle and hurt people in general, they’re being an asshole. If they’re pursuing you to make you answer for something you like, they’re being an asshole. Continue reading
What is the optimally “unfair” possible U.S. election? Assuming you can just set the vote ratios in each state to whatever unrealistic value you want. How much can you lose popular vote by and win the Presidency?
This isn’t a comprehensive view of this idea, but a rough summary. Still, it’s an interesting question and let’s explore it. Note that these results involve literally no breaking rules. These are just the ways the system functions based on changes in circumstances. Consider these urine samples from an extremely unwell system.
The comparison between Superman and Captain America is very much like the comparison between tractors and trucks. They’re not an unreasonable comparison to make, especially when you only know of either thanks to movies, but the more you know about either the less the comparison works. The two have some very broad similarities, but when you start to talk about the kind of stories they can tell, things start to break down.
In music theory there’s this understood idea that brasses sound heroic and powerful, and strings sound gentle and feminine, a theory reinforced by years of musicology in theatre. What happened is when movies were new, and attaching music to characters in a particular way moved out of the Musical and into just telling stories, a sort of language of music got started.
We already had it that brass music sounded powerful and forceful and heroic – something that John Phillip Sousa sort of ran into the ground as a theme. By comparison, strings sounded delicate and Not Like Brass, so the formed an obvious counterpart for the fragile and the frail. Then over several thousand movies and repeated use of these two ideas in movies where boys were strong and girls were objects, we wound up where we are now, where despite never actually being true, horns ‘sound masculine’ and strings ‘sound feminine.’
I mean, think about this: What’s the Superman theme sound like?
Anyway, this means that when we reach back into earlier, pre-movie theatrics, though, we still now see that same coding. The association with the music extends beyond the media it’s in. Now, marches that predate movies are seen as ‘masculine’ because the movie comes with them. This is the power of the archetype, where when you’re seen as relating to a thing, it doesn’t really matter what you are doing, because it’ll all be seen in relationship to the archetype.
What does this have to do with Sonic The Hedgehog?
Shut up I’m getting there.
The point is, movies wound up this way because they were being slowly but steadily built for bigger and bigger markets. The more people you want to get involved, the more you lean on those archetypes, on a frame of reference. Brassy heroic music is, archetypally, masculine, and so, when you want to signal a masculine dude, you use brassy heroic music. This means that lots of this media is full of signals that are more about telling you A Thing Is A Way It Is Because It Is The Way It Is. An archetype is, basically, lots of reinforcing, circular story stuff. It doesn’t have meaning of itself – it’s just a way of signalling a thing should be sort of like these other things.
And now we get to Sonic The Hedgehog, the media franchise. We’re not talking about the game character – Sonic doesn’t really belong to games any more. When you’re talking about cultural impact, Sonic’s been in twenty five years of comics, three manga series, six books, and five television series, with a live-action CGI movie in the works being financed by a man who’s also repsonsible for the XXX and Fast and the Furious franchise. Sonic is a transmedia property, and matters more as being Sonic than he matters as a game entity. And despite all of this, this enormous spread of media representation, when you go looking for an answer to the question who is Sonic the Hedgehog you don’t find anything, really.
You get an archetype.
But that archetype gives us structure – and that gives us a place to look at the Sonic the Hedgeverse.
What then, is Sonic? What archetypally remains around this character? Well, he’s a Cool Hero. He’s edgy, in a very generic, mid-90s kind of way, in that he thumbs his nose at authority, he likes speed and going fast and doens’t like rules, man, but at the same time you know he’ll never blow off something that matters because that plays against being a hero, so what you’re left with is this character who is simultaneously unreliable but also very reliable. This is reflected in Sonic’s writeup on Wikipedia, composed of multiple sources, saying that Sonic is
…”like the wind”: a drifter who lives as he wants, and makes life a series of events and adventures. Sonic hates oppression and staunchly defends freedom. Although he is mostly quick-witted and easygoing, he has a short temper and is often impatient with slower things. Sonic is a habitual daredevil hedgehog who is honest, loyal to friends, keeps his promises, and dislikes tears. In times of crisis, he focuses intensely on the challenge as if his personality had undergone an astonishing change.
If you sit down and cross out those sentences that mean nothing like ‘makes life a series of events,’ you’re left with a loose drifter without any fixed goal who is a staunch defender of freedom who always stands by his friends, easygoing until he doesn’t have to be, patient unless he’s not and is like the wind except he also always keeps his promises. In essence, there’s nothing there, but despite that you can still say you know something of who Sonic is. It’s even there in his visual coding – red, white and blue. Sonic is a Bold Hero Guy.
Once he’s the Bold Hero guy, everything else kinda falls around him. Tails becomes the Sidekick Boy, who has to be smaller and worse at everything than Protagonist Guy by default, so he can be rescued but also so he has some reason to aspire to being like Protagonist Guy. He can be sweet and kind (which aren’t edgy and cool), and he’s probably a tiny bit more femme than Protagonist Guy, in the vein of the nerdy friend. Tails fits this archetype pretty easily – he’s better than Sonic at machines, which builds in that ‘nerdy friend’ slot.
You can play this outwards; Knuckles is the voice of authority, with his stable position and opposition to Sonic because Sonic isn’t following the rules. There’s Amy Rose, the Good Girl who hangs around him and has an interest in him (which shows he’s desireable), but for some reason he never has to commit or dismiss this – Amy will want him regardless of what a doofus he is and she will usually be at fault for any discomfort he experiences. Rouge introduces a sexy other to Amy, again, a reflection of an image of Sonic, and then, finally… we get Shadow.
Note that up until now, none of the other major characters (Sorry, Big) introduced have been like Sonic. They’ve been explicitly unlike him – Shadow is the first opposite to Sonic (unless you count 1994’s Anti-Sonic The Hedgehog, which we don’t, and he didn’t come back as Scourge the hedgehog until 2011, well after Shadow’s appearance so don’t @ me). And when you’re dealing with archetypes, there is an identity that exists for the characters in movies and TV series like this. The place for a character who is the same type but not the same way. He is coded cool, but 00s edgy to 90s edgy, making him seem slicker, more fashionable, more aware, compared to Sonic’s suddenly oblivious-seeming 90s sort-of-surfer coolness. Shadow is angry, he is resentful, and that casts Sonic, for all of his quick temper, as almost a beach bum. What’s more, Sonic is surrounded by friends and is a celebrated hero – he’s the Protagonist Guy.
In a template where the Cool Guy is opposed by someone Equally Cool But More Distressed, we enter the cinematic tradition of The Other. He’s bad, but not that bad, he’s an opponent, but not a villain. That makes him a humanised Other, a character who stands to contrast with the hero (in a way that once, Knuckles did). The thing with The Other is, they take on a LOT of forms in different media, but if you’re queer, chances are your favourite character is a The Other. Camp LOVES them to bits.
In the greater narrative space of Sonic the Hedgehog, these characters are still mostly empty. They’re a description of a handful of traits in relationship to one another. In that space, Shadow the Hedgehog is a camp antagonist, an example of The Other, who can be – and sorta IS – All Queerness. What you see there is what you can pour into him.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I tweet a lot. Sometimes I tweet things that, in hindsight, I feel should be blog posts – to be more readily searchable, and findable by people later on. It serves to put what I have to say on the record a little more cleanly and also lets me do nice formatting and position pictures prettily.
With that in mind I’m going to start turning some twitter threads I liked or feel I want to reference later into blog posts. I do recognise this is less work, though, and so they will be labelled Lazy Stuff, just to keep it honest that I’m working from a draft.