Saturday, August 30, 2014

Visual Opera: Putting the Comic in the Comic Book Movie

It is undeniable that comics are the new hottness when it comes to big screen adaptation, and as any nerd can tell you, it's not hard to imagine why...superhero comics have it all! Heroes, villains, romance, adventure, drama; big fights and bigger emotions. Superheroes stories are the modern mythology; they're the stories we tell ourselves that define who we are and who we wish to be. They comment on the times and the values we hold, and have profoundly resonated the world over.

A large part of this is, in my opinion, is because modern superhero adaptations have adopted the storytelling techniques of their source material; nothing does metaphor, particularly visual metaphor, like comics does, and the film medium can also add other layers on top of that through sound and music. The result is a modern form of storytelling that engages the audience completely on every emotional level. That isn't to say that film hasn't always used these same types of storytelling short hands or gimmicks, but comic and superhero movies afford a higher level of suspension of disbelief which allow them to be more obvious and literal, which has lead to the creation of a sort of visual opera.


Take, for example, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. Regardless of the problems the movie has with too much exposition, to many boring subplots about Peter's parents and predestination, any time the movie is doing Spider-man's BEAUTIFUL. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is one of the MOST comic book movies ever made (the only one that exceeds it is SPEED RACER), combining sight and sound to replicate the experience of reading a comic.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the scene of Electro's “debut” in Times Square, which is the most comprehensive, most beautiful, origin of a villain that's currently been committed to film. When we are introduced to Max Dillon, he is already something of a comic book character; nebish almost to the point of absurdity, Max Dillon is socially awkward, bumbling, but earnest. Our sympathies go to him immediately just from the visual of this poor, margenalized, nerd who is exploited by his superiors. It is here that we are introduced to Max Dillon's theme; a meloncholy four notes played on a clarinet which is both sad but sort of clownish, perfectly summing up his character.

Casting Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon, who in the comics is a white character, is a stroke of genius in the movie because it gives his character metaphorical depth; he is a minority, he is poor, he is exploited by rich white people who steal his work and give him none of the credit, and he feels powerless to fight a system that is overwhelming skewed against him. All he wants is to be noticed, to have a voice. When Spider-man happens by to save him from being run over during a bombastic car chase, he takes the time to make Max Dillon feel special, which is probably one of the MOST Spider-man things I've ever seen on screen, and connects with Dillon on a level that has small significance to Spider-man, who does this every day for hundreds of people, but huge significance for Dillon, for whom this is the biggest, brightest, moment in his sad life; to be singled out and told that he is special and significant.

Dillon goes on to suffer a tragic accident, which, in a beautifully subtle bit of writing, happens on his birthday; he falls into a tank of genetically modified electric eels after being eletrocuted, and is seemingly killed...only to be REBORN as Electro. Shambling forth from the morgue, confused and disheveled, the crust of his old life cracking and falling away as black ash, Dillon stumbles into Times Square, drawn by the flow of electrical current and a strange new compulsion to seek out electricity, which is something he's always really had; a desire for power. When he lifts up the grate and grabs the power cables it conceals, he is confronted by the police; representatives of an authority that has never served him; who react immediately with hostility and fear to the transformed and empowered Dillon.

Now, while this is happening, Hans Zimmer's beautiful score is in the background. Some people found the score for this movie obnoxious, with it's dubstep influence, but I find it operatic and thematically appropriate, but no more so in the track MY ENEMY (Paranoia, the Electro Suite ), which builds the tension as things slowly escalate. You can hear bits of Max Dillon's theme embedded underneath the electrical distortion, reminding you of who he was, and evoking the sadness of Max Dillon, as he stumbles forward. But, and I think this is the most clever thing about this track, you can also hear voices whispering, barely audible, in the background, as if Dillon is broadcasting his thoughts over the air to the TV's and speakers in Times Square, allowing us insight into his thoughts, which is a mechanic unique to comics; thought balloons; which literally allow you to see the characters internal monologue. Max's internal monologue takes the form of a repeating chant;

Something's Happening
Mind destructing,, Agony Inside Of Me.
My Pulse Is Raising
Mental Torture, Self Destroyer.
Can't Ignore the Paranoia.

Dillon is confused, despondent, and paranoid. Then he is attacked; he begs the police for sympathy, to listen to him, to understand him, “Stop!'s not my fault!” after he lashes out, using his powers for the first time to flip a car and send his flying, unaware of what he's doing. And as he looks around, and sees himself projected onto the many screens, the Dillon theme comes back, reminding us of how pitiable Dillon is as he finally gets what he's always desired; everyone can see him. He is the center of attention, “Y-you...see see me...” For a breath moment he is Dillon again, and this is something like the calm in the eye of the storm, before police renew their attack on his, throwing tear gas canisters as he begs them to stop (this is even more timely, unfortunately, in the wake of Ferguson, as we seen a black man attacked by Police while begging for understanding; regardless of what Dillon has done, he hasn't hurt anyone and is obviously not in his right mind).

Using his new power Dillon lashes out; this brings in more of the distorted electrical sound which will become associated with Dillon as Electro, a the cue for his transformation from sympathetic victim to angry, empowered, villain; sending police cars flying and threatening to crush one officer, as our hero, Spider-man, swings in, his own theme (three cords that seems to say, “Spi-der-maaaaan” the way a good theme should) overwhelming Electro's. In contrast to the reactionary approach of the police, Spider-man does not attack Dillon, but instead tries to talk him down (another VERY Spider-man beat).

This scene is the most like Spider-man in the comics that I can possibly imagine. Spider-man asks Electro what's wrong and who he is. Electro, still confused and struggling with his paranoia and distress, reaches out to his hero, the man who made him feel special, and is disappointed that Spider-man doesn't recognize him...doesn't remember his name. This is CLASSIC Spider-man; he does something nice for someone, only to have it come back to bite him in the ass later. He made an impact on this guys life, and could diffuse this whole situation if only, IF ONLY...he could remember his name.

As Spider-man talks to Dillon, the conversation turns from him, as Dillon's disappointment, his fear, and most importantly, as he himself admits, “This power...I've got so much of it. And I have so much anger too.” Max Dillon is not powered by electricity; he is powered by ANGER. We've seen into his head in earlier scenes; how he represses his rage, bottles up his anger, his little out, self-contained, outbursts. Dillon never vented his anger because he felt powerless, so he contained it's literally spilling out of him, crackling and sparking through is fingers; so much anger and fear and paranoia that it's literally overflowing from his body.

Spider-man almost succeeds in talking Dillon down, as his only request is “I don't want them shooting at me” indicating the police, and expressing that his only desire, looking forlornly at the TV's broadcasting his image, is that he wants to be seen, to be heard. The situation is then escalated when a sniper with an itchy trigger finger (perhaps fittingly, a white officer), shoots at Dillon, breaking Spider-man's promise, and inciting Electro to violence; the eletrical distortion picking up and becoming loud and violent as he lashes out.

Spider-man does his thing and saves the crowd from Electro's outburst, and the crowd turns against Electro; he is no long the victim deserving of sympathy, but the miscreant deserving of scorn. The crowd boos Dillon and cheers Spider-man, and the screens that surround them slowly replace his face with Spider-man's. From Electro's point-of-view, he just been betrayed by his hero, who promised the police wouldn't shoot him, and is now stealing his spotlight...putting him right back in that margenlized and ignored little box that he used to inhabit. The difference this time is that Electro realizes that he does not have to be quiet; he can DEMAND attention; he can make his anger known...and FELT. And int he background of his increasingly distorted, ugly, theme we can hear his thoughts being broadcast;

He lied to me
He shot at me
He hates on me
He's using me
Afraid of me
He's dead to me

Electro's paranoia has grown but his fear has deminished. The earlier lyrics where about how he felt about himself; scared, in pain, and confused; now they're about what he feels about those around him. How they react to him, betray him, use him, and how that makes him feel.

Spider-man is helpless as he watches everything fall apart, as Dillon accuses him of lying to him, setting him up to look ridiculous, turning the world against him, and he lashes out, attempting to make others feel his pain by sending his power, his anger, through the ground. Spider-man saves the people with is spider-sense, which is brilliantly reconcieved here not as a prescient danger sense that protects Spider-man from harm, but a superhuman situational awareness that allows him to save those AROUND him through an unparallel theat of acrobatic prowess. Spider-man's theme here is triumphant, swelling bigger and bigger, as he saves EVERYONE from Electro's outburst.

Angered, Electro attacks Spider-man, who spends him flying into a huge television screen. Electro feels the power around him, and takes two large cables and presses them against his heart, conducting the power of Times Square through is body, in a final, massive, outburst, screaming with rage, his thoughts now turning to the world;

They lied to me
They shot at me
They hate on me
They're dead to me
And now they're all my enemy

The mindset of a supervillain is often hard to understand, much less dramatize, which is why so many end up flat and boring; evil or antagonist for the sake of being so, with thin or underdeveloped motivations or goals. Electro's origin in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 dramatizes the emotions that drive a supervillain, and how they differ from those of the hero. Electro could have been a hero; but his life was such that, while ostensibly a good man as Max Dillon who never hurt anyone or wished anyone any harm, a man who believed in heroes and looked up to them, Max Dillon was also a put upon outsider, who repressed all of his rage against the world, and, when given power, now directs it at the world. His dream was always that people would see him, would listen to him...and now, as Electro, no one can ignore him. When he shouts, people listen, because his voice is an explosion. Max Dillon is what happens when an angry man who secretly hates the world that grinds him down is given power; he becomes Electro.

This is a powerful, emotional, origin that his made beautiful, big, dramatic, and most importantly, OPERATIC, through the use of metaphor, both abstract, visual, and through music. In a comic book everything is brighter, more colorful, more emotional, and more literal, and most successful superhero movies are the ones that embraces that approach; the origin of Electro, the end of the WINTER SOLDIER, where Captain America throws away his shield, his token, the literal embodiment of all he believes in, for his friend, Peter Quill the Star Lord as a runaway, the X-Men as an allegory for bigotry of all types; these big, bold, emotions are dramatized huge and colorful in a way that not only entertains, but resonates...which is why we'll always come back.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Avengers Assemble!
Right up front, I'll admit that I probably had the same thoughts most everyone had when hearing the premise of Disney Japan's latest attempt to expand the Marvel franchise into the Japanese market; AVENGERS POKEMON sounds crass, banal, and more than a little stupid.  Now, having watched the show, I am going to convince you's still crass, banal, and more than a little stupid in that it's an obvious marketing ploy to sell an addictive Pog-like game to little kids...but it's also smart, fun, and really nerdy!  I actually sort of love it.

 MARVEL DISK WARS: THE AVENGERS is a co-production between Disney  Japan, Bandai (who produce the tie-in game), and Toei Animation (who produce the show, and are famous as the studio that also produced DIGIMON, DRAGONBALL, and SAILOR MOON), and overseen by Marvel "talent scout", CB Cebulski, who's is known for his love of Manga and anime and has done international outreach for Marvel in the past, such as convincing Tsutomi Nihei (BIO-MEGA, BLAME!, and my favorite KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA) to write and draw a really bizarre Wolverine mini-series in the early 2000's, putting Kia Asamiya on X-MEN, etc.  As such, it's a very Japanese show, and made to appeal to a Japanese aesthetic, marrying the tropes of shonen (boys) adventure to the Marvel characters; and it's a marriage that works.


WARNING: Spoilers Follow

Sunday, March 2, 2014

RE: Eric Stephenson VS Everyone Else (Or Just About)

 Eric Stephenson, current publisher of IMAGE comics, recently addressed retailers through ComicsPro, delivering a long speech about the importance of the direct market, and the future of the industry and the direction he believes it should take.  There is some good stuff in there and I agree with a lot of what Stephenson says, particularly in relation to courting the growing female readership; publishers should take note of that; and he's obviously really passionate about comics as a medium and about storytelling as a form, which are feelings I share...but there is something about his speech that just does not sit right with me; his simplistic, and actually pretty insulting, view that licensed or work-for-hire comics aren't "real."

"One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.”

There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.

Read More: Image Publisher Eric Stephenson's Address to Comic Retailers |

"One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.”

There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.

Everything else should be irrelevant."

One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.”

Read More: Image Publisher Eric Stephenson's Address to Comic Retailers |
One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.”

There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.

Read More: Image Publisher Eric Stephenson's Address to Comic Retailers |
One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.”

There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.

Read More: Image Publisher Eric Stephenson's Address to Comic Retailers |

Stephenson breaks it down to a very objectivist point of view: comics should only be treated as good comics or bad comics, which, from a reader and a retail perspective, is admittedly not that far off base...the easiest product to sell is a good product, to be sure. 

But later on he comments:

"If we seriously want to expand the marketplace and appeal to new readers, different readers, we can only do that by developing new things that only exist in our market.

While the rest of the entertainment industry lays back in the cut and churns out sequel after remake after reboot after sequel, we need to be on the frontline with the biggest, boldest, and best of the new ideas that will keep this industry healthy and strong for years to come.

Let the rest of the world come to US – let them make movies and TV shows and toys and cartoons based on what WE do.

Their dearth of ideas and their continued fascination with our unbridled creativity will only make us stronger.

THE WALKING DEAD is proof of this.

Like I said, THE WALKING DEAD comic book was selling great before it was a television show.

Now it sells even better.

And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic.

Because they want the real thing.

TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.

GI JOE comics will never be the real thing.

STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.

Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more – but there’s the important thing to understand:

They don’t want more comics – they just want more of the thing they love."

 There is a lot about this I have a problem with.  It's both dismissive of the creators that work on them, and dismissive of the readers that buy them...readers that, theoretically, Stephenson would like to buy his books, and even the example he sites of THE WALKING DEAD is smug and undermines his point.

Now, he's not completely wrong...comics as a market is broken down into two big publishers, and those publishers are feeding on a shrinking market, and have not had the greatest success growing their readership despite great success in other media.  I lover superhero comics, but it is often a lot of the same shit, a lot of stunts, and a lot of event books designed to get my money, and I do admittedly fall into that trap.

But if the only thing that is important is if a comic is "good or bad" then why attach the caveat that it must also be creator owned or "indy" to be worthwhile?  Is Stephenson suggesting that you cannot bring novelty to a licensed book?  That you cannot find a superhero book meaningful?  That's remarkable insulting to both the work-for-hire creators and the audience of those book.  Darkhorse has produced some literally great STAR WARS comics in their long relationship with the franchise, and those creators lovingly craft stories that they care about and that bring novelty to a world that they do not own.  Marvel of late has taken to allowing creators to put their own distinct mark on the characters they own which has been met with great success on titles such as HAWKEYE, SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN, and SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN.  Are those books less "real" or worthwhile?  Is the readership of those books less intelligent or critical?

IMAGE isn't "indy."  While IMAGE should be commended for the chances it's taken and the talent it's fostered, and has had a few Cinderella stories (such as Robert Kirkman), that is not the norm...many of IMAGE's biggest successes are with vanity projects helmed by name creators who work for the same big name publishers he decries.  SAGA is not a Cinderella story...Brian K. Vaughn was a popular writer with a series of proven hits under his belt.  IMAGE didn't take a chance on him.  IMAGE is just as concerned with the bottom line as any other corporate entity, and pissing on the work of the people that they potentially publish one day seems like bad business.

Also, how do you think that the creators at IMAGE pay their bills?  Even SAGA probably isn't Brian K. Vaughn's chief source of income...he's writes for TV.  MORNING GLORIES probably isn't paying Nick Spencer's bills...SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN probably is, and both are great books filled with novelty...but the latter is somehow less real a creation?  I just don't buy that.

Also, it's very smug to cite THE WALKING DEAD as being more real because it's a book with a TV show based on it, rather than a book based on a TV show, because (1) not many creator owned books get TV shows, and (2) while THE WALKING DEAD probably sold pretty good before TV show, I guarantee that it's success now owes a lot to the media exposure of a hit TV show.  THE WALKING DEAD was not selling to non-comics readers before it was on AMC.  Now it is...because "they want more of the thing that they love," to use Stephenson's own words.  Yet, somehow, those readers and the success of that media crossover are more "real" than, say, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER season 8?

From the retail perspective,'s a great thing to push books you like, and it'd be great to have audiences expand their horizons, but I'm not entirely sure the public has made up their minds about superheroes (as Stephenson also states in his speech)...I think the public has made up their mind about COMICS.  Non-comic readers do not walk into comic stores saying, "I've run out of novels to read...what have you got for me?"  Do you know what brings a non-comic reader into a store?  BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER seasons 8 and up.  Do you know what happens when that non-comic reader does when they run out of BUFFY to read?  They ask if there is anything similar to BUFFY.  I've had this interaction time and again with people, and I've directed them to other books...sometimes IMAGE books, if they fall into the area of interest of the reader.

Here's a personal anecdote some people have most probably experienced; I read comics at work sometimes, and my co-workers express surprise and bemusement.  And I will go on to explain that comics are not just superheroes...I often read manga at work.  I explained the premise of Takehiko Inoue's REAL to a co-worker...wheelchair basketball being about as far from superhero comics as you can get.  One of my co-workers likes TWILIGHT, so I lent her a book in a similar vein (ha ha!), which I enjoy and think is superior to TWILIGHT, and she has yet to read it...because it is a comic.  She doesn't understand comics, and has a pre-conceived idea of comics as not being "real"...and this is coming from someone that considers TWILIGHT a literary masterpiece.  To people outside of comics it's not superheroes or licensed books that aren't "real"'s COMICS that aren't "real."

Licensed books and superheroes are not the thing that keeps comics from gaining new readership.  The North American attitude towards comics as being "not real" is still very much the public perception; unlike in Europe and especially Japan where comics are as real as any other book, and as legitimate both an artform and source of entertainment; but that perception is slowly changing.  That has a lot to do with these license tie-ins and the success of superhero movies.  They do, in fact, bring people into stores...just not in droves.  Public perception is not going to change overnight. 

The trick is exploit that interest to divert these new, virgin, readers into other books.  It is to take the fans of BUFFY or the Marvel movies and turn them from tourists into comicbook readers.  And telling them that they are not "real" is not the way to do that.  If you treat them as tourists and their interests with derision, chances are they will not visit you again.

And that's the "real" problem.

Friday, November 29, 2013

DROIDS: My Favorite TV Theme Song

A friend of mine recently threw my favorite kind of party; a Saturday Morning Cartoon party.

We watched shows from our youth and when we couldn't take full episodes, we just watched openings.

I love openings of shows, because they're basically music videos a lot of the time, and the animation is usually better than the shows because the job of an opening is twofold; it has to dazzle you to get your attention, and it also has to tell you what the show is about.

Anime openings tend to lean more towards just being music videos because the song is usually part of the marketing of the show, and in North American, animated shows are generally aimed at children and the people producing these shows often think that kids are stupid, so the openings tend to be really simplistic and direct (often to the point of being condescending), often having songs that are literally "This is exactly what this show is about."  
And sometimes that's ok...there are some really charming openings that just say what the show is about right up front (Gummi Bears and Ducktales jump immediately to mind as good examples, and Mummies Alive jumps immediately to mind as an awful one).  But the really sweet ones...the ones that stay with me...are the ones that manage to communicate what the show is about while (A) not just telling you straight up and (B) sounding like a real song.  It's a tricky balancing act.

Which brings us to the favorite opening song of my childhood, which I only recently remembered thanks to my friend screening it at the aforementioned Cartoon-a-palooza; the opening to DROIDS.

STAR WARS was huge in the 80's...way bigger than it is even now.  As rabid as todays Warsies are, the marketing of STAR WARS in the 80's makes it pale in comparison, and LucasFilm sourced out the creation of two spin-off cartoons to Nelvana, EWOKS and DROIDS to capitalize on this.

I loved both shows, but if I'm being honest, I liked DROIDS better.  Robots just appealed to my adolescent more than alien teddy bears, and the show was exciting with it's lightsabers and laser guns and speeders and space ships and aliens and what-have-you.

And going back...DROIDS is actually still a pretty decent show.  The premise is solid; C3-P0 and R2-D2, lost and alone after their adventures in the original trilogy, seek out new masters and bumble into various adventures.  This allowed the show to tell both serialized stories that built from episode to episode, but also in small arcs designed to end, with the Droids moving on after having helped their new master succeed and finding a new one as they looked for both a purpose and a home like some kind of cyborg Littlest Hobo.  Sure the animation is limited, the designs are dated, and the dialogue is cheesy, but it's still got some solid storytelling and a strong premise.  I find I have an appreciation for this show that I didn't have a kid.

And a lot of that has to do with the opening.

The animation and the images used aren't particularly impressive, but juxtaposed with the song, they offer a compelling narrative.

As an intellectual exercise, I'm going to break this down.  I'm not saying that any of this was the creators intent, it's just my reading of it, but if it was their intent...I have profound respect for treating 6 year old Derek Halliday like an adult.

The song, TROUBLE AGAIN, was written and performed by Steward Copeland of the POLICE, and the lyrics are as follows:

Steppin' softly in a danger zone
No weapon in my hand
It's just this brain, designed by man
It's got me in trouble again
In trouble again
I put my life in jeopardy
In the service of my friends
I wouldn't care but it's a dangerous affair
'Cause I’m in trouble again, trouble again
In trouble, in trouble, in trouble
Firstly, it's a pretty good song.  It sounds like STAR WARS, but it also sounds like 80's pop.  None of the lyrics state anything specific about the show...they don't say the shows name, they don't reference the characters, they don't tell you who they are or what they do, so the song stands alone as a song.  I also like the slightly melancholy feel the song reminds me of the LITTLEST HOBO in that regard.  It sounds upbeat but slightly regretful.
Now, if you break down the lyrics, you get a pretty interesting commentary on the existence of the Droids in the STAR WARS universe and how they view their lives.
The first verse tells you what their average day is like...they are constantly put in danger that they have little to no ability to deal with, but they also are compelled to confront due to the circumstances of their creation.  The cause of their woe is, "...just this brain, designed by man."
As Droids (robots, sic), they are intelligent beings with a certain level of self awareness.  Unlike humans, though, there is no great mystery as to their creation or their greater purpose in the universe...they were created by men to serve a specific function.  Droids know who their creators are, and interact with them all the time.  So might not a robot, put in constant danger, question why he was created to suffer, or whether his compulsion to meet dangerous situations was programmed into him?  A Droid would not believe in a greater power, because they weren't created by a greater power, they were created by flawed men.  They know that their decisions are not their own, but the result of a program...they wouldn't curse God for their situation, but their own flawed minds, and their inability to violate the programing which compels them into situations they can't control.
The second verse acknowledges that the Droids put their lives in danger as a service to others, and the use of the word "friends" implies that this is a noble thing.  But the third line, "I wouldn't care but it's a dangerous affair" contradicts this, and again, it implies that the Droids are aware that their choices are not free ones, but part of their programing that they are helpless to change.
As any good nerd (and let's be're only reading this if you're a nerd) knows, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are:

(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

(2)  A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

(3)  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Assuming that the Droids in Star Wars generally follow these laws (and it's safe to assume that most standard service model Droids would, even though we know that there are Droids built either without the First or Second Laws, or modified First and Second Laws), the second verse of this song is an interesting lamentation on the conflict in the Droid's lives; are they capable of being selfless?

If the Droids follow the Three Laws (or have some kind of similar programming that is equivalent), then any sacrifice would not be a choice, but a compulsion.  The line, "I wouldn't care but it's a dangerous affair" implies that the Third Law is being superseded by the First Law...the compulsion to jeopardize their existence is not a selfless act because it's not a choice in the first place.  Knowing this makes the Droids question whether any of their actions can be considered heroic or noble, despite the fact that their are risking their own existence.  The "I wouldn't care" suggests that, if they had the choice, they WOULD chose to endanger themselves for their friends, but they'll never know if that is a choice that they would freely make.

Listening to the theme song now gives the show a whole new depth to me, even if I'm just reading too deeply into something that isn't really there...I just like the idea of C3-P0 and R2-D2 as going on an existential adventure, and questioning the nature of their existence.  They were created to be comedy relief and comedy is a human affectation, so it's easy to forget that they are non-human entities and that they're thought processes would not be human ones.  To me, the song is a lamentation of the Droid's inability to change their fate because they can never know if their choices are free ones or simply the result of their programming.  They cannot be noble or heroic, even if they might aspire to be, because they are incapable of making a selfless sacrifice, since such sacrifice is part of their programming...even as their programming may also be telling them to selfishly preserve their own life.  This seems especially true of C3-P0, who seems to have a stronger Third Law bias than R2-D2...but, then, they are made for two very different purposes.  C3-P0 is a Protocol Droid, and thus probably pretty expensive and fragile, while R2-D2 is a service Droid built to affect repairs in hostile environments.

That's how I see it anyways.  Thanks for indulging my cartoonishly over-the-top analysis of a cartoon theme song that no one remembers!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Reponse to Mary Oliver Leeds RE: Feminist Anime/Animation

I was alerted to a new comment on one of my recent posts today by a student writing her dissertation on the representation of women in media, specifically animation.  She did not leave an e-mail address with which I could answer her questions directly, so I will instead reply in the form of this blog post and hope that she finds it in time for it to be helpful.  At the very least it generates content and is a discussion worth having.  ^_^

The comment was as follows:

"I am currently writing my dissertation based around the representation of women in animation and media and would love if you could answer some questions surrounding this issue. Do you think that work produced solely by women show more respect for the equality of women rather than those produced by men? What do you feel are the greatest misrepresentation of women today? In the new Pixar animation ‘Brave’, did you feel that it genuinely tackled the issue of a female lead? Do you believe it is important for animated films to reflect womens varied roles in modern society or are they the last opportunity to escape from political correctness?

'Thank you in advance,

'Mary Oliver Leeds College of Art"

I would first like to say that I am flattered by your interest in my opinion, and will answer to the best of my ability, but please keep in mind that I am hardly an expert on either media representation or feminism.  If it's helpful I can try and put you in contact with a few of my friends who are more knowledgable if you are interested (looking at you Tory and Stacy), but for now here are my thoughts.

1)  Do you think that work produced solely by women show more respect for the equality of women rather than those produced by men?

The short answer is, no, I do not, but I will elaborate.  I think it is easier to create something that you have first hand experience with, IE being a woman and the issues and concerns of a woman, but I do not think that works produced by men about female characters are any less relevant or respectful, and (sadly), a lot of what is out there representing women comes from male creators because it is still a very male dominated world.

There is a wealth of sophisticated and sensitive portrayals of women in media generated by men which still manage to speak to a female audience.  Jaime Hernadez LOCAS series and his brother Gilbert Hernandez PALOMAR and LUBA series in LOVE AND ROCKETS have positively and realistically (to the extent which comics can) represented women for decades.  Writer Greg Rucka has worked almost exclusively on comics featuring female leads for Marvel and DC, and the books he's written with male leads always have a strong female presence, such as his recent run on PUNISHER in which he introduced a female protege for Frank Castle who is every bit as ruthless and driven as her male counterpart.  Joss Whedon is famous for creating television with female leads such as BUFFY and DOLLHOUSE, as well as championing same sex representation.  Hyao Miyazaki has created some of animes most endearing and enduring female characters in NAUSSICAA, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, and SPIRITED AWAY, and even his male lead films such as PORCO ROSSO, CASTLE IN THE SKY, and PRINCESS MONONOKE have a strong female presense that resonates with that audience.

I wish there was more being produced by women for a female audience (which is not to say that that work is not being created, but it would take a whole other conversation to go into the problems surrounding why that work is not being published/produced) in North America (Japan does not have this problem...women thrive in comics and animation and targetting a female audience has always proven lucrative, which makes North America's resistance even more baffling), but that does not mean that work being produced for a female audience by men is less respectful or sensitive to that audience.

It's a different story if you look at media produced by men for a male audience though.  There is a lot of material featuring female characters that is directed at a male audience that is not very well representative of the female experience, but that material is not being made to appeal to a female audience...for the most part.  WITCHBLADE was a comic created by a four men and one woman, Christina Z, who wrote the series at the beginning, was a comic created for a male audience featuring a female lead which found a devoted female audience.   This was back in the mid 90's and comics was a mostly male market, so this may have been a case of women finding something that was close enough an adapting, but in it's close to 20 years of being published WITCHBLADE has taken notice of that audience and has very carefully straddled the line between positive representation of women and titilating men...well, until Tim Seeley took over, anyways.

2)  What do you feel are the greatest misrepresentation of women today?

I'm not sure exactly what context you are addressing with this question; do you mean broad trends or are you asking me to cite specific works?

There will always be broad stereotypes, but that goes across the board.  Media still portrays gays on TV as flamboyant charicatures, men as meat-headed chauvanists, and women as objects, and nerds are anti-social rejects.  It's easy to resort to stereotype because it's's almost become a shorthand.  I do think that media has become BETTER representative than it ever has been. 

There is more representation for homosexuals now that there ever has been.  If you look at who our recent male action heroes are you'll find that the ultra-masculine muscleheads of the 80's/90's have given way to the more sensitive and female friendly men like Chris Hemsworth or Joseph Gordon Levitt.  As for women...that's a growing market! 

TWILIGHT, as much as I may not respect the work, played an important role in changing how media markets to a female audience.  WOMEN...HAVE...MONEY, and they WILL SPEND IT.  As with all things, money talks, and if there is a profitable market demographic that is STARVED for content, someone will seek to fill it.  TWILIGHT proved that marketing at women is not only viable but insanely profitable.  You can thank TWILIGHT for much better HUNGER GAMES.

If you want me to cite specific works, I refer you to this post I wrote about SUCKERPUNCH.  SUCKERPUNCH is what happens when a guy that does not know he is a misogynist tries to make a girl-power movie.  It is AWFUL.

3)  In the new Pixar animation ‘Brave’, did you feel that it genuinely tackled the issue of a female lead?

Again, I'm a little confused on the wording of this question; what is the issue of a female lead?

Frankly I cannot think of a better female driven movie than BRAVE.  Merida is a great and engaging character, and the underlying theme of the film could not have been more relevant to the female experience...either from Merida's perspective as the daughter or Queen Elinor's perspective as a mother, as well as being and exciting and humorous piece of fantasy and entertainment.  Whatever the issue of a female lead is, I do think that BRAVE tackled it head on, in every possible respect that it could.

4)  Do you believe it is important for animated films to reflect womens varied roles in modern society or are they the last opportunity to escape from political correctness?

This is not an easy question to answer, particularly since the subject we are discussing is escapist entertainment.  Animation in particular is firmly in the realm of fantasy; for example, I highly doubt you will see an biopic about Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Stienem.  I also do not not think that not being completely PC precludes positive representation.  PITCH PERFECT was a filthy gross-out comedy filled with vomit jokes and a just AWESOME menstration pun from Elizebeth Banks, but it was also a successful comedy with an all female cast (similarly BRIDESMAIDS).  Positive representation does not need to come at the expense of entertainment value.

For me, the most important thing that animation can do with it's representation of women is to provide young girls with heroes.  Our relationship with animation in North America is predominantly that it is a medium reserved almost exclusively for children.  Now, this is slowly changing as my generation (80's Baby), which grew up during something of an animation boom where animation aimed at children went from just entertainment to marketing (GI JOE, TRANSFORMERS, HE-MAN, MY LITTLE PONY, RAINBOW BRITE, etc were all built around media tie-ins), and now, as adults, there is a new market for nostalgia and those things are being remarketed at us as big budget motion pictures and related media tie-ins, but animation is still predominantly viewed as something for children. 

When I was a kid, my heroes where on TV and in comics, and they had a HUGE impact on me.  KIDS NEED HEROES.  And there have been so few for girls until recently.  Now you have Merida and Korra (of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA), and with the introduction of anime to North America, a huge variety of female heroines aimed at girls in a variety of genre's, be it magical girls like Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura or angsty teens such as Makino Tsukushi in HANA YORI DANGO (and numerous other shoujo series that are probably more popular, relevant, and recent...I just can't think of one off the top of my head), or Katniss Everdeen in THE HUNGER GAMES, etc etc.  There needs to be more of that, and there is a market for it.

I think the most important thing that animation or any type of media can represent about women is that they are strong, intelligent, and beautiful, and can be heroes.

I hope this has helped.  If you have any follow up questions or wish to further discuss this subject, please e-mail me at

Sunday, July 1, 2012

FEMINIST ANIMATION: A Short List of Female Friendly Animation for Children and Adults

Merida in Pixar's BRAVE
I recently had the pleasure of seeing PIXAR's newest blockbusting feature, BRAVE, which was one of the rare movies to both meet and exceed my expecations.  Unfortunately, critical response has been not just underwhelming, but disappointing...what's not to like?  The humor is smart, the animation is gorgeous, the action is thrilling, and the themes are universal and cut deep (anyone who loves their mother would have to be a cold-hearted robot to not be moved to tears by the films resolution).  Most importantly, though, is that the film features a truely stong female protagonist in a movie that can entertain ANYONE.  This isn't a film for girls, it's a film with a girl in the LEAD that anyone can watch and feel inspired by (I certainly was).

That said, I do not want to undercut how important I think it is that Merida is a hero for young girls (and women in general).  Girls need heroes too, in the same way that boys do.  My moral compass was shaped more by my childhood heroes than by religion or anything I learned in school.  HE-MAN and GI JOE had as much influence on me as a person as my parents did.  There's a line DMX once wrote that sums up what I took away from my childhood heroes, "The true measure of a man is not measured by what he does for himself, but what he does for someone else, and if you help another without concern for reward of gold, what you give you shall recieve ten-fold."  This is the kind of thing our heroes teach us, and in most cases, our heroes are people we either identify with, or project onto.  A childhood hero is either someone you see yourself reflected in, or someone you wish you could be.  That's not to say that it's impossible to identify with someone of the opposite sex, but it certainly is easier.

I am a lifelong fan of animation.  I love it; cartoons, anime, CGI, whatever; if it's animated, I'll watch it.  I've been an adult for a long time, and I still tend to enjoy animated shows and movies more than I do any other type of media, and thinking back onto my childhood, I found a lot of female role models that helped to shape my life, and even as an adult, I still tend to gravitate towards female protagonists.  I will admit that part of it is because I am a man who is attracted to a strong woman; strong physically and strong in personality; but there is also something about a female protagonist that appeals from a storytelling perspective in a way that a male protagonist does not.

The burden placed on men is that you have to be strong and deny emotion; to feel too deeply is 'girly.'  This is limiting and often leads to rather one-note characters and monotonous narratives where the stakes are very simple and goal oriented; all the hero has to do is kill one guy or blow some @#$% up.  That's not to say that there aren't male protagonists more in touch with their feminine side or that there isn't a visceral thrill in a tough guy kicking @$$, but it also means the stakes are generally external rather than internal, and thus end with the resolution of the movie; you are not moved when John Diehard saves a building or an airplane.  You were only invested in the journey, not the destination.

It is generally accepted that women are more in touch with their emotions than men.  This isn't really the forum to debate whether that is myth or fact, but it is generally accepted.  This is part of what makes a narrative featuring a female protagonist attractive from a story standpoint; the stakes are much higher because you are more invested in the character.  You have more empathy for a character who goes on an emotional journey.  You sympathize more with someone whose feelings are evident and in danger of being hurt, because we all know how deep hurt feelings cut.  We all struggle with emotional turmoil.  We identify with that.  Men in media are tortured physically, and not many people are familiar with physical torture...women in media are tortured emotionally, and we all know how that feels.  To endure and overcome that takes greater strength and makes for a more fulfilling journey than 'Kill the Bad-Guy.'

There are, of course, good and bad things about this stigma, such as the stereotype that a female protagonist cannot control their emotions and makes dumb decisions based on knee-jerk emotional responses (*cough* Katherine Stark *cough*), but for the most part, when handled correctly (*cough* HANNA *cough* TRUE GRIT *cough*) this leads to a satisfying, deeply moving, narrative.

What follows is a list of animated films and TV shows featuring female protagonists that I have enjoyed over the years, from my childhood, through adolesence, and into my adulthood.  I hope this is helpful to someone, somewhere, or that, at the very least, you find something entertaining that you hadn't heard of before.



I loved this movie when I was a kid; it's STARS WARS for girls.

Rainbow Brite did not have a very long life; the show was only 13 episodes, less than half a TV season for an animated show in the 80's; but was still a huge part of many peoples childhood, and this movie was definitely the best part of the franchise.  This fan-trailer is far more representative of the movie than the original trailer...except for a rather terrible musical interlude at the opening of the movie, RAINBOW BRITE AND THE STAR STEALER was an actiony sci-fi adventure featuring a strong young girl who saves the ENTIRE UNIVERSE from a spoiled, jewel obsessed, Princess who attempts to ensnare an entire planet in a massive web and cast the universe into eternal darkness.  Higher stakes I cannot imagine!

Rainbow Brite is smart and proactive, and possesses an awesome superpowered fashion accessory (I love empowered items...Rainbow Brite's color belt is the equivalent of Green Lantern's power ring, and pocesses many of the same abilities) that makes her one of the strongest forces in her universe.  I also liked her dynamic with Chris, a brash young boy that dreams of being a hero.  Throughout the movie he constantly underestimates Rainbow Brite, only to watch her stand toe-to-toe with him in every situation, often puzzling out ways to overcome the traps they fall into using intelligence rather than brute force, and in the end they both have to work together to overcome the Princess (Chris has a Prism whose power is reliant on Rainbow Brite's light to work, while Rainbow Brite's power rely's only on her will...and star sprinkles).

RAINBOW BRITE AND THE STAR STEALERS isn't just a great action adventure, it has strong feminist themes that it tackles head on in the narrative and makes for a satisfying emotional journey.  I still enjoy it to this very DAY (and I'm over 30.  ^_^;;;).

Monday, May 21, 2012

AVATAR AVATARDING: Asami IS Amon; A Hypothesis.

AVATAR: The Legend of Korra
I haven't nerd-blogged in a loooooong time, but I also haven't been as invested in anything as I have been in AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA in a long time either.

Frankly, the show is great.  Not just great animation, but great TELEVISION...great storytelling.  People are usually so ready to dismiss and animated show as trite fluff or as somehow creatively compromised by the format, but I dare them to watch an episode of KORRA and tell me that it's not among the best things ever to be put on TV.  It's almost DEADWOOD good (yeah, I went there...that's how serious I am).  With it's dense worldbuilding, well rounded characters, real stakes, intricit plots, and exploration of complex themes, KORRA demonstrates a depth rarely seen on TV lately, much less in the field of animation.

AVATAR: TLoK S01E04 - A Voice in the Night
And while we're on the subject of the animation...few shows can claim to look anywhere near as GOOD as KORRA.  Jaoquim Dos Santos (who has previously worked on other shows I loved, such as JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, GI JOE RESOLUTE, and the DCU movies) knows his shit, and the art direction, storyboarding, and animation of KORRA as a whole has risen to dizzying new heights as a good as AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER looked, KORRA looks BETTER.  It's not just the ambitious, exciting, and kinetic fights (A Jaoquim Dos Santos speciality) but the bold camera angles, the meaningful close-ups, the breathtaking wide shots, the fluid transitions, and, most impressively, the ACTING.  Even minor characters have, well, character in their movement, and Bo-Lin and Tenzin's animators seem to be constantly trying to one-up each other in acting of their characters (admittedly it's like apples and oranges though; Tenzin's wild takes need to be balanced against the more subtle stroking of his beard, while Bo-Lin has free license to act ridiculous all the time).

KORRA is a show I am heavily invested in; it makes me laugh, it makes me fret over whose hurting whose feelings with their highschool bullshit, it makes me lean forward in chair gripping anxiety during an intense fight, and, most of all, it constantly surprises me.  Episode 4:  A Voice in the Night in particular had some incredibly brave and bold storytelling, showing the depth that Korra has as a character; she's not just the stoic hero, but a teenage girl.  As the Avatar she has always been strong, and thus, has never felt threatened or frightened by anything...until Amon.  Korra feels threatened bythe potential to lose the thing she feels makes her special, and has no idea how to deal with it; she's always been taught that the Avatar has to be strong and without fear.  And when Amon and the Equalists subdue her at the end of the episode, the entire scene is frightening and dark and feels like a violation.  Korra is overwhelmed by this newfound feeling of helplessness and vulnerablity, and does a very human thing; she cries.  How many Saturday morning cartoons can you think of where the character has to deal with such volatile, complex, emotions, much less be allowed to EXPRESS them?  This is the real deal.

Which brings me to my newfound investment in AVATAR: TLoK.  So it's time to throw my hat into the ring of wild fanboy speculation and advance my baseless theory as to who I think the series resident mystery man might be...AMON.

Amon; Leader of the Equalists
Amon is the leader of the Equalists; a group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries made of dissident Non-Benders (people who do not have the potential for bending, though it's still a little unclear what makes someone a bender...something to do with naturally occuring chakra gates, I guess?  They explained it a little in the first series) who seek to overthrow the Bending elitists who supposedly oppress them.  Amon's identity is a mystery thus far, his signature white and red mask, armor and hood concealing his identity (he looks sort of like Doctor Doom, and that's good company for a supervillain to be in).

Asami Sato
Asami Sato is Mako's new girlfriend and daughter of Future Industries founder and CEO, Hiroshi Sato, an inventor and futurist who build a company around his greatest creation, the Sato-mobile, a sort of steam-power model-T.  She's beautiful and intelligent, and no prissy socialite, having proven that she has a taste for danger and fast vehicles, as well as self-defense training since a very early age.

I think that Amon and Asami may be one and the same.

This may be an controversial theory to put forth, but hear me out before you judge; thus far there is more evidence in favor of Asami being Amon than there is for Amon not being Asami.

Firstly, how do we know that Amon is in fact a man?  He is covered from head to toe in a heavy leather tunic and armor, which could potentially conceal Asami's figure.  Padding in the armor and lifts in the books could helf to change slight Asami into imposing Amon.  No one has seen Amon's face, which he claims was taken from him by a firebender in his youth, but how do we know this is true?  Close ups reveal enough of his eyes to see that he isn't scarred, at least in that area.

...Asami's Eyes
Amon's Eyes VS...
While on the subject of Amon's eyes; they do look somewhat similar in shape to Asami's sharp, fox-like, eyes.  This is only circumstantial evidence, though, as it's mostly a stylistic thing, and thus not really admissible...but it does drive speculation.

 As for Amon's deep, terrifying, voice VS Asami's sultry lilt, it's not out of the realm of possibility that her father, a genius inventor who has supplied advanced and miniturized weaponry to the Equalists (including some awesome steam-powered mecha suits!) could have built something to distort her voice; it's already been established that radios and other recording techonlogy is present in Republic City, so it is within the realm of possibility that Hiroshi Sato could have built such a device into Amon's ever-present mask to further conceal Asami's identity.

Asami is noticably absent every time Amon is on-screen or delivering a message on the radio (though those could potentially also be pre-recorded), including during the Fire-Ferret's championship match, in which her boyfriend was particpating, and which her father was sponsoring.  Also suspicious is the circumstances under which Mako came to meet Asami and then be introduced to Hiroshi Sato, who offered to sponser the Fire-Ferret's in the Pro-Bending Tournament, which was later revealed to be a large part of Amon's plot to embarrass the Avatar, perpetuate Anti-Bender propaganda (the Referee had been paid off to be biased against the Fire-Ferrets, but it was not revealed who paid him off...Asami has the means and opportunity to do so, and if my hypothesis proves right, also the motive), and spread terror.  The Avatar HAD to be present at the Tourney for the terror attack to have maximum psychological impact.  Asami also admitted to Mako during their first meeting that she had been to every match; this would provide her the opportunity to gather intelligence on the Arena, as well as the various teams, and predict and manipulate who would make it to the finales, which she did when she talked her father into sponsoring the Fire-Ferrets championship bid.

The Equalists are shown as being technological advanced and it has already been revealed that Hiroshi Sato has been supplying them with technology; but who has been training them to use it?  Amon's elite troops are shown riding motorcycles with great skill, and Asami has proved her driving abilitiy when she raced with Korra riding shotgun behind her.  She demonstrated not just skill, but practised expertise...which makes her awkward run-in (literally) with Mako suspect; how can she have such control on a racing vehicle, but not her scooter?

There is also reason for speculation in some of the comments Asami has made.  Asami has told Korra, Mako, and Bo-Lin that she has been trained in some form of self-defense since she was a child...we have thus far only seen one demonstration of her martial skills, which allowed her to overcome the Luitenant, who even Korra has thus far been unable to defeat, but it is too early to speculate if her abilities are on par with the expertise that Amon has demonstrated, which puts him on a level equal to any Bender he has encountered thus far.  It is entire possible that Asami has trained in Chi-Blocking, especially given Hiroshi Sato's proven hatred for Benders following the death of his wife at the hands of a Fire Bender.

Speaking of Fire Benders and personal tragedy...Asami and Amon's stories of having lost a loved one to a Fire Bender are very similar.  Amon says that he lost his family and his face to a Fire Bender who extorted money from his father...the wording here is murky.  He doesn't say that his father died, just that his family was taken.  Asami says that she lost her mother to a Fire Bender who robbed their mansion when she was a child.  This could be a coincidence or it could be a lie on Amon's part to help protect his identity.

As for the disruption of Hiroshi Sato's plan to trap the Avatar...Amon has made it clear that he has specific plans for the defeat of the Avatar, and has already proven that he could either kill or take away the Avatar's bending at any time; he has had opportunity to do this on three occassions, and has actively stopped his subordinates from engaging Korra.  Sato's trap was not part of Amon's plan, and his killing of the Avatar would have proven detremental to whatever Amon's endgame was.  Not only that, but Amon has proven ruthless in his actions, and Asami demonstrated NO hesitation in subduing her father...her facial expression was especially cold moments before tasering him.  If she was Amon, her motives here would be to get control of the situation, and to subdue an out of control asset.  Also, there is nothing that says that Sato knows who Amon is...even if Amon is using a voice distorter designed by Sato, he could have been recruited and commissioned to build it at Amon's behalf, until the impression that it would be used to hide Amon's identity (which it would...even from him).

What does Asami gain from that if she is Amon?  First off, she is now above suspicion in the eyes of the authorities and Korra.  Secondly, she defused the situation on both sides, allowing her to keep her identity hidden from not only Amon's followers, but Korra and her friends, while allowing the Equalists to escape with their assets intact, including Sato.  Assuming that Asami is Amon, she gains a lot from coldy electrocuting her own father.

Admittedly, this is a far off theory, and supported mostly by circumstantial evidence, but there is a LOT of it, and AVATAR has proven itself a show that isn't above the shocking reveal or the surprise twist.  Whoever Amon is, whether I am proven right or wrong, I assure you that I cannot wait to find out!