Three Flags

The room was regal for the Midwest.

There were plaques and awards on the walls, and shelves full of unread books. A typewriter sat on the desk, the newest, best, and lightest model, given to him by the local paper on the day of his mayoral victory. Tobacco smoke lingered, thanks to all the cigars stuffed into the ashtray. The moonlight was bled away by the incandescent bulbs that were installed only a few years ago, after the boys came back from France.

“It’s Roosevelt, I’m telling you.” The mayor took a long, nervous drink at the seat of his desk. “He gets elected, and he gives these fucking Communists ideas,” he said as he set the glass down. He poured himself another with the decanter on the desk. Sweat was pouring through his collar, which was loose. “Why can’t they just go to work like everybody else?”

The chief of police sat across from him, uncomfortable but buttoned up. His back was ramrod straight. “Mister mayor, it’s dynamite out there. You got to bring them both to the table.”

The mayor looked up at the ceiling, like he were trying to find God. “I told you, we don’t need anybody at any tables.” He stabbed his finger at the chief on the beat of his words. “Your boys need to disperse the crowd.”

“Look, Terry…”

The mayor glowered. “Mister Mayor will do fine.”

“Mister mayor, I told you before” said the chief as he swallowed. “We’re not strikebreakers.” Continue reading

Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life 

A good book on writing needs to do a couple of things.

First, and most books get this right, is to instruct. It should teach you something about the craft of writing. It should tell you things you didn’t know before, or make the invisible visible.

Elements of Style is a great old stand-by of this type, and probably one of the first writing books you read. ‘Omit needless words’ still rings in my head every time I try to edit something.

The second, and this is harder, is inspire, to actually make you want to write.

I always looked at Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury as a shining example of inspiration. It’s really, really hard to read it and not want to write with gusto. It’s less successful in instruction, but that’s not what he’s going for, really. Ray Bradbury let all his subconscious do the work; we mortals need to know how to build houses before we burn them down.

The book Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life by Nick Mamatas is one of the few that does a good job of both. It’s an excellent book, well worth the time of any writer interested in writing things so other people will read them. Continue reading

Story of Our Stories: Part IV

(Continued from Part II)

Science As Meta-Narrative

If we cannot depend on ourselves alone, we often think that we can depend on science.  

Usually, when you see a criticism of a scientific study or fact, it’s coming from a political position. We can laugh or rage at people who think that climate change isn’t real, or that the world is only thousands of years old. But science itself is a meta-narrative. It is the idea that if we think empirically, we can discover universal truths. These truths can tell us the ideal way to do everything. They can tell us how to live.

Central to it, in Lyotard’s mind, is what you and I might think of as clarification, he presents as a death of ambiguity. Continue reading

https://pixabay.com/en/king-artus-metal-sculpture-bronze-1507392/

The Story of Our Stories: Part III

Continued from Part II

Meta-narrative and the Individual

“You are the Hero of your own story.”

– Joseph Campbell

Thinking of ourselves as heroes is an intoxicating idea. What better way to imagine the arc of our lives than slaying dragons and the rescuing princesses? We imagine that we are lionized the way we lionize politicians, business leaders, artists. We value people that make their lives their own, that carve out their own destinies.

This is the idea that a person can, and should, be an individual, that they should forge their own path through the darkness of existence. The rights of the individual, and the liberty of the individual, should come before the needs of the state. It is the story of human dignity, in whatever form that might take.

We believe that a person should be able to chose the path for themselves. That we should be free to work, free to build lives, free to speak, and free to worship as we please. It is the cornerstone of our civic religion. It is a good and noble thing.

But there are problems with the way we venerate the individual. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part II

Continued from Part I

The Meta-Narratives and Their Destruction

The term was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He described meta-narratives as the ‘big’ stories that we tell ourselves that help us understand the world: things like Religion, Nationalism, Racism, Capitalism, Democracy, etc.

Meta-narratives are the stories used to understand and legitimize other, smaller stories, and they are the ways by which we understand the world. In a very real sense, they’re what we use to create order and meaning out of existence. They are what gave the modern world its character. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part I

1969.

A Cleveland train running over the Cuyahoga River throws off sparks from its fly-wheels. The sparks land white hot in the river below.

The river, however, doesn’t swallow these sparks. They don’t land harmlessly on the water. Instead, the river ignites:

Cuyahoga River

Rivers used to burn in this country. It’s odd and scary, but true.

But the 1969 fire did more than throw smoke on downtown Cleveland. It helped create a national impetus for environmental control. It was in that era that the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were passed, and environmental protection agencies at both the federal and the state levels were created.

We, of course, are still having the conversation about conservation, especially with climate change so high in the national consciousness. But Progress was made. We are better than we were before

Progress is the idea that life will be better for our children than it is for us. It is the idea that the inevitable march of technology, of social justice, of economic power, will lead to better, more free lives than were available for our ancestors.

This also rests on the bedrock idea that life was terrible before society. That things began, as Thomas Hobbes put it, with:

no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.That’s weird, though, when you think about it.

Small children understand sharing before anyone tells them about it. They understand fairness. They want to help each other.

The archaeological record that we have of early humans showed that they took care of the sick and aged. They gave proper funerals for their brothers and sisters that died. They made art.

But what about agriculture? Surely that was Progress. There’s no way food could be more abundant and predictable in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which predominated before agriculture. Hunting and gathering would be a lifestyle exposed to famine and want.

While it is difficult to understand ancient societies, which left no written records, there are a few ways we can determine which type of society afforded a better life. First, we can look at societies that are still hunting and gathering, and we can look at the remains of those ancient hunter-gatherers.

On both counts, the evidence for Progress is shaky.

To the first point, hunter-gatherers didn’t work nearly as many hours as we do. The ones still around only work between 20-40 hours a week; sometimes they work as little as 12. Work itself was different as well. Because hunter-gatherer work is so varied and requires knowledge and creativity, it seemed less like work and more like play. Work was not toil to them. Most living hunter-gatherers don’t even have a word for it, and even when they do, they use it to describe interactions with outsiders, not their own labor.

These societies that still exist are also much more egalitarian and less stratified than their agricultural counterparts. It is only with the excess that agriculture produces that we see the rise of classes:

Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.

Jared Diamond, the author of the above quote, uses the fact that the remains of the ancient elite indicate their superior health, in terms of bone lesions caused by disease, superior height, and fewer cavities than the common people. He uses the same tactic to speak of the difference between hunter-gatherers and early farmers, relaying that modern Greeks and Turks still have yet to recover their former pre-agricultural height.

Continue reading

Same Dream, Different Collar

Chevy in the Hole was one of the largest auto production facilities in the world. At its peak, 8,000 people worked there, in eight different assembly and production plants in Flint, Michigan.

Possibly the greatest voice to come out of those plants was a guy named Ben Hamper, author of the book Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line. In it, he describes life as an assembly line worker during the dying days of the Flint plants.

The books characters had different ways of dealing with the life of a shoprat. All of them turned to alcohol in some way or another. One man in particular, one that Hamper was making a hero in his columns, was so drunk on the job that he shit his pants.

But Hamper had a different means of making the clock run a bit faster: he started to write. Working the rivet line, he would finish his work and have one or two minutes before the next car crawled down the line. In that pit of time, he started to scribble. And he got damn good at it, too.

Read any of his work, and you can plainly see this Rivethead guy is smart. He’s talented.

This begs the question: why did we have him working on an assembly line? You have a guy with that kind of intelligence, that kind of talent for writing, and the best thing we as a society can find for this guy to do is rivet rocker plates to cars? Continue reading

Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes: Part IV

(Continued from Part III)

In Which a Librarian Tells Movie Executives How to do Their Jobs, Is Handsome  

So this begs the question: why can’t they seem to pull off on the big screen what they did in cartoons? Why does it seem like their movies seem to get worse instead of better?

They have the people that can conceive, write, and execute awesome Batman, Superman, and Justice League stories. It’s clear they can build a universe. It’s clear they can make the weirdest, dumbest DC characters into awesome stories too (One of the best Justice League shows was one about Booster Gold. and I can bet all the money I make off this Traditionalistic that only a few of you know who that is.)

Well, the problem really comes into play when you look at how Warner Brothers understands how their movies succeed, because, after all, DC is owned wholly by Warner Brothers. If the execs believe something, it goes.

But I don’t blame them. Honest, I don’t.

Say you’re a studio executive at Warner. Think about the success over the past decade. You just made three Batman movies that were, by the account of the critics and fans, excellent movies. The Dark Knight even had people talking about comic book movies on the same level as classics. Even their newest Superman movies, Man of Steel and Superman Returns, did all right.

These movies, what they all had in common, was that they were a darker, grittier version of the superhero movies we know and love. They were ‘realistic.’ It’s only natural that, given that run of success, that making dark, gritty movies would be a sure-fire way to the next mega-hit at the box office. You keep the director of the Batman movies on as a producer. You give the director gig to Zack Snyder. You’re set.

After all, Disney is printing money with this crap.

The crazy thing about this is that the studio learned the wrong lesson, like they so often do. They think Superhero + Grit = Money (just like Deadpool is teaching people Superhero + R Rating = Money). Only catch is this grit works really, really well in a Batman stand-alone movie, because you basically make Batman an insanely rich film noir detective with colorful villains. Perfect.

It falls flat, really really flat, when you have a shared universe with Superman or any other heroes with superpowers (i.e. they turn into Scary Assholes).

Still they keep trying, because the cost of these movies. Because they cost so much, it’s only natural that studio executives want to maintain control over them and stick with what works. People give studios grief over this, but their paycheck, and the paychecks of thousands of people, depend on these movies being huge successes. They can’t be flippant about it.

The Timmverse, by contrast, didn’t need the kind of oversight the films do because they don’t need to make billions of dollars to be worth it. Thus, people were able to experiment, people who knew and cared about the characters. And they were able to do that over decades, starting with Batman, going into Superman, then into Justice League in a natural progression.

By the time these guys got to a Justice League series, they had been working with these characters for almost a decade. They were able to explore all sorts of cool stories, I suspect, because they didn’t have this monumental pressure. They were able to develop as a team.

Warner is not going to give up DC, like a recent Cracked article thinks they can. And their execs are not going away. The best thing they can do is to focus on making cheap comic book movies. This will allow teams to focus on stories, and giving creative teams time to actually understand and believe in the characters.

If they’re cheaper, you wouldn’t need every one to be a billion-dollar success. Then you could build the combined cinematic universe while giving the people working on these stories time to grow up within that universe, just like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini did. When those smash hits come, that’s the team you want to helm a Justice League movie. Think of it as letting writers and directors work through the minors before they graduate into the big leagues.

Deadpool is a perfect example of what most studios that make superhero movies can’t do. It was a movie made on the cheap, at 58 million. It grossed 782 million worldwide because it was an interesting, new sort of superhero movie, not that it spent a ton of money. It’s not enough that we get to see Batman and Superman, or really any guy in tights. You have to give us something new, something interesting, something we can sink our teeth into.

To do that, you have to develop a stable of people that can churn out really good, cheap comic book movies.

This, actually, could give them a one-up over Marvel, because if they were to do this, they would be able to give their movies unique voices. As much fun as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, the movies all look and feel the same (which is why I’m so excited to see Doctor Strange this November; it really does look like something new).

Warner could go way, way beyond that, making all sorts of movies with all sorts of different tones and styles, while still adding to a larger narrative. But you need to allow your talent to develop.

With the DC Animated Universe, they did that. They gave these iconic characters to an awesome team, and gave them years to work through new and exciting stories.

There’s no reason, even with all the stuff they have going now, that Warner couldn’t do this again.

If anything, just don’t let Zack Snyder near anything, ever again.

Wait.**

He’s directing Justice League?

Shit.

Well, at least we have Ben Affleck.

Because Conclusions Why Not? 

You look at our favorite movies, the reason that they’re great isn’t because of how they look. It isn’t because of the proverbial, and actual, punching. It’s because we connected with the people in these stories. We understood them, rooted for them, wanted to see them succeed against great odds. It was true for normal people and the ones that can leap tall buildings in a single bound (or kick through a brick wall with a magic knee braces.)

Hell, I hope I’m wrong. Maybe they will pull off a Justice League movie. But they won’t until they focus, not on the punching or the grit or the washed out colors, but the characters. That’s what makes a story.

That is the hardest way to make a movie. But when you get down to it, it’s the only way that works.

* There’s going to be a lot of hyperbole in this series. Mike always warns me against hyperbole, but we’re Kenny Loggins’ing this shit.

** Not actually pizza.

Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes: Part III

(See Part II here)

Violence and the Lack of a Story (Or Everybody! Start PUUUUUUNCHIIIIIING!)

Like Darkseid.

He’s one of the New Gods, the iconic set of characters Jack Kirby created when he went to DC in 1971. He’s basically Hitler in space, but he’s so much more than that. The cartoon, of course, nails him brilliantly:

 

Superman: Who are you? I asked you a question. Answer me!

Darkseid: (Shoots Superman with an Omega beam which totally owns him.) That is who I am. And when the time comes, you and this primitive planet will swear allegiance to Darkseid. Or be destroyed.

Man, this is the perfect villain for Superman. He shows up, he does something bad, KOs Superman with nearly no effort, explains that he’s Darkseid, and that the world will bow before him or be destroyed. Boom!

Like, literally Boom!

Notice in that scene, there’s not a ton of action. Nobody punches anyone. There’s barely any straight-up movement. It makes a great beginning to a large story with nothing but a few words and a dash of strange power.

It only gets better from there. Superman does eventually fight Darkseid in this series, and when he does, it looks like this:

The backstory that leads to this is amazing.

Superman gets brainwashed by Darkseid, and fights for Darkseid so he can control the earth. Superman breaks free from the mind control, and goes to confront Darkseid on Apokolips, his homeworld. He beats him, barely.

As a punch line, Superman tosses Darkseid in front of the people he rules, saying ‘You’re free; do with Darkseid what you will.’ Superman expects they’re going to do to Darkseid what Darkseid’s done to them, now that he’s weakened.

But they don’t. They pick him up, calling him ‘Master’ and making him comfortable.

This is so cool, because it tells us something really interesting about Darkseid as a character. He’s so evil, he’s basically Stockholm Syndrome’d an entire world. You know that kind of a threat isn’t going away anytime soon, even though Superman beat him. On top of all that, Superman has to go back to his own world, which now hates and fears him. There’s some real pain there, some real pathos to him. Even though he won, he’s a man without even an adopted homeworld. He is truly an orphan.

Most importantly, there is more going on here than the fact that they are punching each other. That’s not so important as the motivations of the characters and a good story.

In a more modern incarnation, Justice League: War, we’re introduced to Darkseid like this:

You get a guy on a flying platform with a bunch of parademons around him. He blows up some planes, just to show how strong he is. Superman literally says “He doesn’t look so tough.”

His first line: “I am entropy. I am death. I am Darkseid.”

Christ. It’s like they got their dialog from Hot Topic t-shirts.

Then, the final fight goes like this.

I mean, Jesus, did Superman really need to burn the guy’s eyes out?! And for dialog:

Darkseid: “UGH! I AM DARKSEID!”

 Superman: “I DON’T CARE!”

I swear, the next line could’ve been: “Everybody! START PUNCHIIIIIIING!!!!!”

It’s shiner and ‘bigger,’ I guess, but easily less compelling. In the second examples, we don’t have any of the angle that Superman will be mistrusted and hated on his adopted world. We don’t have Darkseid using him as a pawn. All we have, again, is punching. (or rather, PUNCHINNNNNNNNG!) That’s not interesting, even though it looks cool.

What they’re doing here is trying to use violence to make up for lack of a story. You don’t need to have blood coming out of a guy’s eyes (Jesus, did I type that?) and have everybody punching to keep us interested. You just need to write a good story, which of course is way, way harder than showing a guy in spandex punching his way out of a situation.

Of course, Batman v. Superman takes the bat-shaped cake on this.

In one scene, Batman is taking on a bunch of Luthor’s thugs to save Martha Kent. He jumps into the warehouse, and just starts taking guys out. There’s even one guy he throws a crate at, and he’s clearly dead from, uh, getting his head busted open by the wall. This is probably the best Batman fight scene ever put to film. He’s vulnerable, and that makes him even more bad-ass (or Bat-ass???). It doesn’t even cut like crazy, like most action movies. You can always tell where the bad-guys are, and actually focus on the action.

This fight scene is so well done, it’s easily the saddest part of the movie. Because everything else is so convoluted, so poorly constructed, that this scene has far less weight than it should.

Violence, just like anything else in movies, is a tool. You can use it to tell a story. The thing is, you can’t use violence to make up for lack of plot, shitty dialog, and characters that aren’t compelling. If the story isn’t there, no amount of violence can make up for it.

In contrast, Timm and his cohort couldn’t possibly do this, because it was a TV show meant for kids and adults. It couldn’t punch or kick its way out. It had to make us care about the characters through the stories they were telling.

So this creative team, of Timm and Dini and the rest, were able to work with Batman, then Superman, then Superman/Batman. When they had nailed the combination of Batman and Superman on the screen, they could start to focus on Justice League, which had a ton the other characters that none of us really knew, like Martian Manhunter, or Hawkgirl. This was from 2001-2006.

Because they had five whole seasons with these characters, they were able to tell stories that mean something to us. They didn’t need over-the-top violence, or sex, or anything like that. They were able to be so well-done because they wrote the characters so we’d actually know and care about them. They were also able to take risks, just like they did in the original Batman series. And this time, they had more than a decade of experience working with these superheroes.

The thing is, the way that modern studios, including Warner, take a very different tack to production. This leads to a few unique problems…

(Continued in Part IV)