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 II

(Part II of a series. See Part I here)

Believing in Superman 

With the success of Batman: The Animated Series, the same creative team was given the reins of a new hero in 1995: Superman.

Superman is the superhero game on ‘hard.’ It’s hard to write a good Superman story. But the guy’s compelling. We wouldn’t have had decades of Superman stories if he wasn’t. But in order to write a good Superman story, it should start with this basis if you want your audience to care: he’s a strong, good guy trying to do the right thing. He tries to live up to his code: truth, justice, and the American way. (American way, oddly enough, was only added later, because Communism. It was a weird time for everybody…) Striving to live up to his code, his strength becomes a liability. He tempers himself, because he knows there’s a right and wrong way to do things.

The problem with recent Superman movies, especially Batman v. Superman, is that the people making the movie don’t believe this can be taken seriously. They don’t believe in Superman as a character. They try to make the films ‘gritty,’ and make Superman a gritty anti-hero.

The problem with this is that Superman can’t be a gritty, film noir narrative. His story is primarily a hopeful one, that a powerful person can use their power for good, and be a hero. If Superman, someone with his kind of power, acts like a gritty anti-hero, he’s not a gritty anti-hero; he is a scary asshole, and a scary asshole to whom we can’t relate.

Perfect example: in Batman v. Superman, when Luthor threatens to kill his mom, he screams “WHERE IS SHE?!” like a crazy person, and fires up his heat vision like he’s going to blast Lex into oblivion. Very un-Superman.

Lex, too, is diminished by this lack of belief. He needs to be everything Superman is not: supremely intelligent, suave, cunning, ruthless. He needs to be Superman’s foil, just like the Joker is to Batman. But the foil of a powerful asshole is a good guy, or at least an underdog. When Superman is a gritty anti-hero, Lex can’t be Lex, which is why the character goes haywire.

Now, knowing this, let’s compare introductions in movie and cartoon.

Compare this:

To this:

The first one, the animated one, is pitch perfect. From body language, you get the sense that Superman is actually afraid here. Even though he’s taller than Lex, Lex is all up in his face. He’s unafraid. After all, he knows Superman is strong, but he also knows Superman’s weakness: Superman is at heart a good guy, and wouldn’t kill Lex right there for threatening him. His power comes from who Lex is as a character: always smart, always cool, always in control.

As for Jessie Eisenberg’s Lex, our introduction to him is completely off the wall. Having him mention his father, and the whole East German thing, totally undermines him. He’s not in a power-suit, ruling the city from a modern throne. He’s a startup rich kid, and one that says ‘Ahoy, Ahoy’ when he meets people. Snyder shoehorns in all these complicated plot points – i.e. who the hell needs an import license??? YOU’RE LEX LUTHOR. SHIP THE ROCK ON A PRIVATE PLANE. NOW THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS YOU HAVE IT! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?! AND STOP BABBLING! JESUS! – and you still don’t have clear tension. All this stuff, like Zodd, the Kryptonian ship, the East German father, hell, even him playing basketball – all of this muddles up the character to the point where we really don’t know why we should fear him, or even care about a story he’s in.

Jessie Eisenberg is a good actor, and it’s clear that he really did consider the role and what it meant. But lot of the confusion and weirdness comes from the fact that they really didn’t know what to make of Lex, because they didn’t believe that Superman could just be a good guy with all that power.

It’s going to be even weirder when they start to introduce characters most people don’t even know about…

Continued in Part III

Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes

(First in a series…)

Batman v. Superman was a hell of a movie.

Not the best way to start a Traditionalistic, but hey, I haven’t had one in awhile.

Usually, these things are about really big stuff. This is going to be about something small. This, I swear, is going to be about how DC will never be able to pull off the Justice League movie.

They won’t, because they’ve already done it.

Back in the day, in the early 90’s, Warner had just come off the success of two awesome Batman movies, specifically Batman and Batman Returns. Compared to the earlier televised adaption with everybody’s favorite silly Batman, Adam West, these were darker, more serious takes on the character. So when Warner decided to created an animated series with Batman, they took this tack.

I don’t think anyone could’ve possibly guessed what they were doing while they were working on this show. It remains, along with the animated movie in the universe, the best representation of Batman put to film.*

They were able to take so many risks, and the payoff was huge. In one episode, Batman saving three police officers is told from three different perspectives. Ra’s al Ghul was a recurring character, getting Batman into Indiana Jones-type pulp adventures. Mr. Freeze was even cool!

And that wasn’t a pun! Amazing!

Batman: The Animated Series blossomed into a really incredible animated Superman. Both were then combined into the Superman/Batman Adventures, which then flowed into a run of Justice League, then into Justice League Unlimited, which told tales about the wider universe of heroes.

This is what’s known as the Timmverse, the animated DC universe helmed by Bruce Timm and a stable of awesome writers. The were animating and writing for over a decade, and created awesome representations of the whole Justice League on TV.

This begs the question: why was the first ‘episode’ of the movie universe, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, such a terrible mess? After all, they already did it.

For this, you really need to go back to the history of the series.

Understanding Batman

Mark Hamill was cast as the Joker way back in the salad days of 1992. He was the character through the entire run of the series. In a more recent interview, he said, quote:

“I had never seen anything like this, not just in children’s television — in any television.”

On the Batman: Animated Series commentary tracks, you get the idea that people really didn’t know what they were making when they were doing this series.

They were able to make such an awesome series because, on a high level, they understood what makes Batman tick.

When you consider Batman, he’s many things. He’s a boy avenging the death of his parents. He’s a costumed crime fighter. He’s Bruce Wayne, a secret identity. But he’s also a detective. There’s a reason that Batman’s first comic book was called ‘Detective Comics.’ There’s also a reason Batman’s a popular character. Detective stories, consistently, are some of the most popular literature.

Batman does this as a character constantly in the comics. Some of the greatest Batman stories ‘The Long Halloween,’ ‘Hush,’ etc. are straight-up detective stories.

In movies, Batman is almost never a real detective; that is to say, a problem of detection is not the central point of the plot. In the cartoon, Batman is consistently the detective; even when Superman plays Batman in ‘Superman/Batman: World’s Finest’ (seriously, go watch it, it’s awesome) Superman has to sneak around and play the detective, just like Batman would.

That’s why the best superhero movie, in my mind, is a movie you probably never heard of: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. In my mind, it’s the only Batman movie that pulls off the Batman-as-Detective thing really well.

The story focuses on The Phantasm, a hooded figure going around Gotham killing criminals. Everyone thinks it’s Batman, and he goes on the run from the police. Framing this is Batman’s origin story, where he falls in love and starts to doubt his mission as the Caped Crusader.

On top of that, Mark Hamill’s Joker is incredible. He’s neither a total psychotic murderer, like in Dark Knight, or a silly Silver Age version. They tried, as Timm put it to strike “a good line between the clown and the killer,” and it works really well. There’s even some moments of levity where the two Jokers mix, like this:

At the end of the clip, it looks like Joker’s going to snap. He goes “DON’T TOUCH ME!” like he’s really angry, and then immediately flips and goes “I don’t know where you’ve been!” It’s funny, but in such a way that we’re off balance. We don’t know which Joker is the real one. We don’t know what to expect.

Further, everybody talks about Joker as Batman’s foil, and here it’s done in an awesome way: both the Joker and Batman are trying to solve the same mystery of who the Phantasm is, each in their own, uh, way. (You’ll have to watch to find out how the Joker goes about it.)

All these moments and plot points from a very deep understanding of the characters, characters they had been working with for years.

They took this knowledge to the next phase of the universe, one of the most iconic characters in American history…

(Continued in Part II)

God in the (Vending) Machine

The first job that ever taught me anything was at a bar by my house. My commute was a five-minute drive.

It was late one night, the end of a shift, and I was wrapping up the host booth. Not too far away, one of the bouncers was there eating.

He was a great guy, great at his job, rarely complained. From what I could gather, his life wasn’t easy, but that night he was eating like a king; the kitchen had cooked a steak by accident, so that was what he was getting for an end-of-shift meal.

We started chatting, and he told me that earlier, he had thought of how great a steak might be. This thought, he said, had been broadcast to the universe, and the universe had provided him with a steak, just like he wanted. He was convinced that this was the secret to getting rich, living life to the fullest, and being successful. He talked about it like a preacher talks God, or a barefoot runner talks about how running shoes ruin your joints.

I didn’t think much of this at the time, but looking back, this was my first encounter with a particular American belief system, one supersedes all our other beliefs, even the Christianity many of us believe to be the bedrock of our country.

It’s part of a faith I call the religion of the Vending Machine God.

The Vending Machine God has its own church. It has its own texts, doctrine, and clergy.

It’s a faith you’ve never heard of, but it’s everywhere.
Continue reading

24 Hours of Lemons is Decadant and Depraved

The world is full of opportunity for adventure.

Often, we avoid it, not because we don’t want adventures, but because we’re not adventurous.

I fit that description. After all I am a librarian; my profession is not one that attracts the adventurous or the death-defying. There are happy exceptions to this rule, but it is the rule. I like my quiet house. I like my quiet street. I like my quiet library, although it is louder than you might suppose.

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is become a gear head. I’ve met a lot of these people. I’ve known kids that could swap engines, make SAE racers, all sorts of things. I know a lot of engineers that can work with machines in ways I can barely comprehend. And who doesn’t want to be like that, really? Who doesn’t want dominion over their tools and their machines? To make things that produce power, go fast, and make a lot of noise?

One of my friends, Mike, is one of those gear heads. He’s done work on solar cars while he was in school. Now he’s an engineer for a living. He knows machines inside and out.

He told me once about a race he does. They’re all around the country, but find an easy home here in Michigan. They’re called 24 Hours of LeMons. Continue reading

Comic Assumptions

Librarians are over thinkers.

That is, after all, how we make our living. We are also not known for confidence, or the ability to keep things in perspective.

As a librarian, I’ve done a few articles interviewing people about their work. It’s always fascinating. Everybody’s got a story. If you can’t see that, if you can’t connect, that’s your problem.

Comedians get paid to do that, when you think about it. They get paid to connect with people. Laughter, in and of itself, is a connection with the people in the crowd. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of standup and interviews with comedians. They’re interesting people. They love to talk. Interviewing one should be really easy. Continue reading

In Praise of Wandering

Bill Watterson is one of the best cartoonists of all time. I’d say he’s the best. I can’t imagine a better art, better characters, or a better strip than Calvin and Hobbes. It was brilliant when I was a kid and it’s brilliant now. It’s easy to wonder how such a prolific author came up with so much great art in one lifetime.

In the Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book, Watterson speaks about his own creative process, specifically how he came up with ideas for his strip. He wrote:

People always ask how cartoonists come up with ideas, and the answer is so boring that we’re usually tempted to make something sarcastic. The truth is, we hold a blank sheet of paper, stare into space, and let our minds wander. (To the layman, this looks remarkably like goofing off.)

Like most of the work Watterson has produced, there’s a gem in it: goofing off is how creativity works. The really great ideas, the really incredible ones, usually come from the metaphorical gambol. Continue reading

Funny Numbers

10,000 is a funny number.

In most libraries across the country, you’ll find one book that focuses on that number like a hawk. That book, of course, is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcom Gladwell.

The book describes the success of many people, from the Beatles to Bill Gates. The author attributes their success to mastery over their given craft, and posits that this mastery comes from 10,000 hours of deliberate practice; inborn talent is only allowed to grow if the person commits to practicing that skill in a deliberate way for long periods of time. This is not the only piece of the success puzzle that Gladwell posits, but it is a large one, and one that’s being debated.

What’s implied by this theory is that in order for a person to be a success, they must specialize at an extreme level. They must get really, really good at a single thing.

One of the people who’s put in their 10,000 hours is a comedian named Louis CK. He’s been in the stand-up game for quite awhile now; he has a successful sitcom, stand-up specials, and roles in Hollywood films. By any measure, he’s a great success, a seminal figure in pop culture today. Continue reading