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

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 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

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

(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)

Abby Library

Come in

The door has no lock
It is warm to the touch
Warm and kempt and polished with hand-oil

The books sip dusklight
And drink heavy from the lamps
They are ready for a banquet
That makes tables groan in protest

There are breaths
As loud as engines
Bells, as loud as shot
Furious, a ticking clock

Is small and slow here
Its arms heavy with perfume
The smoke of old dreams
Turning into something else

A shop-worn place
Of well-used lives
Weeded of vanity

By a librarian that knows his work.

Brick by Brick

Manhattan is a great place to be in the springtime.

Walk out of the subway on to 42nd. It’s only a block to you destination, of course; you couldn’t come to New York and not see the library. You can see the lions from down the street.

Past the arches you walk, and the place opens up. It’s beautiful. The walls are painted with murals, the ceilings painted with clouds. There’s marble everywhere. Woodwork is everywhere. In the reading rooms, up the stairs worn smooth by centuries, they’ve got pieces like Toledo enamel suspended so high above you it might as well be in the sky.

The true heart of the collection is beneath your feet. It’s dug in many stories beneath the surface. That’s where the beating heart of the collection is housed. 15 million items.

It’s as fine a temple as ever has been built, and it’s built to awe.

How does somebody build something so incredible? It’s hard to even wrap your head around that question. Where does one even begin?

Now, with that in mind, I want you to look a little more closely at something.

Look at the wall. Really look at it. What do you see? Continue reading

Taste

Underwood

Boom.

Raymond Chandler was not the most prolific of writers. He only started publishing in his forties, after losing a job in the oil industry thanks to the perils of being an artist, which are eerily similar to being a drunk.

He remains, however, one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th Century. The iconic private detective Phillip Marlowe was his creation; anytime you see a private detective in a trench coat, talking about ‘dames,’ and drinking, you’re looking at the cultural contribution of Mr. Chandler.

His taste in food, much like his writing, were simple and direct. ‘Cooked well and fast’ were his prerogatives. Every scrap of his writing reads that way, spiced with the acerbic wit that made Marlowe famous. Continue reading

Father Ouzo

I’ve met a pastor named Shandy
And vicar named Brandy
And a sister named Whiskey, it’s true

But for my tribulations
Across this creation
There’s but one thing that can get me through

For when I’m gone
And it’s rough
It’s that licorice stuff
That leads me to my life again

He’s a Greek
Never weak
He’s a cloudy-white freak…

Father Ouzo, forgive me my sins. Continue reading