A Writing Entry – The Deadline Demon

Wow, so it’s almost September and the Deadline Demon is upon me.  My goal is to have my third installment of “Nevermore and the Ravens” finished, edited, and the cover art ready so I can submit it for publication at the beginning of October.  It takes Smashwords about two weeks to fully process and distribute a novel, so it should be ready for a Halloween release, which has always been my goal.  But I’m not doing very well in meeting this deadline, I’m afraid.  So why not just move the deadline?

Well, I do hope one day to be able to make a living as a published author.  Granted, I may be delusional.  I’m okay with that.  But if my dreams come true, I will have to operate on a deadline.  I operate on deadlines for my day job.  Deadlines are good for motivation (if they are reasonable) and I feel I should discipline myself to working on a writing deadline even if there’s no external force dictating that deadline.  I also have a deadline of posting to this blog on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Rather unfortunately, that’s a deadline I too often miss, and I apologize for that, patient readers.  Constraints, such as deadlines, aren’t always bad.  Sometimes too much freedom is the enemy, especially for me and my fevered hamster brain.  I might leap from topic to topic, to story to story, without a plan for finishing anything.  Hence, why I have give myself the deadline.

Once upon a time, I did write on a deadline, and I won’t say it wasn’t occasionally frustrating.  In fact, I was under three constraints.  I was contracted to produce a flash fiction story for the now defunct Pagan Edge e-zine.  I had word count limit, I had a theme which my story had to follow, and I had a due date each month to submit the story or risk missing my column appearing in the e-zine (and as I was using it to advertise my novels, I certainly didn’t want to miss that opportunity).  I preferred the editor to give me a list of topics for three to six months in advance.  That way, I had a little more freedom to try to write on a topic that interested me, and had the luxury of time to mull over topics that didn’t immediately catch my attention.  I also had more time to edit myself, which is something that I’m occasionally bad at.  But sometimes the editor didn’t provide the topics in advance, so I had only a couple of weeks to write a story.  Even with a word limit of 600, that’s not an easy task.  My Muse is fickle, and I wasn’t always inspired by the topic.  I admit, I missed my deadlines by a day or two.  I simply couldn’t get the words on the page.  I’ll also admit I wasn’t always happy with what I produced.  While I know that not everything I write will be great, I always aim for good.  Sometimes I got what I would judge as merely adequate.  I do like having some room to work.  Part of the time constraint was that if I wrote a story, I seldom had time to decide if it was what I really wanted to submit, or if I thought it really expressed the theme.  I was trapped into submitting that story because it was all I had.  I made that story the best I could, but sometimes I felt it should have been better.  I would have liked more time to create a better story than “serviceable.”  But such is the life of a professional, as I told myself.

So where does this leave the latest installment of “Nevermore and the Ravens?”  Not in the greatest shape, quite honestly.  I still need three stories to make the full thirteen.  I have three stories that are not finished, but I don’t have the cushion of a fourth one to work on if it turns out I don’t care much for the three remaining.  One is a story I started almost first thing for this collection and I still haven’t finished it, so that probably doesn’t bode too well.  I have maybe half the songs done, if I’m optimistic about it, and none of the connecting dialogue.  I thought I would wait until all the stories were done and organized before I did that part of it, which I think makes sense and will be overall better but does put more pressure on me to get this done.  I have an idea for the cover but I still have to actually draw it, and I would like a chance to make a few revisions instead of just slapping something on the cover and going.  This is indeed the danger of the Deadline Demon – getting anything out to get it out instead of getting out the best.

On the other hand, if I really want to make it as a professional published author, I need to make sure my work is out there.  In this sense I sacrifice some quality for publicity.  However, I know I’m hardly the first artist nor will I be the last to just get that final chapter done or get that final song done or paint the final picture to complete the gallery.  Obscure perfection is not the goal.  Many artists toil in obscurity for the sake of their art.  I really hate not being able to put my best out, but as I learned from Pagan Edge, serviceable is better than nothing at all.

Still, for all that, I am hoping for a bout of frantic inspiration to finish this collection on a high note.

A Movie Entry – The Marvel Movie Machine 2

Because of course there would be a sequel.  And this also expounds on a previous entry about what a non-fan might like in the superhero genre.

So I recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy and then I read reviews because for movies I know I’m expecting to enjoy, I actually don’t read reviews of first.  I like to find out if other people share my opinions.  A co-worker of mine who only went to the movie to see Chris Pratt complained that it seemed formuliac like every other Marvel movie, and indeed every other summer blockbuster that had to end in a giant battle royale.  The A.V. Club’s reviewer also complained that this seemed to be another Marvel movie with a plot focused on obtaining some MacGuffin that ended with a splashy battle.

There’s a lot to address here, and I know my co-worker isn’t a comic book fan and I’m guessing the reviewer isn’t either, so here’s my attempt to explain to non-fans what the hell is going on, and why they should give these movies a try.

The Problem:
Franchising, franchisings, franchising, where the real money can be made.  Once upon at time, Hollywood sunk money into movies as individual projects.  Then Hollywood realized it could capitalize on a successful movie with a sequel.  And at some point sequels turned into trilogies because three successful movies is better than two.  And then someone realized that if there was no room for a sequel, why not set a story before the main story?  Thus, prequels.  I blame George Lucas for the birth of the franchise, although that may not be fair, or informed, but “Star Wars” has certainly been a game-changer.

And so Marvel Studios with Disney planned out a franchise of a scope not yet seen in Hollywood.  They would produce trilogies that are oh so popular, but also integrate those trilogies in with other movies.  The brilliance of this plan is that comic books already work like this.  Characters have solo titles but also have team-ups and crossovers.  The movies are being produced like comic books.  And, as a fan, it is glorious.  But as a non-fan, it is a problem.  See, Marvel is playing a long game with their stories.  Non-fans obviously won’t see that.  Nor is it obvious that they are not making independent movies, but instead a series of movies that crosses over with others.  For example, the three “Iron Man” movies are a series, but they’re tied in with the “Captain America,” movies, the “Thor” movies, and so on.  This is confusing to the non-fan, and I absolutely understand that.  Honestly, this is part of what can make people feel intimidated by getting into comic books in the first place.  What Marvel really ought to do is title the movies in a way makes it clear the movies are a series, and not stand-alones.  But they want stand-alone movies so non-fans are not scared away by the back story.  This leads to trying to do two things:

1) Tell enough back story non-fans know what’s going on.
2) Don’t tell so much back story the main plot gets buried in exposition and catching up.

These two things are not easy to mesh, and as the mega-story gets more complicated, that’s going to become more difficult.  To be fair to Marvel, this isn’t a problem that they’ve overcome in the actual comic books either.  So this overarching grand plan is both Marvel’s triumph and downfall, because the they’re trying to have it both ways, as seen above, and this leads into other problems, which can cause the non-fan to not try these movies.

The Formula:
I like these movies, and I admit there is a certain sameness.  However, I don’t blame only Marvel Studios for this.  Sony is essentially trying to recreate Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy with “Amazing Spider-man.”  WB/DC tried the same thing with Man of Steel.  And in a scope larger than just comic book movies, summer blockbusters in general have become somewhat formuliac.  Hollywood is lazy, and when they come across a formula that seems to work, they will crank out movie after movie after movie in that very same vein.  Then they’re surprised when people stop going to the theaters.  But I digress.  While Marvel has a formula, they are partially bound by the larger meta-formula of summer blockbusters – splashy spectacle that ends with a splashy battle royale.  My co-worker said he just wanted to see something different from GofG.  I sympathize, I do, and told him I thought Captain America: Winter Soldier might suit him better because it’s a more personal story.  Then he asked, “Does it end with a spaceship battle?”  I had to answer, “Well, sort of.”  He replied, “Damn it!”  So I get the desire for creativity and something different.

But (and you knew that was coming), I think in general the plots of comic books are well-suited to the genre that is the summer blockbuster.  I don’t expect that to change.  But maybe, just maybe, we don’t need yet another Michael Bay reboot of a ’80s childhood favorite.

For Those that Came in Late (The Episode Guide):
For non-fans who might like to try the movies, I recommend treating them like very long episodes of the same television show.  Many television shows are episodic now, and follow distinct story arcs.  This is that same thing just writ large for the big screen, and as far as I know the first attempt at something so large in scope.  A movie isn’t really that much longer than a TV show, especially an hour show with a special two-parters.  So think of this as “Marvel: The Epic Series.”  Here’s a summary, without spoilers (as such; as a superhero movie and as explained before, going into it the viewer should already know that the heroes will win).

Pilot -
The Incredible Hulk – okay, not actually a pilot, but it was released before what I consider to be episode 1 and is kind of important for backstory.  This is both a reboot and a sequel, and does focus on one character, Bruce Banner.  However, there are some aspects that might make a non-fan feeling like they are missing something.  It’s also a decent movie, but not as good as some others, so I will sum up – mild-mannered Bruce Banner turns into a nigh-indestrucible rage monster when he gets angry and the military wants to use him as a weapon.  He has issues.

Episode 1 -
Iron Man – this is really a fun movie.  It’s also probably the easiest for the non-fan to get into and enjoy.  Tony Stark is exactly the sort of person that everyone really ought to hate because he is a self-centered tool, but he’s just so charming everyone forgives him for being a self-centered tool.  And it turns out he’s really not that bad, and perhaps even heroic.  This movie also has the advantage of focusing exclusively on one character, so it gives you all the backstory you need to know.  To sum up – a rich, charming self-centered tool becomes a rich, charming, self-centered hero-ish person.

Episode 2 -
Iron Man 2 – the continuing adventures of egomanic Tony Stark and how he learns that being a hero  isn’t what he thought it was, and there are undesirable consequences for his actions.  He’s less of a self-centered tool, especially compared to his evil counterpart Justin Hammer.  An acceptable follow-up and introduces the audience to the Black Widow, although she is not given that codename.  It also is the introduction of War Machine.

Episode 3 -
Thor: God of Thunder – This I have mixed feelings about.  It’s not nearly as strong a debut as Tony Stark’s, but it does provide needed back story about Thor.  Unfortunately, Thor is just not as interesting as Tony Stark (at least not to me).  So, for non-fans, I’ll sum up – Thor is Marvel’s version of a Norse god who starts off a self-centered jerk but learns humility.  He also has a brother named Loki who has a huge inferiority complex that leads him down the path of villainy.  It also has a very short and awkward introduction of Hawkeye, altlhough he is not given that codename.

Episode 4 -
Captain America: The First Avenger – so at this point it’s clear Marvel isn’t really pretending these are entirely stand alone movies.  This is better than Thor’s debut but not as good as Iron Man’s.  This is also an origin story, so there’s focus on one character, but I will admit that there are a lot of hints and allegations of things to come that can be distracting.  So focus on Steve, and enjoy the supporting characters (seeing Howard Stark explains pretty much everything about Tony).  To sum up – Steven Rogers is a good man, who becomes a great man, and punches a bunch of Nazis; also, the Howling Commandos are crazy, and Bucky Barnes is very important.  And Nazis and cosmic objects of power do not mix.

Episode 5 -
The Avengers – Most everything except episode 2 comes into play here (and there are certain elements that foreshadow this).  The cosmic object of power from Episode 4 (called the Tesseract), the villain from Episode 3, the hero of Episode 1, and that guy from the pilot are all important.  This is the big team-up, where disparate personalities are forced to come together to save the world.  This is also the first movie to end with a battle royale.  I mean, they all end with a battle, but this is the big, splashy spectacle whereas the solo movies had more of a personal fight at the end.  Basically, Loki helps aliens invade New York City using the power of the Tesseract.  There’s a lot that gets destroyed, but the Avengers save the day and capture the bad guy and enormously powerful cosmic object of power.  The most important part of this movie to Marvel’s long game mega-story is the mid-roll credit teaser introduction of Thanos.

Episode 6 -
Iron Man 3 – A lot of people didn’t like this movie, but I thought it was fine.  Tony is more mentally unstable, and a lot of that is directly due to the events in Episode 5.  But really all you need to know from Episode 5 is that Tony was willing to sacrifice his life to save others, and that he doesn’t deal with that very well (i.e., Tony has PTSD).  Also, it does have a certain similarity to The Incredibles.  And thus far, it has no bearing on the other episodes except that it has potentially made room for a new actor to take over the role.

Episode 7 -
Thor: The Dark World – This is more of a sequel to the first Thor movie than Episode 5.  In fact, all you really need to know about Episode 5 is that New York City was invaded by aliens, Thor helped, and put Loki in prison.  That’s all the bearing that has on this movie’s plot.  That said, while it’s nice to see some of Thor’s loose ends tied up, it’s just not that good.  It’s a decent popcorn flick, but Thor is not that interesting.  To sum up – dark elves want to get their hands on a cosmic object of power (called the Aether) to destroy the Asgardians.  Thor teams up with his girlfriend Jane and they manage to stop the bad guy.  The most important part of this movie to Marvel’s long game mega-story is the mid-roll credit teaser in which the Aether (also called an Infinity Stone) is deposited with an elder of the universe called the Collector because it shouldn’t be near the Tesseract (now also called an Infinity Stone).

Episode 8 -
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – This is also more of a sequel to the first Captain America movie than the Avengers.  Thus far, I think this is the best of the bunch, and it’s really the first time Cap is allowed to really have an arc.  Episode 4 was really just leading into Episode 5.  I highly recommend seeing this movie, and strongly suggest seeing Episode 4 just as backstory, but it’s not entirely necessary.  To sum up – Cap is a soldier in a time of peace and man out of time.  He’s struggling to figure out where he fits in while the only thing he’s ever known, the US government, betrays him, and the failures of his past catch up to him.  Also the introduction of Falcon.  The mid-roll credit teaser reveals some characters likely to be present in Episode 10 (Avengers: Age of Ultron, due to be released in May 2015).

Episode 9 -
Guardians of the Galaxy –  Whoa, whoa, I hear non-fans say, this is Marvel?  What?  In fact, my co-worker had no idea this was a Marvel movie until the beginning credits.  Oh, yes, this one does seem to come out of left field, especially as a series.  This features none of the characters seen before and takes place in outer space.  This is as stand-alone as the Marvel movies are going to get for awhile.  New characters, a new setting, but it brings in the midroll credit teasers of Episode 5 and 7 (Thanos and the Collector).  This is a team-up movie.  Going stone-cold into a team-up movie is hard.  That doesn’t mean there is any shortage of team-up movies, but that there are always a few characters who either don’t get rounded out, or subplots that don’t seem to go anywhere, or rushed stories, or awkward exposition.  The best team-up movies smooth over these problems.  I’m not talking superhero team-ups either.  Most team-up movies are sports movies (literally team-ups).  But there haven’t been a lot of sports movies out lately, and certainly not for summer blockbusters.  Marvel also can’t give every character a solo movie (or three) and for where they’re going for, GofG was a perfectly fine and fun vehicle to get there.  Fun, quirky, and recommended.  To sum up – a five man (and I use that term loosely) band gets together, pursues a cosmic object of power (the Orb/another Infinity Stone) and accidentally saves the day.

The Plead:
Yes, I realize it appears three of these episodes are being driven by the MacGuffin of the Infinity Stones.  The Infinity Stones are NOT a MacGuffin (really, they are a plot device, but a very important one).  To any non-comic book fans out there, I can assure you that Marvel Studios is playing a long game to get a certain storyline most fans already know about.  This mega-story will potentially unite the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy for the fate of the universe.  I’m sad Marvel doesn’t have the rights to the FF right now because I’d love to see them and the Silver Surfer involved.  This, dear non-fans, is a crossover amongst crossovers.  Please understand that these apparent MacGuffins could show up in up to three more movies.  Marvel Studios is carefully and deliberately putting the pieces in place for what I hope, and what they hope, will be truly EPIC.

I approve of EPIC.  I hope Marvel Studios can pull it off.  I think they’re doing a good job.  And I hope more non-fans will be persuaded to find out what all the fuss is about.  For those that came in late, I sympathize because there are clearly some holes in the character and plot that exist simply because the movies are building on each other.  Hopefully the episode guide helps put the grand plan in perspective and provide a point of reference in what can seem like a sea of splashy sameness.  The details are not overlooked, and in fact are the most important part.

But assuming the non-fan thinks all this is just too much, and I can see that, I recommend Iron Man as a complete stand-alone, Captain America: Winter Soldier (watching the first is optional but it helps to already know the origin story and that Avengers saved NYC), and Guardians of the GalaxyExcelsior!

A Writing Entry – Spirit of Sorrow

This was originally published in June 2012 in Pagan Edge and the theme was, obviously enough, spirits.  I use the ideas in this short story for longer short stories (“Tricks ‘O Pedia”) in Nevermore and the Ravens and also in Paranormal is Relative (“Beyond the Grave”).

Spirit of Sorrow

Dolores looked out the window.  The sky was overcast and a light, misty rain was falling.  “There will be so many today.  They do seem to come when the rain is falling,” she said out loud, although there was no one to hear.  “And so they come,” she said, seeing a flock of umbrellas walking up to the front.  She walked out of her room and glided noiselessly down the staircase.
The tour group was just entering the building.
“Now just leave your umbrellas there,” the tour guide said with a southern drawl to her voice.  “This place is historical.  We don’t want to be ruining it, right y’all?”
“They’ll drip water on the carpet,” Dolores said, although no one paid her any attention.  “They always do.”
“Alright, everyone follow me,” the tour guide said cheerfully.  “You can use your cameras but please no flash.  Let’s start our haunted tour.”
The group started to slowly wind their way through the old inn.
“This inn was built in 1875, right after the Civil War by Colonel William Hathorne,” the guide said.
“It was built in 1873, and the ‘a’ sound is long, not short,” Dolores sighed.  No one minded her.
The group’s interest seemed to pique as they walked to the main dining area.
“As y’all know, the Hathorne Inn is haunted because the Colonel’s daughter hanged herself at age sixteen,” the guide said.  She pointed to the second-floor gallery that overlooked the main dining area.  “Hanged herself from that very balcony,” she said.  “The story says it’s because her father wanted her to marry a man she didn’t love, so she took her own life instead of be wed.”
The group made some horrified gasps and took several pictures.
“Poor creature,” Dolores said.  “This guide tells them such untruths, but they are none the wiser.  Perhaps she does not know the truth either and only repeats what she hears, like nothing more than a mockingbird.  Such delight do they take in this as well!  Reveling in the misery of one long dead with no understanding of how she died nor why.”
The tour guide lead them through the rest of the first floor.
“These people who listen to the tales of the guide are but voyeurs who delight in a fantastic story they hardly believe.  Yet what does it matter to these people if the story is true or false?  The truth is hardly so entertaining as the fiction.  If the truth truly mattered to anyone, they would learn the true story of the Hathorne family.”
The tour guide now lead the group up the grand staircase and ignored Dolores, who followed.
“But perhaps they do not deserve the truth.  They show no respect for the dead.  They do not understand the grief and pain, and they come back, day after day, while the owners profit from the sorrow and horror of the past.  It’s truly shameful,” she said.
The tour wrapped up and the guide lead the group back outside with the promise of a gift shop.
“Never do they think if this place was haunted how it must feel to the ghost to have her terrible life and death exploited and mocked.”  Dolores resumed staring out the window.  “Perhaps this is my true punishment,” she said, “to endure this until I find redemption for my earthly sins.”  The ghost of Dolores sighed and faded away.

A Movie Entry – A Guide to the Superhero Movie Genre

I love superhero movies, as a genre. I am a comic book fan, so that’s not surprising. But I know a lot of people who aren’t comic book fans nor understand the appeal of the superhero movie genre. Many complain about the plethora of superhero movies and the dearth of other options, especially for summer blockbusters. So I’ve created this guide for the non-fan of the genre who might like to understand why these movies are currently so popular, and are wondering if it might be worth it to try this genre out [Warning - this a looooooong entry].

First, I’d like to say that I completely understand people who don’t like a particular genre of media. Genres have rules and narrative conventions, and sometimes those are just not to the taste of everyone. For example, in the horror genre, the villain/evil wins. That’s just the narrative convention. So that means, for example, in a movie with a chainsaw wielding maniac at a summer camp, at most only one of those kids and/or counselors is going to make it out alive. And no matter how obnoxious the kids and/or counselors, I just can’t cheer for the chainsaw wielding maniac. Therefore, no matter how well done within the genre of horror, I am not going to like that movie. If if the rule of the genre says the chainsaw wielding maniac is always going to win, I’m not going to like that genre.

Superhero Narrative Convention:
Superhero movies have certain narrative conventions as well. First and foremost, the battle between good and evil is generally pretty straightforward, except for Batman. Second of all, the hero will win and victory will generally be pretty complete, except for Batman. Superhero movies, in general, are fun and lighthearted and not Very Serious Business, except for Batman.

Okay, I’m pausing here a moment because otherwise almost every sentence will end with, “except for Batman.” Batman is technically a pulp hero, not a superhero. Batman is a thinly disguised rip-off of the Shadow with a touch of Zorro thrown in for good measure. The pulp genre is different from the superhero genre, and almost all the differences between most superhero movies and a Batman movie come down to this fundamental difference in the characterization. Batman is a pulp hero in a superhero world. Because of that, Batman movies are somewhat outside the superhero genre conventions.

Okay, resuming. The morality in superhero movies tends to be pretty straightforward. Good is good, evil is evil, and Captain America punches out Nazis. And that’s the reason the genre tends to be so black and white; the rise of superhero comic book coincided with WWII. The roots of the genre have remained, even while the world has gradually turned gray. On the reverse, the villains will tend to turn the strengths of a hero to weaknesses. So, while a hero wants to catch the villain, in general the hero will value life above all else, which is why villains tend to use human shields so often. Superheroes also tend to wear colorful and impractical costumes, as do the villains. Again, this is derived from an era when good and evil were distinct, and were made to look distinct (the equivalent of white and black cowboy hats). Superhero movies are trying to be family-friendly, which means PG-13 sanitized violence, sexual innuendo, but not a lot of gratitutious nudity, sex, or gore. I don’t think this means that the movies aren’t mature or adult, or deal with adult problems, although I think some people might view them that way. Then again, I’m on record as my favorite superhero movie being an animated “children’s” movie.

Blockbuster Convention:
In the comic books, superheroes very seldom kill any villains. Part of this is because it is exhausting always creating new ones, and part of this is the idea that a superhero shouldn’t resort to the same kind of tactics as a villain (i.e., the superhero values life and justice). However, Hollywood has decided that a movie won’t be satisfying to a movie-goer unless the villain dies. I’m not sure why since the goal of pretty much all superheroes is justice, and that is including Batman. So the movies often end not with the villain just being defeated, but being destroyed as well. This is becoming less true, and I for one am glad of that.

Also, Hollywood has decided that a satisfying movie experience that will garner big bucks in the summer months is ending with a splashy, high-stakes, CGI-heavy battle royale of some sort. The superhero genre lends itself very well to this kind of finale, and it is heavily exploited. This can cause the movies to feel somewhat the same, and that is a pity. Unfortunately, as superhero movies have become inexoribly tied to the summer blockbuster, I don’t see this changing.

A Brief Overview:
Superhero movies aren’t new; there have been various attempts for a few decades now. However, the ever-increasing use of CGI, and better CGI, and some brilliant marketing, has made the genre one of the big cash cows. But as with any movie, special effects only are not enough to make it good, or even watchable. The best superhero movies, like the best movies, are well-written, well-paced, well-acted, well-directed, and have appropriate use of special effects. Superhero movies also lend themselves to the franchise model of marketing, which can confuse and confound the non-fan. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best example of this, and gets its own entry due to the extent of the grand plan. Most other superhero movies come in sets of two, three, or four. Marvel, to me, also best exemplifies the genre, and other studios I think make slight to significant missteps with their handling of the genre. Through the entire genre, a high suspension of disbelief will make them more enjoyable (which is not to say I give fridge or chomper logic a pass).

What Does All this Mean?
Well, if you are a person who doesn’t care for a story where good triumphs over evil in a pretty straightforward story, then superhero movies are probably not for you. If you are a person who prefers a lot more gray in their world, then superhero movies are probably not for you. But there are some exceptions, and some that are less black and white than others. I’m listing my recommendations in order, so those at the top are most highly recommended (i.e., 1-3). Again, this excludes the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I will elaborate upon later (goodness knows this is already long enough).

1) The Incredibles – this is my favorite superhero movie, and I think one of the best. Since Pixar created these characters, there’s no cumbersome back story for non-fans to feel they’re missing out on. There are complex character dynamics, an overarching question of what good are superheroes, what motivates a villain, and some in-jokes and jabs at the genre (“No capes!”). The costumes are colorful, and there is a final fight, but it’s not the CGI spectacle that too many movies indulge in. It’s well-written, thoughtful, and an overall very good movie. Honestly, this is a really good introduction to what the superhero genre can be, although it might potentially set the bar too high for later entries.

2) Batmanof course Batman is the exception. As I said, Batman is a pulp hero, not a superhero. His victories come at a high cost, are never guaranteed, and are never final. The people he loves die or get hurt all the time, and the villains often get the upper hand. I recommend Tim Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s Batman trilogy, although I will say that for all the shades of gray, the sides of good and evil are pretty clearly illustrated. For non-fans, here is the story of a man struggling to become something more, and fearing what that could be. I should also note that The Dark Knight is the best of Nolan’s trilogy, but Batman Begins is pretty good and should be watched first. Unfortunately, The Dark Knight Rises is something of a let down. I think non-fans could probably skip it, frankly.

3) Spider-man – so there are two dueling trilogies for Spider-man, one complete, and one filming. Without getting into the nuances of character that a non-fan probably doesn’t care about, I’ll try to parse the differences and my recommendations:

a) Raimi’s Trilogy – I like this much, much better. I think it does more justice to the character of Peter Parker and is in general a better set of movies. But Raimi was drawing inspiration from the Silver Age of comics, and some non-fans may find the movies cheesy and quirky. I personally think that’s part of the charm. Also, they are good movies in general (well-written and all that) even if the CGI is already a little dated. I recommend Spider-man and Spider-man 2 (in that order) but not the third one. There were a lot of problems with it and even fans could probably skip it.

b) Sony Reboot – I don’t like this set at all. Here Peter Parker is an Emo Hipster Skater Kid and doesn’t take responsibility for a damn thing. Also, the CGI is splashier, although this is probably just a result of the advances in the technology between the two. However, these movies are trying to be Very Serious Business, and are not cheesy, or, to me, charming. But many people have sung the praises of the first one, so perhaps this is exactly the kind of movie the non-fan will enjoy. The Amazing Spider-man was better than Amazing Spider-man 2, which buckled under the weight of its own cast of characters and having a lack of a clear story to tell; instead it was a series of hasty (and rather cheesy Silver Age in tone) introductions to characters who will appear in Amazing Spider-man 3: The Sinister Six. I personally find that choice odd since non-fans are probably more likely to be put off by that kind of jumbled mess of characters that are thrown at them with little to no back story because unlike fans, they have no outside knowledge to draw on to fill in the significant gaps.

4) The Hulk – now, this movie is firmly in the middle on whether a non-fan will enjoy it. Fans didn’t like it very much because of the dark tone, but I can where the director was trying to go. This is, above all else, the story of a very disturbed individual and the damage he inflicts on his son. This movie could be titled, “Sins of the Father” and be equally appropriate. There is a lot of angst, anger, and betrayal. There is not a lot of the Hulk in this movie, which is good since the CGI is a bit lacking. The scenes are also shot somewhat like a comic book, which some cuts and transitions that otherwise don’t make sense. There is a battle royale at the end, but it’s short and somewhat confused. Still, this is fundamentally the personal journey of a troubled man to find out exactly how troubled he is.

5) X-men – the X-men movies stripped the X-men of a lot of the comic book cosmetics. I personally don’t think this was a good choice, but I’m a fan of the superhero genre as is. People who think the costumes are silly or absurd probably won’t mind. The world hates and fears mutants, and they are outlaws who commit a lot of actions that are technically criminal. This is as about as gray a world the non-fan will find outside of Batman (which, again, I think isn’t that gray on the whole). Xavier and Magneto have a complex relationship that highlights the weaknesses of both their principled stances. X-men, X-men 2: X-men United, X-men: First Class, and X-men: Days of Future Past are the ones to watch.
Warning – These are all related. The first movie is stand-alone (even if the plot is somewhat silly), the second is a direct sequel (and quite good), the third is awful and you shouldn’t watch it, “First Class” is a prequel (and decent), and “Days of Future Past” is a prequel-reboot-sequel (and pretty good). If all of that sounds way too confusing, first, that’s pretty much par for the X-men in any genre, and second, start with the first two and see how that suits you and then maybe move to the others. Part of my guide is to both warn non-fans of the pitfalls of the genre and try to recommend an easy place to start. This set of movies (not to mention the Wolverine spin-offs [seriously, don't mention them]) probably isn’t an easy place to start, but this set of movies has a darker tone with grayer morality than some of the others I’ve listed.

Next are the movies that I don’t think non-fans will care for. I could be wrong, so I’ll include a description and why I think they are lacking. The ones at the bottom are the ones I would least recommend to someone who isn’t a fan of the superhero genre.

1) Blade Trinity – the trinity, not the name of the last movie. These movies feel somewhat less like superheroes movies than they did before “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Blade, who is a hybrid human/vampire, fights evil vampires. It gets kind of gory, but the tone never quite says “superhero.” It’s more urban fantasy or horror, I guess. So I’m not sure by recommeding this set if I’m actually recommending a proper superhero movie rather than a supernatural action flick. And with what seems to be the problem with many trilogies, the third movie isn’t even worth watching.

2) Fantastic Four – the two movies have all the narrative conventions of a superhero movie, but somehow the whole doesn’t come together. There are colorful costumes, science-defying powers, and an egomanical villain who wants to do…something… Yeah. Unfortunately with a weak villain the movie couldn’t be very strong. And while the heroes are decently represented, they have no worthy foe. The second movie is slightly better, actually, because the villain is more villainous, but I just think overall a non-fan would find them kind of silly and not very good. Hell, I’m a fan and I thought they were kind of silly and not very good.

3) Ghost Rider – quite unfortunately, the Ghost Rider movies manage to combine the lack of traditional superhero conventions of the Blade Trilogy with the poor construction and silliness of the Fantastic Four movies. There was a kernal of something that could have been dark, brooding, edgy, and interesting in the original and sequel, but that was never properly realized. That said, the Ghost Rider (who is not on-screen enough) looks damn cool. Still, good CGI does not a movie make.

4) Superman – if you are not a fan of the superhero genre, then movies about Superman are probably not the ones you will like. Superman is a god who acts like a dork and really, truly tries to save everyone. He wears a bright, colorful costume, he is an array of scientifically-impossible powers, and is fundamentally one of the nicest people in the world. He is honest. He is genuine. He is not dark. He is not brooding. He saves the day. That’s what he does. That said, if a non-fan really wants to go all in, I’d actually recommend starting with Superman 2. That presents what has become a more typical superhero plot, but also has more action than the first one, and is a much more even movie. The original Superman is kind of a psychological movie, which is good, but it’s an A+ movie with a F ending tacked on to it. As for the other two of the original set of four, well, the less said the better. And for the reboots? Superman Returns was kind of slow-paced and possibly too cerebral, and as for Man of Steel? My thoughts on that have been made quite clear. I think it’s a terrible example of the superhero genre.

Conclusion – Like most people, I just want others to like the things I like. I want others to share in my joy. So when I try to share my joy at watching the awesomeness that is Rocket Raccoon (not technically a raccoon) and I receive a blank stare, I feel compelled to explain why I like what I like, and why I think they might like what I like. So here is that whole long entry in a nutshell – Why I think a non-fan might like what I like. So try it and maybe you’ll like it too.

A Movie Entry – 10 Things I Learned from Guardians of the Galaxy

No spoilers, promise.

1) I heart Rocket Raccoon.
2) Rocket Raccoon is not actually a raccoon.
3) Giving a movie a definite date of reference does not date the movie.
4) Destruction doesn’t have to be destruction porn.
5) The Only Sane Man is, in fact, Rocket.
6) Superhero movies don’t have to be Very Serious Business to be enjoyable.
7) I need to watch this again with the ability to freeze the scene to really take inventory of what’s in the background.
8) Gamora is unfortunately not the deadliest woman in the universe.
9) Mix tapes are awesome.
10) Peter Quill is an adorkable dude-bro.  I marvel at how that contradiction manages to work out.

It’s fun, it’s splashy, it’s a bit formuliac, but a good time, and the overall story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is building up.  Stay all the way through the credits to the final scene.  And, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, “God willing we’ll all meet up again in Guardians of the Galaxy 2.”  Also, I really hope they bring in Cosmo!

A TV/Movie Entry – I Heart Monty Python

So as part of my shameless self-promotion, I occasionally reflect on pop culture and the particular entries that have influenced my writing.  In case it’s not obvious, I’m kind of weird.  A lot of entries are about cartoons, or comic books, or comic book movies.  I tend to like comedy more than tragedy because real life seems tragic enough already.  But I out of all the things I like and that have influenced my sense of humor and writing, Monty Python may be the weirdest.  May be.  Jury’s still out.

As I find myself increasingly surrounded by ever-younger co-workers (get off my lawn you dang whippersnappers) I realize that the pop cultural touchstones I take for granted are not as universal as I believe.  I had to, for example, explain to a young co-worker that Paul Newman was not “the salad dressing guy.”  So I’m not going to asssume everyone reading this is familiar with Monty Python, although you may have heard of them.

In the late ’60s, five British guys and one American formed a sketch comedy troupe that was called “Monty Python,” which was pretty much appropos of nothing.  They got a show on BBC that was called, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” also appropos of nothing.  I would be remiss in not mentioning the one woman of the group.  She has been with them from the beginning, but was only utilized in roles when the writing called for an actual woman as opposed to a man in drag; she took it with good humor.  There were four seasons before the group decided they were done with the show.  Also, like with most great ensembles, individual members wanted to part ways and do their own thing.  But they released a few albums here and there (so many, in fact, that in part of a documentary I watched, Steve Martin said he thought they were a musical group), and four movies.  They also did a lot of live shows with a decent degree of success, although they never really got back together for any length of time.  In 1989, one of the founding members died.  The members got together a few times after, including this latest and probably last round of live shows of the full remaining group (the poor guys and gal are in their ’70s).

Monty Python’s Flying Circus:
This was a weird, weird show.  Many of the skits were making fun of the state of Britain at the time, so those jokes are completely missed (I am absolutely not the target demographic).  Many had at the core some absurd premise played more or less straight (the “Dead Parrot” sketch), some relied on one line and a sight gag (“The Queen Victoria Races”), and many were just plain weird (the “Fish-slapping Dance”).  The lone American supplied mostly very, very strange cartoons that also made fun of Britain at the time or were completely insane (but no one should be surprised).  Some of the humor was so weird that I often got the sense I was missing something because I wasn’t the target demographic, but I think maybe the humor was just that weird.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Their first movie, which was shot on a shoestring budget in a very short amount of time and was by all accounts a miserable experience.  It lampoons the story of King Arthur searching for the Holy Grail and contains some biting satire, some slapstick and sight gags, and some plain absurdity.  The movie is immeniently quotable, and many of my friends can quote most of it with very little prompting.  It was so popular it was even turned into a highly successful musical, which I have also seen and is pretty funny.  I even own “Monty Python Fluxx,” which is a variant of Fluxx based on this movie.
Dennis the Peasant – “Help, help, I’m being repressed!”

Life of Brian:
The second movie, which was by all accounts a much better movie-making experience.  This is the story of a man who is mistakely worshipped as the Messiah.  This also contains some biting satire, some slapstick and sight gags, and less absurdity.  Also, it’s probably pretty blasphemous.  It’s actually a better movie than the first and more cohesive.  The ending is, well, what happens to Messiahs but accompanied by a light-hearted musical number.
Victim – “Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke it’s true…”

The Meaning of Life:
The third movie, which is kind of a series of sketches that goes through the stages of life, with a twist, of course.  It has more musical numbers than the other two movies, including a rather memorable one regarding the Catholic Church and its views on procreation.  But it’s not as cohesive just by the nature of the structure and doesn’t hold together quite as well.  Some of the sketches are really good, but that makes the less good ones just stand out more.
Obstetrician 2 – “And get the machine that goes ‘ping!'”

And Now for Something Completely Different:
This is a flat-out clip show from “Flying Circus.”  If you’d like to find out what this group is all about, I’d recommend finding this movie.  It features what are generally considered the classic and best sketches and some cartoons and leaves out most of the topical stuff and really weird stuff.
Irate Customer – “Pining for the fjords?!”

Live Shows:
There still are some copies of the live shows available.  Most are just compliations of the best/most popular “Flying Circus” sketches although there is sometimes new stuff.  The latest version had some new musical numbers and a guy in kangaroo costume randomly appearing in sketches.  No idea why since no one reacted to him except once.  So, there’s still the touch of the absurd present.
Irate Customer – “This parrot has gone to meeet Dr. Chapman!”

Lasting Influence:
The lasting influence on me is an appreciation of the absurd, and how funny contradiction can be.  For example, of the skits that made me laugh out loud was the philosophers’ soccer match.  A team of historical German philosophers facing off against the ancient Greeks in a modern soccer match is a funny concept to me, and the execution of it is brilliant.  The “Dead Parrot” sketch and the “Cheese Shop” are two examples of something ridiculous taken seriously.  And despite the fact the guys are not good singers, the songs are pretty funny.  My favorites are “The Philosopher’s Song,” the “Universe Song,” and of course, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  And I also learned to beware the cute, innocent looking rabbit.

A Writing Entry – Fairy Tale

I’m posting this a day early because otherwise I can’t post until Friday, and that’s just too late.  This was published in the August 2011 issue of Pagan Edge and the theme was fairies, fire, and creativity.  My naming choices are deliberate and probably not very subtle (although more subtle than in this story).  This could also be thought of as a prototype “Nevermorestory.

Fairy Tale –   

Bridgette pulled into the garage after a long day at work.  She opened the door into the entryway  and heard a crash, as though a dish had just fallen to the floor.  She sighed and walked into the kitchen.
The kitchen was unoccupied but the mess was obvious.  At least three dishes had met their demise on the tile floor.  A box of spaghetti had been spilled all over the central island.  Every cupboard door was open.  A bag of oranges was on the floor.  A burner was on but there was nothing on top of it.  She switched off the burner and wondered what the rest of the house looked like.  “Kelly?”
Her teenage daughter was in her room, busily flipping through her Book of Shadows.  She uttered words every parent dreads to hear – “Mom, don’t worry, I can fix this.”
“Fix what, Kelly?” Bridgette asked.
Before the answer came, Bridgette heard a strange, high-pitched laugh.  Then the cat came tearing out of the bedroom, skittered on the tile floor, and dove down the stairs to the basement.  The source of its fright was a small, sparkling orb of light about the size of a snowglobe.  It was clinging to the cat’s tail laughing impishly.
Bridgette took a deep breath.  “Kelly, why in the name of the gods did you summon a faerie into this house?”
“Well, Melissa’s coven did it a few weeks ago, and I thought I could, so she finally gave me the spell and I didn’t know it was going to be so much trouble,” she replied in one breath, scanning her book.  She only had one summoning spell, which had summoned the faerie, and didn’t have any banishing spells.
“So you thought you’d try this by yourself before I got home?”
“I had it handled,” she snapped, switching to some of her reference books.
The faerie flew back upstairs, apparently having lost interest in the cat, and went into the dining room and started to pluck the petals off of the vase of flowers.
“What exactly did you summon?”
“A faerie,” she sighed.
“What kind of faerie?” Bridgette asked with more patience than she felt.
“I don’t know.  Does it matter?”
“Kelly, go outside.”
“So I can fix this.”
“I can do this, Mom!”
“Kelly, now!”
The teenage girl slammed her book shut and stomped outside.
Bridgette took a deep breath and went to her room to get some supplies.
Kelly angrily paced back and forth.  Half and hour passed and finally her mother called her back into the house.
“I banished it,” Bridgette said.
“Kelly, sit down.  We need to talk.”
She slumped into a chair.
“You know you made a mistake.”
“Yes,” she said sullenly.
“And you’re going to clean up the house and pay for the things that got broken.”
“Why did you do this?”
“I thought I could handle it,” Kelly said.
“There are reasons I haven’t taught you how to summon spirits.  This is one of those reasons.  If you don’t set the right kind of boundaries, they can run wild.”
“I’m sorry about the stuff.”
“I’m grateful you aren’t hurt.  These things can be dangerous.  The next time you want to do something like this, please ask me first.  I may not give you permission, but I will try to make sure you understand why,” Bridgette said.
“Now, sweep up the broken dishes so I can start on dinner.”
She fetched the broom grateful she didn’t get grounded, and she resolved to be more careful with spirits in the future.

The Raging Fanboy

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