Monday, November 29, 2010

On the presumption of error

My appreciation of James Robinson's recent work at DC is well known.  He's recently come off a run of Superman Minus Superman that gave more character to Mon-El than he's had in the decades since he was created.  He's been writing Justice League for about a year now, more if you count Justice League:Cry For Justice (!) which you pretty much have to since it serves as a prologue to his run perfectly.

James has a very different style than we've seen on JLA for a while.  He's more interested in character building that just having people fight each other.  So there's a lot more thought-captions and internal narratives that you'd see in other books.  And if you read those captions, you'll see that the characters he's writing about are growing exponentially.  He's made Congorilla and Mikaal Tomas into more three-dimensional characters than they've likely ever been.  He's done a good job of showing that the former Teen Titans deserve a place on the JLA, as opposed to merely being interim title holders.

His first arc brought a good close to the characters he used in CFJ, with an obligatory Blackest Night crossover folded in.  His JLA JSA crossover, "Dark Things" gave a proper return to Jade, as opposed to her one-panel return in BN. And all throughout he's been building up the foundation to his current arc, Omega Man.  He's given us a look at bunches of classic DC characters, in a series of flashbacks designed to set up the existence of a powerful device.  He's come up with a solid use and explanation for Doctor Impossible, a character introduced in Meltzer's run on the book, one who almost every writer since has used and tried to explain, and failed.  He's been given permission to use the Multiverse, something that had been allegedly locked down until Morrison gets his Multiversity mini-series done.  In the  most recent issues, we've discovered that these "dark gods" have been trying to resurrect Darkseid, only to end up bringing into existence the mysterious Omega Man.   In short, he's been writing a series of pretty cosmic-level threats, exactly the kind of things the JLA should be fighting.  And doing it well. Add in a few done-in-one semi-solo stories that further build up the character of the characters and you've got a pretty solid run to date.

So why is he still catching crap from the readers?

I think Cry for Justice is where the honeymoon ended. That CFJ was a divisive storyline is a grand understatement.  And perhaps of that, his run on JLA has been met with many brickbats.  "He doesn't have any of the big guns on the team" (like that's the first time that's ever happened) "the roster is changing too much" (Again, lots of precedence, and he's got it to a stable point now, and considering the rasher of shit the DCU has gone through in the last year, it's no surprise things have been in a tizzy) and lots more.

Sometimes I get the impression that fans are angry at him that he won't just suck under and give them what they want (i.e. more Jack Knight) and view everything else he does as lacking. They come off sounding like a spoiled child at Christmas saying " I don't CARE that you got me a little battery-powered car that I can ride around in, I WANTED a pony".

Also, ever since the rumors (persistent but so far very without merit) of a Johns/Lee helmed JLA, some readers have been viewing everything else as a long lame-duck session that they must suffer through.  It's bad enough when that happens to a book when a team change is actually announced; current events JLA are being looked past for something that doesn't even exist.

So readers are in a funk, and are reading the book with a chip on their shoulder. And so every plot-point that they don't like or understand are painted as colossal failures.  Case in point; in the cliffhanger in the latest issue, The Omega Man transforms Supergirl into the black-costumed "Dark Supergirl" that we saw in the early issues of her solo title, the ones that had a lot of readers scratching their heads.  Readers quickly clamored that Dark Supergirl had been expunged from continuity by Sterling Gates, and for James to bring it back means that either A) he didn't know it had been removed, B) He knew, and didn't care, or C) some other explanation that can end with "and so he sucks".

Depressingly few people seem to be considering D) He knows what he's doing and has a story in mind.

When asked, Sterling Gates has said that James does indeed have a plan in mind for this story ("and it's pretty cool"), from which I infer that he didn't "forget" anything.  Considering the pair worked together for a year on Superman, I'm willing to bet that's true.  But since the readers have already made their choice, any data that comes along MUST go into the negative pile, or they run the risk of being proven wrong.

It's a mindset that I've come to call "The Presumption of Error".  If the reader has already decided (for whatever reason) that they don't like the writer of a story, they assume that any change they make to continuity is due to gross incompetence or disrespect, and not that they may have a good story planned.

In some cases, it's hard to tell if a change is an error or not, but if the end result is a good story, it's usually not too big an issue.  The very creation of Wonder Girl was the result of a mistake; Bob Haney mistakenly read a series of "impossible tales" (AKA "Imaginary stories") featuring Wonder Girl as if they were a separate character, and added her to the Teen Titans.  Nobody's demanding to go back and write off all those stories because he got the continuity wrong. (They've gone to great lengths to try to explain her past, but that, to say the least, is another story.)

In Justice league, Generation Lost, Judd Winick has been delivering a solid story, one far better than a lot of people thought him capable of; myself included.  So when little "oopsies" started appearing in the narrative, the staunch anti-Winick crowd declared the story an abject failure; if he can't get little details like this right, how could he possibly write a good story?

One of Captain Atom's "powers" is that if he absorbs too much energy, he jumps forward in time.  It's the basis of his DC Post-Crisis origin.  But in JL:GL, Atom has now been able to travel BACK in time to the point of his departure, once his body had processed the energy.  Now I've yet to find precedent for this new ability, unless it's an extrapolation of the dimension-hop from the Wildstorm "Armageddon" mini, which was pretty damn good.  So it appears to be new.  But again, in the eyes of those who presume error, he's either just unaware of how Atom's powers work, or he doesn't care. He's been quoted in interviews saying that he doesn't worry all that much about the details when telling a story.  I understand what he means, and he's right - one should never let continuity get in the way of a good story.  Making Atom now be able to only temporarily jump in time isn't too big a change, unless he tries to claim he could do it all along, in which case it would rather invalidate his whole origin. So yes, it's a change.  At the moment it's made, it may sting a little, but in the fullness of time, it will either become canon (hey, Superman only used to leap an eighth of a mile once) or it will be ignored or re-written by someone else.  Often, both.

Also in the latest issue, Power Girl was able to be taken down by Kryptonite, possibly artificial Kryptonite.  Small problem; PeeGee is from Earth-Two, the pre-Crisis Earth-Two to boot;  Earth-zero/New Earth Green-K doesn't affect her, or at least not to the degree it would (our) Superman.  So while I recognized that and assumed that it was somehow successfully synthesized E-Two Green-K ( a challenging prospect but hey, they had 120 years to perfect it, so who knows), the haters just used it as another log for the Winickaust.

View continuity as a foundation garment and not a strait-jacket.  It's supposed to support you without restricting your movements.  Don't let the length of Batman's cape keep you from reading a great story.

David's Law says "If the reader or viewer wants a particular ending or event to happen, they will accept any damn fool thing you have to do to give it to them"  Bartilucci's Inverse to David's Law states "If a reader does NOT like the ending you have written, they will latch onto any "error" you made in narrative or continuity to prove it's invalid".  Alas, far too many readers nowadays live by the latter and not the former.

It is entirely possible for a writer you've never liked to knock it out of the park.  But if you insist on spinning the stats so it didn't count, or finding ways to find fault with every story based solely on your dislike of the writer and their past performance, you run the risk of cheating yourself out of some great stories.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On the forty-seventh anniversary of a 900-year-old man

It was supposed to be an educational program.

This time-traveling Doctor would visit assorted parts of history, have some adventure laced with enough fact to qualify it as educational, and off to another land the next week.

Then came the Daleks.

As of today, Doctor Who has been running on TV and other media for an astounding 47 years.  Eleven actors in the part (not counting film, stage and radio format productions), dozens of companions, hundreds of enemies, and millions upon millions of fans.

There's no analogue to Doctor Who in the United States.  No science Fiction show has become as ingrained in American culture as it; Star Trek comes close, but The Doctor is almost as a part of the British mindset as Sherlock Holmes.  Sci-Fi had a higher level of respect in the UK-The Quatermass experiment was one of the first major dramatic presentations new television owners got to see after they bought their sets to see the new Queen get crowned in 1953.  By the time Doctor Who came along ten years later, Sci-Fi was as respected a form of fiction as any.

Something to bear in mind that while Doctor Who is as good as many American Sci-Fi shows aimed at adult audiences (and better than most), it's still considered a Children's show in Britain.  That's amazing compared to the insipid crap that passes for children's entertainment here.  Part of the thing is that they don't think children are brainless clods in other countries.  A children's show doesn't mean less intelligent, just a bit less violent and scatological than the adult programs.  They were often written by the same people as the adult shows.  Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat got their start in children's television and moved on to impressive careers in adult drama before returning to their roots as Who-fen.

Doctor Who is also amazing in that it survived being off the air for almost two decades.  Save for the US-produced TV movie, new episodes of Doctor Who did not appear from 1989 - 2005.  Of course, that only meant new episodes on television.  Fandom kept the character alive via new novels from Virgin and a number of other publishers, fan-produced tribute shows like PROBE and eventually authorized audioplay productions by companies like Big Finish.  Almost an entire generation of writers like Moffat, Davies, Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts became established and successful writers for British television, all assuming that they'd never get a chance to write for the one show they got into writing for in the first place.  "People try to impress you" says one of the Doctor's companions in a recent episode.  The same seems to be true of writers. Once given a chance to write for the character, people seem to up their game, sometimes pulling out plots and stories they've been polishing like jewels just in case the call ever came.  Neil Gaiman will be writing an episode for this coming season, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) wrote one for the last one; quite the pedigree.

Similarly, the actors who have appeared on the show is equally impressive.  Not even counting the ones to play the Doctor, the people playing cameos reads like a Who's Who of acting.  Comedians like John Cleese, Elanor Bron, Peter Kay, and Rowan Atkinson, dramatic actors like Derek Jacobi, TV legends like Bernard Cribbins, all lined up to have a part on a show that has as much respect in the eyes of the British public as anything you'd see on Masterpiece Theater.

Craig Ferguson dedicated an entire episode of the Late Late Show the Doctor Who recently when the current Doctor Matt Smith appeared.  He summed up his love for the show and the character perfectly - he's a man who fights horrors of the universe with only his mind and intellect. 

It's an amazing show, one built by love and creativity over nearly fifty years.  Nothing can hold a candle to it.

Special surprise - I've used that So Hot Right Now text-to-movie program to have this entry presented by a fitting host.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On how the day Superman graced your village was the most important day of your life...

If you put aside all the vitriol about the choices JMS made for his (abortive) run on the series, Superman #705 is a nice little story.  Pretend it takes place in Metropolis or something.  The fact that he's walking the Earth like Kaine is ancillary to the idea that he wants to get down to Earth and interact with people on a more personal level.  But that's another conversation we've been having endlessly, and as I say, we'll just table it for now.

The core of the story is how Superman saves a mother and child from an abusive father.  The boy puts his faith in Superman utterly to save them, making a banner to hang from their home to let him know they need help.  The father is about to attack the mom, and the boy steps in between, warning his dad to stop.  Now in endless stories (and often in real life) that's the turning point in such a relationship - the father backs down, the child finds the strength to fight him, or some other heartwarming result.  But that's not how it goes.  The dad backhands the kid, who drops like a sack of batteries, and the dad throws him down the stars to the basement.  Played slightly differently, and if it weren't about a little kid, that could be a moment of evil black comedy, on par with the first issue of Kick-Ass.  But alas, it's just how it really happens too often.

The kid screams loud enough for Superman to hear him, and he comes to their rescue.  Again, heartwarming, makes you feel good, and Superman even makes a little comment about this is something anybody could have stopped this by keeping their eyes open.

But consider this.  The kid has learned what he pretty much knew at the beginning of the story; he's not able to solve his own problems, Superman has to do it.  It's exactly the argument Luthor was making all along.  Not exactly the best way to grow up, is it? 

Compare this story with G. Willow Wilson's fill-in from last issue.  That was a story about humans, and missed opportunities and roads not taken.  Again, taken with a cynical eye, the summary of that story was "Thank GOD I got out of this burg!" But it was a set of characters who could understand each other's lives and problems.  Nothing got magically fixed at the end.  If Superman had been in that story, he'd have called Bruce Wayne and amazingly, a fat architectural and graphic design contract would have landed at their door. 

Because that's how Superman is being treated in JMS' stories, like a primary-colored Santa Claus, touching down in selected lives, changing them forever by direct action, or sometimes just by showing up.  It's very difficult to write a story that deals with both gods and commoners.  Eagles and ants, to allude to a controversial Peter David comment.  It begs the question of how Superman can choose to help this one individual over another; who can guess how many other abusive homes he's passing on his constitutional, or other crack houses?  The only thing you can go with is the idea that Terry Pratchett put forth in Hogfather: he doesn't have to actually visit every house, just certain selected ones, and the help for the other people just sort of...happens. 

There was a real good JSA story from a while back where Jakeem Thunder decides he's going to start using his Thunderbolt magic to help people individually.  He has the T-bolt build a whole row of houses for people.  The next day, more people come for serious help, and he helps them. Eventually, people are coming asking for large-screen TVs. He also learns that for everything he creates out of nothing with magic, a similar item crumbles and collapses elsewhere in the world, in accordance with the law of conservation of personal possessions, or something.  Alan Scott sums the lesson up in two parts:

1) You can't use magic to solve people's real-world problems, they have to fix them on their own.
2) People are greedy dicks.

OK, he didn't actually say that part, but it was pretty damn obvious.

These "one on one" stories work better when done rarely.  "The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man" is an awesome story, but if they did one every month, you'd be wishing the kids dead.  The Superman books used to do the annual "Metropolis Mailbag" story every Christmas, and they were delightful, and hilarious and heartwarming all at the same time. And most importantly, they were a year apart.

That's been my problem all along here.  Once in a while, these kind of stories are fun.  All in a row, they get tedious, and both in the DCU and in the real world, people start asking, "Don't you have something better to be doing?"  For all the talk JMS made about what an inspiring character Superman is, he's not been doing a whole lot of inspiring here.  Personally, I think the idea of Superman as inspirational figure was better done by Mark Verheiden in his "What Would Superman Do?" story in Superman #225.

JMS's stories have been good, but so far, I'd have to describe them with a very ironic adjective. 


Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the freedom to be a belligerent asshole, a right which is not guaranteed in the Constitution

Amy Alkon, The Advice Goddess, has a wonderful syndicated column that we never miss.  Her website collects those columns and the comments are often as entertaining and engaging as the columns.  She also collects various clips and articles on topics close to her heart.  She believes (like I do) that the hysteria over vaccines causing autism is placing kids at risk as diseases that have been all but dead are making a resurgence because parents are choosing not to get their kids vaccinated.  She's staunchly anti-carb, and has gone on record as calling sugar poison.  She thinks that the Islam religion is inextricably connected to politics, their only desire is to destroy all other religions and cultures, and the Muslims you know who AREN'T like that simply don't know enough about their own religion.

In short, she's a human being.  She has beliefs that I agree with, some I disagree with, and when I disagree, she responds intelligently and engages in reasoned debate.  I hasten to add, I have never changed her mind on any such topics, nor has anyone else. Her work is worth your time.

Right, that's out of the way...

Recently she posted  a series of videos featuring people being "mistreated" by TSA employees; clips that were supposed to display how close to a police state we are, filled with faceless officers that will demand our ID at a whim and come into our houses and take away our butter and rap records.

Here's the problem.  All I saw were two guys deliberately "acting up" to see what would happen.  And in both cases, nothing did, save for some tension and some harsh, even poorly-chosen words.

The first fellow STARTED with "if you touch my junk I'm gonna sue you" and he was surprised that he kept getting passed up the supervisory chain? 

The second guy was recording/broadcasting for his blog was surely hoping and praying that he'd get a response. And after a few minutes of checking over...he didn't get one.  He showed them his ID and his boarding pass, and they let him go.  They kept an eye on him, yes, but he didn't get the rubber truncheon up the jacksie that he was hoping for.  Both started the situation with a confrontational attitude.  Both went in all but assuming that there would be trouble, and feigned surprised when there was.

Penn Jillette once told a story (can't find the original; this is a report on same) about going through security, but his leans toward the security person doing something wrong, and Penn calling them on it.  He got his junk brushed in a pat-down and asked to file a complaint, as he was just assaulted.  They brought any number of people over to address his issues, and it eventually ended with him being offered a VIP service that would allow him to bypass security entirely.  in short, he waited UNTIL something went wrong (however small or inadvertent), and THEN complained. Penn, BTW, is also awesome.

Now, let's spin it around - did the police/TSA/what-have-you overreact?  In the first case, all they did was pass the guy off to the next person because they didn't want to deal with it, or knew they were out of their depth.  All the claims and accusation of 10K in fines were not on the tape - is there a part two as there was with the second fellow?  So in the first case, we have no recordings of anything but the TSA folks explaining that he does have to be searched before he's allowed to board his plane, and interpreting his heigtened reaction as all the more reason of making sure that he is.

I didn't see (well to be fair I didn't see a lot as his video showed almost everything but the cops, but I certainly didn't hear him report) any hands being laid on the second fellow, or any other actionable things that he could legally complain about.  Any ramping up of language was in reaction to his actions.  It's what cops do.  It's a cop's job to keep a situation under control.  So if the cop thinks you're moving away, or moving towards his partner (dog), they're going to do what they feel is necessary to maintain control. And to do ao, they...spoke harshly to him. 

Now yes, absolutely, they could have started with Guy Two by sending over a person better trained in dealing politely with the public, someone who could have started a courteous conversation more to his liking.  But here's what it looked like from the security folks' point of view - a person was videotaping them.  This is permitted, but when a person was asked if they were press, his answer was mumbled and noncommital, and after being asked, he packed up and walked away.  Tell me that isn't gonna set bells off in their heads. 

For all the claims that the guy made that they were so anxious to catch a terrorist over and above the simple desire to keep passengers safe, they let him go without a scratch, or even a terribly good story to tell. When you want to perform an experiment, it's important not to affect the experiment with your own notions or any contamination.  Accusing the TSA people who are talking to you of "liking" the power they wield is pretty much gonna affect their response.  But ultimately, they were able to identify this guy as a blogger who was hoping he'd get a story to get famous with, and let him go. 

It is highly important that we keep changes in our daily lives like these from turning into the nightmare end that people like this constantly insist they will. Keeping an eye on the government is vital.  The methods chosen by these two fellows are of questionable efficacy. 

I lead my life by two quotes:
"If you look for the evil in men, you will always find it."
--Karl Malden (allegedly quoting Abraham Lincoln), Pollyanna

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
--many, including Robert J. Hanlon

Ultimately they both mean the same thing.  I try to go through my life believing that things are done for good reason (or at least good intention), and their failure or going pear-shaped is the cause of poor planning, not Machavellian-level good planning.  If we work under the assumption that the police are out to get us, and every arrest is an attempt to keep us down, we insult the policemen who really are trying to help, and increase the risk that the ones who are on the side of the angels will walk away, unwilling to deal with the daily enshitting. 

We are in an unpleasant period.  The perfect security system is the one that only goes after the guilty, or at least only checks everyone else, because I'M innocent and should just be let through.  Until they invent a device that allows the TSA to see the guilt in a man's soul (an assuming the ACLU would allow them to use it) we are stuck with the various methods we are stuck with.  Similarly, since they involve humans, they will proceed at varying degrees of smoothness. 

So far, the massive two-handed grabs of our liberties that have been predicted have consisted of the occasional two-year-old being mistaken for someone on the no-fly list, and the odd person carrying things in their luggage being mis-identified by security and resulting in some measure of inconvenience to the passengers and occasionally others.  Both fall under the second of the quotes above.  I've heard FAR more stories like these, of people deliberately testing and challenging the system in place, and achieving no more than making life difficult for themselves, and again, the people around them.

Something that I find interesting is that quite often, when people making claims like this hear the arguments that the government is out to, say, take our guns away, those theories are laughed off as ravings of a lunatic paramoid.  Interesting how some accusations of government takeover are seen as gospel and others are seen as manic, depending on which side you're on.

The proper response is not "keep your head down and shut up", nor is it "Never give them a moment to try anything".  Keep your eyes open, maintain oversight, be prepared to call them on errors and infractions, but remember that ultimately, we are dealing with humans, and the mistakes you see may be the fault of bad or incompetent people, and not the system itself.  Scrolling back on Google Society, there is a lot wrong with the entire government; corruption, people out for themselves, and The Peter Principle proving itself over and over.  But the problem is with the people, and not the system that was set up two centuries and change ago.  But as I mentioned before, the act of contaminating, of even measuring, an experiment runs the risk of changing the outcome of the experiment.  Even the grandest of them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On the law of diminished attempt

As you may have noticed, I've got more than a bit of my heart and hope dedicated to the upcoming DC Comic T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. I've spent no small time spreading the word about the book, the original series, any angle I can come up with.

Trying to get a comic reader to try a new book is like trying to convince a kid to eat a new food, and the arguments made are often just as illogical. Every time a new comic comes along, especially one based on an old title, you're going to get a number of pat reasons that a reader will not be trying it:

I don't like that writer/artist/character Perfectly reasonable; no reason you should have to try a book by a person you don't care for.  Of course, there's always the chance this is the book that works for you, but if you've sampled a person's work and don't like it, at least there's some personal experience behind the argument. They have to convince themselves it's worth the look.  But often, even more frustrating is the inverse:

I like the character as he was One of the eternal complaints of the comic fan.  changes get made to a character, sometimes rather small, often quite sweeping, but all too large for some dedicated fans.  The new Blue Beetle had a lo9t going for it, but a lot against it in many fans' eyes.  The argument was that they "deliberately" killed off Ted Kord so they could create a new version of the character, a PC one that exists solely to pander to minorities and special interest groups.  This argument often had an air of "We're not talking about Ted anymore, are we?" but there was no shifting some of the Tedfen.  And it's a damn shame, because the latest Blue Beetle was some of the most lighthearted and entertaining work to come from DC in a long while.  The comics fans may not have taken to him, but the animation fans sure have - the new Blue Beetle has regularly been the most popular character on Brave and the Bold, and the recent live-action CGI test footage DC leaked suggests we'll be seeing more.

Now, an argument based on personal opinion (wrong or right) is damn hard to shift.  I can only get too frustrated over them, even if it's a book I really think a person would like if they gave it a shot.  But the saddest reason I've heard against a new book is...

"What's the point, they're only going to cancel it anyway"

How defeatist does that sound?  That's the argument of a guy who's had one too many (too few, perhaps?) failed relationships and has soured on personal contact in general.  They've gotten into one book too many, only to have it canceled out from under them, leaving them with a small number of issues that almost don't warrant it's own title card in the Longbox. 

And so when the next book comes along, there's one less pair of eyes willing to give it a bash, and the road to cancellation goes just a bit faster.  And they click their tongues and say "you see?" and ask for their three copies of X-Whatevers. 

I hope I never get that jaded.  I'm as dedicated a Ted Kord fan as they come, But when the new book came out, I gave it a fair try, and was delighted at what I found. 

The Kid gave Scratch 9 a look, and it's now her other Wednesday Night Thing, next to her future husband Sonic the Hedgehog. 

The Wife is reading all the Muppet titles, long having forgotten the sting of every comic she put her love into getting pulled away like a teacher grabbing your baseball cards after the bell rang.  She's STILL getting over the cancellation of Lloyd Llewellyn.

But here's the deal - you never know what book is going to be good.  Keep your eyes open, at least give the various previews a look, and don't just give up and buy a new cushion for your rut.