Monday, August 18, 2014

Strengthening Characters By Defining Limits

So, how strong is strong? An important question you need to debate is just how strong your characters are. It may seem trivial when dealing with worlds where strength seems solely dependent on the writer's whim, but it does help in consistency. More to the point, it gives you an additional tool when writing to play with.

Think about it: Once you establish a character's strength, it means you have established a limit, and limits, for a writer, are always a good thing. It means you can build a proper challenge for the character, and one that works for the readers. You need to establish that you will not add something just for the sake of making it easier for the characters, such as surprise new powers, as well as a reputation for occasionally allowing the characters to lose in a big way.

If readers know what the character can and can't do, and that they can suffer, then that creates a lot more suspense than if the character has the ability to grow new powers at will and you know he can never lose. That's fine is some comics, but those comics also buid suspense in a different way, by whettng readers curiosity as to what the character will do this time. That can work, but that's a different kind of story. Here, we're trying to build suspense through the character facing limits with the knowledge that he may not overcome them, and that's a great a tool.

Obviously a character can grow, and sometimes losing can provide that motivation. There is a reason that so many stories are pretty much lose-train-win; it's a working formula. If you have have a lot more room to play, such as with a novel or graphic novel, you can have the character find other ways to deal with his limitations, such as nifty new sword, upgrading his armor, or inventing a potion that allows him to overcome his limits. It's possible that one of his items can even become self-aware and start gaining abilities to enhance him or his familiar gain a more powerful form. Just try to actually define those abilities well enough that they are not either over-powered or a deux ex machina.

In essence, the better you define the character and what he can do, the more you can actually do with him. A simple point, but you would be surprised just how much you can get from it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

How Far Should You Analysize Something?

People have got to stop reading into comics what they want and start looking them as they are. Too many people add intent beyond the original auther's thoughts. This school of literary criticism believes that the intent of the original author doesn't matter, and that the writing in question needs to be re-interpreted every so often.The good news is that this kind of thinking keeps the work alive and fresh, and allows everyone to put their own spin on something. It also allows a greater number of scholars to discuss the work and thus give it a thorough picking over.

The bad news is that ignores the work of the original author in constructing something through which he wanted to become immortal by sharing his thougts; re-interpreting it every so often without care shows a certain disrespect for the author. It also shows weak scholarship, as a lot of the writing depends on mores of the time it was written; without that added information a lot is lost in translation. But the worst thing is that it allows people to shape it in the form that they find more palatable; they feel free to read whatever they want into the story

And I say worst because too many groups have thus turned the meaning of a lot of stories around. This has been done the most in books such as "Huckleberry Finn", which has been interpreted as one of the most racist books on the planet despite Twain's attempts to make it a nail in the coffin of racism, and others such as "Mein Kampf", where it is used as proof of Hitler's Christianity despite how often it points out that religion should not be used as a tool of enlightenment but of the state.

It gets really interesting when that kind of thinking gets attached to comics. The most obvious example is the Sidekick Syndrome. When sidekicks were introduced the idea was to increase readership by having someone in the story that boys could vicariously adventure with the hero; they could actually imagine that they were in the story. It worked well with the times because the boy would quickly become the surrogate son of the hero, as well as his apprentice; this paralleled reality to a degree as sons took over the jobs of their fathers over time. It was a great way to have legacy characters. such as Bart Allen as Flash, who took the job over from Wally West as Flash, who took the job over from the original Barry Allen Flash.

However, in one of the few times I'll condemn a civil rights group, too many gay rights activists decided that sidekicks were signs of homosexuality wanting to express itself. Keeping in mind that by the 1970s most of the teen sidekicks were legal, he hero/sidekick relationshp represented the ideal bear/twink relationship: Two equal partners on a grand adventure able to be who they wanted to be outside of soceity's norms. They bought into Wertham's concept that Batman and Robin were living in sin, and thus they became gay icons.

It did not help that they exercised shirtless together a lot and apparently slept in the same bed. The first was because the culture was different; men had fewer modesty problems issues at the time, mostly because skinny dipping was still the norm, school shower were still enforced, and larger families meant that everyne saw everything. Two guys, even a man and a boy, training together in nothing but shorts was hardly an issue. The sleeping together was seen as more innocent; boys from less affluent homes, the usual audience for comics, were used to sharing their beds, even with parents and older siblings, so seeing Bruce and Dick in the same bed was hardly unusual.

By the 1980s mores had changed. Boys and men didn't exercise together anymore and swimming naked was on the way out, and the smaller familiies and greater affluence ensured that boys were sleeping in their own beds. In short, the rules had changed. By then, however, gay culture had really started working out, and there was a simultaneous resurgence in Golden Age material; not only were readers into the simpler era of story-telling due to the deconstruction of the super-hero genre such as "Watchmen" and "Dark Knight Returns", but Crisis on Infinite Earths made people interested in what had come before. It helps that this curiosity was being fed by retro series as "The Invaders", "All-Star Squadron", and "Batman vs. The Justice Society".

[Historical Clarification: "Physique mags" (where muscular men wore little more than loincloths) were already an established part of gay culture, as well as bath houses. In the 1980s, there was just a renewed interest in physical health in general, and in the gay community as a whole.]

As Batman and Robin were already the subject of a lot of homo-erotic humor and speculation, the pictures of them exercising an sleeping together helped fuel the fires. The problem, from a literary critique perspective, is that the gay culture was putting their own spin on the relationship, shifting what was a healthy father-son relationship to a slightly more perverted one. It didn't help that the older artists would subvert the Comics Code any chance they got, and so some additional material got tossed in that sort of helped obscure their relationship a bit, and Master Grayson's name did not help matters.

In essence, their relationship was re-interpreted by a new generation, and that re-interpretation changed how they looked at Batman, and super-heroes in general.

So...this puts me in a weird position. As a Christian I tend to get nervous about looking at a text without putting it into a historical context and re-interpreting it based on current philosophies, in order to fit the current mindset. I've seen way too many times when that's led down a dark path. As such, I think it's important that when doing a proper literary critique it's important to know the author's thoughts or at least allow for the era in which he lived. Basing a literary critique solely on the story feels like I'm missing half the story.

On the other hand, as an artist I love the idea of a re-interpretation, especiallywhen it works with the character in question. Not only does it lead to some interesting thoughts on the subject matter and the genre in general, but spurs creativity in other directions as well. In that regard, I fully endorse looking at things differently every so often.

So when it comes down to it, when we talk comics, if you're going to put a 1940s comic into a modern context, let me know. Otherwise, expect a hard glare followed by an eye roll; you may as well be making stuff up as you go, and that's not as much fun as you would think..

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Religion in Your Universe

Religion is always one of those more interesting problems. It's a hand that needs to be played strongly, but not too strongly, and can make or break a comic if played wrong. You need to determine if it's even necessary and then go from there.

Not all comics need religion, or can get away with the barest mention of it. Marvel Comics is probably the best example of that, as there are literally dozens of religious characters but not everyone is even aware of most of it; unless religion is important to a character's development it is hardly ever mentioned. On the other hand, religion can be intrinsic to a fantasy setting, especially one based on D&D, as you need someone to call on for divine favors. You obviously don't need to have it, if Conan has proven anything; it's a world with gods, but they don't seem to exist beyond someone to yell at most of the time.

Where most comics get it wrong is by over-playing the negative aspects of religion. Although that can be the point, it can also cost you readers, even those that are anti-religion to begin with. A compromise needs to be struck between showing the evils of religion and hitting the point where the message gets lost in the noise. Youi can show the local church as evil as long as there are characters within it that are still essentially good people. Obviously evil churches need to be portrayed as evil, and you can have as much fun with that as you want, but try to show the good church as, well, good. The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (the novel, not any of the movies) should be your gold standard.

Once you've decded on your religion you need to decide on what type and how it' organized. Youi can either have one religion or multiple, and they don't all need to be the same. You can have a monolithic monotheist church and a loose pagan religion even in the same city if they work for your comic. Also note that the gods and other mythic beings do not need to be organized like their temples; the Greek gods may have had well-organized hierarchy, but the same doesn't need apply to their temples.

You also need to decide how widespread belief is and how fanatic that belief is. The stabdard "evil cult" has very few members, but those members are extramely fanatic, while the Cathoic Church may be extremely widespread but had relatively few fanatics. It's important to realize that someone who has strong beliefs is not necessarily a fanatic; a person with a strong will is likely to be willing to die for his beliefs, but that doesn't mean that he is a fanatic. After all, any intelligent being can decide that dying for the cause is perhaps the most logical course of action. A fanatic instead does what he does not because it may be the most logical course of action but because he thinks that the reward in the next world is worth it. A group of fanatics is unlikely to make any changes in its policy while any other organization will make changes every so often, if they are by nature coservative

All of these decisions must be made about any religions that you choose to introduce orany school of thought. Ultiately it is up to you to decide what kind of religion(s) you want to include and what role they will serve in your story.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Darkness That Powers the Laughter

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Comedy fulfills a number of functions in a society, ranging from a pressure valve to keeping egos in check. However, in order to work the comedian needs to be able to look at his subject in the most truthful way; a great comedian does not merely make jokes but exposes the reality of his target. If he's a truly great comedian he does it because he sees something good in the target; he wants to bring out the best in the target and he hopes that his humor will do exactly that.

And that defines the difference between someone who merely tells jokes and a true comedian. Jerry Seinfeld merely tells jokes; he thrives off the attention, but his humor lacks a certain bite. He has actually hit the point where he just mentions something and hopes his audience laughs. He tells stories, but those stories are generic; he puts in just enough detail that anyone can fill in the details with their own. Because he doesn't really offend anyone and let's them do the work he has become a sort of mac and cheese comedian; he's great for assuring people but he doesn't really stand out, just like yoiu reach for that bowl of mac and cheese when you need a comfort food rather than something that will actually fill you.

On the other hand, Christopher Titus is steak. He actually explores the subject matter; he doesn't just describe his decidedly dysfunctional family but he looks at what made them that way, how they could have been different, and what makes them both hero and villain of their own story; he shows that no matter how different families are they are still composed of people that love one another. More to the point, he's not afraid to offend, to just out and out tick someone off, and roll with it; he's not interested in sugar-coating things but getting to the heart of the matter.

Seinfeld is the comedic equivalent of a merry-go-round; sure, he makes you feel good about taking a ride, and sometimes it's sorta fun to take things slow, especially if you're on a date, you have the bond of a shared experience, but the ride itself is quickly forgotten. It's a pleasant experience, sure, but sometimes you need a roller coaster.

Titus is that roller coaster. When you emerge from one of his performances it's almost cathartic because you've undergone the full range of emotions. You become so wrapped up in his world that youi actually experience his memories, and get to explore his world, and that allows you to link to another human. There isn't just a small bond, but something tight and strong; after you leave, you have a greater appreciation for the people around you, and feel a greater connection to them.

But...in order to create that greater bond you need to be willing to take a long, hard honest look at the reality around you. Seinfeld just comes off as not having taken that look, and only have taken a quick look around. Titus, on the other hand, has taken that long, hard look, and it shows in his humor. That look is required for any good joke, as it is not just good enough to know why it is funny, but you also need to how it connects to others, so that the joke doesn't remain a mere joke but a glimpse of reality, and it's offering that glimpse of reality that makes the difference between a great joke that can affect who you are and a mere diversion.

There is a payment, however. Taking that long, hard look requires the ability to plumb one's depths, and to look at one's personal abyss. As everyone has that spot within them that they wish they could forget, and so by looking at that abyss, that one area we all share as humans, a comedian sees who they truly are and who those around him truly are. By exploring what it means to be a person he learns what it takes to be a human, and thus how all of us are connected. For a comedian this can be a powerful advantage.

However, sometimes that abyss looks back. If the person lacks any grounding or preparation for that look back, it can harm them, and if they do it a lot then the harm is magnified. It's entirely capable for one to become the best comedian ever, but the person needs to be willing to stare long and often at that abyss, and that gives the abyss plenty of opportunity to stare back. For someone without grounding or without those that ground him, that look back can destroy the person. Not necessarily in that moment, or that hour or even that day, but eventually that abyss will destroy him.

A comedian is capable of showing us our true selves, and from there affecting great changes in his audience and therefore the world. The power to create laughter means the power to allow us to laugh at ourselves and in that moment take stock of whether our behavior is acceptable and just part of being human, or whether we need to change in order to be better humans, and if we listen we can be better people.

As I write this Robin WiIliams has lain cold for two days, a victim of his own abyss. He was a true comedian, one that changed the world in ways even he may not appreciate. This is a man who explored the alien, the teacher, the friend, the eney. He looked at humanity from dozen of different angles, even from that of a frog. He showed us what we could be become, all of us diamonds in the rough that could choose to be rough or shine, but the decision is ours. He will be missed, but hopeflly his abyss has been relaced with something brighter.