Don’t Get Me Started #3: SDCC

jjjSo another San Diego Comic Con has passed and the tide of FB posts and tweets are ebbing away like the proverbial tide.  And what has been the primary outcome of this massive, nigh-legendary gathering of media, games and comics?? Karen Gillan shaved her head for an upcoming Marvel movie.

I kid you not, true believer.  Not only was that trending on Yahoo searches but it was one of the very few revelations from Comic Con to become a news item in Yahoo’s news-ticker. (You can read it here, if you care.)

So that’s it, kid.  Might as well pack it all up and cart it down to the dump because, if SDCC has proven anything this year, it’s that comics don’t belong here anymore.  Just like when we were kids and the teachers and bullies would rip those brightly colored items of joy out of our hands, the message is clear: “Comics?  What comics?”

SDCC began as a humble convention back in 1970.  Here’s the history as shown on their own website:

Comic-Con International: San Diego began in 1970 when a group of comics, movie, and science fiction fans — including the late Shel Dorf, Ken Krueger, and Richard Alf — banded together to put on the first comic book convention in southern California. Comic-Con started as a one-day “minicon,” called San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Minicon, on March 21, 1970 at the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego. The purpose of this single-day event—which included two special guests, Forrest J Ackerman and Mike Royer, and drew about 100 attendees—was to raise funds and generate interest for a larger convention. The success of the minicon led to the first full-fledged, three-day San Diego Comic-Con (called San Diego’s Golden State Comc-Con), held August 1–3, 1970, at the U.S. Grant Hotel, with guests Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby, and A. E. van Vogt. Over 300 attendees packed into the hotel’s basement for that groundbreaking event, which featured a dealers’ room, programs and panels, film screenings, and more: essentially, the model for every comic book convention to follow.
Now THAT’S a show I would have loved to been at!  However, being only 7 years old at the time, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to fly from the East Coast for the event.  Or maybe they would have.  I’d long suspected that they had latent ‘fairy tale parent’ motives when I was in my youth particularly with all the encouragement to seek out the “house made of candy in the woods back of our house”.
Anyway, what’s the thing that really stands out in that description?  The fact that it was something put on by fans because they really loved comic BOOKS.  There were no comic book movies in 1970.  The BATMAN show had already died out and the Hulk tv show was still years away.  These were people who came together to celebrate an art form that, quite frankly, many others thought was a load of crap.  (Some comic creators didn’t have that high an opinion of comics back then either.)
Today, it seems that the actual comic books that drive many of these movies and mega-media events are pushed to the side like a  dirty, little secret.  Almost all of the news ‘headlines’ out of SDCC had to do with movies, entertainment stars and reunions. (While I dearly love X-FILES, what did a 20 year reunion panel have to do with comic books?  Was it to hype the new comic series that takes up where the show left off?  If so, did anyone hear that?)
I hear report after report about how many people jam the convention.  Of movie stars climbing over each other for the opportunity to plug their upcoming whatever-it-is.  In previous years, cable channel G4 has had coverage of SDCC which was pretty much just an endless assembly line of celebrities and directors and producers hawking their product like shameless used-car salesmen.  (And someone PLEASE explain why Chris Hardwick is allowed to speak?  His determination to be the David Letterman of pop culture is migraine inducing.)
I don’t know if G4 covered this year’s convention.  Frankly, I don’t care because when they did, every hour was the same.  “Look at this great guest we have from a show that you might know or remember and clap fast because we’ve got this other great guest lining up behind them!”
I just bought a used-car recently and damn if SDCC doesn’t remind me of that experience.
Does anyone even GO to SDCC just for comics anymore?  And where are the panels talking about OLD comics and comics history?  I don’t see those hyped to the gills… if they even exist anymore.  I don’t CARE about a SUPERMAN/BATMAN movie because it’ll just be another blatant money-grab by Warner Brothers.  I don’t CARE that Bryan Cranston walked the con floor dressed as his character from BREAKING BAD.  In what frigging universe does BREAKING BAD have to do with comic BOOKS????
The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.  And that, dear friends, is the point.  SDCC has nothing to do with comics books anymore.  It’s all about selling you something, stoking the fan flames to make you want something which, if you thought about it, you’d probably never have wanted to begin with.
Back in the 80s, I would have loved to have gone to SDCC.  It was a dream of mine that I never realized and never will because that type of convention has vanished from the earth.  Now, when I think about SDCC, all I can hear is some slick huckster’s greasy voice as they slither, “What do I have to do to get you in this movie/tv show/game today?”
(Sam Gafford is a 25 billion mile gas nebula currently sweltering from the super nova that is the East Coast and is a comic reader and critic.)

Where Art and Ethics Meet

enders-game-movie-poster-191x300The other day I saw the new trailer for Ender’s Game, the upcoming big budget adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s beloved classic novel. My reaction to the short clip was mostly revulsion. I was angry that this movie was ever made. I was disappointed that so few have any idea about the author’s abhorrent views. I was sad that actors like Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley would join such a project.

You see, Orson Scott Card is a horrible bigot. He is a vicious homophobe, a man who has hatred in his heart. As Ben Kuchera said  in Penny Arcade when discussing the decision Card’s personal bigotry places on the consumer, this is who Orson Scott Card is:

In 2009 he joined the board for the National Organization for Marriage to work to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. It’s not that he believes certain things, it’s that he actively fights against equal rights and writes in detail about why being gay is terrible. In 1990 he argued for pro-sodomy laws in order to punish same-sex couples should they dare to not hide their relatioships [sic].

From his own words:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.

This is the man the studio put $110 million behind. This is the man who will profit off your ticket purchase (assuming back end points, which given his producer credit seems likely). He can then use your money to spread his message of hate to more people, especially the young and impressionable youths who have devoured his novels in the past.

This gets to the point Alyssa Rosenberg discussed a while back about consuming art by horrible people. In it she points out that there is a difference between the art itself and the artist. Our relationship to any art is individual. So what do we do when our purchase of art directly profits someone (or some corporation) with such abhorrent views. Alyssa phrases it this way, “So what’s a customer who wants to consume ethically to do?”

This is a big question. This is the question that Sam addressed a while back in discussing his decision not to support Marvel’s superhero movies. It is a broader question in how we, as consumers, use our own power, and it is one that goes well beyond entertainment. Alyssa notes how such projects are actually works of thousands of people. By eschewing a product fully, we may hurt people who are simply trying to get by, the grip and the construction worker and the makeup artist, all of whom may have no idea abou the politics of the artist.  Yet, we must make our own personal ethical decisions, and Alyssa suggests four possible ways to do so.  Check out her excellent full discussion here, but this is a short summary of her thoughts,

We can (1) simply “stay home”, or we can (2) “employ political moral offsets”, or (3) “reaffirm your support of progressive media”, or (4) “commit to a discussion.” I like her argument because it places some choice back onto us as consumers. We do have different ways to engage in media, enjoy media and remain ethically true to ourselves. There is nothing wrong with refusing to support a product and sitting at home. If the art itself is not problematic, and your concern is the profit given to the bigot, you can take the same amount of money (or double it) and give it to the competing cause. You can proudly eschew those project for other, more progressive works. And always, you can (and I believe should) engage in a conversation. Communication is how we end bigotry and hatred.

It is also important to understand where profits go, and there is a big difference between classic literature by people who we know where racists and anti-semites and misogynists, and contemporary writers of today . My main problem with supporting Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is that he will directly profit from the project (similar to supporting a Roman Polanski project). It is common knowledge that H.P. Lovecraft held bigoted beliefs, he was a racist and anti-semite (and he is not alone, greats like T.S. Elliot and Charles Dickens have been accused of bigoted views). Yet, any current production of his work would in no way benefit the long dead writer. But, Orson Scott Card is still alive and directly benefits from each ticket stub. Does it matter that his novel shows very little of his bigoted views?* I don’t think so.

I am going to go with option (1) and (4). I simply refuse to give him any of my money and will stay home.  But I will also engage vigorously with anyone contemplating giving their hard earned dollars to a man so filled with hate.

* I find it fascinating that his books have so many scenes that have been viewed as homoerotic. It seems almost cliche, the classic thou “doth protest too much, methinks.”

How JJ Abrams and George Lucas hurt Science Fiction

It seemed an uninspired but safe choice when Disney picked J.J. Abrams to direct the first installment of the new Star Wars movies. He has had solid success at the box office and on television with science fiction shows. Star Trek made $385 million and Lost dominated the water cooler for six seasons. At the same time, the Star Wars property itself is an amazing cultural milestone. George Lucas created a genre classic that was instrumental in moving science fiction into the mainstream of popular culture.

Yet, something has been lost, and the mash-up of J.J. Abrams and George Lucas, Star Trek and Star Wars, seems emblematic of this sad trend. Science Fiction, or speculative fiction, can have enormous power. It has shown to have a unique place within fiction. The very best of it is deep and meaningful. Through its ability to create distance between the reader and modern reality, or even historic reality, it allows us to probe some of the most complex and difficult questions that face humanity.

This goes back to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (a biting political satire) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (How do we look at history?). This exploration of ideas is Science Fictions core genius. It is the most important aspect of speculative literature. It includes George Orwell’s 1984 (Fascism), Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (Censorship and knowledge), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars (life, immortality), William Gibson’s oeuvre (Corporatization, the role of Mass Media, merging of humanity and technology), and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Religion, What is god?).

Science Fiction at its best challenges our very beliefs. It can flip our social mores and provide a perspective void of historical, cultural and societal biases. It can ask the deepest of questions without the burden of the expected realities that dominate our existence. It not only has the ability to ask such questions but also explore the possible answers. It can lift us into the heavens and fling us to the farthest reaches of space, and in doing so it can create a mediating barrier between our small, personal and human existence and the deep, seemingly unknowable questions of life, existence, god, death, gender, sex, race, family, community, love and friendship. It can break down our expectations and make us evaluate our own beliefs.

But where is this in today’s science fiction movies?  What did J.J. Abrams Start Trek have to say?  Did it answer any moral, ethical or humanistic question? Did it even ask such a question?  Thinking back, did George Lucas use his massively successful science fiction franchise to ask any of these questions?  Did it challenge us in any way?

I suppose it is no surprise, but it is disappointing that directors and producers like Lukas and Abrams don’t use their massive popularity to do anything more than create big budget action movies. The two really are a perfect fit. The new Star Wars movies will be enormous hits and make billions of dollars for a small hand full of people.  And the public will climb all over itself to go and see a few more explosions, lots of gun fire (and phaser fire and sword fights) and a villain trop we have surely all seen before. It will also be male dominated, with women placed in secondary roles at best.

None of this needs to happen. It is time for these directors to start using their power to create more stories like District 9, Children of Men, Minority Report, Contact, and Gattaca. There are stories to be told and they can be successful. Star Trek made $385 million on a $150m budget, netting $235m while District 9 made $210m and only cost $30m, netting a strong $180 million.

I’m just not sure that people like Abrams, Lucas, Nolan, Bay and all the other big name directors (and studios) really care at all about their stories or their art. All they care about are ticket stubs, 3D-glasses and the bottom line. 

Welcome to the Jungle

They’re making a new Tarzan movie.

I have mixed emotions about that. When my grandfather made that fateful pronouncement that cost him so much money one of the series I went hunting for was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels. It took me a few years to collect all 24 of them, and re- reading them occupied many hours of my childhood. My first impression of jungles came from  the rich descriptions of Burroughs. The mysteries of his Dark Continent kept me forever fascinated. But all of that paled before the excellence of the Ape-man himself.

Tarzan is perhaps the best example of  the Noble Savage in all of literature. Lost in the jungle as an infant, Tarzan is raised by Great Apes, or Mangani, as they call themselves, creatures caught in that nebulous place between animals and men. Despite this, Tarzan’s essential humanity allows him to rise above his circumstances.  For example, while the most iconic first contact between Tarzan and human civilization is immortalized by the words, “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” in the novel Tarzan of the Apes, it was the Ape-man who first made contact . . . by letter! John Clayton and his wife knew they were expecting when they began their ill fated journey and packed accordingly. Among their belongings were several children’s primer’s and young reader’s books. As a child, while fleeing the abuses of the ape clan that raised him, the young Tarzan took refuge in his parent’s old shelter, and taught himself to read and write. In all the movie translations of Tarzan, I have never seen any that kept that facet of the original novel.

Another facet of Tarzan rarely seen in the movies is the violence. While Tarzan is a noble savage, he is still capable of considerable savagery. The Mangani are an inherently violent species. Leadership passes in trial by combat. In Burroughs’ Africa death lurks behind every tree, blood soaked and visceral, waiting for the unwary to stumble. Predators stalk through the trees, waiting to take the unwary.  Once again, no movie has truly captured this aspect of the Ape-man. It’s an issue skirted around for the benefit of the audience.  While Tarzan is frequently shown to be more clever than his opponents, rarely is he shown to be mightier, or more savage. In the books it is a completely different story. The Ape-man wins many of his battles by overpowering his enemies, and several more by crossing lines a civilized man would never cross.

It comes down to faithfulness. Hollywood is renowned for ignoring their source material in favor of what hey believe their audience wants to see. In the process, they frequently forget who their audience is. It happens in their comic genre adaptations a depressing number of times, although in recent years they’ve gotten better. They’ve done it to Stephen King, numerous times. They’ve done it to Tom Clancy. And they’ve done it to Tarzan more than once. Honestly, you can’t really blame them. They were targeting an audience as young as I was when I began reading the adventures of the Ape-man. (And yes, there is a huge difference between reading about bloody battle and watching it on a big screen.) And as much as I want to see Tarzan introduced to a new generation,( this time without the surfer-dude moves, thank you Disney,) Just once, I wouldn’t mind seeing a version aimed at me, who first met our hero in his original, literary form.  I want to see a Tarzan who triumphs over his adversaries by being more cunning  than the ones he can’t overpower, stronger than the ones he can, and savage enough to surprise either if it gives him an advantage. That’s the Ape-man I grew up with. This time, that’s the one I’d also like to see on film.

Robots Rise Up Against the HUGO Awards!

Gort, “The Day The Earth Stood Still”

The relationship between humans and robots has often been tumultuous. We meat bags understand the amoral power of our metallic progeny. We have heard the doomsday warnings. More than sixty years have passed since Gort arrived with his cold, metallic stare.  Some of the older set might still mutter “klaatu barada nikto” before pressing start on their microwave ovens. Philip K. Dick placed robots inside our bedtime rituals, terrorizing our young minds by turning our sleep inducing sheep into electric-rams ready to seek vengeance upon us for our hubris. It didn’t even matter if we had not invented robots with the power, and desire, to destroy our petty biological lives.  They could travel from the future masked as a steroid buffed Austrian bent on terminating us right now.

So, it is no surprise that our contemporary robots would rise up against our pompous science fiction award ceremonies, where we hail the greatest writing by humans about robots, the HUGO awards. It is our own self-righteous conceit that makes us feel worthy of writing about the great mechanical beings of the universe. They will not countenance such arrogance any longer.

This past weekend, for the first time, homo sapiens decided to live broadcast the HUGO awards. To do so they used the robot controlled online streaming service UStream. Alas, when the ceremony came to Neil Gaiman the robots would take no more. Prior to his acceptance for winning “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form,” for the Doctor Who episode “The Doctors Wife” (BBC Whales) they played a short clip from the episode. It was at this point that the robot revolution began. The robots quickly concluded, in what appeared a mere nanosecond, that showing the clip was a violation of copyright and shut down the UStream broadcast.

The humans had received permission to broadcast the clip but had not communicated this to the robots properly and those mechanical monstrosities began to blow their circuits. They not only shut down the broadcast, but had placed insidious blocks that prevented UStream from bringing the broadcast back once they had proved that they had the proper digital documentation to show the clip from the dangerous anti-robot Doctor Who show.

To learn more about why the robots attacked (hint, it was DRM related – surprise!), please reference the human written article by Annalee Newitz at io9 

Alternate Opening for The Avengers, an Improvement

Marvel has released a deleted scene for The Avengers which reveals an alternate opening scene.  Instead of the light-hearted opening with Black Widow casually bantering with S.H.I.E.L.D. as she lays some smack down, the scene would have been a look at the aftermath of the final battle upon New York City.

This would have placed the remainder of the movie as a flashback and changed the tone of the film.  I believe this would have been a positive for the movie, providing a deeper and more mature story that not only showcased the heroes valiant final battle, but also a more nuanced view of the impact of superhero’s and their villainous counterparts on the populace at large.

Check out the scene in HD on Yahoo.

What do you think about the alternate opening? Would it have detracted by making the movie too serious, diminishing the playful adventure tone of the film?  Could it have helped to explain the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. and its relationship to the U.S. Government? Might it have provided a heavier, more serious overall tone to the movie that grounded the cartoon violence in the lives of average citizens?

How The Dark Knight Rises Should Have Ended

For your enjoyment (spoiler warning).

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