Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Secret Identities, Origin Stories and Never-ending Continuities: On Superhero Films and Some of their Problems

Having seen The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises this year (liking them all to different degrees), I have been struck by a few things that seem to continuously manifest themselves as the superhero genre has migrated from the four-coloured pages of comicbooks to the silver screen, and problematically so, I would argue.

This post will focus on three things: secret identities, origin stories and never-ending continuities. All of these (mostly) seem to become problematic in the genre's transition from one medium to another.

Let's start off with secret identities. This conceit is central to the superhero genre. It is not that there aren't exceptions (the Fantastic Four leaps to mind, for instance), but most superheroes do have them. And they have them for a reason.

While fans love debating which identity is any given character's "true" identity (e.g. is Superman really Superman sometimes pretending to be Clark Kent, or is he Clark Kent sometimes pretending to be Superman?), the idea of the dual identity is deeply rooted in another idea: that doing what heroes usually do tends to go together with making enemies of the more violent kind, who would just love to know about all the hero's relatives and friends in order to hit him/her where it hurts.

Now, recent superhero films tend to pay a faux tribute to this concept. Sure, Spider-Man is still Peter Parker when Andrew Garfield plays him, but the secretly bit is kind of whittled away. After a while, Garfield is leaping about without mask more than with it, it seemed. And before long, a bundle of other characters know fully well that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Don't get me wrong: I like Marc Webb's reboot. In some places I think it is superior to the Raimi "trilogy" (e.g. hello mechanical web-shooters!), in others less so. However, among the things I find really off-putting is this failure to grasp the importance of keeping the secret secret.

While The Avengers also fails in this – Tony Stark is publicly Iron Man since the ending of his first film; Captain America is running around without mask as much as with mask (which I'd say is fairly public); Hawkeye has done away with mask altogether (I excuse Black Widow, since she hasn't been masked in the comics since the 60s, I believe); and Thor has done away with a civilian identity altogether – with the exception of the overly maskless Cap (who had a good hood and all), the context makes it work better; consequently, I am more forgiving here.

Secondly, we have origin stories. These stories are crucial to superheroes in that they are the central to the character, a sort of frame for what he/she is and why. However, as such, they are backdrops defining the characters, but not necessarily stories that needs to be told as the main story – front and centre.

I understand that origin stories are tempting when a superhero is adapted to the big screen. After all, it is a central story and possibly the story with which a larger audience is somewhat familiar (if familiar at all). Still, I find the notion that every (yes, I am exaggerating) superhero film has to be an origin story, unless it has a number behind the title (in a manner of speaking), highly annoying. Add to this the recent trend of rebooting every franchise within three films or so (if that), and you not only have a continual stream of origin stories reaching the big screen, but a continual stream of versions of the same origin stories over and over again. Originitis is killing off potentially good stories by repeating till fade.

If you want to see a good example of rebooting, watch Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk. It is clearly a reboot, with a different version of the origin than that presented in the earlier Ang Lee film. The story of Leterrier's film, however, is not that origin story. That story is neatly presented to the viewer in the credits sequence at the opening of the film, basically doing what I mentioned above: it provides a frame for the character. The story that follows is another story, and one I really enjoyed at that.

Part of the problem with originitis is that it blocks the creative process. Not only does many if not most heroes carry with them any number of other classic stories or story arcs that could potentially be adapted into film or drawn upon, there is also a great narrative strength in the fact that these characters as a general rule are constructed to carry continuous stories in unspecified numbers. That is to say, new stories ought easily be folded in and presented, on the big screen just as easily as in a new issue of the comicbook.

Which nicely leads us to the final thing on my agenda, i.e. never-ending continuities. Superheroes are the type of characters who are mythic in nature. In revisiting Raimi's conclusion to his Spider-Man trilogy earlier this year, my friend Zaki Hasan wrote: "I've often heard superhero stories likened to modern mythology as a way, perhaps, to make the former sound more important than they are, but the big difference is that, unlike Robin Hood or King Arthur, there's no Sherwood burial or flight to Avalon for Batman or Superman or their ilk." While this would seem to contradict my preceding statement, I would rather suggest that Zaki here fails to distinguish (quite usefully, I would argue) between myth and legend. Myth carries with it the cloth of mythology, which more than anything is a vast canvas of interrelated character about whom stories upon stories upon stories are told. Compared to the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood, who more clearly have dramatic arcs, the gods of the Norse men or the Greek were religious stories of continuous example. Basically, the idea of character clearly supersedes that of plot (which is not to say that the latter is altogether insignificant).

Superhero stories belong in this category too. There is not a finite number of Spider-Man tales to be told, but a multitude of possibilities. What is important is the character, and whatever stories he can carry. Any of these stories needs to have a beginning, a middle and an ending (like all stories do), but they need not be the beginning (originitis) or even more importantly the ending of the character.

With this in mind, the current trilogyitis (going hand in hand with the originitis, it seems) only forefronts the issue. Instead of creating an interesting version and allowing others to play with the concept in the same playground – building a cinematic continuity that allows for (if not necessitates) interesting links to be made and stories to intermingle and build upon each other – it appears as if more or less every director wants to mark his/her territory so badly that they pee all over the place.

And it should not be necessary. Marvel Studios has successfully shown that cinematic continuity is not only possible, but a hugely successful concept (I willingly admit that part of me wept a little when I read an interview in which Shane Black, director of Iron Man 3, talked about his film as the concluding part of the trilogy). Whedon's Avengers not only builds upon the preceding films and serves as their culmination; it suggests further stories. Quite possibly an endless supply of stories.

The idea here is not that a (nigh) endless sequence of stories need be told, but rather that any story should suggest itself as part of such a sequence even if the sequence itself never exists.

To give an example, and return to the distinction between myths and legends, or fairy tales, I would like to quickly bring up Tim Burton's two Batman films. Now, I will confess to being a huge Burton fan, and I do like his Batman films, but there are some elements that has never sat right with me. And I pegged what the problem was fairly early on in life: Burton's genre par excellence is the fairy tale. Almost any Burton film corresponds to this literary genre. Now, the fairy tale, much like the legend, is very much plot driven. In fact, the former is probably a bit more so than the latter, since the plots of legends seem more obviously centred on central characters (e.g. King Arthur or Robin Hood), whereas the characters of fairy tale to a much greater degree are more easily reducible to types (e.g. Snow White or Cinderella). In a fairy tale, the beginning, middle and ending are the beginning, the middle and the ending: in a nutshell, the be-all of plot and story.

So where does this leave us with regards to Burton's two Batman films (after all, there are clearly two, which would seem to contradict my point)? Well, fairy tales solve their plot permanently, and quite often violently. Not that superhero stories do not use violence, but mostly death is kept out of the equation (obviously with exceptions). Or if death occurs, the reader usually craves a body (mostly withheld) in order to believe this "death" is in any way permanent. What I am getting at here is the idea of rogues' galleries, of arch enemies, of cycles of enmity and battle. Burton notably kills off both the Joker and the Penguin, removing them from that continuity after their first appearance (in this context, it is worth noting that Nolan did an even greater injustice to Two-Face in The Dark Knight, not even allowing the character a full appearance before removing him). These are two classic arch enemies in Batman's rogues' gallery and to Burton they simply appear expendable at the altar of plot and story, as if a single story is enough not only to characterise these characters or their relationship to the Batman, but also to tell all there is to tell about the characters.

I am reminded of a brilliant little Batman story I read as a teenager back in the late 80s (notably before switching to reading American comics in original). The title, which sadly escapes me in detail, was something with "circles" or "symbols", or similar. The point of it, which has stayed with me, was Batman meeting a gypsy fortune-teller, while searching for the Joker. In her reading of Batman (whether by tarot or crystal ball, I forget), she sees the cyclical nature of the relationship between Batman and the Joker (something which both Frank Miller and Alan Moore respectively touch upon in The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke also). The story was not long, as I recall. I'm not sure if it would have been a full American issue even, but it really nicely pinpointed this phenomenon, which somehow strikes me as a core concept in the genre: the villain always (okay, another exaggeration, but bear with me) returns. And the hero avoids killing the villain, because killing is not what heroes do.

To wrap up, I sincerely hope the trend is turning. I hope that secret identities will become secrets to be kept yet again. I hope that we will get more than just origin stories on repeat. And I hope ever so much that we will get more middles. Middles all the way up, to borrow from an old saying about turtles.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Munsch's Paper Bag Princess: A Book Ahead of its Time

I first encountered author Robert Munsch and illustrator Michael Martchenko's wonderful children's book The Paper Bag Princess in its board book version last Christmas, when I gave it to my son after having been recommended it by friends. And it immediately blew me away, even in that abridged format (I have since read it in full too).

In a day and age when gender roles and social structures relating to them are continuously under examination and critique, and we struggle to find the balance between allowing our children to fall into the pre-ordained roles and to be different, it is refreshing to note that one of the more radical takes on this in terms of children's literature is a book first published in 1980 (i.e. 32 years ago). Granted that it is sad that the book is still needed, but social structures do not change over night. It is a slow process. But this book, now in its 69th printing, is a good starting point.

So, what is so fantastic about this little book then, you wonder? I will tell you. But before I do, I feel obliged to tell you that there will be spoilers ahead. If you want a chance to read this story in full with unspoiled eyes, stop reading this post now, find a copy of the book and return here once you have read it.

The Paper Bag Princess is the story of Elizabeth. She is "a beautiful princess" (nothing radical there), who is "to marry a prince named Ronald" (nothing radical there either). After this somewhat traditional opening, things take a turn off the regular path. A dragon appears, burning down the castle, Elizabeth's clothes and kidnapping Ronald. Having lost her prince and her clothes in this dramatic and unorthodox fashion (after all, traditionally we would of course have expected Ronald to don a knightly suit to save his fair princess' hand), Elizabeth does not sit around and mope; she dons an unburned paper bag as clothing and goes after the dragon.

Not surprisingly, she finds the dragon, but yet again, the story deviates from our traditional expectations where we would have expected Ronald to be the party leaping into action, because Elizabeth not only shows cunning and great intelligence in her dealing with the dragon (there are after all some male heroes who prefer brains to brawn too), but also a restraint from using violence. The dragon is vanquished without a single drop of blood (Elizabeth's or the dragon's) being shed, swords being drawn or any blow being struck (although, a lot of trees could be classified as collateral damage, I guess).

And so the prince is saved, and traditionally, this is where we would expect to get back on the marriage track. However, this is not a traditional story. Prince Ronald complains about Elizabeth's appearance – hello! a princess dressed in a paper bag is no princess – at which point Elizabeth, quite logically, sees him for the bum he really is. And seeing that, she makes the only sound choice at hand, i.e. she dumps him.

The closing line of the book – "They didn't get married after all." – is great, both in the context of the story and the literary tradition it simultaneously works in and against.

While I think it ought to be mandatory reading for all young girls, I certainly encourage all parents to share this gem of a book with their children. Perhaps first and foremost because it is a very good read and beautifully illustrated, but not less importantly because it forces us to look at traditional views of princes and princesses critically, and turns them upside-down. And that is plain healthy – for everyone. 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Cutting off Limbs to Gain Better Balance: On Gothenburg University's Decision to Cancel Italian

June has been a month full of weird waves at the Faculty of Arts at Gothenburg University. The Head of the Faculty and her upper management proposed to close down teaching in Old Church Slavonic, Ancient Greek, Russian and Italian, and move Chinese, Arabic and the non-fiction translator programme to other Departments and even other Faculties, in an attempt to cut down costs (which the upper regime of the University itself demands of the Faculty). It should be added that similar purges had already been performed (e.g. on Dutch and  Slavonic languages) and the sentiment that arose at the Department of Languages and Literatures  in response to this latest attack brought an old poem by German pastor Martin Niemöller to mind: 

First they came for the communists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. 

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

While no lives hangs in the immediate balance in the current situation (at least not in the sense of literal executions hanging in the air), Niemöller's poem does seem appropriate in the sense that silent acceptance always seems be a dangerous path in matters like these.

In this case, however, the codes of silence have been broken and voices have spoken out loud and been heard (and with at the very least some effect) – I will link a number of relevant articles and documents in Swedish below, for anyone interested in some of the particulars. The Faculty Board held off on axing three of the endangered languages, but Italian became a seemingly inevitable casualty. The problem remains: one language down, three seemingly still do go in this round, and the idea of moving things to "other research environments" is maintained if not yet practically executed.

Now, the Humanities have long been in dire straits on a global level, as has been discussed by many thinkers (notably including Martha Nussbaum). In that sense, there is nothing new here. What is increasingly frightening, however, is the willingness, nay even eagerness, with which the Head of the Faculty and her cohorts go about trimming off sibling disciplines. Especially when these sibling disciplines are at the front and centre of what the Humanities are all about.

The prevailing image here is one of an entity devouring itself from within, rather than fighting external hostile conditions and debating for its own survival. The Faculty appears as a wounded giant, desperately hewing and hacking off limbs to gain better balance, while standing ever less firmly positioned on the ground.

The current affairs, not yet fully settled of course, seem to suggest a Faculty Management hostile towards language education and research. And yes, let us add further indication of this: the Faculty was recently offered to host a new Language Institute – and turned it down. It now looks like said institute will be established at the Faculty of Education instead, and I hope you will forgive a dystopian mind for thinking that whatever languages eventually remain at the Faculty of Arts may well be asked to move to the institute once it is up and running.

If that bleak vision actually holds true (and believe me when I say that I hope not), I wonder how long it will take for the Faculty of Arts to crumble. Because if any of the subjects within the Humanities can justify themselves somewhat more easily with regards to the general public, I would say that it would be the languages. And the need to chip away at the Humanities themselves will hardly go away with the loss of languages.

But, if you will pardon a paraphrase of Niemöller, the Head of the Faculty may find that when they come for her and hers, there are no languages left to speak out with.

Assorted links (in Swedish):

The assembled professors at the Department of Languages and Literature on the matter.

The response from the Head of the Faculty.

The Head of the Language Faculty in Uppsala weighs in

An interesting comment by Doctor of German and journalist, Magnus Pettersson Ängsal.

The Students' Union at Gothenburg University makes the students' voices heard. 

Psychologist Gabriela Koszyk's comment is worth reading.

The Faculty Board minutes, featuring the decision to cancel Italian and give at least a brief respite to the other languages.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Musings of the Mad Swede: Year Three

And so we're here again. May 18. Exactly three years have passed since I wrote my first post here and officially opened Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem. It started with a bold mission statement and a weekly publishing schedule, which I'm proud to say I managed to uphold fairly well during the first year. In its second year, a change to a bi-weekly schedule was instituted and has just recently given way to a monthly one (without a specific publication day in the month or the week). For now. And I am still here, so I think that's worth a little anniversary festivity and contemplation.

Last year's anniversary musings were written in advance (thankfully), as I spent the actual day in the delivery room awaiting the arrival of my son, who firmly held out and refused to share his birthday with his father's blog (one has to recognise the integrity in that). The year that has followed has, for many obvious reasons, been an adventure unlike any other, but our focus here will be the 24 posts that have been written and published here since then (perhaps in spite of other adventures).

Reviewing those posts, I note that a few subjects stand out: There have been several posts on various aspects of writing; and also a few on comics (including a look at Jim Starlin's cosmic Marvel work, Swedish comics creator Mike Berg's Agent Marc Saunders and DC's revisiting the Watchmen universe). Reality also intruded harshly with the horrible massacre on the Norwegian island of Utøya, which resulted in a string of posts on topics like the death penalty and the mongrel nature of all culture. On a more positive note, my 100th post was celebrated in October (for the second time, obviously, but accurately this time around) and the 2011 edition of the Göteborg Book Fair was covered (as per tradition). I have also written about the splendour of Australian progressive rock band Aragon, and a host of other subjects, small and large.

All in all, and in spite of a slowed down publishing pace yet again, I don't think my blog accomplishments this past year have been too shabby.

I am still having fun, and I hope you are too, gentle reader.

I'll see you again next month.

Monday, 16 April 2012

"The Report of My Death Was an Exaggeration," or: "The Times They Are a-Changing"

"And so I'm back," as Gloria Gaynor sang.

Regular readers will note that my biweekly publishing schedule has more or less been shot to hell (and back). A number of factors including job, illness and life have caught up with me in the last month or so, and thus not only one but two scheduled posts have had their deadlines flow by without seeing publication.

In fact, the first of the two quotes forming this post's title is partly a reference to the lost post of March 19, which I had fully intended to be a brief eulogy over a giant in the field of comics, Jean Giraud a.k.a. Moebius, who sadly died on March 10. Among his finer achievements are Blueberry with Jean-Michel Charlier (possibly the finest Western comic ever) and The Incal with Alejandro Jodorowsky (an absolutely astounding piece of comics fiction). But I digress. Two deadlines later and over a month since his passing, a eulogy seems somewhat misplaced (albeit not undeserved); and here lies another part of the first title quote, by none other than Samuel Langhorne Clemens (more commonly known as Mark Twain), since the failure to deliver the intended eulogy on time might well have been seen as a sign of a demise – if not my own, then at least the blog itself.

Fret not, however, dear reader. I may be melodramatic by nature at times, but I have not abandoned my post, merely reconsidered it and adapted to current limitations in time and what-not (which has been done once before in this spot). And thus the second title quote by Robert Allen Zimmerman (more commonly known as Bob Dylan) comes into play.

So, what are the changes then? Well, Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem will go from being a biweekly publication to a monthly publication (with the addendum that I may well decide to throw in extra posts in-between should time permit it and material suggest itself). Hopefully this will allow things to get back on track and keep the blog alive and kicking.

Thanks for your continued readership, gentle reader!

Monday, 5 March 2012

There Is no Such Thing as Coincidence: Fictional Plot and Verisimilitude

I am currently enjoying Swedish state television SVT's big science fiction venture Äkta människor (Eng. Real Humans) and would like to urge any and all Swedish readers who have missed out thus far to catch up via SVT Play. International readers should definitely keep an eye out for the series, because I would argue that chances are good that this will be exported. It is an excellent take on an alternate reality / near future, where hubots (i.e. humanoid robots) have become an integrated commodity on the market and in society, yet where both ideological resistance against machines replacing real humans and questions of what constitutes actual humanity and intelligence exist side by side, and in opposition to a smooth integration. Through make-up and superb acting, another reality is projected unto the screen and the result is quite possibly Swedish television's finest hour in a loooooong time.

However, fond as I am of the series after its first eight (out of ten) episodes, there is one thing that has started to bug me somewhat as the plot is slowly gaining its momentum: the nature of coincidence.

There is an old adage that knowingly states that there is no such thing as coincidence. While I am not necessarily ready to subscribe to such a notion completely (if for no other reason than the fact that we would have to define coincidence in a pretty precise fashion), I am willing to agree that there is not really any such thing as coincidence in a fictional plot.

Do not get me wrong: there is clearly a possibility of real world coincidences influencing authors or artists in their narrative choices (in film or television this would furthermore seem even more true as casting choices or even weather conditions on a shooting day might affect the finished product). However, that being said, the nature of plot itself is to create a believable sequence of events, or a mesh of intricate plot strands that unite in a complex yet unified story. Reality may very well be quite disorganised, but a narrative requires a certain sense of order, let us call it narrative logic, to be believable. This line of reasoning obviously resonates in the old Chekov quote about a gun on the wall in the first act of a play needing to be used in the second. In short, a reader will only tolerate so many red herrings, and even then they need to be relevant herrings.

As such, plot is its own enemy, because in trying to create this narrative logic and impose verisimilitude, it also runs the risk of violating the same verisimilitude it tries to achieve. We may not accept the disorganised chaos of reality as narrative proper, but nor do we accept the too neat narrative as real. And this is where coincidence becomes relevant.

Chekov's example above is good because it shows that stories should avoid being bogged down with needless things. Just because an author has a whole world at his disposal, it does not necessarily mean that going anywhere and everywhere in it is beneficial. In fact, and following Chekov's logic, authors need to restrain themselves and only go where their plot needs them to go. The trick is to follow that logic while masking its blatant intentionality.

If every piece and part of a narrative services the plot and the story, it needs to do so without calling attention to the plot or the story (unless it is a case of metafiction, where such a tactic may be suitable). What do I mean? Well, if coincidences are starting to stack up (e.g. chance meetings between characters, deus ex machina type scenarios where there are just enough guns on the relevant wall at the much needed time, etc), we as an audience are less likely to believe that they are coincidences, and we inevitably start sensing the intentionality of plot. It is not that we normally are entirely unaware of the fact that there is a plot, nor even that we do not look for it; it is more a case of a plot suddenly staring us in the face or in other ways calling attention to itself as a plot.

So why do I feel the urge to discuss this in connection with Äkta människor then? Well, the series and its creators have done a fine job of creating an alternative reality or near future, and do an impressive job selling it to the viewer. Verisimilitude is high in this series, to be sure. Yet then there is a nagging sensation, which grows the further into the story we go, that all of our characters (several, but still fairly limited) are interconnected on far too many levels. In this sense, it becomes less an interconnected weave á la Altman's Short Cuts or Haggis' Crash, and much more of an everyone crossing paths with everyone else. The effect, quite naturally, is the sensation of a shrinking fictional reality, where the intentionality of plot is starting to be visible at the seams.

Still, I would not want to end on too harsh a note, because (as stated) this really is SVT's finest hour in a long time. And it bodes well for the future of Swedish science fiction.

Monday, 20 February 2012

During Watchmen: Some Thoughts on DC's Latest Venture

First published in 1985 and 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' twelve issue limited series (or twelve chapters long graphic novel, if you willWatchmen (see my review) has established itself as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Drawing upon existing characters from the Charlton comics universe that DC had appropriated the rights to, but modifying them into closely resembling yet different characters in their own right (primarily because of editorial demands, but to the benefit of the finished product, I would postulate), the series presented a bleak vision of masked vigilantes and superpowers in an alternate history where the US won the Vietnam war, but where the threat of nuclear annihilation echoes that of the comic's own historical context. Many have labelled Moore's approach a realistic take on superheroes, other have disagreed. Personally, I agree with the former, although I would simultaneously stress its cynical and pessimistic undertones that are certainly not in and of themselves signs of realism.

Ever since its initial success there has been talk about sequels, or rather the possibility of prequels and the like. Yet over the years, none have materialised, and the relationship between Moore and DC (as well as most of comicdom) has obviously soured to a point where any involvement from Moore has been a long dead dream for most fans who may have wished for this to materialise.

Still, money is obviously money in the world of business, and on February 1, DC Comics officially announced their plans for Before Watchmen, which can only be described as a major attempt to cash in on this particular cash cow. The idea is setting up no less than seven titles with esteemed comics writers and artists at the helm:
Rorschach (4 issues) written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Lee Bermejo.
Minutemen (6 issues) written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke.
Comedian (6 issues) also written by Azzarello and drawn by J.G. Jones.
Dr. Manhattan (4 issues) written by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by Adam Hughes.
Nite Owl (4 issues) also written by Straczynski and drawn by Andy and Joe Kubert.
Ozymandias (6 issues) written by Len Wein and drawn by Jae Lee.
Silk Spectre (4 issues) also written by Cooke but drawn by Amanda Conner.

Not unexpectedly, the internet awakened at this particular piece of news, with The Beat covering both the announcement and the industry reaction quite well: including Moore's opinions on the matter.

On the whole, there seem to be two major camps: those in favour of this project and those in opposition to it.

My own response would situate itself in the latter category. Why? Well, certainly not because of Moore's inalienable rights as creator extraordinaire. Following Moore's response to the announcement many have rightly pointed out that he might not be the person to talk about what others choose to do with "your" character, given how not only the heroes in Watchmen are derivatives from Charlton Comics characters, but in fact most of Moore's substantial ouevre has been about reinventing existing characters one way or another (from Marvel Man/Miracle Man via Swamp Thing to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls). If anything, Moore's outrage shows a certain kind of hypocrisy, which incidentally is made worse when seen in the light of how he has treated some of his past co-creators, like Stephen Bissette (who provides some interesting commentary on the idea that creator-owned work by default beats working on company-owned property in terms of money).

However, the fact that Moore's response comes across as hypocritical, does not negate the possibility that the project is a bad idea. I can honestly say that I do not grieve the fact that Moore and Gibbons never made any se-, pre-, or other-quels for that matter. On the contrary, I think it is a bad idea regardless of who is at the helm. Why? Because Watchmen as a narrative unit is very precise in its details, each component carrying meaning for the overall story, and as such, the expanded universe is by default, at least to a very large degree, the universe of that specific story. What we need to know is all there. Anything else is superfluous, and in my humble opinion not particularly interesting.

The fact that DC has opted to call the project Before Watchmen to my mind only proves the point that the company has not understood the property particularly well. Watchmen is not merely a few days in the early '80s of that particular universe; it is a web woven through years upon years of history. We already know the history of it all.

We know the story of Rorschach and Walter Joseph Kovacs' development from a somewhat naive vigilante to a full-blown psychotic.

We know the story of the Minutemen and how their glory days ended.

We know the story of the Comedian and Edward Blake's flawed cynical nature, which eventually did not allow him to live with the concept of utopia actualised.

We know the story of Dr. Manhattan and Dr. Jon Osterman's transformation from human into the truly superhuman.

We know the story of Nite Owl and Daniel Dreiberg following in the masked footsteps of Hollis Mason, in order to do something meaningful and adventurous with his life.

We know the story of Ozymandias and Adrian Veidt's uncanny journey to discover the greatest secret of all time.

We know the story of Silk Spectre and the interwoven layers of raped Sally Jupiter and her daughter Laurie Juspeczyk.

We know all these stories already. In detail.

In fact, DC's project does not constitute a prequel so much as an interquel (to coin a term). This is not the story, or even a set of stories, before Watchmen. It will be a set of stories filling out gaps in the story. There is a fundamental difference.

Furthermore, Straczynski's saying that it's all "about the points and shadings between what we think we know about these characters, and the truth — what that says about them, and what it says about us," to me seems utterly uninteresting. Sure, there are good stories to be told on the idea of showing the reader how everything they knew was not what they thought it was. And sure enough, it is an approach that Moore cannot fault anyone for using per se. But, and that is an important but, the devil, as they say, is always in the details, and Moore and Gibbons' narrative is nothing if not detailed. To assume that we can be shown a different truth would require undermining enough of the original to render it more or less unrecognisable. And is that really what the fans of the series are yearning for, I wonder? It is certainly no yearning of mine.

Some have voiced opinions online to the effect that there is top level artists and writers attached to this, and I do not contest this. I would love seeing a collaboration between Andy and his father Joe Kubert, and I would love reading more qualitative stories written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. Only, I would love for it to be comics I would actually want to read. Top level artists and writers doing stuff that does not interest me just does not interest me (if you'll pardon the obvious tautology there).

Still, I do not doubt that DC will make a bundle of cash on the whole project. They just won't make any of it from my pocket.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Agent Marc Saunders: Sweden Gets Its First Superhero... or Does It?

In November last year, a friend of mine shared a link to some interesting news on Bleeding Cool. The headline was "Sweden Gets Its First Superhero" and, as I am both a Swede and fan of the superhero genre, my interest was naturally piqued. However, I had some reservations from the start, which I will return to shortly.

Agent Marc Saunders is written and drawn by Mike Berg (a.k.a. Mikael Bergkvist) and inked by American inker extraordinaire Joe Rubinstein, and the first issue introduces Marc Saunders, a superpowered secret agent working for the US. The premise, which ties into strange meteorites and political upheavals (all revealed in the first issue), is really quite good, but the execution does not fully deliver. While there is nothing wrong with the artwork (I definitely enjoy Berg and Rubinstein's visuals), the language leaves a lot to be desired. Often dialogue and captions read like poor translations from English to Swedish, which is needless to say quite sad for something being promoted as Sweden's first original superhero comic.

The second issue might be a slight improvement in that department, but instead falters in its storytelling, which is often fragmented and confusing. I dare call myself an experienced comics reader, and the amount of times I had to skip back and forth in the second issue to follow the plot (and sometimes failing because necessary linking information was not to be found) was embarrassing. And this is really sad, since there is a really good premise here and some real artistic talent at work.

Returning to the idea of this being Sweden's first superhero and my reservations towards this claim, I think it is worth noting that there has not been any lack of superhero parody and comedy on the Swedish comics scene: there is Kapten Stofil (Eng. trans. Captain Fogey), which I have yet to read, and a great deal of Johan Wanloo's stuff, from Örn Blammo (Eng. trans. Eagle Blammo) to De äventyrslystna karlakarlarna (Eng. trans. the Adventurous Manly-Men) and beyond, certainly qualifies.

I also do not find it insignificant that Agent Saunders is neither a Swede nor situated in or connected to Sweden. Granted that Sweden might not be the easiest country to situate serious superheroics in (a large country with a small population hardly lends itself to extravagances á la DC or Marvel Comics), but if Swedish writer Jan Guillou could create a Swedish James Bond/Jason Bourne type Swedish agent active on an international arena, one may wonder why Agent Saunders could not have been given a similar Swedish grounding. At least if he is to be called Sweden's first superhero.

But the latter is a minor quibble. Especially compared to the more serious problems with language and, more recently, with storytelling.

At any rate, I will support the effort at least one more issue. Because it is a good premise there, and of a kind we do not see nearly often enough over here.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Friendship and Social Media: Human Behaviour beyond Technology and Virtuality

So, I am back (more or less), somewhat delayed by a nasty cold, and to top it off, this is not the post I had planned to post next. But bear me with me.

Yesterday, I accidentally stumbled upon a youth column in one of Sweden's newspapers in which Mona Jasim argues that true friendship is not to be found on Facebook and that is why she has left. Now, granted that this is a youth column (I will return to some aspects with regards to that), but this is not the first time and place where I have seen this kind of argument posted. And I never cease to be amazed by them.

Why would social media per definition guarantee friendship, or exclude it? Or, for that matter, be the only factor causing inflation in the concept of friendship and what it means?

In my lifetime thus far (i.e. including long before the internet), there have always been people who have had wide circles of loose acquaintances and people who have had a few very close friends. In some cases these two types of people have in actuality been the same individuals. That is to say, the one has never excluded the other.

Physical presence (seeing a person's face, hearing a person's voice, etc) no doubt often makes truly getting closer to people easier, but when it comes down to it, the most central thing is to find a space (real or virtual) where each party feels safe enough to converse more freely and dare to open up to the other. That is it. Now why would this not be possible to achieve within the frames of FB's services? And why would daily communication with acquaintances (and friends) not lead to deepened relationships with them?

At the end of the day, I always get the feeling that people who write columns and posts like that mostly express their own inadequacy to interact with other people virtually in a meaningful way. Which leaves us with the question whether it is actually a sound basis for a general definition of a diversified contact medium.

Returning to the issue of the column in question being a youth column (this time), an old colleague of mine asked whether we really needed to attribute any weight to it. After all, it was directed to young people, many of whom, in his words, have an addiction-like relation to FB. However, even if I had not seen the argument elsewhere often enough before, I do think we have to question the wisdom of trying to get youngsters to abandon technology like social media rather than teaching them to use it constructively. This type of technology, and whatever follows it, is not very likely to go away. Virtual interaction between people is, and will continue to be, necessary in a global community. It does not mean that we cannot question how we use it, but the latter also requires of us to question if how we use it is defined by the medium or by ourselves.

Far too many people talk about all the dangers of virtuality – be it anything from wanton and wasteful escapism to criminally fraudulent behaviour – but few seem to stop to consider the fact that most of these things (sometimes admittedly to differing degrees) existed long before humankind entered the pathways of virtuality. Scams like the Nigeria letters are not new to the internet; the internet is simply a new mode of distribution. And there is a difference between the two.

Case in point, when I was a child, no one would have ever considered telling us that getting a pen pal somewhere in the world would be a harmful or wasteful prospect. In fact, it was quite often encouraged, because it offered the opportunity of us getting to know new people, and perhaps even new cultures in the process. Needless to say, really, the idea of pen pals is not entirely without its dangers. Letters can of course be used for fraudulent purposes, or for just wasting away precious time on surface connections. But then again, it can be used for deeper communication too, as ages of collected correspondence gives evidence to.

Perhaps Mona Jasim would have been better off showing her readers ways in which social media can be used constructively to communicate more deeply with people. But then again, as stated above, it may well be the case that people who write columns and posts like that mostly express their own inadequacy to interact with other people virtually in a meaningful way.