Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Art's responsibility

The last few days I've been knee-jerking arguing in favor of privilege (something that I mostly argue against) and sexism in video games. It's been surreal. But here are a couple of takeaways that make all the people in the front row smack their foreheads:

1. The people most threatened by the removal of a privilege are the quickest to deny its existence both in terms of the discussion and the thing itself. They jump to prove it's not there.

2. It seems that most people (men) who don't believe that video games have in the past, do so now, and plan to continue to do so in the future commit acts of sexism against women in terms of design and writing seem to be pretty emotionally stunted individuals. Fascinating. I bet there are complimentary line graphs for Bronies and Guys Who Think Women Who Complain About Sexism in Videogames Are Just Ball Busting Bitches.

3. Clarifying something so that people can more clearly hate it makes you as much of a target as if you argued that thing. I.e.:

"No guys, that's not privilege, this is privilege"
"I'm just saying: if you want to hate on something, hate on it right"

And I tried to watch Salem last night. God that sucked. It sparked a conversation with my wife, however, on if art has a responsibility to history, or if art has a responsibility to people it portrays. I'm not sure if I phrased that correctly, but it's close enough to arrive at my conclusion which is: no. Art's only obligation is to its own subject matter. And if art is responsible and intelligent, it will do its best to exemplify that subject matter. By that I mean art should try to use it's subject matter to say something meaningful, or will say something meaningful about it's subject matter.

To that end, Salem is not art. Wife was appalled by its cheap cash-in of genuine human, specifically woman, suffering just to have an hour slot of TV to fill. And she's right. It absolutely did that, but I think it did that because of the deeper problem of the show not having a proper obligation to its subject matter. Instead of weaving a faithful recreation that calls into question the sanity of the people involved, or even just a gripping recreation, or instead of weaving a nuanced supernatural narrative that examines man's relationship with women, and man and woman's relationship with the divine, we get lots of shallow motivations, fickle women that try to equate minor pain to being a prisoner of war, and weird Saw like sequences of self-mutilation that disappear faster than whatever point they were trying to make. Oh, and a crooked priest. No one saw that coming. What a let down.

And then there's that new Avril Lavigne video that has the internet upset about appropriations. I said it once, I'll say it again: I thought Avril Lavigne blew her brains out in the 80s when she realized no one thought she was funny anymore.

Kind of like privilege, I feel a little like cultural appropriation is one of those white guilt conversations where it's difficult to tell when it's right to engage. Much like the privilege discussion, it's super valuable on a certain level (like the level where we stop doing black face and giving black characters to white actors), but then there's the Tumblr level in which anything that isn't genderless sex mannequins standing absolutely still and making prolonged eye contact is automatically sexist, misogynist, privileged, racist, appropriationist, homophobic. Not  Halal. Those are all incredibly valuable conversations and they all have a strong backbone of truth, but Tumblr probably isn't equipped to handle adult conversations.

So Avril dances around singing about Hello Kitty and sushi (or chocolate, or none of those things. Who knows what noises her mouth makes) doing her best to look like some J-pop sweet heart while her indentured servants dance behind her. It's a really fucking stupid video. And websites like Jezebel (which I like) get mad about cultural appropriation. Which might be valid. But I can't help but think there are two issues here:

1. What's the difference between appropriation and "has Japanese stuff in it"? It seems like all these Tumblr-esque conversations pushes those two lines closer and closer to each other until they're sitting right on top of each other and privilege becomes "alive" and appropriation becomes "has knowledge of other places." Like Jeff Winger said: "Not being racist has become the new racism." And there's the larger problem of:

2. It just sucks. Unlike the larger problems of sexism, oppression, and appropriation at large, this song is a terrible piece of crap (though if I had to choose, I'd choose this song over her stupid faux-post-punk stuff that got her popular in the first place) that will disappear in months, or possibly a year if it by some chance is up for an award. Even if it wins an award, like Best Song of The Year, it'll vaporize. Remember that chick Vitamin-C (I think that's her name) that existed, like, ten years ago that everyone was mad at for reasons?

Much like art's responsibility, maybe we should hold artist's feet to the fire for making bad art. It's more of a global thing, right? If Avril was a more serious musician, she probably would have been at least a little more thoughtful of how she incorporated those Mooninite slave girls into her video. Plus, isolating Avril and making an example of her is a little like blaming Michael Bay for making a terrible movie: you're absolutely right, but he's too dumb to understand what you're talking about.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Talking with my wife tonight, we talked quite a bit about the idea of privilege, and why I'm tired of hearing about it.

First, it is absolutely vital that everyone on the planet keeps an eye out for their own assumptions and why they have them. It would have helped Mitt Romney look significantly less retarded, for example. And people who say things like, "Why don't they just speak English," or, "Well, I haven't ever heard that (as if somehow ignorance undoes reality)," do definitely need to do some privilege checking. But here's the problem I have:

There's a tendency in children's movie writing to make simple things the object. In watching a documentary on the Bronie phenomena, they discussed how the cartoon is all about friendship and teaching lessons and junk. How didactic of it. I can't help but feel that in media aimed at children there's this unfortunate tendency to make the given the point. Yes: of course you're friends. So were Luke and Han and Enkidu and Gilgamesh, but so the fuck what? What next? And then what? Well, and then Luke and Han murder the shit out of a space murderball, and Enkidu and Gilgamesh murder some stuff. But with children's stuff, the fact that Enkidu has a friend is the ultimate point. The fact that Luke has a friend is the central theme. You'll note that older children's faire doesn't make the simple the ultimate.

When was the last time you felt scandalized that a woman or a black man were seen out and about voting? You'd have to scrounge quite thoroughly to encounter such a person in America. And if you did, it's probably be in the perennially stereotypable South.

That's how it is with privilege. It's basic, it's given, it isn't the end result, but the step right before, "Yeah? So?" It's the morning shit just after the coffee and before you leave the house: necessary, but you don't really make a big deal out of it (usually). Yes, Mitt, we all know you're ridiculously wealthy. Yeah? So? Ah. I see. You are crazy constipated.

This notion of "check your privilege" has become something like describing your disgusting I-had-nothing-but-whiskey-and-Taco-Bell morning shits to total strangers in that if you do that, there can be no more conversation. It's a real showstopper. If you make privilege the point of all discussions about racial sensitivity, well, there can't really be anything after the ultimate point, can there? Imagine how many conversations must be stopped cold because someone's told they need to "check their privilege." Oh shit, I am white, so that bars me from speaking about anything. I guess you win. Or don't. Or whatever: we're arguing, not playing checkers. Is there really a winner?

But again, I am white, and I made sure to visit the best porcelain bowl before I hit the road.

Yeah? So?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

I actually meant to talk about the hemispheres of the brain.

Government and corporations are like dinosaurs: massive outmoded things sucking up all the resources consuming themselves to death. One theory of dinosaur extinction says that as the climate cooled into one of the several ice ages Earth has experienced, they needed more resources than the freezing planet could offer up. The much smaller mammals who needed far less to survive thrived while the dinosaurs ate themselves to death. I think I believe alongside most that it was actually a meteor that led to the death of the dinosaurs, but the same principle applied: the dinosaurs needed more resources than could be offered up. Mammals thrived. Eventually dinosaurs disappeared.

I think the image in our heads is one of a peaceful inevitable decline in which the dinosaurs, too unaware to process what was happening around them, passed away melancholy like; beatific in the way they lay their heads in the dirt, shut their eyes and never opened them again. But I imagine the reality to be unchartable brutality and fear: giants fighting over scraps, hoarding every last bit they could for themselves consuming even the small amounts of food stashed away by the miniscule rat-like mammals consuming the mammal itself should larger meat prove too scarce. Being a mammal in this time would have been horrific between finding food and avoiding the monsters.

Eventually, when the dinosaurs passed, mammals were allowed to flourish and experience abundance. We’ve yet to again experience the diversity of forms seen in the cambrian, but it might be safe to say that the trade off is in the increase of complexity within the individual forms. But if technology is the 6th kingdom like Kevin Kelley speculates, then we’re experiencing a proliferation of forms at least on par with the cambrian if not greater than.

With the monsters gone, individual complexity proliferated. But the monsters didn’t want to go - they held on with every angry claw in their bodies. So it is with our current monsters - government and corporations, the latter being the son of the former. I don’t think this is anything new that I’m saying here. This observation is almost cliche and sophomoric with how common I feel its sentiment. Government is the system that springs up thanks to bullies, but exists long after it achieved its goal (which would be what? Establishing order?). It’s like the washed up rock star that keeps writing the same song over and over trying to re-establish his long lost fame. Rather, it’s like government goes through a metamorphosis: in its initial stage, it’s the bully that springs up to regulate the other bullies - that’s the order. Instead of vanishing after having corralled the bullies, however, it enters a second stage in which it extends its controls from the bullies to everyone else. Now it wants to control everyone, and this becomes its only goal, but since this is perhaps contrary to nature (as if I, a city mouse, has even an inkling of how nature works), it has to get more insidious in its control designs. Thus it moves from slave to worker, though there exists little difference between the two. The worker is perhaps allotted more freedom - or even just perceived freedom - in the form of his slavery, and his beatings only come when he refuses the government its tithe and tax.

The corporation is the result of the second phase, the symbiotic relationship that comes when the nobility breaks from government and rule their own micro-realms. Those realms quickly grow, and lest government itself be overrun, it must learn to cooperate with the new monster. The new monster wants slaves, true, but more than that, it wants the resources brought about by the natural product of people’s work. People create simply because people are - it seems as necessary to our health and happiness as sex and food. Or perhaps it’s a result of people trying to get sex and food. I mean, this is even more a cliche argument than the first: corporations want to turn people into money.

But despite both these monsters, individual wealth (or happiness, or potential access to wealth and happiness) does increase with the more refined of the monsters. The monsters of America and Europe, for example, give their serfs better toys and more time than the monsters of Libya. Despite the natural inclinations of the monsters, the serfs continue to pull more of the resources for themselves.

But then the death throws, which is what I think is happening now. Just like the dinosaurs before them, the government and the corporation are entering their death throws, taking for themselves everything they can find - every scrap dollar, intellectual or property right, raising the bar of entry so high that the small mammals of this age is better off hiding and hoping the collapse of the monsters comes soon.

Perhaps you could say the throws is a third stage in the metamorphosis, and comes to so closely resemble the first that it’s difficult to tell if it’s a second wind, or a winding down. But it’s a winding down when the natural cycles have worked to spread the wealth and complexity uniformly, and the bullies the monsters seek to fight exist only through the repeated religious repetition of their existence. Monsters lock in contest with each other while the mammals hide and wait.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Predator Mind: How I Came to Notice It.

I've found myself increasingly becoming friends with vegans, and only one of which is vegan by necessity: irritable bowel syndrome that, to list the table of contents in the Book of Foods Which Irritate, would boggle and perhaps depress. Every other individual cites moral obligation as the deciding factor bringing up the health benefits as a secondary measure, as of something to convince an amoral person, that is someone who doesn't really believe something like a moral code exists.

Let me open by saying that I greatly respect the beliefs of anyone who came about those beliefs through a hard fought and won struggle. I would much rather associate with people who will disagree with every word that comes out of my mouth because they've had to wrestle with those issues to degrees of pain than associate with individuals who'd parrot my every thought because of some kind of ease whether group identification or because they've never had to wrestle with anything in their life. Or because it's in vogue right now. More than a few of the vegans I've come to know are that way because veganism's kind of popular right now: food guilt is this year's new leopard print.

There is thoughtlessness on both sides of the aisle. I remember when I was first confronted with the idea of animal cruelty as concerns food production: I was maybe nineteen, and PETA had launched an anti-meat campaign in which they filmed the cruelty that goes hand in hand with factory farming. Two men escorted a pig to a concrete pad (a third individual whether an informant or participant held a camera) where they proceeded to hit the pig with hammers and kick it and laugh and make jokes. One man started shocking the pig's anus with his cattle prod, and the whole time the poor thing is screaming. Then one of the men takes the rivet gun that was supposed to be the pig's release from the start and fires a bolt. The man mis-aimed and only injured the pig's brain. Now the thing is partially paralyzed, but still writhing, screaming, and seizing, and the men still laugh. Finally, another man approaches with a mallet and bashes the pig's skull in. It takes about five solid whacks, most of which fail to hit the pig square in the head, and the pig still twitches after the final stroke. I felt so fucking bad for that poor pig. Whether or not we need to eat that pig, he didn't deserve that.

Horrified, I showed it to The Most Conservative Human on The Planet, who was my best friend at the time. His response revealed a shocking gap in the philosophy of Conservative Evangelical Republican Christianity that stuck in my brain like a nine inch splinter:

"I don't really care if people are cruel to animals if that animal is just going to be food anyways. After all, we're just going to eat it right?" I have since learned not to be shocked when the religion that argues for the soul of the unborn (something I do truck with. Mostly) reduces almost all other processes to gross materialistic means. His response was almost more horrific than the video (which I made him watch).

At that time I tried to make it a habit to read one Proverb and one Psalm a day, and the next day, the kind of Synchronicity That Argues For Something More Than Just Statistical Odds reared its head, and I read Proverbs 12:10, which reads, "10 A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal,
but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel." I approached him with this verse and pointed out that a shepherd culture, such as that of the ancient Hebrews, understood that you have to treat your animals kindly, that there was president here and elsewhere that proper care of animals, even ones you intend to eat, is on par with the proper treatment of people, whether for economic or moral reasons, the point is these ancient writers expected you to take care of your sheep and cattle as well as you take care of your mother. Further, I argued, psychology shows time and again that cruelty to animals foreshadows cruelty to humans. He shrugged and said, "Yeah, I guess." That might be the moment I stopped being friends with him, but it took a couple years for that to sink in.

The pig has stuck with me, and I realized then that animal cruelty is something humans have disapproved of for thousands of years, that meat wasn't evil, but abusing meat was (and is). It made me think of the Native American tribes that purportedly thanked the spirit of the animal for dying so they could live, and then going on to use every part of the animal so its death wouldn't have been in vain. This brought me to the Judeo-Christian tradition of praying before a meal and I thought, "What if these two traditions aren't much closer than we might suspect?" I broached the idea to my family before Sunday dinner: what if God wants us to pray before each meal so that we don't forget that sacrifice is a part of life. What if he doesn't want us to "bless the food to our bodies" because our bodies will naturally do with food what they've been designed to do since the creation of bodies (whether you argue thousands or millions of years), but rather we pray to remember that this chicken, cow, fish, or pig died so I could keep living, to give this beast a brief remembrance and gratitude before diving in and to know sometime it might be me on the dinner plate of worms or even some creature like a lion or polar bear (who are known to hunt humans). For a religion that believes there is life after this one, Christianity has a hard time thinking on its own death.

To this day my family still asked that the food be "blessed to their bodies."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

NDAA research copied from Facebook

I wrote and investigated this as a response to something a friend from Facebook pointed out: there's a provision in the bill in D.1032.b.1 that says explicitly that American citizens are exempt from this bill that would, supposedly, allow the US military to indefinitely hold American citizens without trial. There are a couple of different factors happening here, some of which are irrationality and ignorance.

My personal opinion (not culled from research) is that the US government has shown how much they care about our right (of the press) to free speech with how they've reacted since 9/11 and with press at all the Occupy sites. In short: not very much. Therefore a bill that allows indefinite imprisonment without a trial (even though it specifies it's non-applicability to US citizens) that uses the military as a police force sounds like a bad idea that could be easily fudged to support the agenda of the government.

Having said that, there are some problems with the way in which this bill was initially drafted (in secret by McCain and Levin). This guy (who's as crazy as a site named "Texas GOP Vote" can possibly be) initially reacts to the fact that the bill was written in secret. He doesn't mention it here, but the bill was passed without a single hearing, and the media has blacked out coverage on this story (link). So, the secrecy of what's happening borders on illegal while the media blackout is scary given that the majority of citizens still get their news from major media outlets. At least those people that didn't grow up with a computer in their living room. Either way, it's a frightening proposition that a significant portion of the population that doesn't read news on the internet or from alternative sources could be so terrifyingly ignorant of what's happening. But not because they don't read the news, but because they get it from a major source.

The next thing is that apparently during the debate itself over the bill, senators disagreed as to whether or not it would apply to American citizens. After all, There's a prevision (D.1031.a) that gives the president the right to "use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war." Later on in the bill is a section saying (D.1032.a.4), "The Secretary of Defense may, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence, waive the requirement of paragraph (1) if the Secretary submits to Congress a certification in writing that such a waiver is in the national security interests of the United States." Paragraph 1 is all about the military holding people until "disposition under the law of war." If I read this correctly, this is essentially the basis for secret and indefinite arrest. But the most concerning is the part where the President gets to do whatever's necessary to protect America's interest. It wouldn't be difficult for the president to decide that this particular American is a big enough threat that D.1032.b.1 can be waived.

As I said, even the senators disagree. Once again in this article (link), Graham says that it absolutely applies to citizens and turns the homeland into the battlefield. The Russians have the motherland, the Germans get the fatherland, we get the homeland. The situation with this guy is that he could just be wrong. He could be so ridiculously wrong about the super super obvious - the bill doesn't apply to American citizens - but the fact that he even wants it to apply to citizens shows that there is a wide margin for abuse. The same article describes that anyone who provides aid or information to a terrorist qualifies as a terrorist under the Patriot Act, thus the NDAA potentially opens the door even wider to allow for people's actions to be interpreted as terrorist aid.

But the most worrisome element of all is precedent. There is already precedent for American citizens being denied fair trial in the interest of "national security." There is Anwar al-Akwali who was the guy on YouTube who preached in favor of Al Qaeda. The situation here is a lot of speculation, but General Dunlap said that he views American citizens overseas speaking against America as enemy combatants. Al-Akwali was an American citizen, so theoretically, he should have been put in custody and taken back here for a proper trial. This blog discusses that in the first draft of the bill, it absolutely would/could apply to citizens, but in the new bill, the provision was stuck in. He isn't very convinced that it still won't apply to citizens, and he also quotes General Dunlap saying that the Authorization of Use of Military Force Resolution of 2002 (look this sucker up on Wikipedia. The author at Lawfare Blog doesn't cite this specifically, but I looked and found what the AUMF was, and what he was talking about) classifies Americans overseas as possible combatants.

A lot of what's happening, both in the senate chambers and the news sphere, is uncertain speculation and a little bit of fear mongering. But ultimately, there is strong precedence set forth in which 1. our rights have been ignored (both now and in the past: Japanese internment camps; McCarthy hearings; repeated denial of the press); 2. Americans have been and could be detained or executed without a trial; 3. the government has shown intention of extending the war to its citizens (in both the former form of the bill in which McCain wanted to be able to pursue American citizens directly, and the AUMF).

In thinking about the bill and the fact that 93/100 voting senators passed it, I can only come to the conclusion that there are two types of people voting in favor of it: 1. The exceptionally terrified senator that thinks either the Devil or Osama is hiding under every rock, or 2. The senator that has been bought and sold. There's a lot of money to be made in both war and detention.

Added note 12/15: this thing passed yesterday 283 to 136. That is very sad.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thinking Through Definitions: SOPA

If anyone here (all both of you) pays attention to my F'book page, you'll see that I haven't shut up about SOPA since I first learned about it. Everyday I read through all the SOPA headlines looking for new information, or even new takes on old information. This morning, The Washington Post had two articles that caught my eye, primarily because they had comments from proponents of the bill. These comments bring up interesting definitional issues that I doubt will ever be discussed by our legislators, and might even be a little bit too difficult of a topic than most of them are willing to engage in. Especially because this legislation has the stink of corporate wealth on it.

SOPA Opposition Goes Viral

The first, as you can see, talks about how companies like Tumblr, Reddit, and Mozilla were able to successfully bring their userbase around to this issue while the major media companies failed, despite having used "The Twitter." Anyone who has spent any time floating around the internet could have told these companies it would fail. Hard. The internet has a keen nose for rooting out insincerity, and this measure is Insincere of The First Order. Remember when Sony made that fake PSP blog? No one bought it. Or more recently, how about this? PROTIP: I linked to the Google search page because I can't bring myself to support this site. Even with only my clicks. The reason these folks (Reddit, Mozzila et al) were able to rally the support is that the user base feels like these sites really get what they want. And they do. The media companies only, always have and always will, try to convince us what they want. They're just mad now because for the first time in 80 or so years, a large portion of the consumers have become immunized.

Opposition to the bill is growing from the technology world. On Tuesday, the Business Software Alliance, which represents Microsoft, Intel, Adobe and Apple, pulled its support of the legislation, saying that it “needs work” and that some “valid and important questions” have been raised.
It's about time these companies stepped up in support. Microsoft, Intel, and Apple might all ride the big media line, but ultimately they recognize who uses their junk.

Legislative pushes for the bill in both chambers highlight a consensus among lawmakers and some businesses that online piracy and counterfeiting has become a rampant problem that has drained the pockets of media firms, authors, software and filmmakers who are seeing their goods exchanged for free on the Internet.
This is just false. On two accounts: 1. Any study worth its salt shows that piracy doesn't hurt media companies. Like this one, or this one showing that, quite possibly, so-called pirates are your best customers. There are also questionable studies that are probably fake. Or very flawed. Or the product of fevered imagination. The point is that companies that say they hurt haven't been paying attention. My favorite is the one that analyzes what media companies believe the purchasing power of the public to be.

Yet while they agree with the spirit of the bill, many technology firms are opposed to the measure as it stands.
I wonder how true this is. Perhaps some companies, Microsoft and Apple for instance, would definitely be opposed to piracy, but others, like Google, Facebook, Tumblr, and even Yahoo (though they might deny it), definitely benefit. I feel certain that these companies only dance along so as not to later become suspects in whatever iteration of SOPA or PIPA emerge.

But the bill’s proponents — which include the Motion Picture Association of America — say that concerns that the bill would damage Internet culture, promote government censorship or encroach on the First Amendment are overblown. Michael O’Leary, the MPAA’s senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs, said rhetoric comparing provisions in SOPA to Web censorship are “laughable.”

“This bill has due process,” he said. “It covers activities that are, under federal law, illegal, and requires that any order issued is public and transparent.”

This makes me wonder what he would consider censorship. Moreover, this would definitely damage internet culture. The internet's culture depends irrevocably on the ability to freely share any kind of information. Furthermore, I'm certain there's a fallacy of argumentation that says something about how if a party has a vested interest in the debate's outcome, then that person's input is suspect. Of course he's going to say it won't hurt the internet because he benefits the most if it passes.

SOPA Goes for House Debate:
“The bill provides effective due process to the parties involved. A federal judge must first agree that the website in question is dedicated to illegal and infringing activity,” Smith said recently in a statement. “Only then will a court order be issued directing companies to sever ties with the illegal website. Legitimate websites have nothing to worry about under this bill.”
This one is out of chronological order, and from the first article, but it's my favorite and forms the center of what's really going on here. Best for last and so forth.

It comes from the silliest Republican on the planet (who isn't currently a woman running for president), Rep. Lamar Smith:

“Claims that this bill will ‘break’ the Internet are unfounded. When one-quarter of Internet traffic is infringing, something is already in need of repair,” he said, adding that “over-the-top rhetoric intended to excite opposition” is clouding the underlying problem of online piracy.
This is the most fascinating because, if true, it indicates a distinct shift in cultural thought that is being entirely ignored. If one full quarter of the entire world wide web is being used for "infringing," then that indicates to me a growing trend in the world outlook concerning copyright is greatly changing. And this is, I think, the unaddressed crux of the argument.

The capstone of any republic or democracy today is the idea that it's the rule of the people. By the people, for the people. If 1/4 of all internet traffic is used just for infringement, as Smith claims, then there is at least 1/4 of the world internet using population that thinks copyright as it stands is insufficient in some way. And I bet that number is low. If a friend burns a CD for you, gives you a tape of last night's Community (because no one wants to use Hulu, with its inane commercials squaking at you every seven minutes), throws an audiobook on your iPod, makes a mixtape for your wedding, or shows a movie at a neighborhood block party, then you're an infringer too. The law has become so tight, that it's too easy to become a criminal without even realizing it. And now the media companies want to make it tighter.

My point is that an increasing number of people worldwide are violating copyright in such a way that it should be obvious that copyright is what needs changing. By the people, for the people. And as the Public Domain Manifesto states: "Having a healthy and thriving Public Domain is essential to the social and economic well-being of our societies." So much of what the internet does is convert the copyright into a public domain, repurposing extant works to new ends.

However, you should never take credit for something you didn't create (something the internet by and large excels at), and you should never make money off of something you didn't make (something flea markets do not excel at).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Blogging Through a (Comic) Book: Bad Island pt. 3: The Final Word

This book was actually really good. Way better than Doug's last five I want to say. Still not Jacobus good in terms of realized story telling and art, and not Gears good in terms of bizarre and funny, but it's up there. I'd say maybe top five.

I realize that some of my running commentary sounded maybe snarky and perhaps small minded or vindictive, but you probably didn't read Ghostopolis or Flink or Monster Zoo, so you don't know the kind of expectations I had walking into the joint. A lot of my negativity was not deserved.

I think the biggest difference between this and Ghostopolis (the other TenNapel joint I reviewed) is that Ghostopolis was plagued with things so heavy handed and obvious that I frequently got embarrassment goosebumps. Tuskegee Joe is the most ready example. I think this overwhelming obviousness stemmed from the fact that Ghostopolis, for whatever reason, was overly burdened with providing metaphors for Christianity, but metaphors that didn't even work or make sense. There was also the art. Ghost gave the sense that Doug didn't really understand how to work Photoshop, or Illustrator, or Painter, or whatever digital program he was using.

There was also the profusion of loose ends that got tied in Ghostopolis. The ending felt a lot like the end to Return of The King when you're certain Frodo and Sam are about to make out, and that's during the third of maybe five-ish endings. Ghostopolis was too neat.

But let me talk about Bad Island. The art is so much better. I still wish the art was black and white brush work of the Doug of yore, but barring that, I still wish it was an old fashion brush instead of digital. And the color. Doug has admitted before that he's not a strong colorist, and that shows in the Saturday-morning-cartoon kind of way that the book's colored. When you read a book like Jacobus or Creature Tech, you are absolutely not imagining coloring like you'd see on Dora The Explorer (Doug does use more muted colors than that, but exclusively uses the two-tone style of shading). If Doug wants to color his books now, something I'd try to persuade him against, I'd recommend something more abstract or experimental. The monster designs in this book are pretty interesting. I think my favorite are the muppet looking aliens that live on the backs of the rock giants.

From a story perspective, it's much leaner than Ghostopolis, and half of it feels similar to the Gear story. I don't want to spoil too much, but without any exposition, the story communicates that the massive stone deities have been battling these insect and gray alien looking monsters for thousands of years. The monsters have been trying to enslave the small muppet creatures while the stone deities depend on the creatures to run certain parts of them almost like robots. Very cool.

The story was much closer to an ensemble story than anything else Doug's done. It's not quite wholly an ensemble story as only one character experiences change, and really only two of them get developed. I'm not sure why the wife and daughter were even necessary characters. The wife's knowledge proved to be necessary, but not her character.

The family's story is so run of the mill that it's forgettable. I feel like they're all stock characters, and I always felt a little disappointed every time I turned the page to see that they were still the focus of the story. In a 218 page story, that's lots of tiny disappointments.

The father/son backstory seems to have all this import, but nothing really happens with it. You find that the son almost suffocated to death on his mucus when he was a baby, and the dad was all shaken. But that's sort of it. The son had planned to run away before the trip, but it's never revealed why, nor are there any textual clues beyond the fact that he's just a rebellious teenager. You never learn more than a single thing about the mother or the daughter: mom's a botanist, daughter collects animals. Mostly, they're just plant and payoff characters. All the humans felt really insubstantial. I know Doug's method of storytelling is to tell a story in such a way that it's constantly getting pushed forward: every picture and word should reveal plot or character or both, and I appreciate that. I strive for that in my own writing. But these characters are all so one note that I feel cheated that the climax of the story is their reunion and safety. The aliens were so much more interesting.

Which brings me to the things that were unresolved. I complained about Ghostopolis' almost compulsive need to tie things up, but I feel like some large things involving the deities go unaddressed. The king, when he thinks his son has been killed, surrenders, and the muppets ask him if they are to be slaves again. He responds that he would do anything to save them, including his own death, but he can't handle the death of his son. So, at the end of a book is a single frame showing the deity father and son's reunion. And that's it? What about the slavery issue? That's way more interesting than if the stock Disney Channel family gets home in time to see Friends.

There's also a single panel in the book that shows the son deity eating a bunch of monsters. Alive. Apparently this is how the creatures get their energy to do battle. That one panel showed more promise for the direction of the story than almost any other panel in the book. Creatures that eat other living creatures wholesale like that brings up interesting ethical problems. Are they really as good as they say they are? Is it OK to eat these small monsters if we assume they're evil? Does this slaughter have anything to do with the war in outerspace?

Mainly, Doug made the mistake of making his support characters (in this instance, they're almost props) way more interesting than his main characters. I feel like this is a pretty constant problem, however, when your main characters have been normal humans for the last 5 or 6 books. It was a problem with Ghost too. The world is more fascinating than the characters. There was a time when Doug's characters were outright weird. This time might have been in a minority of his books, but Gear doesn't even have humans in it. Creature Tech is a human being almost-possessed by an alien symbiote. Jacobus focused on two regular humans, but one came from a very weird place through very weird means, and the other one had to try to comprehend him directly. I guess with Ghost and Bad Island, Doug just juxtaposes the human and the weird, but has stopped them from directly acting with each other. In an odd way, this sort of dehumanizes the stories. Instead of seeing how humanity acts when confronted with the bizarre, humanity only gets to indirectly participate in it, and therefore their reactions are much more muted.

One thing that was really effective is that there isn't a hidden Evangelical element. You could argue there's one with the prince deity, but if there is, it's so subtle that it doesn't break the story. Several of Doug's stories have a witnessing element that's so shoved in, it makes the story difficult to accept. I think it was Tolkien that said good Christian writing should first and foremost be good writing, and then Christian. That might have also been CS Lewis, and if it's neither of those guys, then I made it up. But if it was those two guys, then you'll notice that Lord of The Rings and Until We Have Faces are both totally void of any overt-punching-you-in-the-ding-ding Christian references. But Bad Island doesn't have any bad or overt religious references, and I think it's a better book for it.

I liken the shoe horning of the gospel message into fiction by Christians to the ubiquity of the Dreamworks face in Dreamworks cartoons, or the moment of internal defeat in Pixar cartoons. Everyone knows about dreamworks face. But the Moment of Internal Doubt in Pixar cartoons is always the final moment of the second act. It's when the hero sighs meaningfully and looks longingly at his hands before he makes a pronouncement about how he can't do it. In the Incredibles, it's the moment in the plane across the ocean when Mr. Incredible sighs, looks down at his hands, shrugs, and says how he can't do it if he thinks his family isn't safe. That's the clearest example.

Would I buy Bad Island? Probably not. Maybe if you're a hardcore TenNapel fan. While it is so much better than Ghostopolis (and Flink, and Monster Zoo, and Black Cherry, and Power-Up), it's still not quite Jacobus, or Gear, or Creature Tech. Or even Iron West (and that was the first Doug book I felt iffy about after I bought it. I even lied on an Amazon review because I kind of thought of Doug as a friend.). I would recommend that you read Bad Island. It's worth reading. And if you like it, then pick up Jacobus. Buy it for full price. It's that good. Then buy Gear. You'll laugh yourself stupid.