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.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Blogging through a (comic) book: Bad Island pt. 2: My Reaction

So last post I gave some background on who Doug is and some of his work. Now I'm just going to go through the book and comment on the things I see. This is probably only interesting to people who've read it, or have a vested interest in Doug's work.

Bad Island - Doug TenNapel.

Ok, right off the bat I have a gaggy problem. His last book, Ghostopolis, while not his worst is in the running for the worst, was the first to make use of an entirely digital process: digital inks, digital colors, digital pencils. Some artists can pull this off, but that talent is so rare that I can't think of one off the top of my head. Ashley Wood? Close enough.

The problem is that so much of the force behind the ink is lost when you go digital. In Jacobus, two strokes convey an entire mood. In this, it takes all the ink, the color, and then the dialog before I really get the mood. It's so much less powerful and meaningful.

And then the color's flat. Just do black and white.

And now I'll actually read words from this book.

The robot designs are cool. Very Gear. The dialog is iffy. So far it's just a stream of madeup words. That's something I can do without. The scientists look like knockoff muppets, but it works.

Even though this book is all digital like his last one, the inking looks way better than Ghostopolis. Ghost's inking reminded me of me at first year art school trying to figure out photoshop. Dead Island is much more sophisticated. There's that.

I'm not far in (this blog while you read thing is taxing), but so far it's a story about a race of marklar who recently got free from another race of enemy marklar. The marklar need to get some marklar from some marklars to power their giant robot marklar. While doing this, evil marklar swoop in and there's violence. The other story is a family getting ready for a trip to Florida, or something (who voluntarily goes to Florida that isn't full of arthritis?). The kids are stereotypes - sullen untrustable teenage son that doesn't want to go, and oblivious daughter obsessed with her snake - and generally, I have more empathy for the scientist marklars. I have no idea who the main character is. Probably Reese because he has to learn a lesson about responsibility. And then welcome Jaysus in his heart.

Also I can't find a reference for Florida. I think I made that up. But it still stands: Florida is awful.

Page 22: sad Dreamworks face.

Only on page 27, but I just realized a lot of Doug's work (in fact, maybe all except Gears and Creature Tech) rely heavily on character's with father issues. I both like this and think it's a crutch. Like: because most heroes do have father problems stretching all the way back to ancient mythology through modern day. Crutch: because EVERY one of his protagonists is a dude with father issues. There's no variety there at all.

P. 33: the issue of the main character is further confused by the fact that the mother has a vision of marklar scientists forced into slave labor. Maybe Doug's going for an ensemble story? That would be new.

P. 37: girl asks if her dead snake went to heaven. Maybe kids ask that. Maybe severely churched kids ask that. By the time I was severely churched, I was too old for that question. Instead I asked the abstracted: do animals go to heaven. Just curious, but does anyone know a kid that asked that?

Scratch that: my wife did ask that. Apparently it's a real question. Good to know. I figured it was a TV trope that people bandy about and eventually it becomes a real thing by the ubiquity of its presence on TV.

P. 40: God's balls. Their boat just got destroyed and the family's reaction is sarcastic quips. This rips me up and down both sides. I understand that fiction isn't reality, and in fact, I would vehemently argue against the validity of realism, but it's absolutely meaningless to make all the characters that respond to devastation to do so with flippancy.

P. 44: No grown man is that inept with matches. Humor fail.

P. 48: A plant from the first 10 pages of the story about the mom being a botanist pays off. She has a greenhouse. Similarly, there was a plant from the beginning from the mom about how no one, "wants to go on this stupid trip." In time, dad's father issues will be revealed.

Doug's creature designs in this one are pretty cool. They just saw this pink 3 eyed naked crow looking thing. Very Neverhood-esque.

P. 82: Somehow the guy who can't manage to work a matchbook managed to rig up a trap sophisticated enough to catch an alien looking monster.

P. 83: Apparently the alien feels scaly, like, "Reese's athlete's foot times ten!" Oh lols. Oh wait. The opposite of lol. How about we just say it's like a lizard, eh?

I want to linger on this point for a second. It's a common misconception in writing to think that if you make up a bizarre analogy ("like my athlete's foot times ten!") that it creates a more vivid image than saying what it's actually like. This abstraction is neither vivid or funny. In descriptions, be concrete and specific to be effective.

p. 84: Reese's reaction to an anthropomorphic tree grabbing his leg is, "out of my pants, creep." No one in this story has funny reactions, or even ones that make sense.

P. 86: Reese cuts off one of the trees arms. The dad says, "Cutting the vines only makes it stronger." How does he know this? This is the first limb of the story to get chopped.

P. 89: The little girl slept through the tree and alien attack. Dad says, "She's got the right idea." None of that makes sense. Maybe it's supposed to be commentary about the faith of a child or something, but I reiterate that it doesn't really make sense.

P. 98: The giant robot battle marklars from the first page are actually some sort of ancient alien gods with the tiny muppet marklars living in small societies on their backs. That's actually a really cool setup. Wouldn't ya know... the oldest marklar deity has a son, and that son's angsty too! And everyone knows that ancient alien city gods don't use contractions.

P. 100: The robot gods eat monstrous animals for energy. This is a really cool idea with some very profound implications. I'm interested see how it pans out.

P. 158: The plant with the little girl's proclivity for animal collection paid off in the form of an alien armadillo that shoots barbs when it sneezes. That sentence got away from me. The plant paid off when the mother of this pup frees the family from certain doom. Nevermind that the brother kicked the creature into the forest. This feels a little deus ex machina.

P. 160: Well, at least the large mother creature only rescued the family from doom so that it could murder the son. That's good.

P. 180: There it is. Dad trusts son now.

P. 188: I figured out the plot. But I'm not telling. Also, I'm 30 pages from the end. Not that impressive.

P. 189: Balls. The plot I just figured out means that the son alien deity is a metaphor for Jesus, on account of the Father (to keep his people from being enslaved) says, "don't ask me to sacrifice my son."

P. 218: Huh. That metaphor didn't get anymore complex than, "Please don't make me murder my kid." I'm glad.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Blogging Through a (Comic) Book: Bad Island pt. 1: A Preface

I just picked up Bad Island by Doug TenNapel. If you've heard of Doug, it's because you've met me, played Earthworm Jim, or (more unlikely) played The NeverHood. It's probably only the best computer game to have ever been made, and almost no one played it.

So, here's the thing: Doug is a gifted artist, at least with a brush. And I've bought almost everyone of his graphic novels. Gear (his first), and Earthboy Jacobus are my absolute favorites. At some point, however, the comics just became not worth buying. There came a point where it seemed like the stories weren't quite justifying their ticket prices of 10, 15, or 20 dollars. Which is a shame. I really like supporting art that I can really get behind, and Doug's art is there. If the man released a limited edition hard bound art book, I would save up and buy it. Seriously: he's a monster with an inking brush.

At first I figured it was just diversifying taste that did it. I went through some pretty profound personal changes, and my tastes in other areas changed, so why not this one? But I noticed that all his books contained the same arch: lazy layabout learns responsibility; saves day. Next I noticed it was the clumsy way in which he implemented religion into his books. I'm not at all opposed to the (smart) integration of religion into art. In fact, I often think the best art is in some way religious. Two of my favorite authors (Grant Morrison and Alan Moore) have often talked about how their fiction is a way to communicate their "religions" (quotes were used because they don't have formal codified religions, but do have a particular way of viewing the world that they want to show others). The way CS Lewis wove religion into his Silent Planet Trilogy and Until We Have Faces? Profound. Profound while being blatantly Christian (at least in the Planet Trilogy). The Fountain is my favorite movie, and that's Aaronofsky essentially laying out his view of how reality works. Or should.

But Doug's stuff is clumsy. I never open a book from Doug and wonder if the protagonist will convert to some version of Christianity by the end. It's a no-brainer in a way that kills any would-have-been-well-implemeneted religious tension. But even that could be easily looked over. It definitely weakens a story to have an alien promoting communion (but not an alien version of communion. No - an alien confirming our very human idea of communion, as if Jesus might only save them if they can come to him on human terms), or a man that tries to pass off the traditional Christian creation story as some kind of indecipherable myth (spoiler alert: it's not), but these things don't kill a story. No, in the end, what made it so hard for me to justify throwing down that hard earned dough is the disneyfication of his stories.

By disneyfication I mean the tendency of movies made for family (or mass) consumption to throw out a cacophony of loose threads and subplots into the central narrative, many not actually adding substance to the work as a whole, just for the sake of having a long form 3rd act resolution. Not only does Jeff win the skating championship, but he gets a contract with the skating company, so now he has enough money to pay all of his mom's medical bills and get his little brother out of debtor's prison. His dad may not come back from the dead, but his dad's ghost does appear to say, "Hey, your stepdad might not be me, but he's a good guy, and you should give him a chance. Also, there was no magic in those shoes: the magic was in you the whole time." He also gets the girl and his lost dog comes back. And his stepdad gets his job back at the dirt factory. With a promotion. Endings that are so relentingly saccharine, there's no freedom for you as the viewer to interpret or even have your own reaction. It's too airtight and spelled out, and that's what killed it for me.

After that long intro (in which I can't emphasize enough how great of an artist Doug is [if he'd kick that horrible digital habit], and how great Earthboy Jacobus and Gear are. Seriously. Stop reading this, get those, then come back here), I started this entry to say that I just picked up his newest book (from the library. Like I said: I'd love to buy a new TenNapel joint, but I can't justify bad art) and I want to blog through my reactions as I read it. And here we go... on the next post.