Archive | April 2014

Popular Stories Retold by the Villain – Why Grendel Works and Maleficent Won’t.

I am looking forward to seeing the movie Maleficent. Or at least I was, until I read up on the plot synopsis. It seems to be following in Wicked’s footsteps, crafting a tale that feels the urge to apologize for the villain’s wickedness. “No, Maleficent wasn’t SO evil. She just had a troubled past, and everything she did has a very good reason for being done.” It isn’t an uncommon stance to take, nor is it altogether bad.

It just isn’t what we like about a good villain.

Having read Grendel over the weekend put this into perspective. Grendel, for those who don’t know, is the story of Beowulf retold from Grendel’s perspective. If any a villain could be reimagined sympathetically, it’s Grendel. Unlike Maleficent or the Wicked Witch, Grendel, in the original epic, reacts to those stupid humans in their meadhall driving him nuts with their partying and such. He’s a force of nature, defending his territory. Once he’s killed, his mother comes out to avenge her son. In my college class where we read Beowulf, we all basically seemed to agree that Grendel was more a victim than anything else.

So it’s intriguing how, in Grendel, the novel doesn’t bother painting him as some tragic hero, but rather as a genuine villain. If anything, here he’s more evil than in the original epic. Where as in the original material he’s just a physical brute for Beowulf to dismember, in this, he’s a nihilist who hopes to establish his role as a destroyer of worlds out of a deep seated depression and envy of mankind.

That is not to say he’s unsympathetic. Indeed, he’s incredibly sympathetic, in the same way that Macbeth or Richard III are sympathetic and understandable. Indeed, that leads me to the primary difference between Grendel and Maleficent, and why one is spectacular while the other is probably a very pretty ride.

Stories like Grendel make the villain understandable, but don’t attempt to justify a villain’s actions.

Stories like Maleficent feel compelled to make the villains into unsung heroes.

No one who likes Maleficent wants her to be a hero. She’s the self-proclaimed Mistress of All-Evil. She’s a glorious anti-christ with an empire of orcs and other beast-men. She has a pet raven named Diablo! She is 100% evil. And the movie Sleeping Beauty justifies this beautiful with a quote that claims she doesn’t understand love, and how “she probably isn’t very happy.” There is your motivation right there. Simple, but compelling.

But no, rather than tell a story about someone incapable of understanding human affections, watching from the outside, perhaps hoping to demolish them, instead it’s a story about a scorned lover who is on a totally justifiable war against the District 9 guy.

Again, the movie isn’t out yet, but, going entirely off of early plot synopsis, that’s what it sounds like the film is doing. The advertising isn’t helping, by playing the upbeat happy music whenever Maleficent appears, rather than the intense nightmare music from our childhoods.

Compare this to Grendel. There is an incident when he’s a child where he learns humanity is crazy, but his defining moment is when the dragon comes down and tells him that life is meaningless, that he is destined to be a monster, and that definition allows him to slip into the role of the destroyer.

While Grendel is a character you can understand and feel for, his actions are still diabolical. He doesn’t kill people out of necessity so much as because he enjoys to kill. He’s intelligent enough to philosophize with the humans about the nature of evil. His relationship with his mother, who is almost unintelligible, is also very humanizing, even as it turns dark as the story continues. It’s compelling stuff.

However, the reason we as audiences don’t see this story very often is because it isn’t very pleasant. Grendel is a very dark story. It’s very morbid. It’s bleak, hopeless, and claims that, in the end, nothing will amount to anything. Beowulf only appears in the last two chapters, and, while he is a terrifying angel–complete with fiery wings–he isn’t enough to bring a lot of light to this tragedy. Even the last couple pages, the image of Grendel, running through the woods, dying alone as he screams out for his mother is fairly disturbing.

The ending of Wicked is kinda upbeat. I’m sure the ending of Maleficent will be, too.

Either way…probably going to see Maleficent the moment it comes into theaters.

The Tragedy of Shirow Masamune – Going Too Far

I talked yesterday in length about how writers should look at trash in order to learn a few things about making our works memorable. If the writing is terrible, why does it leave an impression? To summarize what I said, writers must look at offensive,  degrading works of fiction in order to figure out why they stand out like a sore thumb, and how we can try to implement their secret in a way that doesn’t make our fiction degrading and offensive.

However, while reading up on other examples of exploitative material, I came across two subjects I wanted to touch upon in more detail, but just didn’t have the time at the moment. One is the movie Heavy Metal, which I’ll get to another time. The other thing is the case of Shirow Masamune, a manga writer/artist who really had a huge impact on my development as a writer…and an example of what NOT to do when drawing from trash.

Shirow Masamune is primarily an artist, but his narratives are very profound in many respects. His works are firmly set in the cyberpunk genre, with entries like Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed frequently being totted as among the greatest works in science fiction, let alone anime. In particular, Ghost in the Shell is revered as a modern classic–and for very good reason.

Or at least the anime is.

The anime and the manga differ in terms of tone. The animated film based on the manga is dark, philosophical, slow-paced. The manga is fun, goofy, and, while it does deal with quite a good bit of philosophy, there is also a three-way lesbian sex scene involving the main character. In the film, sexuality is almost irrelevant. Characters strip naked with all the sensual charm of a coat hanger. In the film, a character stripping is supposed to feel uncomfortable, a reminder of how far this world is from our own when the main heroine, Motoko Kusanagi, can strip naked without caring who sees her. This is all part of movie Motoko’s dilemma: finding her humanity in a mechanical world.

In the manga, she strips because Shirow wanted to draw boobies.

Motoko is either bisexual or a lesbian in both the manga and film versions. While Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex–a series based on the movie universe–features Motoko also having sex with other women, rarely is it explicit. It’s usually off-screen, and all characters involved are not objectified.

In the manga, Shirow really liked boobies.

All criticizing Shirow Masamune aside, that’s not to say that he objectified his female characters. He wrote multi-dimensional heroes dealing with tons of issues, both existential and physical, adverse threats from criminals and terrorists. In Appleseed, the main heroine does all sorts of cool things, kicking butt and taking names. The male gaze was present, sure, but the story wasn’t bogged down by the fan service. A little bit of fan-service isn’t terrible, even if it is a stupid addition in an otherwise clever story

What is terrible is that Shirow Masamune would spend the rest of his career riding on his old successes, and just write smut.

Now, this is nothing against people who enjoy writing erotic literature. As writers, we must always strive to create whatever we want. If your passion lies in writing dinosaur pornography, by all means, pursue that dream (so long as I never have to read it).  Indeed, Shirow has wasted no time in pursuing his dream of drawing creepy cyborg sex scenes. He’s absolutely unapologetic about it.

Now, you might respond by telling me that an artist can do whatever they want, and, again, that’s true. However, the PROBLEM isn’t that Shirow Masamune has chosen to draw creepy cyberpunk porn. It’s that he’s stopped writing GOOD stories so he can ruin his reputation.

Fans have lost interest in the has-been manga writer. Ghost in the Shell’s success is now credited to Mamoru Ooshii’s film adaptation, not Masamune’s manga. It’s hard to take a writer seriously when they just decide to ride on their previous successes, and pump out naughty cyborg smut.

That said, Shirow Masamune has had some great story ideas. He’s just had OTHER writers do that for him. Production IG has released a couple anime based on Shirow’s ideas in the last ten years or so. One of them, Real Drive, is a very underrated post-cyberpunk story that takes a fairly optimistic look at the future, not to mention has a very progressive selection of female characters with various body types. I recommend watching it, or at least looking it up, just for the character designs. They’re unlike anything in anime today.

Still, the fact that Shirow couldn’t be bothered to bring this series to life himself is a little insulting.

As writers, we should aim not to do this. Learn from every writing experience you have, but please, don’t lower yourself to doing this.

Why we as Writers MUST Look at Trashy Stories to Learn to Make Art

For one of my final papers as a student, I have to write about an apocalyptic film or movie or–thankfully–anime. Prior in this semester, we wrote essays on Grave of the Firefly and Barefoot Gen, discussing the intellectual merits of anime! For a humble literature student, I was in heaven. Rarely having the option to write academic papers about anime, I seized the chance. At first, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: Neon Genesis Evangelion. One of my all-time favorite anime, if not my all-time favorite.

However, I found I was not the only one who had this idea. Being someone who wanted to avoid looking unoriginal, I searched through the trove of apocalyptic anime that I could write about. There were the obvious choices. Akira and Nausicaa are two of my favorite anime movies, but both were a little too obvious. I caught wind that other students were writing about them, the teacher talked about them–too obvious. I wanted to be original.

So I burrowed deeper and deeper into the library of apocalyptic anime, hoping for a gold mine. I dismissed a lot of mainstream anime. At one point, I was going to write about Berserk, then Fist of the North Star, but a part of me wanted to talk about something that no one else would touch.

I’m going to be writing my paper on Violence Jack and Legend of the Overfiend.

These two are examples of some of anime’s most vile, repugnant nightmare fuel. They aren’t particularly good anime, nor are they fun to watch. I saw both years ago, and, while I have little desire to rewatch either anytime soon, I am not upset at the prospect of revisiting them.

For the longest time, I didn’t know why. There aren’t any particularly great characters I’m excited to revisit. The plot twists aren’t fun. There are only scenes that remain embedded in my brain that will never go away. There are moments that manage to transcend the limitations of the dull plot and characters.

They manage to remain memorable because they are shocking.

Take for example other examples. The Gor series, by all respects, are repulsive novels. They glorify sexual slavery in a way that makes me queasy just thinking about. I am really disturbed that this series has fans, and yet I cannot ignore it. It’s simply too appalling to ignore.

Or take A Serbian Film–

No? Too extreme? Look at Salo. While the director would probably want people to believe that this film was an artistic achievement in dissecting the way the government and corporations exploit their people. The shit-eating sequences? How industry force us to eat garbage and processed foods–the kind of stuff so unhealthy that it might as well be our own shit. I will not argue how good of a metaphor this is, but, as you will soon see, the effectiveness of the metaphor is not why this scene is so memorable.

Most critics dismiss this sort of stuff. It’s schlock. It’s pornography. It’s exploitation. It’s draining. True, that is all true. We are talking about trash here. And yet, at the same time, this trash managed to do what so many labors of love fail to do: remain memorable.

They transcend their limitations. They don’t shy away from their dark subject matter. They exploit all the way. They don’t just half-ass it. They go all out. They unleash whatever grotesque and unsavory images they can muster, and, in doing so, become infamous. In many respects, infamy is far more preferable than obscurity.

As writers, we cannot forget this. Far too often, we restrain ourselves. We fear what others might say. We might be labeled as schlocky, as devious, as repugnant. However, I argue that if you are criticized for leaving an impact, even if it is repulsion, then you are doing your job right.

Too many writers come and go, leaving barely a ripple in their wake. Take Pier Pasolini. Many critics claim his Biblical epic  The Gospel According to St. Matthew is one of the most superb Bible films ever to be made. Most modern audiences remember Pasolini thanks to Salo, a movie where people eat shit.

Now, does this mean that we as writers should throw out everything we know about our craft to make trashy stories about ultra-violence? No! By no means, no! But what we should take away from the darker underbelly of cinema, writing, etc, is that, sometimes, we need to be shocking in order to be effective. Good characters and good plot just aren’t enough. One shocking scene is all it might take to make a film stand the test of time.

If you are still skeptical, think about it. Imagine The Godfather without the horse’s head in the sheets. Imagine Fatal Attractions without the boiled bunny. Imagine Akira without that grotesque ending scene at the end. Imagine Oedipus Rex without the revelation that the king has been sleeping with his mother the whole time. Bringing this whole thing back to the beginning, the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which despite its reputation among anime fans is sorely under-appreciated by mainstream Western audiences, would not nearly be as memorable or powerful without its intense, mind-screwy ending.

The lesson? Never forget how effective a good brutal scene can be in your story. Or something shocking. Don’t be afraid to go all-out. The worst that can happen is that people will talk about your writing.

Reading Like a Writer – Neuromancer and the Noir Aesthetic

I’m thinking of giving my posts some semblance of structure. Maybe I’ll map out a weekly schedule of what I’ll post or something, delegating certain days certain posts. Maybe. Might be fun.

In any event, after my cyberpunk obsession day, I picked back up Neuromancer by after reading it years ago. Truth be told, I barely remembered reading it in the first place. There was a time when I was young that I inhaled books without giving much thought to their contents. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. Far from it. I understood it, but I didn’t really process all the moving parts.

Truth be told, I have yet to finish my second run-through of Neuromancer, so I’ll probably follow-up this post with another. However, so far, the visual aesthetic just blows me away. It’s clear, reading early on, that William Gibson was coming off of a career of short story writing when he wrote this. The book is such a fast-paced breeze. At time, actually, I wished the book was a little slower, so I could absorb the details of this world, understand what was going on. It felt at times that the book moved WAY too fast, but other times, the speed felt appropriate. It would feel more appropriate, however, in a book limited to about two thousand words, rather than how many words this book is written in.

Still, the minimalist style works here. In parody, often writers describe noir scenes in this sort of over-the-top tone, while, in Neuromancer, the noir elements are pretty straight forward. For a brief contrast (not from the book, but my own creation):

“I found myself on the dark streets that ran with shadows, much like the underside of a bullet casing after unloaded from a .22 magnum death-popper.”

Contrasted to the type of noir you’d see in Neuromancer (and, for that matter, good noir):

“I walked through the dark street.”

While I love deliciously cheesy dark lines, there is a clear line drawn in the sand between these two quotes. One brings the action to a crawl, which kills any chance of exhilaration. While the words are goofy, the similes and metaphors serve little purpose to the greater narrative.

When you cut the crap and get to the point, the darkness of the narrative speaks for itself.

That’s not to say that good noir doesn’t need metaphor. Flavor helps, but done within reason. However, it helps if there’s a personal element to it.

“The streets were dead. The last time this sidewalk was this quiet, some coke-dealer had a bullet lodged in his breast, blood spread over the curb. The gunshot deafened the city, or at least as far as I could tell.”

This figurative street adds a personality to the area without needing to go on and on with useless description. That said, this example is actually longer than the bad example before. The issue isn’t necessarily length, but substance.

Let’s apply this to Neuromancer.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (Gibson).

First line of the book. Very simple. Metaphor that immediately connects the reality to the virtual, in a way that, while dated by today’s standards, is pretty effective. This line could have easily been screwed up by being over-written. For example…

“The heavens above me were a greyish-snowyish hue, like what a television looks like after you keep it on after hours.”

If you enjoyed the above sentence, okay, cool, but it lacks the impact that Gibson’s line has. Not only that, but it goes on for too long. The first sentence of a book NEEDS to get you invested, interested, and fast.

Again, I am still in the middle of Neuromancer, but most of Gibson’s sentences are like this. Quick. Snappy. Effective. Draw an immediate link to cyberpunk. The noir elements in this piece are a lesson worth drawing from, however. We young and aspiring writers need to look on the works of older, established people if we hope to make it. If we don’t learn from those who succeed–well, we’re shit out of luck.

The Two Cyberpunks

My first encounter with the cyberpunk genre was Ghost in the Shell. Or, rather, that’s when I first realized I was watching cyberpunk. I had seen The Matrix, and I had seen some cartoons parody the dark and gritty style. Never before, however, was I aware of cyberpunk as a genre, nor had I heard of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. Nope, it was Ghost in the Shell that first entranced me. I used to watch Ghost in the Shell all the time in middle school. I watched it so often that, in a weird way, I came too close to it to see its depth. I overlooked things that most casual viewers would notice, in favor of the small intricate details that casual viewers overlooked.

Of course, I needed more.

So I began to digest cyberpunk into high school, and, naturally, to this very day. I love the genre, but, after inhaling enough of it, I notice a key difference, one that kind of intrigues me.

There are two genres of cyberpunk.

I do not mean this in that there is cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk, as TVTropes details. No, I mean within cyberpunk itself, there is a distinct difference between two disciplines of cyberpunk that I need to talk about, or else I might explode from the confusion.

Cyberpunk typically either focuses on defining humanity or defiling humanity.

There are cyberpunk stories like Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix. Each film discusses what it means to be human, the definitions of reality, etc. Underneath the steel exterior, there is soul and spirituality. By the end of each story, there is a sense of catharsis that, despite how close we come to a technological singularity, we are, in the end, important.

Then there’s cyberpunk like Genocyber. Genocyber has been fascinating me lately, as have other anime like it, the kind where people are just seconds away from being reduced to cancerous piles of soulless flesh, where life means nothing. The stories where people are as useful as data drives, and dismissed just as quickly as an obsolete iPhone. The world that Johnny Mnemonic occupies, the world of Blade Runner, the world of–

See where I’m going with this?

The cyberpunk that first made me a fan, this world of philosophy and discussion–it’s all just one variety. On one hand, you have your Ghost in the Shells. The other? Tetsuo the Iron Man. Life means nothing. Schlock and horror with our fears of advancing tech put to good use. Low budget films and pulpy novels.

And I fucking love it.

No, really, I love stories where people are twisted into disgusting wrecks, where nightmarish dissections take place, with tubes and gears shoved under the skin to improve a person’s potential. I love it, not because it’s how I envision the future, but rather because I see things I would never see anywhere else.

So my surprise is understandable when I realized that people hate cyberpunk. For some, cyberpunk goes too deep. Not to say that the philosophies are too deep, no. It just tries too hard to be deep. The original Ghost in the Shell achieves depth with a silent montage of almost random, yet not particularly unusual, images. It achieves deep with ease. Its sequel, Innocence, is not so lucky. Truth be told, it disappointed me. It left me wanting something more substantial, not that cotton candy brand of depth that is so commonly confused for the real thing. Same thing with Ergo Proxy. Same thing with countless nameless cyberpunk novels that try to cash in on existential and Buddhist philosophies that lend themselves so well to cyberpunk.

On the other hand, others loathe terrifying cyberpunk. They hate feeling as though their life lacks meaning. They don’t want to feel powerless. Genocyber–keeps coming back to that anime, doesn’t it?–seems to receive tons of hate, despite the fact that it isn’t really all that bad. It’s by no means good, certainly, but bad? Not really. At least, not the first story. I am not a huge fan of the subsequent entries in the story, but the first? It’s pretty solid.

Say nothing of people who don’t like Blade Runner! Blade Runner isn’t necessarily a holy grail in science fiction. It can be criticized. I understand if you have genuine things against it, sure. But still–it’s such a marvelous story, based on an equally powerful short story. It’s not that some people don’t like it. I understand if people who aren’t fond of cyberpunk dismiss it. Still–whatever. Those who can appreciate Blade Runner are inspired by it in the same way I am. Same with Philip K. Dick’s original short story–though since I was introduced to the film first, it holds a slightly larger place in my heart.

I think I can conclude that there is something about cyberpunk that speaks to certain people, but not to others. Some can adore it, while others–not so much. I don’t know what that something may be, but it must be pretty big. I am simply too narrow minded to see it, I fear.

Diving into cyberpunk, I am reminded of the xenobites of Hellraiser. The scene in particular that comes to mind is the part where Pinhead says he and his partners are “Demons to some. Angels to others.” The things one encounters in cyberpunk will either be too disturbing to experience, or a unique sort of pleasure that defies true explanation. It’s almost spiritual, and you really don’t know which one you’ll get until you finish it.

I will talk more about this in detail as I contemplate this thought further. However, for now, I am going to delve into this rusty hellhole, and see what I can mine from it.

Imprints and Self-Publishing

I was talking to another author before who had decided to forego traditional publishing, deciding instead to create his own imprint market, through which he could publish his writing.

I have been weighing the possibilities of self-publishing for awhile now, despite, for many years, dismissing it outright.

As a kid, I heard of vanity publishers who would release your novel, printed and everything, in order to boost the ego of whatever writer was dumb enough to listen to their sweet talking. The books that made it to the vanity press’s shelves were about as meaningful and significant as any fanfiction. Like fanfics, the quality varied. Some fanfictions are spectacular, while others are unbearable.

Amazon’s self-publishing market didn’t ease my nerves.

The sad truth of the matter is that self-publishing, for many years now, has been linked irrevocably in my head with “giving up.” That’s not to say that self-publishing is giving up–in fact, it might be harder in some cases than traditional publishing–but there is an element to it that seems like surrender. The big agencies weeded you out, and now you’re trying to set your roots among the rocky underbelly of the world.

However, this perspective on self-publishing is out-dated, even close minded. There are other means to become successful.

I only fear them.

I believe, in some small part, that I am avoiding an inevitable confrontation. Since I was a boy, I have obsessed over traditional publication. I never bothered to consider–in fact, I refused to consider–any alternatives. I would go the traditional route with agencies and publishers. That was that.

However, industries change. The world changes. While I stand with my head in the sand, the game around me is changing. The trick this wily fox must learn is not how to ignore change in a pursuit to keep the pace, but rather how do I integrate with the system, and work around my limitations rather than submit to them?