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Two Great Tastes?

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Although it doesn’t exactly fit my own definition of “news”, the latest buzz among comic fans is the story that Frank Miller is about to meet up with Zack Snyder to discuss plans for the next Superman film (which, not incidentally, will also feature Batman).

Personally, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work. I find it strikes me a lot like Paul Verhoeven’s did, which is to say that there are individual elements about it that I like (in Snyder’s case it is his undeniable visual flair), but the work as a whole either leaves me cold or repulses me entirely.  I did marvel at how well he transferred large chunks of Watchmen to the screen virtually unchanged from the comic, but in the end the movie was just too violent and made too many bad choices to work for me. In his defense, I feel Watchmen should never have been made in the first place, as what made the work great in the first place was intrinsically tied to the comic medium. I saw no more need for a Watchmen movie than I did a Citizen Kane comic book. But while I could cut him some slack for Watchmen, I cannot forgive Sucker Punch. That movie just made me feel dirty for watching it.

Frank Miller is a little more complicated for me. I used to be a fan of his work. There was a time when I adored his work as ranked Dark Knight Returns as the top comic series of its era. However, the last Miller book I enjoyed was 300 and after that his work seemed to rapidly devolve into self-parody. At least, I really hoped it was self-parody, because it became so drenched in machismo and testosterone that it would have been a scarier thought that Miller might have meant it as serious work.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again was just awful in every respect. Even Lynn Varley’s colors were so garish and headache inducing that I wondered if they hadn’t set out to deliberately make the worst possible book. Miller followed DK2 with All Star Batman and Robin, which I did actually enjoy, although probably not for the right reasons. After reading an offhand remark from Warren Ellis that the book was better appreciated as comedy, I started to see the book as a biting parody of “gritty” super hero books. Unfortunately I had no real idea if Miller actually intended it that way.

What further muddied his work for me was the fact that all these elements that now made his books seem ridiculously over-the-top were actually present in his earlier books, albeit in more subtle doses. So while Dark Knight Returns definitely still has merits, its weaker elements seem much more overt in light of DK2.

All of which brings me back to the “news” that opened this post. The little blurb about Miller doesn’t mean that he will be involved in the writing or making of the next Superman film. Should it actually come to pass that he IS involved, who can say if his influence will be positive or negative? Both Snyder and Miller seem to have many similar traits in their work, but unfortunately in this case I don’t think we are talking about two great tastes that taste great together.

I’m worried that in this case it is more like two difficult to swallow pills that might actually combine to kill the patient. Only time will tell, of course.

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Taking the Red Pill

The other day a friend of mine posted on Facebook that he was “pretty much sick of everything” and followed it with a simple “goodbye.” At this point, I don’t know what that means. Perhaps he’s done with Facebook, perhaps he’s decided to join the Foreign Legion. Whatever his situation, it got me to thinking about not only Facebook and social media in general.

I’m not a fan of Facebook. I realize it can be a useful tool in connecting people who might not otherwise be able to connect. Unfortunately human beings have this uncanny ability to take something useful and rely on it to the point where it does more harm than good. An automobile is essential if you need to drive to Grandma’s house in another town, but when you use it to drive across the street to the store your leg muscles atrophy.

Likewise, I think Facebook and other social media are causing our social skills as a whole to atrophy. I see people every day with their thumbs glued to their phone as they text and check Facebook, all the while ignoring the world around them.

The insidious thing about social media is that it offers us the illusion of contact without the risks that come with genuine interaction. We can shut out what offends us without ever having to explain why. Case in point: I have several friends on Facebook that do not share my political views. They frequently share inflammatory posts that tempt me to unfollow them. But I don’t. While I may vehemently disagree with their stance, I still prefer posts with some actual content to the even more frequent “I’m going to have beans and rice for dinner!”

Inane conversation is certainly not a new invention. People with very little to say have been talking about the weather for centuries. But when that conversation is face to face you still develop and utilize skills that go beyond just the words you use. You observe the body language of the person you are talking to and compliment it with your own body language. They contribute to the conversation with their facial expressions in addition to their own responses. These are skills that we have refined over centuries of human development and now they are being replaced by the easy one-click option of the “like” button.

I’m not suggesting we abandon social media entirely. But I think each of us should consider how we interact with the world.  If the entirety of our human interaction is conducted via a screen, then it might be time to turn off Facebook and see what the real world has to offer.

Rediscoveries

I love pop culture. The first few decades of my life was spent discovering to various pop culture works that shaped my life. In music I began with Buck Owens, then discovered Paul Revere and the Raiders and someone it led me all the way through Front 242 and on to Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman. Television began simply enough with Super Friends and Star Trek, and of course comics played a major role.

I remember asking one of my high school teachers if life lost any of its flavor because the sense of discovery diminished as one grew older. She answered that there were always new things to discover. I was skeptical of that answer at the time, but now as I find my own years beginning to rack up a little more quickly than I anticipated, I realize she was right. However, I find myself more and more not gravitating toward new discoveries so much as rediscoveries. While I am still discovering lots of new pop culture, I am spending a great deal of time revisiting and reevaluating the pop culture of my past.

There is a certain irony in our media situation today. The digital revolution has taken over and caused people to sweep aside collections of packaged media. They no longer want to keep stacks of books on their shelves or store a collection of CDs or Albums. A number of new music and book releases aren’t even finding enough interest to release a physical package and instead just offering a digital release. Oddly, the one area where packaged media is still flourishing is in lavish rereleases of classic pop culture product. We’ve seen the release of uber-deluxe editions of classic albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Rumors with expensive price tags and extravagant hardcover collections of comic runs that would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago.

Now, I certainly have no illusions as to the reasons behind these releases. The companies are looking to milk the last few dollars out of a diminishing market. But while their intentions might not be so noble, the results are very noble indeed. Interestingly, it is a great time to be a lover of classic pop culture. For some it offers the chance to experience works they might have missed on their original release. For others it offers the chance to revisit works that helped shape their lives. Even more interesting, I am finding now that when I revisit a work that I enjoyed ten or twenty years ago, it means something almost completely different to me now.

I’ve always maintained that the most basic definition of art is communication, and communication itself is not a passive act. There can be no conversation without both a speaker and a listener, no exchange of ideas without both a disseminator and a receiver. All of which means that we bring our own baggage to any work of art. Obviously our tastes are important in forming an opinion about a piece of art, but there is usually more than just that. Our mood on a particular day, our own experiences with the topic, our prejudices and beliefs all figure into to just how we receive a work of art and pop culture. As we grow older and evolve, the perspective from which we view a television program or hear a piece of music changes. We are no longer quite the same person and so the art doesn’t quite mean the same thing. I think it offers us an insight into ourselves, even if we don’t consciously recognize it right away.

So if you haven’t revisited a favorite work in a long time, take this opportunity to dust it off and see just what it means to you now. Reflect on what those changes say about you. Because when all is said and done, it is great to rediscover a work of art, but it is even more important to discover something about ourselves.

And really, wasn’t that what the art was trying to do in the first place?

Trying to Remember Old Tricks (or…”Why I Haven’t Been Blogging in Such a Long Time”)

So I’m back to blogging.

I used to blog a few years ago. Not frequently, mind you, but as often as I could. Like many fledgling writers, I felt it was somehow part of my job description. Back then I was mostly writing short fiction. I hit a run where I was getting more acceptances than rejections and so I thought I was on my way.

Then something happened that changed the direction of my writing. I was contacted by a Hollywood filmmaker who wanted to interview me about the day I spent as a hostage at The Good Guys electronics store where I once worked. He intended to turn the whole thing into a movie and was traveling around getting everyone’s store. We had dinner and I told him mine, but as we talked, I was struck with a thought: if he was going to turn the whole ordeal into a film, then I’d better get busy and put my experiences into a book of my own. I thought it would be a quick and easy write and an equally quick and easy sell. At that time the markets for short fiction were drying up and so I decided I no longer wanted to beat my fingers numb writing short fiction. I was going to be a writer of books.

However, the story I wanted to tell turned out to be far from easy to write. It was a grueling experience, which led to the equally grueling experience of finding an agent. Eventually I found someone enthusiastic about my work and we set about shopping the manuscript to publishers. At the end of 2011 we signed with a small publisher and I thought I had found my break into the world of publishing.

Instead I found myself in a bad situation with an unsympathetic publisher with an agenda of their own. After a number of broken promises my agent decided it was best if we ask for release from out contract. By this point it was looking like the promised movie was not going to get out of pre production, and so the publisher seemed happy to grant us that release.

Now, there’s an adage among writers so prevalent it serves as a universal mantra. “Anyone who can be dissuaded from writing should be.” I kept up the writing, but I focused on longer works. By golly, I was going to be a novelist. But my brain doesn’t mix short with long very well, and so the blogging fell by the wayside.

Now I’m starting over in more ways than one. A small publisher accepted a short piece I wrote, which is my first in awhile. Now it’s time to get back to blogging as well. I’ll have to see if I remember how.

Snow

A couple of hours ago I watched a truly amazing site: Large, fluffy snowflakes drifted lazily from the clouds, forming sheets of hazy white that somehow never touched the ground. I’m not talking tiny little droplets of almost sleet here people. I’m talking thick, fluffy little cotton swabs of snow. They ambled slowly towards the ground, and I say towards because they never actually touched the ground. They just approached the earth and then quietly winked into another dimension.

Now, it wasn’t because the ground wasw arm and the snow was evaporating as it touched down. It was cold, as cold as you could really expect Texas to be. But this snow, acknowledging the very fact that blankets of snow and East Texas do not mix, simply refused to land.

The temperature was somewhere around freezing, but as I watched this a customer wanders into the store dressed in shorts and a short sleeved, white t-shirt.
“You’re not exactly dressed for the weather,” I tell him.
“Aw, this is Texas,” he replies. “It won’t be like this for long.”

And I had to admit, he was absolutely right. Even the snow knew that.

Philles

Thankfully, the Phillies made the World Series at least somewhat interesting.

Just so you know, I am a pretty big fan of baseball. I love all things Americana and Baseball parallels and in some ways epitomizes our history. I love the leisurely pace, I love the push and pull drama of pitcher versus batter, I love the idiosyncrasies of the different parks. It is, in fact, one of the few things I love about summer. But I especially love baseball in the fall.

The World Series is one of my year’s highlights. The weather is turning cooler and you can feel the excitement of the playoff atmosphere radiate from every corner of the parks. Even better, this year’s match up features two teams that I like.

I realize it is more fashionable to hate the Yankees. I am fully aware of the way they have exploited baseball’s financial inequities to their advantage. I empathize completely with teams like the Royals or the Pirates that are forced to compete in what is essentially an unfair playing field. However, all this being said, I still think the Yankees, with their rich history, are still good for the sport. You need the powerhouse teams to love and you need them to hate.

I haven’t actually liked the Yankees these past few years, though. I loved the Paul O’Neill/Tino Martinez/Bernie Williams era and lost a lot of interest when they were replaced by players such as Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson. That’s another story, however. Suffice to say that the current version of the Yankees, although still nowhere near my favorites, is still a decent lineup that actually resembles a team rather than just a collection of high priced stars. I take a lot of ridiculing from my friends for being a fan of Derek Jeter, but I think he plays the game with a great deal of class – something that is very important to me.

I like the Phillies too. This is mostly because most of them were on my fantasy baseball team for the last few years and they helped me win take first place in four of the last five. Plus, I tend to like the older, storied franchises and the Phillies certainly fit that bill.

So with the Phillies facing the new/old look Yankees, this should be the greatest World Series in a long time, right? Well, oddly enough, I haven’t enjoyed this one as much as the other series. Mostly this is because I’m not really rooting for either of these teams. I’m okay with either one winning. This takes a lot of the passion out of watching for me. Instead of being involved and biting my nails when my team is behind, or cheering when they score, I’m sitting back, somewhat detached and simply hoping it will be a good all around series. After the Yankees went up three games to one, it looked like it wasn’t even going to be that.

But the Phillies won last night, which salvaged the series and gave baseball fans hope that there might be some drama left in it after all. I finally have a team to root for, at least for game six. I want the Phillies to win and push this to a seventh game. If that turns out to be the case, I may go back to my uninvolved bystander status. but at least for the next game, I have a vested interest.

Go Phillies!

Fighting Piracy

According to the Anime News Network, a group of Japanese movie and anime companies are preparing an aggressive campaign against piracy. Now, an “anti-piracy” campaign is nothing new. We’ve all probably had to sit through the “Illegal downloading or copying is stealing” commercials on the latest DVDs. However, there’s a new twist to this one, as they plan to proactively search for illegal content and then ask site administrators to remove it.

Will it work? Probably not terribly well, as American companies have already run into walls when asking newsgroups and other file sharing sites to remove copyrighted content. People around the world are doggedly determined to get entertainment for free, no matter how much trouble it is for them.

A customer of mine challenges this notion, saying that people are basically lazy and won’t steal entertainment if it is hard enough to do so. However, my own anecdotal evidence says that people will generally go to extraordinary lengths to save a few bucks. As with too many things, they steadfastly deny any wrongdoing, usually viewing it not as theft, but simply liberating entertainment held hostage by greedy companies and creators who charge unreasonably high prices and thereby force the fans to steal the work.

Nothing’s ever our fault, you know?

I understand the pain of wanting something and not being able to afford it. But in an ideal free market, the price would be established where the needs of the creator/owner of the work and the ability of the consumer meet. What file sharing and illegal copying have done is to shift so all the pricing power to the consumer. Now, as a consumer, you’re probably thinking “What’s wrong with that? Now I can get more stuff without having to pay much (or anything) for it.”  Well, this will only last as long as there is a supply out there, and the supply is only going to be there as long as someone is will to pay enough for it to fund its continued existence.

The quantity of illegal material out there is staggering.  A recently survey from NHK found over 38,000 illegally distributed Japanese-animated videos every month, to the tune of around 69 million views. There’s no question as to the demand. The question is who will meet the demand if the financial viability isn’t going to be there. And make no mistake, if so many people continue to get if for free, it won’t be.