Friday, September 25, 2009

What's Wrong With Twilight

So, I've been going on about this for quite some time, I figure it's time to put my thoughts down in a considered media where I can direct those people who want to have this conversation with me yet again, so here goes:

There are many things about Twilight which bother me a great deal. It is not a hard material to find objection to. As a number of people have pointed out, it reads like a vampire story written by someone who had never read a vampire story. A number of the super-, ab-, and para-normal phenomena in the story seem utterly unresearched or retcon-ed. But nothing upsets me so much as the way in which the story objectifies women.

In the story, the central female character (named Bella) is a normal human who falls in something both like and unlike love with a much older vampire (Edward) who happens to still look like he attends high school. Bella finds herself in a world of paranormal night dwelling beasties and inevitably the target of one's lust and another's blood lust.

How does one establish that a character is objectified? One can begin with looking at the actions associated with the character. What does Bella do? Bella falls, Bella runs, Bella is moved from one place to another, Bella is protected, Bella trips, runs into stationary objects, wanders down dark alleyways and Bella desires. Throughout the story, Bella does not act to save herself or to remove herself from harms way. On the contrary, Bella is not only a deer in the headlights, she is a lame deer in the headlights. She is projected as clumsy, awkward, and entirely sexually powerless. She gives herself over willingly to her vampire mate, who is, despite his sinister nature, too strong willed an individual to take advantage of her.

To make matters worse, Bella is our narrator. It's is through Bella's foggy perception that we see the world at large. It would seem that at least THAT would give her some sort of power. Alas, she is dragged as a narrator in the same manner she is as a character. She is self-deprecating and limited.

And this is what girls have to model themselves on? What happened to heroines? Where is Buffy? Where is Ms. Marple? For the love of God, where is Guinevere, a woman who though tragically flawed at least had sexual agency of a sort. Sure, she's not the model you want for your daughter, but at least she had the backbone to take what she wanted.

The likes of Bella follow in the path of current REAL pop icons like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. It was only a few years ago when I noticed otherwise intelligent girls becoming brainless hair twirling bean bags in front of guys because that's what was understood to be the way to get a man. Britney exemplified a downward spiral of leaning on relationships with men for a sense of self worth and we all see how that worked out. Is our world becoming such that a woman like Stephanie Meyer can not even imagine a strong and heroic heroine? Or at least a competent one? It's a disturbing thought and one that's getting no less troublesome on the horizon of the next Twilight movie. I hate to be this guy (read: I love to be this guy) but perhaps girls would do better if they were exposed to comic books. As it is, boys are taught that they can be Superman, Captain America, or Barack Obama. Girls are taught they can be Bella, Jessica, or even dress like Michelle Obama.

So, sparkly vampires aside, that's my issue with Twilight. Feel free to comment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What makes a comic book

So here's a question I've been pondering a lot and it seems like a good time to ponder it. What makes a good comic book or better yet, what can't be told in a comic book format?

The question is an increasingly hard one to answer. We're all quite familiar with the Super Hero book at the wheelhouse for "comics" and "graphic novels". Second to the superheroes is the genre story. Mystery, Sci-Fi, Adventure: these were all part of the comic book form before the "Super Hero book" as we know it today was established. Batman gliding from "Detective Comics", Spider-Man from "Amazing Fantasy", and Superman from "Action Comics". The question is: is there still room for the genre fiction in the modern comic marketplace?

The answer seems to be "Yes, as long as it's character based". Conan, Red Sonya, Zorro, The Lone Ranger, and even Sgt. Rock have all made more or less triumphant returns to the world of comics. Even Stephen King is writing horror/action stuff right into the comic form. Great!

Add to that the so called "graphic lit" you get in Love and Rockets, Strangers In Paradise, and I would even throw in DMZ (which is pretending to be action, but is something far more insidious); and you have a whole new world of illustrated works of fiction.

What then, can we not turn into comics? Is there a special class which should be confined only to text? Marvel seems ready to say no as they have serialized The Illiad, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and (for God's sake) Pride and Prejudice. Is this Marvel trying to be open minded and make comic books for a wider audience or is this Marvel admitting that they don't know how to write books for a non-traditional audience and so attempting to fain "branching out" by just adapting works of fiction that they think that elusive audience already wants? I would have thought Pride and Prejudice in comic form was a joke if I hadn't seen it myself. Does that sell? I haven't seen a copy leave my local store yet.

I could easily get off topic on Marvel's inability to create for a non-traditional audience, but this is a post about what can and can't be a comic. Among other books I've seen and thought, "Never thought I'd see that!" are the amazing Muppet Show books, Cars, the less amazing Models Inc., and (the best) Air.

I guess it's been made clear that anything "can" be a comic book, if the right people want it enough, but how do we do that successfully? For instance, I'm working on a script for a book right now that's a comedy/fantasy that would ideally be for young and early teen girls. But how will they ever find out about it? The temptation is to go the simpler, more traveled, and admittedly still difficult route of just making an illustrated book. I mean, really, what's the difference?

What I'd father do is create a genre, create a niche for the sort of books I think people would like, then help to make that niche visible. I'm a firm believer that girls need heroes (not models, but heroes) just as much as boys do. If the product is good, if the audience is brought to the product, then the product will sell and it that niche will have a chance to widen. Don't believe me? Look at the Buffy comic. A story and a hero that a lot of people (a lot of them female people) loved moved from a show to a comic and the audience magically moved right along with it.

So, what can be a comic? Anything that your create with both word and picture and have the love and courage to make into something. Find your audience or make your audience.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Headline: Writing and Comic Book Writing NOT "same thing"

Now, undoubtedly you've thought this at some point, but I'm here to say there is a difference between writing and comic book writing. However, it may not be what you think.

Now, popular myth has it that comic book writing is a lesser form of writing. To begin with, I'm opposed to the idea of "lesser forms of writing". Try and write a cookbook well, that junk is hard. Anyway, in my experience people who seem to write "normal" things like novels well don't always do so well at comic book writing. For example, let's take Laurel K. Hamilton. She no doubt thought that turning her Anita Blake books into comics would be easy and help her capitalize on the Buffy crowd. Not so, Ms. Hamilton! I made a long desperate attempt to read Anita Blake: Guilty Pleasures, but had to stop after three chapters. I will read almost any comic book, it has to be really bad to make me stop.

There are two crucial elements Ms. Hamilton missed in the transition here: 1)timing and well...for lack of a better term...2)graphic storytelling understanding.

1)Let's start with the easier one to explain: timing. Comic book, graphic novels, and whatever else you like to call the same medium have a unique sense of timing to non-visual fiction. You can't draw everything that happens in a story, so you have to plot the pictures in such a way as to tell the story smoothly, clearly, and at an appropriate pace. Passage of time is an extremely difficult skill to master. My best tips for someone having trouble with this are: A)note light quality for your artist, B) intersperse story, and C)don't be afraid to date.

A)Noting light quality is self explanatory. Let your artist know whether it's morning, afternoon, twilight, or night. You can't just expect them to know. You will get what you put in.

B)Interspersing story may be something that comes naturally to you. Most comics will have more than one thing going on at a time. You can use this to your advantage or detriment. If you keep tabs on all these stories, you can intersperse them. Say that Story A has two characters who are catching up with one another. Assume we've already heard the story that Character A is telling Character B. At this point you can cut to story B where two other guys are robbing a warehouse. When we get back to Story A, the conversation has been had, time has passed, and we can continue with the story.

C)Don't be afraid to date. Your personal life aside, you should never be afraid to make your self a timeline of your story. When it doubt about the flow, this timeline can make a physical appearance in your story. It's okay to tell people things happen on a certain date or at a certain time, as long as your methodology is consistent.

2) Alright, that leaves us with the puzzle that is graphic storytelling. Where a lot of people screw this up is trying to adapt books directly. Even if you like the way something sounds or is written, that doesn't mean it has a place in the comic. In Creative Writing class in college (and most everywhere else) you are hammered with the maxim "show not tell". The idea is that rather than saying someone is happy, you can say that "a smile teased the edge of her lips. He had never seen her smile" or some such. With comics you have to take it a step further to "show not 'show'". What's that you say, that doesn't make any sense, let me explain:

The hardest thing for a writer to do is to put faith in the artist to get their meaning across. Writers are, by nature, solitary. They craft their own work from beginning to end. Comics, however, are a team sport. You have to have a picture of the person smiling just a little and perhaps your caption can say, "He had never seen her smile". The text of the comic should always relate to what's in the picture but should never tell the reader what's in the picture. It is hard to strike the balance, especially when writing from a P.O.V., between storyteller and narrator. The easiest thing for me to do has been to really think in terms of stream of consciousness. Not that you should write everything the character thinks, but that rather than writing "I jumped to avoid the laser" you should instead write "That almost hit me! She's getting better." A great place to see this in action is almost any spidey or Batman comic.

Well, until next time, show by showing not by "showing"!