Monday, November 20, 2017

This Is A Post About Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure

   Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of the few movies that can actually illicit a strong emotional response to me. And you might not feel this movie is capable of doing so when you look at It at face value: it’s a zany time travel adventure with two dim-witted protagonists trying to pass history class. However, it’s always held a much deeper meaning to me, one I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about(this is actually my third attempt to put this into words). And I think the most powerful and dominant theme present in this story is the idea of positive versus negative reinforcement. Essentially, this movie takes our two characters and exposes them to a variety of stimuli, and we get to see how they react, and how they grow. Are all of their flaws rounded out by the end of their presentation? Absolutely not, but they are changed by the positive relationships they are able to build, revealing a much larger potential than we’re led to believe they have at the very beginning. I’ll start by breaking down the negative influences on Bill and Ted’s lives, and from there we’ll explore how positive reinforcement becomes the foundation for their meaningful change.

Character: Bill. S. Preston, Esq.   
     Bill is more of a lead in my eyes, in the sense that he drives a lot of the actions both characters take. He keeps Ted focused and on track, he calls the shots, he takes the first steps forward. In a lot of ways, he’s brave and passionate…even if he’s not much smarter than Ted. But he has this wide-eyed enthusiasm and confidence that is time and time again crushed by the general indifference of the world around him. This is exemplified in his relationship with his father, Mr. Preston. And I understand that this is not outright negative reinforcement, but anyone whose experienced indifference knows, this is a very cold, very debilitating feeling.
     Bill’s father is completely detached from the troubles that(quite literally) will dramatically alter the trajectory of Bill and Ted’s lives forever. I mean really, your son tells you he’s about to fail one of his classes, and your response is to kick him out of his room to have sex with your new wife(who was Ted’s old crush by the way)? This is a man who is unconcerned with how his selfishness is impacting his child’s development. And you can see this impact in the way Bill avoids his home life, in the way he lacks any real focus and drive until the circumstances become extreme. I would even go so far as to say that Bill’s lack of skill with his guitar and his under-performance in school stems from the lack of positive reinforcement from his father. He is unable to grasp the rewards of achievement because his father has essentially undermined his urge for real development.

Character: Ted “Theodore” Logan
     I just have to say, Keanu Reeves is a complete sweetheart in this movie, and the experiences he deals with fill me with an even greater feeling of dread because of it. He’s bouncy, he’s always two seconds away from a smile, and he’s always ready to put himself out there and embrace a new journey or idea. Which makes his relationship with his father, Police Captain John Logan, the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen. When Ted and his father are in the same room, this weighty, sinking feeling fills the room with them. It’s in these scenes that we see Ted lose all of the unbridled joy and energy we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, and we watch him become muted, almost timid in a desperate attempt not to further rouse his father’s anger. When Bill gets sent outside by John Logan so he call yell at his son, it takes me right back to that feeling I would get as a child when similar situations occurred in my own life.
     Unlike the negative reinforcement formed by indifference that Bill experiences, Ted deals with very direct negative reinforcement. His father outwardly belittles Ted for his inability to achieve, overloads his son with threats, and maintains this general malevolence towards his own blood throughout the entire movie. What makes this particularly sad for me is that we can suddenly see why Ted flows from one distraction to the next, why he’s constantly trying to get a laugh or a smile out of the people around him. I feel as though he needs this type of outlet because his home life is so overbearing and constricting that Ted is filled with a constant need to act out. This negative reinforcement is is the true source of Ted’s inability to actively focus on situations early on throughout the movie; because in the back of his mind, Police Chief John Logan is seething, waiting for Ted no matter where he goes or what he does. The fact that Chief Logan is the real catalyst for the events of the movie only reinforces just how unhealthy his relationship with Ted is.
Also since I forgot to include it, fuck the idea of sending your teenage son to Oates Military Academy in goddamn Alaska because he’s getting poor grades. That’s just unnecessarily cruel.

Characters: Rufus and the historical figures
     I decided it would be best to group all of these positive figures in Bill and Ted’s lives together, as they are all an extension of the same idea; that Bill and Ted are not the hopeless, insignificant slackers that they are regarded to be in their lives back in their own time. To Rufus and these historical figures, Bill and Ted are larger than life, they are capable of dramatic change, keen insight, and they are functional problem solvers. The entire context through which we experience these characters takes a dramatic shift. And what I really love about this movie is that Bill and Ted absolutely THRIVE in this new context. To some extent or another, all of these characters represent the idea of positive reinforcement. Rufus gives them the tools they need to change their lives because he knows they are capable of it. The historical figures follow Bill and Ted’s lead(albeit some are less willing than others at first) because they trust their insight and judgement, and they believe these two teenagers are well intentioned. This is unlike anything these two characters have experienced before, and they respond to this newfound faith and support by rising to meet the challenges set before them completely. This to me is so rewarding, that by the time the two of them receive the resounding applause and recognition at the end of their history presentation, I swear it takes everything in me to not get misty-eyed.
      And of course, this can just be interpreted as rote storywriting to reach the obvious conclusion, but typically this requires a dramatic change in the characters involved; they make sweeping life changes and become the type of people they were always meant to be, bringing their dramatic improvements back into their lives. In Bill and Ted’s case…not so much. They’re more or less the same exact characters they were at the beginning of the movie, but each one of them has a more accurate self-image. It’s no longer being unfairly distorted by the idea of negative reinforcement, and the positive reinforcement they have received helps them realize that maybe if they want to be great musicians, they should practice and actually learn to play. It’s this acute level of self-awareness that they were unable to face at the beginning of the movie, because negative reinforcement demands you become new at the flip of a switch, and positive reinforcement encourages you to explore the things you want from yourself at your own pace. Rufus and his many gifts are metaphorically a way to supply Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan with the means to create their own version of meaningful change within themselves. These ideas are the heart and soul of this movie, and that’s why it will be a classic in my life until the end of my days.

SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Relationships in Comics: What Works Vs. What Doesn’t

I suppose I should start this off by saying I’m not writing this piece to condemn the connections of any two characters, and by extension any two human beings, experience. I wanted to strictly focus on how relationship dynamics in storytelling can make or break the overall stakes being presented to us, and what makes both characters involved feel like living, breathing people trying to make sense of their emotional feelings and boundaries…as opposed to what makes me feel like we’re being given a situation to add artificial depth. 

What Works: Superman and Lois Lane
  I understand that this is an unusual starting place as we are not talking about two super-powered beings involved with one another. However, I feel as though over the years, their relationship has both stood the test of time and is a formula that is largely followed by other power couples to follow. 
”Superman always saves Lois Lane.” That’s the quintessential phrase most closely associated with their relationship to one another, but I’ve always believed that only tells us a fraction of what’s really going on. Because Lois Lane is not written as a weak and helpless character(unless you count the Golden Age where female characters were frequently under-written, which for the purposes of this post I’m not). Lois Lane is confident, fearless, and she embraces her time with Superman in a way that emphasizes that she saves Superman just as often as he saves her, albeit in a different way. These are two characters that appropriately compliment each other, while maintaining their individuality in addition to living their own lives. In other words, they function much as you would imagine a successful real life couple would function. Despite not having powers, she has power as a human being. She is a well respected figure at the Daily Planet and does not need Superman to give her an identity and form. Conversely, Clark Kent does not need Lois Lane to make him human. The whole appeal of Superman is he’s a demi-god born on Krypton and raised in Kansas. No matter what, he is a human before he is Superman. These are well fleshed out characters who can have mature interactions, and you feel the stakes present whenever their closeness is put in jeopardy. And nobody ever needs to outright tell you that you HAVE to feel that way. We know. It leaves both characters feeling grounded, and we truly want to root for them. There is an understanding the two characters share that extends beyond what we have come to expect in how relationships are written. 

In short, Clark Kent and Lois Lane work because they both maintain their independence while fully embracing their genuine love for one another. Their connections across alternate universes, multiple storylines, and in quiet, intimate moments all reflect a positive and healthy relationship that doesn’t require a writer to spoon-feed that feeling of love to us. And whenever that relationship is cut short, through tragic circumstances or death, the weight of their pain can follow you right down to the pit of your stomach. 

Other examples of couples I think work well for some of the same reasons stated above: Green Arrow and Black Canary, Storm and Black Panther, Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer, Alana and Marko in Saga(A relationship that challenges every aspect of relationships in story-telling, easily deserving of it’s own post, which I might do at a later date). 

What Doesn’t Work: Batman and Catwoman
  Leather costumes and rooftop encounters aside, the relationship between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne has always done almost nothing for me. Unlike Superman and Lois Lane, time has not matured these characters to the point where there is any weight to their relationship. It is constantly this nebulous thing that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. And again, this post was never in exercise in comparing unhealthy vs healthy relationships, so while this on-again, off-again relationship dynamic is fairly true to life, it’s a story that is told in the most ham-fisted and lazy way possible, which is my actual problem with this relationship. Catwoman unfortunately is relegated to this endless struggle to try and pull the emotion out of Bruce Wayne, despite the much more interesting storylines that could built around her. Selina is absolutely fierce, she’s grounded, and she’s self-assured about the life she has chosen for herself. When she’s on her own, she’ll rob people but leave them their credit cards and licenses because she believes nobody deserves that kind of hassle. And she’s open about how she feels about Batman. She’s a terrific, well-defined character who is consistently wasted in attempt to shape Batman’s character.  
And when we shift the focus over the Batman, this is when their relationship truly starts to show it’s weaknesses. Bruce will outright reject the idea of an emotional bond with Selina unless he is in a position of total weakness or frustration, and inevitability he will reject this very same bond shortly after. The goal the writers are trying to achieve here is both give Batman depth while maintaining his status as a brooding, lone-wolf power fantasy and ultimately...this push and pull accomplishes neither. And so, when something threatens their connection in any given comic, you’re left feeling like it’s inconsequential. It doesn’t really matter if one of them dies or the relationship falters, because of the laziness of the writing that goes into their emotional encounters. And even worse, their relationship will stop a story in it’s tracks whenever it becomes relevant. Instead of being interwoven into the story organically, we get some five-page internal monologue from Batman about how he just can’t come to grips with his feelings. The end result is, not only do these characters not enhance each other in a meaningful way, it also does nothing to drive up the stakes of a given story, when at the bare minimum it should seek to do one of the two. 

Other examples of couples I think don’t work well for some of the same reasons stated above: I don’t have any real specifics here so much as characters similar to Batman, where the romantic interest is treated a set-piece to shape the character as opposed to creating a real relationship to sink our teeth into. So Wolverine with anybody, and Spider-Man in most circumstances kind of fit the bill here. 

  Having said all of that, Superman and Batman are some of the longest running comic book characters in existence, so finding examples that fly in the face of everything I’ve said isn’t unreasonable or impossible. They’ve been handled by many writers of various skill levels, so it’s not automatically always done right or always done wrong. However, when considering the overall dynamics that have stood the test of time, the formulas I’ve put forward here are ones I’ve come to see with a large amount of consistency across the board. And I truly feel as though relationship writing is at it’s strongest when both characters are written as two individuals who don’t lose their identity in order to create emotional definition, but at the same time can maturely embrace the things they do feel for one another, because that’s what works in actual relationships. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Hate Versus Creation In Comics

   I wanted to pose the question as to whether or not diversity in comics is a good thing, but I think the more reasonable question to ask would be, why wouldn’t it be a good thing? With breakout successes like Saga, the new Ms. Marvel series, Gene Luen Yang’s New Superman series, Raising Dion's recent Netflix deal, and the unprecedented response to Love is Love, it’s hard to argue that giving more artists heightened levels of exposure to promote diversity and equal representation is a bad thing. As an artistic medium, comics on some level have always promoted these ideals, even if we’re only just now moving into a period in time where the platform is giving new writers/artists these chances. There will always be naysayers that would convince you this “Liberal SJW Agenda” is tearing at the very fabric of the industry, but that’s not necessarily the case. The things that hurt big publishers are the same things that have always hurt big publishers: overloading the market with meaningless spin offs and never-ending storylines that go nowhere, low-quality writing/artwork, scores of overpriced variant covers that only serve to benefit collectors instead of readers, etc. Gimmicks will exist as long as comics exist in the format that they currently do. Large companies like Marvel and DC experience problems because they attempt to cash in on loyal readers, not because they embrace diversity.

  Are there comics that shoehorn in diversity in an unsatisfying way trying to appeal to everyone and instead appeal to no one in particular? Yes. But that in no way implies that inclusive comics are inherently poorly written, just like it doesn’t imply they’re inherently good. They’re just…more comics. I can’t imagine myself as a fan of this medium if it didn’t explore as many ideas/people/groups as it possibly could, because that means the odds increase that I will read something unlike anything I’ve ever read before. And I love that. Breaking away from the conventions is always a breathe of fresh air. Which is why I always find outrage at the idea of diversity in comics disappointing, the only saving grace is that all of the sanctimonious bitching in the world doesn’t actually impact the sale of comic books.

  I think nothing says this better than the nerd rage that spilled over in the wake of Jane Foster taking up the mantle of Thor. You would not believe(actually, maybe you would) how many people rose up to the defend the sanctity of Thor, how this was a complete slap in the face to the character to now have a woman becoming the God of Thunder. When I was at my local comic shop, I brought this up to the owner, who had my favorite response to the controversy:
”Well, it’s not like Thor comics were ever flying off of my shelves.”
And that’s precisely my problem when I read any sort of push back against diversity. The people complaining don’t actually give a fuck about the characters they’re defending. They just want another reason to put other people down, to inhibit any sort of actual progression in comic books, and limit the ideas on what is socially acceptable in the world of storytelling. And if they’re not buying the comics of the characters their so zealously defending, then these hateful fans are doing this for no reason at all.

  No artistic medium maintains it’s strength by sticking to one viewpoint and expanding on it infinitely to appeal to the same audience as they grow increasingly apathetic as time goes on. If a medium such as this wants to continue, exploring new avenues and audiences is their best possible chance for continued growth. Incorporating more talent from more sources to produce a wider variety of content is the best possible avenue for publishers at this time. And while the meaningless outrage boils over, more people will be drawn to comic books when they otherwise wouldn’t have been before. And the industry will eventually outgrow the narrow-minded hate that fuels so many message boards and Facebook threads. Hate has never successfully drowned out art…at least, not in the long term.

Work that is mediocre will be forgotten and works of substance will stand out, but tearing down the stigma of diversity in comics is what will truly level the playing field. So this is a subject I will continue to harp on, something I will continuously talk about, because there is something terribly wrong with the way conventional audiences respond to new ideas. And I think immediately discrediting artistic works because you don’t like the color/gender/orientation of it’s characters is cheap. You cheat yourself out of some really good comics in the process too.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Man Who Paid Them: The Mechanics of Villainy

   

   I’ve always found myself particularly attracted to villains and their function in storytelling. Game of Thrones is absolutely fascinating in the sense that there is no shortage of antagonists, all with their own manner of cruelty, each one representing unique facets of villainous behavior. They all have their own grotesque shine; whether they be sadist kings/queens treating their subjects as objects to torment, the “Good Masters” perpetuating a system of human misery, ancient evils dawning from the days of the First Men, etc. There’s too many downright awful characters to name. Every type of vile and detestable behavior has a character representing it in this universe. And in the middle of it all, there is this greasy, shifty, backstabbing accountant(with an impeccable sense of style). Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish ended up being a major catalyst for the events that transpired throughout most of the show, to the point where you’re left wondering how much more he was responsible for.

   I love a solid underdog, and who’s a better underdog than a man of low birth and limited resources, a man with no legitimate reason to be mixing it up with all of these high-profile players? Beyond being on the Small Council as Master of Coin, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. However, he’s got cunning, ambition, and he understands how society works as opposed to how he would like it to work. The foundation of his success is in his ability to use these talents to manipulate people/situations in the most self-serving way possible. Game of Thrones is very much so a story where unimportant people with the wrong names/circumstances are brutalized, sometimes for no reason at all. He should be an itch, an irritation, and yet despite everything, he is the knife that finds his way into everyone’s backs. And I admire that. 
                      
  One primary function of a villain of any kind is to serve as a foil to the protagonists of the world they live in. The honest, honorable, and lawful nature of Ned Stark is contrasted by the deceptive, no-love, illicit nature of Petyr Baelish. Ned Stark was incorruptible, incompatible with the means by which Lord Baelish would pursue his own ends. Ned Stark was also incapable of understanding that he could be so easily manipulated and betrayed, because he is so very unlike Petyr in every way. And when conflicting, unyielding, and opposing personalities arise in a story…somebody has to go. Unfortunately for Ned, this was a situation where the circumstances of the clash were dictated by Lord Baelish’s rules; a fighter faces a fucker in a conflict where the winner is determined by who can fuck over who. And Littlefinger’s unparalleled experience in this field left Ned the loser. This specific conflict from start to finish was beautiful from a storytelling standpoint. The Game of Thrones universe was able to use a villain like Petyr to introduce you to exactly what kind of game these characters were playing. You can be a commoner or Hand of the King, but you’re still forced to play by the rules. It was a critical lesson for us as viewers, and the effects rippled throughout the story all the way to where we are now. All thanks to the subversive Master of Coin.


  The demonstration of fatal flaws in a villain is important as well, because it allows the qualities of our protagonists to shine. We all knew Ned was honorable and just, because literally every character mentions it. Constantly. Lord Baelish was ineffective or even redundant in this capacity in relation to Ned. However, his disingenuous nature reinforced the values of both Catelyn and Sansa Stark throughout the story. The Stark women were honorable, with clear sense of the ideas of family, duty, honor, also known as the words of House Tully. These concepts are absolutely foreign to Littlefinger. Their relationship and interactions with him reinforced their own inherent goodness and further cemented his own incompatibility with his own desires for them.

   To go one step beyond that, Lysa Arryn is the antithesis of this idea. Her love, coupled with his indifference towards her, once again strengthens the character of Catelyn and Sansa while widening the cracks in his own. It brings us to the real tragedy of his character: He was never fully able to comprehend that his ambitions and the means by which he would go after them meant that he could never truly have either of the Stark women. He was suited for the women in his whorehouse or the easily manipulated Lysa, making him distinctly incompatible with the ideals of Catelyn and Sansa.  An effective villain is one who is able to add depth to others as they progress in their character arc, and I believe he does this better than most of the villains we see in the Game of Thrones universe.

“Thank you for all your many lessons, Lord Baelish. I will never forget them.”

   I was looking for a quote that would adequately represent Lord Baelish, but the very last line spoken to him is the most fitting when it comes to encapsulating his role as a villain. He would not and could not accept his station in life, to the point where he devoted everything towards learning the rules of society and how to circumvent these rules to raise his stock. Littlefinger provided a very specific type of exposition, another mark of a truly exceptional villain. He taught major characters significant lessons, rules, and mechanics that he understood better than everyone else. His journey communicated to us the real conditions of the game, he helped our protagonists grow, and he looked so goddamn stylish doing it. However, in the end, he exposed himself to be just as susceptible to these very same rules as everyone else. 



   And indeed, this is the case. He was incapable of loving earnestly, he was devoid of a sense of duty, and he started on a path chasing things he assumed he understood. Every single character in this story pays the price for what they are unwilling to realize, and Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish failed to realize that his distorted idea of love/power and the means by which he pursued those things are what ultimately left him on his knees, bleeding from his throat, vainly trying to utter one last lie before the lights went out.

I’ll miss you Pete. I’ll fly my Mockingbird banner proudly. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Alteration of Symbols and What They Represent

   
    When it comes to my love of comic books and comic book characters, nobody comes close to The Punisher. I love the artists that have done work drawing him(Joe Jusko, Steve Dillon, Goran Parlov) and some of his best comics are written by one of my favorite writers, Garth Ennis. So it
’s a point of frustration to see the above image used the way it is. In case you are unaware, this is a popular image used by some groups in support of the Blue Lives Matter counter-movement. I see the decals on the backs of people’s cars, I’ve seen patches sporting the logo, and of course t-shirts. Nothing makes me cringe harder than getting a nod from one of these guys when they see me wearing my regular black and white Punisher shirt. I just wear the shirt because I like the goddamn comics and the character, and you’re bringing some off-brand political reality I don’t affiliate with into this. I’m not here to argue against anyone’s belief systems or question why you believe what you believe, but I am here because this altered logo represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Frank Castle and the overall message that almost all of his comics send. The Punisher is not interested in justice, peace, or a better world. The Punisher is and always has always been chasing a war that will never end. That is the end all be all of his wants and desires: a means to quiet the deafening misery of his own existence. The character behind this symbol and the symbol itself represent a system of ideas that is inappropriate when applied to the real-world context of the altered symbol's use. 

    In 2011, Steve Wacker gave the Frank an official kill count of 45,802 people. An absolutely insane amount of people for one human being, and every single one of them was a character who deserved it in the narratives being told. And you know what he has to show for it? Nothing. The only impact the Punisher has had on the criminal universe is that people are scared of The Punisher. There is no universal justice or dignity in what he does, and his actions undercut the very idea of creating a better society. His process is "treating" the symptoms of criminality, but never the cause. Frank is absolutely reviled in the superhero community for this very reason. His mere appearance in other comics is enough to throw heroes into fits of rage, and there are plenty of stories that revolve around trying to bring him down. Why? Because he is no hero. He barely qualifies as an anti-hero, because the people he does help are only a by-product of his wanton cruelty. He is the catalyst responsible for the creation of more cruelty, more criminality, and a growing resentment towards the idea of reformation.
 
   Personally, I think the true function of a justice system is the reformation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of criminals back into society. This process starts by punishing offenders for what they have done, but the takeaway here is Frank Castle stops at step one. He is uninterested in the preservation of human life if he deems a life irredeemable. And this is reflected in almost every character he interacts with to a significant degree. They end up dead, psychologically damaged, or more vicious and irredeemable than they were before. The criminal underworld doesn’t go away when he murders every part of the criminal element in a city, a new criminal underworld is created…often one worse than the one the one he wiped from the earth. He defies the deeply flawed system of criminal justice by creating a brand new system of injustice that breeds suffering. And this is why I love the literary idea of The Punisher and the symbolism of his stories so much: they take that idea of vigilante justice and they see it all the way through. What you’re left with is an infinite chain of empty conflicts, with no discernible end in sight. And THAT is the heart of Frank Castle’s very personal, never-ending war.

    If you’re someone that rocks this Blue Lives Matter bastardization and you’re thinking “Well yeah, that’s the whole point of his character” then why the hell do you think this an appropriate symbol for a real life counter-movement? Kill em all is not an intelligent, ethical, or even pragmatic approach to criminality. It does not lead me to believe you have the social awareness to be a mouthpiece in support of officers of the law. In the comics, seeing the Punisher logo means one thing and one thing only: You are about to die. It definitely fires up that “hell yeah” part of my brain that kicks off when I see fictional vigilante justice, but this symbol has no place representing any group interested in justice in the real world.