Monday, November 25, 2013

WYNGSPAN: A Documyntyry

There may be like 0.0001% proud uncle in what I'm about to say, but the rest of me is just genuinely impressed with this hilarious, short mockumentary my nephew and his pals made about the world's foremost dragon metal band. Seriously. Just watch it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Hairdressers hate cephalopods

I love getting submissions for Everyone Hates Cephalopods and this one made me especially happy because it was a joint effort by a married couple. She found it and sent it to him to send to me. Thank you so much, you guys!

Pat Patriot hates cephalopods

Courtesy of Slay, Monstrobot of the Deep! who has more from the encounter.

Panels for Primates (with a story by me) available for pre-order on ComiXology

A while back Simon Roy (Prophet) and I contributed a very short, but action-packed short story to the Panels for Primates webcomic anthology. For those not familiar, Panels for Primates was a charity comic to raise money for the Primate Rescue Center in Kentucky. It was free to read, but the intention was that if the ape and monkey stories moved or entertained you at all, you were invited to contribute.

As a huge fan of these animals, I was thrilled when editor Troy Wilson invited me to work with Simon who helped me pack a ton of action into two pages, including giant cephalopods, tiki-men, a sinister elephant, a mad tortoise, slime-monsters, werewolves, mummies, giant monsters, giant robots, and dinosaur-riding gorillas. Our story also featured that most famous of Kentucky primates, Daniel Baboon, whom I really want to do more with one of these days.

Panels for Primates is no longer available for free for the exact reason that it's being published by Monkeybrain on comiXology with proceeds still going to benefit the Primate Rescue Center. There are actually two editions: a version for grown-ups and a kids version called Panels for Primates Junior. Not that the grown-up version is necessarily dark and gruesome. Simon and my story is all-ages appropriate and appears in the grown-up version, but Junior is particularly geared towards kids.

Both editions will be available to read on November 25, but can be pre-ordered now. And in addition to the stories from the webcomic there are also brand new primate stories by people like John Byrne, Jeff Lemire, Douglas Rushkoff, Jamie Delano, Molly Crabapple, and J. Bone. It promises to be a great read for an even greater cause.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Re-assessing Shyamalan (or, What's up with the water?)

Now that you've had a chance to listen to the Trial of Shyamalan, I want to share a few observations from the Shyamalanathon I undertook to prepare for it. I wasn't able to find a copy of his first film - the semi-autobiographical Pray with Anger - on short notice, so I started my viewing with his second movie. Keep in mind that the podcast was about him as a director so I didn't include films like Stuart Little and Devil.

Wide Awake (1998)

This was my first time seeing this one, what most people think of as "the Rosie O'Donnell one." She's not in it much though and this was from the period when I still found her funny, so she's not the problem. In hindsight, the problem may have been me. Or at least my attitude about Shyamalan.

I went into this project with a bad taste for Shyamalan's work. I defended him longer than most of my friends, but he lost me with The Happening and then The Last Airbender and I didn't even have the tiniest bit of desire to see After Earth. I wondered if my negative opinion of him would change my thoughts on his early stuff so that I'd see flaws in them that I hadn't before. It didn't, but I think it may have colored my perception of Wide Awake.

On first viewing, I thought the script was really hammy and that the film explored the same territory as Signs, but in a less interesting - and as ultimately unsatisfying - way. It's about a kid who's on a literal search for God, which I saw as an on-the-nose metaphor for the development of faith. I got frustrated with the journey, but looking back on it now with the perspective of Shyamalan's better films, I can see more clearly what he was trying to do.

One of Shyamalan's favorite themes is characters' being saved by reaching out and reconnecting to other people. In Wide Awake, the boy's main connection, his grandfather, has died and that sends the kid into a spiral. His year-long quest to find God (in order to make sure his grandfather is in good hands) leads him to adventures that wake him up and bring him to rejoin the world. It's clunky, but I love the general idea that we find God by helping people. I mean, Victor Hugo said it so much better when he wrote, "To love another person is to see the face of God," but it's still interesting to watch Shyamalan try to find his legs.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

I was kind of afraid to watch this one again and possibly not like it anymore. No worries, though. Whatever else happened to Shyamalan's career, no one can take this movie from him. It's such a great film. Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette break my heart every time I watch it; especially Osment who's so great as this unbelievably brave, tragic kid who's cut himself off from his mom and the rest of the world. Through helping other people (dead though they may be), he's able to reconnect and save himself. This theme is all through Shyamalan's stuff.

Unbreakable (2000)

One of my problems with Shyamalan started when I noticed how low-energy the performances are in his films. It's a tick that I found really distracting once I noticed it, but that was sometime after Unbreakable. Like with The Sixth Sense, I was afraid I wouldn't like Unbreakable as much this time as I did when I discovered while watching it that it was a superhero movie. The thing is though that the low energy in Unbreakable (and The Sixth Sense) works because it helps convey the disconnectedness of the main character. When Shyamalan's directing a film without that major theme, the tone doesn't work as well.

Something I'd totally forgotten about Unbreakable was that the superhero's kryptonite is water. That struck me hard, knowing that it's also the weakness of the aliens in Signs. And as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, there was that whole Shyamalan-afraid-of-water hoax on the SyFy Channel around the time of The Village. And then there's a whole movie about a Lady in the Water. And then of course there's water-bending Aang (which I thought was a funny coincidence, but didn't truly see as part of the trend).

What was hard to figure was just what water represented to Shyamalan. It seemed to be force of evil in Unbreakable, but a force for good in Signs. I hoped that Lady in the Water might help me figure it out, but in the meantime I started thinking about common uses for water as a symbol: change, life, death. It's such a fluid (ahem) symbol that that line of thinking wasn't helpful to me.

My wife unlocked it for me by suggesting that it could be about cleansing. In Unbreakable, it's a weakness for the hero, but what that does is create a situation in which he's forced to accept the help of others, in this case, the two kids he's just rescued. By helping them, he's helped himself, and the deadly water of the pool becomes a sort of baptism for him, marking the point at which he's reconnected to the world. He comes out of the pool a new man.

Signs (2002)

I had mixed feelings about Signs when I first saw it. Shyamalan does a fantastic job of creating tension, and the theme of disconnectedness is there again. In this case, Mel Gibson's character has disconnected himself from his community and from God. That's all really great until the resolution, which doesn't do service to what's come before.

My problem with the climax isn't the revelation that the aliens are harmed by water. I know that's a huge sticking point for a lot of people and Signs is when a lot of folks started turning on Shyamalan. It's a big flaw in the plot that the aliens attack a planet filled with an element that's so harmful to them, so I'm not going to defend it except to point out that Shyamalan does at least take a swing (ahem again) at filling that hole. The dialogue makes it clear that the aliens aren't on Earth to stay; they're a strike force trying to abduct as many humans as possible and then get the heck off the planet. They're also specifically targeting areas away from large bodies of water.

Yes, there's still moisture in the air and dew on the ground, and I get why people are bothered by it, but it doesn't bother me. I don't see Signs as a science fiction film, but a fable. Like in Unbreakable, Shyamalan's more interested in water as symbol than science. And like in Unbreakable, it's a symbol of cleansing; in this case, cleansing Earth of the alien invaders.

The Village (2004)

This is the one where most of society threw up its hands and gave up on Shyamalan, but I honestly don't understand why. I think it has to do with the twist ending being lame - and yeah, it's not one of Shyamalan's best twists - but the movie's about so much more than that.

For one thing, it's superbly acted, including one of the highest energy performances of William Hurt's career, which is ironic considering this is a Shyamalan film. Bryce Dallas Howard is amazing, as is Adrien Brody. And though Joaquin Phoenix has a lot of scenes where he's withdrawn and repressed, that's exactly the point of his character and it all pays off when he finally blurts out to Howard how he feels about her.

Water plays an important part in The Village too. To save her true love - by reconnecting to the outside world - Ivy has to follow the river. Water always accompanies cleansing and transformation in Shyamalan's films.

That said, the ending of The Village is more ambiguous than Shyamalan's other films. The community stays disconnected from the rest of the world, which is something that didn't happen in the previous stories. However, they stay disconnected as a community, which I think is important. Lots to think about and discuss with this one, and that only makes it a stronger movie, in my opinion. Probably Shyamalan's strongest after The Sixth Sense. I just do not get the hate for it.

Lady in the Water (2006)

I enjoyed Lady in the Water when it came out and I still do, though it's much less defensible than the ones that preceded it. This was where I started doubting Shyamalan back in the day.

One of the things I enjoyed this time was the water theme still being around. It's even more overt though with the idea of an entire race of water-people who are trying to save humanity. And Shyamalan actually spells out the symbolism in a line of dialogue, that water represents "purification and starting anew." Though I got a kick out of getting it right, that lack of subtlety makes Lady in the Water a weaker film.

The whole movie is very meta, with Shyamalan's talking directly to his critics. I found that funny the first time I saw it, but it creates problems on later viewings. He also didn't do himself any favors by casting himself in the story as a world-changing writer. He's good in the role (I always like Shyamalan's appearances in his movies), but it comes across as arrogant and it's off-putting, even to defenders like me.

The Happening (2008)

I don't have a lot to say about this one. Shyamalan all but abandons the themes I like about his earlier films in favor of a dark, hopeless movie. His wry sense of humor helps liven the serious tone of his early stuff, but it's out of place in The Happening and none of the actors seem to know what kind of a film they're in.

There's some stuff about Zooey Deschanel's character learning to reconnect by looking out for John Leguizamo's daughter, but it's a minor subplot and leads to stunning lines like "We're so much the same, Jess. I don't like to show my emotions either." Dialogue has never been Shyamalan's strongest thing, but he's way better than that. I seriously don't know what happened with this movie, no pun intended.

The Last Airbender (2010)

Condensing a whole season of Avatar: The Last Airbender into a feature-length film sounds like a losing proposition from the get-go, regardless of who wrote and directed it. But before it sounds like I'm letting Shyamalan off the hook even a little bit, I want to point out that a) like CT said in the trial, Shyamalan took the gig and bears some responsibility if only for that, and b) I came up with a way that could'a made it work.

As I see it, the script's biggest problem is that it tries to hit certain story beats from the TV series without earning any of the moments. Aang's rescue by the Blue Spirit is one of the coolest things in that first season, but only because we've spent so much time getting to know Zuko and learning how conflicted he is. The movie doesn't have enough time to do that properly, so I argue that it doesn't really have time for the any of the Blue Spirit stuff. The script would've been much better had it simply tried to develop the characters in its own, meaningful ways. There are other ways to show Zuko's conflict, even if Shyamalan would've had to create them from scratch. That may have disappointed some fans who wanted to see favorite events played out onscreen, but it would've been a much stronger movie.

For all that, I love the last twenty minutes of The Last Airbender. I wish that the rest of the movie would have led into that finale better, but I contend that it's a powerful ending with great action, beautiful shots, and a showcase for my favorite Shyamalan themes. "Go," the Dragon Spirit tells Aang, "and show them the power of water." I dismissed it earlier as a coincidence, but Shyamalan actually does use water as a powerful symbol of cleansing and rebirth as Aang uses it to chase away the Fire Nation and save his world. Even better, I love what Uncle Iroh says to General Zhao in their final confrontation: "You stand alone. And that has always been your great mistake." That's the Shyamalan I love.

But for whatever positive touches he put on The Last Airbender, Shyamalan's fingerprints left some nasty smudges, too. He tried to make Aang's journey one about reconnection with the world, which completely destroys the charming, vital, already deeply connected character from the TV series. TV Aang has a journey, but it's different from the one that Shyamalan's drawn to and he screwed it up by forcing his onto that character.

After Earth (2013)

As messed up as the last couple of Shyamalan's films had been, he wasn't done any favors by teaming up with Will Smith and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) to write After Earth. I don't know who's responsible for what except that Smith came up with the story while Shyamalan and Whitta wrote the screenplay. What I do know is that the story didn't start with Shyamalan, and it has none of his traditional hallmarks.

In fact, it's in direct opposition to Shyamalan's usual themes. Conquering fear is a great subject for a movie, and I would have loved to see Classic Shyamalan do it, but After Earth has nothing interesting to say about it. If it's true - as I've heard suggested - that the approach to fear in After Earth is based on Scientologist teaching, and if it's true that the movie presents an accurate representation of that teaching, I find it really sad.

Conquering fear by creating a box of isolation around yourself sounds empowering, but it creates the very disconnectedness that Shyamalan's films typically battle. I mean, does anyone look at Cypher Raige, Will Smith's character in After Earth, and see him as someone to emulate? He's miserable! According to Shyamalan's best stories, fear is conquered through compassion and connecting with people.

And we do seem to see some of Shyamalan fighting against the ideas in Smith's story. It's impossible to know for sure, but I do think it's interesting that Cypher Raige admits that his life is crap and ends the film wanting to give it up and reconnect with his family. The character arc doesn't follow the movie's major theme, which is a huge problem, but it makes me smile a little to see some pushback on After Earth's handling of fear and to imagine that Shyamalan is responsible.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Trial of Shyamalan

Yesterday, the latest episode of the Nerd Lunch podcast came out and I was honored to be one of the guests. It was the third in a recurring feature where the Nerd Lunch guys put on trial a controversial director and determine whether or not he should be allowed to make movies anymore. Previous defendants were Michael Bay (no relation) and Tim Burton and those are a lot of fun to listen to. Our episode though was the trial of M. Night Shyamalan.

CT was the only actual member of the Nerd Lunch crew on the episode and he prosecuted the case. Aaron Nix of Movie Hodge Podge defended, Andrew Bloom judged, and I was called as the "expert" witness. We had a blast recording it and I dare say there was some great discussion. I don't want to spoil anything (there may or may not be a twist or three along the way; be sure to listen all the way through to the end of the credits), so go listen to it. I bet you'll find yourself nodding at some things while being challenged by others. At least I did.

Tomorrow, I plan to post here with follow up thoughts about some surprising things I discovered about Shyamalan's films in the process of preparing for the trial, including why I've softened towards The Last Airbender.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Please Hold

Sorry for the radio silence. Been busy prepping for a Nerd Lunch episode I was just a guest on, but that's done and I'll tell you about it soon. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The 2013 Saga Reader Survey

Since I was just talking about writing to comics letter-pages, it seems appropriate to write an open letter to Saga, though maybe not the kind you'd expect.

Brian K. Vaughan has a tradition of doing Reader Surveys that are more slam books than actual demographic data about his audience. The questions are always fun, and he asked a bunch of new ones in Saga #14. I'm answering mine here instead of mailing them in, so feel free to chip in with your own answers in the comments or on your own blog.

Beware the Internet
1. In the parlance of these newfangled "chat rooms," what is your A/S/L?

I'm not at all embarrassed that I had to look up that term. 46/M/Saint Paul.

2. And if you don't mind us asking, where do you buy your comical books?

The Source Comics and Games.

3. Okay, but when was the last time you climbed a rope and/or used a rope to aid your ascent?

Ha! Last time they forced me to do one of those "skills" tests, so probably like fifth grade.

4. Do you believe in any kind of afterlife?

Yeah, but I'm real shaky on the details.

Tony Angelotti and Johnny Depp
5. Who's the most famous person you went to school with?

Johnny Depp's stunt double from Pirates of the Caribbean.

6. In adolescent sex talk, what does "third base" represent to you?

Anything that you can do unprotected and still not make a baby.

7. President Obama probably hasn't had too much freetime since he was elected, so which (non-Saga) comics that have been released in the last five years would you most recommend to him?

Tumor, The Unsinkable Walker Bean, the Resistance trilogy, George O'Connor's Olympians series, The Unwritten, Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites, Return of the Dapper Men, American Vampire, Kill Shakespeare, Pepper Penwell and the Land Creature of Monster Lake, Sailor Twain, Hark! A Vagrant, Planet of the Apes, The Dare Detectives, Wonder WomanDaredevil, Hawkeye, FF (the Fraction/Allred version), Battlepug, the Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer trilogy, Templar, Boxers & Saints, and I'm kinda partial to Kill All Monsters.

8. It's your final meal; what would you like to drink with that?

Part of me wants to try something that I've never had before like absinthe, but truthfully I'd go for something familiar and comforting like Pepsi.

9. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, which two characters had a never-acknowledged love affair that only you know about?

I bet I'm not the only one who knows about Troi and Dr. Crusher, but that'll still be my answer.

I paid for this one. Promise.
10. What's the best thing you've ever stolen?

A Magnum p.i. T-shirt. Not that I got away with it.

11. Who or what do you miss?

Mr. Hooper.

12. Have you ever had a possible supernatural experience, and if so, what happened?

I'm such the opposite of having supernatural experiences that my super power, apparently, is to repel all ghosts, aliens, and sasquatches. Whenever people get around and share those stories, I just have to sit there and listen jealously.

13. Do you know anyone currently in prison?

Not currently. I've got a dear friend who spent some time in the joint, but not anymore.

14. Which field or fields do you consider yourself an expert in?

I am to Alpha Flight what Chris Sims is to Batman.

In all seriousness, I'm really proud of
the Harvey Award that Robot 6
won this year.
15. Have you ever been given an award?

Sure. I got that one Letter of the Month from Milestone. And a perfect attendance award from work several years ago. And I won first prize at a Halloween costume contest for dressing up like a scarecrow when I was a kid. When people used to pass around those blogging awards, I got a few of those too. I even got a participation trophy for being on my last-place city-league soccer team. I'm very well recognized for my achievements.

16. Has Twitter made you a happier person?

Let's just say that I'm happy to have finally figured out how to make Twitter useful for me.

17. What did your parents almost name you?

I'm named after my dad, so there was never any debate as long as I was born a masculine child. But had I been a girl child, I'd have been "Michelle."

18. Did you watch any of those videos that Chelsea Manning helped leak, especially that one?


19. If you had to fight in any war from human history, which would you choose?

The Cold one. Armed with an Aston Martin and a Walther PPK.

Card by Witsickle
20. Isn't there someone you should finally apologize to this week?

Anyone reading this. And Witsickle for borrowing the photo of her awesome card.

21. What is the most important article of clothing that you own?

Man, clothing is so low on my list of important things, but lately, I'll go with my coat.

22. Are you happily addicted to anything?


23. We're having a dance! Would you like to come to our dance?

Only if I get to DJ.

24. You have to permanently give up either movies or television, so what's it gonna be?

Movies. That would be difficult, but forced to choose, I'll keep the one that's more adaptable and conducive to long-form storytelling.

25. Finally, please draw a quick doodle of yourself, especially if you're not an artist.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

My first work as a writer about comics

About a month ago, Sean Kleefeld wrote a blog post called "My Short Career as a Letterhack," in which he talks about writing to comic book letters pages in order to get on the radar of editors. I can relate, because when I first got it into my head that I wanted to write comics, that was an approach I took too.

For me, it wasn't so much about being remembered by editors as it was simply a way of connecting to the comics industry on a deeper level than just reading the books. I started seeing some of the same names pop up on comics pages a lot (possibly even Sean's; I know I read at least those Marvel Knights issues he was published in) and figured that I could do that too. And since it would mean submitting a piece of writing to an editor and competing with other pieces of writing for print, I saw it as sort of a first step towards being published.

Sean posted a cover gallery of comics that his letters appeared in, so I'm doing that too. My time writing letters was much shorter than his, ended when I got reliable access to the Internet and was able to write about comics that way. But I had a good time with it and was able to figure out what kinds of letters editors were looking for.

Milestone had a Letter of the Month deal where they'd send one letter-writer a signed copy of the issue in which he or she was printed. I got picked for talking not only about Hardware, but Milestone in general and what it meant to me.

I grew up a Marvel kid, but tried a bunch of DC comics shortly after their Zero Hour event and wrote in to tell them about that.

I was a huuuuge Azrael fan, and loved getting to gush about that character to the folks making comics about him at the time. Sadly, the series didn't stay awesome it's whole run, but the issues with Barry Kitson on art were amazing.

I'm also really happy that I got to tell Peter David and Company how cool their Aquaman was.

My last published letter was the nerdiest of all as I expressed my appreciation that Malibu's Deep Space Nine series offered a more plausible explanation for the existence of Thomas Riker than Star Trek: TNG did on TV.


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