All-Star

All-Star

Friday, June 29, 2012

Movie Screening: Own Worst Enemy





So on Friday, July 13, I'll be screening Own Worst Enemy at the Bishop in Bloomington. 9 p.m. It's a time travel movie. I'll leave it up to you to figure out how someone with a time machine could become his or her own worst enemy.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

creators' rights


I haven't weighed in on the issue of creators rights, and that's largely deliberate. In part, it's because I don't know what to say. I have all sorts of thoughts, but they don't lead to a particular conclusion. But, in the interest of saying something, here they are.

1. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster made much the same decision that a lot of people in their position would have made at the time. When faced with poverty and the prospect of their creation never seeing the light of day, they chose quick payment and the promise of future work.

2. The publishers did much the same thing--paid the going rate for work at the time.

3. Neither 1. nor 2. are relevant today.

4. Siegel and Shuster were subsequently treated poorly by the people who published their comics.

4.1 Except when they weren't, which was only sometimes.

4.2 Jerry Siegel sued the publisher. Then he promised not to sue anymore. Then he sued again.

5. It took massive amounts of pressure and the prospect of gaining millions of dollars to get the publisher to give Siegel and Shuster recognition.

6. Corporations aren't people. But there are people involved. Siegel and Shuster did the creative work on Superman. But a lot of other people did the editorial, printing, and distribution work. Nothing is done in a vacuum.

7. Superman today is quite different from Superman in 1938.

8. There have been lots of cases artists, especially those toward the end of their lives, having to deal with poverty while their creations make millions for corporations.

9. People should take care of each other.

10. Laws favor corporations because corporations have enough money to influence lawmakers.

11. The constitution separates church and state. It does not separate wall st. and the state.

12. Even when artists gain an amount of power, it's usually not enough to influence these things. Jim Lee, for example, cannot do anything about these concerns. I have no idea what things are like at Image, but they seem to be better.

13. People make their living by writing and drawing Superman stories today. Sure, they don't make a fraction of what the people who own the publisher make, but who are those people, anyway? It seems to me that there are very specific, named individuals on one side of this story. Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and their heirs. On the other side are...who? We hear things like DC Entertainment and Time/Warner. It would be nice to see some attention on who those names refer to? Who's getting rich off Superman today?

How did DC not exploit their association with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster? Why did they try to sweep them under the rug for so long? Why did it take so long to give them credit? It seems like they would want to parade the creators of Superman around and show them off, right? Make them the face of the company? But it was a different time, when conventions weren't what they are today.

I used to want to draw comics. I didn't want to be a professional writer until I was 18. At that point, I had no interest in writing comics. When an idea for a comic book came to me, six or seven years later, it was for a Hulk story. That is the only story I have ever come up with as an adult that involved corporately owned characters. It appeared fully formed in my head at a point in time when I had not read a comic book for about eight years. I wrote it down, tried to get it published, was rejected, and never really thought about it again. I wonder if it's any good. It was called "Where Do Lonely Hulks Go?" There were several pink bunnies in it.

Right now, I can't imagine ever writing for a company like Marvel or DC. I have no Superman stories, no Thor stories, no Spider-Man stories. When I write stories, they're about things that I make up, or about things I steal from history. That's so much more interesting. At least to me. Not, apparently, to anybody else. Except my four-year-old son. He'd be happy if I told him a new story every night, and several times each day, about things drawn entirely from my own brain. I tried this for about a year (just at night), and it was really hard.

All right, so I said there was no conclusion, but there is. People who create things should have control over them and the lion's share of profit. Sure, reality gets in the way, and if you want to make real money you have to be extremely lucky or have the backing of a major distributor. Or be Robert Kirkman. The laws are vague or change, or are determined by people who don't know much about the issue. I think it's obvious that the people who created Superman should be enormously wealthy, but creation involved a lot of people, over a lot of years. Another problem arises because we don't really know just how wealthy they should be.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Better than the Book: Fight Club




For a while, I read everything Chuck Palahniuk wrote.  He did some magazine articles, short stories, a travel book, and novels.  Then, all of a sudden, I was done with his stuff.  I realized that nothing he could write would ever be as interesting to me as the film Fight Club, not even the novel on which it was based.  What’s more, his other stuff was a whole lot less interesting.  Here’s the problem:  the twist.  Once a storyteller establishes that the twist is his thing, the audience expects it and it becomes nothing more than a gimmick. Maybe he's gone beyond this in more recent work, but I don't think I'm going to find out.

The trick to the twist is to make sure that the audience doesn’t even know it’s coming.  That there is a surprise should be a surprise.  Palahniuk, in the last books of his I read, seemed aware of this.  However, instead of tackling a new method, he decided that the best solution was to add surprises, smaller ones, coming earlier in the book.  More gimmicks. 

My distaste for his work culminated in his most recent.  I was given a copy of his book Rant, so I thought I might as well take a look at it.  The word awful does not even begin to describe the type of writer he is becoming.  Disgusting for disgusting’s sake.  Comics, especially in the wake of Watchmen and Dark Knight, seemed to become gritty because they thought this was realistic.  Palahniuk seems to be doing the same thing with vileness.

That said, I did like the novel Fight Club.  It has the following line:  “Before I met Tyler, I was going to buy a dog and name it Entourage.”  That cracks me up.  However, everything in the film version just works better. 



For example:  In the book the main character (who is often called Jack, but is in fact nameless in both book and film--played by Edward Norton) meets Tyler Durden on a beach.  Tyler is nude (for no particular reason), and is making a strange, hand-shaped sculpture using driftwood so he can sit in its center and be part of perfection or some sort of ridiculous, non-Tyler-Durdeny thing.  It just flat-out doesn’t work.  If you compare that to the way they meet in the film, placed next to each other on an airplane, the book just doesn't hold up.  I’ve had conversations with strangers on airplanes, but if I saw someone without any clothes on assembling driftwood into a sculpture and learned that they were doing so in order to be part of perfection, I’d run in the other direction.  Of course, if Tyler Durden were really the other half of my personality, I wouldn’t get very far.

The book takes some of the plot points and whatnot farther than the film does.  It appears that Marla, book version, really does have breast cancer.  And there’s some stuff about the narrator’s father.  But there’s not much of great value that’s not incorporated into the film.  And the book doesn’t have Meatloaf.

Again, it’s not a bad book at all.  It got me to read others that the author wrote.  Those others, however, went downhill.  Palahniuk has become a cult figure, and it’s easy to see why.  His style is imitable.  He writes as a minimalist, a form that’s easy on the surface to mimic but difficult to execute properly.  And the surprise twist, really, isn’t all that hard to accomplish. 


What the film does is makes you want to be part of the life its characters lead, then pulls the rug out from under you, exposing that life to be morally bankrupt.  That’s the real twist, one that the novel could not accomplish.  It fails to make Tyler Durden as cool as David Fincher, Andrew Kevin Walker (who did an uncredited rewrite on the script), Jim Uhls, and Brad Pitt make him.  It’s the audience’s initial wish to emulate Tyler that provides the real surprise.  Tyler’s a bit of a fascist--we shouldn’t want to be like him.  And his connection to the narrator is a gimmick that the movie’s “point” or “message” needs to work, but that it doesn’t need to succeed.  All this might be part of the novel, but if it’s there it’s too subtle even for me.  And I revel in subtlety.



Friday, June 22, 2012

Quotes






Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
--William Butler Yeats, “A Drinking Song”

















To absent friends
Lost Loves
Old Gods
And the season of mists;
And may each and every one of us
Always give the devil his due.
--Neil Gaiman, Season of Mists













Love weakens as much as it strengthens, and often that’s very good for you.
--Harlan Ellison, Love Ain’t Nothing but Sex Misspelled















The mind is its own place,
            And in itself
Can make a heaven of hell,
            A hell of heaven.
--John Milton, Paradise Lost















He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing.
--Flannery O’Connor, “Everything that Rises Must Converge”



Thursday, June 21, 2012

Superman by Larry Tye



I just finished Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. I've read this book before. It was called Our Hero: Superman on Earth, by Tom DeHaven. Or maybe it was called Men of Tomorrow, by Gerard Jones. I read parts of it in Garry Grossman's Superman: Serial to Cereal. Or is that Cereal to Serial. I read other parts in Bruce Scivally's book, and in Michael Hayde's book, and in dozens of articles and memoirs.

In short, there's nothing new here. Well, that's not entirely true. Tye has the advantage of being more recent than any of those others, so he had access to Jerry Siegel's unpublished memoir. And because he's more recent, he knows some more details of the legal battles over Superman. But I read all about those on the Internet already.

So, yeah, a lot of my indifference to Tye's book is that I've been consuming everything about Superman for more than three years. Everything. So I merely sighed as he described what Christopher Reeve ate while bulking up for the role, and I groaned when I realized he was going to describe the difficulties that George Reeves had when they tried to make him fly. The bragadoccio of Donenfeld? Don't need another rehash. How much GI's loved comics? Covered in other places. Wertham and the comics code? Enough already.

There was some promise, in the beginning. Tye says he conducted hundreds of interviews. Too bad these are not prominent. They maybe get half a dozen pages out of 400. Mostly, they're random paragraphs about how somebody really likes Superman. I wanted more. When a guy says that he learned about morality from Superman, what does he mean? You can't figure it out from Superman stories. You have to dig deeper in your interview. It would be easy to fall into the trap Wertham fell into, and just dismiss Superman and the genre as fascist and too devoted to using violence to solve problems. Isn't it important to point out that Superman fans actually feel the opposite? That hitting people is not the right way to do things?

Tye doesn't really have an argument. His main point seems to be that Superman is "America's most enduring hero." This is just plain wrong. 74 years isn't that long, even by American standards. What about Davy Crocket? Paul Bunyan? John Henry? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? Crazy Horse? Daniel Boone? Teddy Roosevelt? Tarzan? Wyat Earp? Any cowboy, really. None of those guys have gone anywhere. And that one year of existence Superman has on Batman doesn't seem like much these days.

What Tye really accomplishes is the merger of the production history with the comic book history and, say, the religious interpretation among other things. Jones' Men of Tomorrow spliced into Scivally's Superman book with a dash of Stephen Skelton. In doing so, he gives them all the short shrift. But I suppose there's some value to that. Many people would want a more cursory look at the history.

All of this would be excusable if the prose were worthwhile. Alas, it's mediocre. The book's structure leaves a lot to be desired. I have no idea why chapter 9 is called "Back to the Future." And the history is facile. Saying that Smallville succeeded in part because 9/11 had just happened is not really an argument, and if it were it's not supported by anything. If Tye were interested in exploring what sort of hero people really desired in the wake of terrible tragedy, he would find a much more complex answer. He would find that the media provided one sort, and that some people desperately searched for another.

Anyway, as I said, much of my disappointment in this book stems from my own context. When you've read all this stuff, and quite recently, you just shake your head as it's presented one more time, in less depth than elsewhere. Maybe that's my real complaint about Tye's book: it's trying to get everything in there, and really the only part that's served well is the life of Jerry Siegel. But even that is more detailed in other sources. To that extent, I was shocked when I looked at his bibliography. It's pretty extensive, so the part that shocked me was that he'd read all these other books and still thought that his needed to be written.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Birthplace


Here are a couple of articles about the forthcoming Superman themed license plate in Ohio. I'm linking to these in part because of what's not being said in them.

First, here's what is being said. Ohio wanted to create a plate that read "Birthplace of Superman." But Warner and DC comics said they shouldn't. Or asked them not to. The relevant phrases quoted in the article are "does not want to offend" and "there was some discomfort over saying 'birthplace'". Neither of these statements come from DC or Warner. They come from Ohio people who are accommodating the company who owns Superman. So they're changing the plate so it will read something else; they have not decided on the exact wording.

Here's what's not being said, at least as far as I can tell: This is absurd. This is worthy of ridicule. We call something a birthplace because that's where it started. Siegel and Shuster lived in Ohio when they made up Superman. Therefore, by any definition it is Superman's birthplace.

So Warner doesn't want to acknowledge that. I'm reminded of the final page of All-Star Superman #10, which features Frank Quitely's rendition of one of Shuster's earliest drawings of Superman. The dialogue reads "This is going to change everything." In Morrison's original script, it read, "We're going to make a million dollars." I'm paraphrasing there, because he said it in one of the thousand interviews I watched about All-Star. It changed for the final version, he said, because Superman didn't make its creators millionaires; instead it made lots of money for people who publish Superman. Problems ensued, into which I will not go here.

Anyway, I've largely avoided writing about creators' rights here, but I think I'll do so at length in the near future. This isn't a creators' rights concern; it's something else entirely. It has to do with rewriting history. It could be the beginning of something entirely dishonest. I understand the motives of people in Ohio, not wanting to force Warner to say "No More Superman for you", but I still wish somebody with influence would stand up and stop this sort of thing.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Disliking Superman

Question: If you're writing a review of a new book about Superman, why would you begin that review like this..."For a character who has been central to American pop culture for more than 80 years, Superman, it really must be said, is pretty darned boring." That's how Will Leitch of the Wall Street Journal begins his review of Larry Tye's new history of Superman in American culture.

I haven't read Tye's book yet--it's waiting on my desk and I'll probably review it here when I get through it. I don't know what I'll have to say about it, but I'm sure it won't be this...

"As is the case with Mr. Tye's book, Superman is a black hole at the center of every story. Because he is invincible, because he can do everything better than anyone else can do anything, you run out of things to do with him."

That's how Leitch ends his review. He's not terribly fond of the book, but his disdain for Superman reveals something about him as a reader: He doesn't read Superman too much. He calls Superman 'static' and boring. I've never had any desire to write Superman comics or movies, but it seems like the most interesting challenge in storytelling. As Leitch writes, he can do everything better than everybody else. That's what makes the job interesting for a writer. He provides the opportunity to push yourself, creatively. Sure, he can just solve his problems by hitting them, but it's so much more interesting to devise problems that can't be solved that way. To challenge him. He's not the black hole in the center of the story. If you're willing to put in the work, he can be the sun.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Better than the Book: The Wizard of Oz



I’ve never met anyone else who’s read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but it’s always in print.  And since it’s public domain, there are lots of versions of it.  There are those who love to point out that the ruby slippers from the film are silver in the book, but that’s the least of the differences.  First of all, there’s no dream sequence.


For L. Frank Baum, Oz was a real place where Dorothy went for a while.  He revisited Oz in thirteen sequels, and there have been about 30 more written by others.  He wastes no time getting Dorothy and Toto to the place, and there are just a few sentences about what happens when she returns.  There’s no real reunion scene, just Aunt Em (which sounds awkward to me after hearing Auntie Em in the movie for so long) seeing Dorothy coming toward the farm. 

So, Oz in the movie is a dream.  But in the real world of the movie there is conflict that shapes the dream.  In the book, none of the people with whom Dorothy interacts in Kansas will show up in Oz because there are no people with whom Dorothy interacts in Kansas.  There’s really just the hard life of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, then the twister.  The three farm hands who will become Dorothy’s traveling companions don’t exist, the snake oil salesman isn’t there, and the woman who wants to kill Toto isn’t there, either.  So the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, Wizard, and Wicked Witch have no “real world” prototypes.  In the movie, the correspondences give us not only the great reunion at the end (And you were there, and you, and you…) but it also makes the dream so very satisfying.  I can’t even imagine how a prose writer would accomplish the correspondences between the characters on the page without it either being too obvious or ridiculously obscure:  “And Dorothy couldn’t be sure, but the Scarecrow seemed to flail and flop about in a manner strikingly similar to one of the old hands on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm.”  It’s just the sort of technique that works well on film without even trying, but could be silly on the page.

Yellow? I only see a red brick road.
Other things just don’t quite work on the page once you’ve seen the way the movie does it.  A simple one is the yellow brick road.  In the book, it’s “the road of yellow brick.”  It works well enough, I suppose, but once you’ve heard “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” you can’t imagine why anyone would ever switch those words around.  Then you realize that the book came first, and it still doesn’t make sense. Eventually your brain just makes the switch for you and you forget all about the word ‘of’ in the sentence.  It worked well enough in the book, but the movie perfected it.

Then there’s that scene where the Wizard gives everybody what they ask for.  In the book, the Wizard gives the Scarecrow some fake brains, the Tin man a fake heart, and the Lion some fake courage.  In the movie, of course, the Wizard merely demonstrates that these characters have always had what they already want.  I suppose that the book also does this, since the Wizard doesn’t actually give anybody anything, but it works so much better when he points it out to them.  They’re no longer under illusions.  Like the dream element of the film, it’s much more satisfying to see these characters come to terms with themselves than to see them being further illusioned.  The former can never be taken away; the latter can. 
Oh, the music’s better in the movie, too.




The recent comic adaptation by Shanower and Young is great.




Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Staples



I work in an office the size of a college classroom. It could comfortably hold thirty-five people, but I spend nearly forty hours a week there all by myself. On any given day, the majority of my interaction with other people consists of telling them that I don’t have a stapler. These people are students, who come to campus, print their homework, and then seek a way to bind it. There’s a room down the hall that has everything they need: staples, hole punches, pencil sharpeners—but that room isn’t close to the classrooms. So they pass my office and come in to ask me. I send them in the other direction.

Except a couple of weeks ago. I was going through a cabinet in the office and I found a stapler. It was covered in dust. It had about a dozen staples in it. My guess is that somebody, probably before I took over this office, found it in a classroom and took it back here, then put it in the closet and forgot about it. For whatever reason, I set it on the counter that separates my desk from the door. People can sit at the counter, but few ever do these days. Mostly it just keeps people from coming all the way into the office, where I have all sorts of expensive equipment to use in classrooms. My job is to maintain the technology installed in the rooms, so professors can use whatever visual aids they find necessary. My supervisor periodically calls to see what supplies I require. I never ask for staples. My job doesn’t require staples. Ever.

So the day after I found this stapler, it was sitting on the counter. It was mostly hidden. You’d have to look behind some stuff to see it. This wasn’t intentional on my part. I really didn’t even think about it. Then this guy came into the office to ask for a stapler. It was about eight in the morning.

The thing is, he didn’t ask to use a stapler. He got as far as “Hey, do you have…” before he leaned over the counter and saw the stapler. So he just picked it up and started to staple his papers. That’s when I said, “That’s really rude.”

“What?” he said.

“What you’re doing there. That’s pretty rude.”

“It’s a staple,” he said.

"Yeah.”

“Can I have one?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But you just walked in here, reached onto the desk and grabbed whatever you wanted. You can have a staple, but I want you to think about how rude that is.”

All right, so I was being rude here, too. There are a few other ways to say what I said that wouldn’t have come across as that harsh. But to tell you the truth, I’m sick of people asking for staples. And what’s more, about a third of them do exactly what this guy did—they don’t even ask, but instead the snoop around on the counter as if it’s their own personal supply closet. They ask for pens, pencils, paper clips, paper…sometimes they even ask if they can use my computer. And when this is all the interaction you get, you start to get annoyed by the little things. They eat at you. And so I turned into a cranky old man for a minute.

  “But I can have a staple?” he said.

  “Yeah,” I said. “Just think about it.”

 So he stapled his papers and left the office. A few seconds later, he came back and said, “I want you to think about who pays for your salary. And the stapler.”

I was surprised that he came back, and so I just stared at him blankly. He left again. That morning, I had to leave the office for a few hours to take care of some other business. I came back and the day continued. I told my wife about what happened, and we laughed about it. There’s not much of interest at this job, so this one would have kept me going for a while.

I left the stapler in plain sight on the counter. I decided that I would allow people to use it until the staples ran out. Once it ran out of staples, I would just point to it when they asked. When they discover that it’s out of staples, I planned to say, “Bummer” and nothing more. I wasn’t feeling very pleased with the human condition at that moment. I even told the night guy about the new “Bummer” policy. 

The next day, I got an e-mail from one of the guys who works for the same department, but in the main office across campus. He said that someone had come by with some mail for me, and that he had said something about staples. I was confused, so I walked over to the main office. There, waiting for me, was an envelope containing three things: a small note apologizing for being rude and hoping that all is forgiven, a box of staples, and a bag of skittles. Evidently he had come back to my office to apologize, but I was gone. So he called the number on the door and found out that I had a mailbox in another building. 

My faith in humanity was restored.

It’s the skittles that keep coming back into my head, though. Why skittles? One person offered the possible explanation that it’s not chocolate, which some people can’t eat. It lacks peanuts, which cause some trouble. But why skittles? I may never know.

Whatever your name is, stapler guy, all is indeed forgiven.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Luthor


I like that early appearances of Superman's nemesis gave him a single name. It makes him more of an institution than even his later corporation could manage. Luthor.


I write about this in the book a bit, but it's worth putting here: one man I interviewed says that he has come to appreciate Luthor as a man who is trying to kill god. Or was it 'a god'? I'd have to go back to my recordings, or my manuscript, neither of which I'm going to do now.

Anyway, that puts the Superman story firmly into one of the two dominant narratives of our time. The first is simply that this reality, the one we all experience and agree upon, is not the real one. It's not really reality. It's just an illusion, and lying underneath or up above is the reality we all crave or know is there and just out of reach. The second dominant narrative, and it's only become so recently (whereas the first is pretty old) is that of humanity overthrowing gods.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, they're related. Gods experience the ultimate reality that humanity longs for.


I wish Luthor always had to wear that suit. Or at least the flower.


Anyway, Luthor is a bit mercurial. Moreso than Superman. Luthor went from mad scientist to mad capitalist. But he's always ego- and megalo-maniacal. The common thing to say about him is that he's the one bad guy to think he's the hero. That's his definition. I tend to think of him in light of something John Steinbeck wrote: to a monster, everyone else is a monster.


So the thing about Luthor comes down to the final issue of All-Star. He gets Superman's powers, and with them he begins to see the world as Superman sees it.  And it's different than the way we normal human beings see it. He sees the ways in which everything is connected, the ways in which we are connected to each other, and how we are all there is. This follows a realization that 'the fundamental forces are yoked by a thought alone.' The animated version gives a slightly different take; instead of 'thought alone', it's 'consciousness.' Either way, he has transcended what humanity can perceive.

So he gets a glimpse into that level of reality lying beneath the one we can see. He becomes a god. Until Superman punches him in the face. He's apparently unconscious for the final few moments during which he has his power.

Sorry, no Quitely art this time.

Luthor in this story (and in "The Black Ring" by Paul Cornell, which ran through Action Comics while Superman was off on New Krypton) gains god-like power. And he uses it to try to kill Superman. I think this is the perfect distillation of Luthor. He could do so many things, but he lets something stop him. I tend to think that, even were Superman out of the picture--or had never come to earth--he wouldn't have done those things anyway. He would never be great enough to satisfy himself; he would always find a foe to fight and waste his time in doing so.

Purple and green.
So, where Superman is the idea of human perfection and perfectability, Luthor is the idea of human flaw-ed-ness. What's the right word for that? Imperfection's too boring. Flawdidity? Superman is what we hope to become. Luthor is what we fear we will always be.

Superman is change. Luthor is the inertia of the present; the ignorance of the need for change, and the pathetic hope that we don't need it at all.


Or maybe Luthor's change, too, but change in the wrong direction. I don't know. I'm just a folklorist.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Quotations--Crazy Beard Guy Edition




 
While there is a hill to hide the distance, a man will struggle to see what lies beyond. For this reason, I believe, God made mountains.
Gerald Kersh, Faces in a Dusty Picture











I'm going to go ahead and count that mustache as a beard


Truths are Illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.
Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense"






















 

Praise the wine that is old and the flowering of the newest songs.
Pindar



 














For what is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books. And the drawing near of Death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick













 
A small daily task, if it really be daily, will beat all the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.
Anthony Trollope







 



Thursday, June 7, 2012

Better than the Book: Psycho



The first words of Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) are “Norman Bates.”  Compare to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where Norman Bates doesn’t appear as a character—isn’t even mentioned—until 27 minutes in.  Mary Crane (Marion in the film) doesn’t appear until chapter 2.  Her sister Lila, Sam Loomis, the Sheriff, Arbogast the investigator, none of these characters appear for a long time.  Just who’s the protagonist here?





For Bloch, it’s probably safe to say it’s Bates.  We get the greatest insight into his psyche.  Bloch includes all sorts of details about his life that never make it into Hitchcock’s movie.  But what Hitchcock selects works, and while there’s not much gained by pairing down Bates’ psychosis, there’s absolutely nothing lost.  We don’t miss the fact that he’s into the occult, for example. 

 The real advantage the movie has over the book derives in the medium itself.  The book has to lie to us.  For the story to work, it has no choice.  The book’s written in the third person, but each chapter gets into the head of one of the characters.  By far the majority of chapters give us the thoughts of Norman Bates, in any one of his personalities.  So each chapter is a limited third person.  Despite this, we get sentences that are effectively first person.  The effect here is that it’s hard to tell when the narrator is being reliable.  That’s not a problem for a first person book.  Since we get no other perspective, the narrator’s lies are just like anybody else’s.  It’s our own folly if we believe them. But in a third person book, the lies are less fair to the audience.


 Here’s what I’m talking about:  In the first chapter, Norman’s reading a book and drifting in and out of sleep.  Then, he hears footsteps.  “Actually, he was aware of the footsteps without even hearing them; long familiarity aided his senses whenever Mother came into the room.  He didn’t even have to look up to know she was there.”  The scene goes on to give us Mother’s locations as she moves throughout the room.  These are patent lies told to us by the narrator.  And the narrator, remember, isn’t Norman Bates.  If the book were written entirely from his perspective, then there would be no lie, because he at least, would be experiencing Mother’s movements in his mind.  But Mother is moving around, while Norman and she talk. 


 This scene could not possibly be shot for a movie without giving away the main twist of the story—that Norman is Mother.  The movie includes only one scene where we see Norman and his mother interacting, as he takes her from her bedroom to the cellar.  The camera never shows us either face, so we don’t see who’s talking.  This is as close to the “lie” of the book’s narrator as the movie will get.  The camera starts low but cranes up to an overhead shot that avoids both the corpse and Norman’s faces.  Other times, we hear them talking from outside the house, but see nothing. The other time, when we see Mother acting as “she” kills Marion, the “lie” we get is the unrealistic lighting that obscures “her” face in the bathroom.  Here’s how the book treats that:

 Mother’s face comes “peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask.  A head-scarf concealed the hair and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be.  The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones.  It wasn’t a mask.  It was the face of a crazy old woman." 

 This is a tough one.  Is it a lie?  The face is made up; Norman’s wearing a disguise.  The chapter is from Mary Crane’s perspective, so we’re essentially getting what she sees.  She might think, for that brief moment before she no longer has thoughts, that it’s an old woman.  Still, it’s third person, so it’s hard to excuse the lie of the information.  The film gives us the only other example of the “lie” in this scene as well.  Norman’s face is completely in shadow, unnaturally so.  Though shadows do the same to other characters throughout the film, this is really the only time it’s blatantly unnatural.  Marion would have been able to see the face in the light of the bathroom, so we should too. 

This is a lie!
 So why is the movie better?  Aside from the two examples I’ve noted, most of the “narrator’s lies” are dispensed with in the process of making it visual.  But also, I think, the movie benefits from the nearly total focus on the plot instead of the characters.  Where Bloch gives us a couple of pages here and there to get to know Sam Loomis and Lila Crane, Hitchcock doesn’t bother.  As a director, Hitchcock was almost solely focused on the visuals, and this movie demonstrates that.  He knows we’re not interested in Loomis’ witty observations about life in a small town or Lila’s frustrations with local law enforcement.  Once Mary Crane dies, all we want to know is who killed her.  The characters are merely a way to get to the exposition.  Hitchcock, who can give us intense and worthwhile character studies (I’m thinking of Vertigo), knows that Psycho’s strength isn’t anybody but the audience’s expectations.  He’s foiled them by killing Crane off and demonstrating that the stolen money’s irrelevant.  While the book also disposes of Crane early on, by beginning with Bates Bloch has already told us she’s not important. 

 Other elements stand out in this film.  I think the dialogue, written by Joseph Stefano (who also came up with the structural shift that focused the first half hour of the movie on Marion instead of Norman, a shift which enabled them to get around the narrative lies so prominent in the book) often gets overlooked.  That first scene with Marion and Sam is fantastic.  And when you meet Norman Bates, the script really shines with the subtle clues that something’s wrong with him, the first being the fact that he won’t say the word bathroom.  And the creepiest line in film history, which isn’t in the book:  “Well a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

We all go a little mad sometimes.
  
So what is the heart of psycho?  It’s the director’s relationship with the audience.  It’s confounding expectations, and in doing so, more or less creating a genre.  Very few movies take this sort of left turn half-way through.  I’m thinking of the Tarrantino/Rodriguez movie From Dusk til Dawn.  But the genre being created isn’t the left-turn.  It’s the identity twist.  It’s the genre where we’d really place The Sixth Sense and Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, and it reached its point of absurdity in Identity, where virtually all the characters were in fact separate identities in one character.  It was made fun of by Adaptation, and it’s sort of lost favor.  It’s the twist where the main character isn’t who you think.  It hasn’t been done this well again, and it won’t likely be.  


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Writing about Movies


I went to film school. I didn't finish a film degree, mostly because I couldn't light a shot worth anything. I would see the work that my friend Mike Judd was doing, and it would just humble me. He was good. So many of the people in my classes were good. I wasn't. So I changed focus to something I was good at--writing. Eventually, folklore, too.

I don't make movies anymore, but I still like to write them and to write about them. So I'm going to be doing that here when I'm not writing about Superman stuff that didn't fit into my book. There will be a series of entries called "Better than the Book," which will be about movies that surpass their source material.

I've written a bit about movies. My first academic article to be published was a study of romantic dramas using the methods of folklore. It was included in a book called Over the Edge, obviously. I also wrote an article for a forthcoming book called Global Mythologies and World Cinemas. That one's about Superman movies and political myths. There's no release date set for it yet.

This is funny. I searched for myself on amazon to find the link to the Over the Edge book, because I couldn't remember it's title. Did you know that you can buy a copy of my dissertation for there for a mere $69? It's about Prometheus, so you know, don't everybody buy one at the same time and cause amazon to crash. Do websites still crash because of too much traffic?

Also available, a digital copy of my article about The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings, which was published in a journal called Mythlore.

While I'm posting links to junk I wrote a long time ago, here's an essay I wrote about teleportation in fantasy and sf stories for Strange Horizons.

And here's the imdb page for Own Worst Enemy. I think Mike's going to screen it in LA next week (the 12th? I can't remember).


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lois Lane


I think Lois Lane's time has come. If any character could carry a comic book, it's her. Her silver age series only interests me as a historical curiosity. Her persistence in trying to prove that Superman is Clark Kent is a literary dead end. It's only partly because she should be able to figure it out after a couple of days. It's really because it's not terribly interesting as a story. So she figures it out. So what?


I think Lois is a compelling character even without Superman in the story. Sure, the attempts to give her a showcase haven't been all that successful, but they also don't seem all that sincere. Jimmy Olsen should get a series of stories in which he trots across the globe, Indiana Jones style, having supernatural adventures. Lois Lane needs the investigative journalist series. I can't be the first person to think this is a good idea (actually, now that I do a google search for a lois lane series, I see all sorts of fan fiction, a proposal for a series of novels, fan campaigns on mtv geek and newsarama, etc.).

Early drawing of Lois by Joe Shuster.

The way I see Lois, her life is a series of constant frustrations. She begins in Action #1 complaining that she never gets the good stories. She is eternally thwarted in her hope to expose Superman's secret identity. She eventually becomes the lauded reporter she's always wanted to be, and she gets the guy--only to lose him in the recent reboot.

There's been a lot of talk recently about marriage in superhero comics, but I don't think it's relevant to Lois. On her own or as a wife, I think she could be a great lead character. She doesn't need to take a back seat to a leading man, even when that man is Superman.

When writers are given a chance to work on Superman, they often feel the need to address certain concerns, elements of the Superman mythos that have been there for decades and are maybe less than logical: Where does he get his morality? What is Clark Kent like? Why is Luthor a bad guy? And, interestingly, why does Superman like Lois so much?

Until the end of time. Pretty much literally, too.

In the last decade, we have had a few different answers to this question. Mark Waid's Birthright  shows a Lois who inspired awe in Clark Kent when they first met. She stands up for people, doesn't take crap from anyone, and is a woman strong enough to make Superman say, "Wow."

Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman has Lois herself pose the question, "Why me, Superman?" Simply asked, simply answered: "Well...I guess there has to be one thing I just can't help, Lois."

I like Waid's better. Morrison's seems more like a dodge than anything.

I haven't found a woman's take on this one, outside of, maybe, the first season of Lois and Clark, developed by Deborah Joy Levine. Though I have seen that show recently, I don't really have much to say about it.
 
I will say that I thought Lois Lane was perhaps the best part of Smallville.



Monday, June 4, 2012

Bill Clinton


I don't know why I'm thinking about this right now, but when I started this project i signed up for a twitter account. I thought I would need one not because I wanted to twit things, but because I thought it would be useful for following Superman-related things on twitter. To date, I have tweetered nothing. Yet I have three followers. Maybe I'll start tweeting all the alternate jokes I come up with when I'm watching television shows. That way I won't have to harass my wife every time I think I'm funnier than the television.


Anyway, the reason I'm writing about this is because one time I was searching twitter for everything that people were writing about Superman right at that moment. It was the time Bill Clinton flew to some North Korea to rescue two journalists who were trapped there or something. So all sorts of tweets referred to him as Superman. This was a while ago. The idea popped up a few places outside twitter as well.
No caption necessary.

At the moment, there is no particular unity or pattern to the tweets about Superman.  A couple of them are about Lebron James. A couple about catching people when they're falling. A couple about Justin Bieber, of all things.

In case you've forgotten, the President and First Lady made an appearance in the comics, during Superman's funeral in the early 90's. Just for the record, funereal is a very good word. I just didn't feel like working it into this post.

Stunning likenesses.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Superman Celebration

So it's June...again. And that must mean that I'm going to the Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois.



Well, no. It doesn't mean that. The Celebration is held the second weekend every June. During this one, I'll be finishing up the move to a new place to live and celebrating my wife's birthday.

Also, right now I'm in the midst of revising a short novel I wrote so I can try to convince somebody that it's worth publishing. This one's tough. It involves scissors and staples and tape. Sometimes the best structure for a book just doesn't present itself until you've already written it all wrong.

There's this weird thing about me and revising. I can't envision the entire manuscript--physically, I mean--when I'm looking at it on a screen. I can't picture in my head how to rearrange twenty-page long chunks of it unless  I'm holding a hard copy in my hands.

And so I rearrange the pages, and some of them need to be cut up because there are parts that go in different places. And then I put them in order. And then I make the computer file look like the hard copy. That ever happen to anybody else?