The Star Wars Sextology, Episode I

You're hearing the trumpet fanfare in your head right now, aren't you?When I was a kid, I loved the Star Wars movies. I saw the original trilogy more times than I can remember. The story is something that people associate strongly with their childhoods. With that association comes a sense of nostalgia—a sweetening of old memories that no later experience can surpass.

I was 14 in 1999, the year that The Phantom Menace was released. For me and many other fans, this was the first new Star Wars movie of our lifetimes. The hype was incredibly high; the harsh reality of the movie itself quickly brought it back down. History remembers The Phantom Menace as a crushing disappointment—a shallow mimicry of those lovable childhood adventure-fantasies. Two more movies followed, with similar results.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve watched any of them in their entirety. My memories of the older trilogy are almost entirely positive. As I remember the newer trilogy, it started out okay and went downhill from there. Looking back on them now, I can’t assess any of them fairly. Too much time has passed.

I intend to refresh my memory. Over the next six entries, including this one, I will actively rewatch each one of these movies and write down my experiences. My intention is to defog my memory and see how the Star Wars saga holds up in my 26 year old eyes.

The rules of this little experiment are…

  • I will watch the movies in the following order: the Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), Revenge of the Sith (2005), Star Wars (1977), the Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). This is the order in which the story takes place, as any seasoned fan will recognize.
  • I’ll cover two movies per entry. Following that, there will be another entry that will consider the series as a whole, followed by an appendix entry on a special subject that I’ll reveal later.
  • These movies have been modified and re-edited a number of times. For the sake of convenience, I’ll be watching the newer movies in their latest editions. Because the older movies have been hit much harder by the changes, I’ll be watching those ones in their original, unaltered editions.
  • I’ll write down my observations as I go, pausing when necessary, with the following exception:
  • The ending of Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of Star Wars are the junction of the two trilogies, so I’ll be viewing those portions back-to-back. I think it’s important to keep those two parts as continuous as possible. That way, the story has the best chance to unfold as intended.
  • Despite the recent rerelease of The Phantom Menace in theaters, I will be watching all six movies at home, to keep the viewing circumstances as consistent as possible.
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MSU Comics Forum, 2012 (Part 2)

2/4/2012, 11:35am

I am possibly the only imbecile on Earth who can prepare for something extra-early and still be late for that thing.

(That’s not true. You, hypothetical reader, are possibly, perhaps probably, just such an imbecile.)

I arrive a few minutes past the starting time for the first panel, Education in Comics, which apparently started right on time, so I’m playing catch-up. The current speaker (name to be added momentarily) is delivering a lecture (also to be named momentarily) on children’s comics–the stylistic strategies, the use of wordless narratives, the stigmas involved, etc. Various example books are circulating throughout the room.

Okay, the lecture is called “Following the Pictures: Wordless Comics for Children”, and the speaker is Barbara Postema.

One of the books is called Korgi, by Christian Slade. For those who don’t know, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is the cutest species of animal on Earth, as scientifically determined by me. I must get this book.

Next up is “Reading Patterns of Comics Readers vs. Prose Readers”, by Laura Jimenez. One of her first contentions is that “graphic novels are motivating for marginalized readers.” In other words, comics can reach people who wouldn’t normally read, who maybe don’t do well with prose or aren’t intrinsically motivated to read. As an educator, she explores questions of whether or not the skills involved in reading graphic novels can then be transferred to prose reading, how images are received differently from prose, and how comic art might cater to both cognitive processes.

2/4/2012, 12:00pm

Next up is a long title that will receive its own page break.

“Hey Kids! Learn History Comics! Warren Ellis’ Crecy and Trevor R. Getz’s Abina and the Important Men as Classroom Resources.” The speaker is Aaron Gulyas.

Right off, Gulyas delineates primary sources and secondary sources–cultural artifacts of the time versus documents about that time. Comics can be both. He argues that Crecy is a secondary source, being a narrative retelling of events, while Abina blurs the two categories, being a narrative adaptation of a court transcript.

As an educator, Gulyas describes the difficulty of working Crecy into his course–one battle of one war, in a class that has to cover a broad swath of history, likely included at the expense of other very important material. The more comprehensive and accessible Abina does not represent this difficulty. While Crecy functions better as a story and an entertainment–a better “comic book”, he says, doing the finger quotes–Abina is the better educational resource.

One question Gulyas asks his students is, between the transcript of Abina and the actual story (i.e. the comic art), which conveys the history better? Which one is more “real”?

I would bet that the transcript probably does a better job of evading the anti-comics stigma–a prejudice that probably bedevils educators even more than anybody else involved in comics. That said, the comic art would do a better job of conveying the information in a way that will stick. Educational text–especially historical text–can be very dry and dense. It’s the textual equivalent of unstylized speech, going in one ear and out the other. Told in evocative imagery, the same information might have a much better chance of engaging the reader and remaining in memory.

2/4/2012, 12:30pm

This year’s gallery display by the MSU Comic Art Collection (curated by the magnificent Randy Scott) is called From Superman to Seth: Comics and Canadian Cultural Identity.

(That’s right: The quintessentially American Superman has partially Canadian heritage. Joe Shuster, the first and still finest artist to ever illustrate the Man of Steel, was born in Toronto and moved to Cleveland as a preteen. There, he met Jerry Siegel and they made beautiful comics together.

I personally find the “American” aspect of the Superman image to be slightly overstated. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were working class Jewish kids. Shuster was a Canadian-American. Both were first-generation sons of parents who immigrated from Europe. Their Superman was loyal to ideals, rather than national boundaries. As a response to World War II and a defense mechanism of the anti-comics scare in the 1950s, Superman gradually received the “American” upgrade.)

The next panel, Reexamining Relationships, begins soon.

2/4/2012, 12:45pm

First up is “Ti-Girl Power”, by Matt Yockey. (“Ti” pronounced “Tye”.) Subtitle: “the politics of the progressive superhero text”.

Yockey’s starting contention is that Ti-Girls author Jaime Hernandez delves into the conflict between the utopian vision of superhero comics and the homogeneity implicit in that utopian ideal. Hernandez consciously uses the superhero team paradigm to deal in issues of gender, ethnicity, body type, and queerness, which mainstream superhero comics tend either to gloss over or handle in superficial and clumsy ways.

This is the second time Hernandez has been brought up, the first being in last night’s speech by Jessica Abel. Embarrassingly, I am familiar with Hernandez as an artist but have never read his stories. Love & Rockets, his ongoing story, is a sprawling and intimidating work that I’ll nevertheless look into at the next opportunity.

2/4/2012, 1:00pm

Next up is Jeremy Stoll, with A Comics Tradition in New Delhi.

In this presentation, Stoll starts out by discussing the recently developed Comic Con of New Delhi, which, while small compared to those in America, attracts several known names, including the mighty (and normally somewhat inaccessible) R. Crumb.

Stoll walks through the development of the comics medium in India, which went through a process of pastiches of American literature, which incorporated more and more uniquely Indian references and imagery. Eventually, they arrived at a variety of material, including styles and stories reflecting wholly Indian concerns. Despite this evolution, comic artists and enthusiasts in India still face a battle of association between comics and children’s literature, as well as the prejudice of comics as an inferior form of art and entertainment. Sounds familiar.

Apparently, there was supposed to be a third presenter who couldn’t make it, so this is the end of the Reexamining Relationships panel.

2/4/2012, 2:00pm

This panel is the creators’ showcase, featuring Jessica Abel, Mike “Apooka” Roll, and Denver “Tales of a Checkered Man” Brubaker. Sitting in as moderator is Jay Jacot.

The first question is about process. Abel encourages her students to work in thumbnails, but mixes in full script herself and does much of the work in In Design. Roll works heavily in dialogue, despite the irony of his lead character being a zombie. Brubaker started out with detailed scripts, but found himself working more naturally in thumbnails–a mixture of his own preference and the demands of the material.

Next, on the subject of world-building, Abel’s process varies from book to book, because the material itself varies from book to book. Building a realistic location on terra firma is a different process from building the alien landscape of a sci-fi future. She finds herself asking questions like, “If you don’t have books, what do you fill your house with?” Roll doesn’t worry so much about building the fine details of the world as much as working in recurring details that readers will recognize. Brubaker takes a whimsical approach. Not being a natural world-builder, he works in details as they occur to him–funny brand names, posters of movie stars on people’s walls, etc. He also listens to old radio shows, which enables him to channel the imaginative vibe as he writes.

Essential tools: Abel doesn’t try to draw comics on the road, so she doesn’t have a stripped-down tool set. She does bring a laptop and work on scripts. For transporting ink, she recommends a ziplock bag. Roll tends to do rough pencils until he can get back to the kit and ink the artwork. Brubaker did try to bring materials with him and has tried to work today, which didn’t work out so well on the fly. Ordinarily, he tries not to ink on the road. Jacot brings pencils and 8.5×11 paper, which, when folded over, approximates the proportions of a standard comic book. He once had a disaster when he moved a bag containing a bottle of ink from a cold room to a warm room. The heat change caused the bottle to crack and distribute ink throughout the bottom of the bag.

Jacot asks about the collaborative process–how one adjusts the usual process to meet the needs of collaborators. Abel has an easier time when there is an agreed-upon structure of tasks beforehand, so it isn’t just two people sitting in a room without an idea of how to proceed. As an artist, Roll gets the script and typically sticks close to it, but he works in details and gags as they occur to him. Brubaker tends to work alone, but occasionally brings in guests, such as when he did a flashback sequence and wanted to use a different style.

When starting out, Abel recommends getting a job with flexible time. She worked as a bartender in her early days. One of her strategies for keeping things moving is never to stop without knowing what you’re going to do when starting up again. For example, ending a paragraph and putting in notes for the next paragraph. Roll has a day job, working in a print shop, which proves convenient. He professes to have no social life. Brubaker has a 9-5 office job, but is self-managed, and works on comics during downtime. He stresses the importance of recognizing downtime–when you’re doing something you have to do versus when you’re just sitting around putting things off, and treating it as a serious enterprise that demands a certain amount of time. Jacot also has a normal 9-5, doing business stuff on breaks and working the artwork in after family time at home. Abel, Roll, and Jacot admit to sacrificing a significant amount of sleep, Abel more so in the early days than now.

All stress the importance of feedback–gathering a group of colleagues or friends to go over the work, giving out free samples, attending group writing/art events, and generally taking as many opportunities as possible to catch problems early in the process.

2/4/2012, 3:15pm

The next panel is called Emotion and Memory: The Figure of the Artist in Three Contemporary Künstlerroman Comics.

(For the hypothetical reader who isn’t a word dork, a künstlerroman is a story about the storyteller, or more generally a story about an artist’s coming-of-age journey.)

The first presentation is “The Anxiety of Influence”, by Catherine E. Baily, which concerns “text and intertextuality in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”. Bailey discusses how the Bechdel character in the story strives to express herself in art, but her father (who consciously patterns himself after F. Scott Fitzgerald) damages her self-confidence with his obsession over previously existing artistic works. This seems to be reflective of the post-modern problem: if our culture becomes more mediated and our lives become more saturated with media, then artists must struggle harder to express themselves in ways that don’t reflect previously existing artwork. Today’s art has a tendency to be about other art, rather than about life.

The next presentation is called “Raise More Demons Than You Can Lay Down:  Using Image to Resurrect the Past in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons”, by Traci Brimhall.

(This one barely missed the title for “longest title”. Nice job, “Hey Kids! Learn History Comics! Warren Ellis’ Crecy and Trevor R. Getz’s Abina and the Important Men as Classroom Resources.”)

One Hundred Demons, the subject of this presentation, is a graphic memoir. “Demons”, in this context, refers to the Greek etymology of lesser gods and spiritual guides. The book appears to be recursive: it’s about the author drawing a book about drawing the book, including events that happen as she draws. Various demons are used to represent the author’s thoughts, moods, and anxieties.

This is a fascinating idea that brings to mind the Tibetan concept of the tulpa: a Plato-esque ideal form that manifests itself numerous times in different avatars in mythology and fiction throughout history. There are many examples of this idea both in history and modern pop mythology. The highest human aspirations–the form of human perfection–show up as Superman. Our anxieties about our efficacy as warriors and our confidence around the opposite sex–the form of masculine uncertainty–manifest as chauvinist action characters like James Bond and John McClane, and so on. Perhaps more on this later.

One reason for summoning such forms–e.g. by writing them as characters in myth or fiction–is to take our problems out of the abstract and give them an objective reality, thus making them easier to handle. This is why the Greeks and Romans came up with pantheons of gods, and this appears to be why Barry works in her chosen method for this book. It’s an idea that isn’t terribly well-understood or consciously used much today in the Western world, which I suspect gives us a hard time dealing with our anxieties and our aspirations as a society.

We struggle to deal with those things without first taking the vital step of separating them from ourselves. The filmmaker Paul Schrader referred to storytelling as a problem-solving strategy–turning our problems into their own things, independent of us. We’re messy, and haphazardly mixing ourselves up with our problems makes our problems messier than they need to be.

2/4/2012, 4:30pm

This panel is called Gender and Race Studies in Comics. The first presentation is “In the Gutter: Comix Theory, Queer Theory,” by Chase Gregory. The slide on the screen is a great New Yorker strip: a man in panel one asks a woman in a bar if she’d like to join him in panel three. In panel two, she tells him “No.” Panel three features an empty bed.

This piece is about the complicated act of closure, by which we take two separate things–in comics, two panels–and mentally join them together in a logical relationship. This is the process of closure, and it’s something that our brains thrive on in order to filter and make sense of all the input they receive from the world outside. In other words, closure enables us to make meaning out of pure information. Gregory further draws a connection between committing the act of closure and the presence of queerness in a largely heteronormative society. I admit this is something I’m not sure I grasp concretely.

So I guess there were supposed to be two or three more panelists today, but there is some kind of viral plague going around that is laying waste to the scholarly comic panelist community. So if you fit into that category… lots of zinc and vitamin C. Before you get sick.

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MSU Comics Forum, 2012 (Part 1)

It’s back! I’m back! Everything’s back!

Before it begins, here’s the obligatory brief description from the MSU Comics Forum website:

Held every year on the beautiful campus of Michigan State University, home of the largest public collection of comic books, The Michigan State University Comics Forum is a 2 day event that brings together scholars, creators, and fans in order to explore celebrate the medium of comics, graphic storytelling, and sequential art.

Right now, it’s about 6:55pm on 2/3/2012, which means that the keynote speech is just minutes away.

This year’s speaker is Jessica Abel, whom I’m mainly familiar with as editor of Best American Comics, an annual anthology featuring excerpts from the year’s most noteworthy titles. It’s more on the prestige side of the medium, rather than the popular entertainment side. Think Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez, rather than Geoff Johns and Jim Lee.

This is a live blog, so this entry will be modified throughout the speech, which is scheduled to run from approximately 7:00pm to 8:30pm.

2/3/2012, 7:00pm

Abel “came of age in the ’80s”, becoming a comics reader during the era of upheaval/change/British invasion. She namechecks Dark Knight, Watchmen and Mouse, but also brings up Love & Rockets, identifying herself as a punk kid whose interest as a comics creator was nurtured by the alt-comics scene.

She won a contest to appear in a Peter Bagge comic, subsequently meeting Bagge at Comicon. In addition to working on comics, Bagge is also an advocate for indie artists. Shortly thereafter, Abel began work on Artbabe in 1992. The artwork looks very good. I see elements of Hernandez and Crumb, maybe partially due to the textural black and white details.

The first volume of Artbabe is mainly self-contained, but starting with volume two, she began to experiment with longer-form storytelling. The uniting element, even in the self-contained stories, is the presence of the Artbabe character on every cover.

Abel suggests that ongoing work periodically has to push itself beyond its normal territory, to ensure that the art (and the artist) continues to evolve.

2/3/2012, 7:30pm

Artwise, one of Abel’s concern is the body language and physical postures of the characters. These things, she says, are difficult to boil down in prose, but they work very elegantly as visuals. I will be so bold as to relate this statement to a theme that David Petersen brought up several years back: there are things that comics do uniquely well, which help to legitimize comics as its own artistic medium.

This is one of the traits of the great comic artists–Eisner, Shuster, Adams. Their characters are more than just interchangeable stock bodies with different hair and clothes. They have their own body types, their own faces, and their own ways of carrying themselves.

Following the fourth and final volume of Artbabe, Abel (living in Mexico City) received a call from Ira Glass, of the radio show This American Life. Glass was familiar with Abel’s work and was interested in developing a comic with Abel as the artist. Abel describes Radio as a “behind-the-scenes reportage piece”, portraying the inner workings of the program as narrative fiction.

(This is the term “fiction” in Eddie Campbell’s favored sense, of any story material that has a narrative story structure imposed upon it. Even fact-based stories are fiction, because the facts are fictionalized–in other words, portrayed in a storytelling format.)

Her next work was La Perdida. The artwork is noticeably simpler and cartoonier, but no less detailed in the uniqueness and expressiveness of the characters. This reminds me of Scott McCloud’s argument, laid out in Understanding Comics, that cartooning encourages greater reader involvement in the story and identification with the characters. A character with a densely drawn, photo-realistic face has to be that character. But a character whose face is reduced to a handful of simple, distinctive details can be anybody–including the reader.

It is worth noting that as Abel reads from La Perdida, she gets into all the characters’ voices, including the ones that don’t speak English. She belts out the Spanish dialogue with great inflection and zest.

She gets into the process she used at the time. Her scripts remind me of a movie screenplay: chiefly dialogue, almost no description. The idea in movies is that the screenwriter leaves the director to devise the unwritten details; here Abel develops those details with thumbnail sketches. This was her method of handling a story that she knew was going to be very long and had to be done relatively quickly.

The breakdown, in short: she starts with rough penciling in blue, then the dialogue, tight pencils, borders, foreground inking, then the backgrounds, and various cleanup details. She also mentions doing later computer corrections for the collected edition.

She recommends to cartoonists: use an Ames lettering guide. For La Perdida, she attempted to do without. Her recommendation: “Don’t do this to yourself.”

Her next work (circa 2001?) is a book called Life Sucks, a light teen vampire drama that she wrote, but did not draw. During this period, she also began to teach a storytelling class, which led her to write a textbook on comics, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, designed for both individuals and classroom use. Working in academic literature, for her, was an experience in taking stuff she learned on her own and working back to explore its historical lineage.

2/3/2012, 8:00pm

Abel stresses that the textbook is not a guide on how to draw or how to write, but specifically about creating comic art. She has developed a website companion, dw-wp.com. She also has a forthcoming second textbook, Mastering Comics, due out on May 8.

Her current work is Trish Trash: Roller Girl on Mars, which she describes as something originally intended to be light and fun, but inevitably gained an element of seriousness. The original intention was to work with a separate illustrator, but Abel ended up drawing much of the art herself, along with an assistant to do the background details. (“She actually likes to draw trucks.”)

The Q&A begins with a question about influences. Abel’s number one influence is Jaime Hernandez, and although she admits that it doesn’t show in her work, she likes artists whose work is “raw” and “crazy”.

Answering a question on style, she describes getting away from the “picky” style of Artbabe, going less detailed and realistic so that she could “draw less and see more”. In a realistic style, everything has to be there, but in a cartoony style, you can indicate certain details and the reader’s imagination will do much of the work in building the environment. This was a conscious decision rather than an unconscious development, to go “looser”, “more immediate”, “more evocative”. One of her strategies for exploring different styles was redrawing panels of artists she liked, to internalize some of the techniques they used.

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NaNoWriMo finish, and site news.

Note: If you’re seeing this message, you are visiting I Evolved Into This’s new location! If so, you can disregard any talk below of the site moving to a new location. This is the new location. I repeat: if you see this message, you’re in the right place.

—————-

If anybody has been waiting with bated breath for the next IEIT entry, I apologize. These past two months or so must have been a trial.

I have been busying myself with NaNoWriMo–National Novel Writing Month, for those who don’t know. The gist of it is that aspiring novelists begin writing a novel from scratch on November 1st, with the goal of producing at least 50,000 words–roughly the length of The Great Gatsby–by the end of November 30th.

To cut a long story short, I made it. What I have has no resemblance whatever to an edited, finished novel, but I do have my 50,000 word first draft. (50,044 words, to be exact.) For anyone curious about it, here’s the blurb I initially came up with:

He doesn’t carry a gun. He doesn’t throw punches. He cleans up messes.

Worm is a problem-solver-for-hire, a permanent name on the speed dial of every criminal and crooked big shot in town. He forms a careful barrier of amorality between himself and the crimes committed by his employers, but he soon arrives at a crossroads where he must confront the ugly truth of what he does. Worm’s story is supported by a cast of do-gooders and ne’er-do-wells who all have the potential to influence his life. And Worm himself may harbor secrets that make him more than he seems…

Consider that a prophecy that ended up coming half-true.

Here is the excerpt I put up on the NaNoWriMo site a couple weeks in:

He slipped into one of the supply rooms and softly closed the door behind him. Fumbling, he found the switch next to the door and clicked it on. A single incandescent light bulb flickered to life overhead, uncovered and dangling from the concrete ceiling by a wire. The walls were lined with metal shelves. And, luckily, there were hooks with coveralls, plus rubber boots beneath them.

Worm doffed his hospital gown. Now nude, he shuddered in the cold, hurrying to the hooks and finding the set of coveralls that looked closest to his size. A he pulled them on, he noticed his injury for the first time. A large pad of gauze was bound to his chest by long strips of medical tape that wrapped around his torso, presumably to another pad in the back.

The size of the pad unnerved Worm. He wondered just how bad the damage was underneath. It did not escape his notice that his arm was very stiff and limited in mobility. He was also becoming more conscious of the dull throb, which was steadily blossoming into a sharp ache.

He would have to deal with that later. One thing at a time. He closed and zipped the coveralls. He was sitting on the floor, struggling into a pair of boots, when he heard footsteps coming down the small hallway in his direction.

Initially, he tried to stay quiet, but he quickly remembered the overhead light and realized how noticeable it would be to anybody in the hall who happened to look in the direction of the door. Still clumsy from the meds, he moved to dash toward the light switch, but something stopped him: the loop on the back of the coveralls, which was still hooked to the wall. He stretched his good arm as far as he could, but he fell comically short.

Worm despaired. To be undone at all was tragic; to be undone this way added embarrassment to the mix. Then he spied a spray bottle on the nearest shelf from the corner of his eye.

He felt the side of the bottle. It was quite cool, having been sitting here in a darkened, unheated room. Grabbing it from its perch and hoping hard that it wasn’t filled with something toxic, he aimed it at the light bulb overhead and fired off several quick bursts of cold mist.

When the dense cloud of airborne droplets touched the hot surface of the bulb, the thin glass cracked and the light fizzled out.

The footsteps drew closer and closer. If he’d been too slow, his valiant attempt at evasion would be over as soon as those steps reached the door. He strained to listen to the loudness and acoustic properties of each footfall, trying to deermine if they sounded as though they’d been alerted to something awry.

The steps were outside the door now. Worm thought he heard them pause and shift. His heart pounded and his shoulder throbbed in sympathetic response. His bald scalp was beaded with nervous sweat. He thought he could see long shadows cast under the door from the feet just on the other side.

He was wrong. There was no pause. The steps continued past the door, giving no indication that whoever it was thought there was anything amiss with this particular room. Worm’s shoulders sagged. The hook held his uniform taught, making him instantly uncomfortabe.

He extricated himself and commenced loading his pockets with a few essential items. He found a pair of rubber cleaning gloves. There was a large roll of duct tape, much of which he tore loose and folded into his customary fat, pocket-sized square. The rest would have to stay behind. He was unable to find a lighter, but he made do with a mostly complete book of matches that must have been left on the shelf by a careless employee.

Locating a step ladder and placing it under the now-darkened light bulb, Worm climbed up and unrolled some of his tape. With great difficulty, he managed to blunt the broken glass and unscrew the bulb from its loose morning with one nimble hand. Climbing down, he crushed the glass inside the tape with his fist and tore it loose from the metal base. Using a small pair of wire cutters, he removed the filament from the base.

Tossing the base in a waste bin, he pocketed the filament and the wire cutters. He left the supply closet, far more confident and alert now, but also now feeling his shoulder pains in earnest.

For better or worse, that’s a pretty good taste of what the novel is like right now.

Keep in mind that I paid zero attention to style and variety of prose. The purpose of the 50,000 word challenge is to encourage writers to forgo all other concerns and focus purely on bashing out content. After all, it is easier to rewrite something that’s already written than to write everything new from the ground up.

Many aspiring writers quit because they find themselves editing, honing, and otherwise monkeying with their text before they have even a fraction of their stories out. It’s time-consuming and ultimately disheartening. I’ve been in that trap a number of times, but this year’s NaNoWriMo helped me to evade it finally. To convey a sense of what it feels like, I was watching a documentary (in case anyone cares: “In Search of Steve Ditko”, by Jonathan Ross for the BBC) that featured Alan Moore, Stan Lee, John Romita, Jerry Robinson, and Neil frickin’ Gaiman. In a state somewhat resembling disbelief, I found myself thinking, Now I’m one of them.

That isn’t to say that I consider myself a writer of their caliber or anywhere near it, but at the very least, I’ve shown myself that I can do the thing that I admire them for doing so well.

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Now, onto the site news: I Evolved Into This is moving to new digs, and potentially retiring there.

Yes, I know that the site just crashed, everything on it was lost, it just came back with a fresh start and a new design, yadda yadda yadda. This is actually related to that. Rob over at Freak Safari, who hosts I Evolved Into This on his space, is switching over to a new hosting company. This will hopefully provide him with professional, reliable, non-idiotic service.

(For more on this topic, click here.)

The catch is, with the move to the new company, the bill for I Evolved Into This is going up.

To be blunt about it, I occasionally forget that this site exists. It goes through periods of neglect, sometimes long ones. Even if NaNoWriMo can be considered an excuse for November, that still leaves October before it as a fairly barren month for content, for no other reason than I simply had nothing I felt like posting at the time. I busied myself with other projects and left the site to languish.

To me, the additional cost to keep I Evolved Into This on Freak Safari’s space, with the dedicated URL, is not worth it for a site that spends a lot of its time collecting dust.

To that end, I’m moving all the posts that are currently on this version of I Evolved Into This to a free WordPress account. Once it’s there, I may continue writing new posts. Or I may simply leave it to function as an archive of the IEIT that once was.

From now on, in order to visit I Evolved Into This, the new URL is ievolvedintothis.wordpress.com

Change your bookmarks now, because the old site with the dedicated URL will eventually disappear.

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So, I may be doing more with IEIT at its new home in the future, or I may not.

If this is indeed farewell… screw everybody who still reads this crap. I’m a real writer now!

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Vintage Entry: “It’s okay to kind of like something.”

IEIT Vintage Alert (10/5/2011): This is a reposting of an entry made prior to July 2011, once lost and now restored. For the story on that, read here. For more on IEIT Vintage, read here.

Classic Simpsons Recap Alert (10/5/2011): In addition to the featured content, this entry also includes an installment of the classic Simpsons recap, which follows at the end. For more on that, read here.

It’s okay to kind of like something.

Originally posted on January 18, 2010 by Ken

I will submit an informal theory, which I will dub the Beavis and Butthead effect. Imagine, for a moment, an average anti-intellectual moron. We’ll call him (arbitrarily male, of course) “Jack.”

Jack goes to the movies. He sees, oh, say, Avatar. He comes away from it thinking it was crap. “Who are these people trying to fool?” he bellows. “This is the same plot as a bunch of other movies I’ve seen! Why, the acting wasn’t even that great!” Jack goes home, logs onto IMDB, and gives Avatar a 1 out of 10 rating. Somebody needs to put these Hollywood hacks in their place, after all.

Meanwhile, Jill (arbitrarily female), for all her differences of opinion, is very similar to Jack. Jill goes to see Avatar and she loves it. She finds the special effects dazzling; Pandora is so real to her that she felt she could reach out and touch it. She thinks to herself excitedly: “This is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time! Just look at all the stuff on the screen! Check out all the hidden messages!” Jill goes home, logs onto IMDB, and gives Avatar a 10 out of 10 rating. Surely this marvel, this wonder of a film, deserves to unseat stodgy old bores like The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption. Why, those movies aren’t even relevant to today’s world.

You rarely see a Jack or a Jill go for the “5 out of 10” rating, or its close neighbors. If you’re lucky, they’ll shave off a star or two at the top because it wasn’t the second coming of Christ. Don’t expect anybody voting at the other end of the scale to shave off anything.

I’m not sure what drives this phenomenon, but it is observable. Whether you go online and look at the numbers or just listen to the scuttlebutt around the water cooler, there seems to be a reverse bell curve governing people’s opinions about entertainment. In the parlance of Beavis and Butthead, either “it rules” or “it sucks.”

Why is there such an absence of more varied opinions? Why isn’t there a more complex gradation between the two poles? Here’s my theory. Outside of natural selection, there aren’t many ways for something complex to arise from something simple. You’re probably not going to get a thoughtful, well-rounded opinion from a simplistic viewing process. If all you’re doing is passively absorbing what the screen pumps at you, then you’ll likely respond just one way or the other. It becomes a reflex. It rules or it sucks, and damn the very notion that anybody should discuss it more deeply.

Movies are for thinking about. Art is for thinking about. If you go into it thinking that it’s okay to turn your brain off–-or worse, that you should turn your brain off-–then you’re depriving yourself. You’re disabling yourself from knowing real crap when you see it, and you’re closing yourself off to the sheer richness of a truly good movie.

Most of all, you’re shutting off the critical faculties that are necessary for knowing when a movie isn’t great, and isn’t crap, but just… is. What doesn’t deserve your best appraisal doesn’t necessarily deserve your worst. Some movies are just lightweight entertainments.

Setting the record straight, I believe Avatar is worth seeing. To say that it’s the best film of the year, or even a great film at all, is worrying. It’s certainly an imaginative, pretty film, with many evocative moments and much else to write home about. No, it isn’t especially well-acted, and the plot is low on both subtlety and originality, but plot and acting are highly overrated phenomena. Perhaps its worse crime is that its visuals are so splendid that the rest of the production just isn’t audacious enough to keep up. This is by no means a bad film, and certainly not a “1” on the IMDB scale. But neither is it a “10.”

Your homework is to look up a bunch of movies on IMDB (www.imdb.com) and check out their user ratings. Look for how many people voted at the extreme ends of the scale, versus how many voted for the middle ratings. Test my theory.

THE CLASSIC SIMPSONS RECAP, 10/5/2011
Title: “Homer the Great”, season 6

In this episode, Homer, the perpetually mediocre husband/father, joins a secret organization known as the Stonecutters, where he discovers that he may be more special than anybody realized.

Homer’s workmates have gained some mysterious perks–better chairs, quicker parking access–and Homer decides to investigate. Naturally, the source of their luxuries is nothing mundane. They’re members of an all-powerful Freemasonesque organization that pulls all the strings in Springfield. The Stonecutters lay out their many impressive accomplishments through song, although how this translates to their day to day activities is left to the imagination. (“Let’s all get drunk and play ping-pong!” exhorts their leader, played by the excellent Patrick Stewart.) The Stonecutters seem to be both highly influential and inconsequential at the same time, as huge overarching conspiracies tend to be.

Sometimes success is achieved through effort, but sometimes it seems as though some people simply have it easier than others. It’s tempting to believe, in this world where so much is out of our hands, that everything is in somebody’s hands. The fantasy of regular people getting ahead or being stamped down by the say-so of secretive, all-powerful leaders is sent up by Homer’s rapidly changing fortunes in this episode. Only in the longview do we realize that our shames and triumphs tend to even out. In Homer’s case, he literally trades one stone for another just like it–except, in a moment of terrific irony, the stone of triumph is bigger.

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A guided tour of the new Tyrannovox album cover.

Classic Simpsons Recap Alert (9/23/2011): In addition to the featured content, this entry also includes an installment of the classic Simpsons recap, which follows at the end. For more on that, read here.

As IEIT readers may or may not know, I am in a band called Tyrannovox. (Our motto: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth taking forever to do.) Our second album is nearly finished, and the cover art has been freshly minted.

  • Right out of the gate, pop-savvy viewers will notice that the artwork is based on the cover of Action Comics #1. For those of you who somehow don’t know, Action Comics was an anthology magazine that debuted with the first ever appearance of Superman. Due to a variety of factors, a copy of this comic in very good condition can reach up to $1.5 million in value.
  • What makes our cover unique is our substitution of the artwork’s original features with our own unique iconography. That’s our drummer, Raymond, in the foreground, and his white van takes the place of the sedan in the original artwork as the vehicle being smashed. Note the lack of windows.
  • The two figures in the background are, from right to left, Wayne Gretzky (after our song of the same name, featured on the album) and a velociraptor (don’t ask). Mr. Gretzky has been carefully tweezed to be generic enough that he might stand for any hockey player, but we are comfortable enough in our role as constitutionally protected satirists to say that it is him.
  • The creature in the middle, standing in for Superman himself, is my own design, named the “Sphincterbeast” by our vocalist Adam. It made its first appearance on the cover of our previous album, Guano Loco. Its posture and the angle of the van are carefully calculated to preserve the sense of power and semi-circular momentum in Joe Shuster’s original composition.
  • The color scheme is designed to mimic that of the original artwork, while being simplified enough to recall the limitations of Depression-era printing technology. No more than eight distinct colors, including black and white, are used.

THE CLASSIC SIMPSONS RECAP, 9/23/2011
Title: “Lisa the Iconoclast”, season 7

In this episode, Springfield celebrates its bicentennial with a festival dedicated to the town founder, frontiersman Jebediah Springfield. Lisa researches the famous hero, only to discover evidence that history may have transpired differently from what the town believes.

This episode is fascinating in the way that it delves into territory uncommon for a 22 minute sitcom. It examines the way that history is not recorded so much as constructed. Jebediah Springfield is a mythologized figure; it matters little that the real person might or might not have matched up with the ideal that (dubiously) inspires the town. The episode also deals with the way that everyone, including adults, find it profoundly discomforting to have their heroes taken off the pedestal and made fallible. The conclusion of the episode suggests that sometimes the facts are better left unknown, which isn’t necessarily right, but I applaud the show for stating its position and leaving it to us to decide.

Another great thing about this episode is the introduction of two enduring Simpsons-isms: embiggen (to make bigger) and cromulent (legitimate, acceptable). Both words were coined by the show’s writers, but have subsequently been inducted into various English language dictionaries. That may be one of the most telling signs of the show’s impact on our popular culture.

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Vintage Entry: “On The Premises”

IEIT Vintage Alert (9/12/2011): This is a reposting of an entry made prior to July 2011, once lost and now restored. For the story on that, read here. For more on IEIT Vintage, read here.

Classic Simpsons Recap Alert (9/12/2011): In addition to the featured content, this entry also includes an installment of the classic Simpsons recap, which follows at the end. For more on that, read here.

On The Premises

I recently saw this question posted in (don’t judge me) the Internet Movie Database forums: Is it possible for a TV show to last without overturning its premise? The question was asked in reference to sci-fi and fantasy shows, but it applies to just about any kind of indefinitely long-running story. I will broaden the question: Is it possible for any long-running story to last without overturning its premise?

What’s a premise, in this context? The short answer is “what the story is about.” The premise of Smallville is that it’s about Clark Kent and Lex Luthor in their teen years, before they become superhero and supervillain, respectively. The premise of The Simpsons is that it’s a less fantastical, more dysfunctional look at the typical sitcom family. The premise of House, MD is that it’s a group of doctors who specialize in bizarre cases that nobody else can handle.

Let’s go for a more accurate definition. The premise is nothing more than the set of conditions, or limitations, that determines what a story is going to be about. And what it’s not going to be about, for that matter.

Example: Alec Holland is an experimental plant researcher in the bayous of Louisiana. One day, he becomes the victim of an act of sabotage. He mutates into the Swamp Thing, a man/plant hybrid monster, which must take revenge on the perpetrators and find a way to become human again.

Now, maybe there’s some other interesting stuff happening in Louisiana at the same time–political scandals, achievements in the arts, and so on–but that’s not in the story, because it falls outside of the conditions of the premise.

One condition of the premise is that Swamp Thing is trying to become human again. If he does, then his goal–the thing he wants, which drives him to do what he does–is met. There’s no more story. The main character is done. His character problem, the problem that falls within the conditions of the premise, has been solved.

Maybe he has other problems. Maybe Alec Holland has severe credit card debt, or a little cousin with autism. But that’s not in the story because it falls outside of the premise.

If Swamp Thing were a one-off story, like a novel or a movie, this would be no big deal. Assuming an optimistic ending, Swamp Thing would beat the bad guys, figure out how to become human again, and live happily ever after with the friends he meets along the way.

But Swamp Thing was an ongoing comic book series–to be continued forever, no end in sight.

Swamp Thing needs to become human again, or there’s no reason for the story to move. But if Swamp Thing solves this problem, the story ends and DC Comics is out of a monthly title. The premise, the set of conditions that determines what the story is about, has put the writers in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position.

There are a couple solutions. One of them, typically employed on TV shows, is to gradually lessen the importance of the conditions and hope the audience doesn’t notice. The premise becomes broader, more inclusive, less distinct. The story becomes less specific, more directionless, more bloated, more meandering. Everything but the kitchen sink can be included, with hit-or-miss results. This happened in Swamp Thing for a while, causing a decline in the quality of the series. On the Simpsons, this approach produced the finest TV comedy of the ‘90s.

A riskier solution is to, in one swift motion of authorial godhood, abruptly destroy the premise and implement a new one. If it works, the story has a new lease on life. If not, the story is reduced to utter ridiculousness. This solution was successfully implemented in Swamp Thing, courtesy of a daring-but-then-unknown British gentleman by the name of Alan Moore. In just a couple of key issues, he introduced plot points that completely redefined (let’s all say it together this time) the conditions that determine what the story is about.

This not only freed the books of the limitations that had come to shackle them, but introduced new ones that kept a strong sense of direction and did not pose the same Catch-22 as the previous ones.

In answer to the original question, I would say it’s necessary to do SOMETHING to the premise. Once you’ve explored every cubic inch of the box you’re in, there’s nothing else you can do. You either find a new box, or look for ways to expand the box you’re already in. Or you do something that, Seinfeld aside, is unthinkable in American television: you end the story before it becomes necessary to ask questions like this one.

—–

THE CLASSIC SIMPSONS RECAP, 9/12/2011
Title: “Life on the Fast Lane”, season 1

In this episode, Homer’s typical insensitivity crosses wires with Marge’s attraction to a charming expert bowler named Jacques. As Marge agrees to take one-on-one bowling lessons from Jacques, her devotion to her marriage is tested.

The Simpsons has dealt with marital discord on many occasions, but this one is special for a number of reasons. It features Marge in the thrall of temptation, rather than the more obvious choice of Homer. It features the first of many great Albert Brooks guest characters. It is an early highlight from the period when The Simpsons hadn’t quite found its feet. Most of all, it frankly portrays the way that gratitude and passion can fade from a long-running relationship, while reaffirming the forces that can keep it together. Not bad for a show that, at the time, was widely condemned for renouncing family values.

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