Friday, October 31, 2014

Possible Monsters

It's Halloween! So, here's a story about monsters both real and imaginary and discusses where those two intersect.

The scary thing about the night––when I was a child––was that everything seemed so safe. However, I knew that just outside my doors, walls, and windows lurked evil that didn’t appreciate the calm and quiet that otherwise seemed ready-made to put me to sleep. There was a night when I was eleven years old, and it was probably a Friday, and my new friend, Josh, was sleeping over for the weekend for the first time. Back then, in the family room––as we called it––there used to be two faux-leather couches pushed up against perpendicular walls, meeting in the corner. The family room was where the TV and VCR and NES were, so it was the natural place for eleven year-olds to set up camp on a Friday night so they could resume their activities early the next morning, free from the memory of spending half of the day in school.

We camped on a couch each, our feet pointing to the corner and we lay swaddled in our sleeping bags staring, in the dark, up at the specks of glitter embedded in the popcorn ceiling. I was raised in this house, so the creaks and thumps of nightly settling were silent to me. If anything, it was a spongy quietude––no sound except for the very occasional passing car seemed to escape into the air––but we weren’t going to let that stop us.

After an evening of playing as 8-bit heroes slaying supernatural monsters and watching movies with actors doing the same, our early conversations floated around that subject. When we exhausted that topic and its surrounding scenarios, all we had left was the personal.

In the pauses, I stared at the ceiling and the thoughts––as they usually did––of the evil men possibly outside my house, walking the streets, driving in cars, shopping in stores in plain sight, entered my mind. There was a reason for this. My mother was the first female correctional counselor at the local medium-security men’s prison, and her early years there––amplified after her divorce from my father––bore much in the way of blatant threats and their associated hardships. These became serious enough that I was trained from the time I began speaking in the ways of making myself known were a man attempting to abduct me. When I had enough strength of limb, I was taught how to get free from unwanted holds or assaults. I was indoctrinated into the mindset of distrust––to stay away from adults I wasn’t related to, who taught me at school, or wore a badge. Those were the noises I heard at night––the threatening sounds of possibility. Possible footsteps outside my window. Possible cars parking across the street and watching. Possible knocks on my windows and walls. My monsters were possible.

In the company of friends––especially in the excitement of a new friend––those fears evaporated and the frightful silence became the comfortable quiet, except in those occasional pauses.

But, eventually, my nerves got the better of me. So, at one point, I asked Josh, “What scares you at night?”

“Normal stuff, I guess,” he said. He held a short breath in thought and added, with an exhale, “Ghosts, mostly.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve read about hauntings and poltergeists. There are a bunch of stories like that and it’s pretty weird, especially if they find out how some of those ghosts died.”

“Totally,” I said, though not really sure of his point.

“What are you scared of?” he asked.

I wanted to say monsters and ghosts, but they were never real to me. That doesn’t make me especially smart or special, my fears were still those of a child’s rather illogical worries. But in the face of the possible, I sorted out that the unexplainable is only possible in imagination––something that can be controlled. So, I told Josh that I was scared of someone breaking in, of taking me and my mother, of being threatened inside the doors and walls and windows of my own home with a gun. He told me that was scary, too. I hope he held my illogical nighttime fears with as much weight as I held his––in the realm of the severely unlikely.

These worries have, for the most part, faded as I’ve aged, but I feared that my mostly illogical childhood anxieties have been reinforced as of late. I’ve realized over time that, because I’m male and white, I actually don’t have much to fear, and I can’t deny that shamefully comforts me––those creaks and thumps have also gone silent because, for some reason, society prefers people that look like me. But these possible monsters that haunted my night’s mind I fear are all too real for too many people, people that don’t look like me, people that care about video games and comics just as much as I do––who have done so for their entire lives––who love the things that kept us apart from the norm for so long. We were all children who loved these things alone, slowly finding others like us and rejoicing in this secret treasure that nobody else knew about. But only if everybody else did know, how different the world would be.

Now, we live in that world where everybody does know and these things from our youth are held up as proud pieces of our culture, and it sickens me to see the treatment that some of us who remember that secret joy receive. It angers me. It frightens me.

It’s scary because these monsters look like me, and, for a majority of their day, are probably good and productive people. But to confront a new point of view with the threats of murder, threats of rape, threats of doing harm to them and their family, to post heir personal information publicly against their will and to do it anonymously––that’s monstrous, much more frightening than any creature of myth or imagination.

So, I wonder how many people––people that may look different or hold different views, values, or predilections than I––will go to bed tonight and, in the silence ready-made to put them to sleep, will instead be afraid of the possible evil outside their houses, walking the streets, driving the cars, shopping in stores in plain sight.

And I’ll try to sleep knowing that––this whole time––there have been monsters among us, and I hope that one does not lurk inside me.


Happy Halloween, everybody. Be good to each other because we're all just people in the end.

To lighten the mood, here is a drawing I did of a spooky creature I had a dream about a few years ago. Let it haunt your dreams, too.

A spooky shadow creature from a dream. Brush pen, 2012.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Balancing the Adjectives

My introduction to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not very different from many people in my generation. The 1987 cartoon took the world by storm and established, in the minds of many the show was aimed at, what the turtles are and/or should be. However, I was quickly unimpressed by the cartoon, but I enjoyed the toys quite a bit. However, being caught up in the moment, I did try to get my hands on as much TMNT merchandise as possible. It was in 1989 when I was in a local open-air mall's Waldenbooks and found a colorized compilation of the first three issues of the original comic (plus two side stories), collected and published by First Publishing. Its earnestness blew me away. It was a dark, interesting, and challenging vision of the turtles and I tried to share it with as many people as possible. Many shrugged it off, though, and I felt like I had found a gift from an alternate reality, one where creators took the turtles as seriously as I wanted to take them. It wasn’t really until the 1990 live-action movie when “my” turtles congealed as a very handsome mix between the comics (speaking to its tone, story, and artistic awareness) and the cartoon (in terms of the personalities, April as a reporter, the pizza, the bad jokes). But the turtles––and their world as presented by that movie––felt believable, and I approach any iteration of the TMNT franchise looking for that kind of balance, not only between the two iterations, but of the adjectives of the title.
My ratty & well-worn copies of the First Publishing editions.
When it comes to story, I’m a “character guy,” and my biggest criticism of the comic is that the turtles are very mature and focused and there really isn't much diversity between them in terms of character and wants and needs and flaws, etc. The brothers are basically a single unit and serious exploration of their individual inner lives isn't really explored until fairly well into the comic’s run (well, volume IV of the First Publishing editions). Sure, the cartoon's personalities were over the top and dumb, but they established a precedent and did approach these characters in a way that the comics didn't too often: they were teenagers. The turtles in the comics were basically the stoic, strong-jawed, bared-teeth superheroes that they were created to parody. The fact that the cartoon really is the first time that they opened up the teenager aspect of the franchise must be reason enough to give it credit––if not much, because better creators in better times would explore that aspect much better. But if I missed anything from the cartoon while reading the comic, it was that diversity of character, even if it made up for that lack in other ways.

When I say I’m a “character guy”, what I mean is that as long as a character is intriguing, hinting at an inner life (or strife) and has a satisfying arc, then I often don’t care about the surrounding story because the character is, at least, believable, sympathetic, and engaging. If the character is good, I will gladly watch an action scene or a simple shot of the character talking to friends around a table. Perhaps this is why I have no problem sitting through The Postman (though, even I can’t help but groan a bit at the schmaltzy third act), or why I can easily look past the French-Canadian accent of Christopher Lambert’s immortal Scottish Highlander, or even sit through a total of ten hours and thirteen minutes of Transformers movies because I can’t wait for the next time Optimus Prime shows up on screen.

It’s because of this reason why I was mostly content to sit through Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Hand-picked by the movie’s Executive Producer, Michael Bay, Liebesman’s turtles could have easily lost me (as they, without even seeing the movie, seemingly did to many TMNT fans): they look drastically different from pretty much every other interpretation; they have a convenient origin story around which the movie’s plot revolves, and it’s even more ridiculous than the previous “canon” as established by the original comics and/or the original cartoon; they have super-powers; and their visuals are completely computer-generated. Many of these complaints echo what entitled nerds were screaming simply at the reveal of their designs, months before the movie came out (at least they become more justified after the release of the movie). However, none of those things have to do with character. That list is made up of simple points of fact and are not indicative of how they behave, how they interact, and what their flaws and strengths are.
This is titled, "Leonardo Leads." It's from an
unfinished series of "Sad Turtle" drawings.
These points of fact are malleable anyway and have shifted, moved, and changed––sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly––throughout every iteration of the franchise. Aside from having mutated turtles that are ninja who live in a New York sewer and who have a rat as a teacher and father-figure––everything else is pretty much up for grabs and has been constantly changed and revised because there is no continuity, there are only reboots or adaptations. The only aspect that has been added to the canon since those basics were established in the original comic is the individual personalities of each turtle: Leonardo should be the good son, Raphael should be the contrarian hothead, Michelangelo is the goofball, and Donatello is the nerd. These characteristics weren’t really nailed down until the cartoon, however.

So, if a finger must be pointed at the first major offender, then we would have to put the original cartoon on the pyre and watch it burn. They made some drastic and––if put through the lens of today’s standards––outright blasphemous changes from the comic, and not all of it was simply to make it more palatable to a children’s television audience. For example, why did Splinter have to be a human who was mutated into a rat? In the comic, he was always a rat. Why are the turtles unhealthily attached to pizza? Pizza was nowhere in the comic. The comic was serious––R-rated, even. The people who loved the original cartoon lambasted the 1990 live-action film for being too different from the cartoon, though it shared much more with the original comic than the cartoon ever did (editor’s note: an additional 1500 words were removed from this Boast because I went off on a defense of this original live-action movie; you’re welcome). You could call these changes adaptation for whatever the current market is (and, to be honest, that is at the very heart of the franchise if you go back to the Eastman & Laird parodic creation of the comic itself), or you could just chalk it up to creative people trying to make this very strange concept work in their heads.

For me, I only had one criteria (aside from the few facts that needed to be met, as outlined above): before they are teenagers, before they are mutants, before they are ninjas, and before they are turtles, they are brothers. They can have super-powers, they can go into space, they can be April’s former pets, but when the story gets going and they are the Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael that we expect, they must behave as if they have known each other since birth––raised together, gotten mad at each other, supported each other, blamed accidents on each other, lied to each other, pranked each other, praised each other, and get excited for each other. Above everything else, this is a need for me with the turtles. If one gets hurt in a fight, and another asks, “Are you okay,” it shouldn’t be said in the way that Captain America would say it to Iron Man. They should be severely worried, they should have a strong emotional bond that only siblings have––that’s what makes them more than a team of heroes gathered together to fight a common enemy: they fight together because they have to protect their family because they’re all they’ve got.

More than that, I want to see this play out in their downtime. The first live-action movie illustrated this beautifully. There’s a lot of horseplay, joking around, petty sucker punches, and honest, believable tenderness toward each other. In the first live-action movie, we get a nice long scene that takes place on a farm as they wait for an unconscious Raphael to recuperate from a severe beating. A guilt-ridden Leonardo waits by his brother’s side day after day, his head hanging in sorrow. When Raphael awakens, Leonardo and Raphael embrace in an earnest emotional moment. In an attempt to inject some brevity in the emotionally heavy scene, from off-screen, Donatello quips, “It’s a Kodak moment,” which gets everybody laughing and, in a natural and familial way, brings everything back to normal.
"Donatello Does Machines"
In the new movie, a few scenes really showcase their brotherly attitudes. In a scene I’ve been calling the “Shushing” scene, the turtles have sneaked out of their lair to fight some bad guys against the advice of their father, Splinter. They were successful, but––as they returned home––were worried about Splinter finding out about their absence. So, using their ad-hoc ninja training, they sneak back into the sewers with the hope of being unseen and unheard. As they get close, someone’s foot makes a sound and the nearest brother shushes the offender. In response, the first brother shushes back. Another brother shushes the first two who gets shushes in response. Pretty soon it’s a gyre of shushes that feels like the annoying one-upmanship of a group of siblings strapped in the backseat of a car on a road trip. When Liebesman takes advantages of those moments, the movie shines and allows me to stay on board through the trainwreck that is the story of the movie.

For all the things the new movie got “wrong”––and I mean in the sense of narrative choices and basic storytelling––it gets the turtles so very right. Even the most cynical of TMNT fans can’t deny that Leo is Leo, Raph is Raph, and so forth, and not simply because of the color of their bandanas. At many points (and the director had no onus to follow it), Liebesman drives home the fact that these are four brothers that are in over their heads, and amid the conspiracy, action, and violence, they are struggling to find their individuality among the unit that their father has trained them to be (as expected, the story partly revolves around Raphael storming off in a huff, saying he quits the team). To that end, the story resolves itself nicely, albeit inside a very ridiculous moment that has its own problems.

The new Ninja Turtles movie tries to be much more than it should be––and if there’s anything to blame Michael Bay for (there’s not), it’s that. It tries to be bombastic and big, but that misses the heart of what the turtles are and shines when they are that their best. In a world of action movies that focuses on fast cars, nigh-abstract CGI, paper-thin plots, and overly-long run times, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about family, and even with all the bloat that the new movie has, it succeeds because, somewhere along the way, someone remembered that.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Chasing ComicCon

Despite its continuing popularity, many die-hard comic book fans decry the state of the modern San Diego ComicCon as a trophy that has lost its luster, that it is not what it once was and embodies people, products, and values that are alien to the core comic book community.  The most popular panels are about movies instead of comic books, as are most of the signings and merchandise booths.  At least the big movies at ComicCon are “comic book movies,” though that hasn’t stopped casts of major motion picture releases or television shows––those who don’t have any ties to comics at all––from making appearances, creating long lines, and demanding a panel in the venerable Hall H.  The argument boils down to the fact that ComicCon only values the last syllable of its name.  While, in many ways, that is absolutely true, in my own San Diego ComicCon experiences, the drift away from comics was what the experience was all about.

I went to the San Diego ComicCon twice, in a row, but it was back when I was a teenager in 1994 and 1995, and I had no idea what to expect.  It was a big deal back then, no doubt, but it was a different kind of big deal than it is now, having completely redefined the term in the interim. However, at its heart, the convention operates on the same guiding principles: meet your idols, buy stuff you don’t need, and also get free stuff you don’t need.  The first year I went, I only did so for the most obvious goal: to have books signed by my hero, Image Comics founder and penciller extraordinaire, Jim Lee.  I was 13 the first year I went, so I certainly had no money to spend on wares––I also was under the self-deprecating ideal that any of the “important” comics that I wanted I would never be able find at a price I could afford.  It was only until I got there that I realized the third guiding principal––free stuff––was a thing at all, but that was a bonus and never a reason to drive the six hours every year.

In 1994, the Image Comics revolution was about as big as it could get and I proudly joined that movement, having followed Jim Lee from Marvel’s X-Men to his creator-owned X-Men-adjacent title, WildC.A.T.s.  I played the dutiful acolyte, standing in line.  It took two hours, and with every step my excitement crested and waned as the optimistic aspect of my personality wrestled with the defeatist.  By the time I got to Jim Lee, my psyche was exhausted and all I could do was hand him books with a shaky hand and ask questions, none of which I really remember.

Presenting Jim Lee with the mystery card.
Earlier that year, I had written a letter to his studio––called Homage Studios and is located in La Jolla, CA, a posh part of San Diego county––asking if I could get a tour of it with a friend as we would be in San Diego visiting relatives.  Like sunlight cutting through storm clouds, I received a letter in return from one of the writers at the studio who politely refused my self-invitation but who said they would be at the convention later in the year.  A few months later, I received a trading card in the mail in an envelope with a La Jolla return address but no name and no letter explaining what it was or why I was receiving it––the card featured a WildC.A.T.s character over a “foil holograph” background.  Taking it as a sacred gift from the comic book powers above, I purchased a hard-shell plastic case in which it still sits fully protected.  The card was among the books I brought to have Jim Lee sign, and once the books were out of the way, I pulled out the card, still in its case, and handed it to him, asking why he thought I may have gotten it as I did so.

I wanted desperately for him to reveal that it was akin to Wonka’s golden ticket and it meant that I was chosen from millions for bigger and better things, an heir to be trained for rule...over comics.  Instead, Jim Lee did his best to come up with an answer that wasn’t just, “I don’t know,” and, as he did so, fumbled with the card in its hard plastic case.  Failing to open it and needing to move things along, with a few flicks of his wrist, he signed the case and handed it back to me and thanked me for stopping by.
The spoils of my ComicCon (the card is still in storage somewhere).
I left the line and was ushered back onto the con floor, holding a small pile of signed books and a  very valuable plastic trading card case.  After my friend got his stuff signed, we just wandered the floor trying to feel our limbs again.  Eventually, we crossed in front of a vendor who had a large television playing a cartoon that I had never seen before.  VHS tapes with poorly photocopied covers lined his table.  Most of the spines were written in Japanese, but a few titles popped out that caught our attention: Ninja Ryukenden (Ninja Gaiden), Samurai Spirits (Samurai Shodown [sic]), Fatal Fury, Final Fantasy: The Legend of the Crystals.

“That Final Fantasy series is a good one,” the heavy-breathing man behind the counter said.

“What is it?” my friend and I asked.

“It’s a cartoon based on Final Fantasy.”

Being rather familiar with the franchise, we asked the most logical question.

“Which one?”

“Which one what?”

“Which Final Fantasy is it based on?”

He paused.

“I don’t know,” he said, and that rhetoric was good enough for us (for what it's worth, it is a loose sequel to the events of Final Fantasy V).
High "quality" reproductions.
The price was right and we bought a pile of garage-translated tapes, discovering the world of anime in the process.  Back then, there was no publicly available anime aside from Akira and a slew of series like Ranma 1/2 or Record of Lodoss War, but they were always rented out or, with regard to series, they never seemed to have complete sets and the only real exposure kids my age had to Japanese animation were the strange Frankensteinian monsters that were Voltron or Robotech.  They were, however, awesome.  After that first year at ComicCon, however, we had an in.  After getting home and consuming all the tapes we purchased––and making copies for each other––the next year was marked by a countdown to a return to ComicCon all with a singular goal in mind: to buy more anime.

Almost as soon as I walked away from Jim Lee’s table clutching my signed books the curtains of comic book fandom closed behind me.  I had achieved more than I had ever thought was possible––I had climbed the mountain and returned with tablets marked with the words of god himself (in my teenage eyes).  Any further goals I could have crafted for myself as a comic book fan would only be shadow puppets in comparison.  In that vacuum, however, ComicCon filled the void.  It’s not an encampment to keep the heathens out.  It is a place to gather and see what else our faith can consume, which is what makes the modern ComicCon so impressive––our faith has consumed the entire world.

ComicCon may have grown and changed from what it was in the past; it may have even become an event that we feel doesn’t welcome us anymore.  But––back in the fabled “good old days”––I took from ComicCon what I wanted, but it was also there for me when I needed it, and now I see that the whole world wants what I had because they realize that the heart of ComicCon is not comics, or movies, or television shows, or toys––it’s about getting what you want and finding what you need, even if you didn’t know you were looking for it .  At its best, ComicCon is a transformative experience so many people are chasing because that’s what they heard it could be, and they heard that from people like us.  I can’t argue with that, and I can’t discourage it even if it’s not somewhere I want to be anymore.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Completing the Circle: The Role of the Audience in Fiction

Picture this:  A dream-like fantasy world––not unlike something you’d imagine from a children’s book––becomes the victim of a devastating catastrophe.  What’s left is little more than hunks of earth, adorned with scraps of vegetation and ruins of homes and castles floating in space.  Survivors are few, but they know––as part of their history, mythology, or religion––that their world can only be brought back to life through the mystical, restorative will of something pronounced “Bass-chyuhn.”

For some of you––probably gamers of the recent era––this synopsis may remind you of the 2011 Supergiant Games release, Bastion.  A post-apocalyptic action-adventure game, the player controls a character simply known as “The Kid,” a youthful adventurer   who lives in a world of suspended ruin, literally.  Pieces of the world that used to be float in space, seemingly unconnected like leaves in a pond.  What’s interesting about the game is two-fold: first, the game is narrated as you play by another character in the game.  The narration is kind of dynamic, responding to how the player controls The Kid as well as revealing story.  Second, but related, is that the world only exists as your character exists; where he stands is all that is real.  For example, at the outset, The Kid wakes up in his bed in a room, which is just a bed on a rock with half a wall and a doorway just floating in the middle of nothingness.  The player can see other floating islands in the background, all at different depths, in different sizes.  The player moves the control stick which causes The Kid to get out of bed and as you guide him up and out through the door the ground literally rises up underneath his steps in disparate pieces, creating a path only as you move forward on it.  It’s an unsettling feeling at first, but you quickly get used to it, especially when creepy creatures are trying to do you in.  The crux of the story is that, despite the utter destruction of the world, The Kid is trying to collect fragments of the world to run a machine called The Bastion (a combination of terraformer, time machine, small town, and space ship) which––when fully powered––has the ability to undo the effects of the Calamity––the event that made the world what it is.

The Kid wakes up amid floating ruin. Source: Supergiant Games.
For others, after listening the description at the beginning, it may remind you of the classic 1984 children’s fantasy film, The Neverending Story––the last third, specifically.  The movie is based around a child in our present day finding an old book in a book store called, The Neverending Story.  The viewers watch as he reads the book, which is about a hero, a warrior-boy named Atreyu, trying to save an ill princess and, at the same time, stave off the oncoming cataclysmic event called The Nothing.

Not for lack of trying, Atreyu ultimately fails at the latter part of the to-do list and the fantasy world is left in literal fragments, highlighted by the image of the princess’ castle floating on a lonely bit of land in the vacuum of space, surrounded by other bits of the once beautiful world floating along side it.  Even amid such destruction, the princess assures Atreyu––and the reader of the book––and the viewers of the film––that there was still hope to reverse the effects of The Nothing––in this case, it was an otherworldly entity called Bastian, which happened to be the name of the kid reading the book, a name I’m assuming it’s short for “Sebastian.”  Instead of a floating city––a veritable planet all its own––the child named Bastian is imbued with the willpower to affect Fantasia, the fantasy world in the book he’s reading.  What’s interesting about this is that even though, to us viewers, Bastian is as fictional as Atreyu and the princess, but he represents reality and the fact that the fictional characters of the book he’s reading can’t repair their world––and that only a person in the “real world” can––speaks to the very nature of fiction and narrative itself: the readers are as important to the creation of a story as the writer is.

Fantasia becomes a world of floating ruin.
While I have drawn distinct parallels between these two apocalyptic fictions––and in my research I have seen no overt mention of the movie by the game’s designers––the similarities I found most interesting weren’t the obvious ones, though they are eerie.  Instead, these are fictions about fiction and use absolute destruction and vacuous absence as metaphor for a person’s engagement with fiction––how a reader or viewer actually completes the process that is “fiction.”  Games, like books, when unused sit there on a shelf (or hard drive) and figuratively don’t exist when not in play simply because the whole purpose of a book or video game (or a movie, or an album, etc.) is to be consumed.  Entertainment products are the closest things we have to tangible verbs in the sense that verbs only happen when they’re happening: a runner only runs when she is running, a painter only paints when he is painting.  They are realities conjured by action.  When looking at how this existential dilemma is brilliantly illustrated in the Toy Story movies, it’s not a far reach to think that, were things like books or video games sentient, they would be fighting night and day against this sense of non-existence––call it The Calamity, in the case of Bastion (the video game), or The Nothing, in the case of The Neverending Story.

This is my suspicion.
What this means for the player or reader is that consuming entertainment is not completely a passive act.  The books you love don’t exist as you know them until your eyes glance over the words on the page––only then do those characters exist at all for you and they cease to be when you close the book for the night.  With regard to Bastion and video games, the imagery of the ground flying up to meet your every step is a not-so-subtle metaphor for not only how games are processed internally but that polygons are only really processed at all once the player engages the controller––the real world’s umbilical connection to the virtual world.  The point is that these fantastic worlds don’t just exist because someone wrote them––Emily Dickinson wouldn’t be important at all had her poems not been found locked away in a chest; they would be nothing in the cultural and historical schema otherwise because they weren’t being read––fiction exists in individual bursts of imaginative light, a reaction that occurs when a fiction finds its audience, one by one, keeping it alive like the beat of a heart.

Friday, July 18, 2014

All the Nerdy Things

There’s little doubt that an ironic, meta-appreciation of culture has dominated popular consciousness for almost the entirety of the last decade.  I don’t particularly know when or why this trend started (though I have my hypotheses––the rise of reality tv being the catalyst, mostly), but the prevalence of an ironic self-awareness––or its more biting cousin, sarcasm, or its mean uncle, cynicism––has permeated deeply into nerd culture as well.

Now, chronologically, this spread from popular culture into nerd culture is not a surprise––the emergence of meta-humor shot pretty much along the same trajectory as that of the general acceptance of nerdy and geeky things.  I honestly believe that the two aren’t parallel or share causation insomuch as they collided at some point, an intersection from which they’ve been orbiting each other ever since in a strange, self-aware helix and, in the way most nerds do, we have capitalized on the meta wave almost better than any other facet of pop culture.

I think we’re so good at it because it’s mixed with a hint of earnestness.  When we wear a shirt that has an NES cartridge on it with the caption “Blow Me” or see movies like Snakes on a Plane or read books like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, there is an honest love for the original properties or concepts that motivate us to consume them.  However, we consume all of these with a knowing wink which brings me to the heart of the issue: what does it mean for the nerd community to embrace this trend of ironic humor?  The obvious answer also happens to be very true: it’s funny.  Being funny only goes so far.  Some of the most earnest fiction that’s created with “traditional” nerdy properties are incredibly scrutinized by nerds––remember the simple announcement of Heath Ledger playing the Joker for The Dark Knight and the cloud of Brokeback jokes that were made in response?––but properties that sort of celebrate their traditional nerdiness, waving it almost like a parade banner, are praised and supported with an almost blind devotion (I’m thinking of things like Scott Pilgrim or Red vs. Blue, for example––to an extent, even things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer fit this mold, too).  The fact that I mentioned any of the above properties while making an analysis of nerd culture already has some of you sharpening your claws; some of you may already be challenging my own nerdiness.  But that’s the problem––were do we draw the definition for devoted geekiness?  Does everything that is for “real” nerds now have to be self-aware and a comment on its own genre or culture in order to separate it from the stuff that is no longer “ours”?  At the very least, does everything that used to be “ours” have to be met with a severe skepticism?

What's the honest point of this?

I wonder if the real answer as to why we embrace this meta-approach so readily is a bit more psychological.  The boon of having the Marvel movies and even things like the Transformers movies destroy the box office, or that things like Doctor Who are drawing huge crowds of American teenagers of both genders at conventions is that––as I’ve said before––it allows those of us who have loved these properties––properties which helped us not only have fun, but which have shaped our personalities, world views and, most importantly, our identities––to do so openly and have so many more people to talk to about them.  That’s also the problem, though; the dominance of nerd culture is creating a sort of identity crisis within nerds, and so we retreat into this meta-shell because it keeps us safe from a world that now accepts us.

Ironic meta-humor allows us who were chastised and ostracized in our youths to stay on the “outside,” especially in the face of being forced to share what, at first, separated us from the general public.  Meta-awareness seems to be the more positive side of the “fandom” coin: instead of telling movie and tv show fans that they aren’t real nerds, we can call ourselves nerds and own it before people can use it as an insult.  By showing how aware we are that these are products with motivations, processes, and histories behind them, we are effectively trying to control them by exerting a sense of continued ownership over things that aren’t ours anymore and, more importantly, weren’t ours in the first place even though it felt like it.  The best and simultaneously worst example of this recently being put into practice is the confusing self-awareness of Star Trek Into Darkness.

The world's most nerdy in-joke or touching character moment?

This implies an interesting side effect to our new “nerd culture”––as a nerd who remembers the time when it was bad to be a nerd, many of us are just as defined by that period in our life––by that rejection, if you will––as we were by the things that kept us sane.  And, as is evident by the the geeky prominence in modern popular culture, many of us have worked hard to surmount that rejection and succeed––and, boy, have we done so.  But now we exist in a culture where everybody wants what only we had wanted in our youths and that feeling of having something special, all to ourselves or to share with only a select group of others, is effectively just a piece of history, a “remember when” moment.  We thrived under that burden of nerdiness and geekiness and we strengthened our legs to stand beneath it and now we rule every possible metric.  Naturally, we become perplexed when we find that we are no longer rejected, and it scares us as much as we bask in it.

The embracing of this ironic and self-aware view of movies, tv, comics, books, video games, etc.––all the nerdy things––has become a self-placed Othering, to an extent.  Whether it’s healthy or detrimental, I don’t know because, up until recently, that wasn’t an option.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fighting Dragons

"If your ever want to get out there to fight dragons, you need to stop all...this."

"But you just pointed to all of me."

-From How to Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks, 2010)

A phrase that really bugs me is one usually said in conjunction with any animated film, but especially Pixar: “It has elements that both adults and kids can appreciate.”  Or, as a variation of that, “It has jokes in there only adults will get…”  While not, figuratively, untrue, it’s a bit insulting on a few levels.  First, it’s implying that Pixar makes movies for children and, as a mercy stroke for parents it throws in some subversive winking so that they will have a laugh all for themselves.  Second, it exposes the inherent fallacious thinking that modern American culture has towards animated film––that they’re only for kids.

The first one is a problem because it undermines the types of stories that Pixar wants to tell.  Sure, there are movies that are just for kids and there are movies that are made with more mature audiences in mind, but a majority of movies are just stories anybody can enjoy, as long as it’s a story someone wants to consume, no matter of age, creed, or gender.  Pixar takes advantage of its medium, creating worlds, characters, and visuals that can’t exist in the real world.  They want to tell adventure stories and comedies and fantasy and science fiction stories––none of which require catering to a specific age.

However, as soon as most people see that it’s animated, they assume that something like Wall-E––a very funny, complex, emotional, and thorough science-fiction cultural commentary––is just for kids because the protagonist is appealing, because the music is emotional during emotional scenes, and because the ending is mostly “happy.”  Then again, so are most Steven Spielberg movies.

For years, the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

The American view of entertainment tends toward compartmentalism.  Sometimes––such as with genre divisions of a medium––this allows potential consumers to find entertainment of the exact timbre they desire.  Horror movie fans shouldn’t have to wade through a selection of romantic comedies if they’re in the mood for a fright, for example; hip-hop fans shouldn’t be bombarded with ads for country music albums when listening to Pandora, either.

Overall, I would say that this compartmentalization is a good thing.  However, when new media comes along, they must endure a vetting process, the overarching culture must decide (actively or not) what this new thing is.  An unfortunate anomaly that can form from this process, however, is that a medium can be so mired in a specific type of product that it becomes classified as a genre unto itself.  That is, whatever audience the medium’s popular and successful products seem to be aimed at could, in the eyes of our culture, become the only audience that this medium can satisfy.  With children’s products, especially, this can be damning.

Such is the current fate for any animation in America, despite our best attempts.  Exceptions such as South Park or The Simpsons or any show on Adult Swim are notable but seem to be more niche deviations rather than cultural sea changes for the medium.  This is mostly still the same for comic books despite the average age of a regular buyer ranging somewhere between thirty and forty-five.  Video games were relegated to children as well, but in the last eight years or so they have gone through (or are still going through) a veritable puberty and are much more accepted as the vehicle for a wider variety of audiences.  Without falling into eye-rolling fetishization of European and non-western countries and cultures, the fact is that the United States is one of the few places that still infantilizes media like animation and comic books.

Why The Iron Giant wasn't at least nominated for Best Picture is a travesty to cinema at large.

Legendary animation director, Brad Bird (the mind behind Pixar’s The Incredibles and the brilliant The Iron Giant, among many other wonderful works), has been a vocal advocate trying to get greater American culture to view animation as what it actually is: a medium––a method of visual storytelling––rather than as a genre––a format that dictates audience, tone, and content.  His argument boiled down to the fact that Disney, for decades, was pretty much the only game in town––and they got rich from making all-ages material.  What also helped was that Disney was very good at what they did––their animation was standard-setting––and anybody that tried to tell more mature or complex stories (in America, again) couldn’t approach the material with the same level of quality that Disney brought to the table.  Therefore, any attempts to push the medium forward, culturally, was swept under the rug beneath Disney’s feet at no fault of their own.

Nowadays, however, a bushel of studios are making top notch animated films (and television), but they are still churning out products that are, ostensibly, aimed at younger audiences.  Of the aforementioned infantilized media (animation, comics, and video games), American animation seems firmly locked in its place while the others are arguably “growing up,” and it makes me wonder why.

Years ago, I was hoping with the rise of home video––and especially digital distribution––that the dwindling box office numbers would allow big studios to either a) experiment more with their creativity or b) support the endeavors of the more experimental independent creators.  The internet has basically eliminated the second option and, with the success of things like RealD cinema and the new reign of blockbuster explosion movies such as any Marvel movie or the Transformers, these big-budget investments are what dictates creativity; for animation, that means Pixar-type movies.

Toy Story 3's effective meditation on mortality and friendship.
But it's just a "kid's movie."
Luckily, (for the most part) Pixar does not look content to sit on its duff.  Movies with daring storytelling such as Toy Story 3’s “we’re all going to die” scene, Wall-E’s poignantly lonely and silent opening, and Up’s devastating first ten minutes have shown that American animated films can be as affective as any other movie on the market.  But my hope is that, someday, if people were to categorize Up, their answer wouldn’t be a “kids movie” or an “animated movie” because those terms don’t dictate content.  With the amount of green-screen, CG, and digital replacement, the Star Wars prequels basically count as animated movies, but we don’t count those, for some reason.  The same goes for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Until our culture recognizes how blurred the lines really are between animation and live action, the best I can do is keep waiting for animation’s mile maker like The Last of Us has been for video games or Maus was for comics.  Meanwhile, as adults go watch their R-rated action movies that are really only satisfying the rebellious twelve year-olds that sit quietly in their souls, I’ll gladly go to the next Pixar movie or the next How to Train Your Dragon movie to satisfy the adult in mine that craves sophistication, craft, and story.  And also dragons.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Behind Every Line and Between Every Panel

Comics are an inherently overlooked medium.  I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of cultural appreciation––we have the multi-billion dollar Marvel cinematic universe to prove that isn’t true––I mean as a reader reading comics.  Being overlooked is the point, however.  A thoughtfully crafted page layout naturally guides the eye from one panel to the next, causing your brain to not even notice that the images are static and, perhaps, nonsensical when taken out of context.  Comics rely on the fact that a reader’s brain fills in the gaps between the panels––formally called gutters––with action and camera moves so that the next panel does make sense.  Part of that trick is to give the reader just enough information to get the gist and keep moving.  As you can guess, the artist can easily manipulate this to either slow down or speed up a reader, depending on what the story (or creator) demands.

As quickly as it takes to read a comic, the amount of work that goes into creating not only a book, not only a page, but a panel is painstaking (though, panel composition also involves a lot of instinct, too).  Think of it this way: in a movie, a filmmaker gets twenty-four frames per second to show the viewer a single shot.  Not to be patronizing, but that is, again, twenty-four still images in a single second of on-screen time.  That’s 1,440 still images per minute of film.  Furthermore, a shot in a movie can last a few seconds to a minute or two (or five or ten), which means thousands of still images could come together to show movement and progression of character and story.  A panel is pretty much (with exceptions, of course) the equivalent of a single shot in a film.  Again, not to patronize, but a panel is a single drawing.

What a comic artist has to do is pick the one image from the entire range of possibilities––a range that would normally be shown in film––and pick the exactly right one to do the same thing as an entire shot.  Of course, this isn’t a perfect science, but no matter the level of care or artistry, it is a thoughtful one.  No matter what, a comicker has to boil every panel down to a moment––one that best suits the goals of that panel as well as serves the needs of the page and also serves the needs of the book.  It’s a scary business if you think about it like that and expanding it to a page––trying to capture that perfect image between three and six times per page, sometimes more.  But most readers soar over panels, linking the actions and stories between them naturally and easily so that they see a fully fleshed out movie in their heads, full of foley, dialogue, and background music.

Many comics readers are also artistically inclined and, in the age of easy and cheap internet access, it’s not uncommon for those people to try and make their own comics.  I think, however, that it’s this burden of a panel that stops many amateur or independent comics from finishing.  Some seem to stop right after they start because of the realization that each panel can’t just look cool.  Panels mean so much more than that; they involve much more thought than that.  Every artist, I believe, hits that wall when they realize that drawing a single panel is very hard work for something that they know and depend that the reader breeze right over.  If the average reader doesn’t take in a panel with a single glance, understand it, and move on, then it’s likely you’re doing it wrong, and that’s scary to accept.

I am, by no means, a professional comicker (I may not even be a good one), though I am a thoughtful one.  However, even that doesn’t mean I cheat when drawing a panel or get lazy every now and then and cook up a pose or angle I know will work or is simply easy to draw.  Most importantly, I know I’m still learning.  For some reason, I’ve decided to share that learning curve and its process with the world as my webcomic, Long John, hits the world-wide web.

I have some confidence already––having gone through a lot of public growing pains for the six years I co-wrote and drew Eben07––but this time Long John is all me, standing up creatively for myself for the first time ever.  It’s a powerful moment, even if it ends up being a total disaster (which it won’t be––at worst it’ll be read by few readers: me and my mom).  Before this, I only created in partnerships with other talented friends.  But partnerships are ultimately temporary things as people grow and goals for creativity and life change.  Through all that, I’ve studied and learned through all the ups and downs, searching for the right moment to become the artist I want to be.  And that starts with Long John for all its strengths and flaws (of which it will have many).

However it may look, I’m not begging for readers or looking for sympathy because I think too hard about making comics or am having actualizing breakthroughs in my creative life.  All I want, with hope, is that you’ll just read each update and ask, “Where’s the next one?”––overlooking the fear, sweat, thought, and intention behind every line and between every panel.  Because that’s how comics are supposed to be.

This is a text version of the audio segment "Boasts of Bethel" from the weekly nerd/geek-centric podcast, A Podcast [ , ] For All Intents and Purposes.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Getting to the Point

This Boast is framed around Game of Thrones and does not discuss content; so, there are no spoilers contained herein.

I like the Game of Thrones tv show more than A Song of Ice and Fire––the book series its based on––for a variety of reasons.  First, each book has a page length that, at this point, can only be measured in scientific notation.  At this point in my life, I have taken a firm stance and won’t read books over three-hundred pages (though exceptions can occur)––I’ve got too much else to do and my stupid brain isn’t able to remember that much story.  Second (though related to the first), the ten episodes (at one hour each) that make up each season is the perfect amount for me to not only consume and still have time left in my day but to also remember everything that’s going on.  I have my quibbles about the show, sure, but on the whole I enjoy it quite a bit.

But don’t tell me to read the books, especially because they’re “better.”  Of that I have no doubt.  It is a fact that tv shows are terrible books because, by definition, tv shows are not books.  However, the reverse is also true.

Nerds’ slavish devotion to source material puts us into a strange quandary––we are super excited that our beloved stories and characters are getting adapted to other media––and, moreover, they’re super successful––but we also become obsessive hair-splitters who feel the need to declare that one version (usually the original) is superior to the other (usually the adaptation).  I had to stop doing that because I wanted to actually enjoy these adaptations––especially when they’re good.  My first major encounter with this “disappointment” was with Brian Singer’s first X-Men movie.  Namely, how characters were shifted around in terms of relationships and ages for reasons that didn’t seem to make sense.  The biggest offender in this regard was the character of Rogue who, in the comics, was the same age as most of the main cast and even had intimate relations with Magneto for awhile.  For the movie, they basically made her a mixture of Jubilee (i.e., Wolverine’s teenage apprentice) and Kitty Pride (i.e., the new student at the school who is initially wary of being a mutant).

Though I enjoyed the movie because, in terms of general characterization, Singer got the X-Men right, I made sure to note that it differed from the comics drastically (I am proud to say that I never cared about the lack of comic-inspired costumes, however).  What turned me around was when I thought back to the X-Men cartoon from the ‘90s––another adaptation I was incredibly excited about.  The series was extraordinarily faithful to the comics despite some dodgy animation and I remember being so excited for each episode to start on Saturday mornings that I couldn’t sit still.  However, the feeling that dominates my memories of the show is mostly boredom.  I eventually stopped watching it about halfway into season 3.  It remained incredibly faithful and was even doing some direct adaptations of stories from the comics, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care.  I realized that the show was too close to the comics, that I had already consumed this content but through a different medium––so why would I want to see it on tv if I have the comics in a longbox?

Great artistic expressions are made by artists––that is, people who are adept at expressing themselves in a particular medium.  A great comic book storyteller does not necessarily make a great film director or screenwriter (re: Frank Miller’s Will Eisner’s The Spirit)––a great director makes a movie great.  If properties are being adapted into other media, I’d much rather see an artist of that medium approach the work so that the adaptation will mean something on its own and to not simply be “the movie version” or “the tv version.”  Such requirements diminish the importance of the source material when being adapted.  I point to things like the Hellboy movies––the second one, especially, feels right at home in Guillermo Del Toro’s oeuvre.  I point to The Walking Dead––both the tv show and Telltale’s episodic video game series.  I point to Darwyn Cooke’s Parker graphic novels.  I point to Game of Thrones.

All of these adaptations are done right––they focus on making a good example of the medium which is neither a “dumbing down” of a property to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, nor a point-for-point recreations of the originals.  They want to make a good movie, game, comic, or television show first rather than just make the source material dance like a marionette.  What makes a good book does not make a movie good.  A good adapter knows that and works with the ideas, themes, and characters of the source material to make them as viable to the new medium as they were to the original.  To do that may require changes, however, but if those changes are made out of the same desire to tell a good story––the same motivation as the original creator––then it should yield good results.  Differences don’t make things bad––that’s called bigotry.  Differences are just different, and as a fan it’s important to ask why––not just in terms of the story, but in terms of the medium.

The truth is the correlation between adaptations and their source material is more akin to alternate universes than family relationships.  They rarely feed off on one another, especially once they get going.  The choices one makes neither adversely nor, necessarily, favorably affects the other.  They are separate entities and should be viewed that way.  I’m sure the A Song of Ice and Fire novels have much more complexity and intricacy in terms of plot and character; I understand that.  Game of Thrones, for a tv show, is just as wonderfully complex and dynamic––compared to other tv shows.  And though A Song of Ice and Fire fans have been clamoring eagerly for book 6 in the series for three years––a book which will hold much more information and story than the tv show could ever muster––I’m comforted by the fact that I know I only have to wait a year for season 5.

This was originally published at

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Making Wishes

Console-based video game fans are in a strange state right now.  In the virtual vacuum between console generations and good games, we tend to become very loud in our uneasiness.  When Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles––the Playstation 4 and XBox One, respectively––hit the market last November, the reigning console generation––being comprised of Sony’s Playstation 3 (PS3), Microsoft’s XBox 360, and Nintendo’s Wii––had lasted eight years, the longest console cycle modern gaming had seen.  The previous generation’s viability is unprecedented, though, because amazing games that pushed unforeseen limits of these machines were being released right up to the end.  The PS3 and 360’s long lifespan consistently upended modern console gaming by setting new standards and growing despite being, ostensibly, the same hardware throughout that time.  Everything from the rise of the first-person shooter (FPS) and the open world to the necessity of on-line multiplayer, from cover systems and branching trees of “morality” to the acceptance of smaller, independent games––the definition of modern gaming kept getting re-written despite the technology staying the same.  What’s important is that this redefinition happened organically over time; certain games, for some reason, were able to pierce the walls of expectations and technological limitations and forced everybody else to jump onto that train.  Before this generation, the defining moments were limited to perhaps one or two major upheavals per console.  By virtue of the fact that this generation lasted so long is impressive in its own right, but it does set a precedent that game-changers (pun intended) need to happen often.

The console gaming culture endured so many sea changes during the previous generation that when the new consoles were announced an interesting phenomenon occurred; the community began trying to codify what “next gen” gaming was, a tendency that became amplified after their release.  This tends to center around the tired “which console is better” debate, and people who have already picked sides end up just yelling at each other.  Some of this discussion focuses around technical aspects of the new consoles––that is, what’s under the hood and how games perform in terms of frame rate and resolution.  Microsoft itself tried to define the future by incorporating a gordian-like integration with a customer’s cable tv into the XBox One.  All of this empty rhetoric feels about as respectable and respectful as a dogfight because frame rate does not make a good game, neither does resolution, or graphics, or the controller, or the manufacturer.  What’s ignored in all of this is the emotional and cultural resonance the experience of a truly revolutionary game has when it hits the community.  Think of Super Mario Bros., or Sonic the Hedgehog, or Metal Gear Solid, or Shadow of the Colossus, or Halo.  These games are among the pantheon of gaming experiences and industry turning points because they felt like they mattered.

Combine those expectations with the first round of games that the new consoles are seeing: most are just higher resolution versions of games that are also available for the previous generation; the exclusive new console games seem to be merely more powerful iterations of games that could be released on the older consoles, though, obviously, not as impressive.  Many are sequels in franchises started in the previous generation.  Aside from barely exploiting the technical advances, these games––so far––are offering nothing truly new.  But I don’t think that’s a problem.  As with any generation, innovation comes with comfort.  The new consoles are just that, and the frames needs to settle before they feel like home for developers and players.  However, the question is continually asked:  when are we going to see some next gen games?

I think that’s the wrong question, however.  It’s short-sighted and hubristic.  It’s not a matter of when they are released––it’s not like they’re being hoarded.  The question to ask is, “what are next gen games?”  The best and scariest part is that we won’t really be able to answer that question until this young generation of consoles ages and is ready to be put to pasture.  No matter how much a person can learn about the technology or study the past, the simple truth is that we don’t know what will come to define this generation of gaming because the needs of gamers change with the society that they live in.  Making predictions is just making wishes.

The defining characteristics will come with time, out of the blue, and will change the scene around them.  It’ll do what Gears of War, Uncharted, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Assassin’s Creed, Portal, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Braid (among many, many others) did for this generation.  Trying to assert what “next gen” gaming is now is like proclaiming that a baby is going to be president.  More disturbingly, if you are trying accurately to define what next gen gaming is right now, then you are depriving yourself of the most enjoyable part of playing games: discovery.

As gamers, we need to let ourselves be surprised again, to allow ourselves to walk into the future blind and just play games that developers want to make.  To force definitions on the industry only creates undue pressure; that’s why we get an Assassin’s Creed game and a Call of Duty game every year.  That’s why Rock Band and Guitar Hero don’t exist anymore.  They became exhausted properties because they gave us what we thought we wanted, and they thought what we wanted was not innovation and progress.  But then a LIMBO, Brothers, or The Last of Us shows up and proves that we don’t know anything.  And then, for a few brief moments, the yelling stops because we’re too busy having fun again.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Godzilla Fhtagn

One of the questions fans of weird writer, H. P. Lovecraft, are always asking revolves around “faithful” cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. There are a few that ardent fans can get behind, such as the very literal adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu” by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society––but, then again, it was a 90-minute, black and white, silent film adaptation meant to mimic the types of films available at the time the story was published, in the late twenties.  But it is quite a literal re-telling of the famous story and, for all the nested narratives and low-budget aesthetic, it’s a pretty good time.  On the whole, specific film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work are more up to a viewer’s personal taste than cinematic quality.  It’s hard to balance what fans tend to want––a majority of which want a horror film––and what Lovecraft was trying to do––to create a sense of reflective, psychological terror.

The thesis Lovecraft stuck to over the course of his short but prolific career focused on the idea of cosmicism––that humanity is rather small and ineffective in its place within the universe––and, through his admiration for writers like Poe, Chambers, and Blackwood, tried to alternately find the horror and the terror in such a concept.  The distinction between the two goals is that horror tries to frighten its audience either with monsters, action, gore, frightening scenarios, etc.; and terror is the sinking, hopeless, and helpless feeling generated by the content or theme of the story; that is, even if a story itself is not horrific, it can be terrifying.  Though Lovecraft is known for his tentacled monsters, overwritten prose, and not-so-subtle racism, what he excels at––and why he’s remembered––is that there is really no better place to go for a story about cosmic insignificance that’ll warp your dreams even if you don’t find his story particularly effective.

Because Lovecraft is so focused on crafting an oeuvre that explores the realm of humanity’s inefficacy––and how humanity deals with that––not a lot happens in his stories and his characters aren’t that interesting.  Lovecraft’s most famous monsters are, for lack of a better explanation, unavoidable natural disasters.  They are natural creations of the universe but on a much larger scale than humanity can even comprehend.  So, even though Cthulhu’s general image is of an overgrown destroyer of cities, Lovecraft makes it clear that it’s not out of malice, noting in “The Call of Cthulhu” that Cthulhu and his kind are “free and wild and beyond good and evil[.]”  Everything Lovecraft writes serves this theme.  In that sense, his stories are more akin to preaching than engaging fiction.  Aside from a few stories––“The Dunwich Horror,” “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and perhaps “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” being the notable exceptions were they to have the director, writer, and budget behind them––Lovecraft’s stories work best as prose and not as literal translations into other media.  We know because it has been tried since the sixties.

Like a good sermon, however, his themes are infinitely applicable.  This is why I would argue Lovecraft is not as culturally viable as fiction which is Lovecraftian.  For what they do more than for what they are, Lovecraft’s ideas can excel in other forms other than written prose only when those creators take that philosophy and do something unique and engaging with it.  Standouts include John Carpenter’s The Thing (yes, it is based on a novella by HPL contemporary, John W. Campbell, but the close connections between Campbell and HPL and of his novella “Who Goes There?” and “At the Mountains of Madness” makes for some interesting research), Ridley Scott’s Alien, Frank Darabont’s The Mist, and the Joss Whedon project of The Cabin in the Woods, but none are literal, nominal, nor ostensible adaptations of Lovecraft’s work; they are all imbued with his sense of cosmic indifference, though, something which makes movies that, while often horrifying, terrify their viewers long after the credits roll.

Another worthy addition to that list of fine Lovecraftian films is Gareth Edward’s Godzilla.  The movie has been generally divisive, especially among Godzilla fans, of which I don’t necessarily consider myself a member.  But I’m not arguing about whether it’s a good Godzilla movie––though I think it is.  My Godzilla credentials are limited.  The only legitimate Godzilla film I’ve seen is the redundant American release of the 1954 original.  Despite the strange narrative approach, the social commentary of the movie is profound even sixty years later.  I don’t think it hurts to say that rubber monsters slapping each other doesn’t interest me very much––there’s a reason why most Godzilla and Godzilla-like movies are fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000––and the original Godzilla is not that at all.  The creature is a walking metaphor, a theme on stubby legs which represents man’s hubris at playing with science it didn’t truly understand.  The creature is a lurking Japanese memory of the war, of foreign catastrophe and, perhaps, even guilt.  Despite being a man in a rubber suit, the original Godzilla is a wholly appropriate post-war statement.  One which breathes fire.

Going into Edward’s Godzilla, I secretly yearned for a Godzilla that meant something rather than just a two-hour wink-nudge to kaiju fans.  Luckily, even though this Godzilla is drastically different in story, origin, and scope from its predecessors, it is a Godzilla for the modern age.  More personally important, it makes Godzilla a Lovecraftian force of nature.

 The ties between Godzilla and Cthulhu aren’t strained: a creature that sleeps at the bottom of the ocean, to surface indeterminately and cause wanton destruction is an apt description of both creatures.  More than that, however (and where this Godzilla departs from its original incarnation), is that this creature is divorced from humanity completely.  No longer is Godzilla a by-product of human ignorance; Godzilla belongs to a time before man, an earthly inhabitant arguably more native to the planet than humanity’s claim to it.  More than that––bad writing aside––Godzilla and its ilk in the new movie are unpredictable and unstoppable forces of nature; to them, humanity means nothing.  This Godzilla doesn’t pick sides because it is neither “good” nor “bad”; it is, as Lovecraft said, a “free and wild” creature which is “beyond good and evil” because it is not recognize humanity’s moral constructs––rules that we created to get a long with each other, not with nature.

Like any Great Old One, a viewer would wonder if Godzilla even really notices the humanity it stumbles over; perhaps it sees so much change between its periods of consciousness that it just assumes buildings and elevated train tracks are this era’s forested hillsides.  That is what matters, though; we don’t know (though the movie does let us down by having Ken Watanabe correctly guess everything, which is dumb).  And in that ignorance, in that incomprehensible modus operandi, Godzilla becomes undeniably Lovecraftian because not only does humanity not seem to matter to the creature, but the movie makes it clear that there is nothing humanity can do to make it matter.  We throw militaries at it and nothing noticeable nor important happens.  It walks through skyscrapers like a horse through grass.  In the end, all humanity can do is hope it survives this unavoidable and inevitable cataclysmic natural disaster.  Call it an action movie or monster movie, but––for all it could represent in the modern political strata––one thing Godzilla can safely be called is Lovecraftian because of the creature and all of its implications:  Godzilla destroys, yes; that’s horrifying.  What’s terrifying is that Godzilla waits.