Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cha-Change! Formal Experimentation in Adventure Time

I want to talk about Adventure Time, and the experimental direction that the show has taken, and the episode Food Chain in particular, but we're going to have to do some work before we can get to that discussion. That's ok, because it's a discussion well worth having!

When a show gets as experimental as Adventure Time has, playing with different styles, metatextual elements, surreal explorations of sexuality, and so on, that show deserves praise. And I think it deserves praise that goes a bit beyond the initial "well isn't that neat" praise of pop culture journalism and digs into the weird alien guts of the thing to see how it all fits together, why it's significant, and what it all means. Which, of course, takes work, particularly when you're discussing an episode as odd as Food Chain, an episode where lead characters Finn and Jake metamorphose progressively through the forms and lives of different organisms as they experience the titular food chain first hand on a small desert oasis. The episode explores this philosophical journey through a dynamic and cheerfully--even gleefully--off model animation style notably different from the show's usual techniques. And in the process it makes it possible for us to discuss some of the odder recent offerings in Theory.

But let's not get ahead of things here. First, let's talk about why Adventure Time has the freedom to play around with form and narrative so extensively. The show has, over the course of five-and-change seasons, grounded the weirdness in remarkably sincere emotional relationships between the characters. And this sincerity is a gift that keeps giving as far as experimentation is concerned.

Pictured: Finn and Jake

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hyperflexible Mythology: Classpects, Fandom, and Fanfiction

Several months ago when I decided to move this entire establishment to the icy howling perpetual nightmare that is Jupiter's Great Red Spot some reacted with undue skepticism. But it looks like yet again I have gotten the last laugh, fools, for through a chain of events too complex to describe here but stemming inexorably from my decision to drop a once hospitable pub into the middle of a storm that ravages the flesh and mind alike with fingers of icy death, I have finally achieved my highest level of power yet!

Yes, indeed, I have reached... GOD TIER!

Pictured: My pantless apotheosis is complete.

This change couldn't have come at a better time, as by sheer coincidence I wish to speak today about famed hypercomic Homestuck's symbolic and mythological structure which ties into the "God Tier" that certain characters reach throughout the narrative.

One of the many game-inspired parts of Homestuck is its use of what are called Mythological Roles for each character. That sounds very lofty, but what it really amounts to is one of the oldest elements in fantasy games: a magical area of expertise or "aspect," and a way in which that aspect is used as a tool by the character: a "class." Together, these mythological roles are described, somewhat awkwardly, as "Classpects," and they overshadow much of the fandom's activity.

I want to talk about them today not so much to analyze what individual classpects mean and do, or even their role in the wider narrative of Homestuck (plenty of other writers have already spilled much ink on these topics), but to explore what they mean for the fandom. See, the classpects are, in the words of author Andrew Hussie, a kind of hyperflexible mythology with a wide range of possible interpretations and implementations. These aren't necessarily traditional "elements" or rpg classes--classes include such odd things as "Sylph," "Muse," and "Heir," and aspects include "Breath," "Light," "Blood," "Hope," and "Void"--and the classpects are often ill-defined in their powers, or profoundly shaky in application, in part due to the fact that many of the characters do not, themselves, understand their own abilities. This leads, inevitably, to lots of fan speculation and conversation. It also represents one of the many systems within Homestuck that fans can latch onto as a structure to manipulate and deviate from in fan works.

Homestuck is not alone in having such a structure. The Classpects share many of their most useful qualities with such diverse systems as the Five Colors of Magic in Magic: The Gathering, the four Houses of Hogwarts, and the multi-person teamup nature of Pacific Rim's Jaegers. What these systems all share is a certain amount of arbitraryness and vagueness balanced by a named structure and a range of possible, tangible implementations of that structure. And they seem to share many of the same effects on fanfiction and fandom activities, making certain things possible that are not, perhaps, as easy to pull off with either more loosely or more rigidly defined structures.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Remarkable Queerness of Shinji Ikari

Our hero, Shinji Ikari
The fandom for acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion has developed some remarkably bizarre attitudes and ideas about the series they love. I'm not talking here about the speculation regarding the actual narrative itself--the questions of "what the hell did I just watch, what happened in the last two episodes, why is there a live action shot of people in a movie theater, was this sort of a Freudian thing..."--which do get pretty bizarre at times, but which are on the whole pretty innocuous. These are ideas that despite their strangeness simply attempt to clarify the basic narrative of the original series, the film that followed, and the heavily altered narrative of the reboot films (of which, out of four total, three have been released. We're still waiting to see whether the fourth one explains what the hell happened in the third one).

No, the really weird ideas that I want to talk about today are the notions that the fandom has adopted that fly in the face of just about everything the text attempts to establish thematically. One of the more obvious examples of this comes from the heavy sexualization of the two teenage female pilots that the fandom--and, frustratingly, the marketing team--participates in, despite the fact that the show goes to great lengths to deconstruct everything from harem anime tropes to the specific character archetypes of those characters to the idea of fanservice in general. The most fanservicey scenes are frequently profoundly uncomfortable, if not outright nightmarishly surreal. According to fan lore, End of Evangelion, the film that acts as the conclusion to the original series, was deliberately dark, brutal, incomprehensible, and full of psychosexual revulsion directed squarely at the protagonist because creator Hideaki Anno was so outraged and disgusted with the Otaku misreading of the film. Whether or not that's true, the fact that the fanbase regards it as plausible should tell you a lot about... well, about the whole Eva phenomenon really.

That's not what I'm here to rant angrily about this week though. No, I want to hone in on another particularly bizarre idea that the fandom has adopted. Specifically, the weird notion that the series protagonist, Shinji Ikari, is straight.

As with a lot of the other more frustrating reactions to the series, it's not just a reproduction of the shitty backwards attitudes that a lot of geeks hold, it reproduces them in such a way that it garbles the actual thematic arc of the series and makes character actions and development alike borderline incomprehensible. It's of particular interest to me, as well, for the way it results in a dismantling of creator efforts to increase representation, forcefully repressing "deviant" sexuality. This is the much canonized practice in fandom culture of erasing what few paltry instances of queer representation exist popular culture. It's the flip side of the coin I discussed a few weeks ago with respect to the possibility of reading queerness into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: it's reading queerness out of media.

Before we get to discuss Shinji Ikari's bi- or perhaps pansexuality, though, we need to talk a little about what makes Evangelion tick as a narrative. And that means diving deep into the boggy nightmare of Eva's plot.

Bear with me, folks, I'm going to try to make this as comprehensible as possible.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Janelle Monae: Sci Fi Queen Yet Uncrowned

Last week I rambled for a bit about Janelle Monae and the epic science fiction story that she's weaving across multiple albums and videos, and discussed some of the ways in which this particular project has succeeded where other concept albums, in particular, fall short. To recap, Monae's story follow the android Cindi Mayweather, on the run from Droid Control after falling in love with the human Anthony Greendown. She becomes a symbol of resistance for the oppressed droids and eventually becomes the Archandroid, a savior-figure destined to... well, we're not quite sure what she's destined to do yet, because we've got at least one more album to go before the story is complete.

I'm surprised at the lack of attention Monae's gotten in geek circles. I've been surprised, too, at the lack of attention from folks interested in social justice, despite the complex commentaries on race, gender, and queer sexuality present within her works. She's gotten a little bit of geek press, and a bit more queer press, but much of the recurring interest I see in her work comes from folks who are already interested in the particular subgenre in which she's arguably working: Afrofuturism.

I can't speak too much to the significance of Afrofuturism or its history, as I am in many ways very peripheral to the whole thing and haven't done the minimum requisite reading that'd make me comfortable talking in more detail, but the basic idea is to blend African and African-American experiences and traditions with the tropes and ideas of science fiction, often in order to reimagine current and future conditions and sometimes in order to challenge white supremacist beliefs. This is, at least, my broad understanding of what isn't exactly a unified movement but a broader cluster of particular interests within the realm of science fiction.

What I do feel reasonable saying is that some of the most exciting work happening in sci fi and fantasy spheres is coming not just from Afrofuturism but from wide ranges of voices that we just haven't heard a whole lot from in the US sci fi/fantasy scene: women, people of color, queer folk, &c. So, it's worth considering Monae's work as a case study for the possible reasons why some of this work is being frustratingly ignored, or at least under-covered in comparison to, say, the latest giant blockbuster franchise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Janelle Monae: Contemporary Queen of Science Fiction

Science fiction is just an exciting and new way of telling universal stories and it allows the reader to come to the conclusion and draw parallels between the present and the future. I don’t think we enjoy when people remind us, today, this is what’s going on in the world. You know, sometimes we’re so used to hearing that this is what’s happening right now that we become numb to it. So when you take it out of this world, [people] will come to the conclusions themselves.
I think it’s important: whatever way you can get the audience’s attention to listen to your message, a strong message at that, then by any means. I think science fiction does that. --Janelle Monae 
I imagined many moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom. --Cindi Mayweather

My second article ever for Storming the Ivory Tower was about Lady Gaga--specifically about the video for Bad Romance and the implications of its science fiction stylings. It pretty much set the tone, framing narrative/persona, and purpose of the blog, and it also led to a whole string of articles on Gaga over the next few years--what her videos have to say symbolically, narratively, and thematically, and how they fit into wider popular culture.

But I'm bringing it up today not because of any of that nonsense but because of the particular conversation I spun out of it on pop music and science fiction which arguably spanned across these four articles. See, I was partly inspired in my analysis by an article (which I can't find now, unfortunately) that suggested that Gaga was one of the most significant voices in contemporary science fiction. That notion fascinated me because up till that point I had generally seen different media treated as fundamentally segregated from each other--you wouldn't see a list of the best Sci Fi stories of all time including a concept album, a short story, a novel, a live action movie, a TV series, and an anime all listed together. You still wouldn't, I think.

That segregation might go a long way to explaining why rapper and R&B musician Janelle Monae is not known to more fans of speculative fiction. Explains, but not excuses, because Monae should probably be crowned High Queen of the Geeks. How can I justify a statement that hyperbolic when a whole segment of my audience has almost certainly never heard of Monae? Well, just for starters, literally everything she's put out has involved a lengthy story involving this character:

Meet Cindi Mayweather, the Alpha Platinum 9000 android: your new Queen.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Queerness in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke's 800 page doorstopper Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, a tale of two magicians who attempt to bring practical magic back to England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, is getting made into a mini-series by the BBC.

This is great news, because it means more folks will get exposed to the book's weird and delightful mix between Regency romance and high society politics, historical accounts of a medieval and renaissance tradition of magic in an alternate England, and the strange and often unsettling or even horrific world of fairytales.

But unless some of the subtext within the book is toned down to a remarkable degree, it also means that we're going to have The Talk again within fandom culture about queer baiting and the presence or absence of queer characters within fantasy narratives. This isn't a bad conversation to have at all, of course, but it's sometimes difficult to pick through the particular contexts surrounding a text in order to really get at whether a text is... well, let's say ethical in its treatment (or lack of treatment) of queerness.

That's getting a bit ahead of things though, so let's talk a bit about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, queerness, representation, and how context fiddles with our understanding.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Everybody Hates Grant Ward: Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds

Now I'm about as sick as Grant Ward as you are at this point, so this will be the last article on how much we all hate him. The last till season 2 comes out, at least.

Still, there's just a bit more worth saying about Ward in relation to ideas about sympathetic villains and how we as an audience react to the pain that particular characters suffer.

If you haven't been following along at home, last week I wrote two articles describing the many shortcomings of Agent Grant Ward, a man that Marvel's Agents of SHIELD seemed to be positioning as the brooding antihero of the team, only to dramatically subvert both expectations and our understanding of Ward's character archetype when he turned out to be an actual Nazi.

The first talked about how Ward as the Lone White Male Antihero would, in many stories, get a free pass to determine his own morality. The narrative and theme would warp around him to make his actions and judgements correct, often at the cost of the actions and judgements of female characters. In Agents of SHIELD that logic is turned on its head, and the whole dynamic is revealed to be chauvinistic, patronizing, and ultimately subtly fascistic.

The second article talks about Agent Coulson and Agent Garrett and their respective ideologies. Garrett raises Ward on a steady diet of rightist rhetoric: Ward has no one to depend on but himself, people only get what they can take, and if your life is a nightmare maelstrom of abuse and violence you are solely responsible for it, even if you're a child. This is contrasted dramatically with Coulson's belief in the symbolism of SHIELD: that humanity is worth saving and protecting. Ultimately, Ward doesn't so much lift himself by his own bootstraps as hoist himself by his own petard, wandering around for much of the latter episodes without a sense of purpose, identity, or control, whereas Skye, Coulson's protege, runs circles around him, made confident by both the knowledge that she is not alone, and in the belief in a right and wrong external to her own immediate animal needs--something Ward critically lacks.

In this way, both the antihero archetype and the world in which he operates are shown to be hollow falsehoods, pathetic power fantasies that ultimately amount to nothing.

But there's one more aspect to Ward's character that's worth examining: his angst. Yes, poor Grant Ward has a lot of Feelings and those Feelings justify, in his own mind, any and all actions. The first two parts of the series touched on this a bit but it's worth examining in more detail, so let's talk about poor Grant Ward and his many struggles. (Trigger warnings for discussion of abuse, and some discussion of sexual assault.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Everyone Hates Grant Ward: Strung Up By Your Own Bootstraps

"You didn't tell me he was this crazy."
"He's really stepped it up a notch..."

There's a fascinating contrast in episode 21 of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD between big bad John Garrett and big... good Agent Coulson that effectively conveys the basic messages of SHIELD and Hydra. These messages are worth considering in light of the wider conversation I highlighted on Monday about how utterly loathsome Agent Grant Ward is. After all, Grant Ward wasn't "born evil" as the show has put it over the last few episodes, he was made that way by Garrett. Understanding the ideology that Garrett instilled in his subordinate, and what that suggests about SHIELD and Hydra, is essential to understanding--although not necessarily forgiving!--Ward's actions and character motivations and how they relate to the show's wider themes.

There will be some mild spoilers here for the show's finale, which debuted last night, but I'm trying to keep them largely to a minimum, and none of the really major moments will be spoiled, just some of the kicker lines (of which, because this is a Whedon project, there are many). Still, if you haven't seen the finale yet, you may want to hold off reading this article till you get a chance to get caught up.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Everybody Hates Grant Ward: Agents of Chauvinism

Isn't Grant Ward awful? I mean, what a guy. You almost have to kind of love him, in that it's so easy to love to hate him. A lot of fans of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, the television component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the property most currently related to the titanic events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have been a part of the Ward hatedom for a long time, so the revelation that he's actually an agent of evil Nazi science conspiracy Hydra came as a shock, but not necessarily as unwelcome a one as you might expect.

What's fascinating to me about this hatedom is how totally strange it is within the context of wider media culture. Ward is, after all, the perfect grim antiheroic masculine figure, present in media everywhere: a brooding loner, with multiple romantic prospects, a tendency to buck authority, a powerful fighter... Ward could have been transplanted from just about any action film.

But the thing is, Ward's been transplanted into a show about some stuff that doesn't fit so well with his character archetype: teamwork, openness with your allies, the power of god damn friendship of all things, and the need to carry the responsibility of power carefully and not cross the line into world-policing authority and authoritarianism. These are ideas dramatically opposed to the singular authority of the male antihero and Ward feels out of place to some extent in the show's narrative. For a while it seemed like the team would succeed in changing him, but in the end it's turned out that he's been playing them all along in a weirdly metatextual game of tropes and expectations.

And that's what makes this reveal so successful, ultimately. It's a metatextual move, not just a textual one, because our understanding of Ward's character is partly a construct in-show by Ward in accordance with some of these tropes, as he revealed in a lengthy speech a few episodes ago.

So what I'm going to do, over the course of a series of shorter (by my standards) articles over the next week, is analyze all the ways in which Grant Ward sucks, and what his status as the ultimate heel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what his place as the guy we love to hate, says about the MCU's place in culture and take on other action movie narratives.

And what better place to start than with an idea I've complained about before: the authority of the male antihero above that of female characters.

Pictured: A Toolbag.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Night of the Living Fandom

I've been in a very pro-fanfic mood lately, in part because I've been wrapping up work on an anthology of fanfiction based on the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. It's a pretty big project, so the actual production values have certainly occupied my mind, but I've also been thinking quite a bit about the larger picture of what this project means for the way we interact with media in the digital age.

I want to talk a little bit about that kind of changing field of production and consumption, what it means for fans, and how transformative works can be cultivated and encouraged, but first let me give a bit of background for the anthology itself. The anthology is part of a much larger and more complex project called the Magic: Expanded Multiverse, which I jumpstarted a few years ago on Wizards of the Coast's online forums. The idea was to take the setting of Magic and create a massive, internally consistent, fan-generated expanded canon that could exist alongside the main canon. Magic, despite being a card game, actually is perfect for this type of project because the game takes place in a massive multiverse of countless worlds, and stars characters who can travel between these worlds. My friend Jon of Everyday Abnormal has described the game as having a setting that is every setting. I think it's pretty obvious why that would be appealing to creatively-minded fans.

The anthology, Seasons of Dusk, takes place on the world called Innistrad, a dark world beset by monsters. It's basically a Gothic Horror world, and the design of the anthology, created by me and the current head of the M:EM, Barinellos, reflects that aesthetic:

But rather than talk about the setting, I want to talk about the fact that this anthology wasn't (just) posted on a message board or AO3, but actually produced in two different formats: a PDF book, and an ebook that is compatible with most e-readers. This format is significant because Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic, now only publish the novels for Magic in digital formats--there is no print novel line now. And while we do state openly that we're a fan project, at least a few of our social media followers assumed that this was one of those real virtual publications.

The fact that we were able to create something that as far as visuals and content are concerned at least can temporarily confuse someone as to the reality of what they're seeing suggests some interesting things about the way the tech we used to compose the anthology--largely open source tech--can disrupt the hierarchies of what is "legitimate" art. In the interests of furthering that disruption and helping to further similar projects, let's talk a bit about how we produced this anthology.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Parafanfiction and Oppositional Fandom

Over the course of the last week, I've been working on a very involved project called "The Parafiction Museum." This project, incidentally, is why there wasn't a Storming the Ivory Tower last week. The assignment was to create an entire catalogue for a fantasy exhibition of contemporary art. Alright. That's pretty straightforward.

I, of course, decided to host an exhibition based around the most confusing idea I could find: Parafiction.

Now, all of this is explained within the essay for the catalogue (which can be viewed here, although I recommend downloading it since Drive visually compresses PDFs) and I won't go on too long because A. the essay in the catalogue is already 2000 words not counting all the information on individual works so I'm bloody sick of writing and want to go break rocks in Minecraft for a while and B. I actually do think the essay does a good job of explaining what Parafiction is and why it matters. But the essay is written for a fine art audience rather than you weird fandom people, and I want to do a little bit of work contextualizing why its important particularly to fan works and transformative works.

So what is parafiction?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Creating As The World Falls Down

As a kid, the part of Jim Henson's famous fantasy film Labyrinth that always freaked me out wasn't a part full of strange monsters or weird settings. It was a sequence towards the end of the film when the protagonist, Sarah, has escaped from a strange illusory costume ball (literally--she's stuck in an actual crystal ball) into a vast junkyard in which, strangely, her bedroom sits, with all her toys. In her room, which sits separate from the rest of her house, she is handed toy after toy by a strangely unsettling junk-covered creature.

The sequence is unnerving in part simply for the intrusion of elements of the Labyrinth environment into the mundane setting of Sarah's room, and perhaps that alone is enough to explain my consistent feeling of discomfort during the scene. Special shoutout in particular to the moment where she opens the door, expecting to see the hallway, and instead comes face to face with the blasted wasteland and the bustling figure of the junk woman.

But beyond that simple disorienting intrusion of the labyrinth into a recognizable home environment, there's also, I think, the recognition that at no other point does Sarah come closer to failing in her quest, and the implications of that are fascinating to me.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fixing Up Frozen

Let's talk about the most important song in Disney's hit cartoon Frozen.

Yes, indeed, let's talk about "Fixer Upper."

Alright, alright, claiming that this is the most important song in the whole movie is a little ridiculous, considering that this is a film that includes "Let It Go," which I'm pretty sure even strange frog people living beneath the seas of New England think is basically the best thing ever, but I wanted to start things out dramatically to effectively counterbalance the opinion I've seen expressed about this song before: that it's the least important song in the film, and should probably have been cut entirely.

In sharp contrast, I think the song has an important function within the narrative that makes its inclusion logical, even if the action and tone both take a hit as a result. In the process of picking this scene apart, I want to untangle, to some extent, what makes a particular narrative beat successful and how that success can come at a cost to other elements of a film. Every film is a bit of a fixer-upper, and the way we deal with the problems of this, and all other, art forms decides to a large extent how much we get out of our experiences.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Love Me, I'm A Liberal: Arrow and Faux Leftism Pt. 2

Last week on Storming the Ivory Tower, the evil villain with a tragic backstory Penstroke the Terminator, having gathered a team of supervillains, was attempting to use the dread power of close reading and critical analysis to destroy Arrow. The show, not the character. Having explored the various ways in which the character Brother Blood serves as a representation of more radical leftism on the show to be attacked in favor of at best weak centrism and at worst pro-corporate, pro-1% ideological positions, Penstroke the Terminator now brings forth two more villains in order to demonstrate, once and for all, the failures of The Arrow Show!

Can anyone stop this madman?!

Stay tuned after these messages from our corporate masters!