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Monday, June 29, 2015

"Repent, Feminist!" Said the Wiki Man (Or: Deface Wikipedia Today!)

As I wrote the first draft of this article, a few months ago now (god help me), I took periodic breaks to look at my dashboard on Tumblr. Not because I was really reading any of the content but because I was skimming for instances of people taking advantage to the most recent site update to totally break the website's functionality. If you missed that exciting experience, let me tell you it was at times pretty breathtakingly disorienting, with various icons, text boxes, images, and so on, bouncing all over the screen. While they've caught the major bugs of that update a few more incredible little glitches keep popping up to trash the screen in exciting new ways, months after the fact.

I'm starting here because I think it sheds light, in the usual roundabout sort of way, on the recent clusterfuck over on Wikipedia. If you haven't been following the conflict, the long and short of it is that Gamergate, the violently misogynistic hate group ostensibly dedicated to "ethics in game journalism" but in fact dedicated to hounding women out of the game industry, has been gaming (ahah.) Wikipedia's systems for a while now in order to gain dominance over the article about them. A group dubbed the Five Horsemen has repeatedly opposed their efforts. Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee ("ArbCom") responded by handing down a decision that ousted the Five Horsemen along with a few gamergater burner accounts, patted itself on the back for a job well done, and effectively handed gamergate the keys to the kingdom. You can read about this on the blog of Mark Bernstein (and on his twitter), who broke the story and was banned and denounced in retaliation, or on Wikipedia itself in this editorial by user Protonk... who of course was ALSO banned and denounced in retaliation. Exciting times over on Wikipedia. The story's continued since then but those are the basic facts in the case that I think are worth relaying.

Before getting back to Wikipedia though let's take a moment to talk about the culture of Tumblr and its attitude towards its leaders. Any time Tumblr's staff updates the site there's immediately a race to see who can figure out the best ways to break the new features, or at least do something truly bizarre with the new features. Some of this of course stems from the endless frustration that we all have with a staff that prioritizes trivialities over critically absent core features (a functional blocking system! a functional inbox!) but more broadly speaking I think there's also an attitude on the site that if something CAN be fucked with, it SHOULD be fucked with. It's a creative attitude, and an oppositional one as well, one that resists rather than encourages consensus.

It's this attitude, more than any other form of resistance, that feels to me like the right strategy for dealing with Wikipedia's increasingly glaring flaws. Wikipedia is an engine for generating consensus, so artistic interventions--more plainly, vandalism, or even more plainly, fucking shit up--are essential for disrupting that engine. If Wikipedia has failed to live up to its ideals, instead becoming mired in the dehumanizing mechanisms of a bureaucracy that only a plutocracy of technocrats can engage with, then it's time to stop thinking about incrementally transforming the system, and start thinking about a way of breaking the system in half.

There's a really obvious pun I could make here but I'll resist.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Building and Breaking, In Comics as in BDSM

The seducer of the innocent. Corrupter. A medium driven by affect--the raw, visceral, embodied experience of emotion. A trap to lead the unwary into perversion.

Comics.

It is to this gutter medium, this medium of ill repute, that I dedicated the last eight months of my life, transforming myself into the willing servant of an often capricious master. My thesis was, in large part, about the emotional content of comics--the very content that encouraged cultural critics ranging from Frederic Wertham, infamous comic censor, to Clement Greenberg and his followers, masters of disinterested analysis and the pure aesthetic critique of art, to malign the medium. I analyzed a structure that I dubbed the building and breaking template, a template consisting of a rising narrative arc depicted with a rigid grid of panels that concludes with some break from that grid at the moment of narrative climax.

I did NOT, however, analyze Stjepan Šejić's comic Sunstone. I namedropped it briefly in my conclusion, but I did not analyze it, simply because devoting a whole chapter of my thesis to a comic about two women discovering their love of domination and submission, sadism and masochism, and that other letter pair that I always forget, seemed like a pretty risky prospect. Unfortunately I'm not entirely sure that the time is right for the affective and semiotic analysis of porn comics, at least not in academia.

But this isn't academia. This is Storming the Ivory Tower, where I can do whatever the hell I want up to and including stealing your chair, and this week I want to take a look at Sunstone through the lens of some of my research and explore some of the ways that comics--all comics--get us hot and bothered.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Fitzskimmons Lament Part 2: Satisfaction

Last week I posted my article, part one of this series, to the Marvel subreddit, mostly because I am a little shit and like to tweak the noses of overly fawning fans.

Before the article was predictably downvoted to oblivion I did get one comment useful not so much for its contents, which were predictably terrible, but for the interesting irony that it presented. This redditor simply dismissed my article as "the babblings of a patreon-begger." Interesting. The claim there seems to be that my article can be safely ignored because I'm merely out to grab cash off of Marvel's success.

True!

I'll own up to it proudly! In fact, I'll encourage you all to donate to my Patreon today! I'm absolutely shameless. In fact, it's a little off theme, but is it time to bring back the supervillain suit? I think it is!

I know what I am.
But you know, I'm no more shameless than Marvel and Disney are, and a whole hell of a lot more honest. If I'm a hood at least I'm an honest one, with no illusions about why massively successful franchises frequently turn out to be the subjects for my articles. They're the subjects because when I write about my real loves, like fanfiction of a children's trading card game for example, nobody reads my articles.

These are concessions I MUST make, to a certain extent, if I want to make this blogging thing work for me. Marvel is in no such position. Anything they do seems to turn into a megahit, even if it's, say, Thor 2. Marvel fans will even get a little bit smug about this, proclaiming that DC can't make a movie with a female lead while Marvel can make a movie about a raccoon and a tree in space.

Ay, Marvel fans? You know who else can't make a movie with a female lead?

Marvel Studios.

So let's take this week to talk about the various ways in which Marvel, a studio that seemingly can do anything, continues to do, in a myriad of ways, absolutely nothing to support its queer fans.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fitzskimmons Lament Part One: Marvel and the Endlessly Straight Path

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a lot of things. Among them, the MCU is very, very straight. Aggressively straight. Obnoxiously straight, I might even suggest.

It's straight to the point where, after 11 movies and three-and-a-half-sum-total seasons of 45 minute episodes of various tv spin offs from said movies, the lack of any queer representation whatsoever has finally crossed the borderline from "minor stain on an otherwise remarkable record" to "holy shit this is indefensible and appalling."

Marvel and Disney apparently can make a movie about a talking raccoon and his tree friend but can't introduce a single queer character. Or make a movie starring a woman. But that's a rant for another day.

For a while now I've been lamenting the effect that's had on a number of my ships in the MCU--ships being fan parlance for preferred romantic relationships. I tend to gravitate towards queer ships because, well, in our modern media landscape they just don't happen that often in canon, so I have an inclination to stubbornly ship everything queer, which just results in me getting more irate when none of my queer pairings become canon, which just causes me to be more obstinate, until the next thing you know I'm up at three AM reading Draco/Neville/Hermione BDSM fanfic instead of writing Storming the Ivory Tower articles.

In fact that's precisely where I've been for the past eight months!

But no ship has suffered quite as much as Fitzskimmons, the ship that put the "One" and "True" and "The Numeral Three" in OT3, my one true poly triad, the relationship of my dreams. This is a ship that joins the Agents of SHIELD characters Fitz, Simmons, and Skye into a beautiful poly trio.

It will never happen, and I know it will never happen, but by god I can write an entire article lamenting the fact that I'll never see this group get together.

Pictured: more like GAYgents of SHIELD
That's what this article is in the broadest sense: a lament for Fitzskimmons. But I don't want to just sit here and babble about how great they'd be together (even though they would be) or how much more heartwrenching the events of season 2 are in the context of a poly romance between the three characters (though wow can you imagine it?). Ultimately this isn't about the worthiness or unworthiness of one particular ship. It's about the wider way in which the compulsory heterosexuality in an entire serialized and shared fictional universe leads to sub-optimal story decisions and lost opportunities.

It's about how restrictions on the range of possible relationships leads to bad writing.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Five Relics from the Ruins of the Year

So let's be real here for a moment: 2014 was a shitty year. Maybe not for all of us but certainly the zeitgeist on social media seems to be such that a lot of us had a real lousy time of it. There's plenty of reasons why that might be the case, of course. The pervading sense of an inescapable hellmouth born of capitalist excess opening beneath us, for example, might tend to accentuate and emphasize other setbacks in our lives. Debacles such as the psychotic hate campaign "Gamergate" might makes us feel as though the fires of all-consuming reactionary fury will never be quenched. For many of us, the holidays mean a return to homes where our radicalism is unwelcome... and neither, for some of us, are our true selves. The bad news just keeps rolling in, and I don't know that I really know of anyone who's doing stellar as the year hobbles to an end.

But look, the way I see it is we've got to find something to encourage us and one of the best ways we can do that is by reflecting on what few things went right this year. And rather than talking about specific points of policy that were implemented or political victories, I want to talk about intellectual victories--victories in the sense that something new and exciting was created despite the pressures that stifle creativity and the amnesiac social order that keeps us reinventing the wheel year after year or locking ourselves in the same cyclical debates.

In the interests of providing maybe a few small flickers of hope I want to talk today about a few of the most productive, successful, innovative, or exciting discussions that I either participated in or witnessed over the course of this year.

Why talk about ideas? Well, for one thing, I think it's more interesting than just talking about best products of the year--best art, best movies, best music, best games... all of these lists emphasize individual acts of creation, which is fine, but doesn't say a lot about the field of creative production as a whole. Jim Sterling of the Jimquisition did a countdown of the 10 worst games of the year, for example, and the individual games chosen and what order they were in was, to my mind, far less interesting than his discussion of how difficult it was this year to narrow down the list to just ten (another sign of how shitty this year has been by every possible metric, perhaps). This commentary on the state of games as a whole is more interesting than the elevation or degradation of one particular product.

Furthermore, the discussion of individual policy decisions is fine and dandy but doesn't really shed light on the long-term underlying structures by which policy is generated. It's these understructures that I'm more interested in here: how do we construct spaces and discourses that can generate radical change?

Social media is at best a testing bed for radical new discourses that break free from traditions and assumptions to bring forth something new.

What follows is a list of the top four ideas that bounced around on social media this year that most woke me up, got me thinking, got me excited, and, ultimately, got me writing again after my lengthy hiatus this fall.

Happy New Year, everyone. Let's beat the shit out of 2015 until it gives us what we want.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sheeple OBEY their Shepard: Tales of a Fairey Bad Artist


I've been away from the blog for a while, obviously, in part because I tend to go absolutely ass-over-teacup whenever I have to move more than a few feet out my door so moving back up to Toronto from the corn fields of Pennsylvania took a lot out of me. But the other thing holding me back was the question of how exactly to get at the material in this article.

See, I want to talk about Shepard Fairey, who I've mentioned before as kind of a louse who rips off leftist artists as part of a kind of pseudo-leftist undirected capitalism-as-rebellion marketing scheme. And I want to talk about what a sell out he is, and I want to talk about it because the brilliant Melissadoom (who suggested the title of this article to me) strongly urged me to on the basis that she, and probably a whole lot of other people, had no bloody clue who this guy was until I started talking about him directly.

Just to recap, he's the guy who did the Obama HOPE poster. Yeah. That dude. And the Andre the Giant OBEY dude. Now available on shirts and hoodies and sexy eveningwear probably and who knows what else. So, you've seen his work, probably, but I wouldn't be surprised if, like Melissa, and like a number of other folks I've talked to since starting this article, you didn't really know anything about him or his work or his practice of ripping other artists off.

But I just couldn't quite get a handle on things, and I think I've finally figured out why:

I'm just not sure it's relevant anymore to say that someone is cashing in or selling out. I'm not sure that charge carries any weight with people. And I'm going to have to loop around a bit and dig into the meaning of some of these notions in both pop culture and the art world before I can swing back to Fairey. This isn't an expose on Fairey, exactly, because the article I've linked to before on his work does a darn good job of explaining who he is and how he works. Think of it instead as an explanation of why buying a hat with OBEY on it not only isn't politically radical, it's actually part of a depoliticization of art and culture that does nothing but serve corporate interests and superstar millionaire artists.

Monday, September 1, 2014

It Can't Be For Nothing: Why Video Game Movies Fail, and How "The Last of Us" Can Succeed

You sit at your usual booth, wondering where your book-headed friend is. Normally he’s here by now, and though you don’t so much converse as he rants, you can’t help but find him entertaining, even when you disagree. Sometimes you even learn.

You look around the bar to see if you can see him, and when you don’t, you turn back around to sit more comfortably... only to have your eyes meet the irritated, bespectacled gaze of a heavy-set man who hasn’t had a haircut in way too damn long. Your breathing hitches for a brief second. You remember this man. He just would not shut up about Cowboy Bebop.

“Oh, hello,” you say, trying your best to be friendly. “Can I buy you a bevera—“

“SHUT YER PIE HOLE I’VE GOT THINGS TO TALK ABOUT”

So, you’ve heard that they’re doing a movie of The Last of Us now, right? That’s great! I’m excited. It’s rumored Bruce “Jesus Christ” Campbell is attached, and I believe dude will dig down deep and bring some serious pathos to the character of Joel. And Naughty Dog made the damn game, and they’re involved, and they’re not going to let their baby fail.

Here’s the thing that’s bothering me: Unless they’re absolutely willing to murder every single one of their darlings, like the novelists say, their movie is going to go the way of Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat Annihilation and Resident Evil: Thesaurus Word for “Bad” and Max Payne. Most of us are going to hate it because it took a game with a great plot and made a movie that’s mostly unwatchable.

And I know you’re wondering why I’m so sure of this. And I will tell you.

And in order to do this I will need to talk about the plot and the ending of The Last of Us, so SPOILER ALERTS ARE IN EFFECT. So get the hell out of this bar, right now, and play through The Last of Us and come back so we can talk about it.

**********

Welcome back! I am so glad you did that thing I just told you to do.

So wasn’t that game awesome!? Cinematic in all the best ways and emotional and great characters and holy hell, it’s going to be hard to make a good movie out of that.

I can see you mouthing the words wondering what I’m on about, but it kind of gets to why video game adaptations... and cross-media adaptations in general... have historically tended towards the awful. See, various media engages us in different ways, and how we engage with games is very, very different from how we engage with other art forms.

Think about how you relate the events of a movie or a comic or a novel. It’s third person. “So then Captain America kicks Batroc in the head!” “And Indiana gets on his feet and kicks that Nazi in the head!” “And then Shane gets into a bar fight and kicks a guy in the head!”*

*This actually happens in the novel. And I hope someone out there appreciates me bringing up Shane, of all things.

Now consider how you relate what happened in a game you played. “So I’m surrounded by zombies but I manage to spam the dodge maneuver until I get to the door, just inside the time limit!” “So then I score a crit that one-shots the mind flayer the round before he TPKs the party!” “That’s when I land on Dave’s Boardwalk with a full hotel built, and so I knocked the board over and went to bed!”

See, none of the hypothetical tellers of those tales is referring to their characters in game, even though individually they’re playing the roles of Jill Valentine, Llewellyn Ironblade the Elf Fighter, and a boot. And this is where most video game adaptations stumble: huge chunks, if not the entirety, of the art and story and designs are created that way to serve the gameplay. And that gameplay is the thing: you providing action and making decisions gives you the illusion of control, and more than that, involvement. It’s a much, much different storytelling mechanism than the mechanisms of other media.

You can get as wrapped up in a book or a comic or movie as you can a video game, but it’s a much different process to get there.

This is a big portion of why Silent Hill, the movie, was so much less scary than Silent Hill, the game. Despite using a number of the scariest monsters in the whole series and inventing monsters even more screwed up than that (re: Colin the Janitor), those couldn’t actually get as terrifying as running from low-polygon-count dogs across a chain-link floor with poor texture work. Rose Da Silva is probably a better fleshed-out character than Harry Mason, but we care more about what’s happening to him because on some level it’s happening to us. The low-polygon-count dogs are chasing us. Interactivity can bridge gaps when storytelling fails to cross them.

(I should point out that this is all by way of example. The Silent Hill flick had problems way above and beyond not being able to control the characters.)

And here’s the thing about The Last of Us: that game uses that sense of immersion granted by interactivity as well as anyone else ever has. Maybe better. Unlike the Half-Life series, it does have cutscenes, but Last of Us does give you control in some surprising areas that other games wouldn’t (controlling Sarah at the beginning of the game, where the fact you can look even as you’re stuck in the back of Joel’s car adds verisimilitude). It includes emotional high points nestled regular game play (the bit near the end where you slide from gameplay to cut scene to gameplay and watch the giraffes for as long as you want). And at the end of it, it will force you to do things you don’t necessarily want to do.

Think about that sequence at the end when you (there’s that dreaded second-person again) rescue Ellie. The only way to do so is to kill the doctors about to operate on her. Whether you want to is irrelevant, because that’s what Joel, the character wants. But this isn’t a cut scene. This is something you control.

This is you being forced into taking the actions that your character would take, morally repugnant as you may or may not find them (and it’s enough of a grey area, given the plot of the game, that finding them repugnant is completely possible).

So where does that leave us? The Last of Us is so moving and affecting and genuinely upsetting because its plot is built to take advantage of things that only video games really do, much in the same way Silent Hill was, or how Watchmen and The Sandman are built around comics and House of Leaves is built around prose and Avatar: The Last Airbender was built around TV.

Each of these properties were either hampered in their film adaptations or have yet to have film adaptations at all by the fact that the plots of these properties are very, very tied in to the mechanics of their media, and those that had adaptations, hilariously, failed to adapt. I quite liked that Watchmen flick, but even I have to admit that it was pretty underwhelming considering that it was based on one of the great comics of all time. Part of it was that the innovations the comic made had already been subsumed by art and culture by the time the movie was made, so the content was no longer as challenging. But I’d say the bigger part was that it was such a slavish recreation that it lifted things that took advantage of the comics medium whole-cloth into the film, ignoring the use of the mechanics of medium that made them effective to begin with. Chapter breaks, juxtapositions, pacing... these are mechanics that work a certain way particularly well in the comics medium and that the Watchmen comic took advantage of. Film has its own mechanics, but the Watchmen movie assumed that they would port over because they’re both visual. This led to a flick with weird pacing problems and sequences that fell flat even though they still dazzle in the comic to this day. (Keeper's Note: way back in the prehistory of this blog I argued that changing the mechanics of the ending of Watchmen was one of the best decisions the film makers made.)

So what can the creators of the film version of The Last of Us do to avoid an adaptation that seems to use all of the parts of the game but feels hollow or terribly flawed as a cinematic story?

... good question. That may not be answerable until it’s answered, if that makes any sense. The plot is long and circuitous and relies heavily on gameplay sections to get the characters from point A to point B, and the game’s story covers nearly a year divided into four nearly stand-alone chapters, something that kind of works against the usual flow of movies. It’s a small-scale story that takes place on a huge vista, and that’s the sort of thing movie producers loathe throwing money at (why throw so much money for location shoots and special effects if it’s not for spectacle?). It’s a story that absolutely does not let itself to traditional ways of cinematic storytelling.

The only way, then, that they’re going to live up to the promise of the video game is break new artistic ground with the movie, much as the game did for interactive storytelling.

I hope they can.

With that, the large man takes off his glasses, and wearily informs you that his name is Zomburai!, or Jon Grasseschi in IRL. He’s the author of the webcomic EverydayAbnormal (analyzed previously on this very blog!) and the nascent Dungeons & Dragons blog Mythic Histories. He says he likes long walks on the beach, sensitive women, and world domination. He has a Patreon, a Twitter, and a Facebooks.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Image of the Body: Ferguson, Agency, and Leftist Appropriation

Photo of Twitter user @eyeFLOODpanties taken by Robert Cohen
I want to center this week's article in a somewhat odd way--around a bibliography. I'm doing this for ethical reasons--as a white person writing about the murder of Michael Brown and the resulting protests and violent, militant police repression of the people of Ferguson, MO, events that are fundamentally a product of racism both systemic and individual, I want to do my best not to co-opt the events for the sake of an abstract academic argument. This is particularly important in the context of the specific ideas I'm going to attempt to grapple with, since I want to talk about issues of agency, the use of images and signs, and the political transformation of people into signifiers. Centering this article upon the bibliography of information I drew upon in writing it is, in part, an attempt to avoid the behaviors I'm trying to call out.

First, for the background details of what's happening in Ferguson, I'd recommend the article Ferguson is Fighting Back from Socialist Worker, which, unlike corporate media outlets, recounts the story from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the militarized police that have been terrorizing a small town for over a week. In particular, it is worth considering this quote from the article:
"Eavesdropping on questions asked of residents by the mainstream media was instructive. Again and again, reporters wanted to know about "looting" and "violence," entirely missing the main point of what was unfolding before them: every resident, if asked, could have told them about the routine police violence they've experienced." --Socialist Worker: Ferguson is Fighting Back
Instructive indeed. That framing is important to the questions I want to consider about the way this is not merely a war waged materially but waged with symbols. This is a battle of words, and corporate media has sided with state terrorism in this battle.

I also want to highlight the ongoing commentary from blogs Gradient Lair and This Is Bobby London, without which I could not have composed this article. In particular, it's worth reading over Bobby London's piece which frames looting not as a random act of greed but an act of political resistance and rebellion (particularly relevant now that we're seeing reports of people breaking into McDonald's in order to get milk to sooth the suffering of civilians who were assaulted by the militarized police with chemical weapons), and three pieces from Gradient Lair, one on avoiding the consumption of black bodies in discourse about events like Ferguson (which I've tried to take to heart here), one on the transformation of black bodies into metaphors for other forms of violence elsewhere in the world, and one on the history of the terrorist/psychological warfare of lynching and the way the treatment of Michael Brown's body fits into that history.

In the interests of contextualization, it's worth taking note of a few other stories about images, image sharing, and the desperate iconoclasm of the militarized police. From Tech Dirt comes a story of a police campaign in Washington to (incorrectly... illegally?) get people to stop filming them with a remarkable statement about responding to smartphones the way they respond to guns; from Z-Net comes a story about Apple's new patent to kill cell phones automatically, because hey, another week, another instance of Apple or Microsoft furthering corporate fascism, and lastly, from Medium, comes an excellent analysis of the way Ferguson represents proof positive of the dangers of a non-neutral Net, as Facebook algorithms systematically sank information about the atrocities being committed against civilians while Twitter sank the #ferguson tag in the US despite it trending globally.

If you want to get involved in pushing back against the militarization of police and the state terrorism on display in Ferguson, here is a list of resources (updated 4:08 Eastern 8/19):

Since I'm adding links, I figure it's worth making a point of mentioning the way in which I'm curating this. I can't vet every one of these donation drives, because I'm honestly not sure how I'd even begin doing so, so that's a limitation I have when I'm posting links. But one thing I can do as a curator of these links is vet the voices being heard. And a great way to make sure you DON'T get included on this list is to post shit about how everything would get better if the left and right would just listen compassionately to one another, or how Obama's hands are tied and he's just doing the best he can politically, or any of that other weak Liberal nonsense. Last I saw, it wasn't the Left lobbing tear gas at civilians. The point here is to boost voices that are drowned out by the corporate media shit show.

With all that said, let's get to the secondary content of this post. Let's talk about the man in the photo at the top of this post, that photo, and its use.

I want to frame this discussion with these three tweets:





Monday, August 11, 2014

Tony Stark in the Integrated Circuit: The Iron Man films and Cyborg Feminism

In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark describes his suit, the Iron Man suit, as a prosthesis. Now, granted, he's describing it that way in order to flummox a congressional committee who assert that his suit is, in fact, a weapon. The scene as a whole is full of uncomfortable, almost Randian grand standingone. It's a problematic scene, to be sure.

The wild thing about Tony's claim, though, is that the films are almost calculated to back him up and support his claim. Iron Man--or, later, the Iron Men--is/are an extension of Tony's being. They are a prosthetic not in the sense that they restore him to some idealized "normal" human functionality but in the sense that they are a tool that acts as an extension of the human body in order to facilitate a human's aims.

It should be obvious that Tony Stark is a cyborg, though not a conventional one. His most obvious cybernetic feature is the power core embedded in his chest, but his suit, in the way it extends both his body and will, is also a part of his cybernetic being. The films consistently portray the Suit as a second self for Tony, an eventually unlimited tangle of extra limbs that transform his body into a fluidly-bounded and ambiguous mass.

Why am I bringing all this obvious stuff up?

Well, because these concepts aren't just of interest to transhumanists and science fiction fans, they're also of interest to a particular strand of contemporary critical theory--Cyborg Feminism. And the films don't just have a veneer of cyberization, they also can serve as an access point to these ideas and the deconstructive power they level at the existing power structures of the world.

Let's talk about Tony Stark the Cyborg.

I'm on a Giacometti kick after last article.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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.
AND THIS ISN'T EVEN MY FINAL FORM!

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.