Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts

Other Publication: Comics Break the Sound Barrier

This article of mine was published last month in Publishers Weekly.  Here is an excerpt.

From Julian Fong.
"Superman was the first comic-book superhero to break the sound barrier, with the 1940s radio show The Adventures of Superman. Those old-time radio shows may be classics, but they don’t hold up against the audio dramas being produced today by two companies—GraphicAudio and the AudioComics Company. Both publishers create audio dramatizations of comic-book narratives, complete with full casts, sound effects, and musical scores.

Currently, GraphicAudio leads the way in terms of breadth of titles. The company celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and it’s been producing audio dramatizations of comic book novelizations for the last seven years. GraphicAudio has released about 30 recordings to date and plans at least a dozen more in the next year. Its first production was DC Comics’ Infinite Crisis, a two-part, 12-hour recording released in 2007, but in 2013 the company launched a Marvel Comics line, starting with an audio edition of Civil War, which was a finalist for the Audio Publishing Association’s prestigious Audie Award for Audio Drama last year."

For the full article, travel onto Publishers Weekly and read more!

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The Case Against Dracula: Circumstantial Evidence and the Novel

I'm a moderate fan of literary-alternative stories.  The stories that retell a story that's been told before.  The most recent and well-known version of this is Gregory Maguire's Wicked (now a series, containing 3 books), which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz, through the eyes of the Wicked Witch.  In doing so, Maguire, makes the Witch, the misunderstood and tragic character while the others are bad or questionable people.  The most literary of these attempts to re-visit a past story is most likely John Gardner's Grendel; the retelling of the epic poem, Beowulf, through the monster's eyes.  Indeed, the act has been described as post-modern by some; reinvent the narrative to favor the villain and there might be some truth in that; and yet, we have other long-ago texts that do this same thing, including Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We are enamored with a shift in perspective and the ways an author will tease out a new narrative from the original material.

A retold tale is much like a sequel, a mash-up, a fan-fiction, an adaptation, etc in that it allows us to reengage with a particular narrative we enjoyed.  It can give us “more” of the story or just bring us back to those moments we so thoroughly enjoyed.  But often, the retold tale tries to re-imagine the story in a way that is oppositional to the original text, decentering the hero/protagonist in favor of other a lesser character(s), antagonist or villain.

Dracula Retold

Book cover to Renfield: A Tale of Madness by Gary Reed
This brings me to Dracula.  Given the deep and lasting influence of Dracula as “the vampire” and the instantaneous connection we all make when we hear Dracula or vampire separately,  (although, that could be currently usurped—at least of the time being with Edward Cullen),  a person could argue that all vampire stories are retold stories of Dracula.  While vampire tales do exist before him (Poldoris The Vampyre; Rymer’s Varney the Vampire, and of course, that sexy vixen Carmilla, by Joseph LeFanu—who was inspirational ground zero for Stoker’s Dracula), it seems the weight of each vampire story is held up against Dracula.  Defined in relation or against the Count’s definition.  Thus, Edward Cullen maintains the tall and dark alienated persona associated with Dracula, but does not given into his bloodlust (mostly) and attempts to coexist with humans instead of snack on them.

However, I’m more interested in discussing the most interesting pieces out there that attempt to re-interpret what Stoker has written.  There are four that come to mind, though I’m sure there are dozens more out there.  With these four, they perform some interesting re-interpretative feats.

Renfield:  A Tale of Madness by Gary Reed and Galen Showman (1995)

I mentioned this, mostly because I found it really enjoyable and a great example of getting more out of the story.  This graphic novel retells the story of Dracula, through the eyes of Renfield, who is my favorite character in the book (Mostly because I read this graphic novel before my first thorough reading of Dracula).

The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen (1975)

This book serves as the starting point of a series by Saberhagen about Dracula with him living throughout the 20th century encountering all the changes and differences it brings and eventually coming face to face with the Harkers’ children.  In fact, the story starts with Dracula confronting the Harkers’ grandchildren and providing them with cassette tapes that record the story from his perspective.  He recounts how his acts were misconstrued—either accidentally or purposely by the protagonists as well as his loving relationship with Mina.  

Dracula, the Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt (2009)

This is a “sequel” written in part by the great grand-nephew of Stoker, which attempts to give it some legitimacy.  The story picks up a generation later, when Quincy Harker is attempting to achieve his dream as an actor and stumbles upon Bram Stoker who has written a book called “Dracula” that’s all about his parents.  Dracula, again reemerges as a misnunderstood figure, trying to find true evil creature, the vampire, Elizabeth Bathory who is the embodiment of evil vampires (while Dracula is the epitome of “good”).  This version also has battles and scenes that are evocative of a modern-day superhero narrative and unlike other versions, chooses not to tell itself in the epistolary manner that the original and other texts tend to utilize.
Book cover to The Dracula Tapes by Fred Saberhagen

Dracula, My Love by Syrie James (2010)

Here again, Dracula’s story is retold by Mina; who in addition to aspiring wife of Harker, also is seeking her own origin (being an orphan), and having inner battles about being appropriate in Victorian culture.  Her falling in love with Dracula comes from a series of interactions that she chose not to write in her journal that she submitted for the events, but kept to herself.

Within the pieces discussed above and many other pieces, we find that there are several elements that are continually reconsidered and negotiated due to plot holes, cultural privileging, and reflection on interpretations of the text.

Mina’s Relationship With Dracula

There’s lots of room for interpretation on this one; after all, when Mina is caught in the bed with Dracula and Jonathan is out cold; one has trouble believing her innocence.  Typically, it is cast as a love affair.

What Happened on the Demeter

This interesting tidbit provides lots of food for thought.  Both James and Saberhagen argue that it was indeed a mad man who did it and not Dracula.  Saberhagen has Dracula admit that he was actually stuck within his coffin, unable to escape, while Syrie points out that it would not be useful for Dracula to kill everyone on board and risk losing his precious cargo of boxes of native earth.

Overreliance on Van Helsing and his Knowledge

I think this is the most intriguing element.  If the 19th century privileged knowledgeable people (except when there was a fear of them learning too much or “the wrong things” a la Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll), then the 2nd half of the 20th century has been to challenge, undermine, and be highly suspicious of privileged authorities such as doctors.  And given that Van Helsing is an authority on nearly everything (he has several different degrees and everyone seems to roll over and play dead for him), Dracula the Undead, Dracula, My Love, and The Dracula Tape all open up this line of questioning.  How does Van Helsing know what he knows?

Lucy’s Death

Intriguing because, taken with the bit above about Van Helsing, Lucy’s death falls at his feet.  Since blood types aren’t established till after the publication of the book, many writers are quick to attack Van Helsing for injecting Lucy with no less than 4 people’s blood in a very short period, not knowing their blood type and thereby, quite possibly being the true cause of her death.
Book cover to Dracula, My Love by Syrie James

Dracula’s Death

Obviously, if Dracula is then considered the protagonist, he is spared his death since it is evident that Van Helsing doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Dracula’s death turns out to only be temporarily or even faked.

So going way back to the top, I did name this post as the “The Case Against Dracula” and I’m actually getting to my point here.  What these writers do is pin together various narratives based upon the shortcomings of Stoker’s writings and this is where it gets interesting.  The goal of an author is to lead the reader through a narrative, but at times, the narrator, to create mystery, suspense, curiosity, etc, will not take the most direct route.  In fact, to do so, undoes the darker nature of many stories or transitions the suspense into gore.  It gives away too much; too easy.  Thus, the author tries to let the reader connect events.  In the case of Dracula, not only is the reader supposed to connect facts and understand what’s going on; but Stoker has his characters doing the same thing.  After all, the book is a collection of journal entries, newspaper articles, and letters that become a central part of the story at one point.

Therefore, Dracula has both intentional gray areas and actual mistakes by the author.  A good example of an intentional gray area are the events on the Demeter.  No firsthand account comes forward to say that Dracula drank his way through the crew, but by the fact that it’s included in the collection of writings for the protagonists’ case, leads us to believe that it is.  As for actual mistakes, there are several inconsistencies within Stoker’s writings about the nature of the vampire.

The circumstantial evidence when properly aligned, leads us to believe Dracula is the anti-Christ as Stoker implies through his characters.  However, if Dracula were put on trial, what actual evidence would there be against him?  The baby in the bag?  Harker never sees the baby; only hears noise; and so Saberhagen calls it a piglet.  His actions on the Demeter, again, are never proven.  His murdering of Lucy?  Of Renfield?  Still no dice.    It’s interesting that there are college courses and written works other there that look to apply the standards of the law against the facts in a piece of literature (whether an actual courtroom scene, a mystery, or something other debatable element within a story).  In some ways, that’s what the writer does when he/she first starts to explore the idea of re-telling a tale.


What are other stories (besides the ones mentioned) that attempt to reinterpret the text?  (Don’t just name them, actually discuss them if you have firsthand knowledge).

Are there examples of stories where the reinterpretation surpasses (in some capacity) the original?

What other gaps are there in Dracula?  What other alternative Dracula texts are there?

Why would an author tackle a story that’s already been told? 

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On Borrowed Tales

I should posit that I haven’t actually read Kill Shakespeare yet.  I’ve checked out comic’s website  and read this post in the Globe and Mail.  I will most likely read it in the future and provide an addendum either reiterating my dubiousness or reiterating the fact that I’m an idiot (or both—quite likely).   The series like a mixture of fan fiction, intertexuality, meta-fiction, tempered with perverse comments in iambic pentameter and epic action.  That does actually sound like Shakespeare.

But I’m dubious about a venture that sets out from the beginning to compare itself to the Lord of the Rings and other highly epic and influential material.  I also found the comment that if Shakespeare was alive today, he’s be doing comics.  Those comments seem to undermine the ability to think creatively and perform some amazing linguistic and psychological feats with characters that represented Shakespeare.  I’m not positing that Shakespeare is the end-all be-all, but he did some amazing feats, and his work has left an indelible mark on the modern world, regardless if that’s what he intended (favorite Isaac Asimov story!).  The comments by the creators sound more like bravado before actually providing substance.

The series would not be the first to rework and evolve a previous body of literary works.  There have been numerous efforts within comics to craft intelligent and compelling stories that creatively appropriate textual (and sometimes cinematic works:  consider the range of licensing titles that Dark Horse holds from film, video games, etc).

Mythological Spin-Offs

Probably the three most famous series that playfully manipulate previously established “literature” include Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and Fables.  Of the three, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman does it least directly and consistently; but directly invokes many different tales, mythologies, and even has Shakespeare as an reoccurring character.  Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman focuses almost solely on novels of the 1800s and early 1900s (including the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and others).  Additionally, Moore’s series for all intents and purposes seems to be a limited self-contained series.  Fables on the other hand is an every-expanding and evolving narrative from Bill Willingham (Note:  I am totally ga-ga over this series).  Fables does some amazing things as it builds off the characters’ original motivations and plots and weave it into a larger tapestry of world events.  Sandman takes the ideas from other literature and crafts them into an intriguing mythology of the universe while Moore craftily interweaves believable but different manifestations of the characters from more than a dozen worlds.  Willingham uses the stories as a starting point or rather the character origin, but then launches them into new and challenging events.      

Zenescope Entertainment  has been building a series of ongoing narratives based upon fairy tales and children stories that work with them in different ways, but seem to fixate on the sex and violence element to a blatant degree.  It can certainly be enjoyable to some people and yet by comparison to how Willingham deals with such characters, it does feel cheap.  Granted, Moore has gone the route of sex with his Lost Girls series and yet, the approach there seems to be different than the short skirts and bounding cleavage as suggested by the Beyond Wonderland image.

Getting back to Shakespeare; it gets harder with something like his plays because they do have specific lines and plot elements.  Granted, some of these have been presented/interpretated differently; and many of Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from previous stories and plays.  One can retool fairy tales since they exist in a nether-region.  Yes, we have them written down, but for most of their existence, they were passed down by word of mouth.  Thus, deviations or creative manipulations from the canon is part of the norm.  Even with Moore’s work deals with more dubious characters since the 19th century seemed to be pushing more towards less clearer villains and heroes (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mina Harker, and the Invisible Man are great examples here).  By contrast, launching tragic characters (many of whom we know to die within their story) across time and space for a quest for a mighty quill doesn’t seem to live up to the material it is borrowing from.

Creating and interweaving narrative with a previous existing text is certainly fun.  I’ve talked elsewhere here about pieces like Wicked, The Dracula Tape, Grendel, etc.  But some can be a bit too much gimmick and not enough gumption.  This seems to be the case with the new onslaught of titles that insert (even more?) ridiculous events into older stories (mash up stories).  Originally triggered by Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  The more successful ones seem to pay homage to the original while also looking to tell powerful and compelling stories.  In this regard, Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Fables seem to the more impressive pieces.  It will be interesting to see where Kill Shakespeare fits in.


What’s appeals to readers about mash-up novels, or texts that build off a previous mythology/narrative/collection of works?

Some argue that this is uncreative or lacking substance?  Agree?  Disagree?  Why?

What do these kind of works suggest about the nature of story telling?  Why can we deduce from their ability to leap different media and form?

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email. 

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The Sequel, Remake, Redux Edition

So often I hear a great many people complain about “Sequel-Mania” or the number of remakes being made of movies that aren’t even old (at least to the person making the statement).  Even the Washington Post wasted ink on the subject ; believing it is detrimental to the creative world.  The elitism can be heard in a great many of these arguments.  People just don’t have fresh ideas and aren’t as creative as they “used to be.”

Bahhh.  I don’t buy it.  In fact, I remember watching the first X-Men movie when it came out and I knew that I only enjoyed it as much as I did because I knew there would be sequels.  If X-Men 1 was all there would be, I would have been deeply disappointed.

As Thomas Foster  reminds us, there is only 1 story it and keeps getting retold time and time again.  So the fact that sequels are abundant is not entirely surprising.  More importantly though, I think the Washington Times and others miss the point.  Yes, studios and even publishers look to launch series and a strong influence is the financial benefits.  Yet, such arguments undermine the fact that the audience wants more.  No matter how much we enjoy a story, we look forward to the next installment.  We want to know what happens next.  We can accept “happily ever after,” but we never seem to want to put it to rest.  And this is nothing new!  This is why L. Frank Baum wrote so many books about Oz; why Sir Conan Arthur Doyle had to bring back Sherlock Holmes; it’s why the Illiad followed the Odyssey which was later followed by the Orestia and then the Aeneid.   We are drawn towards serial storytelling and some films (not nearly all by any means) can offer that.

It’s also why we see so many alternative tales; stories about previously written stories told through the eyes of different characters or retold in new ways.  We get The Dracula Tape as Fred Saberhagen’s attempt to recast Dracula as a good guy.  Gardner’s Grendel providing the contemplative monster due to be killed by Beowulf.  Tad Williams delivered Caliban’s Hour to show us what The Tempest looked like through the monster’s eyes.  Wicked gets to the heart of the Wicked Witch’s dilemma in the Oz books.  That’s the tip of the iceberg.  We also have authors who have written sequels to older books such as Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships as the sequel for HG Wells' The Time Machine or Dacre Stoker’s sequel, Dracula the Undead to his great grand-uncle’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  We love continuum; getting to know characters and finding out where they go from there.  This explains the extensive publishing of Star Wars books, Twilight, Spenser, and Inspector Poirot.

Recapturing the Past

This desire for recapitulating our characters into new settings is also at the cornerstone of the remake industry.  Indeed, remakes are very akin to those twice-told tales through different viewpoints; only it’s the director’s different viewpoint instead of the character’s.  We’re always curious to see what will be the new way the old information is re-presented.  I’ll admit I can be pretty harsh in this regard; I’m still doubtful about seeing the recent remake of Nightmare on Elm Street.  After all, I grew up watching Freddy Krueger (now paging Dr. Freud!), for anyone but Robert Englund to be Freddy is sacrilegious.  But the remake is a solid deal for creators and viewers alike.  Creators work with what is likely to be a guaranteed money-maker (in addition to the film, merchandise will be substantial for most remakes—I’m sure this Halloween, they’ll be more Freddys’ out than there have been in a while).     But also, because of the insular audience, directors/writers have an opportunity to be playful, provocative, think out of the box about what they want to do with it.  It’s kind of like getting a replacement car that is the same make and model but can be customized very differently.

The Intertextual Existence of Beowulf

One of the more successful and appealing examples reworking a text is the 2007 CGI Beowulf.  Now, while many see this as an abysmal film (which was me at first), I came to appreciate the dynamic influence and development that created this film. There’s this intriguing mixture of influence that produces the film and to lack this knowledge, often means you miss out on its significance.

Background:  Beowulf was an ancient epic poem written sometime in the later half of the 1st millennium.  In modern times, Beowulf was often criticized for its overabundance of monsters in its 3-act poem.  Along comes J.R.R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame—though before he wrote that) who delivers a speech call  "Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics"   The speech revolutionizes how the monsters and the entire text is understood within modern literary circles.

JRR Tolkien - Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics

Given his extensive knowledge of Beowulf, it becomes clear that Tolkien is indeed influenced by Beowulf, invoking some of the battle with the Dragon into his book, The Hobbit.  Fast forward to the late 20th century.  Neil Gaiman, English creator/writer of fantasy has inevitably been influenced by both Beowulf and Tolkien.  Gaiman is given to write the script for the CGI version of Beowulf and sure enough, he plays around with the plot in different ways, but at key times in the film, actually evokes Tolkien’s influence.  But not his fantasy influence, but his influence on the importance of monsters in Beowulf.

There are two key scenes where this plays out. The first scene is after Beowulf has (to his belief) killed Grendel.  Grendel’s mother attacks Herot Hall and thus, Beowulf is told he must slay the mother.  His response is:  “How many monsters must I slay? Grendels mother, father, Grendes uncle? Must I hack down a whole family tree of demons?”  The second scene occurs in the final third of the film when they flashforward 50 years when Beowulf and his army are fighting the Frisians.  One of them tries to attack him but is subdued.  Beowulf responds with “You want your name in The Song of Beowulf? You think it sould end with me killed by some Frisian raider with no name?.”  These two quotes taken together serve as the lynchpins of Tolkien’s discussion on the nature of Beowulf and its relevance.  The first being that once Beowulf fights a monster, he must continue fighting monsters for the epic to work.  The second, reinforcing the first in that, the “Song of Beowulf” would not be a song if in the final act he is slayed by some no-name warrior.  It needs to be a monster.

The other added influence here is that the presentation of Grendel (and you’ll have to watch this in full to get it) is highly invocative of Smeagol/Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films.

So what does all this mean?  The easy answer:  a whole lot of nothing.  The more relevant answer is that retelling tales is not a simple act of getting more money or people being lazy.  It’s a creative process in itself that can be influenced in a variety of ways that are just are curious and creative; often paying homage or evolving from the original source material but also adjusting and responding to the times in which the newer version is being delivered to.


What are some of the ways sequels, remakes, new-vantage point stories that successfully develop/adapt/retell their story?

What other reasons are there for these reconfigurations/sequels?  What else are we drawn to with regards to sequential storytelling?

What are other some great examples of the mixing influential pieces that have gone in to making a particular sequel/remake?

How do we evaluate the creativity of an author/creator who has utilized a previous text into an different-point of view piece or sequel?  Examples?

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email. 

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Vacation of the Mind Part 4: Fearful Insights

The next book for me to enjoy during my vacation is the only nonfiction book in the lot.  I’m a big fan of nonfiction of course, but I think mostly for this trip, I was looking to step into other people’s shoes.  Not “escape” as we so often refer to the act, but more just enjoy the new vision other authors’ worlds gave me.  However, I did happen to listen to one compelling nonfiction audiobook on my mp3 player that has left me with a better critical angle to approach informational sources (or maybe just refreshed my already developed sense?).

The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner

The book is a rather interesting look at how our sense of fear is so often misguided.  We get distracted, mixed messages, or not sufficient information to judge something as a legitimate threat while at the same time, rarely take a step back to view the broader context for something we deem a threat.  As Gardner says, our “gut” (or instinct—which in itself is antiquated since it was developed for the world of serious and deadly threats of the wilderness; not what is by far an extremely less threatening modern world) is constantly flummoxed by the information it receives and doesn’t often give “mind” (or abstract thought—the latest developed piece of equipment humankind has been working with and therefore, the least removed from our emergency response question) a chance to impose order before reacting.  We are continually reacting to perceived threats that aren’t real and this happens in large part due to a feedback (and amplifying) loop within society among officials, media, and the public. 

The book in large part brought me back to two of my favorite, influential and thought-provoking books that I read a while back:   Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media by Michael Parenti and The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner.  What Gardner, Parenti, and Glassner do so well is help the reader to deconstruct the numerous messages and pressures directed at a person (usually through mass media, culture/society, or government).  Additionally, they remind the reader that even the most positive-seeming groups (a cancer-research advocacy group, for instance) is still most likely going to manipulate the message (and in doing so, evoke our fear) for the largest effect; to motivate the receiver (the person reading/viewing/listening to the message).  Playing on the emotions can in itself be problematic since there is a continually diluting effect the more a message is used.  The starving child of the 1980s “Feed the Children” campaign   is less effective now than it was then.  A good example is the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s ad campaign of animals suffering the hazards of our plastic pollution.  Human’s extensive pollution of the earth is indeed horrific, but in the video below, by putting it to Queens’ “Who Wants To Live Forever,” it becomes too much.  That is, the languid melody preys on emotions even further than is necessary.  

The commercial is playing on our heart-strings and demanding we act now by using emotional content without much factual content .  It provides no substance for us to contextualize what we’re seeing.  Exactly how many animals of all the animals living in the world right now die by plastic?  What are other devastating means that animals die by human hands (and this question is one of comparison:  After all, if ten times more animals die by human design—say for the purpose of human consumption; then animal death by plastic seems irrelevant)  Their need to manipulate instead of inform also speaks to other issues of humankind with regards to planning, changing, and conscientiousness, but alas, they must compete for our heart-strings as much as others who want our attention (and the potential  revenue that comes with that).  It’s asking us to react; not to think.

Like the others, Gardner’s prose pushes the reader to step back and ask critical questions of the information and challenge the often blatant and underlying assumptions.  It’s worth everyone’s time to take a look at this as it provides compelling insight and means of addressing the things that each one of us fear or just are wary of.

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email. 

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Playing to The Story

Humans by and large love to play.  We have a fondness to play with those things that interest us, particularly from narratives that grab our attention.  So much of my childhood was spent playing away with large epic battles among my G. I. Joes (which at one point were numerous enough, especially with the different vehicles) to fill a standard laundry basket).  We enjoy playing an active part in our story making but also just to gain access to “more” of our stories and characters.  Thus, we’re quick to see the movie of the comic we love or the book we’ve read faster than anything assigned in school.  It gives a deep sense of enjoyment with our particular interest.  And let’s not forget as Spaceballs reminds us, that from the producer’s end, there’s something to be had from capitalizing on this desire:

But Spaceballs also show us there’s something more than just merchandizing to be had.  Or rather it provides keen insight as to what merchandizing allows its consumers to do:

The act of taking control and using one’s interest for new and divergent ways from the original text is of course, the cornerstone to many elements of fan culture in the world today.  Initiating with fan-fiction (and eventually slash fiction), it grew into a range of elements including cosplay, fan videos, and the like.  Taking control or redirecting the standard narrative has been the topic of study for many within popular culture since it clearly indicates that the relationship between creator and audience is not as one-directional as many assume it to be.

The Batman Comic Generator site is a good example.  The site allows visitors to plug words into particular speech balloons within a specific Batman comic.  Originally, it was the singular comic seen below, but the site has expanded to 3 and who knows, by the time you read this, it might be 10.  Even if this site were to shut down; there are many others like it out there on the web.

The compelling thing about this site is to see what other people have done.  Just like the newspapers that draw a comic panel or provide a picture and let readers compete for the best comment, so too does this site drive its appeal from seeing what people will say.  But, it’s not just any joke that will do here.  The jokes have to fall into the context of Batman smacking Robin and many of previous ones will try to invoke the classic Batman and Robin gay scenario or work from fan-based knowledge to create the best laughter.  Those unfamiliar with Batman may have trouble fully appreciating the range of jokes being offered.

Now, this might not be taking full control of the comic as I mentioned with the G I Joes and other types of toys/tools, but many a time have I seen the generator used and the produced picture as someone’s Facebook profile picture or in some other relative context.


What are some of the things we get from playing/engaging with material that is evocative of a particular narrative or interest?  Why play baseball on the Wii?  Why create a Star Wars fan-film?  Does the world need another Harry Potter fan-fiction?

With regards to the Batman comic generator, why does Batman and Robin work so well for this?  Would it be as interesting were it another comic duo?

Who is the “creator” of the comic produced?  How is authorship shared/renegotiated?

The Textbook Case…Of Textbooks?

 Over the last few months, debates and discussions have been nuzzling their way through the Internet and the news media about the changes that are occurring in Texas around the state school boards’ revisions made to acceptable history textbooks for public education.  This article from the Washington Post provides a summation.  Of course, many people are critical of it; not the least of which is one of my favorites, Stephen Colbert.

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In watching Colbert, notice what things he does to undermine the entire issue; make it in some ways a non-issue or a poor reflection of ourselves.  But Colbert also looks to a historian, Eric Foner, who has written a good deal on American history and is an established and well-known author in the field.

This speaks to the large issue though of “what is history.”  So often, we say it’s a collection of the past events that explain the present but that tends to be overly simplifying.  History is an attempt at meaning making of past events and their relationships to one another as well as to the present.  It’s the meaning making that is problematic and most challenging in history.  It’s here that we tend to inject value and create a hierarchy of which events are more influential and relevant.  For instance, often, we have valued, studied, and talked about political leaders (presidents, kings, emperors) or military events (wars, coup d’etats, revolutions) in history.

Book Frames

But there are flaws with this model; first, the act of past-looking is so often framed by the present.  Just like memories in our heads, looking at the past is going to be understood through the present lens.  A great example of this is Doris Kearn Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” published in 2005.  Here is a book that was written (and well received) in 2005.  The premise of the book focuses on the politically varied Cabinet that Abraham Lincoln chose upon become President.  But the book and its reception came at a time when the current president (President GW Bush) had been vexing the public in part for his insular and padded surrounding of others who were in the exact ideologically mindset as him; that is, no outside voices for him to consider.  Thus, Goodwin’s history had a very specific frame through which people could understand and appreciate the kind of history she was telling.
The second major flaw is that choosing and debating and presenting as “truth” certain facts being more influential than others in any event or in history as a whole, presumes that we:

1.    Vastly understand who we are as human beings and how we got to the present; both of which have been drastically undermined.  Given that the past, some modern “human beings” would not be consider “human” means that they were disregard, devalued, and not given the tools or denied the tools to record their histories (or if done so, more often destroyed than allowed to continue).  That is, our categories have never been solidly clear.  Also, where we don’t fully understand the human mind, and that our major means of communicating (language) is significantly faulty or at least limited in terms of what it can provide us for “truth” of our minds, means we’re continually reconfigure what we “think” of why people did what.

2.    The other major presumption is that we know the full picture; we know the end game; we know how the full “story” that history is supposed to purport.  Our presumptions of beginnings, middles and ends have been greatly undermined.  A person claiming to be both Christian and scientist in the 1700s would claim that the world (and human life) was some 6000 years old; that same person today, could claim 6000 or 5 billion and as for the beginning of human life; the answer varies according to your definition and belief systems.  

So back to Texas and the school books.  Regardless, the creation of a textbook is inevitably going to be faulty to some end or other; the concern here is how much control and manipulation nonhistorians  can have and can use to present certain types of history for certain populations.  Teaching children is a loaded problem; this problem has appeared in many different subjects:  literature, sex education/health, and of course, history (that is, this isn’t the first time that the teaching of history has been under scrutiny (check out  Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present by Joseph Moreau or Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong  by James W. Loewen  for further discussion).

But what this story opens us up to is the impact this will have on not just students (redirected away from one historical figure/moment to another) but also how this will impact the textbook industry and writers of history in general.  While it’s a far cry to say that this censorship board (and given the range of expectations; they are acting as such) is going to fully rewrite or threaten history, it’s attempts to do so on a local level are challenging and problematic.

In the larger picture, I think it’s important to keep in mind that these kind of decisions are being made all the time and on all ends of the political and cultural spectrum.  What the school board ultimately represents is but one of the many filters through which information is coded and formatted.  For many of us, we’re unaware of the filter systems for so much that we take for granted as “truth” or “fact.”  

What are some other thoughts we have about this?

What are some of the others filters of information?  What are the challenges or concerns that each of these pose?  Are there benefits to such filters?  If so, what are they?

What other incidents of censorship do we know of or have witnessed?  Within politics?  History?  Literature?

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Spaceballs: The Value of (Re)Viewing

I owe much to the comedians of my childhood and their influence on me.  Robin Williams as “Mork from Ork” in Mork and Mindy; Leslie Nielsen in Police Squad and Naked Gun; John Candy as Uncle Buck; and Mel Brooks’ comedic masterpiece (at least in my 10 year old eyes), Spaceballs.  Given my proclivity towards Star Wars, Spaceballs was 90 minutes of supreme hilarity that I watched incessantly to the point that I memorized large chunks of the script and was also drastically disappointed with the novelization which replaced the “Asshole” scene with Moron (or idiot or some other downgraded dirty word).  Like the Star Wars trilogy that I had on video cassette, I went through at least one copy of Spaceballs in my childhood. 

I say all this, not just to explain my weird and displaced sense of pride about my childhood obsessions but to lay the foundation so that it’s clear; I knew Spaceballs.  A while back, I sat down to watch Spaceballs in the first time in probably a decade.  It was purely a nostalgic craving for that film that so easily made me smile with its visual puns (“You’ve been jammed”), post-modern humor (“You’ve captured their stunt doubles!”—and no, I had no clue at the time that’s what was so funny), and of course, the cheap gags (“Come back, you fat-bearded bitch!”).  But I had no idea this trip down memory lane would prove to me how powerful the act of “re-viewing” material is.

Here is the clip that knocked me off my chair with laughter and astonishment.

Learning From Spaceballs...after the 100th View

Now, I thought I know everything there was to know about Spaceballs.  I didn’t expect a curveball in re-watching it for easily the 100th time (and that is a conservative number; there were days I watched this 2 times in a row).  But there it was; smack down in the middle of Spaceballs, a joke about Franz Kafka, author of the short story, Metamorphosis.  Quite simply, I lost my shit.   

It is so random, and unexpected.  I had watched the scene many times before and here I was dumbstruck by a new joke that reminded me of how much I loved Mel Brooks.    Instantly, this reminded me of the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (don’t worry, I’m not much caught up on my Greek philosophers either) and his famous quote:     

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”

It now struck me why my instructors and even myself by habit had encouraged revisiting previously-processed material.  On occasion in a given class, we find that the instructor has chosen material we are already familiar with whether it’s a book, a film, or some other piece of knowledge.  So many of us assume that since we already did it, we don’t need to again, but the value of re-viewing something cannot be understated.  As the quote indicates, the world and we by extension are in a constant state of flux.  When we sit down to read that book we’ve read before or watch that movie we’ve seen a dozen times, we’re always bringing new eyes to it.  Of course, we may know the larger pieces such as plot, but with reviewing we pick up on new elements of the piece.  That is, new things are revealed to us in the reviewing process.

The other part is that the “Lance” that sat down to watch Spaceballs now and the one that watched it some 20 years ago are not the same person.  As Heraclitus indicates, humans are like rivers always changing in innumerable obvious and subtle ways.  Between the earlier and the present viewing, I have indeed learned a great deal about the world; including about Franz Kafka and his writings.  Indeed, the very nature of throwing in such an intellectual and random joke works well with the themes of absurdity in Kafka’s pieces.  But the beauty of the joke is lost on the earlier “Lance.”  Thus, re-viewing can bring more pleasure and better understanding of a piece because we’re already know some things about it and can keep our eyes out for new things; we also have grown since that first viewing.   

What moments from re-reading and re-viewing (relevant to the course in question) have you found that this has happened?

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The Onion's Approach on Truth

Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere

Watch the above; be warned; language might be a bit offensive.

Beyond a doubt, the central criticism of this film has been done in myriad ways in a variety of different shows from Saturday Night Live to In Living Color, and other comedy skit shows.  But I still love how The Onion does it with such precision and execution. 

The overarching issue is the sense of conformity and construction of news.  News is a troubling word.  Its name indicates different; a rift in what was going on before and now.  But the form of delivery in all news media is standard and formulaic.  Newspaper articles are supposed to cover the 5W in the first paragraph or so, and news television has a certain amount of conventions as well.  The problem herein that this piece speaks to is the arbitrary manner in which the news seems to be constructed.  Who among the “common folk” do they choose to interview?  Which “professional” shall they go to and how will they qualify that person?  By job, education, association, publication or some other piece of authority that indicates that this person is “the knowledgeable one in which we can trust?” 

Our predisposition to fall into patterns makes use readily to accept the format, but The Onion and others before it, remind us how dangerous it is to be idle in our consumption of messages.  And in particular, authoritative messages, of which the news inevitably is. But more importantly, the news is simply one genre of storytelling.  We believe it to be more “truthful” (and truth of course, is quite arbritrary), but it is filled with its own decision-making process to rule out certain information (truths) and decide what is the important pieces that compose a “news story.”  We like to believe it chooses the right pieces of information to present, but in the large scale of world events or history for that matter, that’s a pretty bold belief for just system of storytelling that relies on people seeking out specific “stories.”

Is History Just Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere?

History is much the same way.  The historical record, or rather how we explain the historical record of facts and how they influence one another is also subject to an equal amount of formulation or construction.  What the Onion video strikes home to is that news (and by extension in my own mind, history) are facets of truth.  Just as memoirs (Think James Frey),  documentaries (Think Michael Moore), and bio-pic films (Take your pick), attempt to tell truths, they are consciously constructed to prove certain points; they are also constructed for consumption.  Therefore, to tell a genuine “history of the world” (a phrase which returns approximately 245,719 hits on as of this posting), implies a great and lofty goal with an abysmal follow through.  Sure, we try hard to do so and we are decent with course correction when introduced to new information, science, arguments, etc, but in the end, to tell a “story” in history or in the news entails delivering a beginning, middle, and end; of which in both cases, there rarely is; or rather choosing the beginning, middle, and end is quite dubious.  We don’t have the means of accessing such a full picture; but it doesn’t keep us from trying. 

My train of thought on this subject is deeply influenced by David Shields’ book, Reality Hunger:  A Manifesto.  The book itself is a compilation of quotes that Shields has consciously constructed to imbue certain questions about “truth,” how we construct it, how we desire it so much (think the overwhelming diluge of “reality tv shows”), and our inability at trying to get it.  What is that quest all about?  “Truth”—what is it? 

So why do we keep trying?  I’m not asking why do we keep a record of history nor have news; they both have a place in our society.  But why do we give it such privilege of knowledge?  Why do accept or act blind towards the constructive elements that make everything it produces suspect and dubious?  What purpose does it serve?  Who does it benefit?

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