The weight of continuity (#SFWApro)

19539418One of the standard complaints about comics is that the continuity and backstory is a massive turn-off to new readers (as I’ve mentioned in the past). One of the supposed purposes of DC’s reboot was that it was supposed to sweep away continuity and make it easy for newbies to follow along.

Reading the first TPB of All-New X-Factor by Peter David and Carmine di Giandomenico (cover by di Giandomenico, rights with current holder), I wonder if the problem isn’t so much that people can’t follow and grasp the backstory as that they don’t really care.

The concept of the book is that the mysterious Serval Corporation has recreated X-Factor (a team which has bounced around in multiple incarnations since it’s origins in the middle 1980s) to serve as it’s on-staff team of super-heroes. The CEO explains it’s so the company can do good in the world, but shockingly, he has a hidden agenda (gosh darn, now I’ve spoiled it for everyone!). The recruits in the first TPB include Magneto’s daughter Polaris; her half-brother Quicksilver; Gambit, Cajun mutant and thief; the AI Danger; the ET Warlock; and former New Mutant (another super-mutant team) Doug Ramsey.

All these characters come with a shit-ton of backstory—not just that they’ve appeared in lots of stories, but lots of changes, transformations, tragedies, etc., etc. (as I mention at the link above, backstory is both more complicated and much more important to characters than when I was a kid). To his credit, David does a great job making everything we need to know clear (of course I’ve read enough X-books that I don’t have as many gaps to fill in as someone starting cold) but it’s beyond him (and possibly anyone) to make it interesting. The history of Magus and Warlock and Doug actually makes them a little less interesting: when Warlock’s been a super-hero, super-villain, fused with a human being, unfused, fleeing from his father’s murderous intent, now back with Dad … as I said at the ink, I’m a comic book fan and when I see that stuff boiled down to a single-paragraph CV, even I can’t take it that seriously.

Or consider when Polaris finds the supposedly dead mutant Fatale alive and gets a long-winded info dump on what Quicksilver did to Fatale and why she hates him. It sets up Fatale’s understandable hostility when they meet, but I don’t think we really needed the details (the old school of footnoting the story in question would have worked fine for me).

Not that the story was a standout anyway. Everything seems fairly familiar—the team members have different agendas, corporate super-teams aren’t even new and the personalities have little beyond snark going for them. Still, I wonder if I’m the only one turned off by heavy backstory—and of course, someone who doesn’t have as much X-knowledge as I do might not even follow it easily.

This is, in a sense, a variation of a standard writing problem. How much do people buying book two of a series need to know about book one? Even if it’s a standalone, how much backstory should characters have? How much of it do people need to know and how early in the book?

I’ve seen stories that explain away all the backstory very early on and some that keep it hanging. I’ve read reasonable arguments you should omit all backstory if possible, though I don’t think that always works (for an action hero maybe, less so for a character-centric book). But the one thing it mustn’t do is bore readers. And by that standard, the new X-Factor book fails

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Undead sexist cliches: Women who orbit men (#SFWApro)

So I was thinking about the movie Paycheck some more and then I also started thinking of this post about strong female characters by my friend and fellow writer Elizabeth Berger.

Liz’s post is about the need to have female characters who are more than just strong and heroic, they need flaws and distinctive personality traits (I’ve written my own thoughts about female protagonists here). But Paycheck reminded me of another problem with supposedly strong fictional women: for all their strength and ability (whatever their talents may be), a lot of them are just there to fall in love with the hero.

Uma Thurman’s biologist in the movie is presumably brilliant (CEO of Evil Aaron Eckhart is the kind of villain who hires the best), and the climax proves she can handle herself in a fight. But personality wise, the only drive or goal she has is to be in love with Ben Affleck. They knew each other, fell for each other, but his mind has been wiped of the past three years’ memory so he’s lost to her.

This is, of course, hardly a new idea. It’s a variation on the Bechdel Test—does the movie have more than two women? Do they talk about anything but their boyfriends?—does the heroine have a life that doesn’t orbit around the male lead? Does she have career goals that disappear as soon as she falls in love? Is she only there to love the hero and prove he’s a real man? Or to inspire him and motivate him by getting brutally murdered (known as “fridging” from one example back in the 1990s Green Lantern series)?

It’s not a lot to ask, but a lot of writing fails the test anyway.

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Online complaints, writing links and other miscellanea.

It’s not just restaurants: even doctors have to deal with online reviews and some sue over them. I must admit, I remain unconvinced that online reviews are any more accurate a ranking than regular word of mouth used to be, but I don’t assume that the outraged reviewee is in the right either. Which isn’t much guidance.

*Speaking of reviews: if Yelp does, as some businesses charge, offer to remove online reviews in return for advertising, that’s not extortion according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

•However California has made it illegal to enforce a non-disparagement clause — no negative online reviews, no unfavorable ratings, etc.—against a state resident. The feds are looking at a similar law.

Here’s a look at a Portland map of a century ago, mapping out locations of vice, sin and “sporting women.”

•Making your payoff scene count.

•Amazon’s Kindle Scout program will apparently give readers a chance to vote on which potential authors should be published. Jim Hines looks at the program and finds it underwhelming for other reasons.

•If you use a lot of data (and some of us do), a suit against AT&T over data-throttling “unlimited” plans may be good news. Though AT&T says it’s groundless.

•I’m also fascinated as a writer by unusual copyright and trademark cases such as the cronut. And here’s one where MGM threatens to sue a race recreating Rocky Balboa’s workout run (the issue being the use of the Rocky name, not the route)

•I can’t critique this book, as I haven’t read it, but it annoys me when someone suggests that a super-hero story where heroes aren’t perfect and some heroes are outcasts is a radical new idea.

•A couple of freelancer websites in competition.

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Work vs. Dogs (#SFWApro)

So our first full day with the dogs proves they will put a crimp in my schedule. More acute at the moment because of the No Touch rule, but even after that. So I may not be doing much but Demand Media and time-travel watching for a while.
Judging by today, I’ll need to add a half-hour to my morning routine to allow for taking at least one dog out, feeding her, delivering some morning petting. Plus time for going out to do their business during the day, and eventually for walkies (probably right after Trixie’s up to full condition). And extra time for petting and cuddling. That’s particularly important because of having to keep them separated: if I stick Dudley in the pen for a while (in the pen. Maybe I should rename them James and Cagney), I want to switch him for Trixie so he doesn’t feel he’s being punished (though both of them take it surprisingly well).
We’ll see how it goes tomorrow which will be a day of (hopefully) dogs and work both.

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This is your brain on puppies (#SFWApro)

So we picked up our puppies today. So zero work.

trixie2Trixie is a 8 to 12 months cairn terrier/chihuahua, obviously full of energy but her main interest seems to be snuggling with a person (so far. We’ll see what she’s like after she gets used to us). She’s been pretty quiet so far, only barking at one dog at the vets.

Dudley, below, is a lhasa apso/X crossbreed (or possibly shihtzu/x) who feels like a plush toy. He’s overall quieter but I think he’s more likely to bolt on us if he gets a chance. So far he’s more interested in treats and toys than his younger sister.

Much to our surprise, they really seem to like each other (so far anyway). Unfortunately Trixie is recovering from her neutering surgery so rough-housing and having her belly licked are a no go for about another week. So we need to impose some limits on their interactions.

dudleyI was feeling really worried about whether I could get work done while having to constantly watch the pups and make sure No Touchee, but TYG found a large pen we can use to place Trixie out of reach without forcing her into a crate (we don’t want to make her feel she’s being punished when she goes in). I can also do a reasonably good job barricading her in the dining room with baby gates. She doesn’t like the isolation but she just goes to sleep so it’s doable, at least until she heals up.

Keeping them separate consumed some energy but the big time-hog today was just the nuts and bolts stuff: get to the shelter, complete the paperwork, come home, show them around, play with them a lot, take them to the vet, come home, play with them more … But I knew that’s how it would be. It’s the kind of point where losing the work time is a fair trade off for the gains.

They are both very sweet and affectionate and I think we made good picks.

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And the other movies (#SFWApro)

Two that don’t qualify for my book—

AMITYVILLE: It’s About Time (1992) was part of the second phase of the long-running franchise, in which the evil from the house enters various pieces of furniture, all of which end up in other houses … (this began with the TV movie Amityville: The Evil Escapes). In this case developer Stephen Macht brings home an antique clock which starts giving everyone weird hallucinations, which neighbor Nita Talbot warns is Very Very Bad, but will anyone listen? The ending might qualify this for my “marginal time travel’ appendix, but maybe not even that. In any case, mediocre—I haven’t watched crappy horror like this in a long while and I haven’t missed it. “Necromancer—it’s French, it means ‘eater of the dead.’”

PAYCHECK (2003) is John Woo’s Philip K. Dick adaptation in which Ben Affleck discovers that in return for three years of work for Aaron Eckhart (which has been erased from his mind for security) all he got was this stupid envelope of obviously useless bric-a-brac. These of course, turn out to be the exact things Eckhart’s precognitive computer told Afflect he’d need to stop Eckhart destroying the world. Unfortunately, this twist doesn’t work at movie length and the climax is way too much Woo-style hyper-action. Uma Thurman, as Affleck’s forgotten girlfriend, is a brilliant scientist whose only purpose in the script is to be in love with her man. Joe Morton plays a suspicious FBI man. “Was it fate? No, fate was on our side.”

Three that do:

PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1967)has an English hunter stumble into a Forbidden Land in Africa from whence he’s hurled back to the ancient era when Martine Beswick’s raven-haired amazons keep blondes as slaves. Beswick’s powerful screen presence and the eye candy factor are all this has to recommend it (though Beswick does make a great evil queen), and so much time is devoted to Primitive Tribal Dancing this is almost a musical. Definitely not recommended, but just as definitely it belongs in my book.

PLANET OF THE APES (2001) doubles pretty well with the above, as unlike the original film the humans here are intelligent, articulate and enslaved, until Mark Wahlberg crashes through a time rift and reluctantly becomes the liberator (as my friend Ross says, it’s not that far from a Stargate episode). While the visual details of ape society are neat, the film is too generic to work for me; well cast though, with Helena Bonham Carter as a human-rights supporter, David Warner as her father, Tim Roth as an evil chimp general and Stargate’s Michael Clarke Duncan as Roth’s more compassionate right hand. “This is the day you’ve waited for—this is the day you get to stand up to the apes!”

MEET THE ROBINSONS (2007) is an uneven Disney flick in which a genius pre-teen orphan finds out that his new invention is the linchpin on which the future turns, leading to the attention of an annoying future boy and a mysterious bowler-hatted man. This spends way too much time on the wacky Robinson family, probably because the kids’ book it’s based on focuses on them; here it just feels like annoying filler getting in the way of a surprisingly complex time-travel plot. Second-rate, but not without redeeming features. “Everyone will tell you to let it go and move on—instead, let it fester inside you!”

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Third sequels three! Time travel films (#SFWApro)

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), which I mentioned earlier this week, has Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter)  escape the apocalypse of the previous film by rebuilding Taylor’s crashed space ship and retracing his path to the 20th century. They become celebrities but also trigger government fears that they’re the seed from which the future ruling race will spring. This is very much a role-reversal of the original film with the chimps in Charlton Heston’s situation (and a lot of emphasis that the apes don’t treat humans any worse than we treat them) and some racial subtext (the Germanic Eric Braeden insisting Our Race Must Remain In Control). As this was the first Ape film I ever saw, I’m pleased to say it holds up well, but it does have flaws—are we really supposed to believe nobody questions that Cornelius and Zira are ordinary, but well-trained chimps? And where Planet had man’s former dominion of Earth as the ultimate secret of ape civilization, here it’s presented as everyday knowledge. I like it anyway. “If it is man’s destiny one day to be dominated, please God let him be dominated by such as you.”

MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012) was surprisingly good given I didn’t care that much for II (and I figured this would be as flabby as Shrek Forever After). An alien psycho Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) once jailed breaks free from the MiB’s lunar prison and goes back in time to kill off Young K (Josh Brolin, doing an excellent Jones impersonation), thereby opening Earth to an alien invasion. J (Will Smith) heads back to stop him (by a rather hazardous time-travel method) and teams up with his partner’s one self. This was great fun, though the time-travel has one cheat: at a crucial moment J leaps back into his own body when all previous uses show it’s a physical time-transfer. With Emma Thompson as the new agency head. “Tell her that I’m filming this man eating a hamburger—it’s transcendant.”

By contrast, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III (1993) is a by-the-numbers sequel and not very good numbers as April (Paige Turco) gets flung back to medieval Japan, forcing the heroes on a half-shell to travel after her. This would have made an okay cartoon episode, but not a film, and lord they waste a lot of film time dancing. “How did you get in April’s pants?”

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