Sunday, July 29, 2012

Examine your life decisions, Victor Frankenstein

Probably the best thing that happened to me last week was that I read an ARC of Kenneth Oppel's Such Wicked Intent.

You should read this book, too, and I will tell you why. Some backstory first, as there was a book before this called This Dark Endeavour. Meet young Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth.

This is how people in old-timey times dress. I know this, because I have watched The Vampire Diaries and there is no way the CW would lie to me about factual things like clothing and vampires. Anyway, in Victor is totally thinking it is so annoying that my beautiful cousin who is in love with my brother doesn't want to get with me. I am an awesome dude. Check out my expressive eyebrows! My brother Konrad doesn't have expressive eyebrows.

For reasons I won't go into—SPOILERS—Such Wicked Intent opens with Victor evaluating his life decisions, and reaching the obvious-if-you-read-the-book conclusion that many of them didn't go well for him.

Victor: I am possibly about to make another terrible life decision. I should ask Elizabeth and my friend Henry what they think of my decision before I make it.


Henry: I agree that your life decisions are usually not the best, but I'm less convinced about the going to hell thing.

Victor: Doing it anyway! And you guys are totally going along for the ride. Get in this metaphorical car so we can begin our roadtrip of awesomeness fueled by my terrible life decisions, occult shenanigans, and substance abuse allegory.

Yeah. There's an obvious substance abuse allegory in this, which is quite well-handled. It's not drinking, but to avoid spoilers I will use this picture of Damon drinking in lieu of a picture with the things Victor gets hooked on photoshopped into this picture of Damon drinking. You're welcome.

I also enjoyed the part where Victor begins to question said terrible life decisions of the earlier part of the book and is like why won't anyone listen to me now when I'm pointing out that I think I made a horrible mistake? Here is a picture of Bonnie looking disbelieving to indicate that no one is listening to Victor when it really matters.

Seriously, Such Wicked Intent filled me with glee. It's one of the most fun books I've read yet this year. It's also one of those instances of second book being arguably better than the first plus a middle book in a trilogy that doesn't read like a placeholder between the first and third books. I mean, I question why Kenneth Oppel needs so many exclamation marks in his dialogue, but he can construct and execute a plot brilliantly.

I don't usually spend books cheering for the protagonist to make terrible life decisions. But much like Damon Salvatore on The Vampire Diaries TV show, Victor is so delighted in his wickedness throughout this book that you can't help but love him and hope he continues to do wicked things. (And his wickedness is pretty tame compared to some of the stuff Damon does.)

Which is crucial, because most of us have a general idea of what happens in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. We know where Dr. Frankenstein ends up, which people have told me made them shy away from reading Oppel's trilogy. That is a terrible life decision, because watching young Victor grow into that person is fascinating. But there are people who don't like Macbeth or Hamlet, so each reader to her own.

Such Wicked Intent is both Victor being terrible and Victor being redeemable. I'm a little worried the glee of this book is cushioning the blow of pain, heartbreak, and less amusing terrible life decisions in the next book. Not that it matters, because I'm going to read the hell out of it, because Oppel's Victor Frankenstein is one of the most fascinating anti-heroes in Teen fiction. Right up there with Cassel Sharp.

This Dark Endeavour is currently available in a paperback with a gorgeous cover, and Such Wicked Intent comes out in August.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Meet Gerald, he is a hungry stick demon

This is Gerald. He likes to eat people, as evidenced by his speech balloon that reads "People, they are so tasty! Om nom nom nom!" And he means it because he ends his sentences with exclamation marks.

Gerald, however, can't eat people because there is popcorn in his way. (Obviously he is some kind of winged, tailed, tiny-footed demon who can be warded off with popcorn. That popcorn is saving our lives.)

Gerald was born at the I Didn't Read The Book Club for Rachel Hartman's Seraphina, hosted by the Toronto Public Library and Mabel's Fables. Yeah, Work, I totally cheated on you with the library. I'm sorry. A friend made me do it. It was peer pressure. Can we hug it out? (They had Kelley Armstrong, whom I haven't seen—through my own fault—since RT Teen Day 2011.) I will give you my drawing of Gerald, Work, if you want. (But not the popcorn. I ate it.)

This post should be about how wonderful Kelley and Rachel were, but I'm hoping other bloggers will take care of that. Really this is a post about how I'm a cheater. Not just on work by going to an event at the library, but how it's not really fair to read something you write out loud to a room full of people when you're probably the only other person in the room who's been published and your head's been in rewriting an outline for the past three days. I'm a jerk and I probably shouldn't have read, because I think it discouraged anyone else from reading.

It's not really fair to do that. I may have killed an entire room full of dreams tonight. I am such a jerk. For that reason and because I peer pressured someone else into reading her really great paragraph.

Rachel gave us an exercise to write from the perspective of something non-human and describe humanity. I'm a cheater because I've done that in every manuscript I've written. Unfair advantage: Practice. Lots of it.

This is what I read:

Someone had told him people burned brighter, because they had less time to glow. But they didn't. Instead their emotions flickered like glowbugs—too fast to take upon the tongue and roll around the taste buds. Sorrow colliding with joy so quickly it soured and muddied, left him empty, unsatisfied.

Humans, he thought, were always in the middle of going somewhere, of coming back, of forming an opinion, of deciding what to feel. Indecision was the word for them—or was that too unkind, too limited. But things with only one form, one way to see where limited—stuck. He had never been stuck.

This is not about Gerald. Gerald's paragraph would've been "MOVE THIS DAMNABLE POPCORN SO THAT I MIGHT FEAST UPON THE TASTY INNARDS OF PEOPLE." Which isn't a paragraph, but you can't tell Gerald anything. He won't listen; he's not very receptive to constructive criticism. His character arc is to learn empathy, which might decrease his desire to eat people.

This would be an amazing picture book, not just because it's a pen on lined paper stick demon who wants to eat people, but he could talk about his first underworld problems of how pants don't come with holes in them for his tail and how he has to stuff tissue in the toes of his shoes to accommodate his cloven hooves. He would teach people to appreciate what they have, which is a good lesson.

Tomorrow, I'm totally giving him Andrew Garfield hair.

Finally: Please read Seraphina, it's very good.

(And I'm kidding about being a jerk.)

Friday, July 06, 2012

It's called causality, Peter Parker

EDIT 7/8/2012: Having seen this movie a second time, I've tweak a lot of this. If you're looking for the WTF gender dynamics stuff, it's after the picture where Peter doesn't have a shirt on.

It's called causality, Peter Parker

So I went and saw The Amazing Spider-Man, which I have been looking forward to since they announced that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone would be in a reboot to help ease the pain and memory repression of that last Toby McGuire and Kirsten Dunst movie.

First of all, the casting is phenomenal. I adore everyone who is in this movie, and they all deliver top notch performances. The script demands a lot of Andrew Garfield, and he does his best to keep Peter Parker a sympathetic character despite that he is an obvious introvert whose internal monologue we're cut off from. What carries a lot of the comic—at least Ultimate Spider-Man—is internal narration. If you remove that, Peter rarely speaks and he's not real good with the words.

But he's lanky and awkward and adorable. He's also quippy and sarcastic and oblivious to the wake of his destruction as Spider-Man. The key word here is oblivious.

As a courtesy: I am also about the spoil the hell out of this movie, because what I have to say requires me to reveal plot points. (But I put pictures in it to make up for it.)

The pivotal moment of the Spider-Man story I'm familiar with is Uncle Ben's death—it's what teaches Peter, and us, that actions have consequences. In The Amazing Spider-Man, I'd argue that Peter spends most of the movie unaware that these powers and what he does comes with consequences. His entire character arc appears to be "LEARN ABOUT CAUSALITY."

My biggest problem with this movie is that it is full of illogical decision making. As a writer who occasionally suffers from making characters do something without a logical motivation because I need to get to future plot points, I can see the symptoms of Dumb For Plot everywhere in this movie.

Let's start with a very minor, but very easy one. How are you reading this? On a blog. Possibly coming to it via a tweet. Is there social media in The Amazing Spider-Man? Yes, but only when it is convenient to PLOT for it to exist. Primarily in how a video of Spider-Man in action is put on youtube and referenced a couple times in the movie.

However, Peter does some very obviously superhuman things without lasting consequence. Accidentally beat up people on a subway car? Um... ok, it happens. But no one tweets, Facebooks, or camera phones it?

Granted, he gets the crap kicked out of him and we see him bruised. Physical consequences, yes. But no lasting emotional or societal consequences. Oh, wait he breaks a basketball backboard at school and gets community service. I guess I forgot because we never see him do the community service.

I do love how he remains Peter Parker in a spider-suit until he does something unselfish. There's a long sequence of interaction with criminals where he's in the suit, but it's not until someone recognizes him for a heroic action that he names himself Spider-Man.

But he's not the Spider-Man we know from previous movies. Not yet. This movie spends the majority of its focus on his high school life. (Or lack there of.) It drops him wrestling to earn money or working at the Daily Bugle. I'm assuming the Daily Bugle job comes later.

Without it, Peter has a really boring empty life. He doesn't appear to have friends. He has Aunt May and Dr Connors and Gwen, but the movie really loves showing how isolated Peter is.

Which I guess leads into my other argument for how he has no grasp of consequence. Ready?

Say it with me now: Peter Parker, put your goddamn mask on.

In the comics, Peter has this obsessive need to keep his face covered to protect his friends and family. He has an understanding that should he be captured/observed/arrested, there will be consequences for the people he loves. In The Amazing Spider-Man, our Peter is so desperate to be seen and acknowledged by his world that spends copious amounts of time showing us his adorable face.

So adorable is his face that causality is too shy to approach him.

This fundamental motivation to be acknowledged and recognized was created by his parents leaving him behind. So maybe the underlying psychology here is the paradox of if you form bonds with people, they can leave you behind. And it would've re-triggered by Uncle Ben's death.

I'm guessing the thing that someone is eventually going to tell Peter about his father is that "Dude, your Dad really messed you up." Also, your parents were scientist-spies who worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., which everyone knows. (The song lyrics playing when we first meet teen Peter are son of a government man.)

My favourite part of the movie is where Captain Stacy gives Peter his mask and is like "you're gonna needs this." Subtext: Because half of NYC has seen your pretty face, you f--king moron. (It's Dennis Leary, he totally swears in all his subtext.) For me that was the moment when the movie goes "by the way, all of this was for a reason. Not a good one and mostly PLOT, but still we did this for reasons."

My other favourite part is that getting bit by a bio-engineered spider will give you Time Lord hair, because Andrew Garfield spends half the movie looking like David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor during the fourth series' most amazing hair-fountain episodes. AMAZING HAIR makes up like 30% of the amazing in the title. (Fun fact: Andrew Garfield worked with David Tennant during his run as the Doctor. For realz! Watch Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks; Garfield plays Frank, the dude with the good hat and bad pig-snout. You may start writing your fanfics now.)

I love his hair so much. I have no idea how it fits under his mask. But I'm sticking with said practicality not being the real reason he can't keep his mask on.

Also, I love that the webshooters have returned. (I did not enjoy the lack of webshooters in the previous movies, because they created a built-in limitation to the webslinging.) However, I wonder how someone smart enough to build webshooters is not smart enough to realize he shouldn't go in a room full of bio-engineered spiders? Even if the security-lock on the inner door isn't functioning due to PLOT—and seriously, you have a room full of bio-engineered spiders and you're doing top secret DOD work, Oscorp, get better security. (Start by putting photos on your interns' badges.)

But back to Peter's hair. It's so amazingly Time Lord like. I am guessing the reason was that in a previous draft of the script, Peter traveled into the future to meet his future self played by Ryan Gosling. It went like this:

Future Spider-Man: Hey Younger Self, causality means that your actions have consequences, so remember that your powers have to be used responsibly. In an alternate universe Uncle Ben told you that with "great power comes great responsibility," but PLOT told our Uncle Ben to use bigger words so we'd be confused. Because we're doing three origin movies and not one.

Younger Spider-Man: (Says nothing because he isn't good with words. He sticks to brooding.)

Future Spider-Man: Also, Gwen totally gets thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge and it's our fault. But we meet Mary Jane Watson, who is a smoking hot redhead, and then we get married. Later someone will retcon this and then retcon that they retconned it. Retcon is like PLOT's evil alter ego.

Younger Spider-Man: Do you have point? Because I have some brooding on rooftops to do.

Future Spider-Man: You'll try to prevent Gwen from getting thrown off the bridge, Younger Self, and PLOT will totally ensure that you fail.

Younger Spider-Man: PLOT is such a bastard. 

Future Spider-Man: (up nod of understanding causality) Respect Gwen and her boundaries, Younger Self. And don't ride your skateboard in the school hallways or on the sidewalk. You're a grown man.

I'm guessing the director or the producers pointed out that Ryan Gosling was busy and that Peter meeting his future self would be more of a paradox than desperately seeking attention while refusing to be social. Does he do this because he believes himself unworthy of love? Do the spider-powers make him more worthy of Gwen's love because he's suddenly special?

While we're on the matter of Gwen, or the 15% of this movie that I seriously don't like, you and PLOT can meet me at camera three to talk about gender dynamics.

It's called respect, Peter Parker

This picture is totally hot, right? It's also totally "Oh, Gwen, were you expressing a reluctance to be emotionally involved with me for logical reasons? Because I was totally delirious from pain and thinking how great it would be to make out while I bleed all over you."

Punch drunk and teenage hormones aside, Peter does have an important realization in this scene about causality. But he doesn't realize anything about gender dynamics.

When you're presenting a story as YA—which this does by the numbers in places—keep in mind there are many people who work very hard to ensure the stories aimed at this demographic don't present destructive relationships as more desirable than healthy ones.

And women are not presented as being equals in this movie for about 80% of its screentime. Saundra Mitchell wrote a much more succinct blog post about the issue of consent, but the equality issues in this movie go much deeper than just Peter and Gwen.

Let's start with the girls at school: One is used to show that pretty girls have no interest in Peter, only in him as a means to an end. Gwen, our love interest, then shows up after to establish she is the fantasy object to obtain because a plot device just told us it wouldn't happen. Our third girl, with the glasses, never even gets named and she's only there to show Flash is an asshole and Peter is somehow not an asshole because he's defending her even though he's acting like an asshole.

Also, some cheerleaders—possibly the girls who established Peter as a "loser"—then fall down because he does something amazing? Thanks for being set decorations and plot devices, ladies.

The only lady treated with respect is the teacher in the very end of the movie. So maybe Peter developed a better understanding of healthy gender dynamics through his character arc, even if everyone else in his world didn't.

Gwen is referred to as "pretty" by both Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Gwen also tutors Flash and her after-school job is assisting a geneticist, thanks very much. She's on the debate team, y'all, but don't mention that's she is smart because what is important—and constantly reinforced by the narrative—is that she's pretty.

Girls are pretty things to be protected, as pointed out by the fact that subway car fight only happens due to a completely embarrassing thing happening to a woman. Who has little to no reaction to this happening, because that would get in the way of her boyfriend demanding Peter get his hands off of her. All of the men on the car—who are established as being bullies like Flash—fight to protect this woman. Who didn't need protecting, because Peter was apologizing to her.

Also, did you notice that when Peter is late and gets in trouble from his uncle, Aunt May is referred to as YOUR Aunt and MY Wife—never by her name. She is reduced to an object to be protected. And when she attempts to assert that she can defend herself, Uncle Ben shuts her down. Just because it's presented as "don't defend Peter" doesn't make it ok, because the subtext is "no, you can't defend yourself and you can't have an opinion about defending yourself."

This completely contradicts Uncle Ben previously stating that he pities the teenage boy who had to deal with Aunt May's wrath. Her wrath, by the way, we never get to see. She mostly weeps and worries and caretakes because she's another plot device. Oh sure, she figures out that Peter is Spider-Man... but her final use is to reinforce Gwen pretty and Peter good.

Right back to the narrative's importance of our hero getting the Pretty Gwen.

I also have a huge issue in that scene where Peter is trying to reveal his powers to Gwen. She attempts to tell him something and he tells her to shut up and lots of of kissing happens. Hey, that's just like when Aunt May tried to have an opinion. We learned it from you, Uncle Ben.

The kissing thing wouldn't bother me if Peter ever apologized for not respecting Gwen's agency, but he doesn't. The role models in his life and his world have told him that he doesn't have to.

You may argue Peter doesn't have to ask Gwen because she tells him what she wants... but my point is that when it matters, when she is trying to express an opinion or tell him—or her father—something important, she isn't allowed. She may be a strong character, but the narrative's respect of her strength is nothing but glamour. It crumbles during critical moments.

Amazing. In the worst possible way.

If you enjoyed this post, there are about five people who I had conversations with that helped me assemble what I was trying to say here. J, L, P, who saw the movie with me. S who argued its good points, and Saundra Mitchell who first pointed out the reading of the issue with the relationship dynamics.