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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Dr. Who by Jeff Carlisle


I’ve talked a little bit about the difference between “good” vs. “right” in the genre context.

For example, I think Dark Knight Rises is a “good” movie, but it’s not necessarily “right” when it comes to Batman. Any movie where Batman quits, and then Alfred quits, is “wrong” in my book.

The thing that clarified this for me was Dr. Who. I got into Dr. Who about 18 months ago, blowing through the Christopher Eccleston season and moving through David Tennant’s tenure.

Under Craig Bogart’s advice and tutelage, I expanded to some of the “classic” Dr. Who and moved forward into the Matt Smith years. And I’ve learned two things.

1. My favorite Doctors are David Tennant and Jon Pertwee, who are probably the most “wrong.” Tennant falls in love with humans all the time, and Pertwee is way too much of an action hero.

2. I don’t love the new showrunner, Steven Moffat. The stories are fun, and Matt Smith is a joy, but … The stories rely too much on the Doctor’s reputation. They start really strong, then end with an ass-pull. You can break any of them by asking “why don’t they just shoot him?” But Matt Smith’s Doctor is a lot more in line with the character as he’s been defined over the previous 50 years.

So here’s a case where I clearly prefer “good” over the “right.”

Is there any other genre where “good” vs. “right” is so important? Do romance fans complain that their heroine’s bodice doesn’t get ripped the right way? Do Law & Order fans complain when Lennie Briscoe isn’t snarky enough? Or is this our special burden as nerds?

For which properties do you prefer right, and which ones do you prefer good?

(Image courtesy friend-of-the-Ferret Jeff Carlisle)

Let me state up front that any attempt to analyze Jack Kirby’s New Gods is probably doomed to failure. The King was worked too instinctively to submit to a linear analysis. Grant Morrison probably comes closest, but he still falls flat with ideas like “weaponized metaphors” and whatnot. Everyone who follows Kirby sounds like they’re trying too hard.

This won’t stop me from trying, however.

I am referring to the original text, Kirby’s Fourth World saga and the Hunger Dogs, rather than the canon that has built up after it.


I’ve already established that Darkseid is Not So Big; also, he’s Not So Evil. In the original series, he’s the only citizen of Apokalips shown expressing any human emotion, as he openly pines for old friends he’s disintegrated. Although he enjoys messing with people’s heads, he doesn’t enjoy violence. Darkseid refers to war as “the cold game of the butcher.” When we see a younger Darkseid, Steppenwolf refers to him as being meek.

In the original Kirby Konception, he’s one of the more nuanced and sympathetic characters in the piece. He starts out as Space Hitler, moves through Space Nixon, and ends up as Space King Lear by the time of “The Hunger Dogs.” Why does Kirby depict him in such a soft light? It’s possible that, as Kirby spent more time with Darkseid, he became more sympathetic to his great villain. But let me search for a different interpretation.

First, let me zoom out: What is a god? From a late 20th-century perspective, we’re used to a god who is more-or-less a superhero. He is all-powerful, but He also takes a keen interest in people’s lives and their individual situations. He may be vengeful or He may be helpful; it’s His choice.

One premodern view holds that gods are more like forces of nature than rational beings. They fit predefined roles and fight pre-ordained battles. Apollo must drive his fiery chariot across the sky every day. Ishtar’s lover must die every year, and her tears bring the spring rains. Shiva must unmake the world. Jesus must die on the cross. Zeus must turn into a swan and get his freak on.

Humans in Jack Kirby’s New Gods have little ability to fight the gods, but on the other hand, they have free will. They may choose to fight or run away. They may choose sides and switch back. Most New Gods, by contrast, follow their nature. The only New Gods who struggle against their natures are Orion, who follows his warlike nature but channels it to “good” ends; and Darkseid, who at times seems downright conflicted.

In his later depictions as the “end boss” of the DCU, Darkseid is often depicted as the “god of evil.” I believe that gets him wrong. He’s rather the god of ambition. But as one of the less powerful New Gods, that leads him to a life of scheming. He must learn to suppress his hunger for power and take the long view. And the main skill he needs, as a manipulator, is the ability to read people.

Once he learns to see the world through other peoples’ points of view, he opens himself up to choice. More crucially, he opens himself up to self-doubt. I would argue he essentially abandons his godhood (and becomes more human) in his pursuit of ultimate power.

That’s dangerous for Darkseid. He is no longer a god, and he must create ever-elaborate monuments to himself to cover it. The incessant displays of power show a creature who is deeply insecure about his position.

My sense is that the other Apokaliptians would be happy to just make war forever, but Darkseid knows he can’t afford a protracted conflict. He doesn’t have the stomach for it. In seeking the Anti-Life Equation, he seeks a way to control the universe without bloodshed – before his subjects smell his weakness and tear him to pieces.

I was saddened yesterday to read that Iain M. Banks, one of my favorite authors, has late-stage cancer.

A Personal Statement from Iain Banks

I have cancer. It started in my gall bladder, has infected both lobes of my liver and probably also my pancreas and some lymph nodes, plus one tumour is massed around a group of major blood vessels in the same volume, effectively ruling out any chance of surgery to remove the tumours either in the short or long term.

The bottom line, now, I’m afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I’m expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.

The loss of a human life is always sad. I could easily write this post about Roger Ebert, Carmine Infantino, or my friend Courtney, or any of thousands of poor bastards in Syria. But here’s what sticks out for me:

Banks_HydrogenSonata-US-281. Iain M. Banks is extremely prolific and imaginative. The man has a lot of stories in him. I feel like we’re not just losing one life.

2. Many of Banks’ recent works center on death the afterlife … specifically the idea that there is no afterlife. In Banks’ Culture novels, anyone who believes in an afterlife is frankly treated as delusional. However, they have the technology to “back up” an entire life and “revent” you into a new body. Other civilizations upload their dead to a computer, and thus achieve an actual virtual afterlife. Banks can clearly imagine eternal life, but he won’t live to see it.

3. It must be torture to die with the kind of imagination Iain M. Banks has. Banks is a master at matter-of-factly describing the really horrible. I’m recalling a scene from “Matter” where a character is beheaded, but is conscious long enough to unleash an antimatter bomb. I’m recalling another scene where a character is stabbed in the heart, and Banks describes all of her sensations until her consciousness fades out.

Last time I spoke about plot and structure, and if you want the respectable version of that, I will again refer you to Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 basics of writing 101. But if you want the down-and-dirty, sell-your-soul version, let me point you toward Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need.

savethecatWritten by screenwriter Blake Snyder (who died in 2009), Save the Cat! purports to tell you exactly how to write a screenplay that will sell. It steps beyond structure: Save the Cat! prescribes your screenplay should be almost exactly 110 pages, and it tells you exactly which page each beat should appear on.

You heard me. You should state your theme by page 5, break into Act 2 on p25, the bad guys close in pp55-75, and your hero should hit rock bottom on p75. The hero should get his/her shit together and start Act 3 by p85, just in time to win in the end on p110. Check out the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet here.

The last part is a rundown of Blake’s Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics and common problems in screenplays. They include: too much exposition, too much mumbo jumbo, a passive hero and characters with no “arc.” Blake’s signature maxim, “save the cat,” says that the hero should do something good at the beginning to get you on his side.

I heard about this book a lot when I was doing A Voice From The Dead, which breaks most of these rules. I finally read it a few weeks ago.

As an artiste, I’d like to believe that none of this is true, and nobody should take advice from the writer of this or, for fuck’s sake, this. As a struggling artist, I sometimes suspect he’s right about everything.

My feeling is, this Save the Cat! stuff is a good diagnostic tool, rather than a blueprint. If you’re following it as a guide, you’re probably a hack. But if your precious little idea isn’t working, it’s probably for one of the reasons Blake mentions.

And I think Save the Cat! applies more to movies than to comics. Comics are a niche business, and relatively cheap to produce. They don’t need to generate millions of dollars each time out, so they’re a lot more conducive to rule-breaking.

But yeah, it’s scary. I’m typically the most “pulpy” writer here, and I found it pretty chilling.

This essay will meander a bit and ultimately has no conflict. But that’s kind of the point.

A few weeks ago, Dara posted an article on facebook “The significance of plot without conflict.” Shortly thereafter, I saw “Tiny Furniture,” the debut film by Lena Dunham. Then, I read the extremely formulaic screenwriting book “Save the Cat.”

The article talks about the standard advice in Western writing class that every story must have 1) a beginning, middle & end and 2) conflict. In fact, screenwriting/acting classes will tell you that each individual scene should have conflict. Here’s Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 writing tips, which makes the point in a less hacky way.

According to the article, there is a Chinese/Japanese plot structure called kishōtenketsu that does not rely on conflict. The first and second acts set up the situation, the third act introduces a “new surprising element,” and the fourth act draws some kind of conclusion. Just read the article and come back when you’re done.

Dara tagged both me and Matt, and Matt can make his own response. But my response is: Fine by me.

I do not have a lot of formal training in creative writing. I’m basically self-taught by studying genre pieces, mystery novels, and whatever Great Literature manages to pierce my genre bubble.

So I’m not terribly beholden to the 3 Act/Conflict model. I see it as a tool in the toolbox, and I’m happy to see that there are other tools out there. It’s possible that my first movie, A Voice From The Dead, uses a similar structure.

I will say that the 3 Act/Conflict model is a very effective tool, and one that’s been hashed out over 4,000 years of Western Civilization. And I think a conflict-free story would be a bit boring unless it’s done really well (I’ll refer you back to A Voice From The Dead).

For a conflict-free story that’s done really well, I’ll refer you to “Tiny Furniture.” If that story has conflict, it’s on such a small scale that I can hardly see it. In it, a young woman returns home after graduating from a liberal arts college, falls back into her old patterns, and halfheartedly attempts to get laid.

Describing the plot of “Tiny Furniture” doesn’t really do it justice. There’s not much “arc” to it. Some scenes have conflict, but not much changes. The film succeeds on the quality of its images and its tone-setting.

So this brings me back around to the 3 Act/Conflict model. Any rule can be broken, if you have the talent and skill to pull it off.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh Slay a Bull

You know that old comic book trope (I associate it mostly with Marvel Comics) where two heroes meet, fight, then team up?

It turns out that is literally the oldest trope in the book. That’s how The Epic of Gilgamesh starts.

As part of my Babylonian kick, I sat down and read Gilgamesh. It’s not long (you can’t do too much decompression when you’re forming the words one-by-one out of clay with a reed, and the trade had not been invented yet). When it opens, Gilgamesh is a mighty king, but kind of immature. The gods make a wild, shaggy man to oppose him: Enkidu. They fight, and then become bosom pals.

Actually, Gilgamesh’s opening gambit is to send a harlot out to seduce Enkidu. After that, Enkidu is too civilized and his animal friends refuse to help him. I never saw Spider-Man use that tactic on Ghost Rider, but I’m sure one Craig or Matt will correct me.

After that, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go kill a monster because the sun god Shamash tells them to. I didn’t quite catch the rationale there. The monster guards a pine forest, so I think Shamash wanted a big pine tree for the door to his temple … I didn’t follow that part very well.

There are more adventures. They piss off the goddess Ishtar and kill the Bull of Heaven, so the gods send Enkidu an illness and he dies. Then, Gilgamesh goes to the land of the gods to visit Ut-napishtim (the Babylonian Noah) and find the secret to immortality. Unfortunately, a snake carries it off.

I’m continually surprised at how human Gilgamesh is. At several points, he’s essentially ready to wus out, but Enkidu urges him to keep fighting. And he gets totally emo when he realizes that he, too, will die someday.

My Babylonian gaydar is not finely tuned enough to tell if Gilgamesh and Enkidu are lovers. Both of them have wives, although you never meet them. The only named women are Shamhat (the harlot) and the goddess Ishtar, who is explicitly described as a psycho hosebeast. I wasn’t expecting a 4,000-year-old folk tale to pass the Bechdel Test, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so completely G’s-Up-Hoes-Down.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories in Western Civilization, is basically a buddy cop movie.


***This post has minor spoilers for a show you’re probably never going to watch.***

My wife and I were both tired and a bit hungover, and our daughter was off with her grandparents. So it was the perfect time to start watching “Once Upon A Time” on Netflix.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched the whole first season and four episodes of the current season. I’m not going to try to tell you it’s a great show, but it’s entertaining enough. And it’s really interesting how they try to bring genre fiction to a mass audience.

First, the background: The show starts as the Evil Queen busts up the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming, promising a curse that will destroy fairyland and take away everyone’s happily-ever-afters. Rumpelstiltskin tells Snow White & Prince Charming their only hope is to send their infant daughter through a portal in a wardrobe, and when she’s 28 she’ll return to break the Curse.

So far, so good.

The curse hits, and all the storybook characters are sent to a small town called Storybrooke, Maine. They have no memory of their past lives, and the Evil Queen is now Mayor Regina Mills. The daughter (Emma) is working as a bail bonds-person in Boston, but she’s found by *her* son Henry, who she gave up for adoption 10 years ago. Her son has somehow been adopted by Mayor Regina.

So what happens is you have small-town, low-stakes drama intercut with scenes of high adventure from the fairy land. In the real world, Emma and the Mayor butt heads over their son and municipal politics. Snow White and Prince Charming try to find each other, but the Curse made sure Charming was married to someone else.

The show sets itself some structural problems from the beginning.

1. It’s never sure how evil the villains are. Mayor Regina switches from scheming small-town politician to Evil Queen to decent (if overbearing) mother several times during the season, depending on what the writers need that week. Mayor Mills is more of a soap-opera villain, who lives in the community and has shifting alliances, rather than a sci-fi-style Big Bad who must be defeated.

2. The “real world” drama doesn’t quite stand on its own. Prince Charming is basically deciding whether to cheat on his wife with Snow White. Mayor Regina has a point about being Henry’s mother. The drama gets its deeper meaning in the fairytale flashbacks, but on its own it seems unearned.

3. The whole first season is basically “the heroes figure out the problem.” In a standalone piece of fiction, that’s the boring part in Act IV.

The show has a couple of things going for it.

1. Like I say, it’s interesting to see a mass-audience take on the fantasy genre. The fairy tale characters use normal vernacular, except on special occasions. If you’re used to the full Tolkein, it probably feels watered down.

2. But they do play it more-or-less straight. The Evil Queen sure is evil, and True Love’s Kiss really is the greatest magic of all. The show attempts to update fairy tales (Snow White becomes a bandit queen), but it isn’t interested in deconstructing them. You know how I hate that.

3. At the same time, the villains aren’t totally evil. Both the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin get origin stories that show how they turned bad, and they both have paths to redemption they can choose to take. They’re trying to update the fairy tale, rather than subvert it.

4. I’m not going to say you have to be a better actor to pull off genre work, but it’s definitely a specialized skill set.

The performances are pretty good. Lana Parilla is great as the Evil Queen (I’ve been a fan of hers since Swingtown) although she struggles as the writers whip her character around. Jennifer Morrison is probably the weak link as Emma, although her character has to tread water for a long time. Josh Dallas plays Prince Charming as a noble, romantic hero that you could still have a beer with. And Ginnifer Goodwin? What else can I say about Ginnifer Goodwin?

The standout here is Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin. He plays Rumpelstiltskin with three parts Big Bad, two parts trickster god, one part Jim Carrey and one part leprechaun. His dark imp is grounded by his intense performance as Mr. Gold, his “real world” alter ego. If you see only one episode, make it a Rumpelstiltskin showcase like “The Price of Gold” or “Skin Deep.”

We’re four episodes into Season 2, and so far it’s been on an upswing. The curse is broken, the fairytale characters remember who they are, and the plot is moving. Prince Charming is now a hero, rather than a guy who’s cheating on his wife, and Emma and Snow White are swashbuckling across the fairy land. They’ve brought in Captain Hook and the Evil Queen’s mother as bigger Big Bads.

I think they’re moving more into fantasy territory, rather than a genre piece lashed to a small-town drama. As a genre fan, I think it’s a good move.

I’m not going to tell you it’s a great show, but if you have a hole in your Netflix queue (and you’re tired and hungover), you could do worse.


This guy stole PANELista Sean McGurr’s schtick!

Shit My Students Write

A few of my favorites:

Having tattoos is just like slavery but not as bad.

Murder is the number one cause of itself.

The Internet as we know it may be in its final stages of existence. Granted, this is a bold statement.

Bold indeed, you magnificent bastard!

A rather long-ish post on my personal blog that I think I’ll link to instead of repost:

The realities of the comic book market

“So in the face of all this, what’s a new creator to do? Throw in the towel? Walk away?”

The Onion AV Club talked to Batman & Swamp Thing scribe Scott Snyder last week.

Scott Snyder interview

A couple of key quotes:

AVC: Do you adjust your script at all for different artists? I’m thinking primarily during Detective, when you’d have Jock and Francesco Francavilla split issues.

SS: I don’t change the story at all, per se. I do change the emphasis page-to-page. Part of it is trying to figure out the best way to get the story out there and expressed by the artist you’re working with. The thing is, when any run begins, for me, the reason that we’re working with any artist is because they fit the story material hands-down. So Francesco I thought would fit the James Jr. story really well because there’s such an interesting suspense and tension in everything he does. Whereas Jock I thought would be great at making Gotham look unsettling, but also be good for the more kinetic, heroic action sequences. You try and get people you think are going to drive on the street to begin with. I do change the style a little bit, page-to-page, given what I think the artist can bring most to the table, story-wise.

AVC: How closely coordinated are the Batman and Nightwing books?

SS: They’re closely coordinated. We really wanted them to be things that you could read independently and don’t really lean on each other at all. I don’t want people to get the idea that the story playing out in Nightwing is somehow answered in Batman, or visa versa.

He also talks a bit about trying to keep the book new-reader-friendly. It’s a shame this is considered a lost art, but good that they’re thinking about it these days.

I was a guest on Writer’s Talk, a local show hosted by Doug Dangler and produced by The Ohio State University’s Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing. Doug interviews writers in various fields and disciplines, “focusing on how they produce text and communicate in a variety of genres. Its purpose is to demystify and promote writing, especially for academic writers.”

The episode I was on also featured 2 other prolific Columbus comic creators: Ken Eppstein, editor, writer, and publisher of the Nix Comics Quarterly, and Max Ink, creator, writer, and artist of Blink.

In Columbus, the show will be broadcast on the radio at these times and locations:

– Monday, November 7, 7 pm., WCRS radio 98.3 & 102.1 FM
– Wednesday, November 9, 8:00 p.m., WCBE radio central Ohio’s NPR station, 90.5 FM

Or you can watch it right here:

Demystifying the age old topic of “how much do comic book writers at Marvel and DC get paid, anyway?” former Marvel EIC Jim Shooter has posted his actual contracts from both publishers from when he was doing freelance work for them recently. You can read all the legalese in teeny, tiny print as well, if you’re so inclined.

So, what were his rates?

Marvel: $120/page
DC: $200/page

Of course, keep in mind that:

a) the Marvel rate is from 10 years ago
b) the DC rate is from 4 years ago
c) This is Jim Shooter we’re talking about, a creator with a lot of baggage (whether deserved or not), which may play a role in his compensation, compared to other writers.

If you’ve ever been curious what a work-for-hire publishing contract from the Big Two looks like, this is your chance. He even has the royalty rates posted.

This is from a short essay titled “Who do you read?” by crime novelist (and Road to Perdition writer) Max Allan Collins. In explaining why he doesn’t read any contemporary peers, he says this bit with tongue planted firmly in cheek, although I’m sure there’s more than a bit of truth to it:

Here’s the real reason: all other writers fall into the following categories: worse than me, so why should I put myself through it; as good as me, so why should I bother; and better than me, and, well, screw those guys.

This might appeal to the writers in the audience: Diamond Light Source is a particle accelerator facility in England, and they’re holding a fiction contest (including flash fiction) inspired by the facility and its science. They’re calling it Light Reading.

To introduce Diamond to a wider audience we are running a short story competition, Light Reading. The rules are simple: we’re inviting you to submit a story of up to 3,000 words inspired by Diamond – the facility, the science and the people. There’s also a Flash Fiction prize for stories under 300 words. Stories can be in any genre and there is no minimum word limit. Diamond will shortlist the best of these stories, which will then be judged by an expert panel. The top three writers will receive a cash prize, and these, along with those highly commended by the judges, will be published in an anthology of short stories.

Stories should be under 3000 words, and flash fiction stories under 300. As far as I can tell, it’s open to anyone from any country. There are cash prizes, and publication opportunities, plus you retain the rights to your story. Deadline is November 30th.

Full details here.

Good luck.

The Beat has a short and somewhat funny interview with Chew writer/creator, John Layman. He talks about what a tough sell the series was (including being turned down by Vertigo) and touches upon other topics, such as the bad blood between himself and DC editorial. I liked this particular glimpse into the process of putting together an issue of Chew, arguably Image’s only big hit from the last couple of years:

Can you walk me through your working process for a typical issue of Chew?

Well, I write an issue, and that takes me anywhere from half a week to two or three weeks, depending on the issue and how much trouble it is giving me. Some issues I have banged out in no time at all, and others are really a wrestling match.

I often write out of sequence, and most times, once I am done, I don’t noodle with scripts or lines, though the fourth story arc I find I’ve been returning to scripts to make tweaks here and there. Rob draws it, and gives me pages several at a time, in black and white lo rez, for me to letter. Once he is done penciling and inking an issue, he colors it up. I take the final finals and paste up the lettering into one Photoshop file.

Rob and I go back and forth on the cover design, though lately I’ve been doing most of it. I design the inside front cover and back cover and do the letters page, and then we give nearly complete issue to Image to put into a document to give to the printer. We give them pretty much a final product. All they add is the bar code and the trademark symbols and the indicia/legalese small print.

It’s kinda a point of pride that Rob and I keep the operation to just the two of us. And we can do it almost monthly… just about a month and a week per issue, most of the time.”

Obviously, Chew is another example of how a purely creator-owned comic can benefit the creative team immensely. But at the same time, the above passage shows just how much work is involved in doing a book of this nature. If you want to have that ownership/control, be prepared to put in a ton of work aside from the purely creative process of writing and drawing. We’re talking lettering, administrative, pre-press, marketing, etc. And of course, forget about a a page rates. If your book eventually finds an audience and becomes a hit, you’ll reap the benefits. But you also need to be realistic; if I had to guess, I’d say probably 90% of creator owned books out there are losing money, let alone breaking even.


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