Author: John Ostrander

John Ostrander: Pop Culture Politics

Stgw_90

“Chicago is not the most corrupt American city, it’s the most theatrically corrupt.” Studs Terkel.

Seducation of the GUnWith due respect (and a lot of it) for the late, great Studs Terkel, I think the Chicago city council has been supplanted by the Congress of the United States for political theater and corruption. As an old Chicago boy and fan of political theater, I was fascinated this week as the Democrats in the House of Representatives staged a sit-in in the well of the House, led by the venerable civil rights leader (and graphic novel author) John Lewis, to protest the refusal of the Republican leadership to even permit a vote on two very small and very specific gun control issues.

House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed the sit-in as a “publicity stunt.” Well, duh. That’s what a sit-in is, a publicity stunt to draw attention to a specific problem. Ryan himself has done a fair share of publicity stunts so I don’t know what his problem is. It’s all part of political theater.

I think there was more to the Democrats’ ploy that a mere desire to shine C-Span’s cameras on themselves. It was triggered by the shooting in Orlando at the gay nightclub that left 49 dead and 52 wounded. The House had its moment of silence to honor the dead for the 16th time of these type of events and that was going to be it. No gun control legislation was going to be even brought up for a vote, let alone passed, and the Dems snapped. They protested, they staged a sit-in to dramatize the situation and they got attention.

Why didn’t the GOP leadership simply allow a vote? I have my own theories. I doubt that the Dems would have allowed a simple voice vote; it would be a roll call and each representative would have to be tagged as they voted. For the GOP, atsa no good. Estimates say that 90% of the electorate are in favor of simple gun control measures so the representatives who voted against it would have to justify that vote to displeased voters.

They also don’t want to vote for any gun control measures. The National Rifle Association gives good money to Congresspersons to keep that from happening and they have issued stern warnings of what they would do to any Congressperson who did vote for gun control legislation – any gun control legislation. Translation: we’ll pour money into the campaign of someone to unseat you. We will make sure you lose your job. This is more important to them than doing their job. More than ever, Mel Brooks’ line in Blazing Saddles as the governor of the state resonates: “Gentlemen, we must protect our phony baloney jobs.”

Not to say that the Dems were completely in the right. One of the simple measures was “no fly, no buy” – meaning that if you are or were on a no-fly list (and thus, presumably, suspected of terrorist ties) at any time, you should not be allowed to buy a gun. However, I watched Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show voice his problems with that. He has some of the same problems that the ACLU has – it’s too easy to get on the list, too little evidence has to be shown, it’s too hard to clear yourself and get off the list, it appears to unfairly target people of color, and it violates Constitutional freedoms including the right to due process.

It’s too bad because “No fly, no buy” is the sort of simplistic jingoistic catch phrase that works so well with the American public. We don’t do well with more nuanced declarations. Easy to say, easy to remember, and you don’t have to think. That’s ‘Murrica right there, that’s what that is.

To my mind, however, the real issue is not the specific legislation but the larger issue of how no meaningful gun regulation is possible because the NRA won’t hear of it. That’s the underlying frustration that led to the sit-in. Even though 90% of Americans want some kind of laws passed (according to many polls), they can’t even get discussed in the House and they sure won’t get passed in the Senate.

Just keep in mind that this Congressional version of Big Brother has one thing in common with the TV show – in the fall, they can get voted out.

John Ostrander: Going Out of My Head (Over You)

Elmer Fudd

I’m a child of pop culture.

Nowhere is that more obvious to me in the earworms that I get. Earworms are a song or piece of a song that gets stuck in your head and seems to be on an endless replay cycle. I don’t know about you but I get them a lot. A lot. I wish I could say they were songs that I like but often they’re songs I’m pretty “meh” about and sometimes even hate.

They’re almost always pop songs – nothing classical although I am a fan of classical music. Not of all classical music, but of some. The only opera I really like, for example, is Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. The closest I get to classical earworms are the orchestral movie soundtracks – I like soundtracks quite a bit. For example, the Star Wars Theme is likely to pop up in rotation pretty often, but that’s okay by me.

Others, not so much.

Sometimes an earworm is triggered by songs I hear on the radio or that’s playing in the muzac at the store but just as often they just come into my head for no damn good reason whatsoever. They come in and take up residence and unless I can find another tune to drown them out, I can’t get rid of them. The problem with fighting an earworm with another earworm is that you can get stuck with the second one.

Here’s some that have bedeviled me lately. If you don’t want them stuck in your head, SPOILER ALERT: bail out now.

Today I’ve had “Have You Ever Been Mellow” by Olivia Newton John. I always been so-so about Ms Newton-John and this particular song is not the one I find most endurable in her repertoire but there it is in my head.

Recently, I’ve been inflicted with Abba’s “Waterloo.” I’m not and never have been a big fan of Abba. I don’t hate them; they just never did much for me. I don’t even know the lyrics to the song. “Waterloo! something something something something. Waterloo! Some something something forevermore.” That’s all I got – over and over again. Gaaaah!

That’s another thing about the earworms. I may only know a portion of the lyrics or discover that I have them wrong but there is no autocorrect in my head. If you’ve read this column before, you may not be surprised to learn that.

I’ve also had the opening theme to The Daily Show running through my brain at times. The Jon Stewart version, not Trevor Noah. I like Noah just fine and always watch the show but it’s Stewart’s version my brain coughs up.

A good song that has gotten in my cranial sound loop is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Sometimes it’s that iconic opening that has inspired a thousand lesser rock anthems and sometimes it’s the chorus. One problem, however, is that I’ve never been able to understand what Bruce is singing, at least with this song. To me, it sounds like “Baaarm inna Hew Hess Hay! I was baaarm inna Hew Hess Hay! Ima rap scraggle flaggart inna Hew Hess Hay now!” I’m reasonably certain those aren’t the actual lyrics, but that’s what they sound like to me.

I can sometimes chase that earworm by singing the song in my Elmer Fudd voice. I’m reasonably certain that those who have heard me do Elmer Fudd can hear me doing that at this moment. (I’m looking at you, Tim Brown.) In fact, almost any of the earworms can be banished by singing them in my Elmer Fudd voice. Elmer is sort on an earworm exterminator.

“Baaaawm inna Hew Hess Hay! Heh-heh-heh-heh!”

Like I said, I’m a child of pop culture.

John Ostrander: Self-Employable Comics

Hexer Dusk 1

Hexer Dusk 2I love writing and I am so glad I’ve been able to make a living at it. I’m very thankful to all the fans and all the publishers who have enabled me to do that over the years.

The trick is in getting the work. There’s this malady known as “freelancer’s disease” which consists of a freelancer taking every gig offered because you’re afraid that if you turn down any, they will all go away. It’s not rational but it’s real and it’s how some freelancers wind up taking on too much work. I’ve been sick with that disease from time to time. To make a living from writing, though, depends on a publisher saying yes.

That’s changed a bit in recent years thanks to the phenomenon of crowd funding where the artist can put together a project and then, if they can, get it up on the Internet at a crowd sourcing site such as Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. There you ask the fans to fund the project– and its their interest in what you are doing that counts. You ask the reader to trust you and your past work and invest in this new one.

Hexer Dusk 3I’ve done it with Tom Mandrake for Kros: Hallowed Ground (vampires and the Civil War) and I’m trying to do it again with Jan Duursema for a science fiction project called Hexer Dusk. For over a decade, Jan and I did Star Wars comics at Dark Horse, acquiring a fan base and a rep for doing really good Star Wars stories spread over different epochs. We created a lot of new characters who also became fan favorites and we had a great time.

We stopped doing Star Wars because George Lucas sold his rights to Disney. Disney owns Marvel and the licensing rights for Star Wars comics, which were up, went to them. Since the franchise was re-defining itself and its continuity, Marvel was looking for new talent to do the comics. I don’t blame them at all; I understand the rationale completely.

However.

Hexer Dusk 4Jan and I really loved doing Star Wars and had always talked about creating our own space opera – one that we would own with worlds and characters of our creation. Hexer Dusk is not Star Wars by any means, but it is informed by our work on Star Wars. We have a galaxy with space ships and blasters, yes, but there’s magic and monsters and horror as well. And humor. You can’t have a slightly off kilter combat robot without humor. It’s also gritty and grungy because that’s what we do.

Jan got the idea for the project from a dream she had of great sky cities floating above a planet that were at war with one another. There were massive explosions and both cities were destroyed. It was a very vivid dream and, when she told it to me, the images were very vivid in my mind as well.

Every story has a genesis point and that was ours for Hexer Dusk. We started riffing together, throwing ideas back and forth as we did when working on Star Wars. Jan brought in Xane Dusk, the Weird, KOMBOT, and beadies. I brought in scavvers–Prybar, Sooz, Captain Skargle and The Missus. Heck of a party!  And then there are the Razers who want to destroy all remaining Hexers – including Xane Dusk.

Xane Dusk is one of the last of the Hexers. That’s bad news for the galaxy because, when the Sky Cities exploded and fell, they created an other-dimensional rift in the fabric of space and these strange nightmarish creatures started coming through. They’re called The Weird and they can only exist in Xane’s galaxy by possessing existing bodies – living or dead. It’s a problem because the only ones who can really deal with the Weird are the Hexers and, as I said, Xane may be the last of them.

This story is going to happen. Our Kickstarter is basically funded with enough for printing, shipping, creating art rewards and Kickstarter fees and we’re now working on the stretch goals.  Stretch goals are important because they will provide enough funding so that we can pay for art, writing, lettering, and colors as well as possibly adding pages to the story and a black and white PDF or print version of Hexer Dusk. Stretch goals are a way of bringing those kinds of extras to the backers of the project. If these stretch goals are achieved every backer gets more rewards. Which is cool.

Our Kickstarter project is at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/313324911/hexer-dusk and I invite you to come take a look. There are some preview pages up  with some really nifty art from Jan as well as descriptions of various reward levels ranging from a PDF of the graphic novel to a printed book with sketchcards or a sketch by Jan. You can also read the first nine pages of the book by going to www.hexerdusk.com

We’ve still got a week to go before the Kickstarter ends so we’re hoping for more folks to jump on the Hexer Dusk train – and to spread word about Hexer Dusk to their friends. Getting more eyes on this project is important. People can’t support something if they don’t know it’s there and word of mouth really is the best promoter. As always, we depend on our fans.

As they used to say on the old Bartles and Jaymes TV commercials, “We thank you for your support.”

John Ostrander: He Is Not Who You Think He Is!

The Flash

SPOILER WARNING: In talking about the season finale of The Flash TV show, I’m going to tell a few secrets. If you haven’t seen it yet and are planning to watch it later, then you may want to also read this column later.

GEEK WARNING: if you have no interest in superheroes or superhero TV shows, well, if you DO feel that way, what are you doing on ComicMix in the first place?

The CW’s The Flash wound up its second season this week and has re-affirmed its place in my heart as the best superhero show on TV. Well, I don’t watch all of the superhero shows but it’s my favorite of the ones I do watch.

The show has a great cast, strong writing, and a great love of the source material. This comes out in little “Easter eggs.” They’re details that, if you know the reference (in other words, if you’re a geek), it’s an even better moment. If you don’t know, it doesn’t matter; you can still enjoy the story, but knowing it is more fun.

A case in point is the actor John Wesley Shipp who, for these past two seasons, has played the father of the Flash, aka Barry Allen. The greater resonance comes if you know that John Wesley Shipp played Barry Allen, the Flash, in the earlier TV version. It’s a nice tip of the hat.

This season the TV show has dealt with Earth-2, a long venerated DC Comics concept. There are many Earths (the concept is referred to as the multiverse) and they are separated by different dimensions. The people on Earth-1 have doppelgangers on Earth-2. For example, “our” Barry Allen is not the Flash on Earth-2. The Flash there is a guy named Jay Garrick, who, in comics, was the original Flash when the character first appeared in 1940.

On The Flash this last season, Jay Garrick comes to Earth-1 to help Barry and his crew deal with this season’s Big Bad, another speedster named Zoom who is bent on stealing the speed from Barry and has already done so to Jay. At one point, we see that Zoom has a prison and in it is a man in an iron-mask being kept captive whose identity is a mystery for most of the season.

If you’re not a geek and not into the show, you probably have a headache at this point. I did try to warn you. And it will get worse.

Big reveal: we eventually learn that Zoom is, in fact, Jay Garrick. I won’t try to explain how that works; it’s all narrative hocus-pocus. It works in context of the show. And Jay is a sociopathic serial killer who now wants to destroy all the Earths in the multiverse save the one he intends to live on as ruler.

Oh, and one other thing. Zoom isn’t really Jay Garrick, either.

Zoom, in fact, is Hunter Zolomon who also has a doppelganger on Earth-1 and to whom we were introduced earlier in the season. The Earth-1 Hunter Zolomon is really kind of nobody, just like the Earth-2 Barry Allen. It turns out that the real Jay Garrick, the Earth-2 Flash, is that captive Zoom has in the iron mask. Dampers in the mask keeps him from using his powers.

In this season’s penultimate episode, Zoom kidnaps Barry’s father (John Wesley Shipp, remember; try to keep up) and kills him before Barry’s eyes in an effort to get Barry to race him. The race will power a doomsday device that will destroy the multiverse save for Earth-1. Well, the bad guy has to hang his mask somewhere.

That all happens and it includes a really sweet shout-out to how Barry Allen/the Flash died in Crisis on Infinite Earths. (He got better; this is comics, after all, but the moment is legendary.) Zoom is outwitted, defeated, and destroyed in a most satisfying manner.

At that point, we meet the real Jay Garrick, an important character in DC lore. And he is played by… John Wesley Shipp! It turns out that Barry’s Dad had a doppelganger on Earth-2 and it’s Jay Garrick. What’s really nice is that, by the end of the episode, we see Jay Garrick in a Flash costume which is terrific because it’s a shout out and a salute to the fact that Shipp played the Flash in the 1990 TV series.

That’s what I’m talking about. If you don’t know all that it doesn’t affect enjoying the show but knowing it only makes that moment the sweeter. The 1990 series only lasted one season and the producers of the current Flash would be entirely justified in ignoring it but they keep faith with it. They honored it, the actor, and the fans who watched the show and remember it. You know; geeks like me. And I’m deeply appreciative. It’s that level of thought, of consideration, that makes me love this show.

There’s a lot more I could say about the finale and maybe I will in some future column. You have been warned.

I’m eagerly awaiting what comes next.

Run, Flash. Run. Forever.

John Ostrander: Strip Grade

Calvin and Hobbes

I’m not keen on moving these days. When I switch my homestead to a new location, I have to find all the spots I was taking for granted – food stores, gas stations, mechanics, restaurants and so on. It usually also means I have to find a new newspaper. Yes, I’ve just proclaimed myself to be a dinosaur and I still read the newspaper every morning over breakfast.  Yes, I know they offer electronic editions but I like one I can hold in my hands.

Assuming there is more than one local newspaper (or local-ish), I have to make a choice as to which one I’ll read. I have two primary criterions – where they fall on the political spectrum and what comic strips they have. The latter may be more important to me than the former. I was raised in a Republican household in Chicago so we got the Chicago Tribune which was rabidly conservative at the time. However, I might buy the Chicago Sun-Times from time to time and on Sunday I got the Chicago American; their collection of strips included Prince Valiant. Hal Foster, its legendary creator, was still doing Prince Valiant in the days of my boyhood. That was a treat.

Yes, I know that all the strips I read and more are offered on the Internet but, again, I like having the physical artifact in my hands. It’s a tactile experience. My current paper is the Detroit Free Press and so my comments are limited to the strips I read there. I do read some online because I love them but can’t get them from the Detroit Free Press – the Sunday Doonesbury, Dilbert, Mutts, and Bizarro.

Some I don’t know why I read; I don’t really enjoy them. One theory I heard says that it’s quicker and easier to read them than to not read them. That sounds about right.

One such is Arlo and Janis by Jimmy Johnson. Slow paced domestic comedy. There are days when it is so slow paced I think I’ve fallen asleep and missed something. I know it has a fan base who love it. Not pitched at me, I think.

Non Sequiter by Wiley Miller. This strip doesn’t exist without Gary Larson’s The Far Side (or, sometimes, The Addams Family) but I don’t care. One of my prime reads every day. Sometimes it’s a single panel and sometimes it’s multi-panel sequential. It has a running cast (several in fact) and I admire the variety and Wiley’s versatility.

Luann. Originally I wasn’t that much into the strip but the creator, Greg Evans, has let his cast gradually grow and change. The main character, Luann DeGroot, was in her early teens when I started to read the strip but she has grown older (she’s now in college), a little wiser (but not too much) and Evans has really developed the supporting cast. Continuing narrative plotlines has also become a mainstay of the strip which has helped keep me into it.

Wumo, created by Danish writer/artist duo Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler. Ugly strip. This is one of those that is easier to read than not read.

Get Fuzzy by Darby Conley. It stars a befuddled anthropomorphic dog named Satchel, a psychotic Siamese cat named Bucky, and their hopeless nerd of a human named Rob Wilco. I read it every day and sometimes wonder why on several levels. Why does Rob keep Bucky who is nasty, delusional, and destructive? Is Satchel too stupid to live? I’m not sure if I like it but I want to read it every day.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson. Phoebe is 9-years old who acquires a unicorn as a best friend named Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. At first, I was put off; it all seemed a bit precious and twee. However, I’ve become a big fan. It is smartly written and well drawn. It can actually make me laugh which very few “comic” strips bother to do these days.

Sally Forth, created by Greg Howard and these days written by Francesco Marciuliano and drawn by Jim Keefe. Ostensibly about a woman, her family, and her adventures at work; these days it’s more about the family unit with Sally, her husband Ted, and their daughter Hilary. I think they all need serious medication. Ted was always kind of a goofball but now he gets obsessive and delusional. The daughter is also in need of meds and, at best, Sally is an enabler. Seriously, Dr. Phil needs to visit them.

There are a lot more strips in the Detroit Free Press but I think this is enough for now. Even with the ones that I seem not to like, I read religiously. I learned much of what I know about writing for sequential art from the comic strips and I am indebted to them.

And on days when I don’t get my comic strip fix, I get cranky.

John Ostrander: You/Not You

You : Not You

One of the interesting facets of talking about writing is the contradictions you find in the craft. For example: All your characters are you. All your characters are not you.

All of your characters are you.

Every character you write must have some of you in it. All of them. Not just the ones you like to identify with. All of them. The large and the small, the good and the bad, male and female, no matter what age, race, or nationality. If you’re going to write honestly about the character, you must be in the mix.

This can get uncomfortable. Once, when I was writing a white supremacist  in an early issue of Suicide Squad, I had to look into myself and ask, “What in me is like this man?” Look, I’m an aging white guy; there’s going to be something there. No matter how much I’ve worked at freeing myself from that, and I have, there’s going to be something there.

I found it. It’s not enough to understand such a character’s point of view; it’s necessary to find what is in you that is like that. However much I dislike that aspect of myself, it is there to some degree and it can be used. It was.

We all have multitudes within us. We are slightly different people depending on who we are with; with our parents we’re slightly different than we are with our siblings than we are with our friends than we are with our lovers and partners. Each of them know a slightly different aspect of us. That’s one of the purposes of supporting characters; they bring out different aspects of the protagonist.

We play so many different parts in our own lives on a daily basis, we should be able to find some aspect of ourselves – good or bad, laudable or disreputable – that will allow us to identify, to be, the character that we are writing.

I’ve often said that writing dialogue between several characters is the writer having conversations with his/herself. We are all our characters.

All of your characters are not you.

You have to have some perspective on the characters that you write and that requires some distance. The differences are important.

There is, mostly in fandom, a form of criticism pertaining to a “Mary Sue” (among female characters) or a “Larry Stu” (among male). Generally, it means a character is an idealized and unrealistic version of the author. For the most part I dislike the term; it’s too easy, too lazy, and too pat a critique. The person using it generally only has to accuse the author of either having a Mary Sue or Larry Stu and that’s it; no further discussion is needed or, often, allowed. The accusation is made. End of story.

However, as with most stereotypes and clichés, there is a germ of truth. A good character can be very seductive. Few people believe themselves to be evil; even Shakespeare’s Richard III, who describes himself as a villain, believes he has a right to do what he is doing. I met someone once who believed that if he could take something that you thought was yours, he was within his rights to do so. “You only have a right to what you can hold onto,” he would claim. Not someone I wanted to spend any time with, but an interesting idea for a character.

I saw a TV interview with a guy who was doing time because he was a hired killer for the Mob. Coldest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen. Literally would just as soon kill you as look at you. “My life doesn’t matter to me, so why should yours?” was what he said. Again, not a person I would ever want to meet, but it became part of my core concept for my version of Deadshot in the Squad. Lawton doesn’t have a death wish; he just doesn’t care if he dies – or if you do.

The whole “You are your character/you are not your character” thing is a dichotomy and that’s fine by me. I think that most often you find the truth in contradictions. It’s what Del Close taught in his Second City and iO improv classes. Del held this contradiction as a rule: it’s not either/or; it’s and/both.

Finally, don’t try to reconcile or explain the contradictions. State them and trust to your reader to dope it out. Do your job right and the reader will think that the character is them… and not them.

John Ostrander: Back to the Future Tense

Legends of Tomorrow

There’s a lot of time travel going on in pop culture these days. The CW has DC’s Legends of Tomorrow where a rag-tag group of misfits travel around with Doctor Who, excuse me, Rip Hunter Time Master, as he tries to stop the immortal villain, Vandal Savage, from killing his family. Oh, and to prevent Savage from really messing up the world… but mostly to save his own family.

In general, I like time travel stories and have ever since I saw The Time Machine (the 1960 one with Rod Taylor, not the 2002 version with Guy Pearce). A great variation on the H.G. Wells story was Time After Time, where H.G. Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell) comes to (then) modern day San Francisco chasing Jack the Ripper (David Warner) and encounters the ever adorable Mary Steenburgen.

I like time travel stories in movies, books, comics, and so on. One of the best – and funniest – time travel comics I read was an eight pager by Alan Moore in 2000 AD. Witty and brilliant. Time travel stories can be difficult to pull off well, however. They need to be internally consistent and should jibe not only with the facts but the tone of the time era. That’s easier when the setting is the future or when the story has future travelers coming into our present.

The Back To The Future movie trilogy did this pretty well. The first and third movies were great; the middle one – meh. I don’t dislike it as much as some people do but it’s not quite at the same level. However, it does have a classic time travel conundrum when our hero, Marty McFly (played by the ever adorable Michael J. Fox), has to go back to the same era he was in during the first film and not meet himself. It’s done cleverly and is internally consistent.

One of the tropes in a lot of modern time travel tales appears to be the traveler is coming back in time to undo something to save the future times. That’s the basis of the Terminator movies, Twelve Monkeys, the aforementioned DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and others. It reflects one of the age-old questions of time travel – if you could travel back in time, would you kill Adolph Hitler before he really got going. (One of my favorite episodes of my favorite time travel series of all, Doctor Who, is called “Let’s Kill Hitler.”)

There’s lots of reasons as to why a given time traveler can’t or won’t kill Hitler – it would result in someone even worse or that time is like a stream and if you attempt to divert it it will find it’s way back to what was changed. One theory of time (and why you can’t change the past) was explained on a recent episode of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. One of the group’s scientists explains that time is like a block of Jell-O; it’s homogeneous in that it actually is all happening at the same time and it is only our perception of time being linear that separates one second from another.

I wonder if the prevalence of this “going back in time to save the world” is part of our current zeitgeist. Maybe we sense or feel that something is going badly wrong and the future is coming back to our present to keep a very dystopian future from happening. The event may vary according to your own beliefs and perceptions. Maybe they’re here to stop Trump from being elected or maybe it’s Hillary. (My money’s on Trump, but that’s me.) Maybe it’s George W. Bush and the Iraq War; maybe it’s Ralph Nader because he enabled the election of Bush. Maybe it’s to stop the effects of climate change before it’s too late.  Your versions may vary; these are mine.

I think what it reflects is that we all sense that something is wrong even if we can’t agree on what it is. As usual, our pop culture speaks to that underlying fear, picks up on our gestalt, our group subconscious, and tries to give it form. Art can do that. It can give a physical form to what we feel, to what we can’t elucidate, and shows it to us.

Shakespeare, of course, said it better:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

  • Midsummer’s Night Dream. Act V, Scene 1

That’s also a form of time travel; words from hundreds of years ago still resonate and his voice still lives and speaks to us.

Or, as Doc says to Marty and his girlfriend at the end of Back To The Future III: “… your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.”

Make it a good one, all of you.

John Ostrander: Nasty Surprises

NeroWolfeFiles_front_fsI’ve heard it said that old friends are the best friends. That makes sense to me. Over time, you’ve shared experiences together, both good and bad. You’ve grown to know each other, to know the little idiosyncrasies that make up who we are, that make the bonds between us.

You can form that kind of relationships with books as well, especially series. The first time you read the book, it’s to discover the story, to learn what happens next. As you return to it, or read another book in the series, it’s because you want to revisit them.

For example, for me every new book in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith is like a new visit with old friends. I know the characters, the main ones and the wide supporting cast as well, and I want to learn what is going on with their lives. There are surprises in each visit, to be sure, but I now know the locale and what these people are like, I know their foibles and their virtues. They do grow but they are still the same characters I know and love.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I’ve been re-reading the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. There’s a lot of them – Stout started the series in the 30s and ended the run only with his death in 1975. In all, there are 33 novels and 39 novellas in the canon. It’s been so long since I’ve read most of them that most of the time I don’t really remember what the mystery is or whodunit.

However, I don’t really come back for the mysteries – I come back for old friends, principally the great detective, Nero Wolfe, and his intrepid assistant, Archie Goodwin. They’re a great team – Wolfe is the armchair detective, the great mind in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. Archie is the wisecracking modern semi-hard boiled detective in the tradition of Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. (Archie also is our narrator in all the stories and he’s a damn good one.) Their relationship, their repartee, is what drives the series.

Wolfe has many well defined idiosyncrasies: he keeps religiously to his routine, never leaves his brownstone in New York if he can help it, is a gourmand (and looks it; we’re often told he weighs a seventh of a ton), cultivates orchards, is a misogynist, is paranoid about traveling in any vehicle (convinced that the vehicle at some irrational moment will kill him), loves big words and knows how to use them, and is almost terminally lazy. If Archie wasn’t there to badger him. Wolfe would probably never work at all.

Part of Stout’s way of shaking up the series is to occasionally put Wolfe in very uncomfortable positions, usually involving his being obliged to leave his dwelling. One of Wolfe’s immediate objectives invariably is to find a chair that cannot only hold him and bear his weight but in which he feels comfortable and secure; not always an easy task.

In the fifth book of the series, Too Many Cooks, Stout inflicts many indignities on Wolfe from the start. We begin with the great detective on a train; if you know Wolfe and his horrors of travel, you already know how much this will bother him. He and Archie are traveling to West Virginia, to a well known resort where fifteen of the top chefs from around the world gather for a special banquet where Wolfe will be the guest of honor and the main speaker. Needless to say, one of the chefs winds up murdered and Wolfe, if he ever wants to get home, will need to solve the case. So far so good and very entertaining.

That said, there was something that took me aback as I read it. At this resort, the staff are all African-Americans, and there is a casual use of racial slurs by several characters, including Archie. Other nationalities also get ethnic slurs used with them but, with the African-Americans, the slurs carry with them the whole bigoted attitude that those words embody.

The book was published in 1938 and will, as most pop culture, reflect the society and attitude of its day. That said, it was still startling and somewhat off-putting to me. I don’t expect something written back then to reflect sensibilities more prevalent today. I am not and never was someone who expected the word “nigger” to be excised from Huckleberry Finn.

Still, it did catch me by surprise. It’s an attitude I hadn’t seen in my old friend before and didn’t expect to find it here. I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the book.

I did and I’m glad I did. At one point, in order to solve the mystery, Wolfe needs to question the black staff, the cooks and the servants, together. And this is where Stout provides an admirable twist. Wolfe treats them as individuals and with respect, and so does the author. They have names, they have separate identities and characters, different outlooks and goals and ways of talking. One waiter is working at the resort to put himself through Howard College. There are no “niggers” in this group. They’re people, individuals, and that’s the point Stout makes. In a book published in 1938. I find that remarkable.

This is not to paint Wolfe as a civil rights champion. He is not. Wolfe (Stout?) is an undeniable misogynist and that may be a subject for a column at some future date. Wolfe is also ruthlessly pragmatic at times and, in this case, he needs information. However, he doesn’t allow blind prejudice, such as Archie demonstrates, to get in his way of solving the murder. That being said, Wolfe treats the men as men.

It is nice when you find that your old friend is who you thought they were, whether that old friend is living or fictional. Well done, Nero Wolfe. Highly satisfactory.

John Ostrander: Star Wars – The Trouble with Quibbles

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Spoiler Alert: This column will deal with some plot points in Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. It’s possible that you may not have seen it yet although I think just about anyone who has any real interest in seeing it has seen it. If you are one of those who haven’t seen it and want to avoid plot revelations, avoid this column. Likewise, if you just don’t give a hang about Star Wars, you might want to avoid it as well. It’ll just bore the life out of you. Fan geek stuff. You know.

I’ve seen the new Star Wars film, Episode VII The Force Awakens a couple of times. Twice at least in the IMAX theater and now on Blu-Ray. Basically, I really enjoyed it. It makes up for the prequels and does what I always wanted in the next Star Wars film – it tells me what happened next.

That said, I do have some quibbles. I don’t mind, as some fans do, that the movie seems to replicate plot points from the first SW film, a.k.a. Episode IV. They had the Death Star, Episode VII has the Starkiller Base. The planet Alderaan gets blowed up real good in Episode IV; the planetary system that included Coruscant got blowed up real good in Episode VII (which, by the way, I think was a mistake). Both films have the mentor figure killed off by the villain dressed in black who wears a helmet. Skywalker males are whiners in all the trilogies. Anakin was a big time whiner in the prequels, Luke whined at least at the start, and now Kylo Ren whines just before he commits patricide. Leia never whines. Han doesn’t whine. Just the Skywalker boys.

Some of the similarities annoy me. Why is it, when the Jedi suffer a set-back, they go off somewhere to pout… excuse me, “meditate”… while the galaxy falls apart? Yoda and Obi-Wan could have found and rallied the remaining Jedi (or created new ones) to go after Darth Vader and Darth Sidious. But no. The remaining Jedi lie in hiding while terrible things happen to the galaxy and the planet Alderaan gets blowed up real good while the remaining Jedi pout. I mean meditate. In the new film, it’s a big plot point that the galaxy is waiting for Luke to come back and save it. The bad guys are hunting for his location so they can kill him and wipe out any possibility of the Jedi really returning. That’s a given. Where’s Luke? Off pouting. I mean meditating. And the flaming Coruscant system gets blowed up real good.

I suppose it could be argued that Luke, after his first attempt to make more Jedi goes spectacularly bad, decides to go look for the first Jedi Temple since he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. However, that’s speculating without any real proof.

In the earlier Star Wars films, it is said that Darth Vader, a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker, still had some good in him. I’ve argued this before: I don’t see it. He killed children, he betrayed the Jedi Order, he helped hunt down remaining Jedi, he was complicit in the destruction of the planet Alderaan but it’s okay because, at the end, he turns on the evil Emperor because the latter is electrocuting Vader’s son.

Now, in the latest film, the new Man In Black, Kylo Ren, a.k.a. the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, kills people, wrecks Luke’s nascent new Jedi Club, orders the destruction of a village, is complicit in the destruction of a whole planetary system and he commits patricide. Yes, this a-hole kills off his Dad, Han Solo, who is one of the favorite characters in Star Wars, who is trying to help him at the time. Kylo does lots of other nasty stuff but we know he will be around for the next film and probably the one after that. If the other films follow the pattern of the earlier films, we may see a desire to redeem the little bugger as Vader was redeemed.

Let me repeat. Kylo (Ben Solo) Ren commits patricide. Throughout history in Western Civilization, that is considered an unspeakable crime, an unforgivable sin. I loved Han Solo and, before he buys it in this film, we’re given some great moments that reminds us all why he’s such a favorite character. And his little snot of a son kills him.

I suppose in the next film or so we’ll get some of Ren’s backstory and maybe understand him better. As it is, I feel no sympathy, no empathy for him. I don’t think he is redeemable any more than I think Vader/Anakin was redeemed. IMO, he needs to die as soon as the plot can arrange it.

However, as I said before, these are quibbles. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the new Star Wars because I enjoyed it immensely. I found it satisfying and a great return to a galaxy far, far away. I think the female lead, Daisy Ridley playing Rey, is a wonderful addition to the saga. At recent conventions I’ve attended, I’ve seen a lot of young girls cos-playing Rey and I think that’s great. It invigorates Star Wars with new energy.

But they can shoot Kylo Ren any time.

John Ostrander: They Grow Up So Fast

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I’ve been watching DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow over on the CW. Among the characters that have been appearing on the show are Firestorm and Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Well, not so much Hawkman any more, maybe. I didn’t create those three characters but I certainly played with them a lot and, for a while, left my sticky fingerprints all over them. So it’s interesting watching manifestations of them in other media.

I’ll be experiencing that big time come August when the Suicide Squad movie hits the multiplexes. I created Amanda Waller and I defined characters like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang and it will be exciting to see how they translate for the screen. I hope.

None of the character portrayals will translate directly from the comics to movies or TV. I’m okay with that; none of them have so far. Different media have different needs. That’s why they’re called adaptations. The material is adapted from whatever the source was. My only question about any given adaptation is – how true is it to its roots? Did they get the essence of the character or the concept right? If you’re going to do Captain XYZ Man, there should be a resemblance to what makes up Captain XYZ Man. Right?

OTOH, I haven’t always done that and Suicide Squad itself is a good example. The comic was originally created for DC by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru; my version shared the title, a character or two, and some history with the original and not much else. Of course, as buddy Mike Gold pointed out in his excellent column this week, Kanigher may have gotten the title (and not much else) from a feature in a pulp magazine called Ace G-Man. What goes around comes around?

Amanda has appeared several times, including the TV show Arrow, lots of animated series, the Green Lantern movie, video games, the TV series Smallville, and probably more. I may need to double check my royalty statements. Any number of actresses have portrayed her and voiced her. She doesn’t always look the same. In Arrow and some of the comics, she’s built like a model. However, in all the variations I’ve seen there have been certain aspects that are kept – she’s female, black, and she’s ruthless as hell.

Even with other characters, I don’t always keep to how they were conceived. My version of Firestorm changed (evolved?) throughout my run. At one point when we decided he was a Fire Elemental (the Elemental idea was popular for a while starting with Alan Moore making Swamp Thing the Earth Elemental) and Ol’ Flamehead’s look was drastically altered, not always to universal approval.

Still, I think I kept to the essentials of the characters and, when I changed things, I kept within continuity as established although sometimes I picked and chose within the continuity.

All that said, I (mostly) enjoy seeing the variations and permutations of these characters. It’s like watching your kids grow up and moving away and seeing what they become. It’s not always what you expected but, hopefully, you can still see your DNA in them.