Category Archives: SFFH

Goodies for the New Year!

 

I snagged me some books for the New Year as Winterfest gifts. Should keep me busy for a bit:

 

A) Angles of Attack by Marko Kloos — The third in Kloos’ noted military SF Frontline series has the main characters trying to put their new knowledge about the powerful alien invaders to use in last ditch efforts to save the Earth and its colonies. One thing I like about Kloos’ series is that his aliens are really alien, which makes the attempts dealing with them interesting beyond the usual military hardware and barking soldiers. The second book in the series was a much stronger entry than the first one, so I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here.

B) Wanderers by Chuck Wendig — I’m attempting to finish off Wendig’s contemporary fantasy Miriam Black series of which I am fond, but in the meantime my mom got me his latest hefty and acclaimed post-apocalypse novel. Earth society is collapsing from a strange epidemic in which many people are sleepwalking towards some destination, with their desperate, unaffected relatives accompanying them and trying to figure out how to save them. Wendig is one of those authors who builds stories around the truly weird and this is his most ambitious work to date.

C) No Country for Old Gnomes by Delilah S. Dawson & Kevin Hearne — This is the second in Dawson and Hearne’s comic fantasy series The Tales of Pell that started with Kill the Farm Boy, which both I and my husband much enjoyed. Satirizing fairy tales and fantasy fiction requires sharp dialogue and whacky action, something both authors excel at, along with an unexpectedly high body count and a love of cheese. This next novel tackles a long standing conflict between gnomes and halflings and offers a whole new crew of characters.

D) Murderbot: All Systems Red by Martha Wells — Wells has been making great waves with her novella/short novel SF series featuring Murderbot, a corporate-owned security android that has hacked its controlling governor’s module. In this first entry of the series, which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella, an otherwise boring contract assignment escorting a group of scientists turns dangerous and complicated for Murderbot when unexpected fauna is discovered on the planet and another survey group is mysteriously slaughtered.

E) Terminal Uprising by Jim C. Hines — This is the second book in Hines’ comic SF Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series. The first, Terminal Alliance, is one of my favorite things that Hines has done, so I am quite happy to have this one continuing the adventures and haphazard conspiracy solving skills of the hygiene and sanitary space crew who mop up after the galaxy’s crises. The backstory of humanity in this story universe is quite complicated and Hines mixes it expertly with satire, poignancy and pretty interesting space battles. (I also love the covers on these.)

F) Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett — The non-SFF title of the bunch (I do have some,) is a personable amateur murder mystery story set in L.A. A down-on-her-luck former actress trying to save her parents’ house ends up investigating a hit and run death in an attempt to get the reward money for information on the case. She is aided by a small crew of interesting friends. The book is a first in the series, Detective By Day, and is a touch satiric. Garrett, a former t.v. writer, knows all the costuming and rituals of Tinseltown and puts them to sharp but affectionate use. The novel won the Anthony, Agatha and Lefty Awards for mystery.

 

 

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Links and News

So I am in the midst of revamping. But in the meantime, here’s a grab-bag of some links and news:

 

A) SFF Writer and translator Ken Liu just got a very nice adaptation deal on some of his work.

B) Nike and Boeing are planning future products using science fiction writers.

C) A look at scavenger capitalism and how it’s actually been the big retail killer of retail, including bookstores.

D) Two interesting pieces, one with connection to a podcast interview and the other a Twitter thread essay focused on Judy-Lynn Del Rey, about women in SF in the past.

E) Apparently, the original comics version of The Walking Dead is about to be brought to a close with its next issue.

F) Award-winning, best-selling novelist Michael Chabon is not only writing episodes for Star Trek: Picard, CBS’ new Trek spin-off series, he’s now going to be the show-running producer.

 

 

 

 

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Women in Action 2018/2019 – Part 1: 2018 in Review

It’s time (very late-ishly) for Women In Action, when I take a look at how actresses are faring in big budget action, horror, suspense, action comedy and other major films, which can convey “A” list status and big salaries, and how they might do in the following year. I’ve been doing this analysis since 2012, a year that ended up being considered the “year of the woman” in film because several women-led films did very well then. Since that time, seven years ago, there has been substantial momentum for women in movie star roles in big budget and action movies, including being the lead of some of those movies and having that be more common.

But. That progress remains of the trickle, trickle, melt the iceberg slowly variety, despite the economics showing that increasing women leads and in major roles pays off handsomely for movie studios. Discrimination against women, particularly women of color, is deeply embedded in Hollywood’s view of itself, in men feeling that cutting off women to some extent helps keep down the job and status competition and the costs. The idea that (American, white, straight) men are the important audience, when women have actually been the critical viewers, continues to be the rock to which executives cling for action pictures. Women actresses going from the status of sex objects who should be happy to have jobs and put up with systemic sexual harassment to more regularly power players in the field is definitely creating some seismic waves, especially after the recent MeToo and NeverAgain campaigns of 2017 led to some policy changes. But the resistance in the industry remains strong as the image of the cigar chomping white man movie producer with the gorgeous young actress on his arm still holds dominion. The increase in money from making women more involved and more prominent (both in front and behind the camera,) is swaying many but the statistics are as frustrating in the millimeter size of the increases as they are encouraging.

While statistically studies show that 2018 had improvements for women in roles over 2017, in general I find that 2018 didn’t have quite as much momentum and impact as 2016 and 2017 for positioning actresses as powerhouse stars. This was due to several factors. First off was the usual one – man-heavy and man-led long time franchises dominated the year. These films allowed women major roles in them, but still not as many leading opportunities. Second, some promising woman-led films got pushed back, such as X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Alita: Battle Angel, which were bumped into this year, 2019, while a number of the women-led major films didn’t perform as well as hoped (mostly due to foreign box office problems.) In particular, the low to mid budget suspense films that are often women-led and can make substantial profits, building up the women as reliable action heroes, didn’t do quite as well in 2018. This last was due partly to problems getting those movies into crowded theaters domestically in the U.S., as well as the wide-spread issue of getting them enough distribution for the critical foreign box office returns.

Even so, women did cement gains they’ve been making in recent years in 2018. Women have increased their prominence in action comedies. They are established as favorite critical players in the superhero franchises, maintained a solid presence in horror, and had some well-respected women-led hits. The year certainly showed no signs of backtracking and offered a decent boost to the in-coming films of 2019. So let’s take a look at what happened in 2018:

The Hits:

The number one woman-led action film for the year was, surprisingly, from the Transformers franchise — the prequel film Bumblebee, with young star Hailee Steinfeld playing the human who helps everybody’s favorite yellow alien robot car. The film took in over $459 million during the holiday season, most of it in the key foreign box office, and is now at $468 million. The romantic thriller Fifty Shades Freed, starring Dakota Johnson, completed that franchise series and once again earned large early in the year, with nearly $372 million on a modest budget.

Rebooting a very old franchise, Disney launched the big sequel Mary Poppins Returns, starring the top of the heap star Emily Blunt (now the highest paid actress in film.) While the musical score of the film came nowhere near the original, the fun family movie released for the holidays earned over $349 million and is still earning globally. That’s a good bit less than Disney was probably hoping for but solidly in the black related to its budget, and Disney will milk the merchandising, theme parks and reshowings/DVD sales of the film for decades.

Women, women everywhere

Also a hit with high impact was Ocean’s 8, a spin-off of the Ocean’s movie franchise and starring big names Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, and five other extraordinary and noted or rising actresses. The heist caper kept to a mid-sized budget at $70 million and earned over $297 million during the busy summer. That might mean a sequel, but in any case, it showed that an action suspense movie chock full of women was highly effective and that Sandra Bullock remains a powerhouse star.

The other big woman-led action thriller for 2018 was another reboot prequel movie —Tomb Raider, based on the popular game, and starring rising actress Alicia Vikander. The movie was brought out early in the season and claimed over $274 million at the box office, most of it abroad. A sequel is likely. Star Jennifer Lawrence took a big swing with a Russian spy thriller adaptation, Red Sparrow, to mixed critical reaction but the mid-budget movie did turn a decent profit of over $151 million, much of it again in foreign box office. (That women-led action films did well in foreign box office when they managed to get proper international distribution is one highly encouraging sign from 2018.)

A lower budget thriller that did well was A Simple Favor, starring major actresses Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. The psychological suspense tale took in over $97 million on a small $20 million budget. Breaking In, a thriller starring and produced by actress Gabrielle Union, was also made on a limited budget and took in over $51 million for a very healthy return. Taraji P. Henson’s starring turn in suspense film Tyler Perry’s Acrimony earned over $46 million.

Horror continues to provide good opportunities for woman-led films, partly due to their use of smaller budgets. Halloween, a possibly final sequel for the long running hit franchise, saw Jaime Curtis return to the role that made her a star, along with Judy Greer as her daughter. The small budget film was rewarded with over $254 million in box office as the biggest horror hit. Also highly successful was the sequel Insidious: The Last Key, starring Lin Shaye, taking in nearly $168 million. Low budget Truth or Dare, starring Lucy Hale, was very profitable with a $95 million plus take. Hereditary, an Australian entry starring Toni Collette, took in over $79 million. Slender Man and The Possession of Hannah Grace earned $51 million plus and $43 million plus respectively on tiny budgets. Unfriended: Dark Web, made for only a million, took in over $15 million. However, Unsane, starring Claire Foy, and remake Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson, underperformed. Girl power satiric horror film Assassination Nation made a big cultural cult impact in geek circles, but only earned a few million with limited distribution.

The “Woman” Films:

 

In the less suspenseful but high profile releases of woman-led films, musical sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, headed by Amanda Seyfried and featuring the legendary Cher, was the big earner with over $394 million on a medium-sized budget. Another big impact, big earner in the comedy area was Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh with a full Asian cast. The movie took in over $238 million on a very modest budget. Other woman-led and often woman produced comedies and action comedies that did well included Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty at nearly $95 million, Overboard with Anna Faris at over $91 million, star Jennifer Lopez’s career comedy Second Act taking in over $72 million on a small budget, the star studded Book Club with legends Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen earning over $68 million and comic star and producer Melissa McCarthy’s entry for the year, the more low key Life of the Party, which earned a solid near $66 million. (McCarthy also did the biography movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? which earned very little in a limited release but did snag the actress an Oscar nomination.)

On the historical and drama side where women can sometimes score large, the big winner was the satirical The Favourite, starring Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. The movie about Britain’s Queen Anne earned quite a bunch of Oscar nominations and wins and also scored well at the box office with nearly $96 million and still earning, a lot of it global box office. The other woman-led historical was Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan as the doomed queen and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. The film has taken in a respectable $45 million and still earning, much of it also from global box office. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones, has earned over $37 million and got a lot of attention. The films Winchester, Tully and Disobedience didn’t earn a lot in returns, but did get a lot of attention for the performances of their lead actress stars.

These films did show an increase for Hollywood on featuring women subjects in prestige bios and dramas and, while not the big budget films, do boost actresses’ star power in the industry. Felicity Jones helped solidify her rising star status by playing Ginsburg, which combines with her big action status from Star Wars: Rogue One. Long time player Olivia Coleman climbed several rungs higher thanks to The Favourite and won an Oscar for the role. Rachel Weisz not only got an Oscar nomination for her role in The Favourite but co-produced the drama Disobedience. Starring in such projects doesn’t always mean getting to transition into big budget action for such actresses, but now a lot of actresses are shifting back and forth between such categories, like the men actors tend to do, as well as getting more production opportunities.

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We Will Miss You Ursula Le Guin

So we got the sad news that author Ursula Le Guin passed away at the age of 88.

Le Guin was the only woman and the last of the SF Lions, the authors considered the most monumental, seminal voices in modern SF whose name every fan knew, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. A thoughtful professor married to a professor who supported her writing, a brilliant speaker and an advocate and inspiration for numerous writers, her impressive body of work from 1962 right up until her death made her an icon. Her major best-selling fiction works like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Lavinia, “The Word for World is Forrest,” “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” are staples of school curriculum and winners of multiple awards, including five Hugos and six Nebulas. They explore remarkably what it means to be human. Her fantasy Earthsea trilogy, written for teens, has become a core text of epic fantasy and coming of age literature. The series won a World Fantasy Award, the prestigious Newberry Honor Award and the National Book Award for Children’s Literature. It was the first of many works Le Guin would write for teens and children.

Le Guin became the leading name in a literary movement of women authors eventually dubbed Feminist SF, which helped open the way for so many women writers in the SFF field, even as she took some sexist heat for exploring such themes in some of her work. She used LGBTQ characters and non-white characters in some of her works and supported authors in both of those demographics in bigger roles in SFF. Beloved by fellow academics, she gently schooled those with misconceptions about SFF literature and dismissed with polished acerbity her own editors and others’ claims that her works or others transcended SFF to be literature instead of simply were literature as SFF. In 2014, she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She was made a Grandmaster of Science Fiction in 2003. The U.S. Library of Congress designated her one of their Living Legends.

Le Guin also wrote non-fiction on writing, SFF literature and her own career, many of which have continued to inspire and influence many fiction writers. Her last publication in 2017 was the collection of non-fiction essays No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Mattersa fitting one to end on perhaps. She represented for so many what was possible, with intelligence, curiosity and a wonderful command of the language. She was known all over the world.

There is a word in our language that, for me, best describes her: nonpareil — someone who has no equal. That was Ursula Le Guin, and we will miss her.

 

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” — from The Lathe of Heaven

“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear.” – from The Left Hand of Darkness

“We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

“I think hard times are coming…We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

 

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Hire Artist Natasha Alterici!

Artist Natasha Alterici put out that she has slots available for up-coming commissions in February. Her stuff seems pretty good so check her out if you are looking for a cover artist or other artistic needs:

 

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Holiday Loot

Lookee what I got over the holidays:

 

When people want to know what I want as gifts, usually I say books, so this was my most recent haul. Most of these are continuations of series I’ve been reading, but I also got three new works, including two from authors I haven’t read before.

Going from left corner top clockwise, I got the final book in Linda Nagata‘s military technothriller SF trilogy — Red: Going Dark; the latest (Book #6) in Diana Rowland‘s zombie SF mystery thriller series White Trash Zombie: White Trash Zombie Unchained; Kat Howard‘s first novel in her new contemporary fantasy series An Unkindness of Magicians; Jim C. Hines‘ new venture in comic SF — Terminal Alliance; Karina Sumner-Smith‘s concluding volume in her post-apocalypse secondary world fantasy trilogy — The Towers Trilogy: Towers Fall; the second in N.K. Jemisin‘s acclaimed apocalyptic secondary world fantasy trilogy Broken Earth: The Obelisk Gate; Fonda Lee‘s new novel starting a secondary world, post-industrial fantasy crime series — Jade City; Ann Leckie continuing the world of her acclaimed SF Ancillary series in a spin-off Provenance; and Chuck Wendig continuing his contemporary fantasy series with Book #4 — Miriam Black: Thunderbird.

I’m looking forward to reading through them over the next few months. The cover art on all of them is really good and quite varied in approach. There wasn’t really a theme to this year’s haul selection, other than a “let’s kill off some of the trilogies” approach and some “oh look, a new book in the series” selections. But I did end up with a fair amount of SF and contemporary-styled fantasy titles as a result. There is a whole other queue of titles that will be the gift selections for later and that are a fairly wide range. For the two new authors, Kat Howard and Fonda Lee, both of these novels have been much talked about in fandom and both sounded interesting to me. Once I’ve read them all, I’ll let you know what I think of them. Feel free to share any works you got for the winter solstice/new year.

If you want to check out these authors and their works further, links to their official websites are provided below:

Linda Nagata: http://www.mythicisland.com/

Diana Rowland: http://www.dianarowland.com/index.html

Kat Howard: http://www.kathowardbooks.com/

Jim C. Hines: http://www.jimchines.com/

Karina Sumner-Smith: http://karinasumnersmith.com/

N.K. Jemisin: http://nkjemisin.com/

Fonda Lee: http://fondalee.com/

Ann Leckie: https://www.annleckie.com/

Chuck Wendig: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/

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Linky Times — Writer Stuff

Various and sundry writer-related links and news today that caught my attention:

 

An older piece this year from Chuck Wendig’s blog about writing processes and not panicking.

A piece by author Rufi Thorpe about issues women writers often deal with in their lives and careers.

A piece by author Nisi Shawl on writing the Other/other cultures in SFF stories in an effective way.

Various SFF authors talk about the terms fans use about SFF writing that drive them up a wall.

For those who haven’t heard, Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose has optioned the dramatic rights of Daniel José Older’s best-selling YA series Shadowshaper, as well as the rights earlier to his urban fantasy trilogy Bone Street Rumba. I’m working my way through the Bone Street Rumba series and really like it. Shadowshaper has been a big hit with teens and the second book in the series, Shadowhouse Falls, is just coming out now. Rose has been starring in the t.v. shows Power and The Quad, as well as the movie Everything, Everything, which itself was based on a best-selling YA novel. So here’s hoping she can get something going for Older’s work.

Disney/Star Wars is releasing a prequel graphic novel, Star Wars: Rogue One — Cassian & K-2SO Special #1,  to its prequel film Star Wars: Rogue One, which covers how Rebel agent Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, first encountered his android partner K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk. Since K-2 has become my favorite robot in the Star Wars universe, I am interested in this particular tie-in, which is now out from Marvel.

HBO is developing a television series based on the World Fantasy Award winning novel Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor, who is also an executive producer on the show, and they have now hired screen and comics writer/producer Selwyn Seyfu Hinds to co-produce and write the initial scripts. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future Nigeria and offers a complex, brutal and vibrant story about myth, identity and destiny with some really interesting magical elements.

And lastly, Neil Gaiman just released a photo of David Tenant and Michael Sheen in character for the adaptation of his and Terry Pratchett’s famous fantasy novel, Good Omens, and they look awesome as the demon and the angel who decide to save the eleven-year-old Anti-Christ and prevent the Christian apocalypse. I’m quite looking forward to seeing it, as the novel is an old favorite of mine.

 

 

 

 

 

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You Don’t Own Me — Plot, Worlds and Experiences

 

 

So I watched the very brief panel at San Diego Comic Con this year for Netflix’s up-coming movie Bright, debuting in December, mostly to watch cast members Will Smith and Terry Crews goof around. But it was really funny to listen to them all talk as if they’d invented the genre of urban fantasy with this movie, and as if no other movie or t.v. series in that genre, much less thousands and thousands of books and some games, had existed in it before, (not to mention that more than half of those stories involve cops or other forms of law enforcement.)

And then there was one guy in the audience who asked a question at the end of the session, somewhat hostile, about whether they’d ripped off the popular RPG game Shadowrun, a question that they side-stepped with a certain amount of perplexity, as well they should have. This guy was acting again as if contemporary fantasy novels with elves, etc., hadn’t been published for decades before Shadowrun was created in 1989. Shadowrun itself, of course, borrowed copiously from the “elves with computers” novels of contemporary fantasy that were particularly popular in the 1980’s.

In contrast to Shadowrun, Bright is much less cyber-oriented and more grit police procedural thriller – like again many, many contemporary fantasy stories and a few science fiction stories involving usually aliens, including the story it most resembles on the cop part: the movie Alien Nation (1988,) followed by the television series adaptation of the movie (1989) under the same name. Alien Nation itself borrowed heavily/was descended from many, many science fiction stories in which a human and an alien were cop or other law enforcement partners (building on the buddy cops who are opposites idea from suspense fiction.) More recently, the SF television show Almost Human paired a cop with an android AI in a near future Earth, also a favorite in science fiction.

Does any of this matter? No, it has little effect on people’s enjoyment of a particular story being told, be it written fiction, game, movie, t.v., web series or theater play. Occasionally, a fan of one property will be quite put out if another property is anywhere near the same neighborhood, under the mistaken impression that it somehow harms the property that they love or that the property they love now owns common elements like vampires, elves, time travel, love triangles, etc. When the television adaptation of The Vampire Diaries came out, for instance, many fans of Twilight assumed the show was ripping off their beloved book series, even though The Vampire Diaries had been a bestselling YA book series back since the early 1990’s, long before Twilight existed, and its television show started a year before the novel Twilight was adapted into a movie.

Plots are made out of smaller building blocks of structure. Every combination of these building blocks has been played out one way or another over and over again in story-telling, so much so that people learn at an early age what possible block combinations might be tried once a story-teller sets up a universe and a situation. This is not just applicable to what we call genre stories, but to any kind of fiction. It’s of particular importance to mystery writers, who have to set up clues to the answer to a mystery that are slowly uncovered, include false clues to keep readers guessing, and play with reader expectations of who caused the mystery (usually a murder,) through their use of characters in the plot. No mystery author can keep all their readers from guessing the answer correctly because readers are so familiar with plot and the little structural signs of how story-tellers use character, detailed description and imagery to indicate the levers of plot. But they can try to keep readers unsure of whether their guess is correct or not, to keep reading, and they can work with other aspects of character, plot and theme that stem from the mystery plot or are connected to it but that are interesting in and of themselves.

Every author creates something that is original, because the characters, the exact nature of the story world, and the emotions and relationships, as well as the specific use of words and imagery, all within that story are unique to that author. Characters can become dear to many readers, not because they’ve never encountered a character similar to that one before, but because within the context of the story they are in, they specifically connect with readers. That turns the story into an experience for the readers – which is what art is – an experience through story/language/imagery/sound, etc., that personally resonates and so is valued, (or does not and is critiqued.)

But the bones of what they create will always, always be familiar to readers, always be connected to all the different building blocks readers have encountered, from the time they were small, in other stories and sometimes in real life and history. When a reader is surprised by something in a story, it’s not because of a clever plot twist, but because the reader missed the clues in the structure of the story that would have led them to expect it, or because the reader did notice the clues but other clues created an expectation in the reader that a different building block/direction was where the author was going for that story. That can be delightful when it happens, but it won’t happen with every reader and it doesn’t have to happen for readers to be immersed, engaged, and fall for the characters and world of a story.

Take for instance Ned Stark, in the novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. [ Though it’s quite late in the game to bother, I will issue a SPOILER warning here for those who have not yet read the book or seen the television adaptation. If you don’t want to know stuff, stop reading this part now. ] Martin is, above all else in his series, using mythic structures and imagery to tell a massive fairy tale. In the opening parts of the novel, six children of a lord come across a dead parent (mother) dire wolf with six puppies in her belly. These six puppies are given to the six children, very symbolically, by their father. Just previously, their lord father Ned Stark had to execute by beheading a deserter from the Night Watch, because that was the law. And then Ned Stark is asked to come back into far more complicated but equally heavy politics by his friend, the king.

The plot structure of the story is clearly, because of the symbolic dire-wolves, that the six children are destined to be separated, scattered across the lands, and have to deal with different arduous situations and different fates that lead towards the ultimate plot showdown the book sets up at the very beginning in the prologue – as happens in classic myths. They will lose their protector to mainly cause this process – their father, whose dread about taking up the role his king wants him to do will prove to be mythic prophecy. And because of parallel symbolism, the father, who beheaded the herald deserter who warned them about the end, will in turn be beheaded, causing the beginning.

If you’re familiar with mythic story structure, with those combinations of building blocks, and you read the novel, it’s pretty clear early on that Ned Stark is going to die, and in that particular way, and that this event will be the lynch-pin that sends his children into being lost, scattered and driven low by events. It has to happen for the story to unfold properly. He is a supporting character to the six children – Chosen One figures symbolized by the six magical dire-wolf puppies – and their fates.

But the adapters of the television show knew that they could shock a lot of viewers of the show who hadn’t read the books by misdirecting the audience with expectant clues. They hired Sean Bean, a big name actor, to play Ned Stark, while of course the children were played by young, not well known actors. They promoted Bean as the star of the show, so that unfamiliar viewers would think he was the protagonist, etc. They played up Ned Stark’s scenes, while still following the fairy tale structure of the book. It was kind of fun to watch my husband, who hadn’t read the books before watching the first season of the show, freak out when Ned lost his head.

Why would he be especially freaked out at this development? Because it is a familiar story structure, particularly for movies and t.v., that the protagonist doesn’t die – a plot building block. It’s just that the book and thus the t.v. show were using different and also very familiar mythic plot building blocks (see “dead parent” movies.) (Also some building blocks kill off the protagonist, for that matter.) Even if I had not read the book before seeing the t.v. show, I would have known that Ned was destined to die because the t.v. show adhered very closely to the book and used the prisoner beheading and the dire wolf puppies symbolically for the six kids. It would have been clear to me that Jon Snow – the illegitimate, mystery son who decides to go to the Night Watch in exile where the big action would eventually be – was going to be the protagonist, etc., and that all the kids were in for a fall. Because these are plot building blocks of an epic journey/fairy tale/coming of age. For some viewers, even if they hadn’t read the book, those blocks were familiar.

So was the surprise for some over Ned Stark’s death important for the t.v. show’s success? Not particularly, any more than it had been in the book. It certainly didn’t hurt that the show managed to trick some of their viewers (and entertain their fellows who were in the know over their surprised reactions.) But the show didn’t lose viewers when Ned Stark turned out not to be the protagonist and died, when the path the show was taking turned out to be different from what some expected the plot structure to involve. Viewers were engaged in the characters, the world of the story and the images and scenes on the show, whether they knew/guessed that Ned Stark would die or not. [ End of SPOILERS.]

When we’re engaged in a story – its language, imagery, characters and so forth — we aren’t really worried about originality – or rather about being surprised by plot building blocks because we missed or misread clues about them. We’re more focused on seeing what the author has chosen to build just for that world and characters, just for us, and drawing out what meaning the story has for us personally. When we’re less engaged, when we’re bored by a story, then we are likely to carp that the story is too flat, predictable, maybe too like some other story we were more engaged in – it’s not a strong experience for us. Sometimes those comparisons can be pretty ludicrous, such as accusing The Vampire Diaries of time travel, or declaring all elves in gritty contemporary settings to be attributed to the Shadowrun game. Other times, they’re just really acknowledgement of common DNA in plot building blocks — of story ideas, themes and relationships that are of familiar resonance to ourselves.

I’m going to enjoy Bright when it comes out, even if it is directed by the guy who made the movie Suicide Squad for DC/Warner – a film I consider a hot mess. But it will be the umpteenth story I’ve seen/read involving gritty cops and elves and/or magical species. It’s going to be fun, it may even be something I find really well done, but what it won’t be is unique, mind-blowing or radical. Because human beings live on stories – and down deep we know every trick a story-teller can play. We can still be surprised sometimes, we can be impressed with a creation in and of itself and its combinations. But no story owns or invents those basic building blocks of plot structure. Not even if you combine cops and elves one more time, with feeling.

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Superheroes R Us

So also in the realm of superheroes, the comics side of Marvel has been watching the collapse of its sales model, while dealing with a cross-over disaster that had a far right leaning writer making Captain America, the Steve Rogers version, into a Nazi/Hydra spy as part of a muddled multiverse idea. The collapse has not been a new thing; it’s been a process going on since the 1980’s that happened to then coincide with the great shrinkage of the wholesale market for magazines, newspapers, paperbacks and comics that took place in the 1990’s and helped pop the collectors’ hyper-valuation bubble in comics issues. Essentially, the big comics companies tried to increase monthly buys by staging big crossover stories that required buying from four to seven series at a time to follow, while comic prices went up, up, up. These crossover stories often made use of multiple universes to shake series up, allowing them to totally reboot characters and past stories with little regard for consistency.

This was certainly one of the reasons that my husband and I stopped really buying comics way back – it was too expensive to do and our child needed food. But the success of graphic novels, including bound omnibuses of monthly comic issues, and the emergence of highly successful live action superhero movies and animated t.v. series and movies from major comics helped keep especially Marvel afloat for a while. Now, though, retail markets are further squeezed and Marvel has made things worse with poorly planned stunt events, constant reboots and number one reissues to try to generate short term sales instead of reliable regular fans. Economic uncertainty in the face of controversial political events has further dampened sales recently.

When Marvel Comics held a retailer summit in late March with the comic stores, one of Marvel’s vice presidents of sales – a white guy – apparently brought up that some comics vendors were saying the diverse comics – the ones not about white guys and white guy led teams – weren’t selling and that maybe this was the reason for Marvel Comics’ poor comics sales showing the previous quarter. This was flagrantly untrue. Many of the “diversity” comics are Marvel’s top sellers and had clearly brought in more readers domestically and globally. And many of their white guy comics had sales in the toilet and were being axed. The race and gender of the leads in the comics neither guaranteed sales nor that sales would tank.

So why would a senior vice president of Marvel, with full access to the real sales figures, float a lie that was so easily disproven about his own company? And which he had to apologize for and take back not long after? Did some comics store vendors actually say this to him? Very probably. But the comics store owners also have access to sales numbers well beyond their own stores. So why would some of them push such an assertion?

Part of it was clearly deflection. Rather than admit that the problem was an unworkable production, pricing and marketing model, or admit that your store has adapted poorly to pushing your products under current market conditions, it’s an easier fix to blame the audience of the medium for being unreasonably bigoted, which then becomes the big talking point.

But as a form of deflection, it’s a poor one. The vice president’s trashing of his own company’s line was a PR nightmare for them. Presumably this same vice president respects and works with POC and white women artists, writers and editors at Marvel. Why would he then disparage what they do, and which helps pay his salary? Especially when he had said last year that women and kids as readers were a key component of Marvel Comics’ success?

In a word, reassurance. Marvel and the comics industry in general has been run by white guys, like most industries, particularly in the marketing and business end of things of course, but also on the creative front. While others were occasionally welcomed in, mostly they were blocked and certainly kept from obtaining leadership positions of influence if they were around. This has created a comfortable cushion of established and protected practice at companies like Marvel.

That’s changing a little bit. As they recognize the need for greater variety to hold on to and expand a global market, Marvel, like other comics companies, has been putting out more titles that offer a slightly wider range of characters and ideas. With that comes a slight increase in the variety of people who work there and create the titles. This allows Marvel in the long term to grow and expand its workforce and its product line – something that can benefit white guys too.

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Wonder Woman Sails Into Shiny Waters

So obviously a lot has been going on in recent months all about, but I did manage to go see the long awaited and much speculated about Wonder Woman movie, starring Gal Gadot. I enjoyed it overall and give it about a B+ grade, which, given the DC multiverse’s film record the last few years, is quite good. The action scenes were mostly great, very cleverly done, the cinematography and use of color and audio with homages to the comics themselves was interesting and nicely shaped by the director, Patty Jenkins. The special effects were sometimes a bit uneven – some of them were great but a few looked a bit too electronic game animation-like. That’s going to happen, though, and it’s pretty amazing at how extensive a range of things they can CGI create now. There were a few points of the plot that didn’t make a great deal of sense – par for the course in action movies – and the ending had some very good dramatic stuff but also a fair amount of hokey stuff that didn’t quite pull it together as well as it might have been done.

But that also is a bit of a Wonder Woman tradition and they managed to set up Wonder Woman’s role in the up-coming Justice League movie quite well. There were a lot of shout-outs to the Wonder Woman comics, although the story and action were moved to World War I, the war that greatly changed both war itself and the idea of empire. They managed to jigger together the character’s many re-booted back stories to give her a cohesive background origin that worked with the movie’s main arc.

Gadot herself gave a very strong performance. She brought easy physicality to the role and handled the tricky mix of naïvety and smarts that is Diana first leaving her island about as well as could be managed. The main costume was still too Xena-ish but the movie may have started a new fashion trend of swords down the back of evening dresses (and the use of the sword was explained in the film.) Chris Pine showed his all to the audience as American spy Steve Trevor (and I do mean literally all.) He also had a tricky balance between playing a man of the 1918 time period trying to explain it to Diana and one who accepts backing her plays as leader in a changing world, as well as an island of warrior women, and I think he did a good job. Their canon romance was a bit rushed for the movie’s sake, but that really couldn’t be helped and they had good chemistry. The movie did a good job on the difficult issues of war and humanity that both of them have to grapple with, (though again the ending could have been stronger.)

Non-white representation in the movie was not great, which was a bit of a disappointment. Two major black canon characters were cut from the Amazons and WOC were token among them (though they did beautifully in their action scenes.) The main Amazon roles went to white, not particularly Mediterranean  appearing actresses — Robin Wright was steely sharp as Diana’s “fun” aunt and Connie Nielsen had the rather thankless role of Diana’s worried queen mom, Hippolyta. Two major supporting characters were non-white men and both actors, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock, did really good performances with what they had. Problem is that what they had were awful stereotypes, which may have been partly because their characters were actually drawn from the DC Comics, but things definitely could have been improved in the script. The film seemed to acknowledge itself on the sad state of Hollywood in this area, including one very pointed line of dialogue delivered by Taghmaoui. So here’s hoping DC does better in the other movies.

Ewen Bremner also had to deal with some stereotypes – Scottish ones for his part – and managed to also give a nice performance nonetheless. Elena Anaya and the renowned Danny Huston made interesting villains. And Lucy Davis, who I particularly enjoyed in Shaun of the Dead, is a national treasure here as Trevor’s British assistant Etta, stealing every scene she’s in. The movie was not a laugh riot, given the subject matter, but it did use healthy doses of humor very effectively throughout, which is again a considerable improvement on the dour, muddled DC film universe so far. If you haven’t had a chance to catch the film yet, I’d say it’s well worth your time even if you’re not the biggest Wonder Woman fan, for the action visuals alone.

If the movie Wonder Woman had been a regular big action film in our ideal world, my little review above would be the only things needing to be talked about. But of course the movie in the sexist system we still have was made the flashpoint of “will woman superhero movies ruin us,” with an enormous amount of pressure, including the responsibility to prop up sagging enthusiasm for the entire DC franchise in preparation for the up-coming Justice League movie.

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