Painful Lessons in Publishing

A more official word will be going out soon, but it looks like we’re cancelling the Outliers series for good.

The fact that it was ever made at all is something of a small miracle. Five authors putting together a world of stories and characters, each shared and culminating towards a greater epic? That’s no small feat. Yet even before founding Thunderbird Studios, we had a publisher who backed out. This was early 2016, and the small press market seemed to be in a real flux. So, I started an LLC, grabbed some ISBNs and got to work with Manuel.

To help promote it, we even put together a primer, Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, that was regularly given away for free. What threw us for a loop was that the primer seemed to do pretty great. The shorter length plus the art helped us quickly reap ten very positive reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

It looked like a really promising start for us.

Then we published the first volume of five novellas.

And it did not sell.

That was a year ago. We blamed some of it on the election upset last year and kept trying to turn it around. Facebook advertising, reaching out to folks directly, trying to get reviews. We had almost 250 followers on Facebook and several groups we could tap for more, and a few more on Twitter. We had our own personal networks. And we even launched our own product site, backed with freebies. But none of this helped.

Ask me why and I can think of a dozen reasons. Maybe more.

We really fought against labeling it as “superheroes,” focusing more and more on the science fiction elements. We dived into more grounded concerns, a formula that involved adding incredible talented people to say… the nursing profession, government bureaucracy, crime and law enforcement, the plight of the poor, and market manipulation. There were even a few modern day political points, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police being required to use cameras.

These weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary folks who could do something unique, and the world itself was reacting instead of the other way around.

We had serious and lasting impacts from our antics. The final story of Outliers: 2016 involved a sizable chunk of New York burning down. In future volumes, that section of the city is still very gone. And the politics of that event were still being debated. Less laser beam eyes and more modern cloak and dagger.

But I guess people took one glance, saw superheroes and didn’t look again.

What’s wrong with superheroes? Nothing, unless you’re not Marvel or maybe DC. Jon called it when he pointed out that the glutted market (especially with three companies using Marvel’s properties) makes anything one does seem derivative. Particularly when Fox came out with The Gifted, one of several in-universe terms we used to describe our Outlier characters. He described it as “a kick in the teeth.”

And speaking of terminology, Outliers was not a great choice to call our series. Search for it and the first thing you’ll discover is the book by Malcolm Gladwell. Keep digging and you’ll find The Outliers, a novel by Kimberly McCreight that was released earlier in 2016. Our efforts were a painful third.

Another big sign, one I should have watched for, was that the only people who ever seemed excited for Outliers were other authors and writers. Conversations about it drifted towards, “Can I pitch something for that?”

Yet most of them backed away when they realized that Outliers called for no small amount of homework. We weren’t big on “limitless powers,” and frequently nerfed what our protagonists could do. There were factions to develop, and sharing characters meant learning about their backstories, abilities, relationships and philosophy. Basically, every contributor was an encyclopedia in a series. And the wiki we developed to hold all this information got pretty damn big.

Joining us was buying into a creative contract. And when they realized that meant limitations, they seemed to lose interest.

In the past, a few people who were cross with me called prior works failures. I always shrugged. Those efforts never bothered me because they were trial and error, and I was always upfront about that. They were projects of learning that actually did go on to make several dozen sales. In the case of Far Worldsa couple of hundred.

But Outliers was a true failure. It sucked because most people remained silent on the matter. Folks said that they would review it, then they flaked. Not only friends but family just couldn’t be bothered. No one wanted to be honest and say, “Yeah, cool. Listen, I’m not really interested in reading that. But good luck.”

Not loved, not hated. At best, unknown. At worst, no one cared. And we’re left humbled hard by that truth as we leave our work to be trampled into dust by time.

Sigh…

…Anyway. The Outliers site is shutting down in a few days. The primer is coming off market too, and we’ll probably be retiring our social media outlets as well.

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Pardon the Life Interruptions

“Signal to noise is $%#^ed right now,” Alec said today, absolutely nailing the latest temporary problem.

Advertising our newest release has been put on pause until after Tuesday. The presidential election in the US and the rulings regarding the UK’s Brexit have been occupied the headlines, Twitter and Facebook in some nightmarish, endless loop.

coahtrMajor news outlets and comedy shows aren’t the only ones who have been benefiting. My Facebook feed is plagued with dozens of tiny political outlets and blogs on both sides, spewing quintessential mendacity and propaganda. Trenders fall into two categories: those who acknowledge the lie but fear the mentioned candidate winning, and intense, narrow-pupil zealots who are best avoided. Pondering and vexations as to the weaknesses of democracy often follow in their wake, to no meaningful conclusions.

In such times, relaxation is in order to relieve the body of stress.

Titanfall 2 with my brother offers some relief, as was the very impressive Doctor Strange. Although I enjoyed the movie as well as Netflix’s Luke Cage, my friend Adam nailed it when he said he was “Marveled out” for the rest of the year. While Marvel’s properties never fail to entertain, there does seem to be a saturation point where people need a break from even extraordinary characters, though interest often resurrects after a few months.

The entertainment industry is fickle as such. Entire genres can be tired out and placed in the cooler until such a time that they are dusted off to try again. Westerns for example, particularly those by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, gave us some of the best films throughout the 60s and early 70s until finally dying down. Perhaps twice a decade, the genre tried again, resulting in flicks like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. But we are possibly on the cusp of a renaissance in other media, such as with HBO’s Westworld and the upcoming Red Dead Redemption title by Rockstar Games.

doctor-strangeStill, the Marvel property is far from dead, despite the doom-and-gloom entertainment articles which are increasing in frequency and almost always disproved. While I doubt that superhero films will become inert as a genre for quite a while, there’s definitely a limit to how much people can and do enjoy at one time. Still, Doctor Strange helps by opening the door to the mystical elements of Marvel’s properties, likely giving Marvel’s properties more longevity.

But perhaps most telling… if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does well, the market will learn of audience’s appetite for urban fantasy. If not, then Doctor Strange may have found people’s limits for magic on the big screen. And if the former is not a sign that people want to escape from reality for a while, I don’t know what is. So pay attention: you may learn a spell to conjure a fortune.

Jessica Jones Season 1 Review

Jessica Jones Poster

This review contains spoilers.

This reviewer has very little prior knowledge of Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, although he is familiar with the Purple Man from early-era Daredevil comics. As such, these reviews are against the material as presented on television. And on that note, Marvel’s knack for turning little known heroes and heroines into amazing small screen series cannot be understated.

Like its movies and series before, Marvel’s success continues to hinge upon top notch casting decisions. Krysten Ritter stars as the titular character, a former super hero turned private investigator with a tragic past. Ritter perfectly captures the essence of a woman tired of the altruism of the superhero gig, and has nothing to show for it but scars caused by the violent shattering of good intentions. Foul mouthed, sardonic and utterly jaded, Ritter successfully blends her comical wit and slyness from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 with the dramatic talents she proved to possess in Breaking Bad.

Most of Jones’ work involves the typical, misanthropy-inducing sleaze that comes with the occupation; gathering dirt for clients to ease their divorce proceedings. Jessica’s lowness is further highlighted by her more successful associations. These include her adopted sister, famous talk show host Trish Walker, and high-powered-high-profit Attorney Jeri Hogarth who is the source of most of Jones’ dubious clients.

However, Jessica haunts her past as much as it haunts her. She all but stalks Luke Cage, the owner of a local bar, for reasons of her own. And the rest her time is spent as inebriated as possible. Yet her path changes trajectory when she’s charged with locating a missing girl named Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty).

This chase eventually crosses paths with Kilgrave, better known as the Purple Man, a sociopath from Jessica’s past with the ability to control minds. Determined to hurt Jones’ for the pain of her abandonment, Kilgrave uses his powers to frame the kidnapped Shlottman for the murder of her parents.

David Tennant plays the role of Jones’ tormentor and nemesis Kilgrave. While Marvel’s movies seldom possess the time to carefully cultivate their villainy, their small screen work truly makes their bad guys amazing to behold. Just as Vincent D’Onofrio did with the Kingpin, Tennant makes the Purple Man shine with his warped sense of morality and refusal to accept responsibility for the actions partaken by those under his control. Driven by injured pride and obsession, Kilgrave returns from Jones’ past to try and reclaim what is “his.”

PosterPurpleManMarvelOne of the best elements of Jessica Jones has to be the unorthodox approach to handling the origin story. Too many comic-derived works take the Fantastic Tales approach of laying out the source of a protagonist’s abilities and heroic drive very early. And often rehashing it again and again whenever a new print starts or whenever a fresh introduction is required for new and expanding readership.

Rather, series creator Melissa Rosenberg wisely chose to wrap Jones’ past in two layers of mystery at least; the origin of Jones’ powers (to be discussed later) and Jones’ sordid history with Kilgrave and Cage, which is the center stage of this season.

For Jessica, Hope and a cast of other characters (including Eka Darville as Jones’ drug-addicted neighbor Malcolm), being a Kilgrave-survivor is a point of psychological intrigue. Kilgrave’s abilities raise unspoken questions regarding the nature of free will, as his victims are conscious and aware of their disturbing, involuntary actions, often voicing regret and remorse even as they obey. Yet the most horrible aspect of it is the sense of relief some of Kilgrave’s victims feel, assigning responsibility for their acquiesce to the man in charge. This psychological phenomenon is a carefully explored hypothetical that fairly puts the series in the realm of true science fiction.

Indeed, Kilgrave’s influence is felt absolutely everywhere and by everyone, no matter how much they try to elude him to deal with their own subplots. Those threads are a point of brilliance for the show. All the major characters are luckless enough to be caught by the Purple’s Man’s entangling web, which no one passes through without injury or consequence. And every subplot save one ties back into the centerpiece. Chekhov’s gun is observed and obeyed but the results aren’t without twists that shock and surprise.

CageOf those subplots, perhaps the highest praise could be paid to Mike Colter as Luke Cage. Like Jones, he is haunted by his past; a dead wife (at Jones’ hands and Kilgrave’s command), which led to a stint in prison where he achieved his powers of indestructibility. The original character is often classified as part of the blaxploitation era of the 70s, but care and vision had been given to the role’s reconstruction since then to stand above and beyond stereotypes.

Cage appears in roughly a third of the series, but his application moves the plot forward without overshadowing or distracting from Jones, while imparting depth and intrigue on his own. Colter’s passion for Cage has inspired this reviewer’s increased interest in the character’s forthcoming series, effectively selling it long before production finishes.

Then there’s Jeri Hogarth, portrayed by Carrie Anne-Moss. While the role was originally that of a man, Anne-Moss engaged the character with a sense of powerful rottenness that makes Don Draper of Mad Men look utterly meek in comparison. Hogarth’s story involves a tricky divorce from her wife for the love of her secretary, the strains of which grow until they are masterfully woven into the main plot. Her self-interest veers on the edge of antagonism even, such as preserving a sample of Kilgrave’s DNA for future study, even as the consequences turn karmic. Despite the tragedies that are inflicted on Hogarth, these traits are unlikely to have been erased, and one cannot help but wonder if she may become a villain.

Cage and JessicaWhile Cage provides a complicated love interest for Jones and Hogarth the professional and legal expertise, emotional support stems from her sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). Grateful for Jessica’s help in escaping the clutches of their overbearing, fame-oriented mother, Trish’s attempts to aide her sister invoke the ire of Kilgrave. It’s here that Walker’s story interlaces with Officer Will Simpson (Wil Traval).

Turned into a pawn for the Purple Man, Simpson regrets his attempt on the life of the popular talk show host, and he and Trish eventually begin a relationship while the try to help Jones. A former soldier, Simpson has applicable experience for such situations. But Simpson’s extreme methods prove frictional for the women, who need Kilgrave alive to prove Shlottman’s innocence. The polarizing situation eventually drives Simpson back into the arms of a group known as TGH, who supply him with drugs that cause his combat prowess to match the intensity of his increasingly unstable demeanor. Walker’s research into this issue casts light on the mystery of the origin of Jones’ powers, hinting that TGH was responsible.

TrishThe remainder of the main plot proceeds as follows. Kilgrave’s attempts to manipulate Jessica fail, despite trying to exploit her past and Jones’ temptation to convince Kilgrave to use his powers for acts of decency. Kilgrave is eventually captured, and Jones discovers that she’s immune to his powers. Homework reveals that Kilgrave’s parents, inadvertently responsible for his abilities after trying to save his life from a disease, have been monitoring the situation from afar. Jessica involves them to build her case to the police.

Kilgrave escapes by exploiting Hogarth’s desire for an amicable divorce, but only after he slays his mother. Simpson appears later and destroys the gathered evidence, believing it folly to involve the law. Hogarth leads Kilgrave to her wife, who is a doctor, in order to treat a wound. Through Hogarth, Kilgrave learns of the fetus (of which he is the father) that was taken from Shlottman and preserved for study. Disgusted, Kilgrave leaves Hogarth to face the vengeance of her wife, but is saved by her secretary. Freeing Shlottman by coercing a DA, Kilgrave offers the girl in exchange for his father Albert. However the deal goes sour for Jones. Shlottman takes her own life as Kilgrave escapes with his father.

Let’s pause in the recap for a moment. If there was any weakness in Jessica Jones, it was here in the tenth episode. Kilgrave’s final escape risked being one chase too many, one dangerous step beyond the limits of audience’s interest, fractured by the wasted efforts of Jones, Hogarth and Trish to prove Shlottman’s innocence. And for many viewers, the scene was nearly as heartbreaking as a murder in Game of Thrones. Although the final three episodes rebound the desire to continue, this particular episode felt prolonged and almost needlessly tragic. These two factors made the tenth episodes “AKA 1,000 Cuts” the most difficult to watch.

NukeThe skills of Kilgrave’s father are harnessed to improve his son’s abilities, while Simpson’s volatility proves too dangerous. Trish and Jessica are forced to subdue Simpson, who disappears. Kilgrave proves the depth of his new-found power by deeply programming Luke Cage to lure Jones into his trap.

After rendering Cage dangerously unconscious with a shotgun blast to the face, Jones enlists Nurse Temple (Rosario Dawson) to keep her friend alive while Jones and Trish pursue the Purple Man. With no choice and no one left to defend, Jessica tricks Kilgrave into getting close before snapping his neck. Hogarth uses the implausibility of the circumstances to get Jessica off the hook legally. After regaining consciousness, Cage flees. Jones is alone again with only Malcolm, while Trish, given aide by her mother, begins researching TGH…

Jess-Jones-PosterHowever, the plot line involving TGH was the aforementioned mystery that remains unresolved for now. The second season hasn’t been announced as of yet as Marvel’s The Defenders likely takes priority. However, it’s not impossible that Jones’ may make appearances in Luke Cage or the second season of Daredevil between now and then.

Compared to DaredevilJessica Jones feels the more superior show by a few increments. Daredevil was somewhat handicapped by the sheer number of villains it was saddled with, and had many faces and story lines to introduce or at least hint at, both for its own sake as well as setting up the forthcoming miniseries. Jones was more free to explore the character and her yarns against 1.5 villains, and as a result handled its material slightly better.

If the first season of Daredevil has taken care of all the heavy lifting, and Jessica Jones is any indication of what to expect from now on, then we have a lot to look forward to from Marvels’ television studios.

Journal, December 10th

Working on a few drafts for posting later this year, non-fiction research pieces of interest.

The first is an article clarifying who Marvel’s Moon Knight is, after I finish reading the first three Essential volumes on the protagonist (I’m roughly halfway.) This is coming in reaction to rumors that MK is getting his own television series courtesy of Netflix. Speaking of, I also started etching out a review of Jessica Jones first season. I have to admit that the further away Marvel gets from the original “core four,” the better their work generally becomes.

BaphometAnother article in the pipe is a research piece on real world magic and its history, including its secular and religious branches. I honestly cannot guess how large this piece may grow and it may be delayed all the way until March of next year, as I’ve been trying to do reading outside of Wikipedia to prepare.

Magic can quickly become a fringe subject because certain topics aren’t really magic per say, or even necessarily religious. After reading Robert Lake-Thom’s Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories and Ceremonies, valid questions can be raised as to whether certain views are more philosophical over theological– if not even protoscientific, as he encouraged observation of nature for clues, hints and warnings.

On the fictional writing front, the second novella for Outliers has been dusted off and is back on track at more than 50% complete. And new, original novel is in the planning stages and will be shopped around to literary agents. The words won’t hit the paper until later next year as I’d rather front-load my research to prevent extensive refactoring against later facts. Magic being one needed subject, as well as the histories of certain European countries.

With regard to input, I’ve finished watching the aforementioned Jessica Jones as well as the latest season of The Leftovers. I won’t be doing a review of the latter, but I will say that I sincerely hope HBO agrees to produce more to enjoy the third and final season that was just (and I mean just) announced. I’ve heard the number of viewers is down, but those who do watch have become cultists for the show and the critics who are applauding this season.

the Leftovers

On the reading front, I took a break from my non-fiction to totally absorb Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Despite the power of the first four stories, the themes drifted away from their horror origins to become pure Parisian romance pieces. The cultural importance of the work cannot be denied; aside from the first season of True Detective, there are many other references to the city of Carcosa in The King in Yellow, such as in A Song of Ice and Fire and many, many other forms. It’s quite possible that reading the opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations” maybe some kind of unspoken litmus test for genre authors.

I’m honestly not sure why I decided to keep going after the fourth or fifth tale, but I felt it necessary to finish it just to ensure there wasn’t something I was missing. Other than Chambers’ love for all things French, it seems I did not. With this classic piece under my belt, I’ve decided to read Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger.

I may also take advantage of the holiday season to go ahead and wrap up several Oscar winning movies from years back. Recently I sat down to watch the rather long Once Upon a Time in the West and still need to sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odysseus. Older movies can be a little tiring because of Hollywood’s tendency to remake them. Thus the ideas are often already familiar and, sometimes, are even better than the original such as Al Pacino’s Scarface over its 1930s forefather.

Character Design Writing Advice

vitruvian-manAt almost any given time, a writer can find submission windows for “character driven” works of fiction. And even stories that are plot-driven are almost infinitely better with a good dose of personal development. For some writers, character development is very instinctive. Those folks may get some ideas from this post. However, this advice maybe invaluable to the other variety, who concoct great plots but have trouble creating characters who “stick” with their readers and fail to deliver the emotional power of personal growth and maturity.

Before I begin the blog post, I would preface that this is simply an approach to development. There is no “one size fits all” methodology for design and authors should always be encouraged to try new techniques to prevent stagnation. Think of the advice in this post as a tool, to be used when and where your instincts say it is appropriate.

Pragmatism isn’t without virtue. Use what’s useful, ignore what isn’t, and always strive to do more.

Is a Character’s Personal History Necessary?

One of the most important questions an author should ask themselves when creating a tale is whether or not a character necessarily needs a background, at least at first.

From a franchise focus, character biographies are incredibly valuable. They offer depth and intrigue and can be a source of great stories in and of themselves thanks to something called the Zeigarnik Effect. They also help keep your characters more consistent, which is a must for longer, on-going arcs. Some story-featured video games even go so far as to have backstories constitute large portions (sometimes half) their material, such as Mass Effect 2 and Shadowrun Hong Kong.

Jess-Jones-PosterBackstories can intrigue readers but they often need to feel compelled to curiosity. Why does Professor Snape have it in for Harry Potter? What happened between Cobb and Mal in Inception that kept him from being able to go home to America? And the recent Jessica Jones on Netflix is an excellent example of why it can pay to hide a superhero’s background for a while, as opposed to revealing the origin story immediately.

But if the goal is to write a short story around a totally fresh character, it may actually pay not to flesh out the personal history yet, or at least avoid exploring it in the current yarn. If a stranger tries to give us his/her life’s story at a bar, we’re usually not interested. But if we get to know them for a while, we might be inclined to ask how they became so funny or morose. Where they got that scar or what made them arrive in this town or city.

Likewise, it’s incredibly easy for a character’s history to devour more than its fair share from the precious word count. Tack on a greater plot arc and/or world building elements and it could easily become impossible to tell the story in fewer than 8,000 words.

Finally, it’s possible that the character in question could just stand on his/her own. Sometimes the audience can like a character for no other reason than the fact that they keep their issues to themselves and never become a distraction. Or maybe they have a great personality, or rather are a force of nature in someway. The latter might be called an “Unapologetic Hero.”

A character’s past is, more often than not, worth developing and discussing. But if you’re struggling to fit a 12,000 word tale into two-thirds that size, consider if the person’s history can be saved for exploration later. Or is needed at all– sometimes the mystery is better than the truth!


Homework Assignment: Think back on all the books, movies, games and television you’ve enjoyed. Pick out three to five characters you liked whose backgrounds are never explored. Try to discern why you were so impressed with them.


 

Put Philosophy & History Atop the Design Hierarchy

Philosophy, noun
  1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.
  2. any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysical philosophy, that are accepted as composing this study.
  3. a particular system of thought based on such study or investigation
  4. the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, especially with a view to improving or reconstituting them

Admittedly, philosophy is a very large field of study to explain, especially for a blog post. Yet on the flip side, the subject is the source of many plot-driving elements. Politics, morality, personal discovery, ethics and growth, all are subsets of philosophy. When one sees political pundits arguing, they’re usually debating with thought-branches derived from fascinating roots of justification and rationale. Whether or not they express that critical thinking well is another matter…

RorschachDeveloping a philosophy for a character is nothing less than 50% of that person. By creating guiding principles for characters, authors may find that their casts’ actions and reactions are a foregone conclusion. For example, Alan Moore realized the fate of Rorschach many, many issues before the conclusion of Watchmen, but not when first beginning to write the series. 

That is not to say that philosophy is the beginning and end of character design however. Much like the debate as to the origin of fear, philosophy can be constructed from experience, but may also overcome and learn from the past as well. History is very often the other half of a character. Nor is a person’s philosophy necessarily defined from the beginning, rather they may discover things about themselves when confronted with unforeseen situations. Marvel’s Daredevil addressed this very well. Try developing a character both ways; writing the philosophy first and then the history, and then vice versa. Then try it piece by piece.

Studying philosophy is best performed by forcing one to try and discover the rational arguments that maybe counter to one’s personal beliefs. If one is conservative, read more liberal news sources. If one is progressive, seek out counter viewpoints from the opposition’s own outlets. No matter how annoying or disgusting they may initially be, try not to block or mute friends and family whose political views mortify you. Try to learn the basis of their thinking and if nothing else, take a sharp look at history (personal or political) for the answer.

An estimate is better than a complete guess, and both are better than flat, uninspired stereotypes.


Homework Assignment: For fellow writers, take your character(s) and have them undergo a few basic ethics litmus tests, such as whether or not a person deserves less (or any) jail time for stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family. Try to find points of difference between your own views, to gauge whether or not you potentially have a Mary Sue. 


 

Don’t Fear Hypocrites But Call Them Out

“A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.”

–J.P.Morgan

If there was one consistent, perfect philosophy, would it wipe all others out like the correct answer to a math problem? Something proven true beyond the shadow of doubt, an approach to law and morality that everyone instinctively deems fair and reasonable? An approach to thinking that is always unlocking new knowledge and wisdom? A manner of reasoning that is so often “correct” that the philosophy itself is all but factually true?

Obviously, that has never happened. Well, maybe in the fairly utopian Federation of Star Trek, and that worked because the show’s conflict usually revolved around cultural friction between alien relations and galactic emergencies.

BioshockFor the rest of us though, conflicts and hypocrisy abound in both real life and fiction. Hypocrisy, as a thematic element in storytelling, is an awesome source of intrigue. Many readers are strangely sympathetic to characters who do rotten, even heinous acts, provided either they know it’s wrong or figure some justification that leads to understanding of their decision. But it’s also something they cannot stand if improperly executed. 

Dexter is a possible example of this very thing, while more critically acclaimed works include The Scarlet Letter, Andrew Ryan from Bioshock and the self-delusions of the lead characters of AMC’s Breaking Bad.

Strangely enough, even children shows can have surprisingly well performed moral-turns. In the episode “The Ultimate Doom” from the first television series of Transformers, paragon of justice Optimus Prime is convinced by the villainous Megatron to effectively betray the Earth. With their home planet suffering from an energy-famine, Prime feels forced to activate a device that summons Cybertron into our planet’s orbit. The gravity shift causes myriad environmental disasters. (If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it was reused in the movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) For the previous episodes, it was easy to put a fellow like Optimus Prime on a pedestal for his benevolent behavior. But this particular episode was a shocking twist that made complete sense. 

If poorly written however, it can be seen as a kind of violation of the writer’s contract with the reader at best, and a plot hole at worst. No one enjoys betrayal without explanation or at least some justification. Likewise, because hypocrisy can easily be intertwined with a person’s history, dealing with a moral twist effectively can greatly ramp up the needed word count to finish a story, so authors should be advised to factor the added pages when devising a manuscript.


Homework Assignment: What’s the fine line between hypocrisy and a change of opinion or growth? Do your characters answer that question the same way?


 

For Villains, Are They Unapologetic or Justified?

ChigurhVillains. Gods, we love our villains.

There’s a psychological trick at play when it comes to understanding why audiences love a strong villain, possibly because the role itself makes almost anything permissible. We can admire and respect them with sympathy, or we can despise and hate them with the most intense loathing and rancor… and neither is wrong.

Villains can be anything except boring.

As characters, the bad guys are primarily divided into two general categories. The justified types are often heroes of the other side, where the actual role and title of “villain” is debatable. Sometimes, authors deliberately cloud the definitions to let the readers define the heroes from the villains. Heroes on the wrong side of the story if you will. Justified villains may include…

  • Roy Batty, from Blade Runner, who attempted to extend the lifespan for both he and his colleagues, who were effectively genetically engineered slaves who live a mere four years.
  • The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in Serenity. Admittedly, the incident that the Operative was trying to cover up was terrible. However, it’s worth pointing out that keeping a lid on it also prevents others from using the same technology for horrific ends.
  • Doctor Octopus of Spider-Man 2. The accident that pushed him over the edge was really just that, an accident. Meanwhile, the work he was doing could have greatly revolutionized energy production.
  • Julie Marsden of Jezebel, whose vanity costs her engagement to Preston Dillard. Her antics were a threat to her former fiance’s marriage and later his life. She does however, somewhat prove her genuine love for him by offering to treat his yellow fever in place of his wife.
  • A few of the major characters of Watchmen, who will not be mentioned as to protect the reader from spoilers.

JoffBut there are also the unapologetic types. True forces of nature, these types are motivated either by forces we may not (and perhaps never will) comprehend, or by understandable but primal forces or desires.

  • The Joker, both in The Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, who was effectively raw chaos and randomness.
  • Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, both the book and movie. It can be said that Chigurh is little more than an avatar of death itself.
  • The shark from Jaws, as it was an animal acting entirely on instincts.
  • Likewise, the xenomorphs from the Aliens franchise, as their predatory instincts were a key factor to their reproduction.
  • Cthulu from the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft.

George RR Martin uses both varieties in A Song of Ice and Fire. For the justified, he divides his readers, causing them to cheer for various contenders for the throne, yet making the choices gray and not without cost, such as Stannis Baratheon or Daenerys Targaryen. Likewise, he uses a slew of entirely despicable types who provide no excuse for their antics, such as Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Snow.


Homework Assignment: Here’s a real tough one. Was John Doe, the villain of Se7en, a justified villain or an unapologetic one? Or was he both?


 

Ant-Man Review

antmanThis review is a critical analysis of the movie, and as such there are spoilers. 

There’s a part of me that secretly worries Ant-Man may just be the outlier, the black sheep of Marvel Studios. Originally to be directed by comic genius Edgar Wright, that duty passed to Peyton Reed, who did an exceptional job of bringing our tiny hero to the screen. Wright’s departure was earmarked as being one of “creative differences.” One reasonable explanation was that Wright began his work on Ant-Man in 2006, when Marvel (as a cinematic studio) was still young. During the course of the script’s development, the studio was acquired by Disney, which changed their direction considerably. As a result, the introduction of the greater Marvel universe was a factor in Wright’s decision to leave.

In that sense, Ant-Man is a marvel in and of itself. It’s rare that multiple visions blend and arrive at something cohesive, as the recent Fantastic Four movie has so reminded audiences. The original script may still bear resemblance to Wright’s work, but it has been altered by both Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd with input from Marvel. Reed as director also must have added his own touches.

From start to end, Ant-Man does an exceptional job of shaking up the usual tropes that have come to dominate comic book derived films. Sam Raimi is probably the most thought of director for establishing these conventions in his overall impressive Spider-Man trilogy (I leave your opinion of Spider-Man 3 to you, dear audience.) I like to believe that Wright respected this and worked with the original source material to avoid these cliches.

Rather than a young man still wrestling with his budding sense of morality, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a former thief recently paroled for a righteous heist against his former company. Despite his good intentions a crime is still a crime, and Lang is divorced and kept at arm’s length from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) until he can at least provide child support payments, a challenge given his background. The usual moral convictions many super heroes earn from mistakes are set aside for a more understandable desire to be connected with family.

antzMeanwhile, former Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) returns to the company from which his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) expelled him. There Pym witnesses the unveiling of the Yellow Jacket, a suit that uses a modified version of his size altering particles to shrink and grow.

Realizing what Cross is about to unleash on the world, Pym takes the steps to recruit Lang and pass on the mantle. This flies against the wishes of his grudge-bearing daughter, who now spies against Cross and sees herself using the suit to stop the Yellowjacket.

Ant-Man has a number of themes worth mentioning. Broken families are a constant for both the main characters. One tries to mend the damage caused by his absence, the other is trying to prevent it. Rather than some unrealistic sense of healing the fractured relationships perfectly, there is more an acceptance of the imperfections and general good will to try and become better men. Although it takes a dramatic act on the parts of the characters to prove they truly mean it.

Hope_Van_DyneThere’s also an insinuation that corporations were inherently malevolent; while Iron Man was more inclined to take the view that companies represent the views of their owners, every corporation in Ant-Man is at worst morally corrupt and at best unkind. VistaCorp, Stark Industries and the current Pym Technologies are varying degrees of villains.

Even Baskin Robbins (of all businesses) gets teased, as they eventually learn of Lang’s criminal past and terminate his employment with them. Given the swiftly established likability of Rudd’s character, this casts the ice-cream giant in a negative light for being unwilling to give our hero a second chance.

But the hints of redemption are the best elements of all. More on that in a moment.

Michael Douglas is far more than good as Hank Pym. He crafts a brilliant and angry character, portraying Pym’s ardor in several degrees that never grow dull. From a provoked violent streak to calmly delivered sarcasm and frustrations with his daughter, the trio of van Dyne, Cross and Pym make for a satisfying though partial story. Cross, I feel, wasn’t the under developed villain many critics think he was. Rather I believe Reed wisely veered away from revealing too much of Cross’ motivations for fear of indirectly illuminating Hank Pym’s secrets too early. The two men’s histories are, after all, greatly entwined.

Redemption requires regret, and that’s a line that Marvel seems to tread with care. In the original comics, Hank Pym has a history of domestic violence towards his wife Janet van Dyne. A single act during the 80s is perceived as accidental, but the more recent Ultimates series portrayed Pym as mentally unstable, and left no doubt that abuse was on-going.

hank pymThe movie seems to insinuate, based on Cross’ increasingly erratic behavior, that this is a side-effect of prolonged exposure to the Pym particle. It is possible that Pym’s secrets were simply remorse for the fate of Janet, but it could also imply that the MCU Pym may have mistreated his wife as well. This issue is not something to be casually tossed into the script without prudence and remorse, something Ant-Man didn’t have time to approach.

Likewise, Rudd’s Scott Lang has a similar need for a second chance. But while people can be on the fence about Pym, Lang is instantly likable, not really flawed but rather carrying the burden of his mistake. Even the Baskin Robbins’ manager was sympathetic as to the reason for his criminal history despite still having to fire him. You see Lang trying against the odds to be there for his daughter when it actually matters and not years down the road after the heavy lifting has been complete. Lang is so cool, he even helps make sense of Pym’s concern for his daughter, articulating with emphatic brilliance why Pym was so reluctant to let his daughter be the Ant-(Wo)man, and helping to cement another path for her.

With regard to that future, I am rather excited for the possibility of Evangeline Lilly as the future Wasp in the MCU. Marvel has suffered from a lack of good super heroines due to Fox Studios possessing the rights to the X-Men, and Lilly is a great actress who portrays Hope van Dyne with an emotional depth surpassing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (Elizabeth Olsen hasn’t had much time to fully mature into her role as the Scarlet Witch yet.) It has also been suggested that Janet van Dyne may someday return, as Scott Lang figured his way out of sub-atomic space. But if Lang could, then what of Darren Cross?

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Ant-Man is easily one of Marvel’s best movies. It’s fun, it’s funny, and although it hints at the Avengers it never really needs them. It values wit, smarts and charm over power, and these factors put it more on par with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. One would never believe that someone could take a hero named Ant-Man seriously, but not only does it succeed, it does so over the sound of laughter.

Déjà Vu

The title will probably make sense in a moment.

It has been an incredibly chill weekend for me. Television wise, I started finishing off the final episodes of this season’s Game of Thrones. But more awesomely, I completed the second season of Penny Dreadful. The series greatly improved over the first, being better rounded with its character development, stronger with its emotional impact and incredibly addictive story line, yet still setting and expanding the greater stage. I’m not going to go into too much detail right now simply because it deserves a full, in depth review later.

But Penny Dreadful isn’t alone in deserving discussion. I finally saw Ant-Man this Sunday. It was interesting hearing people’s various gripes regarding the movie, but I had a terrible amount of fun and couldn’t help but think it one of the Marvel’s best. If you’re a little tired of the superhero movie, or even if superhero movies aren’t normally your thing, Ant-Man is unusual and trope toppling as to be worth catching in theaters. This too will probably deserve a full review.

On the gaming front, I’ve been working through Final Fantasy VII for the PC. I’ve been taking my sweet time too, building great levels, earning my Limit Breaks and strengthening my materia early on. In the plot, I only just finished visiting Cosmo Canyon. I’m curious as to what changes will be made for the upcoming remake, so at least now my memory will be fresh.

Finally, writing.

Hate to say it, but I had my hopes up to submit to a “hunting” based submission call. The window of opportunity, being open in Australia, closed at 10:00 am EST. My story had more than 5,000 words down, but it just wasn’t ready yet and still required formatting. The story will be complete and submitted elsewhere. It’s not a total loss, just not what I hoped for.

On the plus side however, I did finish cementing some publishing deals and took care of some domains that I would be needing. For starters, I finally started my own website at www.jamesfadeley.com. As well as my own company, Thunderbird Studios.

At the moment, Thunderbird Studios is more of a tool than a company. An easier means of managing sales concerns and building a brand. My friends and I have a horde of ideas to put together, including a friendly, fan facing Wikipedia for an upcoming series. We plan to go full scale with certain ideas in the next year, but for the time being are content just to tinker and get our technological infrastructure down.