torsdag 22 januari 2015

Mikael Wiehe står upp till försvar för antidemokrater. So what else is new?

Mikael Wiehe försvarar nu Hitlerpriset – förlåt, Leninpriset – mot den kritik det fått i dagarna. Tyvärr slår hans hyckleri igenom så tydligt i den grumliga argumentationen att det rimligen inte bör höja vare sig prisets eller hans egen status.

Han jämför till exempel Charlie Hebdo-tecknarna med den svenske satirtecknaren Lars Hillersberg och kritiken mot dennes antisemitiska teckningar till försvar för en antisemitisk propagandist:
Och i Sverige, där vi nu alla är Charlie och lyfter våra pennor till försvar för yttrandefriheten, var det inte länge sedan man förföljde, hånade och antisemitstämplade Lars Hillersberg, en konstnär som verkade i exakt samma tradition som Charlie Hebdo, som vi nu hyllar.
Wiehe glider här på ett svekfullt sätt över viktiga skillnader. Till exempel var det ingen som mejade ner Hillersberg med automatkarbin; i stället riktades kritik mot att han gjorde antisemitiska teckningar till försvar för en antisemitisk propagandist -- något som rimligen borde falla inom ramen för yttrandefriheten i minst lika hög grad som Hillersbergs antisemitiska teckningar.

Lika svekfullt och manipulativt är Wiehes försvar för att uppkalla priset efter massmördaren och antidemokraten Lenin:
Att Lars Diding, som står för fiolerna har gett det stora priset namn efter Lenin och det mindre namn efter Robespierre är naturligtvis en provokation! Och just provokationen är ju, som vi lärt oss av den senaste tidens fruktansvärda händelser i Frankrike, en omistlig del av demokratin och det öppna samhället.
Man gör bristen på egna argument väldigt tydlig när man inte har mer att komma med än falska analogier. Liberala -- och andra demokratiska -- debattörer har stått upp för Charlie Hebdos rätt att provocera utan att bli mördade för det. De har inte därmed försökt förbjuda någon att kritisera tidningen. Charlie-redaktionens satir är inte heller på den nivå som Didings pris befinner sig; att en antidemokrat provocerar genom att hylla en annan antidemokrat (och massmördare) genom att instifta ett pris uppkallat efter denne är faktiskt inte riktigt samma sak som att provocera genom satir. En antidemokrat som hyllar en antidemokrat ligger liksom på en annan nivå än när satiriker kritiserar sin samtid.

Däremot är det naturligtvis inte ett dugg konstigt att en antidemokrats antidemokrat-hyllande pris går till en tredje antidemokrat; det ligger litegrann i sakens natur, liksom att den sålunda belönade antidemokraten står upp till försvar för detta. Kaka söker som bekant maka.

lördag 17 januari 2015

On writing "action", part 1

So I've got some opinions on how to, and how not to, write action – both in movies and TV, and comics. Since I'm a fan of good characterization, a lot of this series will deal with that; but I want to emphasize that I'm not claiming that I'm particularly good at writing this stuff myself; I'll mainly point to good and bad examples and discuss how one could go about it to do it better.

You may think that characterization isn't particularly important in action movies or comics; that the important thing is to have lots and lots of action – fist fights, shootouts and explosions. You'd be wrong. Characterization is what makes an audience care about the characters in the story, and willing to spend up to two hours in their company, rooting for them to succeed. There is a genre of films that mainly tries to appeal to fans of violence, of course. Sometimes, such a movie will be made by a regular Hollywood studio, in which case it'll have excellent production values, at least a couple of big-name actors (though a couple of them will likely have a career that hasn't exactly been booming lately), and well-crafted violence ballets. It will still suck, though, because it's still just a bad excuse for the viewer to enjoy people seeing being maimed and killed. Yes, I'm talking about crap like John Wick – and basically every Jason Statham movie ever made.

(Now, you can enjoy this kind of movie without being a psychopath. For example, if you're into martial arts, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from watching the techniques used in say, an old Jackie Chan movie. But there has to be some pretty darn good martial arts techniques to justify the simplistic stories and rudimentary characterization levels of these movies.)

If you see one of these movies, it's usually written according to a very simple model:
1. The hero is introduced. He (it's usually a he) does something nice, to show that he's a good guy, and possibly something not-so-nice, just to show that he's a tough or cool guy.
2. The villain is introduced. He does something horrible, to show that he's a horrible person – or, frequently, there's a bunch of villains introduced and shown to be horrible persons, even though one of them is the leader and the rest are his henchmen. The reason for this is that it the more villains there are, the more the hero can kill and/or maim on his way to the top villain. Of course the villains are shown to be such horrible people to justify the hero's levels of violence against them. Generally, unless you have a pretty messed-up personality or view of society, you don't appreciate people being beaten to a pulp for pilfering an apple, for example. And with the levels of violence in modern action movies, the villains have to do some pretty disgusting things to justify them – sadistic torture, rape, mass murder etc.
3. Somehow, the villain(s) and hero cross paths, and the hero gets a reason to fight the villain(s).
4. Fight fight fight fight.
5. The hero wins, and everything is well in the world. End.

There are a lot of crappy movies made according to this model, and some of the blame for this falls on people like Blake Snyder and John Truby.

"Who are they", you ask? Well, Snyder wrote Save the Cat, a scriptwriting manual outlining a simple (or, rather, simplistic) scriptwriting model that gave the reader detailed instruction on how to structure a story. Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller does the same thing. Both of them could have named their books Scriptwriting for Dummies instead – while they make a lot of good points for the novice writer, the resulting monoculture of mechanical movie writing can only be viewed as bad.

Basically, their approach to movie writing is that you tell most of your story through its structure. To shorten their structure-driven movie writing recipe somewhat: start with points 1-3 above, move to the hero having a huge setback and becoming depressed, hitting rock bottom and feeling that he's failed. Then have one of his friends set him straight, have him realize what his big moral weakness is and correct it, and through that change become capable of defeating the villain(s). Huge win, happy ending, blah blah blah.

When I was in my thirties, I had seen so many such movies, built on pretty much exactly the same structure, that I was rather sick and tired of Hollywood movies. I could count the beats of the story off as they occurred, and knew what to expect at pretty much every point of the story. "Well, things seem to be working pretty well. I guess it's time for some disaster to struck, so that… Aaand there it was. OK, how long will we have to wait while the hero's wallowing in his own misery until something happens that makes him pull himself together and finish this?" Basically, the only movies I could be bothered to go to see in a cinema were Disney movies (after the studio pulled itself together with The Great Mouse Detective, they started churning out some quite beautiful animation, and while the stories were pretty predictable as well, the sheer storytelling skill, beautiful artwork, and humor compensated enough to make them worth watching) and the occasional comedy. See, when you use structure to tell the story in a manner to maximize impact on your audience, and that structure has to follow a certain template, your audience is going to learn the template eventually – and then your stories basically won't have any impact, because the audience already knows what is coming.

That's why I've been more fond of "revisionist" superhero writers since the 80s – or rather, the seventies, because Steve Gerber qualifies as a revisionist superhero writer even though he did his most seminal work in the seventies (and I read them in the eighties, anyway) – because these guys worked from a different structure, so I couldn't predict what would happen. Or, maybe I should rephrase that: I could be surprised by what happened. The standard structure always opens for a couple of different outcomes; for example, at the end of a drama, you can have the protagonist succeeding in his (or her) effort, or he could fail, and then kill himself for good measure to try to make a cheap emotional impact on the audience, but once you've seen a bunch of these movies you know what the possible outcomes are. With the revisionist writers, or with independent filmmakers, you'll get something far less predictable. And since a huge part of the reason I like to watch and read fiction is avoidance of boredom, less predictability is usually a good thing.

As long as there's a happy ending, of course. I read enough history and current affairs to have had my fill of unhappy endings. They depress me, and I don't need any more of that in today's world. (That's part of why I like Grant Morrison's writing so much. He'll take you on a wild, unpredictable roller coaster ride and somehow manage to end it all on a positive note anyway, no matter how disastrous and hopeless everything has seemed midway through. Unpredictable and predictably non-tragic. The best combination there is.)

There are other things that can make me un-bored with a story, of course, and I hinted at some of them with that Disney reference earlier on. If the ride is enjoyable, it's not really a big problem that that you know where it's going. Other storytelling elements can also be used. With comics, you can have beautiful images. You can also have beautiful language, or clever wordplay, which is also very enjoyable. There is also the characters; strong characters that I care about can do a lot to keep me interested in a comic even if it doesn't quite deliver in other areas. For example, Charles Schulz's Peanuts had a bit of a slow period for a number of years when it wasn't as funny as it had used to be (though in fairness, it's very hard to be as funny as Peanuts was at its peak), but because I still cared for the characters, I still enjoyed reading about their lives and experiences.

So there's an example of something you can use as a writer to make your work more interesting: characterization. What passes for characterization in modern blockbuster movies and TV series is often rather pathetic, unfortunately. Too often, what we get is just stock characters with a couple of quirks thrown in. I'll give you an example: Criminal Minds, where the team has a computer specialist, the characterization of whom boils down to dressing in a flamboyant girly manner, talking flirtatiously to another member on the team when he's out trying to save lives and needs relevant information fast, and saying self-assured stuff like "Do I know where the killer lives? Does the pope wear a funny hat?" a lot – another case of chattering instead of giving out critically important information as fast as humanly possible.

This shallow kind of characterization goes hand in hand with another of my pet peeves, banter, but I hope to get into the problem with mind-bogglingly vapid banter in a later installment of this series, so I'll leave it for now. Just remember: quirks don't equal characterization.

To be fair, there is not a lot of space in an action story for introspection or long soliloquies – which, considering the writing skills of the average action movie writer, and the acting skills of the average action hero, probably isn't a bad thing. However, there are other methods of characterization than weird fashion statements and recurring phraseology. One method, especially appropriate in action stories, is action. That is, the way a person behaves shows us something about what kind of person he or she is. Take a look at the following clip from Lethal Weapon, and pay special attention to how Mel Gibson's character, Riggs, acts at the start of the clip and after the murder. (I suggest you watch the first 20 seconds or so, and then skip to the three minute point.)

First, notice how Riggs doesn't mix at the beginning of the clip. He doesn't approach the other people there; he doesn't want to mingle. He's a man apart, a loner. That's a pretty import part of his emotional makeup, and one that is well echoed in this scene.

Next, after Hunsaker is shot, what does Riggs do? He acts. Immediately. He starts running towards a position from where he can fire on the helicopter, and then starts blasting. So, obviously, he's a man of action (and violence, when necessary). And what does he do as the helicopter leaves? He runs after it – shooting. Now, that's pretty meaningless, because he's not likely to hit anything while running, but obviously he's too angry, to eager to get the bastards, to care. We see this also when he reloads and continues firing after the helicopter is well out of range. So not only is he a man of action, he is also a pretty emotional kind of guy. Also a nice piece of characterization, although a bit overvalued, especially in heroes. Me, I prefer heroes a bit more able to temper their emotions with more practicality – or perhaps "professionalism" is a better word. There are ways to emphasize professionalism mor than emotionalism in this scens, but this is already a pretty long, wordy post, so perhaps I will get to that in a later post on this subject. The art of writing action stories will be revisited in the future.

To be continued...

tisdag 13 januari 2015

Sara Gunnerud: Ordens makt i politiken

I sitt förord till Ordens makt i politiken menar Sara Gunnerud att det "används en hel del ful och manipulerande teknik i den svenska samhällsdebatten", och att det är en del av förklaringen till "varför högern har kunnat flytta fram sina positioner så mycket de senaste decennierna". I bokens första kapitel slår hon fast att "[a]tt manipulera med språk är ohederligt" och att det är "omoraliskt att manipulera människor i samhällsdebatten". Hon slår också fast följande sympatiska tes, som jag tycker att alla bör skriva under på:
Den som värnar demokratin måste försvara den, och inte själv bidra till att korrumpera den. Alltså har var och en ett ansvar för kvaliteten i det demokratiska samtalet.
Väl talat. Vi ska återkomma till de orden efter en kort sammanfattning av Gunneruds bok, dess budskap och syfte.

Gunnerud är språkvetare och socialdemokrat. Med sin bok vill hon ge vänstermänniskor (främst, så vitt jag kan förstå, socialdemokrater och fackligt verksamma) språkliga redskap för att dels föra fram sina budskap på ett så effektivt sätt som möjligt, dels analysera borgerliga budskap för att kunna vederlägga dem. Den som klarar av att styra debattens språkbruk kan med hjälp av de associationer orden skapar få övertaget redan från början, och Gunnerud ger en hel del exempel på vad man skulle kunna kalla "tjuvknep" som används i dylika syften.

Samtliga sådana dåliga exempel kommer från borgerliga eller näringslivsanknutna debattörer.

Boken är alltså rejält vinklad. Jag tycker inte att man kan klaga på det i sig; det rör sig trots allt om en socialdemokrat som har ett uttalat, öppet politiskt syfte med vad hon skriver. Problematiskt, rent av rejält problematiskt, blir det dock när Gunnerud själv använder sig av metoder som helt klart skulle platsa i den katalog av fula knep som hon räknar upp. Låt mig ge ett par exempel.

I kapitlet "Maktens undanglidande språk" kritiserar Gunnerud makthavares försök att glida undan ansvar genom ett vagt, otydligt och vilseledande språkbruk. Hon exemplifierar vagt språkbruk med Moderaternas landsbygdsprogram:
Vad gäller EU:s roll i svensk rovdjurspolitik har vi även här sett en utveckling som inte gynnar arbetet med att uppnå acceptans för den förda svenska rovdjurspolitiken
Gunnerud menar att formuleringen "är så vag och öppen att den kan tolkas på helt olika sätt", att det är omöjligt att förstå om det är "EU som ska förmås låta regeringen besluta om vargjakt, eller (…) att svenska medborgare som har starka åsikter om varg ska förmås acceptera vargens närvaro i skog och mark". Letar man litet högre upp i Moderaternas dokument "40 förslag för en levande landsbygd" – som ju formuleringen "även här" antyder att man kan göra – hittar man följande:
Vi kan nu se allt mer frustration över vargstammens kraftiga ökning. Känslan av otrygghet bland boende måste tas på allvar. När rovdjuren angriper tamdjur måste åtgärder vidtas.
För att få tillbaka människors förtroende för rovdjurspolitiken anser vi att "en" länsstyrelse bör få ansvar för skyddsjaktfrågor.
Den otydlighet som kan återfinnas i det av Gunnerud återgivna citatet beror alltså inte på att Moderaterna försöker vara vaga för att "inte stöta sig med någon", som Gunnerud påstår, utan helt enkelt på att hon själv skurit bort delar av vad som sagts. Om hon har gjort det avsiktligt för att kunna angripa Moderaterna eller om hon läst dokumentet med så ideologiskt färgade glasögon att hon helt enkelt oavsiktligt filtrerat bort informationen kan jag naturligtvis inte avgöra. En dålig grund för hennes angrepp är det likafullt, och underminerar hennes position. (Reservation för det fall att hon syftat på något annat, för mig okänt dokument – notapparaten nämner bara "Moderaternas landsbygdsprogram 2013", inget mera – men det verkar rätt osannolikt med tanke på att det var det enda dokument med den citerade formuleringen som dök upp vid en Google-sökning.)

Slarv eller misstag kan dock hända. Värre är det när man förvränger forskares resultat för att understödja den egna agendan. Den amerikanske lingvisten George Lakoff har forskat om åsiktsskillnader mellan, med Wikipedias formulering, "liberals and conservatives", och kommit fram till att dessa följer "from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different central metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens". I sin bok Thinking Points pratar han i stället om "progressives" och "conservatives".

I Gunneruds tappning blir detta "progressiva" och "borgerliga".

Fundera på det en stund. Lakoff jämförde amerikanska högerrepublikaner med progressiva/liberaler. Gunnerud översätter rakt av amerikanska högerrepublikaner till svenska borgerliga, dvs spektrat FP-C-KD-M, och drar sedan slutsatser om dessa utifrån Lakoffs undersökningar. Den felöversättningen är djupt ohederlig. Mitt eget parti FP ligger klart närmare Demokraterna politiskt, och det djupt reaktionära och främlingsfientliga i dagens republikanska parti saknar i huvudsak klangbotten i svenska borgerliga partier (dock inte i det främlingsfientliga populistpartiet SD, men det är en något annan sak). Men eftersom det passar hennes syften tvekar Gunnerud inte att beskriva den "borgerliga" tankemodellen som att den menar att det är "omoraliskt och destruktivt att göra livet drägligare för den som är fattig, sjuk eller arbetslös" – vilket säkert skulle förvåna till exempel ett stort antal borgerliga socialliberala politiker som genom svensk historia arbetat hårt och i stora stycken framgångsrikt för att göra livet drägligare för just de grupperna.

Gunneruds ohederlighet när hon använder amerikanska högern som förklaringsmodell för svenska mittenpartiers politiska ställningstaganden – och ignorerar de skäl de själva anför för dessa – blir desto mer slående som den sker i en kontext där hon anklagar sina meningsmotståndare för att manipulera människor genom sitt språkbruk.

Det finns fler exempel, men jag tycker de här räcker för att illustrera vad boken egentligen handlar om: politisk ammunition. Saklig analys är vad inte Sara Gunnerud är ute efter, och det är inte heller vad hon levererar. I stället är det en partsinlaga med rejäl ideologisk slagsida och klent med intellektuell hederlighet. Jag var beredd att ta en del kängor mot borgerlig politik i allmänhet och Alliansens regeringspolitik i synnerhet för att få mig till livs en läsvärd analys, men Ordens makt i politiken är så mycket partsinlaga att den är ganska värdelös för den som inte avser att läsa den för att i första hand få sina redan existerande politiska åsikter och fördomar validerade. Rekommenderas inte – utom för vänstermänniskor som redan är övertygade om att de som befinner sig det minsta till höger om Socialdemokraterna är ondskefulla, förstås.

(Föga förvånande kan man finna en mer uppskattande recension på Aftonbladets kultursida.)

fredag 2 januari 2015

Movie review: Man of Steel

"Zod off!!"

Look, this isn't an awful film. But it isn't a particularly good one, either. Spoilers ahead.

On Krypton, scientist Jor-El stands before the ruling council demanding that they allow him to rescue the Kryptonians' collective genetic code from the cataclysm about to destroy their planet. They don't listen. Suddenly, general Zod enters the chamber, accompanied by soldiers, announcing that he's taking over government to save Krypton from these ineffective talkers. Jor-El escapes, stealing the code and bringing it to his home in order to send it, with his newborn son Kal-El, into space, to Earth.

Then the film starts going downhill, unfortunately.

Jor-El's wife Lara doesn't want to send her son away, because what if he dies out there in space? That he's about to die on Krypton when it explodes doesn't seem to matter to her. Then, when she finally agrees to let Jor-El send the boy off – and keep in mind that Zod and his soldiers are on their way to take the Kryptonian genetic codes back, so time's a-wasting – she refuses to let him go, holding on to him as long as possible. Zod then arrives with his soldiers, who seem happy to let their leader walk into an enemy's lair in front of them, apparently unarmed. In fact, most of them stay outside and just two of them walk 5-10 meters behind him, carrying guns that they apparently don't know how to use because Jor-El can grab a gun and shoot them both before they can pull the triggers of their weapons.

Jor-El, the scientist, proceeds to beat the crap out of the soldier Zod, send his son and the Kryptonians' genetic code away into space, and get killed by Zod because nobody in this movie seems to care one bit about actually disarming and tying up violent enemies. Zod walks out to his waiting soldiers, who haven't done anything useful like shooting down the ship leaving their enemy's lair. Kryptonian armed forces thus arrive to capture them before they can stop the ship, and they get sentenced to the Phantom Zone for their crimes. After that, Krypton eventually explodes, killing Lara and everybody else on the planet.

So, what do we have so far? Standard Hollywood writing, where everything is about striding about and making pompous declarations and watching some marvelous imagery from the CGI people. There is nothing much to suggest imminent threat in the scenes, no need for anybody to rush anything because they'll always have time to do whatever is necessary to reach the various plot points outlined in John Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller or Blake Snyder's Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, two books that have done their fair share to ruin Hollywood films in general by insisting on stereotypical structuring of movie scripts. Instead, we get sentimental moments with Lara, put in there for no other reason than to hit the audience over the head with "it's tough for a mother to be separated from her child forever", as if the actress couldn't have shown that through actual acting. We also get Zod showing himself as evil, through his treasonous behavior and cowardly back-stabbing – again, entirely in line with the recipe from Truby, Snyder et al – and we don't confuse the audience with something that might take their attention away from this stuff, like people actually behaving and speaking somewhat realistically, or the top military man of Krypton acting like he knows anything about war and fighting at all.

Anyway, over to Kal-El's – or Clark Kent, the name given to him by his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent – life on Earth. He does good without revealing himself and his powers to humanity, moving from job to job as something happens that makes him have to show his powers. You know, just like David Banner. Turns out, a) the US military has found a spaceship in the Canadian Arctic, b) the US military absolutely sucks at background checks, so Clark can sneak in and work as a handyman on the site. There, he discovers his Kryptonian heritage, Lois Lane discovers him, and his actions lead to Zod and his gang also discovering him, and coming over to join the party, take the Kryptonian genetic code and basically destroy the Earth and mankind to recreate Krypton and the Kryptonian race. Fierce fighting of various kinds ensues.

Henry Cavill actually isn't bad in the role as Superman, but the scripting doesn't give him the backing he should have. For example, Clark and Jonathan Kent fear that if humanity learns about Clark's powers, they'll fear and shun him, a theme that doesn't really work with the Superman mythos, which is really true-blue, mom and apple pie, honest Midwest, etc. The "humans will fear and hate him" theme really belongs with the X-Men, not a Superman movie – unless you do it a whole lot better, like for example not having Clark let his father die a meaningless death in a tornado, because obviously an old man is better equipped to run back in a storm to the family's car to save the dog trapped in it than the young, athletic son who also happens to have superpowers. You sit there watching, saying to yourself, or your friend next to you, "what are they, stupid?".

No, they're just victims of lazy scriptwriting. You want to kill off Jonathan Kent, fine – but do it in a manner that doesn't insult the characters' intelligences (or the audience's).

Final insult: gratuitously inserting Jor-El back into the story as a computer-stored consciousness, just because it's easier to have him drone on with exposition and repeating the basic conflict between him and Zod just in case the audience is too stupid to remember it, even after it was hammered into them at the start of the movie. What is it with moviemakers wanting to put Jor-El back into Clark's life? Come up with a way show the audience what they need to learn without using this exposition crutch, instead.

From there on, the movie is basically lots of super-powered fights between super-strong and nigh-invulnerable people punching each other with little other effect than making the other guy fly some 50-100 meters away and smashing through a lot of housing on the way, plus a standard (see, for example, Batman Begins) "a huuuuge disaster is looming, will the hero be able to stop it (yes of course he will, and everybody knows it)" finale.

What's good about the movie, then? Well, there is some decent acting in it, with Kevin Costner doing the best job as Jonathan Kent; Costner's so good in the role that it's just a damn shame that they kill him off so early, and in such a flimsy manner. Laurence Fishburne is his usual competent self as Perry White even though he doesn't have much of a script to work with, and Russel Crowe is similarly albeit more stereotypically competent as Jor-El. The women in the movie, Lois Lane included, are to a too-great extent sideline-watchers or in need of rescuing. How I miss Margot Kidder, who almost managed to carry the first two Superman movies of the seventies into "good movie" instead of "watchable" territory. (Oh, Reeves was good in the title role, but Kidder put whatever spark there was in those movies – much like Teri Hatcher did with Lois & Clark.) And like I said, I think Cavill does a decent job, but like the others, he doesn't have much of a script to work with; I wonder if Crowe doesn't, in fact, get to do the most acting in the movie.

Also, the movie looks great; art direction, design and CGI is top-notch. But the actual superheroics are too sparse (and too angst-laden) at first, and are a bit too stacked on top of each other with too little cleverness about it in the second half.

So this is a watchable film, but not a necessary one – unless, of course, you love superheroes. If you do, you're pretty much obliged to see it, and to wish that the producers and writers had done a better job with it.

(Post scriptum: I checked to see who'd actually written it, and to not my surprise, it turned out to be David S. Goyer, who also helped write Christopher Nolan's not-very-well-done Batman trilogy. I'll save my gripes about that for a later post, though.)

torsdag 24 juli 2014

Yves Sente & André Juillard: Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords

Are you familiar with those classic British detective series on TV – Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Inspector Lynley etc? Of course you are. (And if you aren't, that doesn't really matter; it was more of a rhetorical question.)

The standard plot for one of these whodunits starts out with introducing the main protagonists or the problem the detective has to solve – or a very old event that sets the stage for what is to follow. If the latter case, it is usually not entirely clear exactly how this will affect the present-day crime riddle, but solving that riddle is often dependent on the detective realizing how those old events are connected to it.

We then have a crime, usually a murder, which gets the detective(s) involved in the case. While trying to  understand that case, and perhaps feeling that he/she/they is/are getting a grip on it, another murder is committed, which makes it obvious that that is not the case at all. Digging deeper, the detective(s) a) encounter some red herring(s), b) find a crucial bit of evidence that is frequently not understood properly. Suddenly, perhaps from a comment by his/her partner, the detective realizes exactly what has happened and why, and who the guilty party is, and rushes to – in the very nick of time – stop the murderer from killing another victim.

The end.

This is a rather stereotypical way of structuring your plot, and the reason it is so stereotypical is of course that it works. People – readers and viewers of criminal fiction – love it, and faithfully follow well constructed series in the genre. It offers tension, the challenge of oneself making sense of the various bits of information revealed during the investigation, some "aha!" moments, and the satisfaction of seeing justice enacted. Who could complain? As long as it's well done, of course. Stereotypical plots enacted badly are just terrible, whether in book or film/TV format.

(As you may already have guessed, the plot of Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords conforms to this basic structure.)

Blake & Mortimer is a comics series created by writer-artist (and Hergé collaborator/assistant) Edgar P. Jacobs, combining elements from detective stories and science fiction. Several albums were published in Swedish when I was a kid – and I would dearly like to know where the hell the albums I bought then have gotten to, because I can't bloody well find them today. 

From what I recall, though, the panels were usually a bit too text-heavy and the storytelling a bit too cumbersome for me to really appreciate it. Much later, however, something happened. First, in the nineties French publishing giant Dargaud decided to revive the series, with some top contemporary comics creators doing the honors as Jacobs passed away in 1987. Second, British Cinebook started translating all B&M albums, publishing them in English.

(Now, I can read French, but I do need to have a dictionary on hand, so it's easier for me to read the stories in English. Also, I can buy them cheaper and easier via my comics dealer. Thus, I'm thankful to Cinebook for making these and many other French/Belgian comics easily available as there are very little French-language comics published in Swedish these days. The notable exception, small-press publisher Albumförlaget, can only publish so much.)

Anyway, this particular story starts out in 1919, depicting how some MI5 spook with a grudge against Lawrence of Arabia has a manuscript stolen from the war hero. We are then transferred to the fifties, when a masked figure burglarizes a museum to steal a violin. Coincidentally, scientist Philip Mortimer – half of Blake & Mortimer – has been invited to that very museum to hold a seminar on science and archaeology. Meanwhile, his old friend Francis Blake, head of the MI5, hurries off to the funeral of an old Oxford chum. Turns out the old friend was murdered… And some other old friends from that Oxford circle are then murdered, one by one…

From there on, it's basic traditional British whodunit; following leads, some of them red herrings, and gradually discovering how the two cases are connected – and how they are connected to the scene depicted in the prologue. Both Sente and Juillard are old hands, so they know their craft, and they do it well. I'm a bit annoyed at the way Captions are handled, as they sometimes give redundant information and are lettered in all caps while the speech balloons are in lower case, giving the impression of a narrator speaking in a RATHER LOUD VOICE. But the overall work is solid, with a complicated plot that is gradually revealed to the reader, skillfully weaving in some real-life connections and an interesting episode from Francis Blake's past, adding some dimension to the character and a reason for him to take a special interest in the case. 

There are also some nice bits of characterization showing the reader what incredibly Britishly polite people Messieurs Blake and Mortimer are. As an example of that, please listen to the head of the MI5 asking the person at the front desk of a hospital to make a life-or-death phone call: "I don't want to impose on you, miss, but could you place another call for me?" 

Overall, the positive aspects of the story compensates for the actual solution to the case being not all that special and somewhat predictable. (Only "somewhat", though, because if you're familiar with the genre, you're not particularly surprised by it, but Sente does keep his options for tying the whole thing together open for most of the album.)

Also, occasionally it becomes almost a bit too "let's do a really, really British whodunit", but overall, it's enjoyable like a good Midsomer Murders or Lewis episode. Worth your time.

Here's an enthusiastic review with some art samples.

måndag 14 juli 2014

Azzarello, Jones & Bermejo: Before Watchmen – Comedian, Rorschach

Count me among those who felt it was a bit silly of Alan Moore to have a hissy fit about other people doing Watchmen prequels when he's made a whole career out of taking characters created by others and remaking them.

However, even though I still feel that way, I also feel that Brian Azzarello botched his takes on Comedian and Rorschach; these stories do not add positive value to the Watchmen saga.

The problem with the Rorschach story is that Moore's ruthless, efficient, crazy-but-cunning character here has been transformed into, basically, a sadistic but well-meaning klutz. He starts out torturing a drug dealer/user to learn where a drug gang's HQ is, goes there and is promptly defeated by the gang and beaten to death. No, wait – the drug lord has cooked up a grand scheme to catch and kill Rorschach, but doesn't bother with actually killing him. Instead, he's beaten to within an inch of his life and left for dead in the sewers. Right there, the gritty "realism" (actually "detailed, sadistic depictions of violence") of the story loses its believability.

Meanwhile, a serial killer called "The Bard" is mutilating and murdering women in the city. Also, a kind waitress befriends Rorschach's secret identity, the down-and-out loser Walter Kovacs, and tries to help him. (You just know, reading it, that it's not going to end well.)

Anyway, Rorschach searches out one of the gang members who nearly killed him, and tortures him (in graphic detail) for information – anybody recognize a pattern here? – and then barley escapes with is life as the rest of the gang turns up. Opting for an ironic twist to end the story, Azzarello then has bad things happen to the waitress in connection with the aforementioned serial killer, and has Rorschach murder "The Bard", who gets off on some unexplained technicality, three years later. The end.

This story reminded me of Tamburini and Liberatore's RanXerox – violent to the point of being sadistic, with excellent art and a not particularly good writing. Azzarello gets lost in his own violence-feast, and even Bermejo's brilliant art can't save him. Tamp down the sadism, and you'd have a story that would work with the ironic ending, but not with Rorschach. Moore's Rorschach simply doesn't work in this story – in fact, it's hard to understand how a Rorschach this bumbling would have survived long enough to even be a part of Watchmen.

The Comedian story in this volume is somewhat better, in that it doesn't do too much damage to the character. However, it delves way too deeply into conspiracy theory territory for my tastes – having a cold-hearted Jackie Kennedy conspire with Eddie Blake (the Comedian) to murder Marilyn Monroe, FBI higher-ups conspire to keep Eddie from Dallas to save President Kennedy from being murdered, the army conspires to smuggle drugs to fund the nascent Vietnam War, and the CIA conspiring to assassinate Robert Kennedy. It gets somewhat tiresome.

Anyway, Eddie Blake comes off as a somewhat more fully-developed character here than in Watchmen (as well he should, of course, having a whole mini-series to himself). He's a close friend to the Kennedy family, and he takes President Kennedy's murder very hard. Lyndon B Johnson's administration then sends him off to the budding Vietnam war where he's supposed to be merely a PR figure, but instead he infuses a fighting spirit into the lackluster American soldiers he encounters. (Of course, the notion propagated in this comic that all you need to win battles is to be sufficiently bad-ass is something I sorely doubt; but perhaps things like fire, movement and cover aren't as visually exciting as standing upright in full view of the enemy dressed in a gaudy costume and going full rock'n'roll with your machine gun.)

The war and the politicking back in the US takes its toll on Blake, and he gets more and more unhinged and cruel, until nobody wants to have anything to with him anymore – including his old friend Bobby Kennedy who decides that enough is enough, and America needs a leader who'll say no to war crimes and massacres, and Eddie Blake needs to be held accountable for his crimes. Of course, Eddie Blake can't allow that… Exactly how he goes about to try and stop it, I won't reveal, as I try to stay away from spoilers as much as possible.

This is a better-written story than the Rorschach one, but like I said, I'm tired of Kennedy conspiracies. I also think that the Vietnam war has been somewhat overused as an excuse for craziness. If you feel your story needs somewhere where there's no rules and you can do anything, no matter how crazy, the Vietnam war is always there, waiting for you. But even if your story is a well-crafted one, I'm likely to have read or seen it before, just because it's so easy to put people into that environment and go "anything goes, and look how this drives ordinary men crazy".

So even though this is a better story than the Rorschach one, it still doesn't get me very emotionally involved, because I've already seen so much of it before. Had Azzarello concentrated more on Blake's  relationship with the Kennedys, or on actual politics instead of conspiracy theories, or the actual Vietnam war instead of the readily-available stereotypes, I might have been more interested. OTOH, if you haven't already seen or read too many Vietnam movies, documentaries, stories or books, you might get more out of this story than I did.

Not recommended, even though J. G. Jones does a credible job on the art. Alan Moore made his career – heck, his superstardom – taking characters others created and doing something special with them, so it's perfectly reasonable that "his" characters should also be available to others. But do something special with them then, for crying out loud!

lördag 12 juli 2014

Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Well, this is quite the mix of well-known – even classic – comics creators, starting with Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino (and inker Sid Greene) for the very first Batgirl story (from 1967). Barbara Gordon, prim librarian daughter of Commissioner James Gordon, creates a tight-fitting, bat-themed masquerade outfit that'll show everybody that she's more than just a brilliant brain, but on the way to the big party encounters a crime in progress and decides to break it up. With her brown belt judo skills, she accounts herself well, attracting the interest of Batman himself. Accidentally interfering in Batman and Robin's handling of a case, she nevertheless perseveres and proves herself to be a crime-fighting force to be reckoned with. (I will mention, however, my disappointment with scriptwriter Fox for his apparent belief that a laser beam works much like a jet engine.)

The excellent (of course) Alex Ross cover.
Then follows a couple of stories penned by Frank Robbins; typically for his bat-stories, they're pretty decent detective yarns. The first Robbins story, from 1970, is drawn by Gil Kane with inks by Murphy Anderson. While I don't think Anderson is the best inker for Kane, he's competent enough and Kane's dramatic storytelling still comes through. Don Heck's the artist for the next couple of stories (from 1972), and I was unfortunately never much of a fan of his art. The scripts are weaker, as well, with Robbins trying to put some social significance into them by having Barbara go into politics to improve society.

That sad trend continues in an Elliot S! Maggin-Mike Grell overly patriotic and fantastic story from 1975 celebrating the US bicentennial, marred by Maggin's use of magic, the Devil (yes, sadly), and a syrupy sentimental speech before Congress by Rep. Barbara Gordon in his script. Grell's art is also weak; illustrating the story but adding neither elegance nor power to it. Next, an apparently intended-to-be-in-good-fun 1977 Bob Rozakis story about Two-Face's daughter pretending to be the daughters of the Penguin, the Riddler, the Scarecrow and the Joker which doesn't work either, partly because too much focus is on Robin instead of Batgirl, but mainly because it's just pointless. Instead of whimsy, we get dull. Old pro Irv Novick does the art but wasn't really suitable for something so light-weight – especially not with the inks of Vince Colletta.

These two stories shouldn't have been in this volume; they're just not good enough to deserve it – especially in a book called "The Greatest Stories Ever Told".

Then things start looking up again. In a post-Crisis story from 1997, Devin Grayson and Duncan Fegredo depict Robin and Batgirl's new first meeting, two kids who're trying to learn the ropes of superheroing and who also have to learn how to work together as a team on the fly as they pursue a hostage-taking burglar. It's a cute story where Grayson's fun, lively script works well and establishes a pleasant but not rivalry-free relation between the two. Fegredo's elegant and dynamic art makes the story even better.

And speaking of elegant, the last story (from 1998) is inked by Kevin Nowlan, who has one of the most beautiful ink lines ever. (Script is by Kelley Puckett, and pencils by Terry Dodson.) "Folie A Deux" nicely tells of how Commissioner Gordon took care of Barbara after her biological parents died in a car crash, and how a newly minted Batgirl blackmails Batman into training her when he tries to stop her from risking her life fighting crime. It uses some advanced storytelling, but loses a bit when it tries too hard to be clever when depicting Gordon being saved by Batgirl after trying to stop a robbery – if you can't get your point over without making too-improbable jumps in logic, perhaps you should rethink how you intend to make it. But the inks are by Kevin Nowlan, and the Barbara-Gordon relationship is very well depicted, so this is still worth your while.

I'm rather disappointed with DC for including those two weak Maggin and Rozakis stories; they've both done better, and certainly there are better Batgirl stories around that could have used. In fact, there's a whole Batgirl Showcase volume chock-full of Batgirl stories, most of them better than that (and many of them drawn by Gil Kane). This collection is still worth reading for getting a sense of the character's history, some beautiful art and decent-to-good stories, but it's not a must-read.

söndag 29 juni 2014

Sage Stossel: Starling

Well, I've been busy.

Work, other stuff, and I've been reading a bunch of comics that have been just filling out shelf space as I didn't quite  have the time and energy to read them when I bought them. (There's a lot of those, I'm sorry to say.) And since I'm currently on "DC: B", ploughing through a big pile of pre-52 Batman TPB's, there hasn't been much that has been interesting enough to want to blog about -- DC killed a lot of the energy inherent in the Batman character when they a) made him way too one-dimensional, b) started having the plots run through all the various bat-titles; the synchronization necessary always seems to take a big toll on the creativity of the writers.

Oh, and c) replaced the "detective" part in "the  world's greatest detective" with "will torture people to get information whenever the writer can't think of actually interesting and not disgusting ways to move the plot forward".


Thanks to the kindness of the people at the excellent Uppsala English Bookshop, I recently got a copy of Sage Stossel's Starling, which tells the story of Amy Sturgess, marketing person and superhero, and which is far more compelling than tired superhero stories trying to replace actual drama and quality storytelling with big "events" like earthquakes etc. So here's Starling:

Amy discovered her powers while a kid in school, and in her teens gets recruited into the government's superhero program. Whenever there's a crime for her to stop, she gets a text message, and has to make up some excuse to leave whatever she's doing to change into her superhero garb and fly to wherever she is needed. To explain her many and sudden disappearances, she has to pretend having an embarrassing medical condition, which does not help her already somewhat awkward social situation.

Anyway, Amy's already somewhat hectic and unpredictable life becomes even more hectic and unpredictable as a quick succession of events occur:
- She gets responsibility for a big contract at the bureau where she works – actually, her boss was supposed to fire her for her unpredictability and absences, but he's completely exhausted from having a newborn baby at home, so he gives her one last chance – she gets to take over the contract he should have been doing;
- Some creep at the company where she works is ripping off her work, and she's not assertive enough to put a stop to it;
- She meets an old college sweetheart who wants to rekindle the romance, which she would like to do as well, but he's engaged to a very nice woman who, it turns out, is very helpful to Amy in her work;
- Her ex-druggie brother turns up at her doorstep, in big trouble.

Watching Amy/Starling juggle all these problems – along with her regular superhero/secret identity troubles and tribulations – is like reading a very well written and charming Spider-Man adventure. Stossel's art style is cartoony, but the writing is, well… I could call it "realistic-ish", I guess. Part of it is actually about "real" problems, like Amy's romantic and work problems, and some is a pretty good take on what problems actual super heroics would entail in the real world. Like I said, a good Spider-Man story, minus some of the melodrama.

Finally, all threads converge. Amy has her big presentation at work (and since her focus group was sabotaged by the guy angling for her work, she's had to make do with asking guards, police officers etc. at various crime scenes what they would like in the finished product) but at the same time has to save her brother and make right a crime he committed without getting him implicated. She also gets shot with an assault rifle (and she is not invulnerable), and since she's running late, the presentation is taken over by the guy looking to steal the contract from her…

This is a funny, intelligent and engaging superhero story, and I'll repeat the word that I think symbolizes it best: charming.

In fact, utterly charming. Warmly recommended.

Here's an interview with Stossel. And here is an excerpt (which I don't think does the story full justice, actually).

lördag 15 mars 2014

Aquaman: Death of a Prince

There is a certain plot structure in superhero comics that can be taken as a pretty certain indicator that you're reading hack work. …All right, there are several, but the one I'm thinking of right now is this one: The hero has a confrontation with a villain, and loses. Basically having the hero at his mercy, the villain then retreats, shouting a threat – something like "you stopped me this time, but next time I'll finally succeed in killing you!". Subsequently, the hero searches out the villain and defeats him. The end.

There's plenty of that in Aquaman: Death of a Prince. To be honest, the whole collection sort of sucks.

Plenty of creators worked on the stories in this collection – mainly Mike Grell, Jim Aparo and Don Newton & Dave Hunt on the art and Steve Skeates, Paul Levitz, Paul Kupperberg and David Micheliene on the writing. The Grell part seems to be very early in his career and the figure drawing and inking fell a bit awkward IMHO; the Don Newton chapters suffer from him not being really suited to action stories, he was far better at mood, and the Dave Hunt inking doesn't convey the elegance of Newton's shading that I've seen in some of his Batman stories; and the Jim Aparo chapters (the main part of the book) are gorgeous, and practically the one redeeming feature of this collection.

The writing, as hinted at above, is pretty terrible. Apart from the villain-has-hero-at-his-mercy-and-flees scenario, there's also plenty of that perennial favorite, the-supposedly-inescapable-trap-that-the-villain-leaves-the-hero-in-and-leaves-because-he-has-"better"-things-to-do. Finally, the writers also kill off Aquaman's son in more or less a throwaway story arc, which ticks me off in more ways than one.

First of all, I think it's a sign of lack of respect towards one's characters to casually throw enormous tragedies their way. They're not real people, I'm well aware of that, but just using them as playthings still rubs me the wrong way. If you don't have any respect for your characters, why should the reader? Second, if you do subject them to horrible tragedies, you owe it to the reader to explore the consequences of that. Here, Aquaman looks sad for a couple of panels, then goes back to fighting bad guys with just occasional thoughts about how sad it is to have lost his child and occasional stereotypically depicted outbursts of anger. The deep grief displayed on the (Jim Aparo) cover? Well, that's the sort of characterization writers like Michelinie or Kupperberg are really capable of; they're better at glib dialogue and stock plots. (Yeah, that's kinda harsh, but that is basically all they deliver here, as in most other stories I've read by them.)

Oh, and I don't like the depiction of Mera, Aquaman's super-powered wife, either; she's way too much of the stereotypical, wide-eyed, near-helpless girl. (Until her son is killed and she starts hating Aquaman in a sort of crazy manner, of course, but that's not really an improvement.)

So is this a terrible book? No, not entirely, and that is all thanks to one man: Jim Aparo. His very clear, very strong and muscular (I almost typed "virile", which still wouldn't have been wrong) artwork saves this from being a total disaster. He can't save it from being bad, but he can actually make it worth your while to suffer through the bad writing, just to marvel at the power and clarity of his art. This is Aparo at the top of his game. Much like another old pro, Joe Kubert, he could make bad stories – well, not good, but let's call it aesthetically enjoyable. And plenty of today's comics artists could learn a thing or two from guys like Aparo on how to combine power, excitement and clarity of storytelling in one fine package.

So, not recommended. This is not good comics. But if you want to enjoy some very good comics artwork, you can get this one just for Jim Bloody Amazing Aparo.

(Second opinion: A far more positive review than mine can be found here.)

tisdag 11 mars 2014

OK, so I created this comic, see…

Art by the excellent Carlos Pedrazzini.
Mildh & Fromm © Göran Semb, artwork © Carlos Pedrazzini.

… and it took a while. I'm not exactly what you'd call a professional comics creator – I make roughly half my living from the comics business, but that's mainly as a translator – so I've never been pushed to produce comics on a regular basis. (Well, except for during a rather cash-depleted period around the year 2000, when I wrote one or two 91:an stories per month because I absolutely had to. Fortunately, I got a job that eliminated that need just about when I ran out of ideas.)

Anyway, several years ago, I had this idea for a comics character after a run-in with a bunch of, shall we say, somewhat intoxicated youths. It didn't turn violent, but it felt like it easily could have, so I – being something of a neurotic – started thinking of what I could have done had it actually turned violent.

The answer I reached was, not a whole lot.

But my imagination had been kick-started, so I started thinking of things you could do if you were, well, the sort of person who could do those things. And then, having grown up on a steady diet of adventure comics (and similar stories in the film and TV series formats), I let my imagination run with the concept. Turned out I felt I had a potential hero in the works, and it also turned out there were more situations I could imagine him in. However, only delivering his tough-guy lines to crooks and the occasional police contact started getting tiresome pretty quickly, so I teamed him up with an older, more experienced partner so's he'd have somebody to talk to – which would also help me with exposition.  As it turned out, the older agent was a natural choice for those cynical lines, leaving the original hero as more of a straight man in their banter.

Anyway, this changed the dynamic of the situations I imagined my by now two heroes in. One concerned gaining entry into an apartment when two armed bad guys tried to stop them – first by subterfuge and then, when that doesn't work, through violent means. (Fortunately, there wasn't a large window by my door, so the neighbors couldn't see me when I acted out the scene by myself to check that it actually worked.) The experienced agent immediately took the lead, leaving the "junior" partner somewhat shocked by his capacity for rather ruthless violence.

So I now had one working action scene. What was missing was a story to put it in. I started thinking about reasons why the pair of heroes would need to gain immediate entry to the apartment, and picking from a wide range of stock situations from the world of action/thriller/adventure stories that exist in the world of fiction, I picked "kidnapping". From there, I had to work out who was kidnapped, why, by whom, how my team of heroes got involved and how they found the place where the kidnap victim was held, and how it all would end. Somewhere along the road, my original hero had a sex change.

See, looking over the story, I suddenly realized that I had exactly one (1) woman in the story, and that was the kidnap victim. Now, I'm not a fan of the Bechdel rule; I think a work of narrative art stands on its own merits regardless of the genders of the characters, but I'm also not a fan of too stereotypical story structure, so I made a few changes. I could have made the older, more experienced agent female, of course, but I felt it more likely that the more experienced agent would be male; after all, traditionally, women have not participated in actual fighting to the same extent as men – and as the adventures of my heroes, Monica Mildh and Erik Fromm, will involve quite a bit of, shall we say… probability-bending, I think it's important to base as much as possible of it in an at least seemingly-realistic world, not straining the reader's credulity except when you really have to. (And yes, Erik's name is indeed inspired by the late, great psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. It is also a pun, though: "mild" means mild in Swedish, just as in English, and "from" means pious.)

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I solved the various problems that had to be solved to make the story work (which doesn't make it a great story, of course; it just means that it doesn't fall apart at first glance like a standard Hollywood action movie) and wrote a script, and set about finding an artist. That wasn't exactly easy, and in the end, I had to go outside of Sweden's borders to find the skillful and very professional Carlos Pedrazzini. I sent him the script, he sent me his pencilled preliminary pages, I put in the text so's he'd know how much space the speech balloons would need (and occasionally asked him to change something) and he produced inked and colored finished pages. Finally, I lettered the whole thing in Swedish and sent it over to the Swedish Fantomen (The Phantom) comic book, where it is just now being published, in issue #6-7/2014.

Now, my hope is that Mildh & Fromm will be sufficiently favorably received by the readers that the editor will buy more of their adventures, as I have 6-10 more stories about them in various stages of readiness, from finished script to rough plot, but you never know. Nevertheless, it has been exciting to try and create my own comic, and I'm grateful to Carlos Pedrazzini for partnering with me to make it a reality.